CHAPTER 4 - The Snowplough

The mood was sombre as the weapons class gathered next morning. The place was little more than a large, airy shed. Its windows were skylights in the roof, the floor was bare earth, covered with sand, and it was located near the hospital. There were fifty-one young sprites waiting in there, but it was the two who weren't there and should have been, Droz and Crocus, who were on people's minds.
Will leaned against a wall, just watching, and trying not to yawn. He and Ace had been talking long into the night. Ace had finally been able to tell him just what that dream had been like, and how Gran had helped him to understand it. Will had been glad of it - though it had been hard to take, realising just how much his twin had suffered - and he was hoping more than anything that Ace could now finally put it all behind him. This morning would be the test. It would help, surely, that their friends knew now how he was feeling. Even if he lost it, and bolted, he wouldn't lose their respect. He was pacing about now, Will could see, scuffing the sand and obviously trying to get a grip. But he wasn't the only one, and that would help too.

Sergeant Olt came in very quietly, and spoke before most people had noticed he was there.
"Sorry I'm late," he apologised. "I've just come from the Commander's office. Droz Zlatni is in detention for two weeks."
There was a murmur of sympathy, and the sergeant raised his eyebrows.
"He's popular among you, I know. And no wonder, he's a good elf at heart. But he's a hothead, and he's got to learn his lesson. Don't waste your sympathy on him. He's very lucky not to have been banned from weapons altogether. But as soon as Crocus was conscious, she sent a message to the Commander, asking her not to judge Droz too harshly, and taking her share of the blame. She said she'd made a cruel comment that had provoked him beyond endurance."
He looked round at them all with a firm compassion.
"What you have to do now is put all of that right out of your minds. A good fighter has to be able to concentrate. Corporal Lavall and Lieutenant Retezat will be here in a moment with the leather to make your armour. We'll get on with that until the officer who'll be taking the class arrives."
"Isn't it you, Sergeant?" asked Kiefer in amazement.
"No, I don't teach weapons, but I'll be staying to help. Ah, here they are."
Will looked across as Corporal Lavall came in, carrying a large basket, followed by a young imp officer Will had seen around. She worked with General Stalden in First Squadron HQ, but he'd not heard her name before. She had a loud, raucous laugh and an earthy sense of humour, and it wasn't long before the imps and fairies were all relaxed and laughing too, as they used the leather to make armour to cover their chests and backs, and bracers for their forearms.

Will had gone back to Ace's side. There were times to give each other space, and times to stick close together. They followed the sergeant's instructions and soon had the armour made, then looked at each other, both feeling a bit self-conscious.
"You look good," smiled Will. "How're you doing?"
"OK… wasn't expecting a stranger, though. I wonder who it'll be?"
"I'll have a look," said Will, and walked round until he could see out of the door. Ace stayed where he was, remembering, concentrating and keeping calm.
At first, there was no-one in sight. But then Will saw someone round the corner of the Great Hall, heading in their direction with a purposeful stride. Will turned his head, with a joyful smile on his face.
Ace! he thought. It's Gran!

Gran looked relaxed and happy as he came in. More than he felt, really, but he put his worries aside. Right now, the important thing was to get this group in the right frame of mind. He gave Ace a particularly warm and encouraging smile as he gathered them all together.
"You look great," he told them all. "Extremely professional. Well done, Sergeant, they're a credit to you."
Sergeant Olt beamed with pleasure, and stood at the back with his arms folded, ready to assist.
"Right, I guarantee you three things," Gran continued. "Number one, no-one's ever been killed in weapons training. Number two, injuries happen. They happen every time. The chances of your getting through the training without injury are non-existent. Get used to the idea. Number three, no-one's pushing you. If you can't handle it, you can walk out of that door at any time, and no-one will think any the worse of you. Later on, we'd have a chat, and decide if it was right for you to carry on, or not. Got that? Right, let's get started. Spread out, all facing me. Give yourselves plenty of room."
When they were ready, Gran called, "Draw!" and they drew their knives as fast and smoothly as they could, all anxious to make a good impression.
"Excellent," said Gran. "You've obviously all been practising. Now, this time, as you draw, change your grip, so the bottom of your hand is at the hilt, instead of the top."
Some of them knew what he meant, but not all.
"Like this," said Gran, and drew his own knife, let it go, and caught it again with his hand the other way up, ready to fight.

