CHAPTER 1 - Reunions

“Vandenesse!” fumed Gran Herdalen, kicking a chair out of his way. “Vandenesse! That incompetent half-wit! Whose very name makes goblins laugh from Calais to Marseilles! If it wasn’t for Huelgoat in France 2, that twerp would have had the army wiped out of France a generation ago!”
“I know, Gran, I know,” soothed Gia Biagioni. “Calm down. And do stop kicking the furniture.”
“But chief of staff! It’s an insult! Not only is he incompetent, he’s not even very senior! This job is meant to be an honour. It needs stability, age, experience - someone full of wisdom, someone who’ll be here, even if the rest of us get called away. That clot’s got no stability - he’ll be off back to France twice a year to get his skin tightened!”
“We always knew parliament wanted the right of appointment so they could weaken the army. They thought they were weakening it by choosing you and me, but they misjudged. This time, I’m afraid they haven’t.”
“You bet they haven’t! When we were summoned, we insisted on a meet on neutral ground. When we accepted the appointments, we attended parliament as the law required - but no more. We didn’t accept their hospitality. We didn’t cosy up to them! He did!”
“Gran, I’m sure they hope to use him to their advantage. But he’s done nothing wrong. I don’t like it any more than you do, but until he does let us down, he must be welcomed and treated properly. It’s not his fault.”
“You want to wait until he’s done something stupid? Bit late to do anything about it then!”

Commander Biagioni took a deep breath, and tilted her head back so she could look her friend in the eye. She didn’t like pulling rank on her generals, especially Gran, but she could do it when she had to.
“General Herdalen! You will not undermine the new general. You will not voice your concerns to anyone except me. You will give him your full support. That’s an order, Gran.”
Gran swallowed hard, and set his lips in a tight line, and for three or four heartbeats was silent, his flaring nostrils the only sign of his anger.
“Understood,” he said quietly. “But we’ve waited so long, so patiently. Everything’s coming together. Now Mecsek’s in prison, I thought we could pick our time. A year or two more, that’s all it would take. If we have to move too soon because of Vandenesse…”
Words failed him, and a small table hit the wall.
“They’ve got us over a barrel,” Gia pointed out. “We can’t reject him - not without starting the rebellion right now. You know that.”
“I know that,” said Gran. “Doesn’t mean I have to like it.”
He sighed, and pulled himself together.
“When’s he arriving, anyway?”
“In a couple of days. ModÅ™ín Kopec will look after the new recruits until then. Come on, it’s time we were in the Hall to greet them.”

When Gran stepped onto the platform in the Great Hall, his eyes widened a little in surprise, and his spirits rose. There were a lot more new recruits this year; must be close on twice as many, he thought, round about two hundred. He surveyed the crowd with warm compassion as they listened to Gia’s speech. They always looked awe-struck at this stage, and he didn’t blame them. When the welcoming was over, and the first years were back in Sergeant Kopec’s care, Gran left the platform and stepped down into the comfortable lounge behind it.
“What an improvement in numbers!” said General Stalden, head of air forces. “There were nearly a hundred fairies in there!”
“Very encouraging, isn’t it?" said the Commander. “I wonder why? Just coincidence, or are we seeing a reaction to recent events?”
“You mean the disappearances, ma’am?” said General Saal, the chief of police. He was a goblin, and as far as anyone knew, the largest living sprite. “Yes… and General Cherapont’s death… and talk of new Allies. It could be. It’s amazing how fast news like that has been spreading round the colonies.”
Yes, Gran thought to himself. Our people in Signals have been doing a good job. We need to push that even more, it’s obviously working.

The generals were smiling as they split up to go back to work, but underneath, Gran was deep in thought. He stepped out of the Great Hall’s back door, into the chilly February sunshine. How annoying it would be if all this progress was spoiled by a general who was too stupid to see he was being used.
Near the front of the Hall, he stopped to watch as some of the first years came out, and he wondered which of them was Phil Royden, hoping he’d arrived safely. His eyes scanned the crowd, looking for someone who looked as if he might be a friend of Ace and Will. There were plenty of elves about, nice-looking youngsters for the most part, but too average, too ordinary to be the one he was looking for. But then the crowd shifted a little, and he caught sight of a tiny elf, dark-skinned, with a face alight with interest and full of intelligence, whose dark brown hair was as long as his leather jacket. Gran smiled to himself, and went on his way. It looked as if Phil had arrived, all right.

“Oh please, Sergeant,” begged Ace. “Go on, let us. We’ll only be a minute!”
“I said, no!” said Sergeant Olt firmly, though not without sympathy. “Your friends might be able to cope with a sudden invasion of crazy second years, but not everyone will. Some of them will be shaking with nerves, and what they don’t need right now is you and Will and Betch bursting in like whirlwinds.”
“Suppose we promise to creep in very, very quietly, and whisper?” Will suggested.
“Nice try, Will. The answer’s still no. Off to the workshops with you, and mind you go straight there.”
“You’re really mean, Sergeant, you know that, don’t you?” said Ace.
“That's what I’m here for,” grinned Sergeant Olt.
Resigned to the fact that they weren’t going to be able to see their friends until the evening, Will, Ace and Betch rushed to catch up with the other elves who were trailing across from the training ground to the workshops.
“We might see them, and be able to wave, as we go past the Hall,” said Ace hopefully.
“That’d make it worse,” Betch fretted, “if we can’t stop to talk.”

At the workshops they split up; Betch was in a different group. Ace and Will went into Workshop One, for their first Advanced Technology class of the new year. They slithered along a bench to sit near their friends. Ross was in this group, and so were Sizzle, Crocus and Ratzo, the goblin from Poland. Kiefer, Lauro and Pioppo had just been promoted to join it. Ace smiled at them as he sat down, but he didn’t get a chance to say anything, because just then Major Teplou came in, rubbing his cold hands together.
“Morning,” he called cheerfully. “New faces. Welcome. Know you - you’re called Kiefer, aren’t you? Heard you’re a pain in the neck. Well, don’t be a pain in my neck or you can go back and play with the babies who don’t know brass from copper. Got that?”
Kiefer just nodded, eyes wide.
“Don’t know you two, do I? Wait a moment, yes… you’re the leader of the Italian team, aren’t you? What’s your name?”
“Lauro. And this is Pioppo.”
“Nice to meet you. Right, I’m not staying long. It’s your turn to do a project together. Use all your skills with materials and all I’ve taught you about efficient design to make something. Something useful for the camp. Anything you like - amaze me. Just keep it legal, OK?” he added, glancing at Will. “Nothing less than fifty years old. You’ve got three lessons to do it in. Starting now. And you’re on your own - off you go!”
Chuckling at their stunned faces, he left.

