CHAPTER 3 - Combat Champion

As soon as Will opened his bleary eyes next morning, he reached for his watch, and groaned.
"We're not going training," said Ace.
Will recognised that argue-and-I'll-fight-you tone of voice, and didn't argue. He didn't feel well, anyway.
He sat up in bed. Everyone but Ace had already gone out.
"I don't feel well," he said.
"You're dehydrated," said Ace. "Drink this."
Ace made him drink a pint of water, followed by a huge mug of eye-wateringly strong coffee, and Will had to admit it made a big difference.
"That's better," said Ace, patting him on the shoulder. "Come on over to the stove."
Will sat down by the stove, letting the warmth ease the stiffness in his muscles, just as being alone with Ace was easing the stiffness in his mind. Ace sat down next to him and gently untied the rag from Will's hand.
"How d'you do this?" he asked calmly, as he teased the matted fibres away from the wound.
"Clearing snow from the intake pipe."
"The engine was still on."
"Clever move, Will."
He got up and found a clean piece of cloth, and picked up a bowl of water he'd had warming ready on the stove.
" 'Kay, let's get this cleaned up."

Gently but firmly, he bathed the deep cut until all the dried blood and dirt had gone, and the wound was bleeding freely again. Then he set the bowl aside, took both of Will's hands in both of his, and wriggled a bit before settling down to concentrate. First he stopped the bleeding, then quickly healed the battered and bruised flesh, and sealed the deep cut. Then he took a deep breath, and took his time over the skin, getting the colour and pattern of streaks on the back of Will's hand to line up perfectly. He looked up at Will's face before he let go, and at the same moment, they both said, 'thank you'.
That made them laugh.
"What're you thanking me for?" said Will.
"For trusting me to see that you're hurting, when you won't trust anyone else."
"What else is wrong?"
Will was about to say nothing was, when he glanced up and saw the expression on Ace's face. It said, I know you don't want to tell me, but I'm going to sit here until you do. He decided to get it over and done with, and explained quickly, in a matter-of-fact voice.
"I couldn't get the snowplough working properly. Then I hurt my hand, and packed up for the night. I went to the mess, sat with Clover. I must have looked fed up, 'cos she asked what was wrong. And when I told her, that Rob Royden had to poke his nose in with a suggestion."
"What's so bad about that?" Ace asked quietly.
Will raised his bleak eyes to meet Ace's.
"It was the right answer."

He didn't need to say any more. Ace understood that if there was one thing Will hated, it was being wrong. A year ago, he'd have tried to cheer him up, tried to make light of it. But they'd been through a lot since then. They'd been trapped inside each other's minds, and knew each other's deepest feelings. Ace could feel as keenly as Will did, the utter humiliation he was feeling.
"What a blow," he said softly. "And now, when it works, there'll be no joy in it."
"No," Will agreed sadly, and then, as if he realised he was overreacting, even though he couldn't help it, he said defensively, "I swear I wouldn't have minded a bit if someone else in the group had thought of the answer. It was more the way he said it, you know? So off-hand."
"I'm sorry I didn't come back sooner," said Ace. "Why didn't you message me?"
"Didn't want to spoil your fun," said Will, with a bit of a smile. "I do understand, you know."
"How did you know?"
"Worked it out. Who else could keep you out in the cold that long? Have you been flirting?"
"Honestly, truthfully?" said Ace. "Yes."
Will just rolled his eyes.
"What are you like? Let's get to work, take your mind off frost fairies. Where are we supposed to be?"
"Wood supply again, Camp HQ this time. Then it's combat training - outdoors - meet on the training ground."
While he was listening, Will was quickly washing his face and combing his hair. As soon as he was ready, they dashed out together, both feeling cheered but also a little worried.
He'll get over his disappointment about the engine, Ace was thinking. But if he's taken a dislike to Rob, that's a bit more tricky. I've got a nasty feeling I've missed something here.
She's not done him any harm so far,
Will was thinking. He just seems happy to have the chance to look at her. And she is beautiful, there's no denying that. Maybe I'm just imagining things… maybe she's just as daft about him.

There was a shiver of excitement running through the sprites gathering on the training ground, as they watched Sergeant Olt and Corporal Lavall finishing off something they were constructing. It looked like a long bridge, but it had no side rails.
"A bridge across nothing?" said Kiefer.
"Across heaps of undisturbed snow," said Crocus. "Nice and soft to fall on."
"Oh, terrific," wailed Clover. "And here's Sergeant Svir with a first-aid kit. Will, I want to go home!"
"Hey, don't panic," Will smiled at her. "We don't even know what we've got to do yet. And you won't fall in the snow, you clot, you've got wings."
"Gather round," called Sergeant Olt cheerfully. "You'll like this… this is a knockout. Last one in's the winner. This is how it works. I'm going to split you up, half at one end of the bridge and half at the other. When it's your turn, you go onto the bridge, and fight whoever is coming at you. The one who gets knocked off is out, the one who gets across goes into the next round. That clear?"
He laughed at their excited faces. Most of them were dying to see what they could do, and the ones that weren't, like Clover, were consoling themselves with the thought that once they were out, the rest of it was likely to be very entertaining.

"Turn south or north…now!" shouted Sergeant Olt suddenly, and everyone turned one way or the other. As usual, that split them nearly in half in a completely random way. Corporal Lavall quickly counted them and evened it up. They were an odd number, so he gave Agava, the biggest of them all, a bye to the second round, and then they were off. It was very quick. The sergeant and the corporal were watching carefully, to see how well they used the skills they'd been learning, of balance, attack and defence, but at the same time they kept it moving, and the fast pace made it even more exciting.
Ace and Will were at opposite ends, which worried them both. They really hated fighting each other, unless it was for play or for real, and this was neither. But it was all right. Ace got Carda, who forgot she was allowed to use her wings, and went down at the first blow. Will had a harder time of it, because he got the Russian leader, Cor. They were well-matched, and although Will got him down in the end, he took a couple of heavy blows himself in the process.
You OK? Ace thought to him when he'd come down.
No… that hurt. But I'll live.
Ace grinned to himself, and watched closely to see how the rest of the team did. Hogweed had already demolished Pioppo with consummate ease, and Ace cheered the Knightwoods as Fran, Peter and Betch all took down their opposition with strength and skill. Dan had much more of a struggle, because she got Crocus, so flying gave her no added advantage. Crocus was nearly as strong as Dan was, and she was taller. For a few minutes, it looked as if height was going to tell, and Ace's heart went out to Dan, who was trying so hard. But at the last moment, her fierce determination gave her enough to channel her strength more effectively, and Crocus was off the bridge.