Will knew what he meant, and managed the loose and clutch movement cleanly, but he was surprised. He'd had no idea you held a knife that way round to fight. He realised he'd been expecting to hold it like a sword, but obviously that wasn't the case. It felt awkward and wrong, and he was rapidly losing confidence that he was going to be any good at this. He glanced at Ace, checking he was OK. He hadn't dropped his knife, either, but a lot of them had.
"No problem," said Gran. "We'll split you up a bit now. If you dropped your knife, go to Lieutenant Retezat and practise the clutch till you've got it. The rest of you, try this."
Will turned and saw Corporal Lavall had been setting some targets up. They were circles of straw covered in paper, and all over the paper were numbered dots.
"Make a line in front of each target," said Gran, "and when it's your turn, I want you to stab your knife into the number I call out. Don't waste your energy trying to dig in deep. All I'm looking for at this stage is a fast reaction and accurate placing. Don't let the knife move around in your hand. All the movement must come from the wrist."

After a few goes at that, Will was beginning to see the point of holding the knife that way round. You had a lot more flexibility. He was relaxing a bit, too. Some people were struggling with this, finding it easier to let the knife slip than to twist their wrists, but Ace wasn't. He wasn't smiling, but he looked all right. Gran kept it moving very fast, shouting at anyone who didn't concentrate and setting a demanding pace. Then he split them up again, moving some of them on to something new, and allowing others who'd got the hang of the clutch to have a go at the targets. He handed the targets over to Sergeant Olt, and took the first group himself.
"This is about controlling the depth of the stroke," he told them. "When you're fighting, you want to disarm your opponent, and injure him enough to knock him out of the fight. Stabbing the head or body is extremely dangerous, and can kill, obviously. Cutting, though, is a safe way to win without endangering your opponent's life. You need to go deep enough, but not too deep. If you're trying to cut through armour or clothing, that makes a difference too."
He pulled out a heavy screen covered in every kind of material, and told them to try it out.
"Don't rush," he advised. "Take your time, feel exactly how much pressure different things need. Behind these materials is orange felt, and behind that, blue felt. If you don't see any felt, you've not gone deep enough. If you see orange, you've got it right, if you see blue, you've gone too deep."
He saw them get started, then left them to concentrate, while he moved around the shed, overseeing every group, correcting a grip here, praising accuracy there. He stopped to help Amande, who still hadn't got the hang of the clutch, to alter the design of his knife so it was easier to catch.
"Attractive workmanship is fine, Amande, but not if it gets in the way of the job," he pointed out. "I think you'll be all right now."

It struck Will again just how like Gran Ace was. He did that too, moved around without rushing, yet seeming to be everywhere at once, noticing everything, helping everyone. It was a quality Will admired very much, because he couldn't do it himself. He turned and watched Ace gently score a perfect line through some thick woollen cloth.
"Doesn't it bother you," Ace whispered, "the thought of doing that to someone's real skin?"
For a moment, Will thought about lying, if it might make Ace feel better. But he couldn't do it.
"No," he said. "No, skin's just material too, and just as easily mended. You're not hurting the person's soul. Saying something unkind would be worse."
To his surprise, Ace actually smiled, and Will realised that was the first time he'd smiled all morning.
"Thanks," Ace whispered. "I never thought of it like that!"
Delighted that he'd been some help, Will gave him a grin, and they all stopped to listen to Gran again, as he came back and inspected the screen, noting cheerfully that there wasn't too much blue showing.
"Good start," he said. "I'm going to move you on again now, and let some of the others have a go at this. There's no way to learn fighting except by fighting. Come with me."
He led them to the back of the shed, and opened the back door, letting out a loud whistle. Sixteen other elves came in, volunteers from among the younger officers who worked on camp.
"You're actually safer to start with if you're fighting someone with experience," said Gran. "And these lads are always keen to keep in practice."
While the elves took off coats and put armour on, Gran explained what to do.
"They're going to try to disarm you, try to make you drop your knife. That's all. And all you have to do is try not to let them, and try to make them drop theirs. You'll find you need to concentrate hard on keeping your balance, and putting all the strength of arm and shoulder into your wrist."

