CHAPTER 9 - The Senior Fairy
General Huskvarna looked seriously startled, but only for a moment. He pulled himself together and considered his options rapidly.
“Yes,” he said. “I accept.”
General Herdalen threw down his knife at General Huskvarna’s feet.
“Give the little ones to Clover, then.”
He did this by lifting his foot from Clover’s wing and walking away. Primrose and Val were at her side in an instant, and together they carried Aesculus and Viola to safety on the ledge.
General Huskvarna sauntered towards General Herdalen, then stopped and raised his hands to his head, imitating mouse ears.
“Eeek, eeek!” he taunted him.
General Herdalen didn’t move a muscle.
“You really surrender?”
“I surrender. Doesn’t mean the army has to. And you haven’t won yet, have you?” He sent a grin towards the ledge, and raised his voice. “Whatever unit you’re in, just get these clowns off this Hill, will you?”
General Huskvarna looked as if he couldn’t believe his ears. No troops were close enough to intervene. All he had to do was knife Herdalen, and the war would be won, let alone the battle. But as he raised his knife, it fell from his hand, as a sharp, well-aimed stone hit him on the back of the head from the direction of the ledge.
Rose Moseley, Search and Rescue, champion flyer and crack shot, clenched a fist of triumph. Ace pulled his hat off, and he and Will jumped off the ledge and into battle. At the same time, Norway 1 surged forward and gathered to General Herdalen. His injured opponent was still on the ground, and now surrounded, and Special Brigade weren’t having that. Abandoning their positions, they charged for the centre to rescue him, and some of them managed to drag him away, while the rest fought off anyone around, hand to hand. But in the melee, their pattern was lost. Their change of focus allowed Colonel Pentreath precious moments to strengthen his lines, and as they began to push in their turn, the momentum was truly reversed. It wasn’t fast and it wasn’t easy, but finally Special Brigade were being pushed tighter together, and further and further down the hill.
They weren’t doing any better in the air. If seeing General Huskvarna go down had demoralised Special Squadron, then General Herdalen’s courage had had the opposite effect on Fighter Squadron. Always hard-working and fierce, today they were ruthless and relentless, forcing so many of the enemy fairies to land that Colonel Pentreath had to pull a few of England 1 back to deal with prisoners.
Gran Herdalen was intensely aware of all this as he fought alongside Norway 1. He could have assumed command in a second if necessary, but there was no need. Colonel Pentreath was doing fine, and Gran wasn’t going to interfere.
Then a great cheer went up behind him, and he took a second to look round. All the sprites still on the ledge were jumping up and down and clapping their hands. Then he saw – General Huskvarna on his feet, holding the back of his head, and ordering a retreat, before things got too out of hand. He’d be able to claim that they hadn’t beaten him, but they had, really. For today at least, they had the victory. Gran smiled with relief, then permitted himself a few moments to feast his eyes on the splendid sight of Huskvarna running away.
First, he checked on Norway 1, that none of them were missing or badly injured. There were a few nasty cuts, but nothing they couldn’t handle between themselves.
“You were terrific,” Gran told them. “You came a long way, and you might feel you didn’t do very much, but you did. Just the sight of you frightened them! And your weight, with the English line, just tipped the balance. Go and find the canteen, and settle down for a nice long rest, no-one’s earned it more than you have.”
Next, he had to find Colonel Pentreath, but that wasn’t difficult, as the colonel was looking for him. Gran clapped him on the back.
“Well done,” he said, “great victory. I’m glad I arrived in time to see it.”
“Thank you, sir. I must confess, I did feel that went better than at Bat’s Castle, though I’m very confused about what’s going on with those young sprites.”
“They are why I came,” Gran explained. “Their safety was of paramount importance to me. I’m afraid your friend the envoy has been using you for a trick. But don’t worry about it, all’s well now, and I’ll tell you the whole story later. You’ve done extremely well here. Just one thing – so have England 1. For once, go and tell them so.”
“I will, sir. I know you think I’m stingy with praise, but they do deserve it today. And it’ll mean a lot, hearing it from me,” he said, with a glint of humour.
He was right there, thought Gran. They’d be flabbergasted. He wasn’t a bad old stick, especially when he was in a good mood. And not a traitor, what a relief that was, not a traitor… just a stickler, with no imagination, who couldn’t see what was going on under his own nose.
And Owler Tor safe, at least for now, that was another relief. Gran wanted a word with the judge, but that could wait, because right now there was an elf running towards him as fast as his little legs could carry him, his hands held out in front of him.
“General Gran, General Gran!”
“Hello, Aesculus.” Gran swooped him up in his arms and held him tight. “You have been so good, so brave… you have behaved like a real soldier, and I’m so proud of you.”
Aesculus buried his face in the general’s neck and clung to him. Gran stroked his little head, knowing that however excited he was, he had been very frightened for a long time and was probably exhausted. Then the rest of the Moseleys came running over. Dan, fresh from battle and looking terrifying with her face all streaked with blood, Clover holding Viola on her hip, Rose leading two older fairies whom Gran didn’t know… and Ace and Will.
Gran just looked at them, almost shaking his head in wonder. Then, very gently, he set Aesculus down so that he could shake hands with them.
“Well done,” he said. “Superb. Thank you for trusting me.”
“Knew you’d have a plan,” grinned Ace. “Oh, sir, it’s so good to see you! And anyway, thank you for trusting us – you knew we’d take out General Huskvarna, didn’t you?”
