CHAPTER 19 - Graduation Night

After three weeks, Ace was getting very good at Norwegian, and his leg was healing fast. Part of him was longing to go, to get back where he belonged, back to Will, back to the heart of the action. But another part didn’t want to go at all. If he was honest with himself, he had to admit, he’d fallen in love with Marta.
It wasn’t just her kindness, or her beauty. It was the way she spoke, the way she thought. She wasn’t like any of the other girls he’d met, at home in England, fond as he was of all of them. It was as if she knew sprites existed, it had never occurred to her that they might not. It was just that she hadn’t happened to meet one before. She didn’t treat him like some wonderful story-come-to-life, but just as a friend. Nothing he did amazed her. If he made things, she just took it completely for granted, that was what elves did. The word ‘magic’ never crossed her lips. Ace wasn’t sure why. It might just be her own character, or it might be because of where she lived, close to the earth and the seasons, cut off a little from the modern world. The farmhouse didn’t even have a television.
Bit of both, maybe, he thought. She knows I’ll have to go soon. And it makes her sad. But she doesn’t cry, or fuss. She’s brave. I just wish I knew what I could do for her, as a thank you. It must be something splendid, but what? She has everything she needs. A safe home, parents who love her…I don’t know. I’ll have to ask Will.

Will knew, of course. Just as Ace knew that something had happened between Will and the geek. Neither of them had said anything much, but Will already understood enough to know why Ace was trying to think of something special.
I asked her, you know, what she’d like if she could have anything in the world, Ace told him. And she looked at me with such a sweet, sad smile. ‘A baby brother’ she said, knowing I could never give her such a thing.
Crumbs, Ace, a baby? I don’t think we can do babies.
No. No, but you see the problem. What can you do for a girl like that?
Something simple, maybe? A keepsake? But look, Ace, I can ask Gran. If anyone can think of a good idea, he can.
Thanks, Will. That’d be great.
You be good, now. I hope you’re not flirting.
I wouldn’t dare. She’s way beyond me. Already wiser than I’ll ever be.

He has got it bad, Will thought to himself. When are you planning to leave?
Two, three days, no more. I’m working out all day now. Trying to get fit.
Gran’s on his way home, too. He was in France this morning.
Does the geek know?
Not from me.
Watch him when he finds out.
You think that’s what he’s waiting for?
I’ve had a lot of time to think, just lately. If you wanted to demoralise the army, Will, and ruin any chance of starting a war, never mind winning one, what would you do?
Hmm. Do you think he knows?
He’s deeper than the fjord, that one,
said Ace admiringly. You bet he knows. And he knows exactly what he’s doing.
I wish we did,
said Will.

General Cherapont, General Herdalen.
Gran! Oh, it’s good to hear you! How are you?
Glad to be coming home. Are you busy?
Nothing that can’t wait. Just planning out the first appointments for the second years. Final results aren’t in yet, of course, but the picture’s pretty clear at this stage.
You’re early with that.
I’m tired, Gran. Tired and old. And last full moon…well, it was good news really, I suppose.
said Gran. Oh, Tilleul. I don’t know what to say.
Just say whatever you were going to say in the first place,
said General Cherapont, cheerfully.
So he did, then, a little shaken by what he’d heard, he got through to Will.

Are you all right, sir? You sound sad.
Yes…but sad things can be so beautiful, they’re not sad any more.
Like things that are so nice they make you cry?
That’s the sort of thing. We just have to hang on. We’re nearly there, Will, nearly there. When’s Ace leaving? Has he summoned up the courage to leave his beautiful Norwegian girl?
laughed Will. Just about. Talk about besotted. She must be a stunner. But what can he do for her, Gran? He wants to do something splendid, but she doesn’t need presents. She’s not that kind of girl. All she wants is a baby brother.
I get the picture. The answer’s easy, but doing it will be hard work. You’ll have to help him with a bit of science.
That’s not a problem,
said Will, interested. What’s the plan?
Bless the farm,
said Gran. That’s what the humans call it. In the old days, when we were closer, a farmer who was kind to sprites would find his animals were healthier, his fields grew more, his house and his barn didn’t leak, even that he and his wife had more children. And they used to say, ‘the elves have blessed the farm’.
That’s perfect!
said Will. Repairing the buildings, easy…how d’you do the rest?
Like I said, it’s hard work. We started on the fields. In boggy bits, split the bedrock, so it drains. And we improved the soil, so it would grow better stuff. Increase the sand to clay ratio, makes it richer. Expand the minerals. Make the earthworms grow bigger - they help so much. Then we cleared the weeds, and rocks, and stumps, that make it such hard work. Shrunk them to nothing. Then we started on the animals. Healed everything we could spot, thinness, lameness, infections.
Got that,
said Will. Don’t hurt yourself, remembering. I get the idea.
How did you know?
You said, ‘we’.
Did I? Didn’t even realise. No. I’m OK. It’s just that I’ve heard some bad news this morning. Not quite thinking straight.
Anything I can do?
Just keep talking, Will. You’re the future, and that means the future’s going to be good.
You’re very philosophical this morning, Gran. But did you do anything to the humans on your farm?
No, not a thing. But it’s true that it wasn’t long before they had a baby. Nothing we did. Unless feeling more secure, and having to work less hard, helped in some way.
Other sprites are hard enough to understand, never mind humans,
sighed Will. I’m getting sleepy. It’s all too much effort.
You keep your eyes open! Of all sleepy-headed deciduous layabouts, willows are the worst! It’s only October!
But it’s as cold as November is at home!
Will defended himself.
Don’t make me jealous, said Gran. It’s as hot as August here.