In a way, Will was glad this was happening. This was what Ace had been geared up to face, and if it hadn't happened, it wouldn't have been a relief, it would just have meant he had to go through all the effort again some other time. There were more than sixteen of them, and Gran didn't put Ace in the first group to go. He put Will, though, so Will had to stop worrying about his twin and think what he was doing. Seeing him get hurt was probably the last thing Ace needed.
Will faced up to an elf whose name he didn't know, though he knew he was Third Regiment and worked in a store shed. When Gran gave the order to start, Will drew his knife just as fast, but as their wrists locked together he knew he was in trouble. His opponent was much stronger, he was forcing Will's hand back too far, he'd be disarmed in seconds if he didn't do something. Balance, Gran had mentioned… maybe he could make him lose his balance. Still keeping up as much pressure as he could with his wrist, Will let his body suddenly sag so the other elf was taking his weight. It helped a bit, because he stumbled back a little, slackening his pressure so Will could reassert his own strength. But it only bought him a little time. Will gave it everything he'd got, but slowly he was losing his grip, and one clever twist defeated him. His knife fell from his grasp and hit the floor, and Will felt ashamed. But only for a moment. As he looked around, he saw that the other pairs had all finished. He'd lasted the longest, that was incredible!
"Well done," said the other elf. "You're going to be good at this."
"Thanks," Will smiled and turned to step out of the way. Then he saw that Ace had frozen. Gran had told the rest of them to go up to fight, and Ace was poised, irresolute, on the brink of panic and flight.
Will! Gran almost yelled into his mind. Do something!
For a split second, Will was nearly frozen himself. What on earth was the right thing? Then he just walked up to Ace, folded his arms, and grinned.
"Beat that," he said.
For another second, Ace just stared at him. Then the colour flooded back into his face, and he grinned back.
"You're on."

Far, far away, in another forest, another tree, that some called the Enlightener, sensed a change in the balance of the realm, and its roots and branches seemed to writhe in disappointment. For if you try to throw someone by using horrors, and are defeated, your victim becomes invincible. Those horrors can never frighten him again.

But back in Fjaerland, in a shabby hut on a forested fjord-side mountain, Ace sauntered across to his opponent, not realising that the battle he'd just won was more significant than the one he was facing. His own courage had got him through the years of nightmares. Will's love and Gran's wisdom had helped him see the problem for what it was, and try to face it. His openness to the Tree had made him see things from a new perspective. But the final victory came from a simple, everyday thing. He never could resist a challenge from Will.

Will stood close to Gran, watching intently, hardly daring to breathe. There was a curious lightness in his mind, as if he was near the Tree, as if some weight was being lifted. He couldn't pin it down, didn't understand it, but just knew deep down that this was an important moment in their lives.
Ace's opponent was Corporal Dwingeloo from the police, who was often on guard duty at one of the gates. He was conscientious about practising, knowing that the guards were the first line of defence, so he wasn't expecting any problem beating a beginner. If he'd known what was about to hit him, he would have tried harder. But from the moment Ace's blade clashed against his, he was on the defensive. He parried and pushed, twisted and turned, but nothing did any good. He was up against a joyful explosion of optimistic speed and new-minted strength, that moved faster than he could think, and thought faster than he could see. All he could feel was the pain in his wrist as he tried to hold on, all he could see was a flurry of golden hair. Then he yelled in pain as a cut sliced into his thumb, and he dropped his knife. The other fights faltered for a moment, as everyone stared in disbelief.
Ace stooped and picked up the corporal's knife for him, and handed it back gravely. Then he turned to Will and Gran. He wasn't crowing, he wasn't even smiling. His face was calm and full of loving gratitude. He gave them the salute, and went to stand at Gran's other side as if he belonged there.
Gran let out a deep, shuddering breath, feeling, as Will had, that a great weight had been lifted. He didn't know why, either, but unlike Will, he had his suspicions. He knew far more about what evil things there were in the world. With relief in his heart, his thoughts turned swiftly to the Tree, in a simple message – thank you.

As for Corporal Dwingeloo, he ended the morning in the hospital with the second years who had cuts to mend. The cut in his thumb was so deep, they had to send for a friend of his to help the surgeon fix it, so everyone would know what had happened. He'd never been so embarrassed in his life.

