CHAPTER 15 - Going North
It didn’t go dark, but it did cloud over and begin to rain. Helped by the rain, the fires burned themselves out. The parliament forces had withdrawn out of sight, probably back into the Northern Forest, and now a ring of charred wood separated them and the army. Every building on the perimeter had been destroyed.
On the playing field in front of the hospital, the remnants of the army huddled together for safety, in small groups around camp fires. With a shawl over her head, Madge moved from one group to another. She didn’t speak much. She didn’t have to. Everyone was too weary, too distraught. She patted shoulders and stroked heads and pulled covers over the sleeping exhausted.
The hospital they had left for the most badly injured, and it was full. More injured sprites were sitting outside, waiting patiently, and here Madge did stop to speak. She sent them to wait inside. At least then they’d be out of the rain, and the surgeons could see exactly how many needed help.
When she came to Ace and Will, she just looked at them both. They had turned things around, given them this respite. Her mind went back to Wildside, blessing the day she had been sent there. She had only seen Ace look this dejected once before, and that, too, had been on Wildside. Right now he was sitting on a box with his head in his hands. Will was beside him, scribbling on a bit of paper. They were a little withdrawn from the fire, where most of England 3 had fallen asleep just as they were.
“Are you all right, Ace?”
“Oh, hello, ma’am. Yes, I’m not hurt. Just tired and sad. So much destruction. And the Tree… he’s not dead, but he’s not with us any more.”
Madge crouched down.
“Oh yes he is. Not so visibly, true. Not in any way that our enemies can see, and not in any way that they can destroy. But a part of him is in each of us, you know that.”
“That won’t power Signals.”
“No, it won’t. But remember, everything happens for a reason. He’s not dead. Let’s be grateful for that.”
“But he’s dying, isn’t he?”
“I don’t know, Ace. I can’t say that he is not. But I’ve just been into the forest, and right now he is still there, you can feel it.”
“The goblins had a funeral there?”
“For Thistle Aberchalder, yes.”
“I never met him,” said Ace. “And now I never will.”
Will looked up sharply and his eyes met Madge’s. That empty tone was frightening. Ace didn’t normally lose his boundless optimism, but when he did, it didn’t change to mild gloominess, it changed to blank despair. When Ace got like that, he was dangerous. All the same, he was still focused.
“You need people to watch through the night?”
“I have enough,” said Madge. “Don’t worry, Ace.”
“But there must be so much to do… so many injuries. I shouldn’t be sitting here.”
“Yes, you should. Everything is under control, and your duty now is to rest. And yours, Will. Yes, some people will need to work through the night, but not our best fighters, you follow?”
“Yes, ma’am,” said Will. “Come here, Ace. Madge, please would you give this paper to the Commander?”
“Yes, Will, I’ll do that. Goodnight, my dears.”
As Madge walked slowly away, she overheard them speaking as they settled down, just where they were on the grass.
“Thistle Aberchalder,” said Ace. “Did Maig know him?”
“I don’t know,” said Will. “Maig was captured this afternoon.”
Madge glanced back, saw Ace put his arm round Will comfortingly. Will needed him and that would do the trick. Ace should be all right now.
Madge had gone past exhaustion and out again the other side, into a state of quiet alertness. She didn’t know how much longer she could carry on, but she was all right for now. She carried on walking round, talking to anyone who was awake, comforting and reassuring where she could, and counting… who was there, and who wasn’t.
Things weren’t really as much under control as she had told Ace. No-one was panicking or making a fuss, but they didn’t have enough people anywhere, and those they did have were exhausted. And dozens of people had questions, that couldn’t be answered because they depended on the answers to two things they just didn’t know: how are we going to function without Signals? and how long can we hold out?
A sooty-faced fairy touched Madge’s arm.
“General? The Commander wants you to join her, ma’am, if you possibly can.”
“Thank you, dear,” said Madge.
It wasn’t until she was flying on her way that Madge realised who it had been. Probably they all looked unrecognisable. The Commander certainly did. It broke Madge’s heart to see her. Her trim figure now looked gaunt after too many days of hard flying and not enough sleep and for the first time there were glints of silver in the glossy brown hair.
They were all in Signals. That was a heartbreaking sight too. The column of green fire, living green, was stilled, misted over as if it were frozen. Madge bowed her head, overwhelmed by the grief of it. Pice Inari was silently weeping. Not sobbing – he simply sat there with tears dripping down his face. Madge grieved for him, for all the Signals staff, whom she knew well. Yet grief was another thing they didn’t have time for. She passed the paper Will had given her to the Commander. Meanwhile, Heather pushed a chair towards her.
