CHAPTER 16 - The Last Shall Be First
Leif Salvesen was a deeply humble man. Year by year his blessings increased, but he never felt he deserved them. Instead he looked at his life with wonder, amazed and grateful. Beautiful Inge had agreed to marry him… his precious daughter Marta had been born… his farm had prospered, he had fields of animals and grain, money in the bank and now, a son, his Pedr, just now up on his feet and walking. Life was good, so good, and every morning Leif’s heart was full of thankfulness.
Only one cloud was in the sky and that was his worry about Marta, who was not quite as other children. She had always been fey and wistful, full of imagination and fancies and that had been charming when she was tiny. But these things had not faded for Marta as she had grown. They had grown stronger. For a six year old to talk of elves and fairies had been sweet. In a twelve year old it seemed strange. He had to worry sometimes if she was quite right in her mind. Inge worried too, he knew. And yet Marta was loving and kind, hard-working and full of fun, in every other respect the best daughter one could wish for.
One Sunday morning in June, Leif stepped out and walked through his fields deep in thought. Marta had been worse than usual yesterday. This boy in England, the one with the website, he was making her worse. Perhaps it was his duty as a father to ban her from that site. He would hate to make her unhappy when she had done nothing wrong, but she was too imaginative. Other young people might be able to enjoy fantasy, but Marta didn’t seem able to tell the difference between fantasy and reality. It would be kinder in the long run, he felt, to help her focus on the real world.
She was out now, he could see her in the lower pasture, standing on the lowest bar of the fence and staring south. He walked across to join her and leaned on the fence.
“What a beautiful day,” he said.
“It smells so nice,” said Marta. “And the warmth on your skin is so soft.”
“Better than winter wind, isn’t it?” smiled Leif. “But that is the way of the real world, season following season, snow and sun, lambing and shearing. The real world is a beautiful place, Marta.”
“Oh, it is,” said Marta. “And we are so lucky to live here, aren’t we. But the world is so much bigger and better than people think. I am sure all the plants in the world are connected, like roads. Because roots must be a bit like roads, mustn’t they? Otherwise how could the sprites talk to each other? But David says they can’t now. Something has gone badly wrong. They are going to need a lot of help when they get here.”
“Ah yes, the sprites… Marta, sweetheart, I want to talk to you about that.”
“Oh, thank you,” said Marta. “Where shall we put them? There’ll be too many to go in the house, and I’m sure they won’t want to get in your way or be a nuisance.”
“No, Marta, you don’t understand. You’re talking as if this was really going to happen. Pretending is fine, but not when you start muddling up what’s real and what isn’t.”
“Oh, I know,” said Marta. “I could hardly believe it either when David said they were coming here. That dreadful battle, the enemy pressing them so hard and capturing so many, I would have given anything, anything, just to be able to go down to Sogn and scoop them all up in my hands and carry them to safety. And now, they are coming to me! The old ones, the injured ones, the ones most in danger from their enemies… all the ones most in need are coming to me and I’ll be able to protect them. It’s like a dream come true.”
“Marta, stop it. You sound like a crazy person who believes this! Can you hear yourself? Please, forget about this story and think about something else.”
Then Marta looked straight at him and he saw such sudden maturity in her eyes, such understanding, that he was startled.
“You don’t believe me. I’m sorry, I thought you believed in sprites, you told me you did.”
“Marta, that was years ago! When you were a little girl. I was pretending, it was all make-believe. You must know by now that it’s all just a pretty story? Tell me you understand this, please?”
“I can’t do that. They are coming. Lots of them. In helicopters.”
“What? What are you talking about? Helicopters? Even if there were such things as sprites, what on earth would they be doing in helicopters? This is nonsense!”
Marta climbed onto a higher rung of the fence so that she could look him in the eye. Her face was suddenly alight with mischief.
“So, if it is nonsense,” she grinned, “what are those?”
Worried beyond measure now, Leif looked where Marta pointed and his concerned remarks withered on his lips and never came back. For clear to be seen, flying down across the valley, were five tiny helicopters. Marta’s face was now alight with joy. She waved and jumped down from the fence and stood watching as the helicopters lost height and landed one after another in the soft grass.
Marta started running towards them, but Leif stood rooted to the spot. He knew his mouth must be hanging open and that his hands were gripping the fence so tightly that his fingers felt numb, as if he was clinging to a reality that was disappearing, trickling away like dry sand. He had tried to pull Marta back into his world, but she was drawing him into hers. He took a deep breath and followed her.
Marta’s joy was tempered by concern as the sprites began to emerge, stumbling or being carried. Some of them were unconscious, some were heavily bandaged, with bandages stained with green blood, and there were fairies with torn wings. Everyone was in a sorry state, in filthy and sweat-stained clothes, and every last one of them looked exhausted. Marta knelt in the grass, controlling an instinct to rush that might be overwhelming, letting her eyes weigh and assess, seeing what was needed. Then there he was, the one above all she longed to see, her beloved Ace, his bright hair dull with dust and his face streaked with oil. He stumbled towards her and touched her hand with his face.
“Hello, Marta,” he said. “I’ve come back. And I’ve brought quite a few with me.”
“It is so wonderful to see you,” she whispered. “I will help you all, you are safe now. Is your twin here? Oh yes, that is he, isn’t it, patting the helicopter as if it were a brave horse.”
“How did you know?”
“You told me that you and he did not look alike, as human twins can, but you shine the same.”
“Ace, is this Marta?”
“Yes, ma’am. Marta, this is one of our generals, and one of my dearest friends, Madge Arley.”
“Oh, to meet such a famous fairy! I am honoured.”
“I, too,” said Madge. “Is that your father, my dear?”
Marta nodded, almost too full to speak.
“We have landed on his farm without permission. I will speak to him.”
Marta and Ace couldn’t help smiling to see the encounter. Almost reluctantly, but with unerring and instinctive courtesy, Leif crouched down and Madge spoke in slow but accurate Norwegian.
“Herr Salvesen, I am General Madge Arley of the Sprite Army. These sprites you see here are refugees from battle and we are in great need of help. Please may we take refuge from our enemies here on your farm, and heal our wounds?”
