CHAPTER 13 - The Enemy Cross the Fjord
The sun hadn't yet risen and the sky was barely light as the five helicopters took off. An hour's flying saw them reach the coast, where they landed on the beach at Berwick upon Tweed. The sky was glorious now, apricot and gold chasing away the soft greys and purples, but the world was still silent. The sprites checked their water and checked the fuel. Lastly, they made sure that everyone knew what to do in case of emergency. Even Ace realised it wasn't likely that they'd get all the way to Fjaerland without something going wrong.
Will climbed into Elf 1 and took his seat beside the pilot.
"Wind southwesterly, Force 1, absolutely perfect. Go for it, Pendo."
Pendo grinned at him.
"We'll be home in no time."
It was a daunting moment for Will when he realised that land was out of sight behind them. All around them in every direction was nothing but grey water. The helicopters suddenly seemed tiny and vulnerable, and somehow Will had to get them all across this trackless waste of sea. He knew very well that the other machines were just following him, and the sense of responsibility was heavy. But Will just acknowledged it to himself then applied himself to concentrating. The map, his ruler and compass, the instruments, the visuals, the wind speed... his eyes flickered from one to the other, again and again and again.
The fairies who were with them were accustomed to this journey, but they were not the tough long distance flyers of Fighter Squadron. They were Search and Rescue, Environmental Protection and Third Squadron, and they knew of a resting place about half way across the North Sea which they used. They called it the Yellow Field. It was a platform on a disused oil rig, and there they would stop to rest. It wasn't open to the sky, but the fairies had assured the elves that there was plenty of headroom and they would easily be able to land. With a bit of luck, they should get there about four o'clock this afternoon.
It would be all right, Will reasoned to himself. Even if the enemy were now on the road from Otta, they still had the fjord to cross and they would be very vulnerable to air attack. And meanwhile, the Commander would be getting nearer and nearer.
Their own journey north-east was a simple one, and experienced pilots and navigators would not have had to concentrate very hard at all. Will had no experience whatever, he was doing what he always did and working from first principles, and consequently he was concentrating very hard indeed. But after a few hours of looking and checking, looking and checking, he began to relax. His thoughts went straight back to Fjaerland and to all the other sprites desperately trying to get there in time. The Commander was sure to keep flying for every hour she could. It almost wouldn't matter if she was too tired to fight when she got there. It wasn't her fighting ability they were so desperate for, but her genius for seeing the pattern of the whole. Gran could do that too, of course, but he was still in Poland. Probably tearing his hair out in frustration too, like Ace had been in Wales. Will felt for him.
Then Will noticed that the wind had moved a point to the south. He'd been so busy dreaming, they'd drifted a little. He corrected his course, and noted that the other machines at once did the same. They were beautifully spaced out, though - really lovely flying. His heart banged in his chest as he saw that the wind had moved south again. At once, he corrected, but no sooner had he done it than the wind swung round again.
Just then, Holly's voice came over the radio. Ace had noticed, then, even if no-one else had. That cheered Will a lot. Ace would always try to share the burden.
"Elf 2 to Elf 1, Ace says the wind's changing, anything we have to do?"
"Well spotted, Elf 2," said Will warmly. "Could you ask the colonel to come to the radio?"
“Is this a bad thing, Will?”
“Not too bad, sir. But the wind’s veering rapidly to the south, and it’s unlikely to stop there. At this time of year, you can get southeasterlies in the North Sea. So far, the wind’s been blowing us to Norway. Once it’s blowing from the south east, it will be trying to blow us to Iceland. We’ll be flying across it.”
“But we can do that, can’t we?”
“Yes, but not at this speed. We’ll have to slow down, otherwise we’ll use too much fuel.”
“That’s a nuisance. But the main thing is to arrive. No point taking so many risks we never actually get there. I trust your judgement, Will, and everybody else does too. Give instructions to the others as you see fit.”
“Thank you, sir.”
Will flicked a switch to message everyone.
“Elf 1 to Fleet, wind veering southeasterly, reduce speed by twenty knots to conserve fuel.”
But then something happened which changed everything. A rather worried voice came on the radio. It was Lance, the pilot of Elf 5.
“Elf 5 to Elf 1, fuel already getting low, how long till we stop?”
“Till we stop?” said Will. “Over four hours. What d’you mean, your fuel’s getting low? Do you mean in the main fuel tank? You are filling it up, aren’t you?”
“Oh yes, we keep pouring the fuel into the reservoir tank liked you showed us.”
Will was baffled, but then his heart sank as he realised what the problem was.
“You have been expanding the fuel before you poured it into the reservoir tank, haven’t you?” he asked, but he had a horrible feeling what the answer was going to be.
“Expanding it? Is that what we were supposed to do?”
“Of course it was! Weren’t you listening? Weren’t any of you listening? Oh, good grief. What’s the reading on your fuel gauge now, and how many cans have you got left?”
“Oh, it’s full now, but we’ve only got one can left.”
Will could almost hear the intake of breath as everyone listening in gasped at once. For a moment he nearly panicked, unable to think which important thing to do first, but suddenly it slotted into place in his head and he was all right again.
“OK, I need to do some calculations to see how much flying time you’ve got left. Elf 2, can you take lead position while I do that?”
He wasn’t surprised that it was Ace who answered.
“No problem, Will, moving forward now.”
Will picked up a pencil and pad, listening to Colonel Harpsden speaking to Elf 5.
“You follow Will’s instructions to the letter,” he told them. “The lives of everyone on board could depend on it.”
Will scribbled down figures – so much fuel in the tank, so much in the reservoir, so much left, when properly expanded… then so many kilometres to the gallon, factored for speed, wind speed and wind direction.
