CHAPTER 2 - Frost Fairy

The pace was relentless. Every day you were on duty for some chore or other at least once, and sometimes twice. If it was early morning, you had to get up even earlier if you wanted to go training as well, and you'd still get a stiff punishment if you were late for a class. With all the extra classes too, the second years never got off earlier than six, and they still had to make time to practise all the things they'd been told to practise.
Yet Ace didn't feel they were being pushed or bullied. The sergeants and the corporals were unrelenting in their demands, but at the same time, they were closer, more familiar, treating them less like learners and more like partners in the same work. It was as if they were saying, 'This is how it is, sometimes - can you cope with the pressure? We think you can do it - show us that you can'.
Then there were all the things that no-one had told Ace to do, but he did anyway. Things like keeping Gran's office tidy, and keeping him company sometimes on his patrols at night. Making time to talk to people, making sure his team were all right, making sure Phil and his team were all right, too.
Will did a lot of these things with him, though he had to make time to help General Széchenyi with the computer. She did as much of the inputting herself as she could, but she was even busier than he was.
It was a little easier for Will, because he wasn't a team leader, but not much, because he took up the slack for Ace whenever he could, finishing the chores on his own sometimes so Ace could get something else done. He didn't realise anything was wrong, though, until one night Gran whispered to him as they were parting,
"Don't let him burn himself out, Will."

Then Will stopped to think, and realised Ace was doing too much. He was too used to it to notice, but underneath the coolness and style, Ace had an awesome sense of responsibility, and when you combined that with normal sycamore hyperactivity, Gran's warning wasn't that surprising. Will saw then that Ace was getting into the habit of trying to look after two teams, not one. It was time he put a stop to it. The very next morning, when Ace got up, Will said,
"Come back to bed for another hour. No point wearing yourself out."
"I wouldn't mind," Ace admitted. "But if I don't get up now, something's got to give."
"You don't have to go and see Phil," said Will firmly. "You're fussing him, Ace. He's too polite to say so, but I bet he wishes you'd just let him get on with it. He'll cope, just like you did."
That stopped Ace in his tracks. Will hardly ever criticised a thing he did, but cheerfully helped him with whatever needed doing, so when he said something like that, Ace was ready to listen.
"You reckon?" he said uneasily.
"I reckon. They've been here nearly three weeks now. It's full moon tonight, and they'll be enlisted. Phil's officially team leader now, and it's time to let them stand on their own feet."
"It's full moon tonight?" said Ace slowly. "Yes, it is… and I hadn't even realised."
He shook his head, a bit shocked that he could have forgotten something so important.
"You're right. I've been going over the top again, haven't I?"
Will nodded, smiling, and Ace perched on the edge of Will's bunk, and said,
"I do know how lucky I am. What do other sycamores do, that haven't got twins to look after them?"
"When you meet Ace Foxfield again, you can ask him. Now go back to bed."
"OK, Will."
He jumped up, making the whole bunk shake, then thought to Will before he dozed off again.
You're sure Phil won't think I've just abandoned him?
He won't be thinking of anything today, but meeting the Tree. And he knows where you are if he wants you. Just remember what it was like, Ace… their trees are dead, too, remember. If they get what we got, they'll be wanting to talk about it tomorrow. And they'll come to you.
To us.

Will smiled to himself.
Yeah, to us. Now go to sleep, or I'll brain you.

Will was right. Next day, everyone on camp had a bit of a lie-in, from the Commander down to the youngest first year, just as they always did the morning after full moon. No-one went training. The chores still had to be done, but there was no rush. There was a quietness over the camp as Will and Ace went out. It was still very dark, and though the camp had subtle lighting to cope with the long hours of darkness in a Norwegian winter, the lamps were obscured this morning by swirls of fog.
You could hardly make out who the other figures were who were around, but everyone seemed to be walking softly, and talking quietly, or just thinking over what they'd seen and heard last night. Ace and Will went into the canteen. Jenny and Kiefer had put the big urn on to brew, but they weren't dancing around as much as usual. Kiefer just saw who was next, and pulled out a couple of the very largest, pint-sized mugs to fill, and pushed them over, with a dreamy smile on his face.
"Thanks, Kief," said Ace quietly.
With a smile, they went to sit down. There were quite a few people in already, most of them first years. Phil was there, and most of his team were with him. Ace and Will didn't join them, they left them in peace to talk, but after a while, some of them left, and Phil and Rob came over.
"Same now," said Phil as he sat down, holding his wrist, with its new grey wristband, next to Ace's.
"That's beautiful, Phil. Looks good. How're you feeling?" he asked.
"Like I need to stitch my mouth closed," said Phil. "I feel like… like I did the first time I heard metal. Like I did when I was in my first fight, or when I found Rob. Like, I had no idea - absolutely no idea - that things could get this good."
"Yeah," said Rob. "I came here to give. Thinking, I'm big, and strong, I can make a difference. But instead, I was getting. Getting more than I ever knew there could be. Made me feel tiny, insignificant, compared to… compared to him. But I wanted it, I wanted all of it. Like a baby bird with its mouth wide open."
"Camellia didn't say a word for two hours afterwards," said Phil. "Why didn't you warn us, Ace? You've told us so much useful stuff, but you didn't mention this?"
"I think that's kind of how it's meant to be," said Ace. "Nobody tells you much, because everyone's reaction is different. If someone told you what they experienced, you might be disappointed if you didn't get the same thing, instead of enjoying whatever you did get."
"Ah," said Phil slowly. "I think I see."
"I'll tell you something now, though," said Ace. "It goes on getting better and better."
"Yeah," said Will, "he's right there. Some of it hurts, mind you… but you wouldn't want it not to."
"That's a bit deep, Will," said Rob.
"I'm sorry, I wasn't trying to be obscure," said Will. "I'm no good with words."

He shut up at once, wishing Rob didn't make him feel so awkward. He didn't mind Ace telling him he was being deep, but he didn't like it when anybody else did.
But Ace was rather impressed. He thought Rob had summed up how he felt very well, and sussed Will out pretty well, too. He'd never had any doubt about Phil's reaction to the Tree, but Rob he didn't know, couldn't be sure of, and that was the main reason he hadn't warned them. He felt a lot surer now.
"So did you see your trees?" he asked gently.
Rob just closed his eyes and nodded, looking as if he was trying very hard not to cry.
"Nothing's forgotten," Phil choked. "Nothing's ever forgotten."
Will understood what he meant, because he knew the last words Phil's tree had said to him when it said goodbye. Phil was telling them the new words he'd heard.
"Now it's okay to look back," he said.

