CHAPTER 12 - The Elf Squadron
In England, in Harpsden Wood, Ace Moseley was feeling worried and it wasn’t a feeling he was used to. It wasn’t the helicopters that were worrying him. They were coming along splendidly now that all of England 3 had come together to share the work and the training. And it wasn’t even Colonel Harpsden, who had started taking life more seriously and was now checking in with Signals every day for the latest news. It was what he’d heard – or rather, what he hadn’t heard – at full moon. For the first time since he had met the Tree, he had heard no words.
“Just a feeling,” he told Will. “A feeling of everything poised on the brink and about to topple over, or like a cat waiting to pounce, all coiled and ready. And I just get this horrible feeling that something bad is going to happen.”
“That’s not like you,” said Will, wiping his oily hands on a rag. “Hold this, will you?” He handed Ace a piece of casing and started peering at some wiring. “I got the same feeling, that something big is about to happen, but it didn’t make me feel pessimistic. Just like, say, it was a warning, to stand fast, to be prepared.”
“But we don’t know what we have to be prepared for,” said Ace. “That’s the trouble. Who knows what might be going on right now, where we might be needed and not even know?”
“Aha!” said Will, and tightened a loose connection. He took the casing back from Ace and bolted it into place. “It’s true that something could be happening, and that’s unsettling. But it’s not true that we don’t know what we have to do. We have to be ready to respond. We are now the most mobile elves in the whole army and that’s what we’re here for.”
“It’s brilliant how it’s all come together,” said Ace more cheerfully. “Sixty of us, I can hardly believe it.”
“It’s amazing,” said Will, “but there’s still work to be done. The Tree was warning us to hurry up and be ready, that’s what I reckon.”
“What do we still need?” said Ace, focused again.
“Rubber for tyres. And more of that toughened glass for windows. And, we need Captain Thurlgrove to get the other captains to help him choose the best pilots from all the sections, so it’s fair and there won’t be any arguments.”
“True,” said Ace. “And that’s the easy part. How do we get them to think of the job they’ve forgotten?”
“You’ll think of something,” said Will seriously. “I have every confidence in that. You’re so tactful, Ace, you have a very gracious way of saying things that comes of having very good manners.”
“Thanks, Will. You always make me feel steadier. I’ll go and ask permission to take a party out salvaging for materials.”
“Brilliant. See you later.”
Will watched him go, resolute again, and smiled fondly. To him, the likeliest reason for not getting any specific message from the Tree was that this thing, that was about to happen, whatever it was, was something that they would not be needed for. But that, Will knew for sure, was an idea that would not possibly have crossed Ace’s mind.
When the fifth helicopter was finished Will felt tears pricking at the back of his eyes as he looked at their little fleet. For nearly the whole of May he’d been working on them, out in the sweet grass of Harpsden Wood, in sunshine and in showers, under the mighty beeches. He knew there was a war on, but he didn’t know when he’d ever had such a good time. All of England 3 were good at metal work, but other skills had come out too, and some people had had the chance to show how talented they were… a beech nicknamed Herbert who could shape glass like no-one else… another willow, Sal Loughton from Epping Forest, who could shrink things with great precision… a silver birch called Pendo, from Thetford Forest, who had proved himself as daring and intuitive a pilot as Ace himself. It had been great making such complicated machines and pulling it all together, but just as good had been seeing people growing in confidence.
Everyone had learned to fly, and some of them were very good at it. Competition for the ten pilots’ seats was keen, and the ones who were hoping to be chosen were practising morning, noon and night. They needed so much fuel that Will and Ace had transformed and bought a few gallons legally, which were now stored safely in the forest.
That evening, the captains passed the word round that they would have a competition to choose the pilots. Every single elf was up at dawn, all keen to watch the fun even if they weren’t competing. The morning started with a shock, when Colonel Harpsden emerged wearing the full dress uniform of Oxfordshire. His hair was still long but it was neatly tied back, and there was no sign of hippy beads, just his red wristband. He took advantage of the stunned silence to speak.
“Good morning, England 3!” he called. “You have achieved an amazing thing here. Unique in every way – the first airborne regiment, or perhaps we should call ourselves the Elf Squadron?”
He let them laugh, then continued.
“Today, we choose our pilots, and that will be very exciting. But before we start, let’s just raise a cheer for the one who made it possible, Lieutenant Moseley.”
Will very nearly started cheering, thinking he meant Ace, until he realised that everyone was looking at him. He hardly knew where to look, feeling so embarrassed and so grateful at the same time. Ace knew, of course.
You’re too modest, you know that?
One of us has to be…
Then the colonel asked the would-be pilots to step forward. Ace and Will didn’t move, and the colonel looked at them in astonishment.
“Aren’t you having a go yourselves?”
“Well, no, sir,” said Ace. “We were hoping to be chosen as navigators, you see.”
“Ah, that’s a good point. We shall need five of those, shan’t we?”
Beautifully done, thought Will with relief. He could see it sinking in all around him. A vital job, even more difficult than flying… would anyone else have the confidence to volunteer?
The colonel let them think about it. Even in uniform, he was a relaxed and patient elf. After a few minutes, Sal Loughton said that he knew how to read a map, though he didn’t have much experience, and came to stand beside Ace and Will. Then the oldest of the Thetford Forest elves said that the helicopters terrified him, but if map-reading was needed, then he could certainly do that.
“Excellent,” said the colonel. “Is there one more volunteer?”
And then Captain Thurlgrove himself stood forward.
“D’you know, Rowan, I think I could manage that,” he smiled.