Ace was thrilled with Gran’s idea, and couldn’t wait to get started. But when he asked Will what a mineral was, exactly, Will realised it was going to take all night, and probably the next night too, and he was going to have to stay awake and talk him through it.
Let’s get cracking, then. You can get outside, can you? he asked, stifling a yawn.
Are you tired?
said Will.
Honestly, Will, if I didn’t know you better, I’d have said you were lying to me.
I’ve had to tell a lot of lies, lately. Like asking Jasan if you’re all right. He hasn’t got a clue I know you’ve escaped.
That’s good. But you are tired, aren’t you?
Got to fight it. It’s only October.
Oh, that sort of tired. That’s early, even for you.
I know!
groaned Will. So help me! Give me something interesting to think about. Get a handful of soil, and describe it.
Ace, you halfwit, I really will brain you one day. Describe it scientifically…

It was still very dark the morning Ace left. So far north, the days were shortening fast. He’d done all he could to the farm, and he’d made something for Marta, from a scrap of good metal he’d found. He’d got his strength back, and it was time to go. He jumped onto Marta’s pillow, and stroked her face to wake her.
“It’s time,” he said. “Don’t get up.”
Marta smiled her sad, sweet smile, and touched his hand. Then she sat up.
“Go safe to your brother. But come again.”
“I will, Marta. I promise.”
He lowered his head, sadly, then looked up.
“Till we meet again.”
He gave her the ring he’d made, and she accepted it with seriousness.
“Thank you,” she whispered, then leaned over and kissed him.
Ace could hardly speak, he was drowning.
“Goodbye,” he whispered, and jumped to the window and turned for one last look. He could have spoken, or blown her a kiss. But without knowing why he did it, he gave her the salute, then turned and was gone.
Marta slipped out of bed and went to the window. Ace’s hair was so bright she could still see him.
“Adjø, kjær alv,” she whispered. “Goodbye.”
Then she looked at the ring he’d given her. It shone like silver, and etched on it was a little picture, a star nestling in the branches of a tree. She slipped it onto her finger, and stared into the sky, her little face solemn with devotion.
“På livstid,” she said. “Jeg lover, på livstid.”

Three days later, General Herdalen arrived back on camp, just as the first snow started to fall. He made no secret of his arrival, calling cheerfully to everyone he met, and remarking ecstatically on the weather, though he got plenty of grumbling in reply, from people who weren’t quite so fond of snow. He went into the officers’ mess, and had a quiet beer with Tilleul Cherapont, then went to Signals to collect his messages. He groaned when he saw the size of the heap that was waiting for him, and left them on his desk. That could wait. The next thing was to report to the Commander.
She was with General Stalden in 1st Squadron headquarters, reading reports, when he stuck his head round the door.
“Hello,” he said. “You got a minute, Gia?”
“Oh, Gran, I’m glad you’re back. Excuse me, Nella, I’ll be back soon.”
She went out with him, and they walked across camp together, to her office in General Headquarters.
“How did it go?” she asked.
“Very well. Spain 2 no longer exists. But Spain 1 is bigger, stronger, and most important, united. They’ll be badly needed when trouble starts. You know as well as I do that Spain’s full of imp colonies who’ll take advantage of any unrest. We have the strength now to defend ordinary colonies from their attacks.”

The general looked out of the window. The first years were coming back onto camp through the eastern gate, shivering and jumping about. He could see Will, and…yes, there he was. The likeness was truly amazing. A wave of anger and revulsion shot through him, and he stood up.
“There’s something I have to tell you, Gia,” he said. “Something you may feel I should have told you sooner. But I had good reasons for not doing so.”
He told her what was going on, and what he planned to do about it, and she knew at once exactly why he was handling it this way. But she wasn’t happy about it.
“I could order you not to do this,” she said.
“You could,” he agreed. “And if you did, I’d obey you. But don’t, Gia. Put yourself in his shoes.”
“I don’t know, Gran,” she sighed. “My head tells me this isn’t right. But the trouble is, my heart doesn’t. He’s determined?”
“He is.”
“But what if this imposter moves sooner than you think?”
“Will would warn me…and in any case, it’s a chance I’m prepared to take.”
“What about Will? Can he handle this? What if he spoils your plan?”
“I would trust Will with harder things than this. Don’t underestimate him, Gia. He’s the stronger of that pair, in some ways.”
“You know them better than I do, so I’ll bow to your judgement. After all, it’s your life.”