“Elf 1 to Elf 5, we can get you three hours forty minutes flying time, maybe more but not less. Don’t worry. If we haven’t reached the Yellow Field by then, we’ll do a controlled sea landing, pluck you all out of the water. But it shouldn’t come to that. I want you to tell me every time your fuel gauge goes down a notch. And who’s doing the transforming?”
“Looks like that will be me, Will.”
It was Sal Loughton, who was navigating for Elf 5.
“OK, Sal, there’s no rush for the job as your tank’s now full, but when you’re ready, take your time. Don’t be afraid to ask for silence if you need it. The rest of us have been doing Factor 10, but that’s just for ease of handling and to keep the fumes down. You could go to 12, but the canister will be too big then for one person to hold. Two or three of you should pick it up. You can’t afford accidents. And you’ll need to make a funnel – any old bit of plastic will do – to help you pour the fuel into the reservoir tank without spilling a drop.”
“I understand, Will. Sorry we messed up.”
“Don’t worry about it. Now, the other thing we have to do is get you out of the wind. We’ll make an oblique line, so the rest of us are acting as a windbreak for you.”
That took a while to organise, but once it was done, they had done all they could. There was nothing to be done now but keep flying steadily north east. All the same, Will felt very anxious and he knew he wasn’t going to be able to relax at all now until he had got everyone safely back onto dry land. He conferred with the oldest fairy on Elf 1, who had crossed the North Sea many times, and used her information to calculate exactly how far they had left before the oil rigs, and to check they were on course.
“If you fly straight from Berwick to Bergen, you can’t miss the Yellow Field,” she had assured him. “It’s such a welcome sight to see its brightness looming out of the waves at you.”
Every twenty minutes or so, Elf 5 reported their fuel gauge down a notch, and Will re-checked his calculations. When the time was right, he encouraged Sal to go for it with the expanding and it felt as if everyone, in all five machines, was helping him and willing him on. They’d done so well, they had more than the reservoir could hold, and that was good, but there was a long way to go yet and the wind was now blowing strongly.
Will was checking his watch now as much as the compass, seeing how much longer was left, checking their own fuel level and getting everyone else to report in too. Finally, with an hour to go, Elf 5’s fuel gauge was down to two notches left. It was going to be touch and go. With one notch left they were just on half an hour.
“We can do it,” said Lance. “We have to try to save the helicopter.”
“Your lives are more important!” said Will. “And we could squeeze you into the other machines, no problem. But we need to keep talking now, Lance. I need to know if your readings show anything unusual and above all I need you to keep listening to the engine. The slightest stutter and that’s it, we go for the controlled landing.”
With ten minutes to go, the old oil rig came into sight. Once, no doubt, it had all been gleaming metal, but now it was rusty and dull. Only the yellow platform, a little sheltered by its position, still showed its original colour, and it certainly did look good to see it there, welcoming you. Elf 5’s fuel gauge was now registering empty but the engine wasn’t stuttering yet. They were all on the edge of their seats, backpacks on stuffed with all the supplies they could carry, in case they had to ditch.
“Elf 5, lose height now,” said Will. “Get down to about a hundred feet.”
“OK, Will. Shall we open the doors now?”
“Go for it.”
Out of the doors flew a dozen or so fairies, who were immediately blown backwards. But once they were out of the slip stream they soon regained control and were heading towards the rig under their own steam, skimming the waves, ready to help any elf who needed it.
And then the engine started to stutter.
“Land on the water!” yelled Will. “You’ll have five seconds to get out before you sink, the fairies will help you!”
“Can’t hear!” Lance yelled back.
“Sorry, Will, radio problem,” said Sal.
Yes, thought Will, you certainly would have a problem with a radio if you turned it off.
He could hardly bear to look, but he couldn’t find it in his heart to blame them. They were risking their lives to save the helicopter, and he would have done exactly the same thing himself. The danger was that they wouldn’t make the platform, but would have left it too late to land safely on the sea. Will could visualise them clattering into the side of the oil rig, could almost see the cascade of metal and bodies, the worst possible scenario.
The other machines started to hover, leaving the way clear for Elf 5 to make its approach. It was rocking a bit now as the elves stood in the doors waiting to jump if they needed to. And then it started to lose height and speed, just as it was nearly at the rig. Too late to land safely, she looked doomed. Will couldn’t tear his shocked eyes away from the dreadful sight. The rotor blades slowed and then stopped, and the front end of the gallant little helicopter began to tilt downwards.
“Jump!” yelled Will, not realising that everyone else watching was yelling the same word, nor that they couldn’t actually hear him at all over there in Elf 5.
A couple of them did do so, not jumping down to the water but across onto the huge metal struts. Will thought he would have done the same. The water looked terrifying, huge waves breaking and crashing up around the rig’s legs. And then one of them lurched up so high, it caught Elf 5 and for a moment the helicopter disappeared from view. But miraculously it appeared again – heading straight for the Yellow Field. The wave had caught it and flung it the last few yards that it couldn’t have done by itself. Will felt tears pricking his eyes. It seemed so providential.
Behind the soaking wet Elf 5, the other four helicopters landed too and Will let himself breathe. They’d arrived – so far, so good. Everyone poured out of the helicopters and Will just stood there. It was like a scene from a strange dream, everyone rushing about shouting but you couldn’t actually hear anything because of the boom and roar of the sea below you. Part of him took in that Ace was already racing to the edge of the platform to see that the elves who’d jumped were all right. Another part was noticing that an awful lot of people were rushing towards him. It gave him another panicky feeling to see all those eyes looking at him, it made him want to run away. But he didn’t. They were coming to congratulate him and thump him on the back, and he could see that lots of them were telling him things, but he could hardly make out a word. Finally Colonel Harpsden himself hugged him and bellowed into his ear.