“Sit down, Madge, before you drop.”
“So many taken,” whispered Nella Stalden. She had burnt hair, and a bandage on her arm. “I don’t think we can win. If we lose, will they spare the rest of camp? Will they leave the Tree alone?”
The Commander looked up from reading Will’s note.
“Where is Colonel Harpsden? He heard the Tree’s last message.”
Some of the messengers were still awake, and one of them answered.
“Guarding the helicopters, ma’am, with his older elves, so their young fighters could sleep. Shall I go and get him?”
“Yes, please.” The Commander managed a smile.
When Colonel Harpsden came in, Major Jokkmokk stood up and Colonel Arnsberg clapped him on the back. The Commander strode forward to shake his hand. The Commander, Madge knew, had previously had doubts about Rowan Harpsden, mostly concerning his sanity. She had revised that opinion today. A lot of people had.
“Rowan,” she said, “please pass on my thanks to Third Regiment. Your elves fought brilliantly and without them, we would already have lost.”
“Thank you, ma’am. I’ll tell them. But the Tree… is it true that he is dying?”
“We just don’t know. But it’s true that we have lost Signals, and whether that will last for days or months or years, no-one knows. What we would like now is to hear directly from you exactly what the Tree said before he… I don’t even know what word to use.”
“He withdrew,” said Colonel Harpsden. “Inside himself. Like someone who knows he’ll be no use to anyone unless he switches off and chills for a bit. He was badly damaged. And it was enough to have killed an ordinary tree. But his words were very clear.”
He repeated what he had heard and there was consternation among those who hadn’t yet heard about it.
“We have to go? To leave?”
“Does he mean surrender?”
“No, escape, surely?”
“Go to her? To whom? Who is she?”
The senior officers were baffled and not expecting an answer, but they got one, which baffled them even more.
“Young Ace thinks it means a girl called Marta Salvesen, an Ally who lives in Norway, but way, way north of here.”
At that, Pice Inari lifted his tear-soaked eyes.
“I remember Marta,” he said. “She’s the girl who looked after Ace when he broke his leg escaping from Special Brigade.”
“Oh yes, that I do remember,” said the Commander. “We cannot possibly disobey the Tree’s instructions, so unless anyone else comes out with a different suggestion, we must assume that Ace is right. To take refuge with an Ally – to heal our injured – the Tree knows that is what we need. But how can we leave him alone? I know he can defend himself but I can’t bear the thought of leaving him unattended.”
“Let me stay,” said Major Inari. “Someone must, or how will we know if the Tree has any more instructions for us? This duty is mine, and Special Brigade aren’t likely to bother with one person. They won’t even know I’m here.”
“Hmm. It does sound like a plan. All right, Pice, but don’t intervene single-handed if they try more fires. No building, not even the Great Hall, is worth your life.”
“Yes ma’am,” said Major Inari, acknowledging with a bow of his head the order from the Commander who had today lost her own house and her every last possession to the fires.
“Madge, how many are there left of us?”
"Just over six hundred. But fit to fight…only about two hundred land forces and one hundred and fifty flyers.”
“So few,” said the Commander. “Rowan, how many can your helicopters carry?”
“In comfort, twenty each. In an emergency, packing in all we can, over twice that.”
“That’s very, very good. We can evacuate our worst injured, then, and others with them. Because it is clear that we must evacuate at some point. The Tree has told us to go, and surrender is not to be thought of. But we can’t win. These figures from Will prove what I had suspected. It’s a mathematical impossibility.”
“But how does he know?” asked MajorJokkmokk, who didn’t know Will.
“Advanced maths,” whispered Madge.
The Commander now had her head in her hands, thinking. Everyone kept quiet so when there was a knock at the door, they all jumped. And then Dale and Lisette came in, with jugs of coffee and a tray of cups.
“Very thoughtful!” said Madge. “And much needed. But shouldn’t you be resting?”
“We’ve only been messaging on the computer all day when everyone else has been fighting or helping the fighters. When we lost the computer, we turned ourselves into the refreshments team.”
Even the Commander smiled at that. Dale and Lisette slipped away again and for a few moments everyone drank, burning their mouths because they were so thirsty.