"Is the tank full, Will?"
"Yep. Has everyone finished, 'cos we'll have to demolish the lean-to to drive it out."
"I think so… Crocus! Have you finished cleaning the windows?"
"Yes… I just wanted it to look perfect."
"They'll only get splashed again, you daft fairy," grinned Ace, trying to tease her into cheerfulness. It didn't work, though; Crocus was still rather subdued, but at least she was back with them for the launch of the snowplough.
"Who's driving?" asked Kiefer hopefully.
Ace would have loved to do that, but he was still fizzing with happiness from his recent triumphs, and couldn't be selfish.
"You can," he said. "You do know how to, Kief, don't you?"
"I know the theory," said Kiefer confidently. "I'll soon get the hang of it. Is everyone coming for the ride?"
"You bet," said Ace. "We all want to see their faces. Fjaerland's never seen anything like this."
Kiefer climbed up into the driver's seat, and everyone piled in behind him, except Ace and Will. They waited until the engine caught, then demolished the little wooden lean-to at the side of Workshop One, so Kiefer could drive off. As the huge wheels began to turn, they jumped up through the open sides of the cab, one on each side of the driver, and the first sprite snowplough moved slowly away.

That Friday afternoon at Fjaerland camp, late in March, the snow still lay thick, but the light was good. In Workshop Four, Clover had just made her first battery. On the training ground, Dale had just fallen off the ropewalk, and in the Signals Unit, General Saal had just picked up a bundle of messages. He leafed through them, looking to see if anything was urgent or important. Routine reports, mostly… but then he noticed a very long message, written in flowery language, and looked at it more closely. From parliament, oh, great. Just what he needed. Envoy Yantra… yes, he remembered him. Nasty little toad who'd come here with Mecsek last summer, obviously hated the army. Why they'd made him their new liaison officer, General Saal couldn't fathom. Still, he began to read.
My dear General Saal, it is a great pleasure to be in touch with you once again, to pass on a humble request from parliament to you, as commanding officer of the police section of the sprite army. It concerns the recent legislation covering the use by sprites of human technology known to be less than fifty years old. It has come to our attention…
General Saal groaned deeply. He knew the problems just as well as parliament did. He was perfectly willing to enforce the law, that was his job. But those sprites in parliament didn't realise how hard it was. Your average police sprite wasn't going to get his head round all these different technologies, not if you trained him till the cows came home. Why, General Saal could scarcely understand it himself. Take telephones, for example. He could have sworn they'd been invented over a hundred years ago, and yet now they were saying there were different ones, tiny little ones you could put in your pocket. Those were illegal, but the old ones weren't? It didn't make sense. A telephone was a telephone, wasn't it? He groaned again, and stuffed the message into his pocket. He'd have to send some sort of reply, out of courtesy, but he hadn't a clue what he was going to say.
General Herdalen came in then, intent on the same errand, and gathered up his own messages.
"What's up, Inula?" he asked.
"Parliament moaning. They want me to train the police better, to recognise illegal technology. And arrest more people, I suppose. They ought to realise my teams like arresting people! It's not that they're unwilling, they just don't understand. And I can't see that extra training would make any difference. It'd just confuse them even more."
Interesting, thought Gran. Cracking down makes the police unpopular - make that even more unpopular - which makes the army more unpopular. Sounds to me as if they've heard how many recruits we got this year. I bet that's what this is really about.
He smiled encouragingly at General Saal, who was only trying to do his job.
"Tell you what, why don't you ask them to supply you with a list of the things they're most concerned about? Explain your practical difficulties, and say you'd like to concentrate on a few things at a time. Get them to say which they consider most urgent?"
That'll keep them quiet for a bit, thought Gran. That lot have lost touch with humans, they probably don't know half the new stuff.
"That's a great idea, Gran!" beamed General Saal. "It shows willing, but it's realistic! I'll do that!"
"If they do send you a list, I'd be very interested to see it."
"Sure, Gran, I'll… what on earth was that!"
A very loud roaring noise had just passed them. The generals stared at each other, astounded.
"That sounded like an engine!" said Gran. "It can't be… up here?"
"Let's take a look," said General Saal, and they ran for the door.