The fairies from Harpsden colony had been entertained for weeks watching elves learn to fly in these strange machines. At first they had split their sides laughing, and they had come to the rescue more than once in the early days. Now they had helped by marking out a course and agreeing to judge it, marking each pilot for speed and accuracy. The course was circular but the last part was very intricate, with high and low level flying combined with moving in and out of the trees. Once the first five pilots were out of sight, all the elves watching, including Ace and Will, raced off to the place where they could get the best view of these manoeuvres. Ace was hopping about with excitement, cheering on this one and that as they came back into view.
“Go, go go… who is that in number 2? He’s good, isn’t he? Way, see Pendo climb, awesome! Come on, come on!”
Will could hardly bear to watch. They were cutting it so fine, to shave seconds off their time. The pilots knew they were safe - if they lost control, they only had to dive out of the door and a fairy would rescue them – but the same couldn’t be said of the helicopters. Will just hoped they weren’t going to crash one.
It came close – it came very close – and Pendo’s machine had beech leaves tangled in its wheels as it landed, but no harm was done. Five times the machines made the circuit, until all the contenders had had a go, and Will couldn’t relax for a second until it was over. But once it was, and everyone was milling around excitedly to see who’d won, then he could breathe. He wandered over to the machines and stroked the smooth green metal when no-one was looking. How beautifully made they were, and how well equipped. Such teamwork – everyone had worked so hard, and come up with so many excellent ideas and solutions to problems. It gave him a vision of all the amazing things they could do once they were free again. Once the war was won… if it could be won. It had to be. Anything else just didn’t bear thinking about. Yet deep down, he knew why Ace was worried, because he was worried too. Something big might be happening, but it didn’t feel exciting. It felt ominous, like a heavy feeling in the pit of your stomach that wouldn’t go away.
Still, the pilots were chosen, and that meant they were a step nearer to being ready. Will hardly heard who they were, and he didn’t mind, anyway. All the contenders were competent flyers, and every machine would have plenty of reserves, when they were needed. And it did feel like when now, not if. Will’s thoughts drifted further and further away from his surroundings. Where were they likely to have to go? Did they have enough fuel? Could they carry enough fuel? Did they have enough maps, would the rotors overheat on a long journey. Were the electronics watertight enough if it rained? It was right for him to think about these things, because no-one else would, or could. He didn’t want a helicopter ditching in the Channel, and drowned elves, just because he hadn’t calculated the fuel properly.
“Will! Wake up!”
Ace was tugging his arm, and Will frowned for a second at the interruption, but he knew that Ace understood and wouldn’t drag him back to reality unless it was important.
“News from Signals,” he explained as he pulled Will with him back towards the other elves, where the colonel was trying to quieten everyone down.
“I don’t know any more than you do,” he was saying, over an inrush of questions. “The message has gone out to every senior officer in the field, message emergencies and military news only for approximately ten days, all units to check in for orders at least twice daily.”
“What does it mean? Have we lost?”
“No, of course not! We know that some of the generals are off camp. They’re not shouting out where they’re going, of course, but we know where General Széchenyi is – heading for Wielkopolska, and nearly there, I think. Suppose that the troops the Commander and General Herdalen are leading are all heading out that way too? Signals would need to work hard to keep the two forces in touch with each other, and silence from the rest of us would be a big help. I don’t know and I’m only guessing, but it will be something like that, I’m sure.”
“Good guess?” Will asked Ace quietly.
“Very good,” said Ace.
Since the night of the full moon, Gran Herdalen, like all the other elves with him, had been concentrating on one thing – secrecy. If they could reach Poland without being spotted by parliament’s spies, they had a real chance of catching their enemies unprepared. The one thing Gran was banking on was that Huskvarna would be underestimating them, and would never expect a massive attack so soon, and from two directions. With luck, all his attention would be focused on the marchers, so close now, and what he was going to do to them when they got there. So Gran and his elves had been slinking stealthily through stations, catching night ferries and crossing open country with great caution, all to avoid detection. The first thing parliament would know about the army’s movements would be when they arrived on the doorstep.
The first day’s travel had seen them down to Oslo and by the end of the second day they were in the south of Sweden. After hours cramped in a train, they had gladly jumped the distance to the ferry port at Ystad, and slept that night on the ferry to Świnoujście in the north of Poland. It wasn’t the usual route – normally you’d take a ferry to Germany and finish the journey by train – and this way they had given themselves a one hundred and fifty mile trek to the rendezvous, but Gran felt sure it would be a route that was only patrolled lightly, if at all.
Gran noticed the difference in focus and tension once they set foot on Polish soil. There was a delightful beach at Świnoujście where it would have been a pleasure to rest and play, and there were roads and a railway leading out of the town, which could have eased their journey, but no-one complained that they couldn’t make use of these things. They all knew they had to go cross-country now.
Getting out of the town was difficult because it was on an island. Car ferries went constantly to and fro, but Gran would only send a few elves at a time because the boats were lacking in cover and it was now broad daylight. The morning had gone before they were all together again on a patch of waste land outside the town.
“Not lost anyone? Splendid,” said Gran with a smile. “Get a drink now and rest while I get through to Signals. We’ve got some hard jumping ahead of us.”
Gran lay flat on his back and let the warm sunshine calm him, before letting his mind cover the miles back to Norway.
Pice, what’s the news?
Dizzy’s reached a place called Wschowa, but she says her people are tiring badly now and the prisoners are slowing them down.
Right, and she can’t leave people resting now they’re so close, they have to stay together for safety. How many days’ travel away is she?
It ought to be four, but she’s afraid it might be more.