“Well!” said Crocus. “What a challenge! What shall we make?”
“Air-to-air missiles,” said Sizzle.
“How useful would that be?” said Crocus, taking her seriously while everyone else laughed.
“Could be useful if we had another bird attack,” said Sizzle, “but I was only joking, really. Be good fun, though.”
“You think Supplies would let us have explosives, do you?” grinned Will. “Can’t see it, myself.”
“What d’you fancy making, then?” Sizzle asked.
“A hydro-electric dam,” said Will. “Channel the water power to generate electricity in a small power station, so the whole camp could have a constant supply of electricity. No more faffing about with batteries.”
“In three lessons?” said Ace.
“That is the snag,” said Will. “But there’s no harm dreaming.”
“It’d be really useful though,” Ace agreed. “He said something useful. What else does camp need, that wouldn’t take so long to make?”
“A roof,” said Lauro. “Keep the snow off.”
Everyone laughed again, and Lauro protested,
“This weather’s not a joke, not if you come from a hot country. Horrible stuff gets everywhere.”
“Hey,” said Ross, “what about a snowplough? Where I come from, the humans drive them along the roads after every snowfall, and they shift all the snow so efficiently. That’d keep your feet dry, Lauro.”
“Yes, I’ve seen them, too,” said Kiefer. “Be good fun to drive one.”
“I’ve heard of them,” said Will, “but I’ve never seen one. What do they look like?”
“Like a tractor,” said Ross. “Diesel engine, big wheels, with big fat tyres. The plough’s attached to the front, rotary blades churning the snow against a curved back-plate, then channelling it up a big pipe, where a blower sends it shooting out to the side, out of the way.”
“Oh, brilliant,” said Ace. “This we have to see.”
“You’ve really not seen one? Don’t you have snow in England?” asked Kiefer.
“Not much, where we live,” said Ace, looking round. Everyone was looking keen. “It’s a great idea, Ross. Let’s go for it. Everyone who’s seen one, draw it, then we can pool the drawings for a design blueprint.”
Kiefer finished first, and passed his drawing to Will.
“Transverse section, Kiefer - nice work,” said Will. “Yes, I see… what’s the size like? How much bigger than a human?”
Kiefer closed his eyes, picturing the driver about to get into his machine.
“Half as high again, so call it three metres.”
“OK, so scale that down by nine, for us… gives us 37 cm for the height, and length in proportion… may I see yours, Crocus? Oh, beautiful. This is going to be fun.”

Will got a big sheet of paper, and put together an accurate scale drawing from all the sketches, listening carefully as everyone chipped in with details, and Crocus started making a list of all the materials they’d need.
The goblin sergeant in charge of the storeroom was expecting them, and handed over what they needed.
“Diesel?” he queried, with a smile. “OK, you can have a bit, but mind you store it with a vapour seal. We don’t want any explosions when someone lights a lamp!”
Excited, they rushed back to the workshop and started work under a lean-to at its side. They began by laying the foundations of axles and transmission system, and the more they concentrated, the more serious they grew, as the complexity of the design filled their minds. Ace and Crocus had galvanised the group, and organised them, but now a subtle change slipped into place. These were all talented and intelligent sprites, they didn’t need to argue or show off. They were all playing their part, but knew without being told that they needed one mind co-ordinating their efforts, and instinctively they all turned to the same person. 
For his part, Will was totally absorbed, totally focused, seeing the parts clearly in his mind, and the order they needed to make them in. At first, he was asking the others to do things at the right moment, but before long he was quietly telling them.
Ace smiled to himself, and took a step back to watch.
He’s completely taken charge, he thought, and he doesn’t even realise it. Can’t give orders, my foot. Can’t think fast enough, rubbish. He can do it all right on his own territory. Wonder if I can get him to transfer it to an exercise?
He stopped musing as Will’s eyes met his, and his twin asked him to start laying the electrics along the transmission shaft.
You just assume people know what you’re talking about, he thought fondly, and they respond to that, and really think about what they’re doing. I’ll have to try that myself.

The time went too quickly. They didn’t linger past twelve o’clock, too many of them were on duty. Regretfully, they covered their machine with a tarpaulin, to hide it from curious eyes. They were all looking forward to amazing everyone by driving it across the camp. It would cause a sensation.

It was no coincidence that all the second years were wearing watches now. Between all their new duties, and all the extra classes, they never had a minute to waste. Ace and Will had been inundated with requests for help almost as soon as they woke up from hibernating, as watches were beyond a lot of people’s skills. But they’d done very well out of it. Ace had only been trying to be modest, saying he, personally, couldn’t do socks and didn’t think he would ever be able to, but after that, every fairy who asked them to make her a watch brought them a lovely new pair of warm socks each. They’d been thrilled, though they couldn’t help wondering how people who couldn’t do a simple thing like a watch could do really difficult things like socks.
But they were very grateful for having nice warm feet that afternoon, as they were working for most of the time in deep snow. Everyone was helping to prepare extra quarters for so many new recruits, and Ace and Will had been trusted to lay the pipework to bring running water to a new hut. They enjoyed that, and did a good job of it, but by the time they’d finished, they were cold and filthy, and had to go for a quick swim. When they came out, shivering a little in the frosty air, they could hear the music on the Concourse drawing to a close. Their eyes met, and without needing a word, they tore off to the mess.