Leif gathered his wits and attempted a reply. A couple of panicky croaks came out first, but once he managed to speak, he did so with warmth.
“Any friend of Marta’s is a friend of mine,” he said. “You are all welcome. Stay as long as you wish and I and my family will help you in every way we can.”
“Thank you,” said Madge. “The realm will be forever in your debt. We have sprites here who are near to death, but who will soon begin to recover if they are given goat’s milk to drink.”
“Goat’s milk?” said Leif. “Of that, I have an abundance. Please, rest your weary ones right here and I will bring milk to you.”
“Thank you, Father,” said Marta, even as Madge was thanking him.
He smiled back at her, a little shakily.
“You were right, little Marta. The world is indeed bigger than we think.”
Early on Sunday morning, David woke everyone up by racing from house to house around Cherrytree Close.
“They’re okay!” he said, as Gary, still in his dressing gown, let him in. “Just had an email from Will on Marta’s computer. Ace and Will, Rose and Clover, Madge, Phil and Rob… all safe on Marta’s farm, with all the others they took with them. I’ve got a great long list of names from Will, Gran Herdalen will want that.”
“He will,” said Sally. “You’ve got a busy day ahead of you. Here, have some breakfast.”
“Thanks, Sally. They had a dreadful journey. Some of the passengers were terrified and panicking and being sick. The injured were getting worse and they were having to fly slower and slower because they were low on fuel. When they found a petrol station, Ace and Will transformed to go and buy some, and it was only then that they realised that they only had English money.”
“Oh, no!” said Rowan. “What did they do?”
“The garage man wouldn’t take their money, but someone in the queue to pay took pity on them and gave them Norwegian notes for their English ones. And one of the helicopters got lost for a while, went the wrong side of a mountain, but they met up again on the other side, so that was all right.”
“So how many sprites are at Marta’s now?” asked Laura.
“Two hundred and twenty,” said David, crunching toast.
“That’s a lot! Do her mum and dad know about the sprites, or does she have to keep them secret?”
“They know now. Will said that Marta’s dad looked white with shock when he saw them, but he’s been wonderful.”
“I feel for him,” grinned Gary. “I know exactly what that feels like. I’ll send the guy an email myself, it might help him to be sure he isn’t going crazy.”
“Brilliant,” said David. “Thanks for breakfast. I’ll get over to Moseley Lodge now and take the news to Val and Primrose and Aesculus and Viola.”
“I’ll come too,” said Laura. “If the little ones are worried, I can take their minds off it. It’s time we started planning the party for Midsummer’s Eve, it’s only a week away.”
“So it is,” said David. “I’d forgotten. A sad Midsummer it will be for the sprites this year.”
Betch Knightwood was now a veteran of twenty-five escape attempts, none of them successful. Once, he’d made it as far as the railway station, but as he knew now, getting away from that tiny forest station was just impossible. He wasn’t giving up, though. Maybe one day he’d succeed, and even if he didn’t, he knew that his exploits encouraged others to keep up a spirit of resistance. Cheering people up was what he was good at, it was his job and he wasn’t going to let parliament spoil that.
Not that anyone would need much cheering up today, even in prison. It was Midsummer’s Eve, and it was one of the most beautiful days Betch could remember. The air was warm and full of the scents of new grass and fresh leaves, and even in the exercise yard, the sunshine made dappled pools of gold on the ground. Overhead, the canopy was bright with a thousand different greens, and beyond that were patches of intensely blue sky.
The only trouble was, it was almost too beautiful. It made you think of home. Just beyond the fence a birch was growing, so near and yet so far. Betch winced with the hurt of yearning for his own tree. So many memories… for a moment, his eyes closed, and without his realising he was doing it, his hands moved as if they were touching the trunk, feeling the white bark. And then Bjørk was by his side, planting a large and comforting hand upon his shoulder. He understood. He was a birch too.
“The height of you,” he said, “your tree must be a tall one. Graceful, too, I’ll bet.”
“It sure is. I don’t do it justice. But not the tallest, not in our forest, with all those oaks and ashes around.”
“Must be good country. I went near there once with Gran Herdalen, when we were young elves. On our way to clear up an oil spill, that’s where we were going. Such rich forest I saw, I was amazed. Now my home is on a hill, tall and bleak. It overlooks the most beautiful lake in Sweden, but a tree has to be pretty strong to grow there. Not much beside birch, and those there are, small and stocky.”
“Tough, though,” said Betch. “Toughest of the lot, really, aren’t we, except for pines, maybe.”
Bjørk looked as if he was about to make some joke about pines, but the words died on his lips. An extraordinary noise was breaking through the silence of the forest, a noise they knew well, but had never heard here.
“An engine? What’s that doing in the forest? I thought they said humans never came here?”
“Whatever it is, they’re expected,” said Betch. “Look at the guards. They don’t seem surprised.”
“You don’t miss much,” said Bjørk approvingly. “Let’s see if we can get a look at what’s happening.”
The best view they could get was through a crack in a fence. From there, they could see the main path. The noise became overwhelmingly loud, then stopped.
“About a hundred yards away,” said Betch. “Human-sized, by the noise of it, that’s probably as close as it can get.”
“Troop transfer?” guessed Bjørk. “Fresh guards? Too many for the train, so they used a lorry?”
“Could be… oh no. Look, Bjørk, it’s new prisoners. I can see the cages.”
They’d seen those cages many times before, and their hearts sank. New people to share their plight was not good news. But when they saw just how many cages were being unloaded they looked away, and looked at each other in consternation.
“This does not look good,” muttered Bjørk. “I think there’s been a battle.”
Other elves were coming across to the fence. They’d heard the engine too and were hurrying to see what Bjørk and Betch were looking at. Bjørk started giving a running commentary. Betch started counting. As the numbers grew higher and higher, the elves’ voices changed from curious to angry, and then the guards intervened. They weren’t rough but they pulled them away from the fence, speaking firmly but calmly.
“Yes, there has been a battle,” one of them said. “It is nothing to worry about. It is good news, the war is nearly over.”
Betch was not prepared to believe that the war was nearly over, but he felt there was little point denying that there must have been a big battle. Parliament couldn’t have taken so many prisoners – nearly 300 – in some small raid or skirmish. So many, that they’d thought it worth their while to use a lorry, when human technology was something they preferred to avoid.