Ace didn't fuss her or say, 'Well done’. He just said, "Skill, Dan," the same as he would have to another elf. But the rest of his team… Ace realised now that though the splitting had been random, the order they were fighting in wasn't. Everyone who was keen to have a go had got to the front of the queues, and everyone who wasn't had hung back. It had been a form of natural selection, that had kept the first round to fighting people of roughly equal quality.
Wayne was the next of Ace's team to go. Ace wondered if Wayne had noticed right at the beginning what he'd only just realised, and hung back on purpose. He might have done. He wasn't daft, Wayne, he stopped to think more than any other elf Ace knew. Something to do with being a bit older, maybe. If he had, it paid off. He got Revebjelle, who looked totally confused and didn't even duck.
They were nearly at the ends of the lines now. Ace's heart was in his mouth as Rose tentatively mounted the bridge. It was very hard not to feel protective. But he recognised the little tilt of her chin as she applied herself to the unpleasant task. Just like on Wildside, when she was going to be bait for the hodgepig. Ace grinned. There was steel in Rose, and it came out when she needed it. She used her superb flying to circle one of the French twin fairies, disorientating her, and pushed her hard while she was still looking the wrong way. Stella won too, though Ace wasn't sure there'd been much skill to it. He thought that Italian fairy had just slipped, but never mind… if she couldn't hold her balance, that was her problem. Bella fought with great spirit, taking out Amande. Ace was very proud of her. Eleven out of twelve through…he wondered whether to say anything. Would it help, or not? He decided it was worth a try.
None of my team is going out in the first round, you hear me? Don't you let me down!

Clover thought back something extremely rude.
Don't copy Will's language! Copy his courage! Go for it!

What a rotten trick, Clover thought disgustedly as she flew neatly onto the bridge. Now I'll have to really try… who've I got? Muscari! Oh, the poor little pet, she looks terrified! I know I have to win… but I'll do it my way.
Clover soared into the air, and came down on Muscari like a bird of prey. Muscari had her fist ready, but eyes were screwed tight shut. Clover just scooped her up in her arms, and gently deposited her in the snow, before completing her trip across the bridge. Everyone was in hysterics, even Sergeant Svir was laughing. But Clover had kept everyone happy. Honour was satisfied.

Everyone who was out was allowed to gather near the centre of the bridge, so they could watch more closely. Sergeant Svir told them they could go and play on the ropes if they felt cold, but no-one did. It was much too exciting for that. Meanwhile, the sergeant and the corporal had been organising the survivors, evening the sides up again, and muddling up the queues so that this time it was totally random. Will had it easy that time, almost apologetically flattening Kiefer, whose strength didn't match his spirit. Hogweed fought one of the Polish goblins, and won, but Rose, Clover and Stella all got elves this time and though they used their advantages skilfully, they were beaten by strength in the end. Clover came down feeling thankful she was out of it, but Rose and Stella were wondering if maybe Dan wasn't in the right of it about muscles, and determined to put in more work on the weights.
Bella beat Lilje, and Dan beat Alnus, but Betch was out of it. He was big and strong, but too peaceful a character to stand up to Gran Starheim on a roll. Wayne was out, and so was Fran, but he was beaten by Agava, so there was no disgrace in that. Peter survived, but only just. He got Sizzle, who showed him that imps might be small, but they were terrific fighters.

Ace was the last of his team to go, and he had plenty of time to think. The competition was going to be tough this time, and you couldn't use the normal tricks against someone bigger on such a narrow space. You needed room to dodge, to feint. But the fairies were allowed to use their wings. He had an idea. No-one had tried that yet… but no-one had said you couldn't. When his turn came, he jumped up onto the bridge brimming with confidence. Beuk Otterlo, perfect, he was big, strong, and daft. Ace ran at him, full pelt, which made Beuk slow down, puzzled. Ace waited till he was nearly there, then jumped right over him. Before Beuk had time to react, Ace went into a half-somersault, kicking Beuk firmly on the behind with both feet. With a yell of surprise, Beuk landed face-first in the snow. Ace completed the somersault, landed on his feet, and crossed the bridge, trying not to grin too much at all the cheering.

There were only thirty left now, so the third round went by much more quickly, with all the rest watching and cheering themselves hoarse for their friends and their team-mates. This time, Wayne and Peter went out, and Will was injured. He beat Cowberry, by hooking him round the knee, but blocking a punch of the goblin's had frozen his left arm. He could hardly feel it, and knew he'd never survive another round.
Ace, he thought. I'm pretty banged up. I'll go out next time, for sure. Don't let it worry you, OK? It's a good thing, really… the odds are getting too short, don't want to fight you. Just concentrate, you can do this.
What's hurting?
Got a dead arm, that's all. It'll wear off. Don't worry, I said! Go for it!
'Kay, Will. You got it.

With fifteen left, Sergeant Svir chose the best loser from round three to carry on, so there'd be an even number, and her choice fell on Bella, who'd survived nearly two minutes against Hogweed. Even so, Bella went out quickly as round four started, to Margherita, and so did Dan, who finally met her match in the towering brute strength of Olm Otterlo. She was loudly cheered, though, and not down-hearted as she went to find Bella and compare injuries.
Will got Agava this time, and hoped it wouldn't hurt too much. He ducked and weaved as best he could, and landed a couple of punches, but the massive goblin hardly seemed to notice. Everyone could see that Will wasn't using his left hand at all, it was hanging useless at his side, and when Agava knocked him off, Sergeant Svir advanced on him, with a scolding ready on her lips for not having the sense to say he was injured.