“Yes, I felt I could count on that,” laughed Gran. “Who was the good shot?”
“Rose,” said Will. “You’d never guess it to look at her, but her aim is deadly.”
“I suppose he thought that once he’d got me, no-one would fight,” said Gran. “Ha! I knew we could fight on, and I knew we could win. Shame so many of them escaped, but it couldn’t be helped. Getting Aesculus and Viola back was the priority, followed by defending the Hill. Taking prisoners will have to wait for another day.”
“Well, as to that,” said Ace apologetically, “I did have a bit of a plan up my sleeve in case that happened. In fact, I think I can see them coming.”
“What d’you… hey, is that David?”
“Yes,” said Ace. “And Rowan. And Gary. They seem to have netted quite a few, don’t they?”
Ace thought it was worth all the weeks of frustration and inactivity, just to see the look on General Herdalen’s face. He gasped, then stared, then gasped again as David, Rowan and Gary deposited nets of angry elves at his feet. Switching immediately to impeccable English, Gran thanked them all for coming and making such an impact for the cause. He spoke seriously and gratefully, but sheer delight was shining from his eyes as he attempted to greet all three of them at once. That was all he managed just then, as a tiny whirlwind of interruption was fast approaching.
“David! David! Oh, my David!”
David’s eyes went very shiny as Aesculus jumped right up into his hands. He held the little elf to his chest.
“Hello, titch,” he got out. “Have you been having fun?”
He knelt down and greeted Viola too, while listening to Aesculus chattering on.
“I missed you so much! But it was exciting, and I did my part right, didn’t I, General Gran? Keep together and don’t run away, we remembered.”
“You were terrific, and very brave, both of you,” said Gran warmly.
“But Ace, where’s Betch?” said Aesculus.
Ace thought quickly, realising at once that Betch was the one person he hadn’t seen. And Betch was very noticeable, with his height and his white hair. He looked at General Herdalen, and saw the same thoughts there too.
“That’s a very good question,” said Gran. “When did you last see him, Aesculus?”
“Yesterday, in the afternoon, he came to see us in the hiding place.”
“And what time did the bad elves capture you?”
“I don’t know, it was dark.”
“The moon was high up,” said Viola. “It was late. They woke us up and put bags on our heads.”
“I don’t like the sound of this,” muttered Gran.
“We’ll go,” said Ace. “You’ve got your hands full.”
“Thanks, you two… report back as soon as you can.”
“Viola, come and show us the hiding place, will you?”
Near the bracken pit they found Fran and Peter, who had also started to worry.
“We didn’t think anything of it at first,” said Fran. “He said he might have to lie low for a while. But it’s been too long.”
They’d been searching through the bracken, without knowing exactly where the hiding place had been. Once Viola had shown them, they all started searching methodically.
“When did you last see him, Fran?” asked Ace
“About nine. He came back from seeing the colonel and the envoy, he thought they’d believed him. But then he was worried in case they started wondering, and followed him, so he hid his hair when he went to check if Aesculus and Viola were all right.”
“He never came back,” said Peter, “but we thought he must be hiding himself, so no-one could follow him.”
“Someone did,” said Ace. “And I don’t think it was the envoy.”
“Neither do I,” said Fran. “Take more than her to beat Betch.”
“I bet it was General Huskvarna himself,” said Ace. “He doesn’t want me and Will to go to the Premier, he wants us dead.”
“So he turned the bait into hostages, to get his hands on you himself. That makes sense.”
“Oh, no,” said Will. “Look at that!”
They could all see what he meant. A swathe of bracken had been flattened. Something, or someone, had been dragged down there, and not very long ago. They followed the marks down the hillside, and halfway down, they found Betch’s hat.
“They’ve taken him,” said Ace. “Oh, this is awful!”
Moving quickly now, they kept on following the trail, until it disappeared into short moorland grass. But it was plain enough where they’d been heading.
“This is where their lines were, last night,” said Fran.
“He’s not dead, is he?” said Viola. “Oh, please don’t say he’s dead!”
“Not Betch,” said Peter stoutly. “Don’t you worry about that, Viola.”
“We need to get onto Dale,” said Will.
“And the general,” said Ace. “Come on!”
They tried to look calm and cheerful for Viola, but they were very worried now.
They found General Herdalen dealing with the prisoners. He was talking to the judge, who seemed to be offering to take them off his hands. Gran looked very bleak when he heard their news.
“Signals first,” he said. “He may be trying to contact us.”
Gran was ages messaging, he had a lot of people to contact, and a lot of important messages waiting for him. So long, in fact, that by the time he returned, the prisoners had all been transferred inside the Hill. The judge had given orders for their care, and a lot of his workers were inside now, carrying those orders out. Norway 1, who had barely slept for days, had commandeered the dormitory and England 1 were camped out on the top level among the fountains, talking excitedly over the battle and messaging all their friends. All except Fran and Peter and Lieutenant Waterperry, who were outside with the Moseleys and the Allies, waiting for news.
“He’s alive,” said Gran, as he joined them, and everyone cheered. Gran shook his head.
“That’s the only good news. He managed to get through to Dale, briefly. He’s been shrunk, and we know now what that means. They’re moving him somewhere, and I don’t think there’s much doubt where… their re-training camp, wherever that may be.”
“Don’t blame yourself, sir,” said Will. “Even you can’t foresee everything.”