“Where is he?” Ace yelled over the loud conversations going on all around them. “We’ll never find him in this crush!”
“They’re going to have to make this place bigger!” said Will.
But then they heard a voice they recognised, shouting their names.
“Ace! Will!” Phil’s voice cracked with emotion and excitement. “Over here!”
They rushed to join him, and both hugged him, words tumbling over each other.
“Oh Phil, oh, it’s so good to see you!” said Ace. “I can’t believe this day’s really come at last, even though I knew it would!”
“You look terrific!” said Will. “Look at your hair, how long it is now! Did you find Camellia? Is she here? Where’s Rob?”
“He’s here,” said Phil, tugging at the sleeve of the much larger elf hanging back a little shyly behind him, and Ace and Will looked up into Rob’s calm brown eyes.
“I’m really glad to meet you,” he said. “I’ve heard so much about you. Which is which?”
“He’s Will, I’m Ace. What’s he been telling you about us? Nothing good, I hope.”
“Hey, it was all good. Thanks for looking after him for me.”
“Shut it, oak-brain, I’ve told you before, I don’t need looking after,” grinned Phil. “Who got us here, I’d like to know?”
“Did you come on the ferry?” asked Will.
“We were going to,” said Phil, “but then Gary said he had to go to London, so he gave us all a lift to Heathrow, and we caught a flight to Oslo.”
“A flight! You came on an aeroplane! How cool is that!” said Ace, impressed.
“It was great fun. The fairies didn’t like it, though.”
“Yeah, where’ve they got to?” said Rob. “I’ve not seen them for hours.”
“Probably still at the barracks,” said Ace. “I know Rose and Clover are still working, helping Corporal Viella make loads of extra sheets ’cos they didn’t have enough, and it looked pretty chaotic still when we came past.”
“We could try and find Dan,” said Will. “She won’t be making sheets.”
“They’d have to be pretty desperate,” Ace agreed. “I’ll try her…”

Ace went quiet, thinking to Dan, while Phil and Rob watched him with awestruck expressions.
“She’s coming now,” said Ace, and a few seconds later, Dan flew in, hovered, whistled and tried to find a place to land. She hugged Phil rapturously, while he stood trying to take in that this confident, lithe fairy with a knife at her belt was the same moody, confused Dan he’d left on Wildside. He hardly had time to greet her, and introduce Rob, before Hogweed joined them too, along with Bella and Stella, Fran, Peter and Wayne, all anxious to meet these elves who’d done such amazing things and suffered so much already in the cause.
In such a whirl of introductions, with everyone talking at once, especially Phil, Rob was in a bit of a daze. But Peter latched onto him, very pleased to meet another oak, and Rob felt very grateful for such calm friendliness at his side. Peter was easily the dimmest elf on Ace’s team, but he had his own strengths.

A lot of beer was being drunk, and a lot of stories being told. Phil had to tell all about his hunt for Rob, and his escape from Special Brigade, while Ace had his own tale to tell on that same subject, and for a few moments they grew serious, as they considered the danger they were all still in. But Ace thought that was far too gloomy a subject for such a happy night.
“Don’t worry about Special Brigade,” he said. “Don’t we all run rings round them every time we meet them? Tell us the news from home - you must have seen them all if you came with Gary.”
“Everyone’s fine, we’ve brought letters, though I haven’t unpacked them yet. David’s not at school any more, he goes to College now, studying Art. The builders have finished, and Mrs. Kowalska’s very happy in her new flat, which is the only good thing to say about that. Cyril’s been ill, but Mal nursed him devotedly, and he’s much better now.”
“That’s good,” said Ace. “Sounds like Mal’s keen to make amends for everything he did, then. But how’s Aesculus?”
“Growing fast,” grinned Phil. “He’s up to my shoulder, though I admit that doesn’t take much doing. I was a little worried about him though, Ace.”
Phil frowned in thought before carrying on.
“I don’t think he spends nearly enough time outside, in the trees. Trouble is, he’s such a friendly little soul, he doesn’t want to go out on his own when there are people to talk to indoors. And even when the humans are all out, he’d rather stay in watching television.”
Ace and Will groaned with envy, but they did look worried.
“I hope you don’t mind,” Phil continued, “but I strongly advised David to ask Mal to go out with him every day. Aesculus is tall and strong for his age, and his vocabulary is incredible. He can draw quite nicely, and even write a bit. But I’m not happy about his jumping. For his size, it’s pathetic.”
“And David wouldn’t know that. Thank you, Phil, so much. You did the right thing there, definitely. You saw what needed doing and you did it,” Ace smiled. “Did you get a chance to talk to Mal yourself?”
“Yes, I went to see him. He wanted to help - desperately - but he was rather concerned because you’d told him not to come back to Wildside. He still remembered that order and was very reluctant to disobey it. So I told him I was your deputy when you weren’t there, which was total cheek on my part, and that if he’d take the new order from me, I’d take the responsibility if you weren’t pleased. But you sound pleased, so I’m guessing you won’t be wanting to beat me up.”
There was only one answer to that.
“Don’t be daft,” said Ace.

Fran had been listening to all this with great embarrassment. Ace was a senior sprite, with people back home he was responsible for, and the contacts to care for them at a distance. He was sought out with joy the moment they arrived by this majestic oak and this incredibly rare Phillyrea. Humans had sent him letters. And this was the elf he’d patronised so badly on their first night here, the elf he’d assumed he had the right to command, because he was an ash and Ace was only a sycamore. Fran had come a long way since that night. The memory made him squirm.
He sat slightly apart, keeping quiet and hoping no-one would remember what an ass he’d been. Just then, the outside door opened and a crowd of fairies rushed in, with a few snowflakes whirling around them. Rose let out her own distinctive piercing whistle, and Hogweed stood up to wave and show them where to come.