Ace smiled in sympathy, then tried to concentrate, as Will had asked him to. He had to be ready to tackle someone massive now, probably. But as he stepped up for his turn, he saw it wasn't. It was Droz. They both grinned. At last, a proper elf fight, against skilful, well-liked, well-respected opposition. They were both relishing this, and so were all the elves who were watching. Will nearly pushed Sergeant Svir away, begging her to let him watch. He couldn't miss this.
Ace and Droz approached each other slowly, both trying to intimidate by their air of cool nonchalance. But once they came to grips, it was fast. Everyone around him was screaming encouragement at one or the other - or both - but Will was hardly breathing, watching with fierce concentration, seeing how they feinted, blocked and punched. He was so familiar with Ace's style, Will thought he could see an improvement since they'd started combat training. Ace was aiming his punches more accurately, not just lashing out and hoping, optimistically, that they'd land somewhere useful. They didn't all connect; Droz was fast, too, and blocked well. But a lot of them did. Gradually, Ace was forcing Droz backwards, so he'd have to use some of his concentration to think where his feet were.
Droz seized the initiative, and broke free. He jumped over Ace, and tried to grab him from behind. But he wasn't quite fast enough. Ace spun round and was ready for him, with a foot stuck out to trip him as he landed. That would have been enough to win the fight in the earlier rounds, but Droz reacted with great speed, grabbing Ace's arm as he fell, and pulling Ace down with him.
The crowd was going wild, this was by far the most exciting fight so far. Even Sergeant Olt and Corporal Lavall had come away from the ends of the bridge to watch more closely. Will bit his lip, hard.
"Come on, Ace," he breathed. "Come on."
For a moment, they were down together, wrestling on the narrow bridge, until it looked like they'd both roll off into the snow. Ace was underneath, too, and seemed to be getting the worst of it. He couldn't push Droz off him, because Droz's arms were a bit longer. But then experience came into play. Droz had done more knife-fighting than wrestling, and this style of unarmed combat was less familiar to him. But Ace had been flattened by goblins more times than he could remember. He knew what to do. Will grinned, he knew what was coming next. Sure enough, Ace went limp and closed his eyes. Droz sat back a bit, and went for Ace's wrist to haul him up and push him off. The moment he grabbed hold, Ace threw himself backwards, pulling Droz over, and brought his feet up, to kick Droz hard in the chest. It hadn't always worked on goblins, but it worked on Droz. Two seconds later, he was lying on his back in the snow, and Ace was sauntering off the bridge, trying not to show that he felt like he'd been hit by a bus.

At the end of that round, Sergeant Olt gathered the eight survivors together, gave them all a drink of water, and told them that from now on, they had to use a signal, just raise an arm in the air, if they thought that either they or their opponent was too badly injured to carry on.
"You've all done extremely well to get this far," he smiled, "but it's only training - no need to go so far you hurt yourselves."
When he was satisfied they'd all got their breath back, he sent them to their places, and it was Margherita who stepped onto the bridge first. Will watched with great interest as she tackled Gran Starheim. It struck him that she'd really got the hang of using her advantages; she was seeing the fight as a three-dimensional thing, and Gran couldn't get to grips with her. When he did get a punch in, she lessened its impact by flying backwards, out of the blow, while her punches kept getting Gran in unexpected places, making him fight for balance.
But Gran was cool, and didn't let it rattle him. Eventually, he spotted a weakness, and seized his opportunity. He stood still, and let her hit him, but then, as she flew behind him, he spun round, and grabbed her by the wings. Once she was still, one good kick had her off the bridge, and Gran stood in triumph, panting for breath. But Margherita got a tremendous cheer as she stood up and ruefully brushed the snow off, the last fairy to go out. Will hoped Dan had been watching that carefully. If Dan fought like that, instead of trying to fight like an elf, she'd be unstoppable.
The next pair came up, and this time Will was cheering for Hogweed, though he felt a good deal of sympathy for Ross, who was valiantly trying to get past those long arms and formidable punches. Will knew well enough what that felt like, and how near-impossible it was. Ross certainly found it so, and was dispatched with precision and skill.

By now, the morning had gone, and the first years had come out of the classrooms. Attracted by all the shouting and cheering, they piled over to the training ground to see what was going on. Quite a few officers arrived too, interested to watch the end of what they knew was always a good contest. General Herdalen and the Commander were there now, the crowd was growing by the minute. Will hoped Ace wouldn't be distracted too much. His concentration was good, but it wasn't perfect.
Suddenly, Ace stepped onto the bridge. He'd taken his jacket off, and rolled his sleeves up. His black streaks rippled along his arms as he flexed his muscles, and his hair shone in the mid-day sun as he tossed his head. He thought to Will.
Here goes… who've I got? Olm, right. OK. Wish me luck.
You look fantastic,
thought Will sincerely. Concentrate now, and you'll flatten him.
He saw Ace smile, saw him fix his mind on what he had to do, watched him stride out with calm confidence. Knowing Olm would be expecting a trick, Ace didn't give him one, but opened the fight with a classic feint and jab. Olm responded by relaxing into blocking and punching, so Ace startled him by jumping over him and getting him round the neck, ready to kick his feet from under him and push him over. That didn't quite work, because Olm bent his fingers back until Ace had to let go, but he twisted as he did, forcing Olm around with him to face him. This time Olm tried a jump, but his landing was clumsy. As he struggled for his balance, Ace got in a very good punch to the jaw, and was about to follow it up with another, when he suddenly stopped dead, staring. It was only for a moment, but it was too long. Olm got in a punch of his own, and it was a massive one. Ace was down, off the bridge, and out.