The first year elves swarmed over to the notice-board, to see if the afternoon’s programme had been changed because of the snow. It hadn’t. It was still tracking.
“Told you it wouldn’t,” said Ross. “The sergeant will be really pleased, you’ll see. The snow will make it harder for the ones who are hiding, for once.”
Still arguing about it, they split up, some to the canteen, and some to their barracks for coats or hats.
“Come on, Will,” said Jasan. “Even you must be cold by now.”
“Not specially,” Will lied, tearing his attention away from a notice which had caught his eye.
He was freezing, really, but he was pretending he wasn’t just to annoy Jasan, who couldn’t put on anything warmer until Will told him what Ace would wear when it was cold. And that was the trouble, really, thought Will.
Not his jacket. I can’t stand that, it’s too personal, too much a part of him. He’s not having that.
He walked alongside him, thinking. He’d have to do something, or they’d be too cold to work, and Sergeant Olt would make them put something silly on, like a woolly jumper. Then it came to him, and he led the way to the barracks.
“Maybe it is a bit cold,” he said, opening the clothes box. “There you go.”
He tossed Jasan his own jacket, and put Ace’s on himself. Simple.
“You any good at singing?” he asked casually.
“No. Why?”
“Ace is down to do the music next week. He’d get the band together, choose which songs to do, practise like mad every spare minute…he plays the guitar, you know. And sings. At the same time. Voice like a hurricane. Hardly needs a mike. You up for that?”
Jasan licked his lips, nervously.
“Which day?”
“Yeah…yeah, I can do that all right,” he said, and they went out.
Sure you can, thought Will. So Friday doesn’t worry you. Interesting. What’s going to happen before Friday?

When they got to the canteen, Dan and Hogweed came rushing over to join them, very excited. But Will was ready for it, doing most of the talking, mentioning songs, so that all Jasan had to do was look enthusiastic. But suddenly Will broke off, as if he was listening, and his face lit up with real joy. Watching Jasan carefully, he said,
“General Herdalen’s back! He wants me to report to him.”
“Just you?” snapped Jasan suspiciously. “Why’s that?”
Will had seen it, a tiny flicker in his eyes. Excitement, or fear…something like that.
“See you later!” he said, and rushed out.
“So shall we go and have a bit of a practice?” asked Hogweed.
Jasan looked at him with annoyance.
“Not now,” he said. “Buzz off, now. I want to think.”

Dan and Hogweed looked at each other, and got up to go. Dan didn’t think much about it. If Will and Ace were in a mood with each other, there was nothing you could do. You couldn’t but in on twins. She went off to her own barracks to get her jacket. But Hogweed thought about it a lot. He thought so much it made his head hurt. But Ace was his leader, and he had to look after him. So he didn’t give up, but kept at it.
He’s in a mood about something, he thought. Ace does get in a mood sometimes. And he might get angry. He might lose his temper. He might do something mad. But he wouldn’t be rude. Never. But he was rude, then, very rude.
Hogweed made his mind up.
That’s not Ace, then. It can’t be. But why hasn’t Will told anyone? Perhaps he can’t. But I could.
It seemed to Hogweed that if someone was pretending to be Ace, someone ought to be doing something about it.

Will banged on the door, and heard the general’s usual cheerful shout.
“Good afternoon, sir,” he said, smiling, then rushed across the room and was swallowed up in a huge hug.
“Oh, Gran, it’s good to see you,” said Will.
“You’re too thin,” said the general. “Not been getting enough sleep. But it’s nearly over, Will. We mustn’t mess up now. We’re nearly ready to spring the trap. Now we haven’t got much time, you mustn’t be late, or do anything odd. Where’s Ace, exactly?”
“Somewhere on the road between Otta and Sogndal."
“So he’s still got to come across country from Sogndal…and that’s two or three days’ journey. This is going to be over before he gets back. That’s a good thing. Now listen carefully, Will. Jasan’s waiting for Graduation Night. Nothing’s going to happen before then.”
“But the place will be packed, for that!”
“Exactly. Loads of visitors. And one of them will be his boss, Envoy Mecsek.”
“I think Envoy Mecsek would deny being his boss.”
“ ’Course he would. Biggest liar on earth.”
Will looked up at Gran searchingly, trying to understand what was going on.
“You know what Jasan’s going to try to do, don’t you, sir?”
“Yes, I think so. But you mustn’t try to stop him, Will. That’s an order. Whatever you see, or think you see, you must not do anything.”
“Right sir,” said Will quietly.
The general looked down at Will’s sad, tired face, he felt awful at piling such responsibility on someone so young.
“I’m so proud of you,” he said. “You, yourself, singular.”

Hogweed tried Dan first, as the fairies came back from their own tracking lesson.
“ ’Course it’s Ace,” she said. “Honestly, Hogweed, have you gone mad? He’s just even more full of himself than usual, lately, that’s all.”
That shook Hogweed a bit, because he trusted Dan. But he carried on thinking, that night. Dan was cross with Ace these days, because he didn’t listen to her ideas. Maybe that was why she couldn’t see it.

