CHAPTER 8 - The Battle of Vingen
The thaw that year was early and fast, with the snow-melt of a whole winter rushing in torrents down hillsides and through steep forests, down into the rivers and fjords. For once, Gran Herdalen, who loved the snow, was glad to see the back of it. For weeks he had been waiting, but he hadn’t been wasting his time. He knew every level of the Hill, and everyone who worked there, and he and the judge, Bergfrue Grytten, had spent time together, considering every contingency they could think of. Captain Bessheim and his colleagues from Norway 1 had put up with appalling weather unflinchingly, standing guard under the army flag night and day. And all of them, patriotic Norwegians, had sent out messages to everyone they knew, asking them to pass the word around, that the army was taking a stand at Vingen.
And so, on the very first day that some rock began to show through the ice, a party of goblins came down from a fjell to the north, led by a fierce one-eyed army veteran. They hadn’t come to register anything, they said, just to stand beside Norway 1 and be counted, and maybe lend a hand if they were needed. Gran was delighted. The next day, two dozen fairies arrived from the judge’s home colony, heavily laden with useful supplies of all kinds. They made brooms and dusters and gave the Hill a spring-cleaning, as if it was a thing they did every year, but when they had finished, they didn’t go home.
It had been a very cheering thing to see little windows suddenly propped open in the hillside, letting in the fresh air, but spring brought some bad news too. By invitation, Gran had been present at a meeting where sixteen parliament loyalists, aghast at the preparations that were going on, had implored the judge to fall in with the new laws and authorise the arrests. When she refused to do that, they walked out, telling everyone who would listen that they weren’t going home, they were going to Poland, to work where they were appreciated.
Gran just couldn’t understand it. These were sprites who came from a land thick with kind and gracious Allies, where humans on the whole treated the natural world with great respect. What right had they to start hating humans, when people from the war-torn east and the overcrowded cities could love them so well?
It was now five days since elves had been spotted at Otta Station. It wasn’t much to go on. What if they hadn’t been coming here? What if they hadn’t been Special Brigade at all? His mind started to wander down the paths that led to panic, but Bjørk came out to join him and he could tell what Gran was thinking, probably just by the expression in his eyes.
“Stop it, Gran!” he said with forceful quietness. “There’s nothing more you can do.”
“What if they’ve gone to Oslofjord? Or Trondheim?” muttered Gran.
“Then as soon as we hear, we’ll react,” said Bjørk. “But they won’t have. What I wonder is who they’ll send.”
“I think it will be Diolkos. We wiped the floor with him last December and he’ll want revenge. The Premier doesn’t bother much with details, if Diolkos wanted this job, Huskvarna would give it to him.”
“So where’s Huskvarna, then?”
“He was in the Black Forest,” said Gran, “but he’s not there now. I think he’s in England. I hope he isn’t. I really hope he isn’t. But I think he is.”
“Gran, what was that?” Bjørk clutched his arm and pointed. “Down there… I swear I saw movement at the tree line.”
“You’re right! They’re coming out now. This is it, then… how many of them?”
A lookout from Norway 1 had seen them too and was calling out a warning. The off-duty elves came rushing out of the Hill to line up beside the ones on guard duty, and the Norwegian fairies of Fighter Squadron lined up too, ready to take off when ordered. The Goblin Regiment took up position next to the ammunition dumps, and Bjørk’s elves from Sweden 3 marched down to the foot of the hill.
“What?” said Bjørk suddenly. “Is that it? There’s only twenty or so, what is this, a delegation?”
“It’s a diversion,” said Gran, wildly spinning round to check the sky. “What else are they doing? Gran! Gran Starheim, run round and get me a report from the northern lookout point!”
“Yes sir,” Gran shouted, and took off at a run.
All eyes were on the foot of the Hill. Sweden 3 challenged Special Brigade’s unit, refusing them admittance, and then each side drew their knives. It might be only a skirmish, but it seemed significant, after the long wait, and each side was fighting so desperately hard, it was difficult to tear your eyes away. Gran did – someone had to, they had to be doing something else – and finally, he saw.
“Mice!” he yelled. “Dozens of them – swarming into the Hill! Stop them, trap them!”
Cursing Special Brigade for their brilliant move, Gran dived on a mouse, but it wriggled out of his arms. He rolled over and reached for another, and this time managed to grab it, but the damned thing kept biting him. All around him, the same thing was happening. His strong goblins, his excellent flyers, all reduced to the same level of trying to catch small wriggling creatures that they knew very well they couldn’t kill. They were getting inside, he couldn’t stop them, and once they were inside, there was no knowing what they would do. He stood up and raised his voice.
“Goblins! Make something to put the mice in. Capture as many as you can. Fighter Squadron, catch mice, but watch the sky! Take off at the slightest sign of trouble, watch out for bird attacks. Norway 1, into the Hill, double the guard on the targets.”
Gran ran inside the Hill, where all the targets, the sprites on parliament’s list, were already being guarded by members of Norway 2. But they weren’t all in the same place, because they were getting on with their normal work. To make things even more difficult, the corridors and passageways were crowded with visitors today, sprites coming to register things now that winter was over. Quite a few of them were shrieking and tripping up as mice ran between their legs. It didn’t help.
“Catch the mice!” Gran shouted, trying to sound calm while still conveying a sense of urgency. “Take them to the goblins outside.”
He ran first for the judge’s office, but he couldn’t find her, or her guards, so next he ran down a level to the communications office, where an old ex-army elf worked, staunch and true.
“Thank goodness you’re all right,” said Gran. “Come on, sir, we have to get you all to a safer place.”
Together, they went down another level, but they couldn’t get past the landing. The way was blocked by Special Brigade. How had they transformed so fast? Who’d done it? Then Gran saw, and berated himself for stupidity. Major Diolkos, pulling off a grey cloak, the type that Norwegian elves wore for long journeys. He’d been here all the time, disguised as a local visitor, ready and waiting to transform his mice back into soldiers.