That’s not too bad. We can’t possibly get there in under five. Tell her to aim to arrive in good fighting order on the sixth day from now.
Will do, Gran. Where are you, exactly?
Just into Poland, outside the ferry port. Where’s Gia?
East of Stettin, they made a good distance last night. Resting up now through the daylight hours.
Good, very good… any other news?
Minor stuff… Spain 1 ambushed by a big gang, quite a fight, lots of injuries. Germany 1 have arrived at the River Oder, Sweden 3 are at Malmö on their way here. Madge and Nella are on top of it. There’s nothing you need to worry about right now except maybe one thing – from the webcam. More elves than usual leaving Wielkopolska, more than just patrols. Leaving, and not coming back.
Hmm. Probably taking up positions against the marchers, but we need to know where they’re going. Ask Nella who she’s got that could fly over and have a look, will you?
She’s here, Gran, I’ll ask her right now… she says she’s got Fighter Squadron, Polish Section. They’re only watching the Hill at Kamieniece, they could get there fast.
Excellent, ask her please to send them. And see if you can find someone to help Dale and Lisette watch the webcam. Some older elf who’s been about a bit and will recognise uniforms and even faces.
I’ll see who I can find.
Thank you. That’s all for now then. Be in touch again tonight.
For five days Gran and his elves jumped and rested, jumped and rested, jumping in tight formation at three and sometimes four miles an hour. Boots were worn out and ankles were broken but they calmly fixed both and carried on. They were all tired, yes, after miles and miles of meadow and marshland, but it was a grim, contented sort of tiredness that comes from achieving what you set out to do. And after all those miles of unison, the units were not just moving as one, but thinking as one, even the odd maverick like Gran Starheim surrendering to the power of it.
The nearer they got to Wielkopolska, the more cautiously they picked their route. The Polish fairies had seen no movement to the south of parliament’s island, but reported that they were unlikely to, as cover was so good. To the north, though, cover was poor, and yet they hadn’t seen anyone there either. That was encouraging. It sounded as if they hadn’t been spotted yet at all.
Madge Arley would never have admitted it to his face, but she was very impressed by Gran Herdalen’s planning. It just showed how long he had been thinking about this, that Fjaerland itself was now stoutly defended by three sections of the Goblin Regiment. From Norway itself, from Denmark and Scotland they had come, and their long journeys had been slow. Gran had known weeks ago that they would be needed.
Every hour of the day and the night, members of the regiment could be seen standing guard on the beach, and at the eastern and western gates. It was a reassuring sight. All the same, Madge was worried, and had been ever since full moon. She tried to shake off the feeling, telling herself she was being fanciful, telling herself it was only because Gran and Gia were off camp, but the feeling just wouldn’t go away.
She constantly walked around camp, and on the outside she was resolutely calm and cheerful. She joked with the second years, checked the goblins had everything they needed, welcomed new volunteers and looked after anyone in transit. All things she would have done anyway, before Gran and Gia had left. But she also checked her messages several times a day, and asked Pice Inari for the latest news at the same time. She had seen for herself the pictures on the webcam and she had even - with Dale helping every step of the way – sent an email to David asking if any of the Allies had seen anything unusual.
“David would email us if they had, ma’am,” Dale had told her, and she knew that really, but she still had to check.
Finally, her friend Heather, General Stalden’s assistant, dragged her off to the officers’ canteen and made her sit down. Nella Stalden was there too.
“You’re edgy,” said Heather, putting a large cup of tea in front of Madge. “Why?”
“I sense danger,” said Madge simply. “But I don’t know what kind, or where from.”
“Instincts – especially yours – should never be ignored,” said Nella. “I’ve had a report that worries me. If it’s true. Hundreds – that was the word – hundreds of elves boarding a ferry at Rostock.”
“Rostock!” said Madge in alarm.
“Exactly. They could be going anywhere. But they could be coming here.”
“But hundreds?” said Heather. “How could they do that? It has to be an exaggeration, surely? Who sent the report in?”
“That’s the trouble,” said Nella. “One of the young Search and Rescue fairies seconded to Intelligence – Butterblume Rangsdorfer – and I don’t know her.”
“She must have thought it very important to contact you directly,” Madge pointed out with a worried frown.
“True,” said Nella. She bit her lip.
“Can we get back to her, get confirmation?”
“Poppy’s onto it, non-stop, but she thinks it unlikely. Butterblume is patrolling, constantly on the move. We may have to wait until she checks in again.”
“If hundreds of elves are heading here then we need reinforcements,” said Madge. “And they would need time to get here. How reliable is she? Surely someone must know her?”
“Let’s go and find Arda Svir.”
Sergeant Svir, training sergeant with the current first year fairies, did remember her.
“Quiet, sensible German fairy,” said Arda. “But she was one of Grybow’s, not mine, and it was about ten years ago now. I can’t remember more than that. Who’s her commanding officer?”
“Gilly Basa. That’s the trouble, everyone who would know her is also patrolling far and wide.”
“Let’s get back to Signals,” said Nella.
There was nothing new in. Madge looked at Butterblume’s message history and saw that she was not a chatty fairy. Then Sweden 3 arrived, and Madge spared a thought for Bjørk Kinnekulle, stuck in prison. She wouldn’t have minded putting this problem to his shrewd mind. But his major, Lärk Jokkmokk, leading in his place, was also full of common sense, explaining exactly how long each stage of the journey took from Rostock to Fjaerland.
“That’s how long we would take, ma’am,” he said. “If it’s the enemy, their numbers will slow them down, but their potions will balance that. So it would be about the same.”