In a moment, they were engulfed again in hugs and introductions. Rose and Clover had Lily and Camellia in tow.
“You found them!” said Phil, pleased.
“Recognised the accent,” grinned Clover. “What’s that, Will? No thanks, we don’t want beer, we’re too tired. We just want coffee.”
“I’ll bring some,” Will told her. “You look exhausted.”
“Yeah, it’s been hard work. But everyone has everything she needs now, and the last two huts are settling in.”
“This is Will?” said Camellia. “So this one’s Ace? Honestly, Phil, you might have told us they were so good-looking, I’d have brushed my hair!”
Phil spluttered, and Will rolled his eyes and went off to get the coffee. But Ace smiled.
“Sound judgement, and a firm grasp of essentials. Welcome to Fjaerland, Camellia. You too, Lily. So you didn’t like the aeroplane?”
“My goodness, no, if that’s how humans fly I’m glad I’ve got wings,” said Camellia. “Going in the car with your Gary was nice, but the aeroplane was terrifying. I spent the whole journey shaking with fear, squashed in a luggage box between two bags. It was dark, and hot and noisy.”
“Never mind,” said Phil. “Next time we’ll transform you back into a human and buy you a ticket.”
“Phil!” shrieked Camellia. “That’s not funny! It was not good being a human, well, they’re very nice but I don’t want to be one, and especially I don’t want to be one and pushed on a train and dumped in Llandrindod Wells, which was a very nice place but I didn’t know anybody, and I didn’t know where I was, and if I hadn’t got that job handing leaflets out I would have starved… oh, thank you, Will,” she finished gratefully, as Will handed her a mug of coffee. “That smells good.”
“How long did it take you to find her when you got there?” Will asked the other Roydens.
“Not that long,” grinned Phil. “We just kept looking for anyone who never stopped talking. And when we saw this woman standing near the shops, gassing fit to bust to everyone who went past, we wondered… ”
“… and I flew into a little tree nearby,” said Lily, “and did my own whistle, and when the woman turned round, looking so pleased and astonished, we knew we’d cracked it.”
“Phil changed her back,” said Rob, “seeing he’d had the practice on me. We told him to do her tongue so it only flapped at one end, like most people’s, but he obviously couldn’t manage that.”
“That’s not true!” said Lily. “Take no notice, Cam. I like your chatter, and so do they really. I thought I’d never hear it again. I’m just so glad to be here, to help in any way I can to make sure things like that don’t happen to any more sprites.”
“You’ve come to the right place then,” said Ace, pleased. “Lots of exciting things going on.”

He watched them as they carried on chatting, this time telling Phil and Rob where their barracks was and why they’d been so long.
Camellia was very small and pretty, with short, shiny, dark hair and dark red streaks, and she looked so vibrant and alive. Sure, she talked a lot, but she wasn’t boring. Lily was obviously quieter, but not afraid to speak up when she wanted to. Her hair was black and her streaks were orange, which puzzled Ace, who thought lilies were always white.
“What kind of a lily are you?” he asked. “I don’t know many garden flowers, though I’m getting better.”
"Lilium tigrinum," said Lily. "The tiger lily. Haven't you ever seen one? Orange flowers, with flecks of purply-black."
"That's why she's got purple hair," teased Rob.
"It's not purple!" said Lily indignantly. "It's black."
Ace was too polite to comment on that, but now he looked more closely he could see that her hair wasn't jet-black like Will's. It did have a purplish tinge to it.
Camellia was chatting again already, getting to know Stella and Bella, and she didn't stop even as Clover nearly pulled her over, tugging her with the rest of the fairies onto a nearby sofa. As they settled themselves, Will thought to Ace.
I never want to be stuck in a lift with that one.
Oh, I don't know,
Ace thought back. She's not that bad.
Will just looked at him, with a very knowing smile.
What could she possibly have said, that you liked so much?
Ace stuck his tongue out, puzzling the others, who of course hadn't heard the rest of it. But then he choked on his beer, as he heard Camellia ask,
"Have you heard if anyone else has come from England?"
"Betch!" he said. "Fran, have you seen Dale? Has he arrived?"
"I don't know," said Fran. "I never thought to check."
"Neither did I," said Ace, looking disgusted with himself, "and I should have done. Back in a bit."

He slipped off, and Will explained about Betch and Dale, that Ace had gone to find them and make sure everything was all right.
"Another reunion," he smiled. "We were so excited about you four arriving, we almost forgot."
"It's a reunion of the band too," said Dan. "Hope you've been keeping your practice up, Phil!"
"You bet, and Rob's been learning guitar too."
Dan's face took on an awestruck expression.
"You mean we can have three on lead guitar, just like the real Iron Maiden? Oh, wow. Do you know the songs we do?"
"Yeah, Phil taught me, and I heard a lot at David's. I like playing bass best. But I'll be glad to join Ace's band, if he'll have me."

Dan carried on talking about music, but Will froze up inside. That was just a bit too much. No band had two bass players, and he was the bass player. Did Rob think he was good enough to take his place, or something? And it was just as much his band as Ace's, anyway. Who'd made the guitars in the first place? And figured out how to play them?
Hardly anything showed on his face. He was still smiling. Only a little stiffness in his lips would have given it away, but Will was hurt and angry. The thought in his mind was that he didn't care too much for Rob Royden.
It wouldn't have happened if Ace had been there. He'd have known Rob's remarks would have hurt Will, and would instantly have said something to put it right. But Ace wasn't there, he was wriggling through the crowds, searching for someone he wasn't at all sure he wanted to meet.

Ace wasn't perfect. He was quick to lose his temper, optimistic to the point of recklessness, and prone to holding grudges. But these were all faults he recognised as faults, and he'd done well at learning to curb them since he came to Fjaerland. But no-one had ever succeeded in making the slightest dint in his vanity. It wasn't just that he knew he was beautiful, and liked it. He couldn't bear the thought that anyone might be better-looking than he was. He'd had a few anxious moments when he first met Betch, because he considered him serious competition.
For his part, Betch was fast at spotting the chinks in people's armour. He'd teased Ace on and off all year about how good-looking Dale was, and since they'd all woken up from hibernating, he'd been in such high spirits that he'd done it even more. So it was with some trepidation that Ace approached them, when he finally spotted them in the crowd. They were sitting side by side on the floor with their backs against the wall, chatting quietly, in a world of their own.
"Hi, Betch," said Ace. "Everything OK?"