“Well done, man, that was so good!”
Then Will found himself being pulled along in a crowd, but Ace was somewhere in here too, so that was all right. It turned out that the fairies were leading them to a place where some vertical plating created a great windbreak, and here they could breathe and talk and rest. Better still, the travelling fairies knew where useful things had been left – a brazier, a trough where rain water gathered, and even some wood.
Someone gave Will a cup of scalding tea. It was weak and the cup was only cardboard and burnt his fingers but it was one of the best drinks he’d ever had. It gave him the energy to go and speak to Lance.
“Good flying,” he said. “Superb. You saved everyone’s lives.”
“Oh, Will, it was so frightening! But we made it, thanks to you. I wish we’d noticed sooner what was happening with the fuel.”
“I’ll tell you something Ace once told me,” said Will. “We’re a team. If someone messes up, we sort it. It’s not a problem.”
Ace was coming closer. He took one look at Will and nodded, as if he was seeing what he expected to see. If what he expected to see was exhaustion, that would be about right, Will thought.
“Come on,” said Ace. “I know there are probably a million things to do but they can wait.”
“One thing can’t. The helicopters need securing. With chains. They could get blown away or blown into each other.”
“Good point,” said Ace, “but you don’t have to do it yourself. Sit down, I’ll get someone to do that.”
Ace ran off, and Will did just sit down right where he was. And when Ace came back, he had a blanket. He wasn’t the only one. The colonel must have given the order to rest now.
“What’s the news from Signals?” asked Will.
“No-one’s got through yet,” said Ace. “Lie down, rest while you can. You know you need it.”
Will did know that, and he knew it made sense. He had a lot more work to do yet on this journey. But he didn’t think he’d be able to sleep on cold, damp steel. Yet somehow, maybe because Ace was there and they were sharing a blanket like in the old days, he felt as if he was back on Wildside. He relaxed completely and fell instantly asleep.
Ace didn’t think he’d be able to sleep either. He was too worried about what was going on in Norway. But images from Will’s thoughts, as he fell asleep, flickered into his mind. Sunlight on the brook… rain on the willow’s leaves… Madge teaching Rose and Clover to fly well… just fleeting glimpses, echoes of an echo, but it was the image of Madge that stayed with Ace and his mind supplemented it with memories of his own. The depth of her wisdom and kindness, her tact and subtlety, the broadness of her compassion and experience. Really, when you thought about it, there was no unit more talented than Guidance. They were put into situations they knew nothing about, they had to work out what was happening quickly and then sort it all out.
Suddenly, it didn’t seem quite so urgent that the Commander should get to Fjaerland before Special Brigade arrived. General Arley, ex-Guidance, was there, and it would take more than Special Brigade to rattle her. Ace smiled and sent her all his loving support, then he fell asleep too.
Madge, striding about camp at Fjaerland, looked just as calm as she had done in Ace’s imagination. She didn’t feel calm, but she wasn’t going to let that show. Inside, she was very worried indeed. So much depended on her making the right decisions. She had good help and advice – Nella Stalden and Urzica Ormul had been stalwarts, and so had Luke Olt and Modřín Kopec – but in some ways that made it harder. There was no excuse for a Chief of Staff who made wrong decisions with a team like that behind her. And now she had help of a slightly different kind. Colonel Buchel Arnsberg had arrived, and Germany 3 with him. A field officer, and an elf at that, who had already seen action in this war, his thoughts were not so much on how Fjaerland could be defended as how a battle could be won.
All the same, he didn’t even look calm on the outside. He looked very nervous indeed when he heard the numbers of enemy elves that were coming.
“One hundred and fifty? On one train? That’s unheard of. Who counted them?”
“An Ally at the station. He slowed them down for us as much as he could. But it was the same thing on the next five trains. There are nine hundred enemy elves heading this way, and goodness knows how many fairies too.”
“And we have how many defenders?”
“Now that you’ve arrived, and counting everyone who can actually walk without a stick, five hundred and eighty.”
“We are in the stronger position,” said the colonel stoutly. “And they’ve still got to cross the fjord. I think they’ll do that tonight. They won’t get much darkness but they’ll get some, and they’ll use it. They’ll be afraid of having their boats sunk by your fairies if they try to cross in a good light.”
“Hmm,” said Madge. “I’m sure you’re right. How can we sink their boats in poor light?”
She paused at the fence that looked down to the beach. All around the fjord, she knew, patrols of fairies were constantly watching for movement. All their senses would be alert, knowing that any moment now, the first wave to have left Otta could arrive on their shores. The first thing Madge wanted to know was where parliament’s rendezvous point would be.
“Look at the fjord,” she murmured. “So beautiful. How very wrong it seems that we should be preparing to fight our own kind.”
“Very true, ma’am,” said the colonel. “But if we want future generations to live here at Fjaerland then that is what we must do. Look, one of your patrols is heading this way, fast.”
Their flight was angled for the Conference Room, operational HQ for the current emergency, but when they saw Madge they swerved beautifully and landed beside her.
“Enemy elves sighted, ma’am,” gasped their leader, a steady second year.
“Thank you, Lily. Where, exactly, and how many did you see?”
“On the little stony beach next to a pine wood. Only two at first, making a quick dash to the shore for water. When they saw us overhead, they belted back for cover, but we knew where they were then and flew lower. We caught a glimpse of a fire and about six dozen elves resting.”