Madge thought long and hard all evening, waiting for a message. She did calculations, and frowned. When Gran and Gia checked in, she told Pice to tell them the news, but also to tell them not to worry because she had everything under control. Then she summoned the army council, as many as were on camp, to come to the Conference Room.
“If this report is true,” said Madge, “and if those elves are heading here – and those are two big ifs – we can put a maximum of 500 up against them. And that includes everyone except surgeons and Signals – volunteers, first years, me – not all natural fighters by any means. I know I have to make a decision about whether to send for reinforcements, but I’d like to hear your opinions first.”
Some were sceptical about the possibility that it could be true. But all were agreed that if it were true, then 500 sprites of mixed ability could not guarantee the safety of Fjaerland.
“Thank you,” said Madge. “I would rather be the fool who sent for help than the fool who did not send for help. Major Inari, would you please send out this message to the field: All units not currently on operations, and within three days’ journey of Fjaerland, report to camp immediately to repel possible attack.”
Pice Inari was almost out of the door before she finished speaking.
Rain was pattering on the soft leaf mould under the giant beeches of Harpsden Wood. But not every tree there was a beech. Scots pines stretched high, fighting through the canopy for their place in the sun, and around the margins and in little clearings, smaller trees flourished, birch and elder, hawthorn, holly and rowan. And in a shapely rowan beside a path, an elf was sitting in his tree. His face, rather lined with age, was at peace. But suddenly his eyes opened wide as if he had received a great shock or surprise. He pulled himself to his feet in haste, but before he jumped down, he bent his head and buried his face in the fragrant white of blossom petals.
“Peace, brother,” he whispered.
Whether his tree answered him or not, he never mentioned to anyone, but there was a sweet and serious smile on his face as he jumped away.
There was no set time for England 3 to gather for the day’s work, and some of them would not hurry to get up on a wet morning. Some would have been sleeping in the trees, as it was summertime. Colonel Harpsden was going to need some help just to find everyone. Fortunately one of his lieutenants was up. Courteously he waited until Ace had finished singing then he called over to him.
“Scramble, we’ve got to get airborne!”
“Huh?” said Ace. “I’m not sure you’ve got the tune right there, sir.”
“Tune? What tune? What are you talking about, Ace? We’ve been called for, we must go, help me find the others!”
“What? You mean scramble for real? Oh, wow!”
Ace helped get the others by letting rip with his most shrieking whistle. It wasn’t as loud as Rose’s but it was pretty good, and it brought enough elves running, who then made such a din that it brought the rest.
“Hey, chill!” said the colonel, amazed at the fervent enthusiasm. “We must certainly go, but it’s not certain we’ll be needed. General Arley has had a report of large numbers of enemy elves on the move. It’s possible they’re heading for Fjaerland. If they are, they could arrive by tomorrow night. She asks that anyone without other duties who can possibly get there in time, will come to strengthen the defences.”
The elves had gone very quiet.
“Fjaerland?” said someone.
“Exactly,” said the colonel. “It doesn’t matter how small the risk is, we must go. Er… carry on, lieutenant,” he added, looking at Ace.
“Get dressed, get your knives, get on board, five minutes,” shouted Ace. “Move!”
It took longer than five minutes really, but not much. Will felt sick with worry about Fjaerland and very anxious about what was happening and what Gran was doing, but he made himself focus. He had the journey planned in his head before he laid hands on his maps, and quickly scrawled grid references to give to the other navigators.
“Emmet Law, meet up again there, should take about fifteen hours. I’m going to try to get us some air support for the North Sea crossing.”
“Rose and Clover?” said Ace. “You’re going to text them?”
“And anyone else they can muster. They’re Search and Rescue and we might need rescuing, that’s close enough, isn’t it?”
“Definitely. I just hope we can get there in time. Do you think we can, Will?”
Ace didn’t want blind optimism. He could do that for himself. He wanted a sober assessment of their chances.
“So long as no-one gets lost, only one thing can stop us.”
“The wind direction across the sea.”
Droz Zlatni had lost his tree so long ago that its image in his memory was a little fuzzy now. But the love still burned as bright as ever and so did the hate. Hate not for the ignorant oafs who had cut it down, but for the bullies who had torn him away before he had had time to grieve. Special Brigade thugs, rounding people up, imprisoning them really, all on the orders of parliament. The downfall of parliament had been his abiding dream all these years, it had filled his mind so much that he was almost afraid of success. Once that was achieved, what was he supposed to do? As his tired, bleeding feet trudged along the last mile towards their final destination, he didn’t feel excited or happy. He was bent on destruction, but in a sober and serious way.
He couldn’t jump. The way he felt now, he wasn’t sure he’d ever be able to jump again. Neither could anyone else. They were all walking, and not far ahead of them, two of the Czech goblins held the tattered banner proudly high, March of 1000 Sprites. As he looked around him, Droz could see drooping wings, torn and filthy clothes, sprites who had done too much for too long on nothing but water and were little more than skin and bone. But shoulders were back and heads were up and Droz knew that when they were attacked, weariness would be forgotten and they would fight. They had come to overthrow parliament, no more and no less, but if parliament wanted to fight before talking, that was all right with the marchers.
When they were attacked… it had to happen. Any moment now, surely, an ambush would be launched on them from the deep cover. Word had gone round… somehow, troops had been seen, pouring out of Wielkopolska, and they hadn’t gone north. Droz’s knife was ready in his hand. Then, from the front of the column, a ragged cheer went up, which didn’t fade away. It grew louder and louder, and presently Droz saw why. They were there! One moment he was walking through dense woodland, but then he was out from the trees and stepping onto a causeway through reeds.