The sun rose beyond the Eastern Forest, flooding the camp with light, and chasing away the fog. Slowly but surely, the sprites started walking more briskly, and talking more quickly. Everyone gathered his wits, and turned his attention to the work of the day. By half past ten, the second years were arriving at the combat hall.
There was no let-up in combat training. Every day they had at least an hour. This morning Sergeant Olt was watching everyone very closely indeed, as he put them through a long session of punching and blocking with opponents of every shape and size. He was pleased to see that Droz had settled down and stopped showing off, that Clover seemed to be trying harder, and that Beuk had worked out which was his right hand and which his left.
Then Sergeant Camilo and Sergeant Svir joined them, and split the second years up into their orders, to talk over techniques that made the most of their different advantages.
"You're getting to know the difficulties now," Sergeant Olt told the elves. "Goblins are bigger than you, and fairies won't keep still."
"Some of the fairies are bigger than me," said Kiefer ruefully.
"I know," said the sergeant with sympathy. "But what are your advantages?"
"Brains?" said Kiefer, and everyone laughed.
"That's not as daft as it sounds," said the sergeant. "I'm generalising here, I know - there are exceptions to every rule - but on the whole, your average goblin is a bit of a slow thinker. Watch their eyes - you can often see them looking where they're going to aim for next. Think fast, and you'll avoid the blow. Think a bit faster, and you can catch them out with something before they even knew it was coming - jump on their toes, trip them up, hook a foot round a knee."

"Your mental attitude matters," added Corporal Lavall. "If you go into a fight with a goblin thinking you're going to lose, you will. But realise they're not unbeatable, and you're halfway there."
"That's a good point," said the sergeant. "And it matters with fairies too, the other way round. A lot of you started with the idea that a fairy could never beat an elf. Now you know that's not true. Here, your mental attitude needs to be, she could beat me… how can I make sure she doesn't?"
"It's so difficult," said Alnus. "At first I thought I could never hit a fairy. And by the time I'd realised I could, they'd all got the hang of whizzing around while they're fighting."
"Again, remember your advantages," advised the sergeant. "If she's making you dizzy flying round and round your head, jump out of the way. That'll give you a moment to think. Sometimes it's best to let your defence down, because although they're fast, they often don't hit very hard. Take the blow, instead of blocking it with your left, then you can use that hand to grab her - by the wrist, say - while you hit her with a right."
"That sounds good," said Kes, "but what about imps? They can fly and hit hard."
"They tend to get in closer, though," said the sergeant. "They like to pile in to the attack, and they sometimes get carried away. You need to keep moving, jump about, keep your balance - and above all, concentrate. Keep watching for your moment, and you'll get it. Don't get discouraged. It's not easy, to start with. It seems as if everyone else's advantages are greater than yours. But your greatest advantage is your adaptability, and the more experience you get, the easier it will be to use it. Then you'll be able to outthink your opponent every time."

It was all he wanted to say for now. The fairies and the goblins were still talking, so Sergeant Olt let the elves play quietly on the punch-bag for a while, and when everyone was ready, he paired them all up again, making sure always that everyone was fighting someone different. This time, Corporal Lavall was going around with a list in his hand, quietly making notes.
"What do you think, Saul?" asked Sergeant Olt, when he came back.
"Everyone who'll be doing weapons training is ready. Their balance is fine, their reaction times are good. Even Zoza, which surprised me."
"That's excellent. I'll give the go-ahead for weapons training to start next week."
"Has Sergeant Svir decided yet about the other fairy you recommended for weapons? Bella Langdon?
"She's still not sure. She agrees she's capable, but feels it would be pushing her career towards Fighter Squadron, and she doesn't think that's the right thing for Bella."
"I'm not sure that needs to be the case these days," said Corporal Lavall. "Seems to me that times are coming when the more good fighters we have, in any unit, the better. D'you mind if I talk to her about it, Sergeant?"
Sergeant Olt laughed. His whole mind was on his job, he rarely listened to news from the outside world. He hadn't realised yet that what was happening in the outside world was going to have a big effect on the young sprites he was training.
"You've been listening to these youngsters too much, Saul! Always going on about politics, never known anything like them. But you have a chat with Arda Svir, if you like. Maybe you'll convince her."

Kiefer had been standing near enough to hear, and the words 'weapons training' had made him prick up his ears. When they'd been dismissed, they headed for the canteen, panting with thirst again after all the exercise, and Kiefer lost no time in spreading this interesting news around the second years. There was so much jumping about and excitement, no-one noticed that Ace dropped his cup. No-one but Will, that was.
You. To the forest. Now, Will thought to him, and Ace didn't argue.

Once they were on their own, deep in the trees, Will put his hands on Ace's shoulders, and made him look up.
"OK, it's here. You knew it was coming. You've got to face it, so let's get started. Draw your knife."
Ace swallowed hard, and pulled his knife from his pocket. He drew the sheath off with his left hand just as he smoothly expanded the knife to full size, but he did it all in very slow motion.
"That's a start,” said Will. “You got any edge on that thing? Let me see. Crumbs, Ace, that's not much. Let's get it right, OK?"
Not slowly, but not as fast as he could, either, Will drew his own knife. It was almost the same size as Ace's, but plainer and more workman-like. That was because Will had made his himself, and it had never crossed his mind to do anything remotely artistic to it. Ace's had been made by Gran, whose intent had been to tempt Ace to try it by its beauty.
"This much edge, Ace," said Will firmly.
Ace didn't say a word, but he did frown and concentrate hard, until his blade matched the one Will was holding for sharpness.
"That's better. How about trying to draw it again, hey? Bit faster, maybe?"
He didn't want to, Will could see, but he also didn't want to refuse. He shrunk the knife, and put it back in his pocket. Then he gave his arms a shake, and tried again. It was quite smooth, but still so slow.
"How'm I doing?"
"Better," said Will cheerfully. "But still not good enough. And seeing that's probably only about the fourth time you've tried it, that's not surprising. I can't do Sergeant Olt's accent like you can, but you know what he'd say, don't you?"
"Yeah. Practise. I kept meaning to, honest, but it was so easy to find other things I could be doing instead. And now it's too late."
"No, it's not. All right, you're not going to get as fast as Droz or Sizzle, at least not quickly, because they've been doing nothing else all winter. You just have to get fast enough so that no-one notices anything's wrong."
Ace looked down, ashamed, and Will worried that he was being too blunt. But someone had to be, and it was his job.