“This won’t be judges and Hill workers, then,” said Bjørk. “This will be army. I wonder who they’ve got?”
“At least we’ll get some news now,” said Betch. “Just what has been happening out there?”
It would be hours before they could speak to any of the new arrivals. They knew the ropes… the new sprites would be given potion to swallow, then Special Brigade’s senior officers would restore them to their normal sizes. After that, they would be allowed to rest for a few hours. Then they gave you a drink and a prison uniform and showed you round, telling you all the rules in the kindest possible voices. Their you were wrong about us, look how nice we are tactics started right away.
“They might do things differently today,” said Bjørk. “Seeing as it’s Midsummer’s Eve.”
Betch agreed. He had heard faint sounds of musical instruments over the last few days. Rusty and not too competent, but there had been some rehearsing going on, so something was being planned.
Betch and Bjørk got summoned inside after that, to attend a lecture on how many trees it cost to build one mile of motorway, and then their help was requested to make shoes. Guessing that these were needed for the new arrivals, they joined in with a good will. Finally, in the early evening, they were asked to line up with the others and were escorted to a part of the prison grounds they hadn’t seen before. Betch looked around with interest – you never knew what information might be helpful for a new escape plan – and saw that they had gone past the barracks where the inside guards lived, and were now in a large garden, presumably for the use of the guards and Special Brigade themselves. It had wide lawns and banks of flowers and herbs, and the scent, after such a hot day, was mesmerising. There was a fountain too, and on a stone plinth around it a group of musicians was talking nervously while unpacking instruments..
“Please relax here for a while,” said their escort. “Many others will be joining us, but it will be necessary to wait a short time.”
No-one minded. When you were in prison, any change of scene was welcome, and this was a very pleasant spot. After a short time, some of the guards came to join them, but their stilted attempts at conversation were soon forgotten as the new arrivals began to emerge. Most of them looked completely dazed, but relieved to be their own real sizes once again. They were feeling their heads and arms as if to reassure themselves that it was true. Then the silence was broken as people saw friends and greeted them. It was subdued – no-one was glad to see a friend made captive – but in a place like this, a familiar face was a very welcome sight.
Someone he knew was amongst this crowd, then, but who was it? He tried to spot who had called him.
Betch gave her a hug.
“It doesn’t seem right to say glad to see you, but you know what I mean.”
“I do. Jenny’s here too, you remember Jenny Gutsch, don’t you?”
“Of course I do. Anyone else from our year?”
“No, only us, but they got Sergeant Olt.”
“Sergeant Olt? But he never leaves…”
The words died on Betch’s lips as a sudden silence fell. All around him, it was sinking in. The enormity of what had happened was becoming clear. Into the silence another fairy stepped out, dressed like everyone else in a plain green prison tracksuit, but with unshakeable poise and unmistakeable gold and purple streaks, Gia Biagioni.
“Commander!” breathed Betch, and he wasn’t the only one.
At once, all together and instinctively, every army sprite there stood up and saluted.
All they wanted to do was talk, and the guards had the sense to let them. They moved off to another part of the garden, where bowls of drinks were waiting, and left the prisoners in peace. But around the Commander, no-one was interested in drinks right then. Questions were flooding in from all sides, because this was the first chance the new arrivals had had to talk to each other. Some of the fairies had been taken in the battle over the fjord, and had no idea what had happened after that.
The Commander answered willingly anything that was asked of her, but mostly she was quiet, watching and listening. It was actually Sergeant Olt himself, who had been involved in the defence right from the start, and had been one of the last to be captured, who was able to put the whole story together. It made grim listening. It was one shock after another, and Betch felt devastated. Under the grief and horror he felt, there was a thread of disappointment. It pained him to admit it, but he just wished so much that he had been there. Such a big battle… such an important battle, and he had missed it. Impatient with himself, he tried to push such thoughts away. This was no time for self-pity. Besides, even if he hadn’t already been a captive, he still wouldn’t have been there. England 1 were still guarding the Hills, and that’s where he would have been, missing out on the action like all the rest of First Regiment.
“It’s General Széchenyi I’m worried about,” said Sizzle. “She was injured at the battle over the fjord, I saw her fall, and then the same thing happened to me. But she’s not here, so they can’t have captured her.”
“And she never made it to camp,” said the Commander. “She could have drowned. One or two did, and one day we will find out who and honour them. But somehow, I don’t think that is what has happened to the general. Don’t worry, Sizzle. I think we will see her again one day.”
“Drowned?” said Sergeant Olt, aghast. “I hadn’t heard that. Our own flyers, drowning in our own fjord?”
“I’m sorry, Luke, but yes, it’s so.”
The sergeant’s face seemed to crumple. Sorrow after sorrow had been told, and this was one grief too many for the kindly elf to bear. His eyes overflowed with tears. And that was too much for Betch, whose control had been getting very wobbly. He found himself crying too, and he wasn’t the only one. The more elves began weeping, the more they set others off, and for once no fairy was rolling her eyes and sighing over such emotion. Some of them were crying too, and the ones that weren’t were sober and serious, quietly patting shoulders and trying to help and comfort.
Fighting to get his self-control back, Betch looked up to the sky for peace and calmness. It was nearly dark now. It was still warm, though, and the stillness of the night was so perfect that it could have moved anyone to tears all by itself. And into that scene of beauty and pain walked Blanche Hakarp, smiling brightly.
“Dear fellow-sprites,” she said, “we understand why you grieve. So many things will seem sad until you understand more. But for now, wipe away your tears and join us. See, the musicians are ready. Come and dance for Midsummer.”
At first, there was just silence, then a murmur of disbelief. Anger was breaking through the pain. But then the Commander stood up.
“I will accept your invitation,” she said. “The reasons we dance at Midsummer are bigger than any of us. Bigger than any quarrel, bigger even than war. And tonight, it is more important than ever. The harm done by Lars Huskvarna is worse than you understand. Dancing will not heal that harm, but not dancing would make it even worse.”