“So,” said the Commander. “We must focus now on evacuating the injured and rescuing captives. Colonel Harpsden, liaise with Lieutenant Polesie at the hospital. The worst injured to be flown north, the surgeons, all the old and frail, and – however much they argue – all Ally-makers, who are in danger of death if they are captured. That includes you, Madge, and you know who the others are.”
“Yes, ma’am,” said Madge. She was disappointed, but this was no time for arguing. They’d have enough of that from Ace and Will.
“More of Third Regiment are still on their way,” said Colonel Harpsden. “It’s possible that reinforcements will arrive.”
“Every single one who gets through will be a blessing. Which sections may still arrive?”
“Denmark and Finland.”
“Long journeys… and a sad welcome for them when they get here,” said the Commander. “I hope they don’t get ambushed like we did. But many of Special Squadron are now guarding prisoners. And they can’t guard and fight at the same time, can they?”
The Commander outlined her plan. It wasn’t cunning or devious. It was realistic and bold, exactly what they would have expected of the Commander and no-one there had any quarrel with it at all.
“Pass everything on to your captains, and then rest, if you possibly can,” said the Commander. “It will help more than anything. They’ll attack again at dawn.”
The sprites dozed, just where they were, too exhausted to do anything else. Tears were shed that night for the grave losses they had suffered, and some of those tears fell onto the earth. Some humans can tell the difference between one water and another, and plants are even better at it. Wind-lashed rain tastes different to autumn dew or a summer shower. Salt tears dripping on the ground taste different again. And trees, with their roots as wide as their canopies, are more sensitive than most plants. The love and grief in those tears could be drunk as easily as the water in the ground.
And it was not only tears that had soaked the earth today. The blood that had been spilt, the roots knew about too, and that knowledge would spread out from plant to plant way beyond Fjaerland, way beyond Norway. It was the longest journey of them all, but finally it would make its way to every corner of the realm.
And just as a piece of bad news, passed on, lowers the spirits of each one who hears it, so this hurt to the Tree would damage every plant, just a little bit. Not everyone in the army understood this, but those that did wondered very much at General Huskvarna’s actions. Perhaps he did not understand the significance of what he had done. Or perhaps, even more worryingly, he did.
Yet there is a restful quality about Norway’s light summer nights, a sort of mauve tint to the clouds and a quiet mood. At dawn, somehow the quality of the light changes and suddenly, though the light is no greater and the sun little higher, there is a golden warmth and a bit of sparkle.
At that moment, the army sprites began to wake up, though there wasn’t one of them that wouldn’t gladly have slept a few hours more. They were stiff and aching, chilled, filthy and thirsty. Today, they knew, their chances of capture or injury were even higher, and what horrors the day might bring, no-one wanted to think. But one by one, they smiled, because Ace was singing.
Not all of them knew who it was, of course, but quite a lot of them did, and they smiled because Ace exuded optimism and confidence. It was so much a part of him that even the thought of him cheered people up. And even to those that didn’t know him, that beautiful voice, simple and strong, was utterly moving, reminding them of all that they were fighting for and uplifting them with the unfaltering hope that they would win, no matter how unlikely that seemed right now.
Colonel Harpsden came striding over from the hospital, and Third Regiment gathered to him – what was left of them.
“How’s Holly?” several voices asked.
“Still unconscious. But still alive, so don’t worry. Now listen, I have orders from the Commander. We are to use the helicopters to evacuate people… the injured, the surgeons, the non-combatants and the Ally-makers.”
“What!” gasped Ace and Will together.
“Sorry,” said the colonel. “It’s hard on General Arley too, but we’ve no time to argue.”
Ace gulped and spoke bravely.
“No, sir. It’s all right. Besides, you need pilots.”
“I do. And I haven’t time to organise it. I have to get everyone else into position. So I’m promoting you to captain, Ace, as of now, and my first order to you is to organise the evacuation. It won't be easy. Our look-outs report Special Brigade are on the move too, they'll be upon us in no time. You may have to fight and load at the same time. Good luck."
"Thank you, sir. Good luck to you too!"
Ace was calling over his shoulder as he finished speaking. As he rounded up pilots and navigators, he could see enemy fairies were already flying overhead. It looked like a reconnaissance flight, sent to see what the army was doing. The Commander must have laid a lot of plans last night, thought Ace, because every unit seemed to be doing something different. It looked confused, but it wasn't, and those fairies wouldn't find it easy to report back clearly. As the rest of England 3 formed up into battle order, Ace led his small team to the hospital.