“General Herdalen!” exclaimed the major. “How nice to see you. You’re under arrest.”
“That’s what you think,” muttered Gran, and drew his knife. He took out two of them before they were ready for him, but he was outnumbered and needed support, fast. Behind him, shrinking back against the wall, some genuine visitors were watching, aghast.
“Outside!” Gran called to them. “Find the Swedish colonel, send him here, tell him Gran needs him!”
They ran for it, and Gran bared his teeth and prepared to fight for his freedom. Deep inside, he was wondering how everything had gone so wrong, but he really couldn’t afford the luxury of thinking about that now. He had to make every stroke tell, he had to take out as many as he could. How many had they managed to transform? Was this it, or were there more, spreading through the Hill and making arrests? His hand was getting wet with blood, but he just gripped his knife more tightly, fighting two and even three at a time, moving faster than a flame, not letting any of them get in close enough to get a blow in on him. The veteran elf, who’d tried to help, was down, injured. Gran dared not glance behind him. If he did, one of the three in front of him would get past his defences. He could hear elves he didn’t know, talking confidently… that wasn’t good. He could hear fairies screaming, and he didn’t think it was Fighter Squadron. What were these bullies doing to the civilians? Then, to his great relief, he heard Bjørk’s deep voice. His relief was short-lived.
“Gran, look out!” Bjørk shouted, terror in his voice.
Then Gran turned his head to see, leering high above him, a mouse, a monster mouse, transformed to more than goblin size, standing on its hind legs and baring its teeth. Gran faltered as its foul breath washed over him, then managed to raise his knife, just as the mouse lowered its head and bit his neck. The pain as his blood began to flow was nothing compared to his sense of failure as he felt himself falling. But he never remembered hitting the ground.
Ace Moseley had been heard to complain, from time to time, in messages to his closest friends, that he was missing out on all the action. In Phil Royden’s opinion, Ace had nothing to complain about at all. He was out there, doing things, not stuck here at Fjaerland, still doing lessons, with the most exciting thing to do being manning the floodgates. And even that was not as exciting as it could be, because after last year’s near-tragedy, officers were constantly coming up to check everything was all right.
And with the thaw came the rain. It was a good sign really, and meant that spring was here, but right now, on this April morning, it was horrible. Phil turned his collar up and pulled a hat down more firmly over his long brown hair, and went to round up his team to see what the day had in store for them. They got their first sign that today was going to be unlike any other when they got to the noticeboards to see that the words AWAIT ORDERS had been hastily scrawled in big capitals across all the neat lists.
“Wow, something’s up,” said Rob. “I wonder what… Vingen?”
Phil wondered too. It didn’t sound good at all. More and more teams were arriving, and the sight of everyone standing there waiting made the slower ones hurry to catch up. Their officers joined them, and Sergeant Svir’s eyes were red with tears. Sprites were running across now to join them from every corner of camp, even from Signals they were pouring out. Then the Commander, General Arley and General Stalden flew across from the Conference Room, landing with skids on the wet ground. The Commander didn’t even have a coat on. She spoke at once.
“We have received some very bad news. Despite the valiant efforts of the defenders, troops from Special Brigade have forced entry to the Hill at Vingen. They have arrested Bergfrue Grytten, the judge, and four other workers. They have also arrested an army sprite on their list, Colonel Bjørk Kinnekulle of Sweden 3. Many of the defence force are injured, some seriously, including General Herdalen himself. Perhaps worst of all, several civilians, attempting to assist the army to resist the intrusion, were also severely injured. I have now come from a meeting of the army council, where a decision has been made. Parliament has now taken up arms against its own people. This is the point of no return. The army is now at war with parliament.”
No-one cheered. The news was too devastating for that. Phil just felt numb inside, and only the raindrops dripping down his face like tears felt real. Then, from the very back of the crowd, a voice started singing. An old voice, a fairy’s voice, it was quavering to start with, but it grew in strength as other elderly voices joined in. Phil didn’t know the song, but he knew enough Norwegian now to understand it just as it came.
Hagl till dronningen feer, vokteren av området vårt… hail to the queen of sprites, the guardian of our realm…
The Commander buried her face in her hands, and her shoulders shook. But when the song ended, she looked up and smiled bravely.
“Thank you,” she said. “From the past you bring us hope. Now, our first duty is clear, we must take assistance to the injured. Major Sauherad of Norway 2 has the injured under cover at a temporary camp just south of the road 614. I will be leaving for that position in half an hour, Lieutenant Polesie with me please, and a dozen second year flyers to help carry supplies. Sergeant Grybow, choose me not the fastest, but the strongest. Captain Bessheim is leading a party home across country, they are not injured, but they will be tired and shocked and I want them back here as fast as possible. We will send support, to shepherd the weary. Sergeant Kopec, which teams have best mastered unison work?”
“France, England, Germany and Finland,” answered the sergeant promptly.
“Not England. The elves from the other teams will go, also carrying supplies, with you yourself to lead them. Now, the Hill at Vingen is still occupied by parliament troops, but some have left, and the prisoners with them. They are being tracked by Fighter Squadron. Major Inari?”
“Every time they check in, plot their positions for General Stalden. And General Stalden, call back every fairy currently watching ports and roads within a day’s flight of here, to rendezvous at a point along that route to relieve Fighter Squadron. We have to know where they’re going. Major Rhaeadr – compose a suitable message to go out to all colonies – and the Allies, too, you know what I mean – everyone must know what is happening. Sergeant Olt – no first years to go off camp. Corporal Dwingeloo – double the guard on the gates. First years, check all ammunition dumps, make sure they’re all full. General Arley?”
“Here, ma’am,” said Madge.
“Have I forgotten anything?”