Droz found himself beginning to hurry; at the moment all he could see was reeds and he wanted to see what was happening. The noise was growing louder and louder. The marchers bunched up into an eager bottleneck as they waited to get off the causeway, then suddenly Droz found himself in a big open space, drenched with sunlight. The Czech goblins had clambered up to the top of some kind of statue and draped the banner across it.
“Where are they all?” Droz muttered in wonder.
Kes and Vin, as usual, were on either side of him. Vin shook his head, baffled and wary. Kes leaned over the rim of the pool that surrounded the statue. The bottom of the pool was full of stones, smooth and round and heavy.
“Let’s see if we can get them to come out and play!”
He took aim and the stone soared. A window in the Beehive shattered and scattered the ground with broken glass. The crowds of sprites arriving behind them stopped and stared. There was a moment of utter silence, as it dawned on everyone that no response was coming.
“They’ve all run away!” yelled Droz.
A burst of laughter was followed by a cheer, then everyone started picking up stones and smashing windows, or running inside, army and civilians alike, to break the whole place down.
“Just a minute!” shouted Captain Hungerberg desperately. “This doesn’t feel right… wait for the general…”
He might as well have saved his breath. No-one could even hear him above the noises of cheering and breaking glass. Not even Austria 1 were listening. Kiefer and Eichel had run off with those crazy Croatians, to see what they could pull down. Feeling very uneasy, the captain began to fight his way back through the surging crowd to find General Széchenyi.
The fairies and some of the imps were flying into the upper floors through the broken windows. The elves and goblins poured into the ground floor. Droz and the others stared through an open door at the vast Chamber of Envoys where a big group of ex-refugees had already started tearing the seats out and tossing them down into the centre.
“Hey, look through that door!” said Kiefer. “Books – hundreds of books – is that where they keep the laws?”
“Come on!” grinned Droz, the pain in his feet forgotten.
Parliament had done rather a good job on those books, he had to admit. They were bound in leather and had gold lettering on their spines, but he ignored a momentary qualm. This was the real problem, not the sprites themselves but the stupid laws they made. Destroying the law books would be the best possible thing to do.
“Burn them!” shouted Eichel.
“Not in here,” said Droz. “The building would catch fire. Not a good plan while we’re still inside it. Out of the window with them, the people outside will know what to do with them.”
Kes jumped up to the top of a bookcase and rocked it until it fell. They all jumped clear just in time then scooped up armfuls of books and tossed them out of the window.
“Burn the laws!” Droz shouted to the crowds outside, and another great cheer went up. By the time they returned to the window with more books, the fire was already burning.
“Look at that!” said Eichel, pointing.
Above them, some fairies had dislodged a flagpole from a wall, and the flag of parliament was fluttering down like an injured bird.
“They’re finished,” said Droz. “They can’t come back from this. We’ve won!”
Kiefer hugged Eichel, Kes hugged Vin, going crazy with happiness. Droz stood by the window, his arms still full of books, and his heart full of emotion, as General Széchenyi strode purposefully onto the lawn in front of the Beehive. How she had led them, right from the start, how she had always been there for them. This was her victory. Droz’s emotions welled up into his throat, and he knew he was in a good position to be heard.
“Dizzy, Dizzy, Dizzy!”
He started chanting her name and in seconds everyone took it up, clapping and banging anything they could find to bang. General Széchenyi acknowledged the applause with a cheery wave, and Droz got back to work throwing books out of the window. He wasn’t near enough to see how worried she looked.
Dizzy Széchenyi, like all imps, lived in the moment. She hadn’t really imagined what would happen when they got to Wielkopolska. She’d expected a battle, but not in her wildest dreams would she have imagined this sight, her glorious, triumphant marchers, all weariness forgotten, destroying every hated symbol of parliament unopposed. Part of her would gladly have joined right in, but she was a general and she knew very well that something was wrong, badly wrong. The envoys had evacuated, they knew that, but where were Special Brigade? And if they weren’t here, where were they and what were they doing?
“It’s a trap,” she muttered. “It’s got to be.”
“Are they surrounding us?” asked one of the imps with the general. “They’re waiting till we’re all in here and then they’ll pile in and kill us all!”
“Not yet,” said Sizzle. “They’ll wait a few hours, because by then all the elves will be drunk.”
“They can’t have surrounded the whole place,” said the general, but she looked as if she was trying to convince herself it was true. Right then, Sizzle’s idea sounded horribly plausible.
“Fairies ahead, coming in to land,” called someone. “Is it the enemy?”
“No, it’s Fighter Squadron,” said the general. “At least they’ll know where the Commander is.”
Captain Zawoja started talking to General Széchenyi even before she landed. The rest of Fighter Squadron, Polish Section, were just trying to catch their breath, and so was the English fairy currently attached to them.
“Dan!” called Sizzle. “Over here!”
Dan’s face lit up to recognise a friend, and she and Carda rushed over.
“This is amazing!” said Dan. “Where are Special Brigade, have you beaten them? You could have saved some for the rest of us!”
“I wish it was like that,” said Sizzle. “But we haven’t seen them. Not since the battle at Liberec, and that was only one unit.”
“Oh,” said Dan. “I see. No wonder they’re looking so worried.” She jerked her head towards the senior officers. “They were certain Special Brigade were waiting to ambush you. We were with the Commander this morning, she and General Herdalen are close by, waiting to respond as soon as you called. But when noon came with still no word, they sent us to see what was happening.”
“This could go horribly wrong,” said Sizzle.