Blanche’s bright smile faltered at the Commander’s gracious but serious tone, and she said no more, but simply led the way to where the musicians were waiting. Betch didn’t understand what the Commander meant any more than Blanche did, but he immediately fell in behind her and so did all the other army sprites. He’d never felt less like dancing, but if the Commander thought it was that important, that was good enough for him. And behind the army came the civilians, some of the older ones nodding wisely.
The musicians were all sprites that Betch recognised. They were the local elves, the ones that guarded inside the perimeter, and their instruments were very German and mostly brass. Betch had to admit it did sound good as they started playing. Before everyone spread out to form the circle, the Commander passed a message around.
“Forget the war. For tonight, forget it completely. Think of your friends, especially those who are far away. That will help more than anything.”
That wasn’t hard, thought Betch. The dancing was serious, almost stately, taken at a very steady pace, and he didn’t have to concentrate at all to keep up. And there was no real unity in the circle. The army and their captors might be dancing in the same ring but their hearts were not close at all, and that made it easy to let your thoughts fly free. This was all so different – no bowl to share, no English uniform to wear – but he didn’t miss those things as much as he missed Dale.
Betch thought of the last time he’d seen Dale, the day he’d left for home with Fran and Peter to take up their appointments with England 1. He’d promised then to come back for Graduation Night, but that wasn’t going to happen now. Dale’s year had been robbed of so much. It didn’t seem fair. Yet the more he thought of Dale, the more he could sense Dale’s reaction. They’d been there when they were needed – graduated through fire and battle – and Betch realised that they wouldn’t have changed a thing, and that in their place he would have felt the same.
Where are you now, old friend? thought Betch.
The elves were scattered over Sogn and Dale could have been anywhere, but Betch suspected he would have been sent to Karl in Hella. Communications were desperate now, and Dale had skills that few elves shared.
Is this why we must dance? thought Betch. Does it help our thoughts go further? I don’t know. But I’m thinking of you, Dale. Miss you… so proud of you… oh, won’t we have some stories to share when we meet again.
Just at that moment, lost in his thoughts and with his feet touching up and down in the grass, sending tremors through the roots, Betch was completely free.
It took a while before Dale realised that Betch was thinking of him. So much had happened in the last few days that he’d forgotten all about Midsummer. But the most senior sprite there at Karl’s, General Stalden, had said that Midsummer was Midsummer no matter what else was going on, and dance they would, no matter that they had no music and half of them were still shrunk to the size of butterflies.
But Karl had known what was needed. He had provided milk, and a bowl, and even music, a CD he’d dug out, of folk tunes played on the Hardanger fiddle, and it wasn’t far off their usual sort of tunes, not far off at all. He was standing there watching them now, a benign smile on his kind face and his hands making drumbeats on his woodpile in time with the fiddle.
To Dale, it all seemed very strange but he took it in his stride and concentrated hard on not treading on anyone small. He was wary of clumsiness and didn’t want to go down in history as the elf who’d killed a shrunken fairy by treading on her. It was in a slower dance that he felt the connection with Betch. He sensed love, and also worry, and wished he could reassure Betch that he was all right.
Wish I could send you an email. But what’s an email, anyway, but something whizzing along invisibly? What it is, and what it’s whizzing through, no-one knows. Well, Will probably does, but no-one else.
He let his fingers dance on nothing, as if they were pounding the keyboard as they had done for so many days.
I miss you. Stay safe, Betch. But don’t worry. Everyone here is fine and we haven’t gone far. We’ll be back.
Then it stopped feeling strange. It was Midsummer and the sprites were dancing and just for this moment, all was well. Dale’s thoughts turned to home, and especially to the two birches, standing side by side, so alike and yet so different. But both beautiful – how they’d be shining now, in the soft English twilight.
They’d be dancing at home, too… were any of his friends there, or were they all on duty? He just didn’t know, but in his mind he could see them all as they had been a few years ago, so young and so carefree… himself and Betch, Fran and Peter, and Stella. But however bad things were, he wouldn’t have gone back. This was real, and it mattered. Well, Stella was Messengers… they’d be sorely needed right now, she could be anywhere. Where were Fran and Peter, though? Still at Owler Tor? Did they even know what had happened here? Dale concentrated hard and wished them both well. His fingers were still dancing as swiftly as his feet.
Fran wasn’t at home, but he wasn’t at Owler Tor either, and that was because the news had spread further and faster than the army realised. And that was because of the Allies. Organised by David, as many Allies as possible had travelled to their local Hill, if it was in friendly hands, to pass on the news. And David was in touch with so many Allies now that at least one Hill got the message in over a dozen countries. The judges and army officers who heard it were appalled. Stricken with grief and bewildered, when they gathered their wits their first emotion was gratitude. Without the Allies, the whole realm would be floundering in confusion. Secondly they sensed urgency. They had to spread this news, get it out to the other Hills and the larger colonies.
David himself had driven out to Owler Tor, and Judge Calder had used all his resources to get the news out to the hundreds of colonies in his region. And Colonel Pentreath, knowing that Special Brigade’s strength had been pulled north for the big battle, judged it safe to send parties off to different parts of the country. So that was why Fran and Peter had spent the last few days heading south to Bat’s Castle. They’d hoped to be home to the New Forest to spend Midsummer’s Eve at Knightwood, but heavy rain and cancelled trains had put an end to that plan. In Dale’s imagination, the English evening had been bathed in a gentle rose-tinted violet twilight, In reality, low cloud made it almost dark and it was still raining.
“At least we don’t have to climb the hill,” said Peter.
“Good job too,” said Fran. “Way too slippy. But where in the wood is the new entrance? I can’t remember, can you?”
“Haven’t a clue. But perhaps they won’t be indoors – tonight, you know?”
“Let’s hope so,” said Fran.
They slipped into the wood at the foot of the hill. It was a bit drier under the trees, but not much, and it was considerably gloomier. But they thought they could hear sounds of activity to the west, and they headed that way. Almost immediately their progress was blocked by a large goblin with a suspicious expression.
“Oh,” said Fran, “Captain Tavy, isn’t it? We are Fran and Peter Knightwood, England 1. We’ve come down from Owler Tor with a message for the judge.”
The goblin’s expression changed instantly.
“You’ve had a long journey. Come with me, and I’ll get the judge for you.”