They weren't the only ones. All over the camp, sprites were rushing outside to see what that dreadful noise was. They saw a huge, yellow vehicle being driven in a slightly shaky line across camp, and it was gobbling up the snow in its path and sending it spraying out of a funnel to the side. Behind it lay a broad stripe of cleared ground.
"A snowplough!" said Gran. "Who's made that?"
Simply intrigued now, he walked along the strip, marvelling at how efficiently it had been cleared, with General Saal at his side. Still watching as the snowplough went into a wide turn near the western gatehouse, they joined a group of other officers who had gathered on the steps of Camp HQ.
"Fantastic," said Gran in appreciation.
"Isn't it?" said Major Teplou excitedly. "If you asked the Technical Section in Germany to knock you up a snowplough, they'd have scratched their heads. And this is the second year advanced Technology class. Amaze me, I told them, and they certainly have."
"Ah," smiled Gran. "I imagine Will Moseley's in that group, isn't he?"
"He certainly is. The whole group's good, but he's pulled this together, without a doubt. Amazing skill. The way that lad thinks, it's almost human, sometimes."
Then Gran became a little concerned. Will and the others had taken to heart his instructions about easing off on pro-human talk, but given an opportunity like this, their natural instincts had come to the surface. And General Vandenesse was listening intently. Gran hoped there wouldn't be any bad fallout.
"The skill may be remarkable," said General Vandenesse, "but I'm not sure about it. Disturbing the tranquillity of Fjaerland with engines? It's never been done before."

Kiefer had been doing very well controlling steering wheel, clutch and gears, but when he saw the crowd of officers up ahead watching them, he was tempted to show off. Straight towards Camp HQ he was going to go, curving right in front of them, laying a cleared path at their feet. He put his foot down on the accelerator, intending to impress with a final burst of speed.
At first, no-one in the cab minded. They were all too flushed with success, laughing with exhilaration at the sight of all the astonished faces they'd passed, all the mouths hanging open with amazement.
But snowploughs have a very high centre of gravity. They are not designed to go fast. As the cab started to sway from side to side, Crocus began to feel nervous.
"I think we ought to slow down," she said.
Kiefer said later that the other elves had been making so much noise he hadn't heard her, and it was true that Ace, Will and Ross were doing quite a bit of whooping and cheering as they hung half out of the doors watching the cleared snow soaring away into the air. But he had no excuse for not hearing Sizzle.
"Kiefer!" she yelled into his ear. "It's going to tip! Slow down!"
"It'll be okay!" said Kiefer cheerfully, turning his head to grin at her.
"Look where you're going! Kiefer, I'm your team leader, and this is an order! Slow down!"
Reluctantly, Kiefer braked, just as he was turning onto a path. The snow wasn't so deep here, it was swept frequently, and the ground underneath was a little slippy from constantly being walked on. The back wheels locked, and went into a skid, and the speed was still too high.
"Whoaa!" yelled Ace. He and Ross were thrown clear, and the loss of their weight unbalanced the snowplough. It teetered on the brink for a moment, then crashed onto its side, sending a thick spray of snow over the steps. Most of the officers standing there had the presence of mind to duck out of the way, and General Saal and General Herdalen were already moving to make sure no-one was injured. But General Vandenesse had been coming down to halt them and speak to them, and he caught the worst of it. The blast of snow spray knocked him over, and then covered him completely.