"You draw yours again," said Ace suddenly. "Fast as you can, this time."
"I'm not here to show off, I'm here to help you!"
"Well, but it will. The only way no-one's going to notice, is if we both do the same. Let me see what I've got to equal."
Ace blinked a bit when he saw the speed Will could do.
"That's… that's pretty good, Will. When've you been practising, to get that good?"
"When you weren't looking. Didn't want to freak you out."
"I'm a bit surprised… I didn't think you'd be that interested."
"I'm not, particularly. I want to be good at it, but I'm not desperate to waste time being the best. Too many other interesting things to do. But it mattered. Until you get your head together, I've got to be fast enough to defend us both."
"You… you… "
"Now Ace, no swearing," grinned Will.
"You… know just how to make me feel a complete prat, don't you? I'm letting you down."
Ace screwed his face up, remembering everything Gran had told him, remembering how he'd vowed to conquer this, and why. Resolutely, he tried again, and this time he was much faster.
"That's more like it," said Will, with a smile. "Look, you keep at it, and whatever speed you get to, I'll slow down to match it. Then no-one'll notice a thing. Deal?"
"Deal," said Ace. "Buzz off, now, and play with your carburettor or something. I have to practise."
Will turned to go, feeling more light-hearted than he had for ages.
"Hey, Will?"

On his own, Ace kept at it grimly, putting the knife back in his pocket and drawing it, again and again, trying to get to the point where it felt automatic. He knew there was nothing wrong with his reaction speed, or his transforming. It was the sick feeling of horror when his hand closed on his knife that was slowing him down. If he could get past that, he knew his speed would increase dramatically.
The evil was in the timing…got to do this, got to do it for Gran… you going to let it beat you?… no way, Gran, I can do it, I will do it.
Surely that was a little faster, wasn't it?
You can't lead armed people if you're not armed yourself… you going to be an officer? Then get a grip, you wuss. There's nothing to it. This knife didn't kill anyone, not even in your dream. It wasn't Will you were killing… yesterday was given to you to wipe away that dream
Will… Will cared about him so much, he'd been practising so hard, to defend them both if he had to…suddenly, Ace stopped, frozen rigid, and very aware of the Tree, as an image he hadn't considered before blasted itself across his mind. Defending… he was defending, defending his team. A shudder ran through him, a shudder of exhilaration and power, and before he could even think, never mind have a fit of the horrors, his knife was in his hand, ready for action.
"Yes!" Ace yelled, and tossed the knife high into the air in celebration, then jumped up to catch it. He'd spent so long, he was going to be late, but it didn't matter. Not now. With a joyful smile, he flung a salute in the direction of the Tree, and dashed back towards camp.

Once he was out of the trees, he slowed down a little to look at his watch. Ten past one. Yes, he was late, and now he came to think of it, he wasn't sure where he was supposed to be. But that didn't matter too much, he could just head towards Will. Will was right across camp, probably in a classroom or a workshop. Deciding that running was less conspicuous than jumping, he set off, but skidded to a halt as he saw someone hurrying towards him.
Close up, Blanche was even more beautiful.
"Oh, thank goodness," she said. "Please will you help me? I'm lost!"
"Yeah, sure," Ace stammered. "It's… it's hard, isn't it, to find your way around at first. Where are you supposed to be?"
"The swimming pool. I came to this one, but it's full of elves. Where are the other fairies? Is there another pool?"
"Yes. This way, look… I'll show you."
His heart banging in his chest, Ace stole another look as she walked by his side. She was a little taller than he was, but even that didn't bother him. He wondered why he couldn't think of anything to say. It wasn't usually a problem. But Blanche started talking herself, quite shyly, it seemed.
"This is very kind of you. I hope I'm not making you late. I think everyone else has already gone."
"I was late already," said Ace. "A few more minutes won't matter… look, there's the fairies' swimming pool, just there."
Blanche stopped, and turned to face him, and he found himself looking into her eyes, bathed in her silvery light.
"Thank you. You're so kind," she smiled.
"Blanche… it was no trouble, really. Pleased to help."
"You know my name?" she said softly. "Why's that?"
"Someone mentioned it… Camellia, I think."
"And you remembered it? That's nice. Thank you, Ace." She touched his face with one tiny finger. "Someone mentioned your name, too."
With that, she ran off towards the pool, while Ace stood there in a complete daze. Slowly, very slowly, he remembered what he was supposed to be doing, and headed towards his twin. Classroom Five… but the significance of that didn't hit him until he was nearly there. History. That meant Sergeant Grybow. And now he was half an hour late, and that was going to mean hard labour.
Not that he listened to her moaning. He accepted his punishment with resignation, then slunk to his seat next to Will. Neither of them listened to the lesson, not being remotely interested in precisely which boring laws were passed in 1936. They spent the whole time messaging each other.