They both looked up, and Ace got his first look at Dale Knightwood, and he felt like kicking Betch. Yes, okay, Dale had a nice face, and golden eyes, and thick white hair, just like Betch, but there the similarity stopped. The face was nice because there was kindness in it. It had no regularity of features; in fact, it was a bit lop-sided. There was no sign of the quick wit and sharp observation that shone in Betch's eyes; instead his expression was that of someone who was permanently baffled by the world around him. He was a little ungainly too, Ace noticed, as they got to their feet. Co-ordinated movement seemed beyond him, and his hands and feet were a little too large for his limbs, like the paws on a puppy. Yet he looked immensely likeable, and Ace wasn't surprised to see the look of utter contentment on Betch's face.
"Everything's great. Dale, this is Ace Moseley. He thinks he's beautiful, which is strange, because nobody else does. But he doesn't think he's the best elf here, which is also strange, because everybody else does."
"Wow," said Dale, "that's a bit confusing. Hello, Ace."
"Hello," Ace smiled. "Nice to meet you. And it's nice to see what Betch looks like when he's happy, at last. If you two have finished catching up with each other, there's loads of people waiting to meet you."
They battled their way back through the crowds, and as soon as he was within shouting distance, Ace yelled,
"Here they are!"
"Oh, terrific," moaned Fran. "The place'll fall down in a week. Hello, Dale."
"Hello, Fran! Peter! Stella! Wow, you all look so different! All grown-up and serious. How're you getting on? D'you like it here?"
"It's totally different to what I expected," Peter told him, "but yeah, it's great."
He gave Dale a hug of welcome, and so did Stella. After a moment's hesitation, so did Fran.
"Listen, Fran, I haven't broken anything for a whole week," Dale told him.
"Oh, yeah? How long have you been sitting on the beach?"
"Er, well, about a week," Dale admitted.
"Thought so. You've done pretty well to get here on your own, though. When did you leave?"
"What! It's taken you four months to get here? How come?"
"Well, it was so boring at home without you all. Thought I'd get started. I knew you had to cross the sea, so I nipped down to Portsmouth and got on a boat. Followed the coast until I could head north, and basically just kept heading north."
"You came from England to Norway via France?" said Will.
"Worked, didn't it?" grinned Betch. "You wouldn't get Dale doing something the easy way if he could find a more difficult way to do it."

Betch's words were light and teasing, but Ace could see relief deep down, relief that Dale had survived the journey. Betch had probably spent his whole life looking after his friend, and even now, he wasn't going to be able to do that full-time. They'd only be together off-duty. What Betch needed now was to know that Dale was going to be in safe hands.
"It's a shame you two have to be in different teams," said Ace, "but we'll do the best we can. Every chance we get, these teams work together, right, Phil?"
"What're you asking me for? What is all this team stuff, anyway?"
"You'll all be in the same team 'cos you're all from England, and the leader's whoever the team wants it to be."
"Ah," said Phil. "And your team wanted you, obviously."
"Well, not to start with," grinned Ace, "but that's how it ended up."
Phil's eyes widened.
"Who on earth was… never mind," he finished hurriedly, realising he was probably about to offend someone he'd only just met.
But Phil's tact was wasted when Dale Knightwood was around. He happened to notice whom Betch was looking at, and blurted it out.
"Fran! It was you!"
"Oh, don't," groaned Fran, hiding his face. "Don't go reminding me of that… "
Then Ace caught the look on Betch's face, nearly bursting with laughter. That was what Betch had missed. He loved winding people up, but he did it on purpose. He obviously loved it when Dale did it just as well, without even meaning to.
"Betch," Ace murmured, "you're wicked."
"I know," Betch whispered back. "Great, isn't it?"

To cover his embarrassment, Fran said he was going to get some more beer, and all the other elves said they would too, and so did Dan and Hogweed. As they were crossing the room, a crowd of new goblins decided to go outside to stretch their legs, and the final group of new fairies, who'd only just finished settling in, came through the door.
Ace found himself shoved aside, but he waited patiently until things settled down again, and he could move. So he got a good view of the fairies coming in, and for a while he forgot about anything else. In the centre of the crowd was the most beautiful fairy - no, the most beautiful creature of any kind - he'd ever seen in his life. Tall for a fairy, she topped her companions by a head, just as she outshone them. Her skin was as white as frost, and streaked with silver. Her hair was silver, too, and long, rippling down past her waist. It seemed to have a light of its own, it shone so brightly. The delicate features of her face were exquisite, from poised little chin to long-lashed eyes, which were the soft grey of shadows on snow in the evening. She was dressed all in white, too; white suede, soft and clinging, trimmed with white fur. She was mesmerising. Ace couldn't take his eyes off her. Her beauty tore at his heart, he forgot everything, where he was, who he was, all he could do was look, and drown.

Most of the elves had given her admiring glances, and started talking about her as they headed back to where their own fairies were sitting.
"Amazing," Fran was saying. "Who is she? Do you know, Camellia?"
"Who? Oh, her. Her name's Blanche. She's a frost fairy, they're always amazingly gorgeous. Sickening, isn't it?"
"What's a frost fairy?" asked several voices.
"Well, I've never actually seen one before," said Camellia, "but when a fairy is born in winter, when the flower is frozen, she becomes the frost more than the flower, if you see what I mean."
"Where?" said Clover, interested enough to lift her head from a cushion. "Oh! I see what you mean!"
She twisted round, and the teasing remark she'd been going to make didn't come out. Her target wasn't there.
"Will! Where's Ace?" she called. "Still looking at the frost fairy?"
"Huh?" said Will, dragging his thoughts back from the snow-plough. "What frost fairy?"
Clover just pointed, grinning, and Will's face dropped. He knew better than anyone what that shimmering white beauty would do to his twin.
"Oh, terrific. That's all I need."
He dragged himself to his feet again, realising at once that Ace was rooted to the spot on the other side of the room. Will was a bit annoyed at first, having to get up and tackle the crowds once more, but his annoyance faded when he saw Ace's expression. Will had never seen him look quite so stricken, quite so vulnerable. It gripped his heart, and he moved quickly to Ace's side and took his arm.
"Come on," he murmured in Ace's ear. "Come and sit down. And try and close your mouth, will you?"
Ace stared at him blankly for a moment, then sighed.
"Did you see her?" he whispered, awestruck.
"Yep," said Will firmly. "A real beauty, no question. But she's not your responsibility, so come on back to those who are."