The Commander’s plaintive smile broke the tension, and everyone laughed.
“Not a thing, ma’am, except your own breakfast. It won’t help to have you fainting on the way. I’ll bring you some myself.”
“Thank you, everyone. Whatever you do today, do it to the very best of your ability. Army, let’s move!”
When the Commander had said ‘not England’, Phil had felt a big thud of disappointment, but he quickly realised the reason she’d said it. The Allies needed to be told. Dale was needed here, and that was honour enough. Phil’s fairies rushed off towards Sergeant Grybow, hoping to be chosen. Dale looked round at the other elves on the team.
“I don’t understand what I’ve got to do!” he said.
“Don’t worry, we’ll help you,” said Phil. “You can’t send the message until Major Rhaeadr has written it. What we have to do first is check that all the morning chores get done and that someone relieves the team at the floodgates, because the sergeants are too busy to do that.”
Other team leaders had seen the need, and were quietly filling in gaps, but it was Phil who went round and checked for things that had been missed, and found people to do them. He and his elves filled the wood baskets in the officers’ mess themselves, then went to Signals.
“Why don’t you go and switch the computer on, Dale, warm it up or whatever you do to it?” said Phil. “The rest of us can wait for the message, and bring it straight to you.”
So when Poppy came out of Signals to find Dale, she found his team ready and waiting on the doorstep, and she was pleased.
“Excellent, Phil, thank you,” she said. She handed over the text of the message and disappeared inside again. Phil and Rob and Sam and Lex raced off towards General Széchenyi’s office to find Dale almost in tears of despair.
“It won’t work!” he said. “Today of all days! Why not, why not, what on earth is the matter with it?”
“But it looks all right,” said Rob, puzzled. “The screen’s lit up, there are things on it. Take a deep breath, Dale, and try to be really precise about what the problem is.”
“You’re right. I was being too vague. The computer is working, but I can’t get online. The thing that’s not working is the internet connection.”
“Ah, right,” said Phil. “Then I think the first thing we need to do is get on to Will and find out what might be wrong. Is he still in Wales?”
“No, he’s back at home,” said Dale. “But I can’t do that distance in my head.”
“Don’t worry, I can,” said Phil. “Let’s have a go. It’s only 7.30 in England. I hope he’s up.”
Will was only just awake, but the urgency of Phil’s message soon broke through and sharpened up his mind. He listened carefully, and at first he wasn’t sure what to say. There were so many things it could be. But something clicked in his mind.
What’s the weather been like? Any high winds?
No, it’s the thaw, it’s pouring down. Is that the problem?
I bet one of the boosters has moved. Let’s just hope it’s not been washed away. You’re going to need Major Teplou, Phil, he’s got a map of all the locations.
Right, so that’s going to take a while. Thank goodness you’re in Cheadle, Will, you can put the message straight on the website.
Hang on while I find a pen… I’m still in my pyjamas. Ok, fire away.
On the morning of April 18th, at Vingen, Hollow Hill for central Norway, troops from Special Brigade, representing parliament, attacked and injured civilians who were attempting to assist the army to defend the Hill.
The Army Council considers that parliament has by this action completed its descent into illegitimacy. I give notice to the realm that the army will not now rest until parliament is overthrown and we once again have a queen, as in ages past.
From this moment, a state of war exists between the army and the parliament, and I call upon every sprite who cares about freedom to join the fight.
Giaggiolo Iris sibirica Biagioni, Commander.
For a moment, Will was too stunned to reply, but Phil knew he was still there.
So it’s come at last. I can hardly take it in. What happened at Vingen, Phil, have you heard any news?
Yes, said Phil. Yes, there’s news. And it’s all bad.
Will’s hands were shaking as he looked down at his own handwriting. He wasn’t sure why, whether it was excitement, or fear, or grief, or maybe just relief that now the waiting was over. He had to move fast now, throw some clothes on, get to David’s and get this message out to the Allies. But there was just one thing he had to do first. He crossed the room and stood looking down at the tousled cloud of blond on the pillow. He didn’t often let himself think about Ace being in a prophecy, because it felt too weird, but right now it seemed frighteningly real. He had no idea what lay ahead for them, but he knew that Ace would head gladly into any and every danger.
Keep safe… oh, keep safe.
Then he leaned down and found a shoulder to shake under all the hair.
“Ace, wake up,” he said. “The war’s started.”
Within the hour, the Commander’s message was on the website. David typed it himself, his young face deadly serious. And in Paris and Budapest and Munich and Helsinki the Allies read it, in suburbs of great cities and bustling market towns and sleepy little villages. Wise old Allies in Immindingen read it, and nodded without surprise. Karl read it in Hella, and picked up the phone to tell Ingrid in Balestrand, because she didn’t have a computer. And all of them without exception were heartily on the army’s side, and saw parliament as the enemy. There was just one person who didn’t. Miles north of Fjaerland, in the little red farmhouse in Dovrefjell, Marta read the news and then just laid her head on her arms and wept, for all the sprites.
While David was typing, Ace went back to Moseley Wood, thinking over everything Will had told him. The part about the song had moved him deeply. Almost before he knew what he was doing, he was singing the same song, although only the trees were there to listen.
“Every morning and every night I’ll sing it,” he told the trees. “I vow it, nothing will stop me. I will keep on singing until we get a queen again.”
In Signals, every desk was full and messages poured out all day long, sending the news to the colonies and to every officer in the field. At times like this, the column of green fire seemed to pulse outward, ebbing and flowing like the tide, but always tending in the one direction, as the Tree’s power joined and flowed with the thoughts of the sprites at work. Later, when the responses started to come, it would reverse, and their unity would be drawing in as effortlessly as it was now sending out. Pice Inari had seen it happen before, but never as strongly as this. Though the news was grim and the situation serious and frightening, yet he felt a deep peace in his mind. An experience as profound as this might come only once in a lifetime, when all he did and all he was came together in an outpouring of skill that was shared by all around him. On face after face he saw it, unspoken communication that acknowledged what they were all feeling… this is how it’s meant to be. And all day long, faster and faster, the message flowed out… until we once again have a queen… a state of war exists… every sprite who cares about freedom to join the fight.