Captain Tavy led the way through a more sheltered glade, where some optimistic fairies were hanging lights in the lower branches, into a mossy cave where a fire was burning.
“Come in, come in,” said the goblin. “Hey, Mickle, we’ve got some important visitors here. Look after them while I get the judge.”
“All right, Captain,” called the red-headed elf. “Wow, you’re soaked, aren’t you? Miserable day it’s been. Shouldn’t be allowed to rain at Midsummer, should it? That’s it, come and sit by the fire. Can I get you a drink while you’re waiting?”
Fran’s tired smile was full of gratitude.
“That,” he sighed, “would be wonderful. Thank you.”
By the time the judge arrived, they were both feeling warmer and more cheerful. They recognised her at once and stood up when she entered the cave.
“Fran and Peter?” she said. “I remember you now I see you. You were here at the battle for the Hill, weren’t you? And now you have travelled all the way back from Owler Tor. Please, tell me your news. We heard about the call for troops to defend Fjaerland, and there has lately been an ominous silence.”
Peter had memorised Colonel Pentreath’s official report.
“Sad to say, ma’am, Fjaerland has fallen to the enemy. Hundreds of captives have been taken, and the rest have evacuated to various locations. Worse, the Tree himself suffered damage at the hands of General Huskvarna. He could even be dying, because we have lost Signals. Amongst the captives was the Commander herself.”
Judge Hestercombe stared at them in horror, then spoke in almost a whisper.
“I can scarcely take it in. I had a feeling things were going badly, but not this badly.”
She asked several shrewd questions which Fran answered to the best of his knowledge. Then she asked how Owler Tor had come to hear of it so quickly.
“Because of an Ally, ma’am. David Chambers himself drove to Owler Tor to pass on the news, which he had had by computer.”
“Extraordinary. We have never had such help before, but I think we are going to be in sore need of it in this war. What orders do you have next?”
“To make our way to the New Forest and take the news to our home colony.”
“Of course, Knightwood is a big colony, your people there can spread the message. But you remind me… young Betch, is he a friend of yours? Did he get those little ones home safely?”
“Yes he did, ma’am, but he was captured at Owler Tor. He’s been taken to the enemy prison camp in Germany.”
“That I am very sorry to hear. I owe that young elf my freedom. I hope he will soon be liberated, and all our other friends with him.”
For a while, the judge was silent, as if lost in thought, but then she spoke decisively.
“The sprites who live here have suffered. The loss of friends to that same prison camp, the burning of their work and their home. I think we will not pass on this sad news to them tonight.”
“Let them enjoy the evening in peace, you mean, ma’am?” said Fran.
“Exactly. And I think you two should do the same. You have not had an easy time yourselves. Despite the rain, we will dance, and concentrate on the good things we still have. Tomorrow, when we are all strengthened, we will tell them.”
“Whatever you say, ma’am,” said Fran.
“Then rest now, my dears, and get dry. And then join in with light hearts, for if there is one thing that Midsummer teaches us, it is that all of life is a pattern. And dark always changes to light again. Always.”
Whether the friendship came from the unity or the unity from the friendship, Fran wasn’t sure. He just knew he felt great warmth in his heart towards every sprite he was dancing with, even though he actually knew very few of them. But he didn’t forget his other friends, so widely scattered now. Especially Betch – he was so far away that he seemed lost to them. Yet tonight, somehow the distance seemed less daunting. But how were they all going to keep in touch without the Tree? The isolation might seem less when they were dancing, but they couldn’t dance all the time. And yet… the news was going round, all the same. Thanks to people making long journeys to take it, yes, but more thanks to people with computers and mobile phones. Thanks to Allies, and particularly to David.
Fran thought back to when he had met David, that day at Owler Tor. It was the first time he’d ever spoken to a human. It had been overwhelming. The thought that such a man, so huge, so strong, so handsome, should care about sprites, was extraordinary. Yet David had acted as if the honour was his – he had even said so, said what an honour it was to meet one of Ace’s team. He knew Fran was an ash, knew where Knightwood was, and had thanked him very much for his care of Aesculus and Viola.
“Aesculus sends his love,” David had said. “He misses his time with England 1 and he wanted to come, but we’re trying to keep the worst of the war news from him and Viola.”
“That sounds wise,” Fran had said. “They’re so little. Aesculus seems to know so much, it’s easy to forget how young he is.”
“He’s throwing himself into learning science. And nothing, absolutely nothing daunts him. If you ask me, when he grows up he’s going to be like Ace and Will put together.”
“I’m not sure the realm can handle that.”
And David had grinned at him, a lovely, friendly grin, that warmed Fran’s heart just to remember it.
“Neither am I, Fran, neither am I.”
Back at Moseley Wood, Gary and Sally Grey were holding their third Midsummer’s Eve party. What had started as a way to remind baby Aesculus of sprite things was now just as much a celebration for the Allies. Aesculus had proudly worn his Cheshire uniform that Clover had made for him on Rowan’s birthday, and Viola, Primrose and Val had worn lovely green dresses. It hadn’t rained up here, the north had had a fine warm evening, and everyone had been outside, dancing to the music of flute and guitar, and drinking – and in some cases, eating – the good things Gary and Sally had provided. Now, it was late in the evening and the little sprites were nearly asleep, heads nodding as they tried to stay awake.
Val and Primrose were nearly speechless, being so full of emotion. It was so long since Primrose had been a fairy at Midsummer, and Val never had, and they were just too overcome. So it was mostly the humans doing the talking, and especially David, who was more than a little drunk. No-one blamed him. He’d been working so hard for so long that even tonight Rowan had found it hard to persuade him it was okay to leave the computer. But it was communications that were uppermost in his mind.
“Mobile phones,” he said. “That’s what they need. Not just a few. One each for all of them. That’d be even faster than Signals, wouldn’t it?”
“Well, yes, if you could get them to work,” said Gary. “It’s not just the devices, it’s the networks.”
“They might be able to get them to work,” said Sally. “When you think how many old phones there must be lying around – I bet there’s hardly a house anywhere in Europe that hasn’t got at least one old one lying around.”
“Recycling,” said Rowan, “the sprites would love that. How could we get people to give their old phones to the sprites?”