You got a death wish or something, waltzing in half an hour late for Grybow?
Something happened… two things, actually. I think I've cracked it, Will… well, it wasn't really me. I think the Tree gave me an image. I did it pretty fast, and I think I could do it again.
That's terrific! Oh, Ace, I'm so pleased for you. What was the image? Can you tell me, or is it too private?
Sure. Defending. I never thought of it like that before. S'pose you put the idea in my mind, with what you said. But suddenly, out of nowhere, my mind was full of this picture. I was defending my team, and it felt so good. I'd been struggling up till then, but after that, I could do it!
That's interesting. The help you needed, but not until you'd really started trying.
It was wonderful. I know it was the Tree, it just felt like him, you know? And as if that wasn't enough, then I met someone who was lost, and I had to help her.
What's so brilliant about that? Oh, no…who? Is that why you've got that stupid goofy look on your face? Beautiful Blanche?
I do not look goofy. Just because I can appreciate beauty when I see it does not make me goofy.
I'll be the judge of that. What was she doing lost, anyway? She's been here three weeks!
Not everyone's as fast as you! She'd maybe just got muddled, she'd gone to the wrong pool, she asked me if there was another.
What? That's crazy! She must have been in the pool by now! Even if she'd forgotten where it was - though that's hard to imagine, the size of it - she couldn't have forgotten that there was one!
Well, I don't know,
Ace thought helplessly. Will's words made sense, but they didn't make him suspicious, not with the memory of her lovely face, smiling just for him…
Will, on the other hand, was feeling very suspicious indeed. Had she been looking out for a chance to get Ace on his own? Just what was she up to? He was going to have to make the suggestion. Ace needed to be on his guard, surely he'd see that.
Sounds to me like she wasn't really lost, he began hesitantly. Don't you think, just maybe, that she set that up?
He waited to get blasted for trying to suggest she was up to something, but Ace didn't react like that at all.
Mmm, he thought dreamily. She knew my name. She'd remembered it, just like I'd remembered hers. You see what that means?
Not exactly,
thought Will.
It means she likes me. Might even mean she thinks I'm beautiful, too. Imagine that.
Hey! Look at Grybow, and pretend you're listening.

Will took a glance at his twin, seeing the starry-eyed expression gazing through the wall behind Sergeant Grybow, and felt very uneasy.

"What's next?" Ace asked, when the class was dismissed. "I've not had a chance to look at the board."
"Technology," Will grinned, cheering up a bit. "I've finished the carburettor, works a treat now."
When the whole class had gathered, Will showed them what he'd done. It was a refinement to the usual design, which he knew would work better with expanded diesel. Now the engine was finished, it didn't take long to complete the bodywork, which Kiefer insisted had to be bright yellow. It was looking good, but there was still a lot to do. Lauro and Pioppo finished the inside of the cab, and Ross and Ratzo made the plough itself. Ace and Sizzle made the sharp, curling blades that scooped the snow, and Will and Crocus made the funnel. Then they tried it out, without driving it. They piled snow in front of the blades, to see if it really got sucked up. They cheered when they saw the snow starting to disappear, but groaned when after a minute or two, the engine started to labour and cut out. And time was running out, too. At six o'clock, the lesson was officially over, and they wanted to use the next one to take it out for a test drive.
"I'm going to stay working," said Will. "We have to sort this problem out. Can anyone else stay?"
"Shouldn't think so," said Ross. "You've got a lot of team leaders here. We've got a meeting now, with the new general."
"Have we?" said Ace. "I didn't know that."
"The notice only went up this morning," Ross told him.
"Bother. Sorry, Will."
"I can stay," said Kiefer. "Though I don't know how much help I'll be."
"You'll be a lot of help," said Will warmly. "You've seen these things in action."
He waved Ace and the others off cheerfully, then he and Kiefer lit a lamp, cleared the blocked snow from the funnel and got back to work.

Ace and Ross, Crocus, Lauro and Sizzle headed off across camp together towards the new general's office. They'd seen him about, but none of them had met him yet. The other leaders from the second year caught up with them, Gran, Alnus, Zoza and Cor, the quiet, dark-eyed leader of the Russians, and they all went in together. The general's office was already crowded. The first year team leaders were already there, and the new arrivals were amazed at how many of them there were. Ace counted up quickly - seventeen teams, wow, no wonder everyone was so pleased. Unfortunately, Blanche wasn't one of them, but that Spanish elf who'd apologised so nicely for mocking his hair was. And of course, there was one he already knew very well indeed.
"Oh, hi Ace," said Phil cheerfully, making the elf who was standing next to him choke on the wine he was sipping.
"This is him? Ace Moseley? Oh, they're never going to believe this at home! What an honour!"
"Huh?" said Ace.
"This is Gil, he's the leader of the Scottish team," Phil explained. "He's been dying to meet you, because a crazy person from his colony got cured by that thing you discovered, the three-way transforming."
"Oh! Oh, right. That's terrific! It works for other people too, then. That's great to know. But it wasn't just me, it was Will too."
"No," said Phil firmly. "Will was incredibly brave that night, and his courage made it work. But it was your idea, Ace. You thought how to do it, and the credit for that's all yours. I was there, remember."
Gil was looking stunned. Ace didn't know it was because Phil was talking to him as if he was just anybody, but he could see that he needed putting at ease.
"So you've got a Scottish team as well as an English one? That's brilliant."
"And a Welsh one too," said Gil. "Everyone seems thrilled that there's so many of us."
"Last year's lot were obviously some kind of low point," said Phil wickedly.
"Watch it, Royden," grinned Ace. "We might not have many in our year, but we've got quality."
"I can believe that," said Gil. "You came even when everything looked hopeless, before all the rumours started."
Just then General Vandenesse approached them, holding a tray, which he offered to Ace, who hadn't got a drink yet.
"Have a glass of wine," he said genially. "It's from Burgundy, my home. I do hope you like it."
"Thank you," said Ace, and raised his eyes to look at the general. But his smile faltered as he saw the general's expression change. For a moment it looked hostile and resentful, until the general recovered himself, and let a smiling mask cover his face, and moved on. Ace felt very puzzled. He didn't have a clue why, but he felt very sure that General Vandenesse had taken an instant dislike to him.
I wish Will was here, he thought, bewildered. Nothing ever goes smoothly when he's not around. Hope that engine's not still giving him grief.
Shrugging it off for now, he sipped the wine - bit fancy for his taste, but it was quality, he could tell that - and turned to Gil again.
"What rumours?" he asked quietly.
"Rumours of new Allies," whispered Gil, and it was all Ace could do not to look at Phil. "And people are saying the Tree has started talking again."
"Started talking?" said Ace. "I don't think so. Maybe people have started listening."
"Come and sit down, everyone," called the general. "Roughly in a circle, if you can… that's it. Now that you've all been enlisted, I invited you here this evening so we could get to know one another. You probably all know by now that I have only just been appointed to this position, so this is as new to me as it is to you. All I can say is, I hope to do honour to my predecessor's memory by living up to his standards."
That earned him a round of applause from the second years, who'd all been very fond of General Cherapont, and General Vandenesse looked pleased.
"Thank you. Now what I'd like to do is to go round the circle, one by one, and all say a little about yourselves. I daresay that sounds a bit embarrassing, but it's a good way of introducing ourselves. I'll start off, then it's over to you. My name is Viorne, that's French for Viburnum, and Vandenesse is in Burgundy. I joined the army in 1952, and for twelve years I was colonel of France 1."