"Fast as you can!" he shouted. "We have to get as many on board as we can before they start attacking again."
Madge was there at the hospital. She was anxious about leaving, but she was keen that at least one senior officer should stay with the injured, and it looked like she was the one. Rose and Clover were already with her, and Phil, ordered to leave by Sergeant Kopec, arrived just as Ace did. Immediately, the elves picked up stretchers, and the fairies helped those who could manage to walk with a shoulder to lean on. One of them was Major Gourdon himself, looking haggard and grey. He'd poured out far too much strength in trying to heal as many as possible. They moved as quickly as they could, but they had to be gentle. It just wasn't possible to rush and jolt people.
"Ace!" hissed Phil, as he gave all his strength to carrying one end of a stretcher. "I don't want to leave!"
"Neither do I, Phil, but we've got to."
"But Rob's got to stay. Don't split us up! I'll help load, then slip back to my unit. Tell Madge you lost me or something."
"Phil, if they catch you, they'll kill you," said Ace. "What if Rob came too?"
"Can you do that?"
"We could use a back-up engineer," said Will.
"Brilliant. OK, Phil, soon as we get these people on board, you get Rob, ask him to join the evacuation party as back-up engineer."
Rob didn’t need any persuading at all. If Will needed help with those wonderful machines, here he was. He and Phil were back at the hospital before the second party left, and his strong hands were a welcome help in carrying. Ace was anxiously watching the sky. He didn't think the enemy would have missed the purposeful activity between the hospital and the fairies' landing ground, where the helicopters stood waiting. A ground attack was unlikely, as what remained of the army's strength was now between them and the enemy elves in the forest. But an air attack was inevitable. How soon would it come? And would they attack the injured? Surely they wouldn’t stoop that low.
Will! Can you hear me?
Yes… but how? Without the Tree?
I don’t know. I just wondered… but for now, what’s the most vulnerable part of the helicopters? The rotor blades?
Ah. No, actually. They’d be easy enough to repair. It’s the windows. It’s toughened glass, but it’s still glass, and it’s terrible to work with, slow and difficult.
Got you. Look, here they come! Leave the passengers to me now, you defend the machines. How many do you need?
Another five. One on each machine and someone on ammo.
’Kay, Will. See you in Dovrefjell.
Their eyes met, then Ace shouted out orders.
“Rob and Phil, stay here and load the passengers. Rose, Clover, Sal, Douglas, help Will – and who can do ammo for them?”
“I can do ammo, sir!” said a gentle voice.
Ace spun round. It was a very young imp – probably a first year – with a broken leg.
“I can still fly, sir, at least as far as the ammo dump and back.”
“You brave imp. What’s your name?”
“OK, Gazania, there’ll be one person on each helicopter, try not to let them run out of stones!”
He gave her a big smile then raced back to the hospital again. As he picked up the end of another stretcher, Lieutenant Polesie gave him a backpack loaded with medical supplies.
“Still lots to move,” she said, “but everyone’s ready now, so I can help carry and so can the rest of the team.”
“That’s a great help,” gasped Ace. “Have you packed water?”
“Yes, someone’s got it.”
“Great, let’s move.”
As soon as they stepped outside again, Ace could see Will and the others taking careful aim at the enemy flyers as they came in to the attack. As he’d expected, they were going for the machines, and stones were raining down. But they couldn’t hover and aim carefully, the defence was strong enough to stop that, and Ace just hoped it would be enough. As they stopped to load passengers again, volleys of stones hit them too.
“Stay focused, keep moving!” yelled Ace.
Again and again, he and the other bearers raced back to the hospital. They were panting and sweating but they didn’t let up for a moment. Every one of them had cuts from stones, and Ace was sure that Will and the others were in the same case. Just so long as they had enough fit pilots… and so long as no windows were broken… they could still do it. There was no-one else in sight now, but Ace could hear the sound of fighting coming from across camp. Another battle raging… they might be leaving, but they were not leaving without a fight.
Finally, there was only one trip left to make. Gazania had some help now. There was so much ammunition on the ground that even the oldest fairies from Signals could pick it up and pass it to the defenders. Ace took a second to glance at Will, standing high up right on the roof of Elf 1, still taking aim carefully, tirelessly, accurately. But then there was an ominous cracking sound, as the enemy tried a clever move, coming in low and using a horizontal pelt. It sounded as if one of the windows had gone. Before Ace had time to check, another group of fairies came swooping down. This didn’t look good.