“Doorsteps,” said David.
David waved his hands.
“Like in the old days. Milk.”
“He really has lost it,” said Dominic.
“No, he’s right,” said Sally. “Sprites wanted milk. If you left them some, they came and did things for you. We need to get people to leave their old phones on the doorstep, and let them know that if they do, sprites will do things for them.”
Laura gasped with excitement at the idea, but the practical Tony was more sceptical.
“How could you get that many humans to do it? And how could you let enough sprites know to look on doorsteps again?”
“Well, the sprites could pass it on to each other like they are doing with the news about Fjaerland,” said Sally. “From the Hills to the big colonies, then out to the smaller colonies.”
“Hmm,” said Gary. “What’s really worrying me is that this is starting to sound plausible. You could check it out with one of the sprites. Not Ace. Someone sensible like Madge.”
“All right, I will,” said David. “We have to do something.”
“Yes, said Rowan. “And they need more Allies. Lots more Allies. This would be a great way to get them, if we could think of a way to let humans know about it.”
“Youtube video,” said David. “Starring you.”
Dominic laughed and Laura giggled but Gary looked more thoughtful.
“Yes, that could work. A video of my daughter – what could be more natural than sharing a link with all my contacts?”
“Oh!” said David. “And in your job, you’ve got hundreds of contacts. All in media… it’ll go viral!”
“With a bit of luck,” grinned Gary. “If Madge gives the go-ahead, I’ll borrow a really good camera. This is going to be fun!”
The men were so pleased with themselves, they had another beer. Sally was persuading Laura that she really ought to go to bed, and Val was explaining to Primrose what ‘going viral’ meant. Amidst the bustle, Aesculus said he was going to see his tree and quietly slipped away. He could feel it calling him and suddenly he wanted so much to be in its branches that he couldn’t wait.
He jumped the garden fence and then hurried across the silent car park to the great horse chestnut, still towering protectively over its surroundings as if had when the land had been Wildside, and the farm before that. His heart seemed to swell inside him for sheer love and at first he just jumped from branch to branch in his excitement. But he was tired, and soon settled down in a comfortable nook. It was a bit lonely being the only elf here tonight. He wished that Ace and Will were here. But they were back in Norway, so far away. Maybe he could phone them? What was that David had been saying about old phones? Sprites could make old phones work?
Aesculus had an old phone. Tony had given it to him so he could pull it apart and see how it worked, and Aesculus had been very pleased with himself for getting the battery to work. He pulled it out of his pocket and switched it on. As usual, it lit up and then words came that said, no network connection. Aesculus sighed. Networks were a human thing, very complicated for sprites to join in. Ace and Will had done it, but even for them, it hadn’t been easy.
Oh, please work! thought Aesculus. I only want to talk to Will.
Nothing happened and Aesculus sighed again and laid the phone down on the branch. He reached up to play with some leaves. If he couldn’t have his friends, at least he had his tree, and maybe somehow his friends would know he was thinking of them. Betch too – he was in Germany, David had said. And General Gran was in Poland. Tony had shown him on a map where these places were, and they were so far away that Aesculus could hardly imagine it. Maybe tonight, when everyone was dancing – maybe tonight his thoughts could get across all those miles.
Then Aesculus nearly jumped out of his skin because the phone made a buzzing noise. The screen turned green and began to glow.
“Wow, it’s working!”
Carefully he picked it up. It felt different, it felt alive. He scrolled to find Will’s number and pressed ‘call’.
“It’s ringing, it’s ringing!” he told his tree.
And then Will answered. He sounded puzzled.
“No, it’s me, it’s Aesculus! Hello Will, Happy Midsummer!”
“Aesculus? Oh, it’s lovely to hear you! Happy Midsummer to you too. Did Tony lend you his phone?”
“No, it’s his old one, he gave it to me.”
“His old one?”
“That’s right, I made the battery work, but no network. Until tonight, it came alive all by itself, it must have found a sprite network!”
“That’s… that’s amazing. What did you do?”
“I went in my tree, and wished it would work so I could talk to you, and it did! Will, what’s happening where you are?”
“Er… Ace is a captain now, isn’t that great? I made a blue wristband for him when he wasn’t looking, and he was so happy.”
“Does that mean he can tell you what to do now?”
“Ha ha, he can try! What have you been doing tonight?”
“Had a party at Gary and Sally’s, and I danced with Viola. Will, can I talk to Ace too?”
“Of course, he’s here… Ace, we have a call from Aesculus.”
Ace came bounding over, and, assuming that Aesculus was just using David’s phone, simply chatted over the evening and wished Aesculus a happy night in his tree. So when he switched the phone off, he was surprised to see Will sitting there staring as if he had had a huge shock.
“What is it?” said Ace, rather worried.
“He was using Tony’s old phone. Which has no network connection whatsoever. And he phoned us from his tree. He’s not picked up any random signals from there. As far as I can see, he’s phoned us without using any human signals at all.”
“How?” demanded Ace in consternation.
“I don’t know,” said Will. “But I have to find out. Because when we know the answer, it will be the answer to the question everyone’s asking – how are we going to manage without Signals.”
“Good grief,” said Ace. He thought for a bit, then added, “You need to go home.”
“I do. As soon as possible. Madge will surely give permission once she understands.”
“If you take one of the helicopters you’ll be there and back in no time. D’you want me to come with you?”
“I’d love it, but better not. It would be hard on Marta who’s been longing to see you all this time. And it’s a chance to test our own connection. Will it hold up at that distance, with things as they are?”
“As to the first, Marta is just happy to be with sprites, I think. It doesn’t have to be me. But as to the second, I think you’re right. We need to know. It’s possible we’re the only ones who can message at all at the moment.”
“I never heard of a mystery like this. I don’t know if I can solve it, Ace. There seems to be more than just science going on here.”
“Maybe it’s a kind of science that no-one’s discovered yet,” said Ace. “Anyway, if anyone can solve it, you can. If you ask me, the Premier got the wrong twin in his old prophecy. But you know what the hardest part will be, don’t you?”
“Explaining it to Madge?”
“Yep. But maybe you could get Clover to help.”