“They’ve had a fearsome journey, even with their potions. These are surely the first to arrive and know they have time to rest as they wait. Well done, all of you. Intelligence could not have done better. Get a drink, now you’re back, but then get back out there and pass the word to all the other patrols. All of you watch out now for their fairies arriving. If you’re in danger of attack, fly home. I have fresh fairies waiting to deal with air attacks.”
“Yes ma’am,” said Lily. “Come on, everyone!”
“With your permission, ma’am, I’ll go down and pass this news to the goblins on the beach,” said Colonel Arnsberg. “Just in case the enemy do try anything in daylight.”
“Good idea. Meet up back at emergency HQ.”
Madge hurried to Signals, so that this latest news would be available to people checking in, particularly the Commander. That enemy elves had been sighted on the far side of the fjord… as Madge left, a runner took the news to the computer room. All over the realm, the Allies would be anxiously wishing them well. That was an encouraging thought. Next, Madge crossed to the Concourse, where more runners were waiting.
“Conchita!” Madge smiled at one of the ardent first years. “Can you please get me the second year advanced technology class? Sergeant Kopec will help you if you don’t know who they are. And Pavel, could you get me the chief store keeper?”
Phil Royden, like all the other second year elves, had stopped wishing he was somewhere else exactly two days ago, when word had gone round that parliament forces were heading to Fjaerland and that General Arley had sent out an appeal for help. All their own best troops had gone to the attack on Wielkopolska, and though the fairies and imps were heading back as fast as they could fly, there was no way the elves could make it. General Herdalen and Norway 1, Norway 2, Germany 1 and many others were stuck hundreds of miles away. Here at camp were dozens of goblin units, Sweden 3 and Germany 3. They were good, of course, but there weren’t that many of them; the recruits would be needed too. For once, lesser units had a chance of glory, and the second years fully intended to make the most of it.
So when Conchita had flown into the Weapons Hall, where they were all with Sergeant Kopec, grimly practising disabling strikes, and she had called for the advanced technology class, Phil’s first thought was wariness. He didn’t want to be tied up doing something worthy and technical when there was fighting to be done. But he and his classmates raced off at Sergeant Kopec’s direction, just the same. Whatever was needed. That was all that mattered, really.
Only the elves from the class came. Their imps and fairies were patrolling the fjord. Madge didn't mind.
"Our enemies need to cross the fjord," she told them. "They will doubtless use wooden boats such as you use yourselves, very vulnerable to attack from air forces. So they will probably cross during the two hours of darkness. How can our flyers see their targets, camouflaged against the dark water?"
"Shine a light across the water? We know they'll head for our beach, so a searchlight sweeping the water from the beach?"
"How would you power it?"
"We'd have to take the generator down to the beach."
"The new generator that powers the computer room? That would mean returning the computer to battery power, it's a bit risky just now."
"What about just powerful torches? Each fairy could have one."
"The trouble with that," said Madge, "is that most fairies will need two hands for the ammunition. It needs to be the kind of size that can sink a boat."
"What about torches on headbands?"
"That's quite a weight for a flyer, wouldn't it unbalance her?"
"It shouldn't do," said Madge. "Make one, would you, and we'll try it out. The more of their boats we can sink, the fewer of them there will be to fight."
Phil and the others looked at each other. To them, that did not seem like a good thing. But they could see that it did to Madge, so they set to work with a good will.
The prototype was considered excellent by Third Squadron, so Phil quickly organised a production line out on the Concourse, roping in anyone passing who had the right skills. The torches were easy enough, but a large enough supply of batteries was more time-consuming. Even so, there were plenty of people around who had nothing to do but wait and were glad of something to occupy themselves to relieve the tension, so the work was done in a couple of hours.
By then, another party of elves had arrived across the fjord, and made rendezvous with the first party. After that, Madge called the patrols back in. Everyone would be needed for defence and she wanted them to rest.
"Still no sign of their fairies," she worried to Nella Stalden. "D'you think it's worth sending our fighter fairies out on a wide range patrol?"
Nella thought about that.
"No," she said. "They could encounter the enemy and be too outnumbered. Save their strength, I say."
"Fair enough," said Madge. "Then we've done everything we can. I've organised things so that everyone will get a chance to drink and rest before dark. None of us is going to sleep tonight."
"What about a rest for you?"
"I can't do that, I need to stay awake."
“Not all night you can’t. Rest now, for a couple of hours. I’ll keep an eye on things. Then I’ll wake you and you can do the same for me.”
It made sense and Madge realised that.
“Thanks, Nella, I’ll do that.”
It was four o'clock in the afternoon when Madge went to rest, and when Nella woke her at six, by chance the sprites on the Yellow Field were waking too. It wasn't because they'd had enough sleep, because they hadn't. All of them were still tired. It was the wind that had woken them, screaming through the sheet metal and blowing their blankets away.
Will was aghast. The wind speed had increased dramatically.
"This is Force Four or even Five!" he groaned to Ace. "We can't take off in this."
"Why not? The engines can beat the wind, can't they?"
"Oh yes, if we were already doing top speed, we could fly through it. But while we were gaining that speed we'd be totally vulnerable. We'd be blown back into the oil rig and smashed to pieces."
"Damn," said Ace. "Come on, we'd better tell the colonel."
Colonel Harpsden wasn't surprised. He looked sad but resigned.
"Heavy. Very heavy. But no-one at Fjaerland would want us to take such a crazy risk as that. I got through," he added. "Germany 3 have arrived. General Arley was pleased about that. And enemy elves have been spotted on the far side of the fjord."