“Get back to the hospital!” shouted Ace. “I’ll catch you up.”
The fairies looked as if they were planning to land. Ace had his hand ready on his knife, but then he sighed with relief. It was the Commander with a small party from First Squadron. They drew their knives in the air and fell upon the attackers.
Immediately, Ace left them to it, knowing that this respite would give Will time to do repairs. He forced his tired legs to jump, so that he did catch up with the others as they were escorting the last group down the steps. Ace tore round checking no-one had been left behind, then gave an arm to a goblin who could walk but couldn’t see, his eyes swathed in bandages.
“General Arley!” called Ace. “Hospital’s clear, ma’am.”
The attack seemed to have been called off, at least for the moment, or else First Squadron had just finished them all off. Will was working on the window with Herbert, their glass specialist. It seemed to be cracked, not shattered, so perhaps that would be easier. Rob was fixing other minor damage. Madge turned when Ace spoke to her and he saw that she was talking to the Commander.
“Well done, Ace,” said the Commander. “Stay safe, Madge, and all these in your care. How we will manage without Signals, I don’t know, but try to keep in touch.”
“The Allies will help us,” said Madge, “and so will the realm. Our enemies think they are winning, as if we few were the whole army, when really they haven’t even scratched the surface.”
Gia’s tired face broke into a smile at that.
“Good to go, Ace,” called Will. “You’re piloting Elf 1.”
Will disappeared into Elf 2, and Ace gave Madge a hand as she climbed up into Elf 1. Then he saluted the Commander and closed the door.
Gia flew over camp. So much destroyed… and yet, nothing that couldn’t be replaced. They couldn’t stay here, and wait to be picked off one by one. After this last offensive, they needed to scatter and regroup. And once they had gone, the ancient buildings should be safe. Special Brigade wanted to make captives of them, not capture their base. Wanton destruction, especially of the Great Hall, would be very bad publicity for them. There were treasures in there that belonged to the whole realm, not just the army.
All the same, there was one treasure in particular they might be tempted to destroy, and one she particularly wanted to keep safe. She landed and slipped into the Great Hall. Her eyes misted over as she surveyed its ancient timbers and the banners hanging high overhead. But she briskly wiped her eyes and opened a glass case. The oldest crown in existence, Florentine gold from five hundred years ago, shrunk now, but made to fit Queen Luigia. Carefully Gia wrapped it in silk from the case, carried it to Signals and gave it to Pice Inari.
“Keep this safe,” she said. “If they overrun the place and you have to hide, keep it with you. Queen Luigia’s crown.”
“I understand,” said Major Inari.
He was looking less affected by grief and shock today, and more resigned to a wait that would test his courage and his patience.
“The Allies will help us,” said Gia. “If you have news, go to Karl. He can pass it to David, or Janusz, or Marta.”
“I will. But I hope I have nothing to say until the day when our Tree can pass on my words again.”
“I hope that too. From today, Pice, our Tree and our camp are in your care.”
Major Inari nodded seriously.
“Dear little Gia,” he said. “You always were beautiful and brave. Fly safely.”
How kind people were to each other in times of great danger, thought Gia. How much it meant to receive a heartfelt word or a small and simple loving gesture. Such kindness was powering the army this morning. No-one was uninjured, no-one had had enough sleep or more than a couple of gulps of water, but still they fought on. Led by Buchel Arnsberg and Rowan Harpsden, the elves and goblins had formed a solid column. Safe at its centre were the fairies whose wings had been burnt, who for now could not fly, Lisette among them. Holding its edges, their few reinforcements who had arrived just before dawn, Denmark 3 and even some from Supplies in Sweden and Technical HQ in Germany. The front of the column was narrow, so it had a lot of weight behind it, and it was fighting its way slowly and steadily towards the ruined western gatehouse. There was no disguising the fact that their plan was to fight their way down to the beach. Cam Bruach was leading the air support. Every imp and fairy there was focused on one thing, stopping Special Brigade from attacking the flanks of the column. They were pelting the enemy so fast and so hard that the stones were stained with blood before they hit, from their own torn hands.