The imps and fairies moved closer to the general, ready for orders.
General Széchenyi was taking another look at the wild and joyful scenes around her, to see if anyone still had his wits about him. She saw that Colonel Pesentheim, senior elf among the marchers, was arranging for lookouts from among the junior officers. Captain Hungerberg was watching the main gate, and Captain Vidilica was climbing up to a vantage point that overlooked the lake.
“I’m going to confer with the Commander,” said the general. “Sizzle, you and these excellent fairies report to Colonel Pesentheim and help him watch out for trouble. Remember how good Special Brigade are at transforming, and at the slightest sign of anything suspicious, whistle with all your might and don’t stop whistling until everyone is paying attention and getting ready to fight.”
“Yes, ma’am,” said Sizzle. “Come on, Dan, let’s go!”
The Commander and General Herdalen had taken up positions on the north shore of the lake. When the Commander saw General Széchenyi coming in to land, she rushed to greet her.
“Well done, Dizzy,” she said, and hugged her tightly. “Your march will go down in history. But what’s happening now?”
When General Széchenyi told her, the Commander’s face grew grave.
“This is very strange,” she said. “I’ll try Signals.”
General Herdalen had come jumping across from his position when he saw General Széchenyi flying in, and when he arrived, he shook her hand and thumped her on the back. But he looked worried, and when she told him the news too, he looked more worried still. Together, they waited for the Commander to open her eyes. When she did, she spoke at once, and her voice sounded strange.
“Elves sighted at Oslo,” she said. “Hundreds of them. We have been outmanoeuvred. They are heading for Fjaerland.”
General Herdalen sank to the ground, his head in his hands.
“No,” he groaned. “No, no!”
“I know, Gran,” said the Commander. “I feel the same. But we must think. The sighting was only an hour ago. What is the earliest possible time they can arrive at the mountain?”
“From Oslo, four hours on the train to Otta. A couple of hours to get everyone out of the town, say eight hours across country and a couple more to get everyone across the fjord… about 1400 hours tomorrow.”
“All the flyers must leave at once,” said the Commander. “We can’t get there by tomorrow, but we may be able to arrive in time to help. No, Gran, don’t even think about it. You elves will kill yourselves trying and what use will that be? All is not lost. Madge and Nella heard of suspicious movements at Rostock yesterday and sent for reinforcements. Intelligence fairies, Search and Rescue fairies, all on their way and so are Germany 3, in fact Third Regiment are moving towards Norway from all directions. Who is their senior colonel now, Gran, since Bjørk is in captivity?”
Gran didn’t reply right away, and his expression took on a bit of a grimace.
“It’s not that idiot in England, is it?” demanded the Commander.
“Rowan Harpsden… well, actually, yes it is. But don’t worry, he does have some good help.”
“His numbers may make all the difference. Let’s hope he can rise to this. Dizzy, get back to your people and bring me every flyer who can fight… at least, you had better leave a few for Gran. Captain Zawoja’s unit perhaps, they are local.”
“On my way, ma’am. We’ll be back before you know it.”
“Gran, take the elves and take command of the remaining marchers. And don’t despair. This is not anyone’s fault and certainly not yours.”
“Stay safe, Gia, and good luck.”
“You too, Gran. We’ll meet again, I’m sure of it.”
Gran stood on the shore of the Polish lake and watched until the last flyer was out of sight in the sky to the north. Then he turned to his elves.
“You want to know what’s happening and I don’t blame you. Let’s join up with the marchers, and I’ll explain. We’ll make a few rafts and paddle across. It’s easy to see where to go. Where the smoke is rising.”
Gran felt as if he had a stone inside him, the weight of grief and guilt so great that it seemed to him it would sink the raft. He felt like screaming or crying, not that either of those would be any use, but he took care not to show it. He couldn’t actually make himself smile, but he managed to stay calm and look alert and in control.
“We’ve been spotted,” he remarked. “Excellent, look-outs posted already.”
The look-out had recognised him and instead of raising the alarm, was rushing down to help them land.
“Thanks, Captain,” said Gran. “Captain Vidilica, isn’t it? Where is Colonel Pesentheim?”
“On the east side, sir, shall I give him a whistle?”
“Yes, go ahead.”
The colonel came at a good pace and it made Gran sad to see how exhausted the elderly Austrian was. His face was white and his eyes were sunken in his face.
“Heldreich, good to see you,” said Gran. “There’s a lot of news. Can we get these people of yours to gather round?”
“Your name will do that, sir,” said Colonel Pesentheim. “Just listen to them!”
Gran saw that the news of his arrival was spreading fast, and everyone was running over. They’d seen General Széchenyi return and depart again in a hurry. Clearly, something was going on and they wanted to know what it was. When Gran took in the sight of the marchers, some of them in even worse condition than the colonel, his heart overflowed with emotion. He opened his arms wide.
“Epic,” he said. “Truly epic. What you have done has stunned the realm and will never be forgotten. I’m sure you were surprised by the lack of reception – so were we – but you made your impact, never doubt it. I’m sorry General Széchenyi had to leave again so quickly. She and the flyers were needed urgently. But if she were here I know she would want to thank every single one of you for the privilege of your company along the way. A medal will be struck – the March Medal – and you have all earned it, army and civilians alike.”
Everyone was looking delighted and astonished. Gran hoped it would be enough to insulate them from the shock that was coming next.
“We expected a battle. We knew that large numbers of troops had gone out of that gate over there. That’s why all of us came over, to give you a hand – not that you would have needed it – in defeating them. But as we have seen, they are not here. I hate to tell you this, my friends, but they are in Norway.”