Betch Knightwood heard it as he was taking a turn at lookout duty amid the boulders of Owler Tor, and suddenly the task didn’t seem so boring any more. Kiefer Schwarzee heard it as he was marching along the River Inn, towards the German border. There was still so far to go, but now the war had started, it would be more than just a protest by the time they got to Poland. At the newest colony in Croatia, Rosa Sivjezero heard it and told her youngest and strongest sprites that they should think about leaving for Norway.
For many like them, action was needed right away, they knew what they had to do and they did it. But for many others, the news brought no immediate change. Hogweed heard it, and wished earnestly for the safety of all his friends, but then calmly carried on teaching the alphabet to his smallest goblins. Daffodil Hestercombe heard it at Bat’s Castle, Colonel Rowan Harpsden heard and even Sergeant Gromwell. All of them saw it as their duty to carry on exactly as they were. But all of them also wondered how long that would actually be possible.
It wasn’t an easy time for anyone. But it was worst of all for those whose sympathies were divided. For some, the time had now come when decisions couldn’t be put off any longer, and no matter how much anguish it caused them, hard choices had to be made.
One week later, Phil Royden was standing in line on the lawn beside the Concourse at Fjaerland camp. Beside him were his team and beyond them, the line stretched out, all the other second year teams. Behind them, the first years were lined up, and in front of them, all the HQ staff, the store keepers and guards and the training officers, the entire Signals unit, the surgeons and even Lieutenant Smerek, the night duty officer. Even further forward, all the units who had fought at Vingen, Norway 1, Norway 2, Sweden 3 and Fighter Squadron. Right at the front, the generals were lined up, with Gran Herdalen, tall and pale, the only one that Phil could actually see.
For the first time that year, there seemed to be a bit of warmth in the sun. The army flag, high above their heads, lifted in a light breeze, its white star on a green background as bright as spring. But Phil didn’t feel cheerful. There was a dreadful solemnity to all this, and he thought hard of the Tree, and tried to keep calm.
There was some movement at the front, the Commander had arrived, and she had someone with her. She turned to address the army.
“The head of army liaison is a member of parliament’s central cabinet. He is here with us today, and is about to read to you an order. Envoy Yantra.”
Phil couldn’t see the envoy, but he could hear him clearly.
“It has been decreed by the Premier and his cabinet, and approved in full session, that the army is to disband. All army sprites are to proceed to Wielkopolska, where they shall be formally enlisted into Special Brigade, to defend the realm and commence battle against the human predators.”
The Commander raised her voice.
“Any sprite who wishes to obey the command of parliament, fall out to the right.”
Phil didn’t move, not even a muscle, and neither did any of his team.
But some did. A few here, a few there, with sad or serious faces they quietly walked away. No first years moved. By the time they had arrived here, things had already reached such a pass that choices had already been made. But some of the second years did, and even a few from the ranks of the defenders of Vingen. There were more from Signals, and even more from the police. The fairies around Phil gasped as Sergeant Grybow walked away, and then even the rank of the generals was broken as the most senior officer to leave took his place with the others, then spoke quietly but confidently.
“Loyalist sprites, fall in,” said General Saal.
They lined up neatly behind him.
“Army sprites, close the ranks,” said the Commander. She waited until they had closed the gaps then spoke to General Saal and the others.
“We have served the realm together and have not let politics divide us. Now, that is no longer possible, and choices have been made. I know that for some of you the decision was not an easy one. Go on your way in safety, and let us part as we have lived, in the determination to do our duty, wherever it may lie.”
General Saal saluted her courteously and she returned his compliment by presenting him with a flag. Phil couldn’t see what it was until General Saal unrolled it and lifted it up… the flag of parliament, soft grey bearing an image done in black and green, a square shape made of four hands, each clasping the next by the wrist.
He led them off. Phil watched them go with tears in his eyes. Nothing so far had seemed so devastating and final as this. As they passed the flagpole where the army flag was flying, each of them turned to salute it. Phil’s heart went out to them, because he could well imagine how torn some of them would be feeling right now. They didn’t hate the army. It was just that, when forced to decide, their loyalty to parliament outweighed anything else. How they could feel that way, though, was more than Phil could imagine. Parliament stood for everything he hated. Except that he didn’t hate those who were now walking away. Not at all.
Parliament’s decree would have gone out to the units in the field too. All over the realm, teams would be breaking up and friends parted, as people were finally forced to choose. It was a horrible thought. It made the whole world seem uncertain and strange.
The gatehouse stood unguarded as Envoy Yantra followed the last loyalist sprite through it. The guards had gone. Commander Biagioni closed her eyes tightly then seemed to shiver, as if she was drawing up strength from very deep inside. She turned to the army and smiled bravely.
“I am so cold with grief,” she said. “I expect you are too. Let’s go and see the Tree.”
Two days later, Betch got the message he’d been waiting for. It was very long and it took him all night to decode it, but by morning he knew just what General Herdalen thought was going to happen, what he planned to do, and what he wanted Betch to do. It all left Betch with mixed feelings. It was good to know what was happening, but rather alarming to think that the success of the general’s plans might depend on Aesculus doing as he was told. The little elf had been less and less keen on that recently, the nearer they had got to his home. He kept coming up with plans to escape, as if it would be an easy matter to catch a train to Stockport. Betch rubbed his eyes and crawled out of his camouflaged tent into a grey cloudy morning. Aesculus and Viola had already gone out, and Betch just hoped they hadn’t gone too far.