In the morning, he tried Clover. She was rather worried about them both, but she tried to reassure Hogweed.
“I know he seems a bit odd,” she said. “But you can trust Will to sort it out, Hogweed. There’s nothing we can do that he can’t.”
That was all right as far as it went. But Will must know. And Will wasn’t doing anything. So that must mean he couldn’t. Hogweed sighed. He was back where he’d started.
They were all on their way to the Concourse, where Sergeant Svir wanted to talk to them.
“Tomorrow is the second years’ last official day,” she told them. “They won’t all leave at once, but from tomorrow, you take over their duties. So pay attention to the board, so you know what you’re supposed to be doing. I don’t want chaos in the canteens when the place is full of visitors! In the afternoon, you can watch them doing their final race, I know you’ll want to cheer on your compatriots. In the evening, you’ll all attend the Graduation Ceremony. I suggest you look to your clothes today, you won’t have time tomorrow. Formal green for everyone - not long gowns, fairies, it’s not a dance, but something smart.”
She smiled at them all, thinking how quickly time passed. It didn’t seem a moment to her since they’d arrived, and already they were nearly second years themselves.
“Now, hibernating,” she continued. “For goodness’ sake, when you feel sleepy, go to bed! Every year we have needless accidents from people trying to stay awake the longest, and it’s just silly. Your body is telling you how much sleep you need - listen to it. Take care of each other. Make sure people in your barracks are well-covered against the cold. And let me or Sergeant Olt know who’s gone over, so we know not to put them down for anything. When you wake up, report in yourself. Is that clear? Any questions?”
“Do lessons stop?” asked Kiefer. “ ’Cos I don’t want to get bored. I’ll only need a week.”
“Depends who’s awake. There’ll always be something going on, so don’t worry, Kiefer. If necessary, I’d put on a special class just for you. In common sense, or something.”
“Serves you right,” whispered Gran, as everyone laughed. “You’re not the only evergreen, you know.”
“Once you’re all awake again,” sighed Sergeant Svir, “well, I know it’s a waste of time telling you not to do forfeits. But any forfeit that lands someone in hospital will mean hard labour for the person who thought of it! Now, back to today. Today you have your final team exercise as first years, so I’ll hand you over to Corporal Lavall, and he’ll tell you all about it.”

As Will followed Jasan to the big playing field, he could see he was deep in thought, he might even be messaging someone.
He’s stopped caring about fitting in. His mind’s all on what he’s got to do.
He suddenly felt furiously angry. It just wasn’t fair. Ace was missing so much, and the team was missing him, whether they knew it or not. But he wasn’t that far away now, and Will was filled with determination to get him in on this. He shook Jasan’s arm to get his attention.
“You’re miles away!” he hissed. “It’s getting a bit obvious. Leave this to me, I’ve got a plan.”
“Right,” said Jasan, not caring, and Will got through to Ace.
Oh, said Ace, good excuse to stop for a breathe. Gran spoke to me himself this morning, Will. Is he angry with me? I’m going to miss everything - he thinks it serves me right, doesn’t he?
No, Ace, no, it’s not that. He’s trying to spare you something, though I’m not sure what. But there’s no tearing hurry, that’s the thing. And we need you, Ace, we need you now. I’ve got a challenge for you. This is our last team exercise as first years, and I just feel so mad to do well. If I tell you what’s going on, d’you think you could talk us all through it? You near enough to message the others?
Oh, nice one!
said Ace, with relish. You bet. What’s the objective?
Pairs of teams, one builds a stockade, the other has to attack it. You have to get their flag to win. We’re attacking.
Scandinavia. They’ve paired up the teams that have a bit of rivalry, to give it some edge.
Beautiful. Give Gran Starheim a punch on the nose from me. You watching while they build?
Yeah - circular, with a high walkway. Gaps to fire through. Can’t see a flag, they’ve kept it low.
Probably roofed in so no-one can fly in and snatch it. Right, got that. You’ll get continuous fire, so we’ll breach their defences from a distance, and attack as they’re distracted. A huge boulder, I think, rolled so fast it crashes a hole in their wall.
How will we get up enough speed?
Er…something scientific?
You’d have to roll it down a ramp…we’re starting! Got the signal to go.
Great, build a ramp, get Betch to help you, I’ll talk to the others.

Ace closed his eyes so he could see the scene more clearly in his mind, and smiled.
Right, let’s have some action around here! Bella, can you hear me?
Yes, Ace.
To the forest, please, get some wood to Will and Betch. Clover! Take Rose and Stella, soar 80, fire vertical pelt, aim for the goblins. Wayne!
I’m here, Ace.
Ammunition, please, for light and fast. Peter, keep their elves busy, slow advance, you fire, then nip behind Fran while he fires. Hogweed!

Oh, that’s more like it! thought Hogweed. He sounds more like himself today!
Can you see what Will’s made? Get up to the top of it, with a nice stone. Make it as big as you can handle, then roll it down that ramp, right through their walls!
Yes, sir!
said Hogweed ecstatically.
Will stood back, by the ramp, concentrating hard, giving Ace a running commentary. Jasan thought he was directing it all, and left him to it.
It’s rolling, now…
Get ready, Dan,
said Ace. In through the breach, and get that flag!
I’m ready…
Crashed through!
Will, get everyone covering Dan…she get in?
I’m in a fight, Ace!
Fran, in through the gap, it’s hand to hand now!
We’re in, Ace,
said Will. Airforce are firing from above. Stella’s down, Wayne’s down.
Dan, leave the fighting now to Will and the others. Back off and sneak through.
They’ve surrounded their flag with their fairies!
Well of course they have, elves aren’t allowed to hit them. But you are….
Will, you got Gran? Count me in, he can take us both at once.
I’m with you, one, two, three, go!