Trying not to laugh, the Commander pulled him to his feet, and helped him brush off some of the snow. The second years climbed out of the cab, slightly shaken but not injured. Will had come off worst, because he'd been in the doorway that had hit the ground, so he'd been at the bottom of the heap of bodies, but even he was only bruised and winded.
"Preposterous behaviour!" spluttered General Vandenesse, through a mouthful of snow. "If that was meant to be a joke, it wasn't very funny! Who was driving that contraption?"
"I was, sir," said Kiefer bravely. "I'm very sorry you got soaked, that wasn't intentional."
"Tuh! That is of no consequence," said the general, with icy dignity. He was well aware that he must have looked very silly, and that a lot of senior officers were watching him, as well as crowds of other recruits who'd all come running over to watch the snowplough. He was Chief of Staff, whatever happened on camp was his responsibility. This was his chance to make a good impression. His first thought was a wise one, not to make too much of it, but to get everyone back to work with as little fuss as possible.
"Perhaps some of you could help them get this thing upright again?" he suggested to the other recruits around, with an air of relenting tolerance, and at once there were many willing hands pushing and pulling until the snowplough was standing back on four wheels.
"Now for goodness' sake, just…."
General Vandenesse stopped dead for a moment, as he saw Ace, who'd been out of sight up till now, checking Will was OK. He hadn't realised he was involved. His wise thoughts fled from his mind, chased out by uglier emotions.
"… just get that thing out of here! I never want to see it again. And each take two hours' hard labour for disturbing the peace. Perhaps sweeping snow with brooms will remind you that there are ways that sprites do things, and ways that humans do things. The two should not be mixed."

A crestfallen elf is a sorry sight, especially the bouncy, in-your-face ones like Ace and Kiefer. The light goes out of their eyes, their shoulders droop, and their hands hang limply at their sides. Even Will, who could usually take a blow without showing it, looked dejected, and Ratzo, Sizzle and the fairies weren't much better.
Major Teplou was bristling with indignation on their behalf. He couldn't let the second years see how annoyed he was by the general's reaction, but he could certainly try to cheer them up.
He went straight to them, as everyone else started to drift away, remembering what they were supposed to be doing, or being chivvied back into class.
"That is the most magnificent piece of machinery that recruits here have ever made," he said, and their heads came up a bit. By the time he'd told them that he was going to ask Sergeant Olt to give them a hundred points each, and reminded them that humans who made new things didn't always have an easy time of it either, they were smiling again.
"We'll build a garage for it," he said. "Out of the way at the back of the workshops. You never know, he may relent and let you use it. And at the very least, I can show it to every new class that comes here, to inspire them, and show them what can be achieved. Come on, pile back in. I ought to test drive it, and see how good a job you've done."

It filled the young sprites with quiet pride to see that Major Teplou was obviously dying to have a go of it. He said it steered beautifully, and it was clear it wasn't any engineering fault that had caused the crash, it must have been the driving. But he was grinning at Kiefer when he said it, he was only teasing. He asked them a lot of questions about how they'd done it, and there were only one or two that only Will could answer. Major Teplou was extremely pleased with their team work, and said so. Then he drove out onto the wide field where the team huts were, and watched each of them have a go at driving it. That was great fun, and by the time they'd finished, the whole field was cleared of snow. It was getting dark by then, so they turned on the headlights and drove back to the workshops, where they quickly worked together to erect a wooden garage.
Major Teplou backed the snowplough in for them, and turned off the engine.
"Don't be down-hearted," he told them. "You did a great job. Its time will come."
With a last look, they closed the door.