"Oh no," groaned Ace. "Can't we take off in the direction of the wind? Then start changing course when we're up to speed?"
"It's a good idea," said Will. "Not in this wind, we can't, but if we did that, we wouldn't have to wait for it to drop to Force One again. Force Three would do."
"Really?" said the colonel. "Oh, that's good news. Spread it round, will you. I must try Signals again. Apparently there are messages for me. I hadn’t realised I was acting senior colonel while Bjørk’s in prison.”
"Are you, sir? Good for you," said Ace. "I bet everyone's asking if they can drop whatever they're doing and head to Fjaerland."
"Do you think so? Oh, dear. I don't know what to say. What would you say, Ace?"
"Me? Oh, you don't want to be taking any notice of me. I'm just a crazy sycamore. But I'd tell them yes. All of them. Because if we lose Fjaerland, what else matters? We'd practically have lost the war."
Ace smiled encouragingly at the colonel then went to help Will pass the news around. Everyone was anxious to be off but morale was high. The great beeches of England 3 were gallantly holding on to some of the smaller fairies to stop them being blown away, and the rest of the section were trying to improve the windbreak. This being England 3 they were successful, but this also being England 3, the windbreak now resembled a hot water bottle. Ace and Will left them laughing about it.
"I'm going to do the visual checks now," said Will. "Then there's no delay when we want to go."
"I'll come with you," said Ace. "Link arms, it will be easier to battle the wind that way."
They let go when they reached the helicopters which had been left in another sheltered spot. While Will checked lines for snagging and joints and panels for splits and cracks, Ace leaned against a metal beam and worried quietly.
Among those elves now waiting to cross the fjord was surely Huskvarna. An elf so devious he had outmanoeuvred Gran Herdalen himself. Up against him were sprites of intelligence and common sense, and that was all. Gran wasn't there. Bjørk wasn't there. There was no-one else even remotely devious.
I bet they're getting ready for a night attack. And I bet he won't make one. That's what he'll be expecting them to be expecting him to do. Oh, I wish Gran was there. I would wish us all back in England if only he could be there. He's worth a hundred other elves. No, a thousand.
Gran Herdalen did not have as high an opinion of himself as that, but otherwise he would have agreed fervently with Ace. Not being there when Fjaerland needed him... knowing he'd been outwitted by Huskvarna, and worrying about what he'd be doing now to outwit Madge and the rest... it was all tearing at him like a horrible pain that wouldn't go away. It was the second most dreadful thing that had ever happened to him.
He wasn't the only elf there in Poland who was feeling frustrated, of course. All of Norway 1 and 2 had travelled all this way to join up with the marchers, expecting an important and decisive battle. And then in an instant all that had been taken away from them, and the decisive battle was going to take place hundreds of miles away. Their fairies had gone and they had been left behind. After raiding parliament's magnificent bar, a red mist had descended and the Norwegians had joined the marchers in another fury of destruction, until finally, heartbroken, drunk and sated, they had fallen asleep where they were.
By morning, Gran Herdalen had recovered his self-control. Only hard work now would stop everyone moping, himself included. He was checking in with Signals at least once an hour, but he didn't let that stop him from working or from getting others to work too. First he spoke to the marchers, finding out if any them wanted to join the army. It was very cheering that a lot of them did. Not the older ones, who were looking forward to going home again once they were rested, but almost all the younger ones did. Gran informally enlisted them all.
"You have struggled and fought together," he told them, "and I'm not going to break that bond. Let's look to the past - you shall have a name, not a number, like in the old days. And let's look to the future - you shall be the first mixed regiment, imps and fairies and goblins and elves. I name you the Marcher Regiment."
The Marchers were so deleriously happy that even Norway 1 started to cheer up. At least they were seeing history being made.
The new regiment was given the task of setting up camp right where they were. They didn’t want to use parliament’s buildings, but it was a good site, and anything offensive was now burnt to a cinder or rotting at the bottom of the lake. The Norwegians he organised into patrols, with instructions to learn the lie of the land, watch out for enemy activity and make contact with the local sprites at Rogalin. Each patrol had a Polish fairy as interpreter and Captain Zawoja, who knew roughly where Rogalin colony was, had gone with the first one. Once everyone had something to do, they felt better, though they didn't stop worrying about what was happening back home. So Gran passed on every bit of news he heard, and that evening, he got Dan and Carda to take him to meet Janusz.
That had been a great evening. Janusz had been excited to meet him and had posted right away on the website that General Herdalen was in his house. Almost immediately a wave of replies had arrived, from David himself to little Marta in Dovrefjell, with an outpouring of sympathy and support. It had warmed his heart to feel the love of all those Allies coming through.
They had all had much the same news as he had heard himself; that Madge had sent for help, that the Commander was somewhere over southern Sweden and that Germany 3 had arrived at Fjaerland. But they had one piece of news that he hadn't heard, because David hadn't had it from Signals but from Ace's mobile. England 3 had reached the Yellow Field.
"How?" Gran asked in consternation.
"Don't know," said Janusz. "But we can ask David - like this - messenger."
Gran had seen his Ally Karl do something like this before, so he knew he was almost talking to David.
England 3, how? he typed. Have they all transformed to fairies?
LOL no, David typed back. They've made a fleet of helicopters.
Astounded. I am astounded. Even for Ace and Will - and I know for certain they were behind this - that is astonishing.
Unfortunately they can't take off again yet - wind too strong - but I've checked the weather forecast, and they should be okay by morning, wind's due to drop overnight.
Thank you, Gran typed, wishing he could put into the letters the fervent gratitude he felt. Thank you.