With a punch that had the pooled force of two behind it, Gran went down, just as Dan laid a hand on the flag. Revebjelle and Lilje tried to pull her down, but by now Hogweed had come in too, and calmly picked them both up.
“I’ve got it!” Dan shouted, and soared into the air, waving the flag triumphantly.
Nice work, Ace, said Will. Clean victory, and I think…yes, we’re first. Everyone else is still fighting.
I can almost see it,
sighed Ace happily. Oh, that was very, very nice.

While they were healing the dozens of minor injuries, Corporal Lavall slipped off and did some arithmetic, and came back with a piece of paper, which he handed to Sergeant Olt.
“Settle down,” the sergeant called. “You’re at the half-way stage now, and you may like to know how your teams are doing. These are the points so far.”
Oh, listen to this, Ace, thought Will. I’m just going to repeat everything the sergeant’s saying, OK?
“France and Spain are in the lead at this stage,” said the sergeant. “7946 points.” He had to wait a moment then, as Alnus’ team cheered themselves silly, but he was smiling. “Very good work, but I’d like to see the whole team putting in an equal amount of effort. Balkans, not far behind, 7615. Your team needs to work a little harder in the classroom, Crocus. Italy, you’ve got 6825, and a lot of that was earned by fairies. I want to see all the elves working hard, not just Lauro and Pioppo! Scandinavia, 6500. A good score, but nearly all gained by individual efforts. You have the chance to do even better if you can work together more as a team. Alpine team, 5020. Your team has an unusual mixture, Sizzle, but you play to your strengths very well. Russia, you’ve done well, too - 4991. You need to think for yourselves a bit more, and not wait to see what everyone else is doing. Rather a jump down now, I’m afraid. Holland and Germany, 2440. Some of you seem to be trying to lose your team points, not win them. But don’t be discouraged, Ross, and don’t give up. Poland… well, you had a very shaky start, and you’ve only got 1056. But, a lot of that was gained recently. Keep on improving like that. And last, England. 892.”
He paused for a moment, and looked around at them all.
“Superb work,” he said quietly. “Can’t fault a thing. Never seen such leadership.”
Thanks to Will, that praise was heard by the one who was meant to hear it, and Ace was suddenly very glad he was on his own. He didn’t want anyone to see him crying.

The Fjaerland camp was not as full as it had been at Midsummer, but visitors were arriving all day, and through the next day too. Nearly all the colonels came, along with senior sprites from important colonies, and friends of the second years, and Parliament’s representative, Envoy Mecsek.
As the day went on, Will was finding it harder and harder to concentrate. They had so much work to do, and he had to watch Jasan, while getting more and more worried about what was going to happen. At the same time, he was getting more and more excited, because Ace was getting nearer. Maybe tomorrow….
I can’t wait, he thought. I can’t think straight. Oh, don’t I just wish I could go away and get a bit of peace. Play my bass for a few hours.
But he couldn’t. It was time for the races. He watched the fairies zooming about the sky in a very complicated pattern, and he didn’t really understand who’d won. Part of him started to wonder how they could visualise an invisible race track, but even an intriguing puzzle like that couldn’t break through his preoccupations. The elves’ race around the training course he understood, but he couldn’t see very well past the crowds in front of him, so he just cheered on Cat and his team with the others, and hoped they’d done well.

There was cheering going on, and speeches, and a lot of laughter, but Will just tried to concentrate on not losing track of Jasan. It was starting to get dark, and they had to go and work again now, fetching and carrying for the quartermaster. The second years were calming down, and going off to get ready for the evening. Will spared a thought for them as he helped Jasan, Fran and Peter to knock up extra beds in an empty barracks hut. They’d be getting into uniform now, making themselves as smart as they possibly could, and probably they were shaking with nerves, because in a little while they’d be off to the forest, with just their own officers, to swear the oath to the Tree. For them, that would be the high point of the evening. All the ceremonies and celebrations that would follow wouldn’t match that….
“Will! For the millionth time, what time is it?”
“What? Oh, sorry. Crumbs, it’s nearly seven, and we’re not changed yet!”
“Exactly. Let’s get finished in here, or we’re going to be late,” frowned Jasan.
Like you care, thought Will.

They only had minutes to spare. They washed, and pulled on their uniforms as neatly as they could, and raced off to the Great Hall. There were torches burning along the steps, and the Hall itself was full of light, with a sparkle of frost on the windows. Will and the others slipped into their places at the back. The second years were right at the front, looking extremely smart and sitting very still. The rest of the Hall was filled with visitors and officers, and there was a low hum of conversation, until the Commander and the generals stepped onto the platform. But it wasn’t the Commander who stepped to the front. It was General Cherapont.
He welcomed them all warmly, and gave a short speech about the second years, that made them laugh quite often. They hadn’t realised how much he’d known about what they all got up to. Then he called them all up to the platform, one by one, calling out each name in full, with great solemnity. Will could see that all of them were now wearing brown wristbands instead of grey ones. They weren’t recruits any more. General Cherapont shook hands with them all, and handed them envelopes containing details of their first appointments. Then they had to shake hands with the Commander and the other generals, and come down from the platform to be congratulated by Sergeant Grybow, and hugged by Sergeant Kopec. It took ages, but the first years weren’t bored. Every single one of them was thinking the same thing - next year, that’ll be us.
When the last of them had sat down, there was a huge burst of applause. Then came the announcement of the final team positions, and Poland had to go up again, to receive their medals. So Cat’s team hadn’t caught them, but they’d done very well, and they were all looking very happy. Then General Cherapont cleared his throat to make his speech, and the officers’ eyelids drooped a little. They heard this speech every year. But they were soon alert again. This was a new one.