Will just groaned. He'd been so close. The only consolation was the great sigh of disappointment that had gone up from the whole crowd. Nearly everyone had been rooting for Ace. Not that Olm cared. He just laughed, and walked off. Will hardly noticed the next fight, Agava laboriously demolishing Ratzo. He was too busy thinking, and he didn't like the thought in his mind, but he'd have to check. He wriggled through the crowd a bit, until he was looking in the same direction Ace had been looking when he'd frozen. Yep, he'd been right. There she was, at the front of a crowd of first years. He'd thrown away his chance of glory for a perishing frost fairy.
Wishing with all his heart that Blanche had never come to Fjaerland, Will turned back and headed towards Ace, in case he was hurt. He found him with Sergeant Svir, who was checking his eyes were focusing and that he hadn't got a concussion. She seemed satisfied, and handed him over to Will. Will just smiled at him. They could talk later, now wasn't the time.
"You OK?" he said.
"Bit dizzy," said Ace. "Told Sergeant Svir I wasn't, but I am, really."
"Lean on me," said Will, and put his arm round him. "Let's watch how it ends."

The two semi-finals were elf against goblin, and both the goblins won. By now, their superior stamina was beginning to tell, and Agava knocked Gran out by not giving him a chance to breathe. Then Olm was back, and Hogweed came out to challenge him with a face like thunder. Anyone who hurt Ace was dead meat in Hogweed's book. Olm was big, but he wasn't as big as Hogweed, and the look on the goblin's face unnerved him. He punched first, but Hogweed didn't even bother to block it, and Olm just hurt his hand. Then Hogweed punched, and it was the hardest punch Olm had ever had in his life. The semi-finals were over nearly as soon as they'd begun.
Corporal Lavall checked both the goblins for injuries, and gave them water, and a chance to rest, while Sergeant Olt stood on the bridge and addressed the crowd. He praised everyone's efforts, and drew the second years' attention to things that had particularly impressed him. Then, with an eye to the rest of the audience, he thanked them for their interest, apologised for keeping the second years from their duties in the canteens, and announced that the mid-day break would start as soon as the final fight was over. With that, he called the finalists onto the bridge, and announced their names for the benefit of those who didn't know them, and let the fight begin.

Ace's team had gathered to him by now, and they were all watching together, hardly daring to hope that Hogweed could pull it off, but hoping all the same. It started off like any goblin fight, rather slow and ponderous, but all the cheering excited them, and the pace picked up. Watching them, Will realised that Agava hadn't varied his tactics at all. With his sheer size and strength, he relied on being able to carry on punching until he'd won. It worked well against smaller sprites. It worked against Ratzo, who hadn't varied his tactics much either, and had been worn down in the end. But it wasn't going to work against Hogweed.
Life on Wildside had taught Ace and Will a thing or two about fighting goblins, but their influence had made its mark on Hogweed, too. Growing up alongside those two, he'd had to learn to think, an unusual accomplishment for a goblin. And he'd learned that strength was useless against clever tricks. It was time for a clever trick now, a trick that would make Ace proud of him, a trick that would make England win, that would make Wildside win... he dug into his memory, as Agava slugged away, and remembered one of Ace's best tricks. It had taken him years to stop falling for that one, and he was ready to bet Agava had never seen it.
Hogweed stood still, sucked in a deep breath of shock, and stared with horrified terror into the sky behind Agava's head. Of course, Agava turned his head to see what had frightened Hogweed, and by the time he realised there was nothing there, it was too late. Hogweed punched him right, then left, then finished him off with a trip and a kick. The mighty Agava hit the snow, the crowd roared. Hogweed smiled modestly, and the Moseleys collapsed, weeping with laughter.

"Did you ever see anything like it?" chortled Sergeant Olt, and slurped thirstily at his hot drink, in the officers' canteen. "A goblin winning a fight with an elf trick!"
"It was brilliant," laughed Corporal Lavall. "I wonder where he learned that one?"
"I wonder," said the sergeant, with a dry smile. "What a team they are, those Moseleys. Every one of them as original as they come."
"And so pleasant with it," said Sergeant Svir. "Indeed, this whole year are mostly a very nice crowd. D'you know, as were we leaving the field, I heard Alnus say he'd learned so much this morning - everything to do, and
everything not to do - and all his team agreed."
"Ah, that's good to hear," beamed Sergeant Olt. "A very good morning's work."

In the recruits' canteen, the noise was deafening, as everyone talked over their fights, and everyone else's. Hogweed was in the place of honour, at the head of the first table, just smiling happily at everyone. Fran and Peter had hoisted him on their shoulders and carried him off the field, and Ace had hugged him and insisted on bringing him his drink. You couldn't have found a happier goblin in the whole world.
"You were fantastic," Will told him. "I nearly died laughing when you brought out that old trick."
"I used to be sad, thinking of how many years we wasted, not being friends," said Hogweed. "But all the time we were learning really useful stuff, fighting each other. That stunt Ace pulled on someone, he used to do that to get me off him."
"Yeah, that was Droz," Ace laughed. "I think you're right, Hogweed. Everything happens for a reason."
"Oh, you and Droz, what a fight that was!" said Wayne. "But what happened with Olm? You had him, you nearly had him, then you just froze!"
"Er, I'm not sure," said Ace. "Tiring, maybe. I don't know."