Before midnight he was heading back to rejoin his forces, planning to find a quiet spot and get through to Madge herself. Warn her - tactfully - that though she was wise to prepare for a night attack, Huskvarna probably wouldn't make one. He had to prepare her, without alarming her too much, for all the outrageous things Huskvarna might try. Madge was doing well, she was calm and unflappable but she didn't have a mind like Huskvarna's. And after he'd spoken to Madge, he would use the quiet of the night to ponder something that was really puzzling him, and he hadn't had time to think about yet - where was the Premier?
The recipient of Gran's tactful message was not as reassured as he might have hoped. Madge stomped off to find Nella.
"Gran is impossible!" she fumed. "Telling me I was doing the right thing, but then telling me that Huskvarna is too clever to come by night. Telling me he'd probably do something dreadful instead, but not telling me what. I suppose he was trying not to frighten me, but now my own imagination will do that. Anyway, if Huskvarna is so clever, what's to stop him realising that we'll know that, and attacking by night after all? Isn't that what they call a double bluff?"
"I call it trying to think like an elf," soothed Nella. "And there is never anything to be gained by that, unless one is an elf, and then, of course, one cannot help it."
Madge took a deep breath, looking calmer already.
"Have a cup of tea," said Nella. "It's clear we don't know what we have to face, or when. We can't keep everyone on permanent alert night and day. We have to rest people, or run the risk of facing an attack with 100% weary troops. Say, a quarter of each unit resting at all times? Then, no matter when an attack comes, you are guaranteed 75% reasonably fresh, and when it did, the rest would rush to help anyway."
"You," said Madge, "are a life saver. I'll go and give the order, then I'll get down to the beach. You're in charge up here, in case they try anything like fire bombs again."
"Good luck," smiled Nella. "Take care, Madge."
All night long, members of Third Squadron patrolled the waters of the fjord. As the light faded, their flights became lower and closer to the water. It was early June and by midnight there was just enough darkness to need the torches. This was the most dangerous hour, but it came and passed without a whisper from the opposite bank. Gradually the sky began to lighten as the sun, which had barely dipped below the horizon, rose again. Madge sent word to Signals, knowing how many people would be anxiously waiting for news, but she didn't stop patrolling. The little darkness had gone, but the world was still empty and silent, and it was a good time to avoid humans. The danger hadn't gone away.
By 6 o’clock the sun was high and the glare off the blue water was dazzling. Madge saw Sergeant Olt coming down the path to relieve her and she was glad. She was so tired. The slumbering goblins woke up and started sharpening their already-sharp knives.
“World’s waking up now,” said Sergeant Olt. “Can’t believe they didn’t use the night. Perhaps they haven’t all arrived yet. It’s a long way from the railway station at Otta.”
“That’s true,” said Madge. “I can’t see them doing anything now. There’s a human boat on the water.”
It was just a rowing boat, and the two men in it were looking down at the water, as if they were choosing a good spot to fish. But something about that boat made Madge uneasy. Where had it come from? The fishermen of Menes tended to keep to the west shore of the fjord and those from Hella to the east, but this boat was heading straight from east to west… it was heading straight for their beach.
“Oh, no, “ muttered Madge. “Two of them transformed to human size? I bet that boat is full of elves. But what if it’s not? Dare we sink it?”
A patrol came into view and Madge saw them swoop higher as they spotted the human boat. Then, brilliantly, one of them dived at speed to investigate. Whatever she saw was enough to have her heading directly for the beach. That was enough for Madge.
“Bombers out!” she called. “Sink me those over-sized elves.”
She wasn’t the only one who’d been wondering and the bombers responded at top speed. Madge was hardly breathing as she watched. The goblins were getting very noisy and excited, wading out into the water, anxious to be the first to strike a blow, but the rest of the sprites there were just staring, like Madge. They saw the bombers expand their ammunition, so big they could hardly hold it, and their accuracy was good, bomb after bomb was bang on target. But the heavy stones were still only the size of tennis balls to the enemy.
One of them stood up in the boat and caught each one as it fell, tossing it contemptuously into the fjord. He was grinning. Madge could make out his features now. Thick, curling fair hair, broad shoulders and a way of looking so fast from side to side that he didn’t seem to move his neck. He still had his streaks, spidery lines of dark green that patterned his cheeks like a web. Huskvarna himself, as they had suspected.
“This is it,” shouted Madge.
She put her fingers in her mouth and whistled, the sound echoing around the fjord, to call all her flyers back. The goblins moved then, spread out in a line, ankle deep in the water, in front of Madge to defend her, and for a moment she couldn’t see what was happening. Then, over their heads, two objects came flying and landed on the sand with an ominous thud. They were only bundles of straw but they were soaked in something that smelled horrible and they were burning.
The flames quickly took hold and thick acrid smoke began to drift across the beach, making everyone cough. All they had to do was pour water on them and put the flames out, but in the time it took to do that, the damage had been done. Through streaming eyes Madge saw elves marching smartly two by two to the prow of the rowing boat, then leaping off directly at the goblins, landing with their feet against the goblins’ chests, knocking them flat and then walking over them. The goblins quickly recovered and fought back hard with their knives, but they could only fight one or two at a time, and meanwhile more and more elves were pouring off that wretched boat, until the whole beach was full of sprites fighting, jostling for space, pushing, shoving, shouting angrily or crying out in pain.
“Form a second line,” Madge shouted to the elves and fairies. They pulled back beyond where the goblins were struggling, standing firm especially around the way onto the path, some with knives drawn, others, like Madge, armed with heavy sticks to defend themselves and beat off the attackers.