“I’m sending you out into a world that’s getting darker. You begin your careers at a terrible time. The day will come when each of you will be presented with a choice, and you must search your heart to find where your true loyalty lies. I hope that the choice will not be a difficult one, and that each one of you will remember the oath he or she has sworn tonight, and whose army this is. Serve him well, my dear sprites. Serve him well.”
It seemed to Will that his feeble voice filled the Hall, and his eyes raised seemed to encompass everyone there, no matter how senior, with his warning and his love. Then he turned abruptly and left the platform, and after a quick word to the Commander, General Herdalen followed him.

No-one clapped. It all felt too solemn for that. There was an uneasy silence, but the Commander came to the rescue with a few general words of congratulation and dismissal. Sergeant Kopec and Sergeant Grybow led the second years outside, and everyone else followed them. It didn’t take long before it grew relaxed and noisy. There was beer, and plenty of it, and the second years were opening their envelopes and exchanging the news with their friends. There was music too, and tonight it was extremely silly and just for fun. The second years took to the stage whenever they felt like it, playing strange assortments of instruments together and making everyone laugh. Even Will was nearly weeping with laughter at a French pop song being played on bagpipes and a violin. Even so, he didn’t touch a drop of beer, and neither, he noticed, did Jasan.
The first years crowded together at the end of the Concourse, happy to relax and watch the fun. Rose and Clover came and sat between Will and Jasan, and gradually the rest of the team joined them. Fran and Peter couldn’t find a seat, and they were propping each other up, back to back, and spilling their beer as they tried to drink. Between laughing at them, and laughing at Kiefer who was dancing on the next table, Will forgot to watch Jasan. The next time he looked, he’d gone.
Will stood up, looking around frantically.
“Where is he?” he asked wildly.
“Pardon?” said Clover. “Who? Do you mean Ace?”
Will couldn’t answer, he just looked at her despairingly and ran off, hoping he was going in the right direction. The rest of the team looked at each other in bewilderment.
“Oh, what’s going on!” said Rose. “Have they lost it, knowing where each other is? Is that what the matter is?”
“Will keeps saying nothing’s wrong,” said Clover.
“That’s not quite what he said to me,” said Wayne. “He said, ‘There’s nothing wrong between me and Ace’.”
“Well, yes,” said Clover, “that was it.”
“That’s not the same thing at all,” said Betch suddenly. “Something’s wrong - something’s very wrong - and it’s not what we all think it is. We’ve all been thinking they were in a mood with each other, but Will keeps telling us it’s not that, and we don’t listen.”
“But use your eyes!” said Dan. “When did they last smile at each other, or have a joke? When did you last even hear Will call Ace by his name?”
“Use your logic,” said Betch grimly. “Come on, Dan! Think! Granted all you say is true, yet Will says nothing’s wrong - then what?”
“Then that isn’t Ace,” said Hogweed. “I didn’t think it was.”
“Hogweed,” faltered Clover, “I’m beginning to think you might be right.”
Everyone frowned, thinking, and things began to come to mind, all the tiny things that hadn’t quite rung true.
“I did wonder, yesterday morning,” Betch admitted. “That really was Ace, messaging us. Somehow the copy didn’t seem so good, after suddenly hearing the real thing.”
“No,” said Fran, “it didn’t. You’re right. I don’t know what’s going on, but Will does. And he’s worried because he’s lost track of this imposter.”
“Come on,” said Clover. “Slip away, without causing a fuss. Let’s go and help find him.”

Gran! I’ve lost him! Will messaged desperately.
Good. If he’s trying to give you the slip, he’s ready to move. But he’ll find you again before he does, you can be sure of that. Just remember your orders, and don’t try to stop him.
Yes, sir,
said Will, and slowed down. There was no point rushing. Of course, he had to be there too, they wanted him in prison as well as Ace. But they hadn’t got Ace, not any more.
They must know he’s on his way home, though, Will thought to himself. They could easily have someone looking out for him, to grab him before he gets back on camp. I hope he’s being careful.
Just one more thing to worry about. Being careful of his own safety wasn’t very high on the list of things Ace was good at.

The brightly-lit Concourse and the music were behind him. Will walked around, trying to look casual, but not sure what else to do. If Jasan had to find him, he’d better make himself easy to find. Then he saw him. He was coming out of the door of Signals, and he was smiling. Will ran over to him.
“What are you up to?” he demanded. “Why did you sneak off like that?”
“Sneak? No way,” grinned Jasan. All his distraction of the last two days had gone, he was being Ace again, as cheerfully as he could. Will felt sick.
“Didn’t you see Captain Dolfawr come and get me? Signals are short-staffed tonight, everyone’s at the celebrations, they needed a runner to take the urgent messages out.”
Will hesitated. That could be true, he hadn’t been paying attention.
“So who’s that one for?” he asked, pointing at the yellow form in Jasan’s hand.
“General Herdalen,” said Jasan. “He’s in the conference room, apparently. Some small, private meeting going on. Why don’t you come with me? We might hear something interesting!"
Then Will knew it wasn’t true. For one thing, that was just too convenient. And for another, there was nothing written on the outside of that form. It was just a blank one. This was it, then.
“Yeah, OK,” he said. “I suppose I might as well.”