“I know, Will,” Gran smiled, “but I always feel as if I ought to. But we’ll get him back, we’ll get them all back, Bjørk, Bergfrue Grytten, all of them, just as soon as we find the location.”
“And your chances of doing that have just doubled, or even trebled,” said Ace. “Even if they blindfold them – and they’d be pretty stupid not to – Betch will work out where he is. He doesn’t miss a thing, and he’s got phenomenal hearing.”
Hope dawned on Gran’s face, as he saw all the rest of Ace’s old team nodding in agreement. It wasn’t just Ace being optimistic, then.
“Then perhaps it was meant to be,” he said. “At least we can treat our prisoners better than they’ll treat theirs.” He rubbed his eyes and tried to smile. “I have to go back to Norway and confer with the Commander. She’ll decide on strategy.”
“You look pretty tired though, General, if you don’t mind my saying so,” said Gary. “Why don’t you and your unit come and spend some time with the Allies and have a rest? You’ve been travelling for days, haven’t you?”
“Yes, we have, and yes, it’s true that I am tired, but it doesn’t matter. I had to come, I promised Ace and Will that I would keep Aesculus and Viola safe.”
“And for that, we are all grateful,” said Gary. “Why not let us look after you for a couple of days? Then, on Friday, I’ll drive you all straight to the ferry port at Newcastle in time for the evening sailing. I bet if you went by train and cross-country, you wouldn’t get there much sooner than that.”
“That’s true,” said Gran. “I mustn’t waste time, but that would be a big help to us all. Thank you, I accept.”
“Brilliant,” said David. “I’ve got something to show you that I think you’ll like.”
Gran wasn’t ready to leave yet, so they arranged that Gary and David would drive all the others home now, and that David would come back in the morning and pick up the general and Norway 1 in Grindleford. So Aesculus said goodbye to Fran and Peter and the rest of his new friends, and they all set off down the hillside together. Gran watched them go, with a fond expression, then turned back to his work. So much to do, and so little time… but now he had this visit to look forward to, and the prospect of an easy journey home, and a chance to rest. It was very encouraging, and he had a smile on his face as he went to find Colonel Pentreath.
Next morning, before they left, the judge called everyone together. He made a short speech of thanks to all the army sprites who had worked so hard to defend the Hill, then said he had an announcement to make.
“I’ve written a declaration,” he said. “This is how it goes: I, Filbert Calder, judge of Owler Tor, call upon all judges to sign up to the following: That we, in recognition of the army’s struggle against parliament, and in determination to aid it and share the burden, undertake to be responsible for all prisoners taken in our areas. That we will hold them secure for the army, and that we will take good care of them as fellow-sprites. That we will provide the prisoners with conditions to live in as good as we have ourselves, give them access to fresh air and clean water, exercise and amusements, and to treat them with kindness at all times. That’s it – what d’you think?”
“I think it’s splendid,” said Gran. “It will be the most excellent help possible. It shall be called the Owler Tor Declaration, and shall be the standard we insist on throughout the realm.” He shook the judge by the hand, as all the other sprites listening started to clap. “Get your signaller to send it to Fjaerland, and it will be out to the realm before nightfall.”
Aesculus and Viola, safe in their own beds again at last, slept for hours. Even when the others got up at dawn to go out picking up litter, they didn’t stir. Clover stayed behind to guard them. Even though they’d both grown, in more ways than one, during their weeks away, they were still so little and Clover couldn’t bear to let them out of her sight. She walked from one bed to the other. Aesculus’ chestnut hair had flopped over his face. It needed trimming, really, but he said he wanted to grow it long.
Wonder where he got that idea from, she thought fondly.
Viola had little shadows under her eyes, but they would go, once she was rested. Her skin had a healthy glow, from being out in the sun and the wind. Her face, once so pinched and white, now had a warm softness, and her gentle breathing trembled across perfect rosebud lips.
Clover knew she’d never regret standing up to General Huskvarna for them, even though she was never going to hear the end of it. Dan, who never messaged if she could help it, had already passed it on to nearly every fairy from their year. Ace kept asking her when she was going to apply for a transfer to Fighter Squadron, and Will kept calling her Madge.
They had all been right, though, she thought. Fighting was useful sometimes. She sat up straight and got through to Signals. There was someone she wanted to thank. Someone who’d been so patient, so understanding, and been right all along, and it wasn’t Madge.
You’re through to Signals.
Clover Moseley, Search and Rescue, with a message for Sergeant Olt.
When the little ones finally stirred, Clover helped them get washed, and dressed in fresh clothes, ready for their important visitors. As soon as he was ready, Aesculus wanted to go out and find the others, but Clover told him not to.
“They’ll be back soon,” she said. “They’ll want to get clean themselves. Sit to the table, and I bet you they’ll be back before you’ve finished your breakfast.”
She was right. Rose, Primrose and Val came in looking grubby but pleased, followed by Will tugging a heavy bag.
“I might have known you’d bring half the rubbish back with you,” sighed Clover.
“Only the metals,” grinned Will. “Have to replenish our supplies.”
“He said he needed to finish making something,” said Will. “He wanted to be on the old Wildside when he did it. He won’t be long, he’s heading this way now.”
“It’s all looking its best again now,” said Rose happily. “It’s just as nice here as anywhere, once the litter’s gone.”
“I could never understand why anyone would want to drop litter,” said Val. “Some humans are so strange, they’re like another species.”