Gia’s escort fell in behind her, and they were joined by a final band of second year fairies who’d been ordered to search the camp and make sure no-one had been left behind. All of them quickly gathered stones and flew straight into places where the defence was thinner. That final strengthening made Special Brigade fall back. The leading elves of the column gained more ground and they were nearly at the perimeter now.
Gia heard a whistle giving orders to the enemy. She didn’t know precisely what it signified, but she expected flyers. Straight away, they came out from the trees. They weren’t the same ones who’d been attacking the helicopters. They looked fresh, they were reserves, and they were carrying firebombs.
“Flyers respond!” shouted Cam, and Gia herself was one of the flyers who moved in to attack, knowing how few they had left who were armed. She drew her knife and went for the wings of the leading fairy, forcing her down before she could do any damage. But that was only one, and before Gia could bring down another, she heard yells of pain from elves and goblins as they tried to dodge broken glass and burning oil-soaked rags. They couldn’t hold their positions, the column was getting ragged and losing momentum. All around her, the Special Squadron reserves were being forced to the ground, but they’d done enough damage.
A voice from the front, it was Colonel Arnsberg, trying to keep them together. Too much was happening, Gia could hardly see through the smoke that was obscuring everything. Then came a terrible scream, and an elf whose clothes were on fire ran out of the column. Someone followed him, threw him down and put the flames out, but he paid a terrible price for his courage, because he was dragged away by Special Brigade. Another one captured. A goblin picked up the burned elf and carried him back into the column, but Gia had seen now who it was who had been taken. Sergeant Olt.
No, no! Her thoughts screamed in her mind, but it was no use. She had to focus, keep fighting, get this column moving again. Surely the leaders were at the gate now? They were, but so were more enemy reserves, all elves, and they formed a solid line, two deep, knives drawn.
“Charge!” came the order from the front, and the column moved faster. But at the front the fighting was hard and desperate. Gia could hear the clash of knives even as she fought hard to keep the flanks clear again.
“Cam, what’s happening?”
“I can’t see!”
The column suddenly stopped and a growl of fury seemed to reach up to the sky. The anger that rippled through the column told Gia that there had been another death. Suddenly, they were moving again, as though uncontainable grief was fuelling them, and they were away down the path to the beach.
Immediately, Gia, Cam and all the other flyers took up new positions, to hold back the enemy elves from pursuit.
“Commander!” It was Cam. “I’ve got this, ma’am, you can get down to the beach.”
“On my way,” Gia called back.
Every elf and goblin was kneeling on the sand, frozen with the pain of loss. Lying dead on the beach with a stab wound to the heart was Rowan Harpsden. His hair was loose and lay around his head like a pool of silver, and a sweet smile of peace was on his face.
Gia flew to his side and knelt also.
“You hero,” she said, and stroked his hand. But then she stood.
“We cannot grieve now,” she said. “Don’t let his sacrifice be in vain. You must get away while you still can.”
“Yes, ma’am,” said Colonel Arnsberg, his voice cracking.
There on the beach, just as they had hoped, was still the human-sized boat in which the enemy elves had crossed the fjord. The elves of England 3 worked together on it, to make it smaller, and it shrank so fast it made some people gasp out loud. Their skill was already finely tuned from night after night of working together, and right now they were so united in grief, they were on fire. As soon as they had finished, they lined up and carried their colonel’s body on board. The others followed them quickly and quietly.
“Well fought, bravely fought,” said Gia softly. “Goodbye, until we meet again.”
Already, the oars were in the water.
“Goodbye, Commander,” said Colonel Arnsberg. “Stay safe.”
Gia watched them sail to safety, then flew back up the path to rally her remaining flyers for one last battle.
As she skimmed the water of the fjord, mist coated her hair in tiny droplets and wet her bare arms and she was glad of it. The mist was good cover. Somewhere over here was their stash of captives. Shrunk, and caged – anger bubbled up just at the thought of it – they would be hard to spot. But their guards wouldn’t be, and those guards were just ordinary sprites and they would want water. Sooner or later, one of them would come out of cover to the shore of the fjord. The fairies spread out, patrolling constantly along the shore and the Commander kept listening for the signal that would tell her when a sighting had been made.