Jasan pushed the door, and Will followed him into a passageway. The main room was just beyond them, and he could hear voices…General Herdalen, Commander Biagioni, Sergeant Grybow - what was she doing there? - another elf, whose voice Will didn’t recognise, and the unctuous tones of Envoy Mecsek. They seemed to be discussing the second years who’d been appointed to Special Brigade.
“Go on!” Will whispered. “Don’t stand there eavesdropping!”
Jasan smiled, and rapped on the door.
“Come in,” called the Commander. “Oh, have you brought a message for one of us?” she asked pleasantly, as Jasan and Will walked across the room.
Will couldn’t take his eyes off Jasan. He knew he was going to do something terrible, and he knew he mustn’t stop him. Whatever it was, he mustn’t stop him. Everything seemed to be going in slow motion.
“Yes, ma’am,” he heard Jasan say. “The message is for General Herdalen.”
Will saw the general rise to his feet, and step forward. He saw Jasan pull his knife, and fought, though his heart was breaking, not to grab it from him. He saw the blade stab the general to the heart. He died instantly.
“No!” Will screamed. “No, no!”

Sergeant Grybow stood aghast, her mouth open. The Commander stood utterly still, sending an urgent message, then moved swiftly to the general’s side. The other elf - Gran’s friend Bjørk, the Swedish colonel - grabbed Jasan and held him fast. Jasan didn’t struggle. He stood still, with his head held high. Sergeant Grybow grabbed Will. He didn’t struggle, either. Nothing mattered any more, nothing. Tears were streaming down his face. He looked down at the Commander, hoping against hope she would say he was still breathing, but he knew it was useless. She was shaking with grief.
“Appalling,” said Envoy Mecsek. “Quite appalling. My deepest condolences, Commander. This recruit is obviously insane. Some petty grudge, perhaps.”
The Commander stood up.
“Bjørk, leave that murderer and help me carry the general’s body out of here, please. Envoy Mecsek, might I ask you to guard the prisoner until the police arrive? I have sent for General Saal himself, he won’t be long, I’m sure.”
“Willingly, Commander,” said the envoy. “Only too pleased to assist, in this most tragic event.”
Colonel Kinnekulle picked up the general’s body and carried it into a side room, and the Commander ushered Sergeant Grybow and Will in there too. She pushed the door until it was nearly closed, and motioned to everyone to be quiet. She stood by the door, listening, and Will listened too. Faintly, he heard the envoy speaking.
“Good work, Captain Březová. Well done. When I am king, you shall have high command for this.”
“Thank you, sir,” said Jasan.

Colonel Kinnekulle chuckled quietly, and Will spun round, bewildered. The Commander still looked sad, but the colonel was beaming. He clapped a huge hand on Will’s shoulder, and opened the door a little wider. Then Will heard another door open, and the sound of footsteps, and General Herdalen’s voice.
“Got you,” he said. “Mecsek, you creep, you’re finished.”
Envoy Mecsek stared, then spat and swore.
“Yes, come in, Inula,” Gran called cheerfully. “Do your stuff.”
General Saal and an escort of military police marched in, and General Saal drew himself up to his very imposing height.
“I arrest you, Mecsek, and you, Březová, for the murder of Tilleul Cherapont.”
“Cherapont?” said Jasan.
“Mmm, yes,” said Gran. “Your side is rather good at transforming, I admit, but you haven’t got a monopoly on it.”
“Impressive,” said Jasan. “But you’ll have to let us go, if you want Ace Moseley back alive.”
“Rubbish,” said Gran. “We know Ace escaped in August. Will’s been in touch with him all along. We could have taken you for kidnap any time we wanted. But we thought it wouldn’t be fair to let your boss off the hook. All the murders he’s ordered, he never gets the blame, does he? But this time he will.”
“How?” said Jasan, looking at Will. “How did you do it?”
Will wouldn’t even look at him.
“Poor intelligence, Captain,” said Gran. “Ace and Will are twins. That’s what beat you. And as well as being twins, they are highly intelligent and very brave. As for you, Mecsek, words fail me. King? In your dreams.”
“I shall deny everything. You’ve no proof.”
“The word of all these witnesses is proof,” said Sergeant Grybow. “Of whom I am one, and I am ashamed of you. My political sympathies are well-known, which I make no doubt recommended me to the Commander as a witness. Why would I lie about what I saw and heard? You have betrayed the high ideals of the Founders for your own greed, corrupted this young officer, and murdered a noble elf. I may be proud to support Parliament, but these actions I do not support.”
“Well said,” murmured Gran. “I’ve got no quarrel with that.”
But Jasan was looking at the envoy with disgust.
“I knew you would betray me if we failed.”
He jerked himself out of the grasp of the police corporal who was holding him, and moved so fast no-one could stop him. He grabbed Will and put a knife to his throat. They’d taken his knife away from him, of course, but no-one had checked to see if he had another. He had.
“Keep away,” he warned. “Keep well back, all of you, and no sending for help. One move and he’s dead. And don’t think I wouldn’t.”
Jasan started backing slowly towards the door, taking Will with him.
Oh, terrific, thought Will. Am I still supposed to be not stopping him, or was that order just for before? I wish I knew what the hell was going on.
Just then, he heard Clover messaging him, and he nearly laughed.
Will, are you all right?
Er, not exactly,
Will thought back. I’ve got a knife at my throat, but apart from that, everything’s fine. Where are you?
Outside! We’ve been listening the whole time. D’you need some help?
Yes! But don’t come in till I tell you.
said Clover.