Will sighed, and leaned back against the wall, close to Clover. He didn't think Ace had been tiring, he wasn't sure Ace knew what tiring was. He just couldn't concentrate when there were frost fairies around.
"How's your arm, Will?" asked Clover.
"Coming back to life now, thanks. Pins and needles. Hey, Clover, that stunt of yours was so funny, too. It was just so you, somehow. You really don't like fighting, do you?"
"There'd have to be a very good reason," said Clover. "I can see the point of it this morning - we all learned a lot, watching each other, and the competition stopped it from getting boring. But there's always - nearly always - got to be a better way. You know what I mean. I don't believe you're that wild about fighting yourself."
"It's OK," said Will thoughtfully. "I don't love it like Ace does - but I couldn't truthfully say there always had to be a good reason. I just have to be in the right mood, I think."
"I saw your face when you got knocked out. I know you were injured, but you weren't disappointed, you were relieved."
"That was… well, that was just because it was getting more and more likely that I'd have to fight Ace. I didn't want to do that, and neither did he. If one of us was going to be knocked out, I was glad it was me, because it meant much more to him. I didn't want him worrying about us drawing each other, it might have put him off his stride."
"Something did," said Clover shrewdly.
"Yeah… listen Clover, I'm going to ask you something, and I'd really like a serious answer. Just how good-looking is Ace?"
"Seriously? He isn't good-looking. You're good-looking. So Betch, so's Ross… oh, quite a few of you. Ace is in a class of his own."
"That good?"
"Yes, that good. He's actually even better-looking than he thinks he is, and that's saying something."
Will felt his spirits soaring. If that was true, then even a frost fairy could be bowled over. He'd been worrying about nothing! She wasn't up to anything, she was just as daft about him as he was about her.
"Thanks, Clover," he smiled. "You've set my mind at rest."

Eventually, someone sensible made a move, and the sprites cleared up and headed off in different directions. For a few moments, Ace and Will were alone together, and Ace felt a bit nervous. If anyone had spotted what he'd done, it would have been Will, and if he was going to say anything, it'd be now. But Will was quiet, and Ace began to think he'd got away with it. But then Ace risked looking in his eyes, and saw that Will was watching him, his eyes full of laughter.
"Tiring, huh?" he said.
Rats, he'd spotted it, all right. He couldn't fool Will. He looked away, embarrassed that he'd been so stupid, to let himself get distracted in the middle of a fight. But at least Will didn't sound angry. Ace chanced an apologetic smile, and Will smiled back.
"You twit," he said.

The hidden island in Wielkopolska Lake became almost invisible in the rain. Envoy Yantra stepped onto his balcony and he could hardly see the Beehive through the mist of fine drizzle. There were some days when everything seemed grey. But the weather didn't dampen the envoy's spirits. He'd spent a few days doing some research, and going through Envoy Mecsek's old notes. He was ready now, he had things to do. Having things to do made him feel important. And there was nothing Envoy Yantra liked better than feeling important.
He was already sitting at his desk when Rani arrived, and when she'd shaken the rain off her wings, he sent her off to bring some tea for them both. It didn't take her long. When she came back, she was carrying a tray with a silver tea-pot, trailing steam, and fine china cups. The envoy closed the door, and poured out the tea.
"You must have a hot drink, Rani," he said, "on such a damp morning. Bring your chair closer to the stove… that's it. I have a very important job to do, and I'd like your help."
He smiled conspiratorially, which made Rani feel needed and important, just as he'd intended. She was lazy, his assistant, but she had a very large vocabulary and an elegant turn of phrase. Just the sort of thing he needed.
"We need to draft an official request to the army, asking that the police receive better training on recognition of illegal objects. Simple enough on the surface… but the wording is very important. It needs to be very courteous - however rude we'd rather be - it needs to convey some surprise that the police are having a problem - even though nothing would surprise us less. It should contain one or two examples of recent flagrant breaches, as though we're sure the army will be concerned - even though we know they don't give a hoot - and it should sound confident that they'll do something about it - even though we know they won't."
"What's the point doing it, then?" grumbled Rani. "Sounds like a waste of time to me."
"The point, my dear, has nothing to do with the army… and everything to do with parliament. This very subject is going to full session for discussion! And at some point, the Premier will say, 'Did you send an official request to the army, Envoy Yantra?' And I'll be able to say, 'Yes, Premier', and pass him a copy. At the bottom it will say, drafted by Arolla Yantra and Rani Rogalin, and it will be such a beautiful message that the Premier will read it out to everyone. And then he'll ask, 'Have we received a reply?' And I'll look sad, and say, 'No, Premier, I'm sorry to say we have not'. And what will be the outcome of all that?"
"We'll look really good!" said Rani, beginning to get the idea.
They spent the morning in the cosy room, sheltered from the rain, polishing every word.

By the afternoon, the rain had cleared, but the envoy didn't rush to his next task. Timing was everything on this one. Instead, he went to the luxurious sports hall, where he gracefully lost a game of shuttlecock to the highly-influential envoy for Southern Germany.
But as the sun began to set, he knew that over at Fjaerland, the shifts would be changing in their signalling headquarters. The day shift, who included the most elderly sprites in the army, would be coming off duty. And if you wanted to talk to one of them, that was the time to try. Envoy Yantra knew it was useless trying to contact a Signals officer when he was on duty. He wasn't sure how it worked - he'd never been in that room - but you couldn't choose who your message went to. It was picked up by the power source itself, and directed to whoever was free.
Old Pančić Drina would be shuffling off for a well-earned rest, but after hours on duty, his senses would be alert to the faintest message, even one from a far-off country, powered by a different source. Envoy Yantra walked off through the willow margins, and perched on a branch, looking west and concentrating hard.
At first, the sheer effort of concentration made his head ache. But after a while, he heard a faint response in his mind, and relaxed a little.
Well now, who is that? he heard. You're a long way off. Poland, is it? My word, is that someone at the parliament?
Indeed it is, Pančić. This is Arolla Yantra. We met last summer, do you remember? Envoy Mecsek introduced me to you. A friend of the very first Premier, he said.
That's right, that's right. Yes, I remember you. How are things going over there?
Very well. If Premier Drina were alive today, I think he would be very proud. Ah, dear me, the army and the parliament were closer in those days.
Yes, those were the days,
sighed the old elf, remembering the heady times when parliament was founded. All different now. Things aren't what they used to be. D'you know, officers used to compose such beautiful messages, you were proud to deliver them. But now! Young General Herdalen doesn't even bother to use proper sentences! 'Their safety first priority - but don't tell them I said so!' What kind of a message is that!
Dear, dear, very sloppy,
thought Envoy Yantra, trying to sound sympathetic, while wondering what that message was about. Who was he sending that to?
Someone in England… Lieutenant Foxfield, I think.
Another youngster, no doubt. Very frustrating for you.
Oh, it is. But what can I do for you, Envoy? Did you want to send a message to someone?
No… it's a rather delicate situation. Envoy Mecsek mentioned that you had, on occasion, been able to assist in such matters. So much distrust these days… but someone like yourself, full of wisdom, might be able to help me to sort it out quietly.
I understand. What's the problem?
Some of your people are - inadvertently, I'm sure - undermining an experiment we're running. I'd rather like to explain to them personally what we're trying to do. Do you think you could find out for me who is on duty at a place called Sherwood, near Preston, in England?
Who would their messages have been going to?
I don't know that, I'm afraid,
thought Envoy Yantra.
That's a problem. You see, incoming messages are filed according to who received them, not the place they came from. Isn't there anything else you can tell me? Any clue what unit they're in?
All I know is, it's a building site - we're trying out a new technique to stop humans building so much, and your senior officers, I'm sorry to say, have condemned it without seeing if it works.
Ah, now we're getting somewhere. Staking out building sites is what the Intelligence Squadron have been doing, and they report directly to General Stalden. So now I know where to look. Give me a couple of days, then get back to me. I'll see what I can do. But you do know that a lot of messages are in code these days, don't you?
The main thing is the identity of the officers concerned, the envoy reassured him. I am so grateful. The peace of the realm relies on sprites of goodwill, like you.
We should all work together,
thought Pančić firmly.