It did make you squirm a bit, Ace thought, trying to think what to say about yourself, but he had to admit it was very interesting listening to what everyone else had to say. When it was his turn, he said,
"My name's Ace Moseley, I'm a sycamore, and I'm a twin. I come from Moseley Wood, in the north of England. It's a tiny colony, and most of us are here. And I'm the senior sprite.”
There was quite a murmur of interest in what Ace had to say, but he didn't really notice. He was looking at the general as he finished, watching his face. And sure enough, as the general looked at him, the mask slipped a little, and Ace saw a strange mixture of emotions. Dislike, certainly… he'd been right about that. But there was a bit of sadness there too. Weird. Ace looked away, and listened to the rest of the introductions.
They were an interesting mixture, the first year leaders. Ten elves, five fairies and two imps, some were from great forests, some from gardens, and some were refugees. They were from all across Europe - Ace was a bit embarrassed to realise he didn't even know where Hungary was.
I'll have to ask Will, he thought, but then his thoughts were arrested as the last new elf began to speak. Ace was just staring at him, but then, so was everyone else. He was German, another Kiefer, but he was very serious indeed. He told everyone that he was from Immindingen, and the gasp that followed that made him nod soberly.
“Yes, our place name is now infamous," he said. "My friends and I have grown up in the shadow of the martyrs. And our elders were wary of letting us become too close to humans. But our home - and theirs - is deep in the Black Forest. We have lived close together for centuries, and they are forest people too. We made friends, in secret. But then the rumours came, that in England there were new Allies. Someone had dared to challenge parliament, and we had not. We were ashamed."
Keep your face straight, Ace thought to himself.
"We were on fire to do this also," Kiefer continued. "But our senior sprite counselled us not to. She said it was illegal now, and we would only be thrown into prison, and what good could we do there? 'Go to the Tree,' she said, 'in the land of Norway, and join the army. There you will find the best way to put this wrong right.' And now we have met the Tree, and my heart is still too full to speak of it."
"Er, yes, thank you," said General Vandenesse, a little embarrassed. "Natural you should feel emotional about it - you're very young - but no need to get carried away. Very nice to meet the Tree - very uplifting - but I always find it helps if you try to keep your feet firmly on the ground."
Are you for real? thought Ace.
"Is the army going to fight parliament, sir?" asked one of the imps.
"Do you want it to?" asked the general, rather astonished.
"I was hoping to see some fighting," she admitted, rather giving the impression that she didn't mind whom the army fought so long as it fought someone.
"Parliament stinks," said one of the refugees.
"They do their best," said Crocus stiffly. "I'm not condoning murder, but you shouldn't blame a huge group of people for the actions of a few of them."
"A few of them!" someone else shouted. "I've met a lot of them - well, not envoys, perhaps, but Special Brigade, and I never met one who wasn't a thug."
"Parliament and Special Brigade aren't the same thing!"
"Oh yes, they are!"

None of the other generals would have permitted an argument about politics to start, but General Vandenesse didn't seem worried. He let them argue until it turned into a blazing row, and then looked as if he didn't know how to stop it. Ace didn't say a word - though he was listening intently - because he remembered Gran's message about not saying too much. Ross and Alnus remembered too. It wasn't just the first years, though; Gran Starheim had plenty to say, and although he wasn't one of Ace's favourite people, he had to admire the way Gran could argue so dispassionately, without losing his cool. But it was getting ugly. Tempers were really fraying, and a refugee fairy from Albania was nearly in tears, when suddenly Gil said,
"What do you think, Ace?"
Ace was startled to hear a bit of hush fall, but he rose to the occasion magnificently.
"I think we've seen a taste of it here tonight," he said. "Fighting among ourselves. That's what civil war means. Sprites, just ordinary sprites, fighting other ordinary sprites. It's not pretty. Means we should all think really carefully about what we believe, and if it's worth fighting for."
A small quiet followed that, and General Vandenesse seized his opportunity.
"Most interesting," he said heartily. "I had no idea youngsters these days were so interested in such things. But there's no need to get too worked up about parliament, you know. Some of them are splendid chaps. And we do need to remember that the army should set a good example when it comes to keeping laws. But I'm sure you've all been sitting still long enough. Let me get you all another glass of wine before you have to go out in the cold again. "

Ross and Alnus walked back across camp with Ace.
"So the new Allies are from England, are they?" said Ross. "You wouldn't happen to know anything about that, I suppose?"
"Me?" said Ace. "Come on… you know I didn't know a thing when I got here."
"No, not a thing," Alnus agreed. "Just batteries, engines, televisions, mobile phones, rock bands…"
"Metal!" Ace corrected indignantly.
"Sorry, metal. But that just proves my point. Who else knows as much human stuff as you?"
"You already knew the new England team leader, didn't you?" asked Ross.
"Phil? Yeah, he lived at our place for a while. Absolutely sound."
They were on the right track, they knew. Ace wasn't admitting anything, but he was smiling.
"So how many of the English sprites who made Allies are here now, would you say?" grinned Alnus.
"Now? Oh, about six, I'd say," Ace grinned back. "What do you think of General Vandenesse?"
"He is our commanding officer," said Alnus, shaking his head in disbelief. "I think we know now why General Herdalen wants us to ease off."