It had been two weeks now since they’d arrived and joined the rest of England 1. They were all camped out among the boulders, and up to now, Betch had been enjoying himself, catching up with old friends and meeting the whole of his regiment for the first time. Even better, Colonel Pentreath seemed to have learned from his mistakes at Bat’s Castle and the defence here was much better organised. Judge Calder and the colonel conferred together every day, making sure the work of the Hill could carry on without compromising security. And as well as posting lookouts, the colonel was sending out scouting parties to give early warning of any hostile approach.
Betch saw Aesculus and Viola sitting on top of a boulder, looking west.
“Home is over there,” said Aesculus wistfully, as Betch sat down beside them. “I could jump on a lorry, get to the A6. Easy to find home then, just look for a signpost.”
“I bet you could, too,” said Betch. “You’re the bravest little elf I ever met. But do you really want to go home on your own, when if you wait a bit longer, you might be able to go home with Ace?”
“Ace is coming here?” asked Aesculus in awe.
“General Gran thinks he might be. And – but this is a big secret – General Gran is coming here himself. You’d like to see him again, wouldn’t you?”
“Will he get here before the bad elves do?”
“Not sure,” said Betch. “But it would be exciting to see, wouldn’t it?”
There was no doubt about it, Aesculus was looking very interested indeed, as if his mind was not on going home any more.
“And,” Betch added impressively, “I have a message from General Gran, just for you two.”
“Go on! Tell us!”
“OK, listen carefully, this is exactly what he said. ‘Exciting things are going to happen. Your job is to look after Viola and her job is to look after you. It might get very confusing, but don’t worry and don’t be frightened, because it’s all part of the plan. Whatever happens, keep together and don’t run away. That’s all you have to remember’.”
“Keep together and don’t run away,” repeated Aesculus. “I can remember that.”
“There’s just one more thing,” said Betch. “While you’ve been playing and exploring, have you discovered any really good hiding places?”
As Gran Herdalen had foreseen, Special Brigade arrived at Owler Tor the next day. No sooner had a scouting party rushed back with news of activity in the wooded valley below, than the lookouts were reporting sightings on the lower slopes. A few at a time, but they were coming at them from every direction. Slowly but surely, the Hill was surrounded. They were creeping insidiously higher and higher. Colonel Pentreath and Judge Calder took a close look for themselves then nodded silently to each other. Each of them knew what he had to do. The judge closed the Hill for business and explained the situation to the visitors now trapped inside.
“We’ll make you comfortable,” he said, “but it’s not safe for you to leave just now. Unless you’re on parliament’s side, of course, in which case you’re welcome to go and join your friends now surrounding us.”
But no-one left, and the judge was very impressed by the way the visitors at once started helping his staff, who were moving the records of centuries to be stored in a new fireproof room. All of them looked worried and excited at the same time, and the judge wasn’t to know that some of the visitors were only pretending to be disappointed at finding themselves stuck there.
Outside, England 1 were all in position, ready to defend at every access point. Fighter Squadron were ready too, stationed in small groups on top of every boulder, so they could respond fast in any direction. Like everyone else, Betch was watching keenly. Looking over Lieutenant Waterperry’s shoulder, he could catch glimpses of movement below, but it wasn’t easy. Special Brigade weren’t wearing their distinctive uniforms, and they were very well-camouflaged indeed.
“They’re keeping their line steady,” said the lieutenant. “Still moving so slowly… it’s creepy, isn’t it?”
“Menacing,” said Peter. “They’re trying to frighten us.”
“Well, they’ll have to try a bit harder than that,” said the lieutenant scathingly. “Keep alert – they might suddenly try to rush us. And remember what the colonel said – we’re having no deaths on English soil, and if we do, it won’t be the army that causes them. He’s honourable, I’ll give him that.”
Betch was so keyed up with excitement he could hardly keep still. He’d missed out on the action at Bat’s Castle, so he was even more anxious to make an impact here. But then he felt a big thud of disappointment.
“They’re stopping,” said Fran.
“Yes, they are,” the lieutenant agreed. “They’re not trying to force their way in, then… at least, not yet. What’s going on, do they think we’ll just let them in?”
Suddenly, all the fairies on the boulder above them rushed off to one side.
“What can you see?” someone hissed.
“Is Dan up there?”
“No, she’s round the other side. Oh, someone tell us what’s happening!”
The lieutenant decided to take a quick look for himself, and jumped up.
“It’s a fairy,” he told the others, as soon as he came back. “Walking right up to the main entrance, bold as brass, and you’ll never guess what, it’s the one who brought Aesculus and Viola to us, back in Dorset!”
“I thought it might be,” muttered Betch.
“Where are they?” asked the lieutenant.
“Safe,” said Betch. “Safe where she’ll never find them.”
I hope, he thought. Oh, Aesculus, if you only do as you’re told once in your life, do it now.
Filbert Calder was not a self-important elf, but he had a strong sense of the dignity of his position. If a strange fairy was walking up to his door, then he would deal with it himself, however many colonels were around.
“Owler Tor is closed for business,” he said. “As you can see, we are surrounded by enemies right now, so no-one’s going in or out.”
“I’m not here on business,” said the fairy coolly. “My name is Envoy Marigold Pentreath, and I have come to speak to my fellow-colonist, Colonel Pentreath.”
“You’re an envoy? Then you’re definitely not coming in. We’re at war with parliament, or hadn’t you heard?”
“The army is at war with parliament. Since when have the Hills been part of the army?”
“Oh, very clever. But that won’t wash. Every sprite who cares about freedom is at war with parliament – including six envoys who walked out last week, so I hear.”
“I bear no weapons, I am a civilian. All I am asking is to speak to someone. Does war mean the end of all courtesy?”
“Of course not, or why would I be bothering to talk to you? You can’t come in, but I will tell the colonel you want to see him. If he wants, he can come out to talk to you.”