“Don’t worry about them,” said Primrose. “I’m just glad there are so many nice ones. Wasn’t Gary splendid, thinking to invite the general like that? It’s very exciting.”
When Ace came in he was looking excited too, but everyone thought it was just because of the visitors. He drank his tea quickly, then everyone got washed and changed. Clover gasped when he and Will came out of their room. It wasn’t because they looked so smart – though they did – it was because they looked so grown-up and so serious. Ace was wearing his stone, and today, more than ever before, he looked like a real senior sprite. Viola curtsied, and Clover almost felt tempted to do the same. But then he coughed, and looked a bit sheepish, and more like himself again.
“Er, I have something to say… to announce, really,” he said. “Look at us now – eight of us here, plus Dan and Hogweed, ten – that’s a proper colony, isn’t it? So what I thought was, we ought to have senior fairy. I found out all about it from Fran, they’ve always had one at Knightwood. They don’t wear a stone, but a necklace like a dew drop on a silver chain. Sometimes diamond, sometimes glass, whatever they’ve got. Well, we’re a pretty scientific colony, so I thought we’d have crystal. Will found me some, and Rowan gave me a bit of broken silver, and I went back to Wildside with them and I made this.”
From his pocket he pulled out a delicate silver chain, and hanging from it was a perfect dewdrop of flawless white crystal, that caught the light and sent rainbows spinning round the room.
“It’s for you, Clover,” he said. “You’re the senior fairy.”
Clover was so stunned she was speechless, but the other fairies weren’t, and they were so happy for her that Ace knew he’d done the right thing.
“Very nice,” said Will quietly to Ace. “Spot on, as usual. But have you seen the time?”
“Crumbs,” said Ace. “Come on everyone, let’s move!”
They didn’t go to Cherrytree Close, but right past it, to Hilton Street. David lived there now, in the house that Cyril had left to him, and Ace knew he’d be taking the visitors there first. They hadn’t arrived yet, but Laura was there, and she let them in.
“Why aren’t you at school?” said Will.
“We’ve just had the Easter holidays,” said Laura. “I’m the only one still in the Juniors, and my school doesn’t go back till Monday.”
“I bet the others were really jealous!” laughed Rose.
“They’re all coming round tonight, when Mum and Dad get back from work. I’ve just been trying to tidy up a bit. David’s done loads of work on the special room, but he’s not done much else, and it all looks wrong, somehow.”
“It looks great,” said Ace. “Don’t worry, Laura. You’ve got a lovely big bowl of orange juice, that’s what they’ll be looking at.”
“I’ve got some glasses, too, that we found in a cupboard, could you shrink them, Ace?”
Will helped him. He couldn’t see what Laura was so bothered about either, but the fairies could.
“I see what you mean,” said Val. “It looks like a teenage boy camping out in the home of a very old man.”
Once Val had put into words what Laura had only been able to sense, they all saw what she meant, but there wasn’t time to do anything about it. The roar of a powerful engine was coming down the quiet little street.
They rushed to the door. David checked the coast was clear and opened the door of the Porsche. His passengers jumped straight into the hall, General Herdalen, Major Maridalen, and Norway 1, followed by Dan, who’d managed to get a day’s leave.
Ace had been wrong about the orange juice. They turned to it eventually, but all Norway 1 wanted at first was to talk to Laura. And as there was nothing Laura liked better than meeting sprites, this took quite a while. She sat in one of the shabby old armchairs, surrounded by elves. Will heard one of them tell her she was even more beautiful than her sister, and he had to go away then in case he started laughing. He’d forgotten how awestruck sprites could be who hadn’t really talked to a human before.
General Herdalen was delighted to meet her, but he was even more interested in what David wanted to show him, so he and Major Maridalen, together with Ace, Will and Dan, followed him up the creaking stairs. David showed them into a room that was like walking into another world.
There was no dirt or dust in here. The walls were painted white and the wooden floor was varnished and clean. On one wall was Ace and Will’s map, now expanded, with all the troop movements on. On the opposite wall was a map that David had made, with the location of every Ally he was in touch with, and the colonies where they were known. In the middle of the room was a big desk. A large computer was under it, and on the top were three monitors, all showing different things.
“Welcome to the Allies’ Ops Room,” said David quietly. “Safe from discovery now, and no more interruptions. This room – and everything in it, including me – at your disposal, till we’ve won the war.”
“I feel as if we already have,” said Gran in awe. “David, I can’t thank you enough.”
“Cyril made it possible,” said David. “He’d have been so thrilled to see you all here, and to know that we could help.”
“I wish I could have met him,” said Gran. “It seems to me he would be very proud of you too, and what you’ve done. Let’s have a look at your maps.”
He scanned Ace and Will’s first, and his eyebrows nearly disappeared under his hair.
“Extraordinary. This is nearly as good as mine. Great intelligence, you two. Glad to see you’ve been taking an interest! Good grief, you’ve even got Germany 1 moving to the Czech border – even the Commander doesn’t know about that yet!”
“We don’t know why,” said Ace hastily, implying that he wasn’t trying to be nosey. “But someone did happen to mention it.”
Gran thought about that.
“Ross Rangsdorfer,” he said. “No problem – I’m sure you’re a touchstone, Ace, but even so, that’s very impressive. Let’s have a look at the other map… oh yes, this is very cheering! So many Allies. It’s good to see just how many are in touch with each other. What do these letters, E, F, P etc, next to the names mean?”