They split up at the mess; Ace was going back to the workshop. He was dying to talk to Will, but as he got near, he saw Will throw his screwdriver to the ground in despair, and realised that this probably wasn't a good moment to fill his twin in on all the interesting stuff he'd heard. Instead, he slid to a halt by his side.
"Want a hand?" he said.
Will looked at his watch.
"No, Ace, it's OK. I'll pack up soon. You go and get warm, you've got to go out sweeping snow, remember."
"Huh. Hey, I wonder if they'll let us use the snowplough when it's done?"
"What, for hard labour? Shouldn't think so. It'll still be brooms for that. But they might let the volunteers, if we ever get the damn thing working."
Ace knew then just how badly it was going, if it made Will swear. He'd been doing much better lately.
"Come on to the mess," he coaxed. "You must be freezing."
"In a bit," said Will. "I need to think. There's something we're not doing right. You go, Kiefer. And thanks for staying."
"All right," said Kiefer. "We'll let you think in peace. But just message if you need help, OK?"
"OK," said Will absently, already deep in thought.
Ace hesitated, feeling sure that Will was pushing himself too hard. He'd be more likely to solve the problem after a drink and a sleep. But Will looked like exploding if he got interrupted, so he decided to leave it, and he and Kiefer went off to the mess.

Left alone, Will rubbed his cold hands together, prowling and thinking. Why was the snow getting stuck? Did you need more, so there was constant pressure? Only one way to find out. He dug out a huge heap of snow and piled it in front of the blade. It took a long time, and he was even colder by the time he climbed into the cab to turn the engine on. The blade turned, and the snow was sucked up into the funnel, and blown out at the top. But only for a few moments. Will soon heard the familiar sound of the engine labouring, and tried to see what was causing it before it cut out. He lay down so that he was at eye level with the intake, and cautiously reached across the churning blade to see if the snow was still getting in at this end. But he reached a little too far. With a blinding flash of pain, his hand was caught. He tried to jerk it back and felt something tear his skin, just as the engine cut out.
He rolled back across the snow and had a look at the damage. A deep gash ran across the back of his right hand, and even deeper into his third finger. Right down to the tendon, it was bleeding badly already, the snow was spattered with bright green blood.
"I give up," he muttered, and looked around for a cloth of some kind. He found a rather oily rag, and tied it round his hand, pulling the knot tight with his teeth. He tugged the tarpaulin over the snowplough clumsily, with his left hand, and blew out the lamp. Then he looked at the time. Half past ten - he'd been working without a break for over six hours. Stupid, really. No wonder he'd had an accident. Ace would have gone by now, but he thought he might as well go to the mess, he badly wanted a drink.

Will slipped inside quietly, and helped himself to coffee, carefully keeping his right hand in his pocket. He didn't want any fuss. He felt a bit lost without Ace at his side, but Clover saw him and waved him over. Some of their team were there, and some of Phil's, all laughing at a story of Camellia's. Will sank to the floor and leaned his back against a chair, sipping his drink and letting the chatter wash over him. He didn't realise how slumped and dejected he looked.
"Are you all right, Will?" Clover asked him quietly.
"Oh… yeah," Will answered, trying to smile. "Bit of a technical hitch, that's all. Piece of machinery won't do what it's supposed to, the engine keeps cutting out."
"Change the oil," said Rob casually.
Will felt a flare of anger. Just who did he think he was, Rob Royden, to be making flippant suggestions like that to him? Will glared at him, and Rob felt it, and tried to explain.
"That's so often the problem, if an engine's struggling, that the oil's wrong," he said.
"Look, I told Clover what was wrong, I didn't ask for advice!" Will blazed. He banged his cup down and stormed out. Clover stared at Rose.
"He hasn't done that for ages!"
Rob was looking hurt, and Phil was frowning. Clover did what she could to smooth things over.
"He didn't mean it, Rob, I'm sure. He must have a lot on his mind, more than just engines. And honestly, he really is a genius with stuff like that. If he's got a problem, it's not likely to be something simple."
"Oh, yeah?" said Rob. "If he's as much of a genius as all that, then that's probably exactly what it is. They get so scientific they forget to love the machine. You have to listen to engines, they tell you what they need."
He spoke very scornfully, and everyone could see that he'd really gone off Will.
"That's very strange," Rose whispered to Clover. "Rob sounds as if he's interested in the same things as Will, so why are they angry with each other?"
"I'm not sure," Clover murmured back. "But Will's spent his whole life with his opposite. How d'you think it feels suddenly to meet someone who's so like you?"
"But Ace and Phil are like each other in a lot of ways, and they're good friends."
"Will and Rob might end up being good friends too. Or they might end up hating each other. It could go either way. But whatever it was Rob said - something about oil, wasn't it? - it hit Will hard. I think it was the right answer, and Will knew it."
"That was why he lost his temper," said Rose.
"I'm afraid so," said Clover.

Will was really angry now, but not with Rob, with himself. How could he have been so stupid? He should be used to working in low temperatures by now! Of course the oil needed to be thicker, how cold must it be inside that engine, constantly cooled by the snow? He was depressed and ashamed, he'd missed something obvious, and that Rob was probably crowing now. And his hand was killing him.
When he got inside the barracks, Fran was there already. Will could easily have asked him for help, it was only a deep cut, Fran knew him well enough to deal with that. But Will was feeling too stubborn now to let anyone but Ace see any weakness, after what he'd done. Miserably, he crawled onto his bed.
Everything just seemed to be getting harder and harder. Ace was suffering too, he wouldn't be back until midnight, and he'd be freezing. Will listened to the others coming in, and when Wayne blew the lamp out, he just lay there looking at the minutes ticking past on his watch, in a sliver of moonlight through a half-closed curtain. But midnight passed, and Ace didn't come. And eventually, exhausted, Will fell asleep.

It was past one o'clock when Ace got back, but he wasn't tired, he wasn't even feeling cold. He was floating somewhere high in the sky, where things like hard labour and sub-zero temperatures couldn't reach you any more.
If I'd known she was going to be there, I'd have been too excited to keep still, he thought. But she was late for her class, too… oh, she's just so beautiful, she's unbelievable. The way she shimmers in the moonlight…
He kept thinking of all the things they'd talked about, long after they'd finished sweeping the snow. He just couldn't stop smiling. He glanced cautiously at Will as he got near their bunk, in case he was still awake. He didn't want any more cracks about goofy expressions. But what he saw brought him down to earth at once. Will was scrunched up in bed as if he'd never really thawed out. He was still dressed, he hadn't even taken his boots off. There were dried tears making clean streaks on his grubby cheeks, and fresh blood staining a filthy rag tied around his right hand.
What's been going on? Ace thought. He had a bad feeling about this, a feeling that Will had needed him tonight and he hadn't been there.
I won't wake him, he thought, pulling Will's covers more carefully over him. He looks shattered. But in the morning, I'm going to get to the bottom of this.
He climbed up quietly to his own bunk, so he wouldn't wake Will by jumping, and he was asleep in minutes. The sight of Will had neutralized all the over-excitement that would otherwise have kept him awake, and let natural tiredness take over. Silence settled over hut twenty-four.