“As a sort of translator, you mean? That could work. Because it will have to wait till morning now. Look, Leif and Inge and Marta are going in now, it must be very late.”
“Let’s go and say goodnight,” said Ace.
The sprites hadn’t expected anything of Midsummer’s Eve this year. They were just grateful to be alive and safe, glad of the chance to rest and get better. But Marta had heard all about it from David, and in any case, Midsummer’s Eve is a special time for humans too, in northern Europe. Her parents had joined in with a good will, and the sprites had found themselves honoured guests at a very merry party. The tables may have been bricks but the cloths upon them were as white as snow and the bowls were as full of delicious things to drink as any table in Fjaerland. Inge had played dance tunes for them on her keyboard, and the sprites had been amazed at how familiar they sounded. Marta, with flowers in her hair, had danced and danced, with the sprites, or with her father, until finally she was too tired to resist any longer her mother’s hints that it might be bedtime.
She held out her arms to the sprites as they came running towards her, Ace and Will among them. The elves clustered at her feet and the goblins stood shyly back, gazing. The fairies swooped around her in a cloud.
“What a happy evening,” said Marta softly. “Didn’t we dance? And for a little while we could forget the troubles out there. But happier times are coming. I can feel it. Goodnight, dear sprites, see you tomorrow.”
“Goodnight, Marta… thank you… goodnight Leif, goodnight Inge!”
A chorus of sweet voices followed the humans as they went into their house, then the sprites quietly went their separate ways. Some, only just recovered, were ready for sleep. Some went to walk alone in silent thought, some settled down to drink and talk the night away. Ace and Will wandered off together, looking deep in thought. Finally, only Madge remained, speechless and transfixed. The image of Marta then had been quite… extraordinary. Madge felt shaken to the depths of her being, yet excited too, as if it were the first day of spring.
More than anything at that moment she wished she could talk to Gran Herdalen.
Oh, Gran, she thought. Everything went wrong and yet I don’t feel I could have done anything differently. There is a pattern here that I can’t see clearly yet, but I am sensing that all of this was meant to be. It is over to you now, my dear.
At that very moment, Gran Herdalen was alone too, walking in the forest outside Rogalin. Over there in the east, it was already way past midnight and the dancing was over, and Gran was at peace. All the same, it had been a strange evening, especially when the fighting had started.
The sprites of divided Rogalin had invited all of them for Midsummer’s Eve – marchers, army and captured Special Brigade alike – and Gran had accepted. It had felt important. He wasn’t sure why, but he knew not to ignore a strong gut instinct. And so the Marcher Regiment had brought their prisoners, intending to let them have fresh air and good things to drink. But when the pro-parliament sprites of Rogalin saw the prisoners they protested loudly, demanding they be untied so they could join in properly. Gran suspected that this had been their plan all along, and the reason they had agreed to the invitation. He had a pretty shrewd idea what would happen. Checking his knife was in place, he smiled and bowed to the wishes of half his hosts.
The moment the prisoners were free, the music of the band was drowned out by battle cries. The Wielkopolska Unit grabbed weapons where they could – from the unwary, from their friends from Rogalin – and pulled together in a neat move that Gran strongly approved of, and started battering their way through the crowds, towards the forest, towards freedom.
Before anyone else had really taken in what was happening, Gran was shouting orders in Norwegian and his troops were responding with speed, creating a wedge designed to push the would-be escapers back into the crowd.
And all the while, he was thinking. He needed to show Special Brigade - and the colony too - that the army could not be caught unawares and could deal with anything that was thrown at it. Some of the marchers were pulling back, not sure what to do. Some of them weren’t even armed. The Czech goblins, however, were joining in with enthusiasm. They didn’t know Norwegian but they knew a good fight when they saw one.
The troops on both sides were intensely angry, having been denied the battles they thought they should have had. Yet their anger wasn’t really directed at those they were fighting now. But that didn’t matter, it didn’t stop them fighting hard and bitterly. Once Gran had directed the shape, he plunged in and fought like the rest. Tempers were spilling over, it was fierce and it was bloody. These enemy were very good troops indeed, and they were fighting well, but they lacked direction and after many days as prisoners they were stiff and lacking in fitness. The army had the edge with numbers and it did begin to tell.
Once he had them well surrounded, Gran called a halt, but then kept quiet. He already knew what he was going to do, but he wanted to see what others said and how people reacted.
“Let them go!”
Predictably, it was Rogalin’s pro-parliament sprites who made the first call. The interesting thing was that the marchers, who had captured the prisoners, were not protesting against the idea. Respect for a worthy enemy? Respect for the night? Could be either, could be both. How many of the sprites here understood how that capture had happened, how the Wielkopolska Unit had been betrayed and sacrificed? He had a feeling that the unit themselves did.
“Why not?” said Gran. “These are good elves, great fighters. I respect you.”
Panting and wary, the unit one by one lowered their bloody knives.
“Just remember this,” Gran called out, “and I say this to everyone here, it was not the army that dismissed parliament. The army is fighting for freedom. And that includes the freedom to sit around in a parliament talking, if that is what some sprites want to do. If any envoys return, they are in no danger from us. But the realm does not give them the right to make laws telling the rest of us what to do. And it does not give them the right to enforce their laws using Huskvarna’s brigade of thugs! But you, the Wielkopolska Unit, once you were all there was of Special Brigade. You had a clear and worthy role, to defend the Premier and the envoys. I can’t help you fulfil that role, but I’m not going to stop you trying. You may go.”
The unit’s elves looked at each other, not sure what to make of this, and looking who would speak for them. Captain Wilanów seemed to realise that he should do this.
“I had not expected such courtesy,” he said. “Thank you.”
He inclined his head, and Gran did the same, then stood back. The elves near him followed his example, clearing a space for the unit to walk to freedom.
Gran knew he had done a good thing there. Whether it was the right thing or not he wasn’t sure, but it was done now. Certainly, it seemed to have helped divided Rogalin, because its sprites were actually speaking to each other. The music started up again, but quietly, as if the musicians were trying to help calm things down. Gran, along with Heldreich Pesentheim, just got his head down and worked, healing injuries, and by the time they’d done that, they were feeling exhausted. Some of the sprites were dancing now, but Gran and the colonel accepted mugs of Polish beer and sat against a log, staring into firelight.