The sun had set long before the conversation was over, and Envoy Yantra was cold, and exhausted with the effort. But it had been worth it. As he went back inside the well-lit warmth of the Beehive, he was feeling very pleased with himself. He headed for the Terrace Bar, looking forward to a large glass of strong red Bulgarian wine.

Bulgarian wine was not on offer in the recruits' mess in Fjaerland, but tonight there were barrels of beer on the tables, to celebrate the completion of the alterations. The quarter-master and his team had been working hard to extend the place, and now it took the form of two overlapping circles, and there was twice as much space.
When the evening's music was over, they all went inside, admiring the changes. Everything was refurbished and fresh. There was still a central fireplace in each circle, but there were extra stoves around the walls, too, so it felt pleasantly warm everywhere. The first years had helped, by making furniture, and there were new tables, chairs and swings of every shape and size, as well as lamps, cushions, rugs and wall-hangings.
Ace's team and Phil's team helped themselves cheerfully to beer, and settled down together as usual. The second years had been out in the snow all afternoon, tracking, so no-one was feeling too energetic. Behind them, a couple of goblins from Zoza's team were already snoring, oblivious to the noise the Balkans team were making, talking loudly by the fire. Ace and Will were sprawled together on a couch, relishing the chance to spread out. Ace had his eyes closed and his head on Will's shoulder, trying not to listen to Bella excitedly telling Dan about how she was going to be joining them when weapons training started tomorrow.
"They didn't give you much warning," said Dan. "Have you made a knife yet?"
"Yes, Sergeant Svir helped me herself," said Bella.
"Let's have a look."
Bella pulled her knife proudly from her belt and showed Dan its smooth lines.
"How come you wear your knives on show, when nobody else does?" asked Clover.
"It's traditional," Dan explained. "You can assume that elves and imps and goblins are armed. But not all fairies carry a weapon, so if you do, you wear it on show, so people know."
"Oh, I see," said Clover. "You two look just like those tough fairies who came to Wildside just before we left."
"I hope you'll be OK, Bella," worried Stella. "The thought of you in a knife fight with a goblin just terrifies me."
"No, the goblins learn on their own, remember? I'll be OK. It'll just be us and the elves and the imps."
"So who's faster on the draw, elves or fairies?" said Peter. "You haven't got to change the size, but you do have to reach over to your left hand side."
"Only one way to find out," grinned Dan, standing up with her arms at her side.
"Wait a minute, who says you go for the elves?" said Wayne to Peter. "We ought to see who's fastest of us, first."
Damn, thought Will. "No, let Peter do it," he interrupted. "It was his idea. Besides… Ace is asleep."
Are you? he thought.
No… not quite. Dreaming, though.
Where are you, in your dreams?
Back in that tent.

That had been such a beautiful day. Ace was remembering every moment. How it felt to have his twin back. He sighed, happily, without opening his eyes. He wasn't looking forward to weapons training, still didn't like all this talk of knives, but he could cope, thanks to his memories.

Will didn't really know how he was mixed up with the knives, deep in Ace's mind, but he knew that he was. And he knew that remembering that day helped Ace cope with his problem.
We're not safe on our own, here, Will thought to him, understanding. But I wish we were.

Ace was too moved to answer, but he squeezed Will's arm tight, and opened his eyes. He sat up a bit, and watched Dan and Peter without appearing in the least bit distressed.
Dan won, because Peter got quite flustered with everyone watching him, and made a hash of it. But she didn't show off, just quietly started showing Bella everything she'd found out while practising, about how to make a smooth fast draw.
Their quietness, though, only made the noise from over by the fire sound even louder.
"Don't talk to me about suffering!" Droz was saying. "I know you've suffered. So have I, just as much as you have, and I still say you're wrong."
Ace sighed. Droz was arguing with Crocus again. It was all they'd done since word had gone round about the meeting with General Vandenesse. Crocus had kept her opinions firmly away from her team, knowing from the start how divisive they would be. But at that meeting, with only team leaders present, she'd seen no need to hide her feelings. Someone had gossiped, and now the fat was in the fire. Ace wondered who'd been daft - or malicious - enough to tell Droz what Crocus had said. His suspicion fell briefly on Gran Starheim, but he pushed the thought away as unworthy. He had no proof. Instead, he tried to ignore the row, and concentrated on his own team.