“Very well. I shall wait by that rock down below.”
She stalked off haughtily, and the judge went to find Colonel Pentreath.
“A fairy?” he said. “Was she their commanding officer?”
“No, she said she was an envoy, a fellow-colonist of yours.”
“Oh, Marigold! She’s turned up at last, has she? It’s those little ones, Judge, I expect she’s come to collect them. I’ll go and see.”
The envoy was waiting in an area set aside from Special Brigade’s troops, and the colonel wasn’t anticipating trouble reaching her, but nevertheless he took a few precautions in case it was a trap. His second in command, a major from Kent, was keeping watch to launch a counter-attack if Special Brigade tried anything, and the judge was watching carefully too. What none of them knew was that every movement on the Hill was being closely observed by two generals. One of them was Gran Herdalen. The other was General Huskvarna.
General Huskvarna also had a deputy at his side. Not his trusted second, Klethra Diolkos, who was still in Norway, but Mento Zsennye. Not as good, but still competent.
“I’m going in closer now,” said the general. “You know what to do – if Herdalen starts anything, unleash everything you’ve got.”
“Why are you so sure he’s here? He’s not entered the Hill.”
“He’s here all right,” said General Huskvarna. “I can smell him.”
General Huskvarna was in deep camouflage. His skin was painted green and his hair was covered by a tight green hat. Going through the grass as low as a snake, he moved with every tiny gust and eddy, following the wind’s line through the grasses with consummate skill. The envoy, easy to spot because of her orange hair, was still sitting helpfully on a rock, as if she was waiting for someone. General Huskvarna knew exactly who she was waiting for.
The envoy had received her instructions from the Premier himself, and whenever that happened, General Huskvarna always made it his business to find out just what those instructions had been. Her job now, he knew, was to get the bait out of the Hill, to lure out the two the Premier wanted alive. Alive… just because of a prophecy. Prophecy or no prophecy, in General Huskvarna’s opinion, the realm would be a lot safer if those two were dead. He had sworn to eliminate all the Ally-makers before the year was out, and this would be an excellent start. Not deliberately, of course. He wasn’t going to go openly against the Premier’s orders. But if the envoy were to fail, then he, Lars Huskvarna, would succeed in her place. He would be delivering Ace and Will Moseley to the Premier, like a good and loyal soldier, when some tragic accident would befall the prisoners, and nobody would be more grieved about it than he.
He oozed out of the grass and leaned against the back of the rock to listen.
The envoy was undefended, sitting in open view with only one companion, a fairy in the uniform of a parliamentary aide. If that was designed to show the colonel that he could approach without fear, it was working. He was coming now… at a slow jump, by the sound of it, and with a small escort. General Huskvarna could detect the tell-tale swish as they landed and took off again. Suddenly, he heard voices.
“Marigold! Well, I must say, it’s about time! I wasn’t expecting to look after those little ones for you for weeks and weeks. D’you realise we’ve had to bring them along on campaign?”
“I know, I know, and I’m really sorry, Scawen. But I had to go back to Poland. I know the war’s started, but it hadn’t then, and I didn’t think you’d mind helping a bit longer. But I suppose we’re on different sides now, so I’ve come to take them off your hands.”
“I wish it didn’t have to be this way,” sighed the colonel. “I’ve got no particular quarrel with parliament, and certainly none with you, Marigold, or anyone else at home for that matter. But I swore an oath to serve the army and that was for life. I may not like what’s going on, but I obey my orders, just as I expect my own to be obeyed.”
“I understand. I wouldn’t have expected anything else from you. But I don’t expect you to help me any longer, so I’ll take them away now.”
“What are you going to do with them?”
“I think I’ll take them home to Pentreath. All they need is somewhere safe to live.”
“Well, they’re certainly not safe here. I’ll send for them.” The colonel turned to one of the elves who had accompanied him. “Go and find Betch Knightwood, please, in Lieutenant Waterperry’s unit, and tell him to bring the little ones down here to me.”
Knightwood? thought General Huskvarna. Why did he know that name? He had a feeling he’d seen that name quite recently, and it made him uneasy. Then he got it – on the same team as the Moseleys at Fjaerland, and then he knew he was right to worry. This chump, Pentreath, had missed something obvious, but Herdalen wouldn’t have done. He was going to have to move fast.
He edged around the rock as another elf came down the hillside. He wanted a look at this one. He saw a tall young elf, clearly a birch, with striking white hair and a very handsome face. He looked worried and unhappy.
“Oh, sir, I’m so sorry!” he burst out. “The little ones, I’ve lost them. I can’t find them anywhere.”
“What! Well, search for them, you dolt!”
“I have, sir. I’ve been searching all day. They really are nowhere to be found. I think they’ve run away. They’ve been talking about it ever since they realised they were so close to their home.”
“I see. You are a useless fool, Knightwood, and not fit to be in England 1. You have let me down, and let down those little ones I entrusted to you. Get out of my sight.”
“Yes, sir. I’m really sorry, sir.”
Betch moved hastily away, and General Huskvarna debated whether to follow him now or do it later. He decided to wait. Even half an hour would mean it would be so much gloomier, and raise his chances of penetrating the army camp undetected.
“Marigold, what can I say? I do apologise.”
“Don’t worry. As your young elf said, they’re probably making for their old home, and it will be an easy matter to get on their trail.”
“Very well.” Colonel Pentreath held out his hand. “Goodbye, Marigold. I don’t know when we will ever meet again, but stay safe.”
“You too, Scawen. Thank you for everything you’ve done.”
When Colonel Pentreath had gone, the other fairy spoke.
“Do you really think they’ve gone?”