Outside, a little snow was falling, gently, undisturbed by wind. All across Fjaerland camp, no-one was moving. But not everyone was asleep. At the western and eastern gatehouses, the police on guard duty stood quietly watching the night, well-wrapped against the cold. Lieutenant Smerek, in the night-duty room, cheerfully practised his flute while keeping an eye open for bad weather or late arrivals. In the hospital, Major Gourdon was watching carefully over an elderly goblin from Supplies who was recovering from pneumonia. And by the border of the Southern Forest, where the generals' houses were, a light still burned. Viorne Vandenesse was waiting for a visitor.

He wouldn't have been nearly so keen to oblige Envoy Yantra, he thought, if he'd known the envoy's young friend was going to keep him up so late. But it was very natural the envoy should want to keep in touch, when he'd watched her grow up and was so fond of her. It was understandable, too, that she should need to come somewhere private, to use this extraordinary communication device the envoy had given her. It wouldn't do to let the other recruits see her using something so modern it was illegal - except, apparently, for a member of parliament.
There was a tap at the door, and General Vandenesse hurried to open it, trying to look more welcoming than he felt. He was longing for his bed.
"Come in, my dear," he smiled.
Blanche nodded briskly in acknowledgment and stepped inside.
"Thank you, sir. I'm sorry to be so late, I had work to do."
She sank gracefully to the floor by the stove, and pulled out from her pocket the very latest model of mobile phone, tiny, and shining with metallic lustre. She flipped it open and pressed a couple of buttons with the thumb of her left hand. She waited a long time for an answer; the hour was even later in Poland.
"Reporting in, sir," she said quietly. "Yes, I know the time. It couldn't be helped. I've made a great deal of progress tonight."
General Vandenesse had moved politely into his bedroom, so he couldn't hear what she was saying, but he could hear the tone of her voice. It always struck him as slightly odd that she sounded so formal when she was chatting to her old friend, but he thought no more of it than that.
Blanche listened for a while, then laughed.
"He is trapped already," she declared, in a voice as cold as icicles. "When the time comes, he will leave with me.” She listened again, then smiled, arrogant in her confidence and proud in her power, the power of her beauty. "He will betray them without a murmur. His heart and soul belong to me, and there is no-one who can stop me."

Miles away in Poland, Envoy Yantra switched off his own mobile phone, and looked at his clock. It was nearly dawn, he might as well get up. He had a very important meeting this morning, and a great deal to think about before he went. This was his first cabinet meeting as a senior envoy, and he had to get it right. His predecessor, Envoy Mecsek, had left a bad taste in people's mouths, not from his methods, but from his personal ambitions. The scandal that had come out at his trial, that he'd been plotting to make himself king, had sent shock-waves through the higher levels of parliament.
Envoy Yantra knew that there were people who were very suspicious of him, because of his previous close association with someone so disgraced. He had to do everything he could to dispel such suspicions. He had to be quiet and respectful, but quick with accurate information when he was asked for it. He had to be seen as dependable and trustworthy, someone who put the good of parliament before his own interests. Then, and only then, he would be trusted. And once you were trusted, you could get away with almost anything.

Pondering all these things, the envoy washed sketchily, and dressed with care. Then he jumped from the balcony of his flat down to the ground, and strolled across to the Beehive. He had a drink in the canteen, then went to his own office, where he gathered together files he might need, and reviewed their contents carefully. When his assistant, a rather idle buttercup from near Poznan, arrived for work, slightly late and breathless, the envoy realised it was time to go.
"There you are, Rani," he said. "About time. Look, I'm going to cabinet now. I think these are the only files I might need, but I can't be sure. I want you to stay here until I get back, and be ready to fly up at once with anything I message you for. Got that?"
"Yes, Envoy," murmured the tow-headed little fairy. She waited till he'd gone, then sat in his big, comfortable chair, put her feet on his desk, and closed her eyes.

Envoy Yantra marched importantly down the corridor, to the main shaft, and jumped up from one landing platform to the next, until he was on the very top floor. His feet moved noiselessly over soft carpets. He walked through a waiting-room, where a secretary greeted him respectfully. He pushed open a heavy door with a name-plate of gold, his heart beating a little faster as he saw the famous twisted pillars of the Cabinet Room, and the round table of gleaming polished oak. On the far side of the room, the Premier himself was chatting to the Chief Lawyer. Sitting at the table already was General Huskvarna, head of Special Brigade. He was in uniform, and sitting laid back in his chair with his legs stretched out in front of him.
"Morning, Yantra," he said. "Found your place? I think you're next to me."

Envoy Yantra saw that there were name-plates in every place, and it gave him a thrill to see his own name among such an exalted collection. He'd come a long way from the Yantra Gorge in Bulgaria, and he wasn't finished yet. He was indeed next to the general, and he took his place gratefully, feeling less conspicuous once he was seated.
"So, how's my agent doing?" asked General Huskvarna cheerfully.
"Very well indeed. She's a fast worker, seems confident of success, and her reports are very professional."
"That's what I'd expect. She's one of my best. My compliments to her, next time you speak."
"Certainly, General. How are your own plans going? Anything I can help you with?"
"Some well, some not so well. Yes, see if you can find out who they've got on a job at Preston, in England, will you? Whoever it is, is causing me no end of headaches."
"Sure, I'll get onto it," said Envoy Yantra, pleased at the general's casual friendliness.