“So, why did you do that?” asked the colonel.
“Well, what I said was true. I do respect them. But also…”
“Ha, thought so! What else do you have in mind?”
“The Premier,” said Gran. “Where is he? I don’t know and I can’t find him. They don’t know either, but they have a much better chance of success than I do.”
“And when they find the Premier – their minds might change?”
“Let’s say, a lot of things will become clearer,” said Gran.
They were not allowed to sit for long. Some of the younger elves came running over to get them to join in.
“Come on, sir!” said Kiefer to Colonel Pesentheim. “You don’t want to be the only Austrian not dancing, do you, sir?”
“I can live with that actually, Kiefer.”
In vain – Kiefer caught his hands and gently helped him up. He wasn’t taking no for an answer. Neither was Droz.
“General Herdalen! Cracking fight.”
“Glad you enjoyed it. Oh no, I’m not getting up to dance. Too old, too tired.”
“Too old? You? Come on, sir, just one dance. Look, they’re making a massive circle, everyone’s joining in this one. It’s the Polish sprites’ favourite tune, and the highlight of the evening. That’s what those Fighter Squadron fairies said, anyway.”
Gran realised he was in danger of insulting his hosts, and that would never do.
“Thanks, Droz, you’re right, that’s an important thing. Come on then, let’s dance.”
And he enjoyed it. Enjoyed it far more than he would have imagined he could a few days ago, when it seemed as if all was lost. Nothing had changed, really, and the situation was still dire. His problems hadn’t gone away and in the morning he would have to face them again. But not now, not tonight. Right now, all that mattered was the beat of the music in his heart and in his brain, lightening every load, and his feet lightly striking the earth with every beat.
Round and round he went, part of the circle, part of the whole, distinct yet engulfed, surrounded by friends. Some he’d known for years, some he’d only met tonight, but they were all friends now. And then his mind was free. His body was tied to the earth, to the circle, to the rhythm of all growing things, but his spirit soared, drawing in the strength his friends out there were sending him, and passing out to them all that he had to give.
He wasn’t quite sure exactly what he did have to give, but his friends were certain. Strength… a strength that anyone in the army could lean on, because, robbed of the only one it wanted or needed, it had learned to stand alone. Across the realm, in one place after another, hundreds of sprites had considered the devastation and said to themselves, It’s all right. Gran Herdalen is in Poland and he will know what to do. We’ve not lost yet.
He didn’t know what to do yet. But whatever it was, he would find it. Twinned with strength was responsibility. If a thing needed doing he would do it, it was as simple as that.
When the dance was over, Gran was in a deeply peaceful frame of mind. He walked over and thanked both the senior sprites of Rogalin, then, just as many others were doing, he walked alone beneath the trees. How clear the sky was, and how bright the stars. He stared up, thinking of Ket his twin. Always on Midsummer’s Eve he seemed less far away and tonight the gap seemed less than ever.
Maybe the Tree is trying to teach us something, he thought. Maybe it’s all been too easy and now we have to learn to listen harder and think for ourselves.
For hours more he walked and thought, feeling that he was almost on the brink of something.
So many reverses… how to bring good out of bad? The fairies had gone and the elves had remained behind. The elite regiments had been far away, and the recruits and lesser regiments had been there and fought well and bravely. They had lost the Tree, and he had not spoken tonight, perhaps never would again. Then Gran stopped in his tracks, alive with a new idea. Reverse it… speak to him, give strength back to him… how could that be done? Gran didn’t worry too long about that, but just followed his instincts.
He fell to the ground and leaned forward so that his palms were flat on the forest floor. Under the prickle of leaf mould and twigs he felt the familiar strength, the aliveness of the earth and its rhythms. But wasn’t there a bit more there tonight? Or was it just his imagination? He wasn’t sure, but he thought he could feel a buzz, as if he could send a message from tree to tree, if only he knew the right frequency. Like someone straining every fibre to understand another language, to grasp at any word or sound he could, he listened, trying to tune in. And then, when he felt his concentration waver – how much later that was, minutes or hours, he wasn’t sure – then he poured out everything he wanted to give to the Tree. Everything it had given to him over the years… love, respect, strength and help. When he had finished he lay shivering on the ground. It had cost him, doing that, and he had no idea if he had done any good or not. He was panting as if he had just run a race. Gran struggled to his feet, suddenly realising just how very tired he was. But he realised two more things at the same time. First, that his heart felt light – almost, unbelievably, cheerful. The second was that it was nearly dawn.
All night in Fjaerland, the Tree had stood as he always did. His glory was veiled now, but Pice Inari had no trouble identifying him. Alone now in the vastness of camp, where no darkness fell on Midsummer’s Eve, he had sat beneath the boughs, his hand on the trunk, waiting. He hadn’t been sure what exactly he had been waiting for, but when it arrived he knew. He was a channel; the passing of messages had been his life’s work and he absorbed each surge of love and passed it back to the Tree.
Not every sprite would have thought of doing such a thing, only the wisest and most thoughtful. And not every sprite who thought of it would have succeeded, only the strongest and most determined. But some got through, and each one made a difference. When the full light of day returned, Pice thought the Tree looked stronger, the cruel gash in his side a little less dangerous, his leaves a little brighter. That was all… there was still silence, but it was the silence of growth and there was hope in it. Something had happened last night that had never happened before, and the world this morning was not quite the same place it had been yesterday.
With hope in his heart, Pice stood stiffly up, saluted the Tree and returned to camp. And there, waiting for him, was a small group of elves, who all saluted him.
“Major Inari, sir,” said the eldest of them. “We heard about the battle and we know we have come too late to help with that. So now we offer ourselves to be your help and support so your vigil won’t be so lonely. Finland 3 reporting for duty, sir.”
Pice Inari’s tired face broke into a joyful smile and he opened his arms wide to welcome them.
“We are all Finnish,” he said. “We know, don’t we, how to wait patiently through hard times. I am so glad of you, so very glad. Welcome home, friends. Your long journey has not been in vain. Sometimes, the last are the first, and you shall be the first to know. The sap is rising. The Tree is not dying, he is growing again.”