“I’m not sure. They could have – this is the army after all, incompetent and sentimental from top to bottom – but it could be that someone knows more than he’s letting on. But it doesn’t matter too much. They were bait, and they’ve served their purpose. The ones we really want should be inside that Hill by now, and all we have to do is watch for our opportunity. They’re our only focus now.”
“All the same, we’d better move, and make it look as if all we care about is getting off after the little ones.”
“Yes, good point. Come on, then.”
General Huskvarna flattened himself against the rock and kept absolutely still. The fairies never spotted him as they stood up to take off.
He was also unobserved by the elf who’d been watching through field glasses, Gran Herdalen himself. His lookout point on a solitary rock formation was beyond the ring of rocks held by the army, and outside Special Brigade’s encircling position, but it was high, it had a commanding view, and his field glasses were powerful. He wasn’t alone. He had a select group from Norway 1 with him, those who had recovered from their injuries at Vingen, under the command of a major, Hagtorn Maridalen, a hawthorn from near Oslo.
They hadn’t told Colonel Pentreath they were there, but they weren’t hiding, either. They would have been in plain view to Fighter Squadron on their regular patrols.
“Very interesting,” said Gran with a smile. “Looks like everything’s going according to plan so far.”
“There’s an awful lot of things that could still go wrong,” said the major dubiously.
“You’re such an optimist,” said Gran. “Come on, let’s get a drink. It’s freezing up here, and I can’t see anything happening now before morning.”
As soon as the light began to fade, General Huskvarna began to make his way stealthily up the Hill. Avoiding his own troops, who were settling down and getting themselves as comfortable as they could for the night, he aimed for a place where they were more thinly spread, in the lee of a huge boulder. He cleared the boulder in a lightning fast jump, then lay low, catching his breath, in case he had been spotted. But all was quiet, and he continued on his way. The danger now was being spotted by their fairies. He needed an overhang, where he’d be hidden from view from above, but from where he could look downwards into the army encampment. It would be a long, cold wait, he knew, but the elf he wanted to see had a very distinctive appearance, and the general was sure he would know him again as soon as he saw him.
The perch he had chosen was just above a makeshift canteen. Sooner or later, he reckoned, Betch Knightwood would show up there. It wasn’t easy. The general was by now extremely thirsty himself, and tantalising smells of hot drinks kept drifting up to him. But he ignored his own needs. He hadn’t become the greatest general ever by fussing about things like that, and he wasn’t going to start now.
Eventually, his patience was rewarded. He’d nearly missed him, because Betch was now wearing a dark hat over his bright hair, but once he’d got him, the general didn’t let Betch out of his sight. As he’d expected, Betch quickly led him well away from the main encampment. They arrived at a scree-strewn ditch. Beyond it lay a patch of bracken, the new growth arising from last year’s brown fronds, and Betch disappeared inside it. Once again, the general waited patiently, but when Betch emerged again, he acted with ruthless speed and efficiency. A silent leap in the dark, a blow to the neck from the edge of his hand, and Betch was unconscious before he’d registered that anyone was there.
General Huskvarna didn’t even stop moving. From the leap that took Betch out he went straight into another jump that took him down the Hill. The lookouts were thinly-spaced this side, because the approach was difficult, and his own troops were also thinly spread to match, but there were some, and they would be enough. He quickly made himself known, and they knew better than to ask any questions. He rounded up a dozen and told them to follow him.
“Keep low, move fast… and keep quiet!” he said.
Betch was still lying there out cold. General Huskvarna kicked him, but he didn’t move.
“Half of you drag him down to our lines and secure him,” he ordered. “The rest of you, circle this bracken pit. Anything that tries to break out, grab it… and keep it quiet.”
General Huskvarna followed the line Betch had taken, and found himself in a small earth cave. He felt no surge of compassion when he saw a small fairy and an even smaller elf fast asleep in each other’s arms, under a grubby blanket. He just grinned with pleasure at the success of his plan. They woke up as he gagged them, but by then it was too late for them to cry out, and he simply ignored their furious glares. He tossed them up out of the cave into the waiting arms and indicated by signs that they too were to be taken down to their own lines. He followed on behind, almost sauntering now, a grin of delight on his face. It wasn’t every night, he thought, that he got to put one over not just on the Premier, but on Gran Herdalen as well.
Even in summer, it’s misty at dawn in the hills of Derbyshire, and it wasn’t quite summer yet. But General Huskvarna had fought in every season and every kind of weather, and so had his troops. Most of them had come up from the Balkans, and were well used to country like this. As soon as the first feeble light filtered through, they launched their attack. There was no need to be quiet, there weren’t going to be any humans around at this hour, and if any of the defenders were still asleep, there was nothing more terrifying than being startled awake by a sudden ferocious attack.
The general didn’t think it was going to be a pushover, though, and it wasn’t. As soon as they moved, Fighter Squadron were on them, harrying them out of the mist, trying to push them down the hill. Sudden shoves and missile blows made them lose their footing on the wet grass. It was easy enough to pick yourself up and start climbing again, but the damage had been done. Their momentum was lost, and the defenders above were rapidly being reinforced. General Huskvarna took out a whistle and with a rapid series of blows summoned up his own fairies from their position lower down the Hill. Then a well-timed volley of heavier missiles from the elves in the rocks took out half his leaders. But they couldn’t get the rest, because Special Squadron bombarded the defenders at just the right moment. Some of his elves were through into the rocks now, and fighting hand to hand. The general himself leaped up onto a massive boulder, knocked out two of Fighter Squadron who rushed towards him, then signalled to his own fairies to go higher, and get Fighter Squadron from above. Once battle was joined in the air, the rest of his elves would be able to gather in force.
“I knew it,” muttered Gran Herdalen. “I just knew he was here.”
He watched closely to see what hand signals Huskvarna gave to his elves, then spoke rapidly to Major Maridalen.