When it came, it was not quite from the direction she had been expecting. Further south around the bay... closer to the road. Did they have transport waiting? Hypocrites - ready enough to use human inventions when it suited them. Silently now, the flyers homed in on the same point and suddenly dozens of them switched on powerful torches on headbands. The Commander had no idea where they'd got them from, but she was delighted. The enemy fairies were disorientated, the prisoners were making as much helpful noise as they could, and best of all, everything was illuminated. With half a dozen of the best fighters helping her to defend the air corridor, the Commander fought off anyone who approached as all the rest of her flyers zoomed down in pairs, arms outstretched. She kept glimpsing down and it looked good. Each flyer was grabbing two, three or even four cages, as many as she could carry, and at once disappearing in the direction of the rendezvous point - Karl's garden in Hella. It wasn't all the captives. It wasn't even nearly all, it wasn't even half, but it was a lot better than nothing and it felt good.
At least, it felt good until she got the eyebrow cut. She'd had a headband but she'd lost it, and now her eyes were filling with blood like any inexperienced fighter. Fuming, she wiped her eyes and struck out again, but maybe she was tiring... maybe at last she had run out of strength. All those miles from Poland, the constant fighting since and the constant worry, had they taken too much out of her? She wasn't sure, but she felt curiously detached as she fell down through the air, scarcely aware of the horrified shouts above her, mingled with gloating triumph. She knew that when she hit the ground, pain and fear and worry would return, but for these few seconds she was like a falling leaf.
She didn't hit the ground, but that was only because hands were reaching up to grab her. They knew who she was, then... oh, how they would crow over this! Could she get away? She tried to wrench an arm free, to wipe away blood, to use her knife... no, knife gone... fists, then... but the more she struggled, the more arms came clutching. Three of her own fairies were flying to her rescue. They mustn't, they'd be caught themselves. One of them was a second year, Camellia Royden.
The Commander drew a deep breath.
"No! Leave me, stay on the cages! Get to the rendezvous, get away, get away!"
They had no chance, they could see. Seconds more and they would be prisoners themselves. Gia saw their stricken faces, saw them salute and turn, and then all she could see was a cup of potion being held in front of her face. Her nose was squeezed, her mouth wrenched open, and the cold stickiness trickled into her throat. She coughed, felt sick and shaky, then the world seemed to swirl around her and grow larger, and that was her last glimpse of Norway for a long time.
Despite her capture, the plans she had laid were going well. The flyers’ rescue mission had airlifted over a hundred sprites to safety. They were still shrunk, but they were free. The boat was nearing the shore, and those aboard would soon scatter to various rendezvous points. They hoped to lure the enemy away from the Tree and the camp, but not so quickly that they could be followed today. It was working; when General Huskvarna and his elves finally made it down to the beach, they found themselves alone and stranded, with the lengthy task of making a new boat ahead of them, before they could cross the fjord again.
So when General Huskvarna arrived on the far shore, he was in a very bad temper and his smile was a dreadful thing to see, even for his own troops. Several army sprites in cages had a rough fall as he kicked out.
“One hundred and thirty-six, gone? One hundred and thirty-six!” he fumed. He glared at his fairies, assessing the situation. “You gave your position away, didn’t you? I told you they had good people, I told you not to underestimate them, but you didn’t listen, did you? Incompetent idiots. I ought to shrink you instead and throw you in the fjord.”
“There’s worse, sir,” said the most senior fairy bravely. “His cage was right near the captives, and I’m very sorry, but…”
“No!” howled General Huskvarna. “Not my pet rat? Oh, how could you let him be taken? How could you?”
“We’re very sorry, sir. Their rendezvous can’t be far away, do you want us to fly around the immediate area to try to spot it?”
“No. What’s done is done. What I want now is to make sure their camp is empty. They want us to think they have all evacuated, but have they? Search every building, search the surrounding forest. Do it carefully. You can take all day over this. If you find anything, kill it, because if it is still there, it is up to something. Meanwhile, we will be loading these cages – what there are left of them – into the lorry.”
“We did gain one captive from the rescue party, sir,” said the senior fairy, hoping to placate the general. She hadn’t liked that order to kill and fervently hoped they didn’t find anyone over there.
“One! What use is one, when you lost us one hundred and thirty-six!”
“Ah, but see which one it is, sir.”
She held up the cage.
“Is that… it is! Well, well, Gia Biagioni. You captured the Commander herself? You redeemed yourselves with that. A bit. Now get over there and start searching.”
The fairies flew off, anxious to get out of his way, and General Huskvarna stood there looking at the unconscious Commander, until his evil smile became more thoughtful.