But then the human-sized elves drew their boat up out of the water and strode unopposed across the beach. When they reached the second line they simply kicked them out of the way and started walking up the path. Already there were injuries; Madge went to help a fairy who was sobbing with pain, while yelling over her shoulder to the nearest uninjured flyer.
“To General Stalden, fast! Tell her to bar the gates.”
“Yes, ma’am,” someone yelled back and flew off in a blur.
Not that the gates would stop Huskvarna and whoever that was with him. It couldn’t be Diolkos, Gran had said he was in the Bavarian Forest, but it could be Mento Zsennye. Then came a scream from the waterline and an outraged howl of pain and fury from the goblins. Madge went cold. It sounded as if there had been a death. She couldn’t see… all around her now sprites were pressing harder as the invaders tried to get off the beach and onto the path and the defenders tried to push them back into the fjord. Too many of their elves were pushing past and getting onto the path.
“All flyers to bomb the path!” cried Madge.
At least they’d have plenty of ammunition and if they couldn’t stop them getting higher they could certainly slow them down. As the fairies rose above the crush, Madge could see that her elves were fighting hard against the remaining attackers, knife against knife. Trusting them to do their job, Madge slipped past them to the water's edge, where all activity had stopped. The goblins, shaking with grief, were grouped around a figure lying still in the shallows. Even from here, Madge could see that around him the water was green with blood. She approached quietly and the goblins parted to let her through. She knelt down beside the fallen goblin.
"Thistle Aberchalder," she whispered. She stroked his downy hair and brushed some blood away from his purple blotches. "You valiant goblin."
She couldn't say any more. Tears streamed down her face and her shoulders shook, while huge goblin hands tentatively patted her to offer comfort. But so many were injured... they didn't have time to grieve.
"Make a bier for him," Madge told the goblins. "Then bring him up to camp."
She told the remaining fairies, who were helping the injured, to stay a little longer, and to bring word to camp if any other boat came into view, even the ferry from Vangsnes.
"Do you need a surgeon?" she asked.
"No, thank you, ma'am. We're almost there now."
Madge took off at once, soared high to see what was going on. Aghast, she saw that the path was thick with enemy elves. They were being bombarded hard with stones by every fairy - and there were even a couple of old ones from Signals there - but it wasn't making much difference. The elves were all heavily laden with weapons and equipment of all kinds, and they were defending their heads with shields. And they were calling out as they climbed, parting to let their leaders through. Lars, Lars, Lars! Mento, Mento, Mento! they chanted. So it was him. Well, striding easily up the path they might be, but they would not find it so easy to get into camp like that. Sure enough, the top of the path gave them pause.
Lower down, it had been easy enough for human-sized feet to trample the foliage beside the path. It had all been on the same level. Below the gatehouse, though, was a concave curve. The path wound up the side of it. Huskvarna could keep his balance - just - with both feet inside the curve, but as soon as he lifted a foot to clamber right over the gatehouse, he lost his balance and toppled backwards. The path was very steep here and he stumbled into Mento Zsennye and the pair of them sent many of their elves falling and sliding. The defenders cheered and the fairies redoubled their efforts. They didn't seem to be causing more damage than bruises, but it all helped.
General Huskvarna rose to his feet with a shrug of indifference and a very broad grin, and waved and whistled at his elves to follow him. Spurning a direct assault on the heavily-guarded western gate, they disappeared into the trees to the north.
"Now what?" said Nella, landing beside Madge.
"We'll have to get more people to spread out around the perimeter," said Madge. "At least on this side."
"Not too many," said Nella. "The second years are already there."
"So they are," said Madge with relief. "Special Brigade may find they get more than they bargained for with that lot."
Deep amid the pines, where the perimeter fence ran north from the western gate, Phil Royden shifted his knife in his sweaty hand, straining every nerve to listen. The human-sized elves had blundered in this direction - but how on earth should they fight them?
"Go for the feet," he muttered. "All at once."
"Good idea," said Rob, "but I bet they're transforming back. That was for shock, to get them across the fjord. They can't attack Fjaerland in human form, they'd lose too much sympathy. Even their own supporters would be disgusted."
Phil nodded, thinking that was probably true, and concerned that, if it was, they'd have to wait even longer. He strained his ears to listen for the slightest sound in front of him. Behind him, there was a subdued bustle, probably Madge reinforcing this section, but it was being done very quietly.
Sam, one of Phil's team, tugged Phil's sleeve. He pointed into the forest and Phil saw it too, the glint of sun on metal. Phil's heart sank. Whatever they had, it was so big they needed to wheel it.
Sam's friend Lex gasped then clamped his hand over his mouth.
"What is it?" he hissed.
Phil left Rob enumerating the gruesome possibilities. He didn't waste a second.
Phil Royden to General Arley, he messaged to Signals. Large contraption on wheels being pushed through forest to western gatehouse.
Over in Signals, the normal courtesies had been set aside. Messages were discussed with the senders, questions were asked... anything to sort the urgent from the merely interesting or important. Pice Inari, with his incredible long-distance skills and experience was concentrating on what was happening far to the east and especially in Poland, but Poppy Rhaeadr was sifting the messages, making sure nothing urgent was missed or delayed and everything reached the right person fast. Even though everyone had responded to the request to keep Signals free for urgent messages, they were inundated. Reports on progress were still coming in from far-flung units on their way here, especially from Third Regiment for some reason. As well as that, you'd think someone was deliberately inciting gangs to cause as much trouble as possible far and wide. They were practically rogue units for parliament; they had their own ways of communicating and they always knew when General Huskvarna would appreciate some assistance in attacking peaceful colonies.