He managed a few words of encouragement to Bella, who seemed to need the reassurance of knowing that he thought she could do it. He did well, because his own feelings made him a bit more sensitive to other people's fears, and was rewarded by Bella's brilliant smile.

Meanwhile Will had got drawn into a conversation with Betch and Dale. Dale had been asking Betch about something he hadn't understood in maths, blithely confident that his friend could do anything. Betch wasn't too sure about it himself, but he knew who to ask. Will listened carefully, knowing that you could only help when you knew exactly what someone didn't understand.
"Got you," he said. "What you did was add all the numbers up, instead of thinking what they stood for. A quarter plus a quarter isn't two eighths, it's two quarters. One quarter plus another quarter. Only the number above the line is the quantity you're adding up. The number below the line is what it's the quantity of."
"And two quarters is one half," said Dale, satisfied. "You see, I knew that. I just couldn't understand why it wasn't when you did it in maths, but it is, when you do it right. I understand, now."
"That's great, Dale," said Will, rather impressed that Dale had remembered what had puzzled him all day, until he had a chance to ask about it. And that he was interested enough to care. It struck him that Betch's constant line that Dale wasn't stupid, wasn't just loyalty, it was the truth. Dale was a little slow on the uptake, that was all. Will had a feeling, though, that once he'd got something, he'd really got it. "You ask anything you like, anytime. I mean it. Glad to help."
"Thanks, Will," smiled Dale. "That's really nice of…"
He stopped, turning in surprise, as they all did, hearing a sudden scream.

Ace jumped to his feet, staring for one stunned moment. Droz had pulled his knife on Crocus. She was lying on the floor, blood staining her clothes very near to her heart. Droz was standing over her, his knife in his hand and a look of horror on his face. No-one was moving, their whole team was standing frozen with shock.
Ace leaped over a chair and knelt down by Crocus.
"She's still breathing," he said. "Will, can you stop the bleeding? Someone go for Major Gourdon… Rose, you're the fastest…"
"On my way," said Rose, and flew out of the door in a blur.
"I didn't mean… oh, what have I done?" Droz groaned quietly.
"Kes, Vin, wake up!" said Ace. "Get him away from here. And stay with him."
Suddenly coming alive, Droz's friends pulled him away from the scene, and made him sit down. Everyone was crowding round now, from all over the room, scared and curious.
Ace stood up. Clover was helping Will, she'd torn up her lovely new jacket to give him cloth to wipe the blood away. Will's hands were sticky with blood, and Ace could see just by the set of his shoulders just how hard he was concentrating.
"Don't push," he said loudly to the crowd. "It'll be OK. Crocus is badly injured, but help's on its way, don't worry."
Someone touched his arm, and Ace saw that it was Ross.
"This is serious, Ace," he said. "We'll have to report it."
Ace's expression was very bleak.
"I know," he murmured. "But we can't turn him over to the police. Not Droz. He's one of us."
Ross nodded, understanding.
"Then let's just tell Sergeant Olt. What happens after that is out of our hands."
"D'you want me to go?"
"No, I'll go. You can help Will if he needs it."

Ross slipped out, with Alnus at his side. Ace looked around. Crocus's fairies were all in tears, but other fairies were comforting them and looking after them. He moved around quietly, trying to reassure people and get them to sit down out of the way. Then Major Gourdon arrived, his fur coat swinging open and his boots unlaced, followed by another, younger elf from the hospital, carrying a rolled-up stretcher in one hand and a bag in the other.
"Status, Will," he demanded, as if he was talking to another surgeon.
"Vertical tear in the carotid artery," said Will shakily. "I'm trying to hold it together, but it's not working. I hardly know her. Blood's getting into the heart, but it can't get out properly. It's swelling badly."
"Keep calm," said Major Gourdon. "We can deal with that. Needle and tube, Captain, please," he said over his shoulder to his assistant. "What I want you to do is hold that artery wall as intact as you can. You've got the location of the damage, and you know her better than I do. Forget about everything else, we'll see to that."
Will nodded, and scooted round so he was working over Crocus's shoulder, giving the major and the captain room to move. They set a drain in her chest, taking the blood that was building up out of the circulation before the swelling grew dangerous, and they worked very fast, knowing that she couldn't afford to lose too much blood.
"We've no time to waste," said the major. "We have to get her to the hospital, so we can mend the artery. We'll have to stitch, like humans do. It's slow, but it's effective. Two of you lift her onto the stretcher, very slowly, very carefully… keep concentrating, Will. Keep that tube steady, Captain. Good."
Agava and Ratzo were in position ready to lift the stretcher.
"You're going to have to come with us, Will," said the major, "and you won't be able to look where you're going. Where's your twin?"
"I'm here, sir," said Ace. "I'll guide his steps."
"Good. Come on, let's move."

Half an hour later, Will stumbled out of the treatment room, back to Ace, who was waiting for him in the corridor.
"She's safe," he said. "They're still working… but they don't need me now. She's going to be OK."
"Well done," said Ace quietly. "You were amazing. But you're worn out, and you're covered in blood. There must be somewhere in here where you can have a wash."
Will just followed him, too tired to think, while Ace found a room where there was a washstand and helped him clean himself up.
"D'you need to go straight to bed?" Ace asked.
"No," said Will, shaking his head to try to wake himself up. "Don't think so. Need coffee. Need to know how Droz is."
"Let's get back to the mess," Ace nodded. "There's no rush, now. Just lean on me, and take your time."