It seemed to him that the war was nearly won. His next task must be to explain to the realm how the envoys of parliament had abandoned their duties. They had gone, never to return, with only Special Brigade trying to hold things together. The realm was leaderless and in great peril from army attacks. Who would they choose to lead them out of this mess? He had no ambitions for himself, of course not. But if he were to be asked, he would bow to popular opinion and offer himself up to the service of the realm.
In all his calculations, there was one interested group he forgot about entirely. The Allies did not even register in his thoughts, and even if they had, he would have dismissed their potential to do him any harm. But then, he didn’t know much about them. He’d never met an Ally. He’d never even met a human.
If General Huskvarna wasn’t much interested in Allies, the same could not be said of the Allies concerning him. Every Ally young enough to have a computer had been checking David’s website constantly for days, while David himself hadn’t left his Ops Room, had hardly eaten or slept. So when Dale’s awful message came though, that the army had lost Signals and the computer room was on fire, he had been devastated. When Dale’s link went dead, David just sat there in shock staring at the screen. Eventually Rowan came round, bringing pizza. She saw the state he was in, and made him eat and drink and have a sleep while she watched the screen for him. It was way past midnight when David came back, and by then Rowan was yawning, but David was washed and shaved and in his right mind again.
“Thank you,” he said, and kissed the top of Rowan’s head. “You knew what I needed better than I did myself. Any news?”
“Nothing. Some messages – several – from across Europe, but all asking for information, asking if it’s true about Signals. No new information from anywhere.”
“Well, everyone’s probably asleep now. Exhausted, I should think. You go to sleep now too, and I’ll answer all these messages. You’ve got school in the morning.”
“No, I haven’t, it’s Saturday.”
“Of course,” said David. “Er… I knew that.”
“Try not to worry too much,” said Rowan. “I’ll be back in the morning.”
David spent a couple of hours reassuring all the anxious enquirers that no, they hadn’t missed a thing. The news had stopped abruptly and the situation at Fjaerland was clearly very bad, but right now they just didn’t know what was happening. Then he dozed in a chair for a couple of hours, and at 4am – 6am in Poland – the ping of a new message coming though woke him. Janusz was up.
Nothing, David typed. No emails since Dale’s last. Has the general had anything from Signals?
No, there is nothing but silence. We are cut off from each other and this is very bad. How about the mobile phone?
No, but that could just mean the phone needed charging and they haven’t had time to do it.
Ah, yes. Well, I have to go to work now, but only half a day. I leave computer on for the general, of course. I hope there is news soon. An unhappy elf, this is a sad sight.
I know exactly what you mean, typed David.
It was midday before any news came, but when it came there was a lot, a full news report on the website and it was from Karl. All across the realm the Allies devoured his words. They learned now about the evacuation and the raid to rescue captives, the awful news about the Commander and the heartbreaking news of Rowan Harpsden’s death. Gran Herdalen read the message again and again until every detail was firmly fixed in his mind. And knowing the places and people so well, his mind could fill in the gaps, hear the arguments, feel the dilemmas and the fear.
And now, Karl concluded, I have in my garden nearly fifty unhappy fairies and imps who have lost their Commander, and over a hundred rescued captives. But one of the captives is very sick. General Stalden says it is from the potion, and asks if anyone knows the antidote? She also says that her first job now is to restore the captives to their normal sizes, and this she will do in the natural way, not with potions, and that this will take time. I have told her that all are welcome to stay here as long as they need to.
Answers were already coming in, but they were mostly messages of sympathy and commiseration. Gran was astonished to see that David had posted the antidote, but then he remembered how it could be that he knew. As for the news, it was full of shocks, one dreadful pain after another, but the time for worrying was over. What was done was done, and now was the time to make new plans. First, he needed to get back to his troops to pass the news on to them. After that, he needed to think and think again. Things were bad, but not impossible. There were things they could do, and plenty of them, but how could they be done without Signals? Somehow or other, they had to get some communications, and they were going to need their Allies badly. Then another thought occurred to him. Would the enemy still be able to message? And if so, how? And if not, what were they going to be able to do about it? When Gran thought of Huskvarna’s brilliant plan, how he had outmanoeuvred him, it made him grind his teeth. But… Gran felt sure that in attacking the Tree he had not intended to damage his own communications. In his pride he might just have gone too far, and sown the first little seed of his downfall. It was the first glimmer of hope, and as he tried to tackle all the problems that were surrounding him, Gran nurtured the thought like sheltering a flame from the wind.