It was a clever choice of words, and brought Ace a bit nearer to earth, though he couldn't help glancing back over his shoulder as Will led him away. Will turned too, and saw that the frost fairy was watching Ace as fixedly as he was watching her, and Will didn't like the expression in her eyes. She might have been simply enjoying the effect she produced. But Will knew a thing or two about people who were vain about their looks, and he didn't think it was that. It seemed to him there was something predatory in that gaze. Suddenly, he felt very scared.

Betch asked Wayne to come with him next morning, when he went to take Dale to the canteen for breakfast. Wayne had been his working partner all year, and the last thing he wanted to do was make him feel left out. And there was something he wanted to talk to him about.
"The thing is, Wayne," he began apologetically, "I wouldn't relax my cover, if I were you. Not when Dale's around."
"Why's that?" said Wayne, astonished. He'd expected Betch's friend to be as sound as he was. "Isn't he for the cause?"
"He will be - when he understands it," said Betch. "But he doesn't know any humans, doesn't really know what's going on yet. And even when he does, he'll have to get his head round what you're doing, and why it's such a big secret… it could take a while. It's not that he's stupid, no way… but you know what it's like when you come here - loads of new stuff to take in. It's confusing. And he does have this tendency to, well… "
"… blurt things out?"
"Ah, you noticed?"
"Don't worry," grinned Wayne. "I'll be careful."

"You should have been here earlier!" said Ross, when they came in. He was frustrated at having to make more tea when he thought he'd finished for the morning.
"Why, what happened?" said Dale innocently. "This is the canteen? It's very nice. Wow, you've got a tap! Can I have a go?"
He squirmed behind the serving counter and started turning the tap on and off with great delight.
"Haven't you had a wash this morning?" Ross demanded. "You must have found the tap outside your barracks."
"I didn't really need a wash. Not once I'd got all the snow off."
"Don't tell me," groaned Ross. "I haven't got time for this. Get him out of here, Betch!"
Ace and Will had seen that, as they sat there sipping hot tea as fast as they could, with Phil and Rob.
"You know, Ace," said Will, "maybe the Knightwoods' senior sprite wasn't as mean as we all thought. He did you a favour. And Phil. And Sergeant Olt and Sergeant Kopec too, when you come to think of it. Those two together are dynamite."
"I have a feeling Phil's going to get the worst of it," grinned Ace.
"You mean the team leader is," said Phil firmly. "It might not be me, we don't even know who's in the team yet! Could easily be someone better."
"Yeah, it could be Dale," said Rob, staring in disbelief as Dale lurched and bumped his way across the room.
"Well, that'd certainly be interesting," said Phil, getting up. "Come on, Rob, we've got to go. Catch you later!" he called over his shoulder.

"Where's he whizzing off to? He's got plenty of time," said Ace.
"Oh, he'll have gone back to the barracks," said Dale, as he and Betch sat down. "There's these two other elves from England, and they're so freezing. Phil said he'd help them make some warmer clothes."
Ace and Will just looked at each other.
"Someone better, my foot," said Ace. "Who are these other English elves?"
"Oh, they're very nice," said Dale. "Sam and Lex. From Suffolk. Lots of snow fell on them too, but they said not to worry about it."
"Come on, Dale, spill it," said Ace. "What did you do?"
"I just wanted to see what the weather was like," Dale explained. "So I made this tiny hole in the roof, and d'you know what, snow started falling in! And then there was this big crack, and suddenly there was quite a lot of snow in the room."
"And Phil fixed it before anyone found out?" said Will.
"Yes! How did you know?"
"Just a lucky guess," grinned Will. "You ready, Ace?"
"Sure," Ace said, getting up. "Good luck with the tests," he said to Dale, and patted Betch on the shoulder. "See you in the gym. We have to be somewhere first."
"So do I," said Betch. "Have to see this one to the training ground, in time. I mean, whoever heard of anyone being late on their first day?"

Ace and Will smiled thinly and retreated with as much dignity as they could. But once they were outside, they started laughing.
"Couldn't do that now if we tried," said Ace. "Too busy to be late."
"I'll say," said Will. "Come on, race you to Signals."
They jumped off. You weren't allowed to jump on the cleared paths, there was too much chance of collisions and accidents, but by now Ace and Will knew every shortcut there was. Will won, which worried him a bit. He had a feeling Ace had been wasting time looking overhead, because the first year fairies were flying across to the training ground.
"Well, did you see her?" he asked dryly.
"Mmm," said Ace absently. "Like a star flying down to earth."
"Get a grip, you idiot," said Will, and started piling logs from the woodstore into Ace's arms. To Will's relief, he did, and gave his full attention to carrying more logs than Will could. That was more like it. They bumped open the doors of the Signals Unit, and rushed around as quietly as they could, stacking logs by the stoves. As they were coming out, Major Inari caught sight of them and beckoned them over.
"Have you got a minute?" he said.
"That's a cruel thing to say to new second years," said Will, and the major smiled.
"Got a message for you from the general."
They didn't have to ask which one.
"He didn't want to interrupt your reunion, and he left camp extremely early this morning. But he wants you - all of you - to ease off on pro-human talk. You're to pass it round the others. He can't explain why, but it's important."
"Ease off?" said Ace. "But we're winning people over. That's important too, isn't it?"
"I know," sighed Major Inari. "But it can't be helped. All I can tell you is, he doesn't want anyone to have any excuse for finding fault with you."
"Is everything all right, sir?" asked Will.
"No worse than usual. Don't worry. General Herdalen hasn't gone far - he'll be back in a few days. He's just gone to Otta to escort the new general back to camp."
Ace was very thoughtful as they made their way out. But the prospect of what lay ahead drove everything else out of his mind - puzzling over what was worrying Gran, day-dreaming about frost fairies - nothing could compete with their first session of combat training.