“It’s the languages they speak,” David explained. “That’s our biggest problem. Not everyone speaks English, and the only other language I know is a bit of French. There’s a place on the internet that will do a quick translation for you but it’s not brilliant, just gives you the gist of it.”
“We may be able to help with that,” said Gran. “What language is causing the most problems?”
“Polish, definitely. There’s this guy in Poland, Janusz, he’s called. Very keen, says he’s found where Wielkopolska is and wants to set up a webcam. But look at this.” David moved the mouse and clicked, and showed them some text on one of the screens. “This is what his message looked like, translated.”
Hi David, buildings of parliament I have seen, good to watch, need webcam, how this do? I have computer but not very good, how to do?
“I don’t even know if he means his computer isn’t very good, or if he means he isn’t very good at it,” said David. “And either way, my reply would be so technical, you can imagine the way the translation would mangle it.”
“What’s a webcam?” said Gran.
“I’ll find one online to show you.”
He found a Norwegian one, that showed a view of a street in Bergen, and Will helped him to explain to the general how it worked. The general was astounded. They could all see his mind going over the possibilities.
“That would be a huge help. To see all their comings and goings… and that lot won’t even know such a thing is possible. This is so valuable, I think we could send people to Poland to contact Janusz and help him.”
“My partner, Carda, is Polish,” said Dan hopefully. “If Will showed me what to do…”
“That could work,” said Gran. “I can’t give you orders, Dan, but I could request you from your colonel. So it wouldn’t do any harm to make a few preparations.”
He winked at her, then looked at what else David wanted to show him.
“This is the map of the march,” said David. “They’ve got to Strakonice now, in the Czech Republic, and even better, they’ve reached their target. There are over a thousand of them now. This email came in the other day from Uwe in Waldkirchen. He and his wife had the whole lot of them to stay overnight! This is what he said.”
They have gone again now, and our house feels so empty. But I counted them – 1,026 sprites of every kind – filling our home with their beauty. I have never seen anything like it. I think perhaps no-one but a queen has ever seen so many sprites at one time, and we feel so honoured.
“And here’s another one just in,” said David, as the computer made a pinging noise. “From Elisaveta, she lives in Switzerland… oh, this is not so good.”
Dear David, I was out walking in the mountains and the fairies have all gone. Their homes have been destroyed. Please post this in the forum for me. Does anyone know what’s happened, or where they’ve gone?
“What colony?” said Gran. “Where does she live?”
“Lauterbrunnen. But there are a lot of mountains round there.”
They pored over a big atlas that had more detail than the map on the wall, and it was Will who spotted it first.
“Look at the name of that village,” he said quietly.
“Stalden!” exclaimed Gran. “General Stalden’s home colony… this isn’t co-incidence, then.” He turned to David. “This is incredibly good, that we can get such news, so fast. Please thank Elisaveta for me. But the news is bad. I need to contact the Commander right away… and Nella Stalden too.”
“Come with me, sir,” said Will. “I’ll show you a nice quiet spot.”
Will took the general to the lake in Abney, which was about as quiet as it got around Moseley Wood, but even so, the general had to stick his fingers in his ears before he could get through. Will waited patiently until he’d finished.
“Neither of them is on the mountain right now,” said Gran, “which doesn’t sound good in itself. I’ve left coded summaries for them, and I’ll try to get Madge later, see what’s happening.”
“It gets a lot quieter at night,” said Will. “It should be easier then.”
“It’s not the cars,” said Gran, as they started walking back. “Even though they’re so loud, they turn into a background hum, don’t they? It’s the aeroplanes. They break my concentration every time. I don’t know how you cope!”
“We barely notice them,” said Will.
“Extraordinary. In Herdalen, you can go a week without hearing anything but trickling water and the bleating of goats. All the same, it’s a very nice place here. Much, much greener than I expected. Even though it’s built up, the trees are fantastic. Such a height, and so many different kinds! It seems to me that you’ve got the best of both worlds.”
“Thank you,” said Will. “I still want to see Herdalen one day. But it’s wonderful to see you here, Gran. Like everything coming together. But while we’re on our own, can I ask you something?”
“Of course, what?”
“It’s just… stop sheltering him, sir.”
“Ah,” said Gran. “I see. It’s hard not to, when the Premier wants him so badly. And that’s not just for his own safety, Will. This prophecy… I wonder sometimes if the Premier knows more about that than we do.”
“Even so, it might be safer to treat him just like anyone else,” said Will. “Make or break the realm… it’s the ‘or break’ part that worries me. Ace is capable of anything. What if he gets so frustrated by inaction that he does something completely crazy?”
“That’s a fair point,” said Gran. “All right, we’ll change tack on this, with some caution. I know what I want to do next, but that will depend on the Commander. She may not agree. And right now, unity is crucial. I’m not sure, but I think that what we’ll see next will be various short, sharp actions designed to make us argue and pull us apart.”
“Very clever. So you may have to bide your time. In fact, I think you may have to go back to Harpsden for a while.”
“What, picking up litter? While there’s a war on!”
“I know,” said Gran. “I understand, believe me. But though Rowan Harpsden’s crazy, Gus Thurlgrove isn’t. And it may not be for long.”
“I understand,” sighed Will. “Thanks, Gran.”