Gran! thought Will. Am I allowed to stop him now?
Yes! Sorry, Will, that order’s finished with, of course…but I wouldn’t do anything hasty….
Don’t worry, trust me. Everything’s under control.

We’re outside the door, Will,
thought Clover.
Great. Come in all together, pretend you don’t know, ask him if he wants any help, then get his knife.

“Ace! What’s going on?” shrieked Rose, pretending not to notice the knife. “Do you need any help?”
“We’re with you,” said Wayne.
The whole team surrounded him, shouting encouragement and support. Jasan thought fast.
“We’ve uncovered a plot,” he said quietly, then shouted at the envoy and the officers.
“My team will guard you until more help arrives.”
But then he glanced down in despair as he felt a huge fist clamped around his wrist. Hogweed twisted his arm until he dropped his knife, then pinned Jasan’s arms behind him.
“We’re not your team,” said Fran witheringly. “We’re Ace’s team.”

General Saal took charge at once, glaring at his officer who’d let Jasan out of his grasp.
“Form a tight square,” he snarled. “March them to the detention cells.”
“Thank you, Inula,” said the Commander. “And escort them to the Hollow Hill in the morning. They can go before the local judge. Please inform her of the names of all the witnesses, and assure her that as many as she wishes will travel to their trial.”
“One more thing,” said Gran. “Provide the captain with some simple clothing. He’s not standing trial in an English uniform to which he is not entitled.”
Jasan was behaving with a lot more dignity than the envoy, who was still blustering and struggling. He shrugged his shoulders, and a self-mocking smile flickered around his lips.
“Goodbye, Will,” he said. “It was nice knowing you. I said you were clever. Maybe we’ll meet again one day.”
“If we do, it’ll be in battle,” said Will. “Goodbye, Jasan.”

The police marched their prisoners away, and Gran let out a great sigh.
“Oh, Will, come here,” he said, and Will ran across the room to him. “I’m so sorry you had to go through that. When you screamed, it went right through me. I knew we were friends, but I didn’t know you cared that much.”
“Oh, Gran,” said Will, his voice muffled because he was hiding his face in the general’s arm. “I thought you were dead! That was awful!”
“But you didn’t stop him. You obeyed the most difficult order you’ll probably ever get. I’m so proud of you. If you’d stopped him, Mecsek would still be poisoning the realm. As it is, war is postponed. We have a breathing space, at least. And the one who ordered your murders is eliminated.”
As he said that, he smiled at the whole team, who were hesitantly coming to join them.
“Well done, all of you,” he said warmly. “Beautiful team work.”
“It wasn’t bad,” said Will. “But they’ve got no logic. So you finally sussed it, did you? About bloody time.”
“Will!” said Clover, shocked out of her wits that Will would swear in front of the Commander.
“It’s all right,” said Gran, who knew that Will was nearly at breaking point. “It’s my fault, really. I told him not to tell anyone. So who’s the brain who worked it out?”
“Hogweed,” said everyone.
“Well done,” said Gran, shaking his hand. “Ace will be so proud of you when he hears that. No goblin could have done more for his leader.”
Hogweed was overwhelmed. To him, those words were the very highest praise a goblin could ever wish to hear, as the general knew very well. Dan squeezed his hand, to let him know she was proud of him too, and passed him a handkerchief.

“But General Cherapont,” said Will. “I don’t understand.”
“It was his own idea,” said the Commander. “You see, he was very old. Nearly two hundred. And last full moon, the Tree told him that before the moon grew full again, his time would come. That’s a great blessing. If the Tree tells you that, you get the chance to choose how you will go. He chose this, for the good of the army, to go swiftly in an act of great courage and self-sacrifice.”
“The only sadness is losing him,” said Gran. “And that sadness we would have had this month, anyway.”
“I see,” said Will. “What a pattern. I’ve never felt so confused.”
“I know what you need. How far away is he, Will?”
Will tipped his head to one side, considering.
“ ’Bout five miles. Other side of the fjord, though.”
“Want to go and meet him?”
“Can I? Oh, yes please!”
“You can. And don’t rush back. Borrow my boat, camp out. Take a day’s leave, both of you.”
Will’s face lit up with joy.
“I think that might be the easiest order I’ll ever get.”
“Before you go,” said Clover, “just tell me one thing, before I die of curiosity. He escaped in August? Where’s he been since then?”
Will grinned at her as he went round hugging the whole team.
“In a farmhouse near Trondheim, with a broken leg.”
“I shouldn’t have asked,” said Clover. “You do live, you two, don’t you?”