When Phil's message came in, the elderly fairy at the desk came bringing it to Poppy at a brisk trot. Poppy read it once then shouted for a carrier. She had a small team of flyers, mostly first year fairies who definitely weren't ready for battle, and their job was to keep flying over camp, to know where everyone was and to take messages in the blink of an eye.
"Any general, nearest to the western gatehouse," ordered Poppy and a fairy flew off.
Poppy chewed her bottom lip in worry. This sounded bad, it sounded alarming, and she was longing to go and see for herself what was happening. But she stuck to her post. In the few seconds she'd been musing, three new messages had been put before her.
Phil stuck to his post too, though for him it was more difficult, because he had orders to move when it became clear that help was needed elsewhere. When would that moment have arrived? He could see the same thought in the eyes of his team.
“Not yet,” he said. “We know there are a lot of them. We can’t move from here until we see how wide a front they use for their attack.”
For a few moments there was silence. No-one was moving on their side of the fence, and if any sprites were moving on the other side they were being very quiet about it. All you could hear was a blackbird singing in the tree tops. Then there was a loud whoosh followed by a thud and a frenzy of shouts, some alarmed and some triumphant. Phil’s heart was banging in his chest, but he stood firm.
“Keep watching the perimeter!” he called.
He stared through the trees, letting his glance rise and fall but not letting himself look too far to either side. But then smoke started to drift across, and with it the smell of burning wood, deep shouts of angry goblins and the sharp kiss of clashing knives. Then, just as the defenders were at their most distracted, enemy elves came pouring through the trees. Phil and the others didn’t hesitate, but pitched right in to fighting, and no-one they tackled got past them. But there were so many of them… for every one they took out, another three or four rushed past and vaulted the perimeter fence.
“Stay at the fence,” Phil shouted. They couldn’t allow themselves to be pushed back and someone would make a second line against the ones who’d got through. “Keep concentrating, stay focused!”
They must be near to the edge of the fighting, Phil thought, with Special Brigade channelling their weight into quite a narrow area. Other second years, who’d been positioned further north, were rushing down to join them. Another wave was coming, charging at them, trying to get past them without even stopping to fight. Easy for Rob to stop someone just by stepping in front of him. Not so easy for Phil - the first time he tried it, he just got knocked over. He scrambled to his feet and tried again on the next one heading his way and this time, by darting about from side to side, he made one stop and draw his knife. This one had to fight. Phil was giving it all he'd got, gasping for breath as he moved faster and faster, desperate to get this one down so he could tackle another one. Phil lunged in low and got him in the leg. The other elf stumbled but didn't fall, because another injured enemy caught him and the two of them limped off.
Phil let them go and charged for another one, relying on speed to give him weight. Too fast to be careful, too desperate to care, he got a cut across his face, but he could still see and that was all he cared about. Some of their own people were down now, too many of the enemy were getting through. The smoke was getting thicker among the trees and you could see a red glare... the gatehouse, burning. The crowds of attackers seemed to be getting thinner; these were the last, anxious not to be left behind.
Phil was just as anxious not to let them through. He tried a trip and rip manoeuvre but a yell from Sam made him glance aside and that was his undoing. The elf he was fighting shoved him over and stabbed him through the wrist. Phil gagged and nearly vomited when he saw the knife blade coming out of the other side of his own arm and couldn't help a scream of pain as it was wrenched out again. But it was the kick to the head that his enemy threw in for good measure that really finished him off. Pain and dizziness engulfed him, blood dripped into his eyes and mouth, the noise of fighting seemed to die away and all he could see was the canopy high above. He felt as if he had been fighting so long it would have been night time by now.
"Phil, Phil, are you okay? Oh, look at you, you're not at all. Keep still, I've got you."
"Rob? It's not going well, Rob."
"No, it's not," said Rob. "But let's get you out of here."
Calmly, effortlessly, he picked Phil up and Phil didn't fuss, just tried to keep still. They were soon out of the trees, and wherever the fight had moved to, it wasn't here. It wasn't quiet - above the crackle of burning there was a lot of urgent shouting and calling going on - but it wasn't the noise of battle.
"Over here, Rob!"
Phil recognised the voice, it was Sergeant Svir. Perhaps she was looking after the injured.
"I'm OK, Rob, leave me," Phil got out. "You have to get back to the fight."
Rob's face loomed closer, as if he was checking it was safe to leave him, then he suddenly smiled reassuringly.
"Pretty brave for a little 'un," he teased and set Phil down where the sergeant indicated. It seemed to be the veranda of the police canteen.
"Prop me up, please," said Phil. "I need to see what's happening."
Gently, Rob lifted Phil so that he was leaning against a wall, then gave his face a quick stroke and was gone, running back towards the forest. Then Phil couldn't see any more because another elderly fairy, one he didn't know very well, came to him with water and bandages.
Healing could wait. Safe now from bleeding to death, if not from pain, Phil watched all he could, listened for every clue to what was happening. General Arley must have pulled together a second line of defence very well, because he could hear the noise of battle now. It sounded to him as if it was coming from the open ground between First Regiment HQ and the First Years’ Huts. He could see Third Squadron in the air, aiming volleys of sharp stones, and he could see by the sun that it was nearly midday. When he looked to his left, he could see injured elves and goblins still being brought out of the forest. When he looked to his right, all he could see was the trees, quiet as always. But the longer he looked, the more he thought he could make something out in the sky. Down there, beneath the trees, was the fjord. Anyone approaching from the south east would come that way.
"Sergeant, look," said Phil. "Is that what I think it is?"
"Where? I can't see any... oh! Oh, I think you're right, and just in the nick of time. The Commander is home."