When they got in, they realised that nearly everyone was still there, waiting for news. Muscari and the other Serbian fairies tore across to them as they came in the door.
"How is she?"
"She's going to live, Muscari," Will smiled tiredly. "Major Gourdon is still treating her, but she's out of danger."
"So we can't go to her yet?"
"Not yet, but my guess would be you'll be able to in the morning."
He sat down with them, while Ace slipped off to get him some strong coffee.
"You saved her life, Will. I don't know how to thank you," said Muscari. "Crocus is our senior sprite, she's looked after us since we were born. I feel ashamed that I couldn't help her myself, but I wouldn't have known where to start."
"Don't blame yourself," Will told her. "That was… that was a really difficult thing. But it's over now. Are you all OK?"
"Yes, thanks to you. We'll go and tell Agava, he's been crying since he came back."
They flitted off, and Will sighed, and looked up at Ace, who was passing him a mug.
"I should have tried pooling with one of them, who really know her. That might have worked better. Why didn't I think of that at the time? Why do I always have to think so slowly?"
"Hey, don't knock yourself," said Ace. "If you thought any faster, you might not be able to concentrate so well, and that's what saved her. If anyone should have thought of that, it should have been me. I'm supposed to be the fast thinker round here. But I'm not sure it would have made much difference. Muscari and the others love Crocus, but it's respect more than closeness. She keeps herself to herself, you know. Never lets anyone get that close."
"Maybe you're right," said Will. "But where are Kes and Vin? What's happened to Droz?"
"Over there with the others," said Ace. "Let's join them."

They could tell by their friends' faces that the news wasn't good, but they hadn't really expected that it would be.
"Crocus is going to be OK," said Ace, as they sank down wearily. "How's Droz?"
"Sergeant Olt came back with us," said Ross. "Came just after you'd left for the hospital. Looked round, took it all in. Droz sitting there, looking so white. People clearing up the mess, people crying. Deathly quiet. He walked over to Droz and told him to surrender his knife. Droz stood up and handed it to him, then the sergeant just said, 'Come with me'. He let Kes and Vin go with them, though."
"The police locked him up," said Kes. "He's got to go before the Commander in the morning."
"He'll get detention, for sure, the sergeant told us," said Vin. "At least a week, probably more. He asked us what happened, and we told him, they were just arguing… about politics, at first, but then they got onto the Balkan War, and you know how Droz is about that. He knows people who were in it."
"Just what happened in that war, Vin?" asked Ace.
"It was a human war. The Serbs were fighting the Croats, and the sprites joined in. Fighting each other, just because the humans were."
"And Droz is Croat."
"Yes. And so are we. But Agava and the fairies are Serb. Our team's had it, Ace. We'll never be able to work together again after this."
"But what drove him to actually knife her?"
"I don't know. By then, they were so angry they were talking very quietly. And we didn't get a chance to ask him."
"Try and message him," said Ace. "He needs to know that Crocus will live, and he needs to know that we're all thinking about him."
"I'm not too good at that," said Vin. "You try, Kes."
Kes was quiet for a long time, and the others waited patiently, watching him. He had his eyes closed, but from time to time a sad smile played around his lips. Eventually, he opened his eyes and looked around.
"I told him," he said. "I think it helped. Just to know that we're not disgusted by him, we're still friends. But he's devastated, he still can't believe he did it."
"Did he say why?" asked Gran.
"He wouldn't talk about it. It must have been very personal. All he said was, 'I respected her so much. I accepted her as leader, even though I could have fought her for it. She had such strength, such self-control'."
"He did not know what it was masking," said Gran. "He does now."
"Was it you who told him?" asked Ross bluntly. "What she said at that meeting?"
"Does it matter?"
"Probably not, now," said Betch. "It's too late. So that's another team's chances ruined. Nice work, Gran. Only six to go."
Betch's outrageous accusation was delivered in his usual half-teasing style, so no-one was totally sure if it was meant to be a joke or not. But Gran wasn't rattled.
"That wasn't my intention, actually," he said coolly. "I am his working partner, remember. He talks a great deal about his hopes… more than I wish to hear, to be honest. But I didn't want him to be fooled by Crocus any longer."
"I don't think she was trying to fool him, Gran," said Ace. "It sounds to me as if both of them were trying to put the team first. But once some things couldn't be ignored any longer, they couldn't do it any more."
"And that is exactly what will happen to the army when the war starts," Gran pointed out. "Yes, I told him. It's unfortunate she was hurt, but one day we'll be fighting them for real. I think some of you need to start getting used to the idea."
"So all this mess is your fault!" fumed Vin.
"You can think that if you want to. I decided that it was better that the truth should be known. I used my own judgement. Isn't that freedom one of the things we're going to fight for?"
No-one answered. Gran got up.
"Goodnight," he said, and left.

It was Peter who broke the silence.
"He's so big-headed, it's a wonder he doesn't fall over," he muttered. "I wish Crocus was on our side, and Gran was on theirs."
"Mmm," said Will, suddenly reminded vividly of Jasan. "We'll be fighting with people we don't like, against people we do. Makes you think, doesn't it?"
"It makes me think I'm not looking forward to tomorrow," said Alnus. "I was scared enough to start with, but after tonight, I just feel sick."
"I think we all do," Ross reassured him. "The sight of that… horror just knocked everyone senseless. Everyone except Ace, of course," he teased. "Nothing frightens you, does it? Not even knives dripping with blood."
For once, Ace was speechless. He wanted to come clean, but he couldn't, he just couldn't find the words to do it. He looked at Will, pleading for help.
"He's used to it," Will said quietly. "We suddenly saw something terrible, but it was no shock to him. He's lived with that for twelve years."
Ace looked at Will in wonder. They'd never talked about it, but somehow Will had come to understand.
"You know… when it started?" said Ace.
"Yes. But I don't know what, except it had to have been a dream."
"Yes. So real, as if it had really happened, you know?"
They all nodded, they'd all had dreams like that.
"I was killing someone. With a knife. It was unbearable. Hated knives ever since."
He looked round, feeling so ashamed, but desperate to be truthful.
"Don't want you all thinking I'm so brave when I'm not. It's been a real struggle, this winter. Trying to get used to the idea."
Fran looked up and Ace was startled to see that there were tears in his eyes.
"So how we felt tonight, you've been feeling for twelve years? And you still came to join the army?"
"Not all the time," said Ace. "But every time I saw a knife… well, yes," said Ace.
"I wish I was half as brave as you," said Fran.