“He’s trying a pincer movement, pushing from the rear of the Hill, on both sides, trying to herd our people onto the flat space in front of the main entrance. Tricky, but clever… you’d have to be this high to see what he was doing, so he’ll probably succeed. Start moving our lot onto the main visitors’ path, but low enough to keep out of sight. I’ll join you as soon as I can, but I need to watch what’s happening a bit longer.”
“Yes sir,” said the major. “Come on you lads, that’s First Regiment over there, and they could do with a bit of help.”
As day broke fully over the Hill and the mist began to burn away, a voice started singing. Strong and powerful, an elf’s voice, it was singing the Song to the Queen, in a rough English translation. It made the attackers falter for a moment, not sure what was going on, and it seemed to give a boost to the defenders. Even at this distance, Gran could hear other voices joining in. Not the fighters, of course, but there must be a lot of workers and visitors in there too. Gran felt pretty sure now who one of them was.
Don’t blow it, Ace, he thought. Just trust me, and we’ll do it yet.
With that, he left his position and jumped as fast as he could to join up with Norway 1.
What Gran had seen so clearly from his high vantage point, that Special Brigade were pushing in two directions, wasn’t clear at all to the fighters on the ground. The boulders blocked their view, and only the fairies could see the whole picture. The squadron leader sent a message to the colonel, then leaving her very best fighters to keep Special Squadron busy in the air, took the rest of her force down lower. They rallied at the rear of the Hill, bombarding the attackers from behind to try to slow down their advance. It worked, but it could only slow down what was happening, it couldn’t change the shape of the battle. England 1 were fighting with great skill, disarming their opponents and inflicting lots of injuries, but they were still being pushed together.
Gran saw the moment when Colonel Pentreath realised it, and quickly ordered the defenders into tighter lines, to give them weight to resist the pushing. Gran also saw a crowd of civilians on a ledge above the main entrance, valiantly doing their bit. They were well-supplied with ammunition and they were using it very intelligently, aiming with great success at any member of Special Squadron who flew into range. It was depriving the front ranks of Special Brigade of any air support at all.
Still Gran held back. He had no intention of insulting England 1 by barging in with help they didn’t need. The fight was teetering on the brink now, and could have gone either way, when to General Herdalen it looked as if the momentum was now reversing and the solid lines of England 1 were beginning to push back. At that moment, the sharp sound of a whistle cut through the grunts and metallic screeches of battle, and every one of Special Brigade stopped fighting, as if he had heard an order. Special Squadron landed, in a tight mass. And then, strolling through the ranks, came General Huskvarna. The army stopped fighting too, unsure what was going on.
“Judge Calder!” shouted the general.
The judge had been standing with the other civilians on the ledge.
“What?” he said. “I’ve got nothing to say to you. How dare you attack my Hill?”
He bustled down a grassy slope and stood glaring, with folded arms and frowning brows.
General Huskvarna smiled widely and lowered his face onto a level with the judge’s.
“We’re at war,” he said. “Or hadn’t you noticed? What is it? You want me to go away? All right, then. I’ll go away. I will lead away all these splendid troops, and Owler Tor will live to fight another day. That suit you?”
“What’s the catch?”
“Only that I want something in return. Or rather, the Premier does. And what the Premier wants, the Premier can have, as far as it lies within my power. Give me the twins, and I will be on my way.”
Gran nodded at Major Maridalen, and together they quietly led the reinforcements into view.
“What twins?” demanded the judge. “I haven’t got any twins, and if I had, I wouldn’t give them to you. We don’t have to give you anything to make you go, because we can just keep fighting until you give up and run away.”
General Huskvarna’s smile became even broader.
“Bring me those sacks,” he shouted, and two of his elves came running up the Hill, each bearing a heavy sack in one hand and a knife in the other. Everyone was staring at this unexpected turn of events. Before anyone could speak or react, the elves had cut open the sacks, and out tumbled a little elf and a little fairy. The elves grabbed the hair of the little ones and tugged them to their feet. They didn’t threaten them with their knives, but they didn’t sheathe the knives either, and it was clear that the threat was there.
“All right, I’ll ask you again,” said General Huskvarna. “Give me the twins, or I think you can see what’s going to happen.”
The judge didn’t answer, either too appalled, or realising that something else was going on here. Silence fell, and no-one moved, except that the little elf and the little fairy reached out and held hands with each other.
Oh, well done, Ace, thought General Herdalen. You’re getting even better.
But then something happened which even General Herdalen hadn’t been expecting. A fairy came striding down from the ledge, hands on her hips and a furious expression on her face, reminding the general vividly of a young Madge Arley. It was Clover.
“How dare you!” she shouted at General Huskvarna. “Call yourself an elf? Even a rat – even an earwig – wouldn’t behave like that! Tying babies up in sacks? Threatening them with knives? If you’re the best that parliament can come up with, then this war isn’t going to last for long! Give me my babies back, THIS MINUTE!”
The general looked wildly around in case this was a diversion, but before he could react further, Clover flew around the two big elves like a furious tornado, banged their heads together and scooped up Aesculus and Viola into her arms. She tried to take off, but such a weight slowed her, and General Huskvarna, rapidly recovering, managed to grab her ankle and tug her down. He pushed her to the ground and stood on her wings, then grabbed Aesculus and Viola himself.
“Nice try,” he grinned. “But it’s the twins I want. I know you’re here,” he shouted. “Letting fairies do the work for you? Not what I expected. I didn’t think you were cowards.”
“Be strong, Ace, be strong,” muttered General Herdalen.
“It’s you or them. And I’m not going to kill them. Oh, no. Nothing so easy. I’m just going to take them to Rogalin. Nearest colony to Wielkopolska, they’ll grow up with proper attitudes in a place like that. Of course, by the time you meet them again, they won’t want to know you.”
Once again, no-one answered. But someone was walking closer, and he called out into the silence.
“Would I do instead?” said General Herdalen.