"Balance," said Sergeant Olt, watching Olm trying to push Lauro over. "Balance is the key to winning a fight. You pushed so hard then it was you who nearly went down. Keep your feet moving, use your whole body."
To start them off, Sergeant Olt had put them in pairs, simply trying to push each other over.
"More aggression, Clover," said the sergeant. "Timidity will lose you a fight. You don't fight unless you have to, but when you do have to, you give it all you've got. Now shove as if you meant it! That's better - good balance."
I'm not timid! thought Clover indignantly. I just don't see the point of this, that's all. I wish he hadn't put me with Lilje, she's nearly as bad as Dan.
She sighed, and glanced across at Ace and Will, who were tackling Ross and Alnus. All four of them were darting about, there was nothing wrong with their balance.
Just their brains. Look at them grinning, they're enjoying this!
She sighed again, and braced herself as Lilje took her turn to shove.
"Ow!" said Clover, fuming, as she went down again. "Oh, how I do not like this. Go away, Lilje, and fight an elf, you're too strong for me."
"Oh, they'll be easy," said Lilje. "They've all been brought up to think you don't hit fairies, it'll take them weeks to learn to fight us properly."
"Take a breath," called Sergeant Olt. "Next I want you to try to throw a punch, while your partner tries to block it. Form a fist correctly - thumb outside your fingers, not inside - swing your arm back, use your whole body to throw your weight behind the blow, and aim for the chin. When you're blocking, bring your arm across to block your opponent's arm before there's any contact. I'll demonstrate - Hogweed, would you care you help me? Thanks."
Hogweed helped the sergeant to demonstrate the actions in slow motion, then the sergeant re-arranged all the pairs. Clover found herself facing Kiefer, and felt dimly that Sergeant Olt was trying to help her, to give her confidence. She was grateful, but still miserable.
If only I could see any point to it, she thought.

Lilje got Ace, and she was very pleased. Everyone knew he was a good fighter, but she was going to flatten him.
"After you," Ace grinned, and Lilje curled her hand into a fist and swung into a hard punch. But she winced with pain as Ace's arm jarred into hers, stopping the blow dead. She hadn't even seen it coming.
"Nice," said Ace. "You're strong. My turn."
Lilje started laughing.
"What's up?" said Ace. "You're not nervous, are you?"
"No chance. Just don't believe you can really do it, really hit a fairy."
"You kidding?" said Ace. "Forgotten who's on my team, have you? Who d'you think taught Dan to fight?"
Oh, help, thought Lilje, two seconds before Ace's fist cracked into her chin.

She'd been right, though, as far as most of the elves were concerned. They were finding it very difficult to bring themselves to hit fairies, and besides that, only the tallest and fastest of them were having much success when they were paired with goblins. So on the whole, the elves were getting the worst of it from both sides, and some of them were getting very disgruntled. But Sergeant Olt cheered them up by introducing them to a punch-bag. Now they had a chance to show just how hard they could hit, and compete against each other, so they ended the morning smiling.

Clover didn't. She slipped away by herself as soon as the class was dismissed, and went straight to the Signals Unit. A fairy she didn't know looked at her quizzically as she came in.
"I just wanted to talk to Major Rhaeadr," Clover explained. "Is she on duty, do you know, ma'am?"
The other fairy shook her head.
"No, she isn't. You can go up to her room though, if you like… that staircase at the end there. Just knock, the names are on the doors."
"Thank you, ma'am," said Clover, and followed the directions. She soon found a shiny green door, with 'Major Poppy Rhaeadr' on it in scarlet letters. Clover took a deep breath, and knocked.
"It's open, come in," she heard, and Clover stepped inside. It was a cosy room, with furniture of dark-coloured wood, and fabrics in warm colours. Poppy was sitting in an armchair, toasting her toes on the hearth, and she looked surprised to see Clover.
"You don't know me, ma'am," said Clover breathlessly. "My name's Clover Moseley."
"Ah," said Poppy. "I've heard of you, though. From Madge."
"I knew you were Madge's friend," said Clover. "That's why I came. I want to talk to her so very, very much… but I can't reach England. I came to ask if… if maybe you were talking to her soon… you might ask if she'd get in touch."
Clover's eyes were filling up, the thought of being able to talk to someone who'd understand how she felt was overwhelming.
"Indeed I will, dear, this very day," said Poppy. "But I can see something's worrying you…can you tell me about it? Madge and I are very old friends. I'm from the same place as her friend Heather, as you'll have gathered, and we all trained together."

Such kindness and sympathy shone from Poppy's eyes, Clover stepped closer, hopefully, and sank down onto the hearth at Poppy's feet.
"Combat training," she said sadly. "My elves think fighting is good fun. Even the other fairies on our team think it's a useful thing to learn. But I just think it's stupid and pointless. There's always got to be a better way to solve something than fighting! I know I have to learn it, and I won't make a fuss, but I need to know if Madge felt the same as I do. If she coped, I can cope. I just want to know I'm not the only fairy with enough sense to see how barbaric and senseless it is."
To Clover's surprise, Poppy went off into peals of laughter.
"Oh, my dear, you've taken me back sixty years! Madge all over again! I can see her now, standing there with her hands on her hips, glaring at the sergeant. 'If I think something's stupid', she said, 'the fact that elves think it's clever isn't going to persuade me otherwise'. She got hard labour for being so cheeky, but she never changed her opinion."
"I just knew it," smiled Clover. "I knew she'd have thought that."
"You and she are very alike," said Poppy. "But though you're both right in a general way, you're both wrong in one respect - there isn't always another way. If you're up against someone who won't listen, and speed is of the essence, and someone's life is at risk - then you have to resort to violence. I'll let Madge tell you about the time she realised that… it's a good story, and it might cheer you up. It concerns a baby fairy, six drunken goblins and a council grass-cutting machine. Gran couldn't believe she'd laid out all six of them, Madge fighting-is-stupid Arley. That was a good day."
"Gran? D'you mean General Herdalen?" breathed Clover.
"Mmm, yes… back in the days when we were in First Squadron, air support to First Regiment. He was only a captain then - he's a lot younger than we are - but even then, he had style. He looked at the heap of goblins and just said, 'If it was legal, I'd take a photograph. No-one's ever going to believe this.' And Madge said, 'I'd appreciate it if you'd keep it to yourself, Captain.' And Gran said, 'I'll only tell one person, I promise.' So serious-faced, she believed him. And he did - just his old crony Pice Inari, here in Signals. The whole army had the story by nightfall."
Clover was bubbling over with laughter. It was great fun hearing stories about such senior people when they were young.