The outcry wasn’t instant. It took a moment for it to sink in, but when it did, the tumble of questions quickly turned into a baffled, panicky uproar. Gran let the sounds wash over him, until his own sad and resigned face quietened them.
“I know,” he said. “It’s very hard not to rush off to the rescue. But the Commander has specifically forbidden us to do that. We are needed here, in case our enemies have other tricks up their sleeves in this region. Don’t worry about Fjaerland. It already had a stout defence and many more defenders are on their way. We must not be so arrogant as to suppose that we are the only ones who can fight!”
They weren’t ready to laugh yet, but they did smile a bit at that. Even the Polish fairies raised their heads, though they still looked stunned and miserable at being the unit chosen to stay here.
“And some of you – most of you – desperately need to recover and regain your strength. Did you know that this building here contains the biggest, most lavishly-supplied bar in the realm?”
“Shame to waste it!” shouted Captain Hungerberg.
“My thought exactly,” said Gran. “Allow me to show you the way.”
As he watched the weary faces relax, enjoying parliament’s fine wines, Gran was glad. It was what they needed. He’d reassured them, he knew, that Fjaerland had enough fighters to cope with anything that Special Brigade could throw at it. And that was true, but it didn’t completely reassure him. Two things were troubling him deeply.
If the envoys had evacuated and Special Brigade had gone to Fjaerland, it explained why the Wielkopolska Unit had been sacrificed. They would never have agreed to leave this place undefended. Someone – Huskvarna – wanted Wielkopolska destroyed and had left it open for the army on purpose. So where, Gran asked himself, was the Premier? Was he even still alive? Did parliament even still exist? If it did not, then in some ways, it made things easier. Parliament did have some legitimacy and many sympathised with it. They would sympathise less with Special Brigade fighting for their own purposes.
And he was worried about Fjaerland. The Commander was a good tactician, and so was Cam Bruach, leader of First Squadron. But they weren’t going to get there in time to organise the defence. Who was on camp now? Madge, Nella Stalden, Pice Inari… Urzica Ormul... a great goblin, he would be a fine chief of police, but like all goblins, lacking in imagination, not a planner. Luke Olt and Modřín Kopec were great organisers, but better at producing results than thinking of the ideas in the first place. Gran was blaming himself more for not thinking of this than for any other thing. Why hadn’t he foreseen this need? Gran’s best hope now was Colonel Arnsberg of Germany 3. With a little bit of luck, and the long hours of daylight, one good tactical brain would get to Fjaerland before the enemy did.
England 3 had been in the air for nearly twelve hours and they were now somewhere over County Durham. Ace wasn’t certain where they were, because he wasn’t doing much navigating, just relying on his instincts to keep the machine he was in a steady distance from Will in Elf 1, even when Will’s helicopter wasn’t in sight. Instead, he was spending most of the time looking out of the window, constantly checking the other four machines were all right, and reassuring everybody, including the pilot, that they were making good speed and that the fuel level was good.
It wasn’t fuel that was the problem, they had cans of the stuff, and Will had made a way for them to fill the fuel tank from inside, so they didn’t have to land. The problem was water. They’d taken off in such a hurry, no-one had thought to bring any and they were all desperately thirsty. But no-one asked to land. They all knew that speed was critical. They could hang on until they landed at Emmet Law for the rendezvous with the fairies.
“Look, those humans have seen us!” shouted someone, pointing out of a window.
Ace looked down at the puzzled faces and smiled.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “They think it’s a model aircraft. All that’s puzzling them is where it came from, they’ll assume it’s remote-controlled. Trust me, the idea that it could be full of elves is not even going to cross their minds.”
“Oh, good. This is wonderful. If I wasn’t so worried about what was happening on camp, this would be the best day of my life.”
“Try not to worry too much,” said Colonel Harpsden. “General Arley has lots of defenders, she is sending for help as a precaution. The main thing is to get there safely.”
“How’s the engine?” said Ace. “Not overheating?”
“No, it looks fine. Will’s amazing, isn’t he? Is it true he made a computer?”
“Oh yes,” said Ace, “and it should still be working over there at Fjaerland. Hey, that’s a point…”
No-one had been able to contact Signals while they were in the air, but if Dale had been sending out the latest news to the Allies, they might be able to get it from David. Ace pulled his phone out of his pocket and explained his plan. The signal seemed strong, so he scrolled to David's name and pressed 'call'.
"Ace! Where are you? Do you need a lift to Newcastle?"
"Kind thought, but no - actually I'm in a helicopter. Elf 2 it's called. There's five of them, we're planning to fly to Fjaerland."
"A helicopter?" said David faintly. "A helicopter full of elves?"
"Yep. Pretty good, isn't it? David, what's the latest news?"
"Madge has sent out a new message, only came through an hour ago - situation worsening, enemy elves at Oslo."
"Oh no, they could get there by tomorrow, then!"
"Anything I can do?"
"Hang on, I'll ask the colonel."
Colonel Harpsden asked if he might speak to David and Ace willingly passed him the phone.
"David? This is a great honour. Could you please pass a message to General Arley, that England 3 are on their way, ETA 18.00 hours tomorrow."
"With great pleasure sir," said David politely. "Good luck."
"Hey, Ace, come and navigate," called the pilot, Holly. "This road I'm following is going off in all directions like a lot of baby squirrels."
"Follow the one that's going west. We have to turn north again soon, but we can't fly over the centre of Newcastle. Are you okay, d'you need a break?"
"No, I'm fine, just thirsty like everyone else."