That evening, Gary and Sally entertained all the sprites in their home, with music, games and plenty of drinks. They wanted to make sure that everyone, and especially Gran, had a chance to relax. The only ones who weren’t there were Will and Dan, who had stayed at David’s to talk about webcams, but everyone else was having a great time. Rowan and Laura played their flutes with Rose and Clover, and David loved that as much as the elves did. When the sun set, Ace went outside to sing the Song to the Queen, and everyone stopped to listen to him, because he had such a beautiful voice.
Hail to the queen of sprites
Who guards our ancient laws
Come gather, sprites, and sing for her
From forests, hills and moors
From streets and gardens fair
From pasture, field and fen
Rejoice, rejoice with heart and voice,
Our queen has come again.
The guardian of our realm
Of colony and hill
Her gracious care enfolds us all
Her love is steadfast still
She gives us blessings sweet
Like flowers and trees above,
And in return we offer her
Our honour and our love.
“He’s done a good job of that translation,” said Gran, as he heard the words Ace was singing clearly for the first time.
“Mum helped him,” she said. “He was going crazy at first, bits of paper everywhere, he couldn’t do it.”
“He just needed to see that you can re-phrase things a bit, and use words that are easier to rhyme,” said Sally. “It sounds beautiful now, doesn’t it?”
“Are there translations in any other languages?” asked Rowan, as Ace came back in.
“Not that I know of,” said Gran, “but there might be.”
“I think we need to get it on the website, and find out,” said David. “Before anything gets lost or forgotten.”
While they were discussing it, Gary was just sitting back, watching. It was the elves from Norway 1 that interested him. They were treating David and Rowan with just as much respect as Sally and himself, it was clear they thought them properly grown up. Dominic and his brothers, and Adam, they were more relaxed with. But Laura… it made Gary smile to see it, but they competed to fulfil her lightest wish, and vied for her attention. It was almost as if she was royalty. And then Gary stopped smiling and watched his beloved younger daughter with an aching heart, wondering.
Talk of other languages had led to talk of other lands, and what other friends were doing. Then Rose and Clover mentioned that they’d had new orders from Colonel Basa.
“Back to work tomorrow,” said Clover, and everyone groaned.
“Since the war started, lots of sprites have set out for Norway,” said Rose. “Some for Poland, too,” she added, trying to be fair. “But they’re not our problem. But the Commander’s decided that it’s not fair just now to make it a test that you find your own way to Fjaerland. She wants everyone to be given as much help as possible to get there as fast as possible.”
“That’s where you come in?” said Laura. “You’re going to search and rescue them?”
“That’s the idea,” said Clover. “Just in England, but we’ll be finding anyone who’s lost and helping them get to Newcastle. And we have to liaise with Colonel Basa, tell her when boats will be arriving with sprites on.”
“And this is the fairy who once didn’t even know that Norway was north,” grinned Ace.
“That’s why we’re so good at Search and Rescue,” said Rose. “We were experts at getting lost, we know exactly how you do it.”
“I think she’s got something there,” laughed Gran. “But you’re leaving tomorrow? Then you and Will needn’t leave for Harpsden until Saturday, Ace. Stay a few more days with Aesculus and Viola.”
Ace didn’t miss Viola’s worried expression.
“This is still your home, for as long as you need it,” he told her. “Primrose and Val are going to stay here too, so you won’t be alone.”
“Oh, good,” sighed Viola. Then she smiled bravely. “Don’t worry about me, Ace. I’ll be fine.”
“But there won’t be any elves!” said Aesculus. “I wish Mal was still here.”
“We all do,” said Ace. “Mal was very brave and we’ll never forget him. But of course there’ll be an elf, you twit, you’ll be here, won’t you?”
You could almost see Aesculus getting his head round that. Not a baby, who needed another elf to look after him, but just a proper elf. He even seemed to sit up straighter. But then he looked concerned.
“But I can’t fight,” he said. “Not properly. Not like army elves can.”
“But you saying that, proves you’re not a baby any more,” said Gran. “You don’t need to fight. One thing you can count on with Special Brigade, if something goes wrong for them, they never try it again. They pretend it never happened. You won’t see them round here again.”
“You can learn to fight when you get to join the army,” said Clover. “I did, and if I did, anyone can. I think you ought to work hard on making things and doing transforming. Read books, find out how things work, mend things. That way, you’ll be a real help to David and the others, who are doing so much to help us win the war.”
“I can help too? I like that!” said Aesculus. excitedly. “Mend things, like Will!”
“Hide your phones!” said Dominic dramatically. “Before he dismantles them.”
“Dominic!” protested Aesculus. “I’m not silly, that’s too difficult.” Then he grinned wickedly. “But watch out for your radio, ha!”
The next day, Dan went back to her unit and Rose and Clover left for Yorkshire, to start patrolling the routes north. David showed the computer to the rest of the elves. They were very impressed, but when the conversation started getting too technical they got bored and went off downstairs with Laura, Aesculus and Viola, and Primrose and Val.
Gran spent the whole day in there with David, learning all he could. Ace and Will stayed with them, to help. Ace could translate words Gran didn’t know into Norwegian, and Will could explain concepts in terms another sprite could understand. They were all so absorbed, they simply didn’t notice how much time had passed and when they finally emerged from the computer room, at first they could only stare. Especially David. He looked around in amazement. His house had been totally transformed.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Laura weakly. “Even when the sprites mended the horse chestnut, it wasn’t like this. All I said was, I knew you were hoping one day to make the rest of the house as nice as the Ops room, and look what they did!”