"Where's Madge now, ma'am, do you know?" she asked. "I know she's finished in Liverpool, but I didn't know where she was going next."
"Neither did she, until a few days ago," said Poppy. "She's gone to help Heather. It's not the first time Madge has been seconded to Intelligence. They're in a place called Sherwood, near Preston. There's some new building going on there, and some very strange things have been happening."
"What sort of things? Is Madge in danger?"
"It's hard to say… a firm of contractors quit last week, saying there was something unhealthy about the site, they'd never had so many people off sick. Serious things, too."
"So it's started?" whispered Clover. "Their new plan? The rapid degeneration?"
"It looks like it," Poppy whispered back. "There's no known colony there, to be fighting for their land. That's not conclusive - refugees can turn up anywhere - but Heather's been staking out the place for months, and she's seen no sign of any sprites. And if there were any signs, Heather would have spotted them."
"So someone's come from outside to do this? Someone from Special Brigade?"
"Heather thinks so. That's why she requested help - and why she got Madge. She thinks whoever's doing it is already working with the humans, transformed to human size."
Then suddenly, sharply, Poppy fixed her eyes on Clover.
"I know who you are, what you've done. You know there's a war coming as well as I do. Learn all you can, Clover. And I promise you, Madge will be in touch before nightfall."
"Thank you," said Clover. "But you've helped a lot, yourself."
She twisted round on the hearth to push herself up, and noticed something.
"Can I get you some more wood before I go, ma'am? Your log basket's empty."
"Oh, now that would be very kind," said Poppy. "Whichever dozy elves filled the baskets here this morning forgot to do upstairs."
"I'll be right back with an armful," Clover promised, making a mental note to look which elves had been on wood duty for Signals this morning. It didn't surprise her that much when she found out.

Ace and Will had completely forgotten that Signals even had an upstairs, and were very grateful for Clover's hint. But they were even more interested in the news she'd heard.
"It's getting closer," said Ace, quite soberly. "It's good to know what's going on. Say what you like about us being on Special Brigade's hit list, but at least it means people trust us to know things like this. What are they going to do about it, did they say?"
Rose and Clover, Ace and Will were snatching a few quiet moments together in one of the big swings that hung from the ceiling in the mess. It was a bit of a squash, but the swings were full of cushions and they were comfortable enough.
"They have to identify who's doing it. Whoever they are, they've already scared off one team of builders, and they'll want to get a job with the new team to do the same again."
"But of course they could be looking totally different by now," said Ace. "So it's no use looking out for familiar faces."
"Madge says the old ways are the best. They're going to sing them to sleep - whoever doesn't doze off, they'll know they're not human."
"Yeah, but the ones who are really sprites will know what's going on!" said Will. "Madge and Heather will be up against people with human strength and size!"
"Yes, but they're not planning to fight them, Will! They'll stay out of sight, so they won't know it's only 'two elderly fairies who've forgotten what little they ever knew about fighting' - Madge's words, not mine!" laughed Clover.
Will was glad to see her looking so much happier.
"What will they do, then? Just gather evidence?"
"Yes, it's illegal to harm humans, so when they've got solid proof, some of England 1 are going to transform to human size to arrest them."
Ace groaned with envy.
"Hang on in there," Will grinned. "It won't be that long before we're on active service too. But right now, we'd better go and see if Phil's OK. They're pouring in, the music must have finished."
"Who was it tonight? I couldn't hear much," said Rose.
"Storekeepers from the Goblin Regiment and their perishing xylophones," Will told her. "We didn't miss much there."
"We've missed our chance to get down while there was anywhere to land, though," said Ace. "The floor's packed with bodies now."
Rose and Clover giggled a bit, and spread their wings swankily.
"Hey, don't just leave us!" said Will. "Clear us a bit of space, will you?"
"That table will do," said Ace. "Could you just, like, pop down and make sure no-one suddenly sits on it?"
"OK," said Clover, and the fairies flew down into the crowd.

"Not easy, Ace," said Will. "Bit of a small target, that."
"Impressive, though," Ace grinned. "Ready?"
Together, they launched themselves into a jump and landed side by side on the small table top, only swaying a little, and startling everyone around them. They were mostly first years, and most of them looked impressed when they looked up and saw where they'd jumped from. But there was also a gaggle of young Spanish elves who were in very high spirits.
"Look at the state of you!" one of them spluttered. "Haven't you ever heard of scissors?"
"Mmm," said Ace coolly. "Haven't you ever heard of individuality?"
That shut most of them up, but four of them were still laughing.
"Get them some hair-ribbons, they look just like fairies!"
Ace and Will sighed, and without needing to talk or even look, they launched into a perfectly co-ordinated movement. Jab - block - punch; once, twice, and the four elves were on the floor wondering what had hit them. Casually, Ace and Will jumped off the table and sauntered away.
Alnus, who'd been getting to know his young compatriots, helped them up.
"That was very silly," he said. "Who are you to be laughing at their hair?"
"They had no right to do that!" one of them blustered.
"Rubbish," said Alnus. "You were very rude. And they could have hit you a lot harder than that. Crazy, picking a fight with those two, the most-respected elves in the whole second year."
"I'm beginning to see why," said another. "Strikes me we were a bit stupid. We'd better go and apologise."
"You'll find them very friendly if you do," smiled Alnus.
"I never saw anything so smooth. It was like one person, not two. Are they twins?”
“Yes,” said Alnus. “They certainly are.”