"Only another hour or so now," said Ace.
"Look at THAT!" shouted someone, and the helicopter lurched alarmingly as everyone rushed across to see. Below them was a huge sculpture all made of metal. A human shape, but much bigger than a human and instead of arms it had wings, great strong square wings, not like the wings of a bird but like the wings of an aeroplane. Strength poured out of it, yet it had a joyful, defiant beauty.
"Ooh," sighed all the elves together.
"What a piece of sculpture!" said Colonel Harpsden with respect. "That is so good, so very good to know that humans can make such wonderful art. It's almost like one of ours!"
"And I think it's been made the same way, out of recycled materials," said Ace.
"And then put outside for all to share," said the colonel in wonder. "I feel as if I have seen the future and it is good. I have sat in a flying helicopter made by elves and talked to an Ally on a mobile phone. Then I have looked at an elf sculpture made by humans. I will do anything, anything for us to become closer friends with humans again."
Ace was amazed to see tears in his eyes, and also to see just how moved the other elves were. He could see it was a good sculpture but it didn't make him want to cry and it wasn't a patch on Porsches or helicopters or mobile phones. But if it made his comrades love the humans who had made it, that was all right by him.
"Elf 1 to Elf 2." A crackly voice came on the radio. "Did you see it?" it asked excitedly.
"Sure did," said Holly. "The size of it! Beautiful."
"Terey Kielder says it's called The Angel of the North."
A sigh of appreciation ran around the helicopter.
"The Angel of the North." The colonel breathed it reverently. "What a beautiful name."
Will's voice came over the radio then.
"Suggest following the river now instead of the road, what do you think?"
"Huh?" said Ace, grabbing his map. "Er... yes, great idea, let's do that."
The radio clicked off then as the message went round the little fleet. But Ace and Will didn't really need radios.
Like you were even looking at the map.
I don't know what you mean. I have glanced at it from time to time. Anyway, I bet the others are just following you too.
I hope not. You can do that in the dark, but they can't.
Never mind. Where we're going, there won't be much dark.
As they approached the southern outskirts of Newcastle, the elves turned west, to avoid flying over such a big city. Elf 3 had to make a diversion to avoid a curious herring gull, but they were soon in a line again, all following the river.
"That's the Tyne," said Ace. "If you went to Fjaerland from Newcastle you've probably followed it before. If we went the other way it would take us to the ferry port, but this way it will lead us to Emmet Law."
West of Hexham they saw the river split into two, and followed the stream that would lead them north. The countryside around them was moorland now, wild and lonely. Elf 1 gained height and the others followed Will's example, seeing how with a better view they could cut out all the bends in the river. Finally they left the river behind them and flew north across the moors as the land below them grew steeper and even more wild, until there before them was the fifth Hill of England, only just south of the Scottish border, and there too were dozens of fairies waving and cheering.
"Elf 1 coming in to land."
Will's voice came over the radio.
"Try not to squash any of Search and Rescue," said Ace.
Thanks to Rose and Clover's messaging, there were fairies there from all kinds of units and even some elves from Scotland 3. The most senior of them went to speak to Colonel Harpsden. Rose and Clover came rushing over to Ace and Will and hugged them.
"I am so scared about what's happening! But it's so good to see you, even if it's for a horrible reason," said Clover.
"Don't you worry. They've done a bold thing but they'll regret it. Once we've beaten them in Norway, the war will be nearly over.”
"It does sound very all or nothing," said Will. "They've sent so many, they're taking a very big risk. Have you got any water?"
"Water?" said Rose. "Mmm, there's a stream over there."
"Come on, everyone, water!" shouted Ace, and the whole of England 3 charged for the stream.
"They've made five helicopters and flown them all the way from Oxfordshire and they didn't bring any water?" said Clover.
"Looks like it," said Rose.
Clover rolled her eyes.
"They haven't changed a bit."
Colonel Harpsden was trying to contact Signals and Will was prowling around the helicopters checking for damage when Ace had a call from David.
"Just how bad is it?" David asked. "Is there anything the Allies can do? Do you want us to come and help you fight, or anything?"
"Tempting," said Ace. "Very tempting! And thank you for thinking of it, but no. I think we ought to fight it out on our own. People might see it as taking an unfair advantage, it might turn them against us."
"That's what I thought you'd probably say," said David. "To be honest, that's what Karl said too."
"The most dangerous thing that I can see," said Ace, "is that there's no-one on camp yet with a really good tactical brain. They've got numbers, but what use is that if they're not deployed well? If we could stall Special Brigade until the Commander gets there, what a help that would be. D'you think it would be too much to get the guy at the station, I don't know his name, the guard, I mean, to slow them down?"
"Not too much at all," said David. "Karl will know him. But what could he do, that would help?"
"Oh, that's easy," said Ace. "When the Oslo train gets in, and the humans have gone, close the big green door that leads out to the street. That'll slow them down no end. They'll still be able to get everyone out, but it'll take them hours longer."
"Brilliant," said David. "And if the right guard isn't on duty, I bet Karl would drive over and do it himself, that's how keen he is to help."
"Thank you, David. How's everyone at home?"
"Aesculus and Viola don't know much about it. They're having a peaceful summer being looked after by Primrose and Val. But everyone else is checking the website constantly for news. Gary's even checking it from work. What's the latest from where you are?"
"It sounds as if we're waiting for another lot of fairies to arrive from Scotland, and we need to cool our engines and rest our pilots. It's not safe to be flying in the dark anyway. My guess is we'll rest now and set out to cross the sea at dawn."
"Safe flying, Ace. Keep in touch."