David looked… he could hardly take his eyes off it, not knowing what to look at first. The walls were no longer covered with dusty, faded wallpaper, but simply clean plaster in soft and subtle shades. The rotting window frames and creaky doors were now sturdy wood. All the worn and threadbare carpets had gone, and the floorboards were smooth and gleaming. It looked a lot less cluttered, too. All Cyril’s ancient and dilapidated furniture had been respectfully shrunk and disposed of, or transformed into new and useful things, in the very latest fashions.
“We couldn’t have done it without Val,” said one of the elves modestly. “She knows so much about human houses! She was wonderful!”
Primrose and Val shared a secret smile.
“Do you like it?” asked Val anxiously.
“Like it?” said David. “I love it. Thank you all, so much… it’s just… I can’t thank you enough. It’s beautiful. You’ve saved me months – no, years, probably – of work.”
Everywhere he looked were new wonders. His X-Box looked very good sitting on a small black table, and his guitar didn’t look out of place now, leaning against a new leather armchair. The kitchen had modern cupboards and a shiny new sink.
“I love the sprite-sized mug tree next to the human-sized one,” he said. “Oh, this is incredible! Thank you so much!”
“For you, nothing is too much trouble,” said another of the elves. “Look how much you do for us!”
“We saved the best for last,” said Laura. “Look what we found.”
It was a photograph of Cyril as a young man, standing in front of an apple tree.
“Aesculus made the frame, all by himself,” said Laura.
“It’s beautiful,” whispered David huskily. “Thank you.” He traced the delicate metal work with his finger, then touched the photo of his old friend. “And thank you, too,” he said.
After that, everyone had to start celebrating all over again, and soon the little house was full of music and laughter. But the photo had reminded David of something, and once everyone was happily chatting and playing, David beckoned Ace to come upstairs with him. He gasped out loud to see that his bedroom had been transformed too, but all his own possessions had been neatly laid out on his bed, for him to stow away wherever he wanted, in new cupboards and drawers. He soon found what he was looking for, a tiny leather photograph wallet.
“My tree!” yelled Ace. “Oh, wonderful. Let’s have a look.”
Ace gazed at it happily for five minutes, then realised why David was grinning.
“Hey, wait a bit… she gave it to you? Rowan did?”
“Yes,” said David, looking joyful. “Just before Easter. She brought it round, and said you’d told her, when she didn’t need it any more, to give it to me. ‘I didn’t understand what he meant, then,’ she said. ‘But I do now.’ And then she gave me the photo. And a kiss.”
“Oh, wow,” said Ace. “Oh, David, I’m so glad for you. For both of you. What a happy day. When’s the wedding?”
David burst out laughing.
“One day, I hope,” he said. “But not yet, you crazy sprite. Come on, let’s get back to the party.”
The little holiday was over too quickly, but it had done everyone a lot of good. On Friday, Gran and the Norwegian elves said goodbye to everyone at Moseley Wood and travelled to Newcastle with Gary alone. They arrived at the ferry terminal in the early evening, in good time for the sailing. The sun was getting low behind them, casting long shadows eastwards. One by one, the elves thanked Gary then jumped out into hiding, ready to make their way on board. When only the general remained, Gary took a deep breath and spoke quietly.
“Ace sings about getting a queen again,” he said. “But how do you get one? Who will she be?”
“Ah,” said Gran. He knew what Gary was getting at. He had wondered himself, the last few days. “I’m not sure,” he said honestly. “It’s never been done in my lifetime. But this I do know, it was always the queen’s own free choice. To leave the human world and live with the sprites.”
“And when she does that, does she ever see her own family again?”
“I think, sometimes,” said Gran. “But I won’t lie to you, Gary. For the best of our queens, it has been their lives’ work. Totally absorbing. There must come a time when they feel they don’t belong in the human world any more.”
“That’s what I thought,” said Gary, and for a moment he looked very sad. But then he made an effort, and spoke briskly and cheerfully. “One day at a time. It’s the only way to live. There’s a war to win first. Good luck, Gran. We’ll all be thinking of you.”
“Thanks, Gary. Goodbye for now, and I hope we meet again one day.”
Gary sat and watched as the great ship sailed out with the evening tide, watched until she was out of sight. Then he turned the car round, and started the long drive back to his family.
Betch Knightwood was not an incurable optimist like Ace Moseley. Years of living with his accident-prone friend Dale had taught him that if anything could go wrong, it probably would. But those same years had also taught him to look on the bright side. The need to cheer Dale up, the need to placate injured parties, meant that no matter how dark the cloud, Betch could always spot the silver lining. Aesculus and Viola were safe home again. That was the only thing that mattered, really. Betch knew he couldn’t have lived with the shame if anything had happened to Ace’s little ones while they were in his care.
But the rest of it, he had to admit, was not too good. He’d been knocked out, by someone with a punch like a pony’s kick, and taken prisoner. And just to make things worse, he hadn’t even had the chance to strike one blow yet for the cause. Then they’d made him swallow two lumps of disgusting goo. The first one had made his ears crackle, and suddenly he’d been able to understand what Special Brigade were saying. The second had made every cell in his body feel like water, and they’d shrunk him from his magnificent height right down to a pathetic one and a quarter inches.