By now, the table had filled up. The dozen elves and fairies who made up parliament's central cabinet had all arrived, and the Premier took his place and opened the meeting. Envoy Yantra listened with deep interest as the first item was discussed, a proposal to increase the maximum prison sentence for illegal technology from five years to ten.
"There are some colonies where this law is flouted wholesale," said the Chief Administrator. "The penalties need to be harsher."
"I don't agree," said the Chief Scientist. "The problem lies with the police, who wouldn't recognise illegal technology if it bounced up and bit them on the nose."
"Send that to full session for discussion," said the Premier, and the Chief Secretary made a note. "Meanwhile, let the Chief of Army Liaison make a formal request to the army that the police receive better training on recognition of illegal objects."
The Premier had actually glanced his way! Envoy Yantra inclined his head in acceptance of the order, and tried very hard to look cool and professional, as he made a note of his own.
"The next item is the unrest in Albania," said the Premier, and Envoy Yantra's attention wandered a little as the discussion covered places he'd never heard of, and turned into an argument between the Chief of Population Control and the Chief Administrator.
"Decide this at a departmental meeting," ordered the Premier, bringing the discussion to a close. "But I want agreement on the location of the new refugee camp by next week. Inform my office when you've made your minds up."
Ordinary envoys don't get to see half of what goes on, thought Envoy Yantra. I had no idea so much was decided behind the scenes. And I'm in on it now, I'm in on it!

He hurriedly stopped gloating and tried to concentrate as General Huskvarna kicked him under the table. The Premier had announced the next item. Oh no, it was army infiltration, his own special project, and he hadn't been listening! But General Huskvarna had saved his skin, by answering a question which either of them could have answered.
"Yes, we have an agent in place among their recruits now," the general was saying. "As you know, two separate attempts to eliminate Ally-Makers failed last year, though the second one did result in the unmasking of the traitor Mecsek, so it wasn't all bad news. But we've decided to abandon those attempts - for now, at least."
"Very wise," said the Premier. "There has been a lot of adverse publicity. The sympathies of the general population were not with us on that issue. Although most people rightly consider humans to be an unmitigated nuisance, there is still - unfortunately - a recognition that there are notable exceptions, and a willingness to allow sprites in contact with such exceptional humans to acknowledge their friendship."
"Good gracious, Premier," said the Chief of Communication, idly admiring her red-painted fingernails. "I think I need a translation."
"He means, cool it, because we blew it," grinned General Huskvarna.
"Thank you, General," purred the fairy. "But if you're cooling it, why do you need an agent there now? You already have contacts in their Signals Unit."
"Yes, but they know that," said General Huskvarna. "That's why they send anything important in code. What they don't know, of course," he added, smiling wolfishly, "is that we've cracked the code. And I hope it'll be a long time before they find out."
"Yes, indeed," the Premier agreed. "But you wanted to know why we had placed another agent. Your question shall be answered, but this is highly classified information. It must not be mentioned outside this room. Chief Interpreter, please."

Calla Babele was an ancient fairy, with long, straggly grey hair and eyes that had seen too much. Her clothes were a bundle of ragged robes, and she walked with the aid of a stick. If she'd been bigger, any human who saw her would have thought, not fairy, but witch. She was the envoy for Transylvania, and had served in parliament since its foundation.
"It is for me to hear and remember,” she said, “and for you to listen and act. When our people were arrested for murder, I accompanied the Premier and the General to their trial. I speak every language in the realm, of my own knowledge. And so I went, to ensure that justice was done. And it was. The weaklings lick the boots of humans, and have no pride. But they are fair. All was well, for Mecsek's plan to become a king was ruined, as it should have been. There has never been a prophecy about the realm having a king.
But as I watched and listened, another prophecy came strongly to my mind. Nearly thirty years ago now… the Enlightener had spoken of one who had been born, who would make or break the realm. I saw the image in a dream; a double image, that merged into one, an elf with long hair, and of surpassing beauty. And he was standing before me on the witness stand, the leader of the Ally-Makers, and the one we had nearly succeeded in having killed."
"Thank you very much," interrupted the Premier, before she could go on about how she'd looked into his soul and what she'd seen. They hadn't got all morning. "You can see now why we called off any plans for elimination. If this is truly the one the Enlightener spoke of, who would make or break the realm, then he'd be much more useful on our side. And this is where we have been most singularly fortunate. Captain Březová had been impersonating him, and was well-acquainted with his character. We were able to question the captain, and he identified a flaw which we plan to exploit. This is why we have a new agent in place. What is her latest report?"
The Premier smiled at Envoy Yantra, who took a deep breath, and answered.
"She reports that she owns his heart and soul, and she knows he will betray them."
"You see how easy it has been made for us," said the Premier. "Proof, if proof were needed, that our cause is just. For once he has betrayed them, where else can he turn but here?"
"It's a terrific plan," said General Huskvarna. "Because even if he isn't the one, he's still a leader, and this will finish his career. And when he does betray them, we'll get heaps of juicy information, which is good enough in itself. And even better, it could bring down Herdalen, too."
It wasn't that he didn't believe in prophecies. He did… but he liked practicalities better, and he saw solid advantages like those as being more useful than vague prophecies with no specific date.
"Why should it bring down General Herdalen?" asked the Chief of Communication. "I rather like him, he's got style."
"Oh, you should have seen him at the trial," said General Huskvarna. "He's fond of this youngster, you could tell. If he sticks his neck out too far, trying to protect him, he'll lose his credibility and have to resign. Then we can replace him."
"With someone like General Vandenesse!" said Envoy Yantra, daringly making a joke.
To his relief, everyone laughed, and at that moment an orderly knocked and wheeled in a trolley full of cups and hot jugs.
"Ah, refreshments!" beamed the Premier. "Adjourned for half an hour."

He was served first, as befitted his rank, and he wandered over to the window, gazing down fondly at the grey waters of the lake, his mind going back to that trial. The Chief Interpreter had been taken up by seeing a prophecy materialise before her eyes, which was understandable. And General Huskvarna had been watching Herdalen, his arch-rival, which was also understandable. But he'd noticed more than that. He always did. It was why he was Premier, and they weren't. But he hadn't mentioned it to anyone. He never did… until the time was right. It was why he was still Premier, when everyone round that table, with the possible exception of old Calla, was after his job.
There'd been another elf there with long hair. Could easily have been born the same year. Might even be twins. She'd seen a double image, merging, and she didn't spot that? Crazy old bat. The other one had been quiet, hanging back, answering what he was asked, no more, no less. He'd looked half asleep, actually. But he was clever. Clever and brave. He was the one who'd beaten Březová. A willow, of course. It was easy to underestimate willows. The Premier knew that. He was a willow himself.