The next thing he remembered, he’d been blindfolded, with his hands tied, and sitting in the dark. In someone’s backpack, probably, and that someone had been jumping, and very fast, too. It had felt really weird to be jumping when you weren’t doing the jumping yourself, but from bits of conversation he’d heard, Betch had gathered that Special Brigade were running away, and that was very good news indeed. Betch had smiled, settled himself as comfortably as he could, and lost no time in getting through to Dale.
That had been three days ago now, and Betch was still travelling. But this morning, there had been a message for him from General Herdalen himself. Dale had read it out to him.
Aesculus and Viola are safe at home, thanks to you. I am very proud of you, and grateful to you, and all the Moseleys and their Allies join me in that. Betch, I am sure you have the wits to escape from the clots who have captured you, but I am asking you not to do that. I know it is asking a lot, but what we need now, more than anything, is to know where they are taking people. Send us every clue you can – to Signals, or to Dale, if that is easier for you – and then we can rescue all of you. Ace tells me you have the sharpest hearing and the sharpest mind of any elf he has met, and I am sure you can do this. Good luck with your mission. With great respect, Gran Herdalen.
Dale had told him that the general was in Moseley Wood, and Betch had wished that he could have gone too, seen the little ones safe home and seen all the Moseleys again, but this message had been immensely cheering. Betch had committed it to memory and stopped feeling sorry for himself. He had work to do. He’d already been concentrating hard on what was going on around him, but now he was entirely focused on listening.
It was helping him cope, too. Special Brigade were giving him water, every time they stopped – he had no complaints on that score – but they weren’t letting him have any exercise. The more he focused on his ears, the less he felt the aching in his cramped legs. He knew he didn’t have to worry too much about where he was. People with maps could do that. All he had to do was pick up clues.
Right now, the clues were very easy indeed. The crying of gulls, the smell of salt in the air, and the stiff breeze, all told him he was on the coast. East coast, he was sure, and judging by the announcements he’d heard at Sheffield station, probably Cleethorpes. It seemed the party was splitting here. Betch heard the word rendezvous but couldn’t catch the names of any places. The elves talking were just too far away. Suddenly – very suddenly – a fairy picked him up. It did not feel good to be sitting in a fairy’s hand, as if he was a beetle or something. But she had something interesting to say.
“I’ve got to take you across the sea,” she said. “And it will feel strange if you’re not used to it. You’ll probably vomit, and I don’t want vomit in my backpack. If you promise not to try anything stupid, I’ll take your blindfold off and untie your hands, so you can sit on top and see where you’re going. Deal?”
“Deal,” said Betch willingly. “I promise.”
It was a long, long flight. The only thing that stopped it being boring was the thought of how even more boring it would have been, stuck inside a backpack. The fairy must be on that laburnum stuff, Betch thought, to keep going for this long. She flew for the rest of the day, and all through the night, while Betch just watched the sky and the sea constantly changing colour as the light changed. By dawn on the next day, low-lying islands came into sight, a long chain of them. As soon as she could, the fairy landed. Betch was tied up again then, but he was cold and tired and not unwilling to rest while the fairy did.
After a few hours they were on their way again. Betch was back inside the backpack now, but his blindfold had slipped a little, and he lost no time in making a tiny hole, so he could watch closely. She was island-hopping, heading east, always east, but Betch could see clearly now that they were very close to the mainland. But which country? Must be south of Norway, and north of France, but Betch had little idea of what lay between. The Netherlands, perhaps? That had a coast, didn’t it? Wishing he’d spent more time looking at maps, Betch concentrated as hard as he could. A vast harbour was coming into sight, and they flew higher as they got close to where ships were sailing in and out. But she didn’t stop there. Beyond the harbour, you could see the mouth of a great river, and here she turned and followed the river inland. Then came a city, a huge city, and they were descending. Acres of houses, parkland, roads… more and more roads, cars and lorries pouring in and out. Then they were lower still, and quite suddenly Betch could see nothing but railway lines. A station, then… quickly, Betch tried to see a name, but nothing was visible from this angle. So he counted the platforms – at least twelve, a big place then, as you’d expect for a city this size.
The fairy landed on a roof, out of sight of anyone but pigeons. Here, she let Betch out, adjusted his blindfold and gave him water, but she didn’t talk to him. She was just waiting, and Betch guessed he was going to be handed over to someone else here. While he waited, he listened to the station announcements, but all that told him was that they were talking in a language that he didn’t understand, and that was no surprise.
After a couple of hours, Betch heard footsteps on the roof. Two sprites – elves, probably. They spoke rapidly to the fairy but Betch couldn’t catch much of it. Perhaps the goo was wearing off. But then one of the elves spoke directly to him, slowly and clearly, and Betch could understand every word.
“You, arrested elf,” he said. “Understand we mean you no harm, and we will not hurt you. We will deliver you safely to a place where you can learn the truth about many things.”
“Where?” said Betch.
“Don’t worry about that. But a few more days’ journey. I need you to climb in here, please, and make yourself comfortable.”
“Fair enough,” said Betch. “But could you do one thing for me? Please just re-tie this blindfold so my hair isn’t caught in the knot.”
It was, but not that much. All the same, they did as he asked. Betch only got one second with his eyes uncovered, but he’d got what he wanted, a decent clue. High above the station, up on a pole, a flag with black, red and yellow stripes. It was a flag he knew well. It had flown outside his friend Ross’ hut at Fjaerland.
Wow, thought Betch. I’m in Germany.