As darkness fell, Gran Herdalen looked up from a message he'd been staring at for so long, he hadn't even noticed how gloomy it had got in his office. He got up and lit a lamp, then sat down again. This was strange, this was very strange. Something didn't add up. He was going to have to talk to Madge. He wriggled his shoulders to help himself relax, then thought hard, thought deep. Thought of Madge, thought of the Tree, then sent his thoughts across the North Sea and down into England.
Major Arley, General Herdalen.
Oh, hello Gran. Nice of you to get in touch,
thought Madge drearily. You got my message, then.
Are you all right? How's Heather?
Not fit to fly yet, either of us. A bit too battered to fix each other up quickly - have to do it a bit at a time. But we're coming back to camp as soon as we're fit. We've been pulled off this job, and General Stalden wants to see us for debriefing.
Where was Ace Foxfield! He was supposed to be guarding you and Heather!
Don't blame him, Gran, it wasn't his fault. He and his unit were cut to pieces. They had to get a surgeon for one of them, he barely survived.
What are you saying?
They didn't have time to transform. But still they tackled two elves from Special Brigade who were both human-sized. They saved me and Heather, we'd have been dead in a few more seconds. They piled into the attack with no thought for their own safety, they were incredibly brave.
I see,
thought Gran, mentally apologising to Lieutenant Foxfield. But let me get this straight - you'd identified the culprits, you were collecting evidence against them - I thought the plan was that when you'd got solid proof they were harming humans, the unit from England 1 were going to transform and make the arrest?
Yes, that was the plan. But they tricked us. They knew. We heard them talking about how they were going to get the site manager on his own in the sales office, and break a bone so he'd be crippled with backache. We thought we'd cracked it then, but we flew straight into a trap. They netted us, and brought their fists down. But Ace and his team were right behind us. We didn't know they'd been shadowing us that closely. I suppose that was your doing?
Well, yes… but it's just as well, the way things turned out. But how did they know, Madge, how did they know?
I don't know. I just can't see how. Only General Stalden knew who was assigned where. Special Brigade might have guessed it was Intelligence Squadron on the job, might have guessed that would mean older fairies… but they knew our names, Gran. They taunted us. 'Major Arley and Major Rhaeadr, what a surprise!' They knew exactly who we were, and exactly what we were doing. There was no guesswork.
So someone's been careless.
Looks like it.
You and Heather were reporting directly to General Stalden, right?
Yes, because the colonel's on stakeout herself. And all the messages were in code, so there's no problem there.
So did you tell anyone - anyone at all - where you were?
Yes. Poppy. But she'd never… she's as sound as we are!
I know, Madge, I'm not accusing her… but you tell someone you trust, and they tell someone they trust, and so it goes on. Things get overheard, maybe. I've got to get to the bottom of this. But don't worry about it. All you have to do is get better. Where are Ace and his team?
Their colonel sent for them. To tear a strip off them, I imagine. He wasn't very impressed by the casualty list, and he wasn't in the mood to listen to any excuses.
Colonel Pentreath… that jumped-up snob, Ace Foxfield's worth ten of him. I'm going over his head on this one. That unit's coming home for a rest.
Good for you, Gran. Oh, dear, you're fading, I'm so tired…
Go to sleep, Madge. Get well soon, both of you.

Gran got up, kicked his desk in frustration, and scrawled out a message to Colonel Pentreath. Then he walked over to Signals, dropped it into his out tray, and went to look for Poppy Rhaeadr. As he'd expected, she'd just gone on duty, so he asked Pice Inari to try to catch her between messages, and ask her to slip over to the officers' mess, as he needed to speak to her urgently.
When she came in, shrouded in an enormous scarlet cloak, she hurried to his side.
"What is it, Gran? Has something happened to Madge and Heather?"
"Yes, Poppy, I'm afraid it has."
He explained how the plan had gone wrong, and tried to reassure her that her friends would soon be home.
"But I need you to think now, Poppy. Did you tell anyone where they were?"
"I've been trying to remember… I think I did, actually, but I can't remember who it was. It wasn't in a message. It was someone I was talking to... yes, in my quarters, that was it! One of the recruits, a friend of Madge's. Clover Something."
"Clover Moseley. You're sure no-one else knew?"
"I'm absolutely sure, sir," said Poppy formally.
"Then that's all, thanks, Poppy. You get back to work, I'll handle this."

Gran was groaning inwardly as he finished his beer. Chances were high that Clover would have told the rest of her team, and very high that they would have been overheard. He could see his trail disappearing in the confusion of the recruits' mess. Still, he'd better head over there and ask some questions. He couldn't see Clover at first, because she was lying down on a couch, but he spotted Rose perched on the back of a chair, and headed that way. The young sprites were starting to get to their feet when they saw who had come to talk to them, but Gran waved them down.
"It's OK, don't get up," he smiled. "I'm sorry to disturb you off duty, but I just wanted a quick word with Clover. Shall we pop outside, where it's quieter?"

Clover was surprised it was her the general wanted, but she went with him, wondering what this was about. As soon as they were alone, Gran said,
"Some bad news, I'm afraid. Madge has been hurt - she's going to be OK, and she'll be coming here soon, so you can see her - but the reason she's been hurt is because Special Brigade knew where she was. I know Poppy told you where Madge was. What I need to know is, did you tell anyone else?"
"Yes, sir," said Clover, with a scared expression. "Rose, and Ace and Will."
"That's all?"
That wasn't too bad…
"And could you have been overheard?"
He wasn't expecting Clover's firm denial.
"No way, sir, no way at all. We know enough to be careful, talking about things like that! We were up in one of the swings, all four of us. There was just no way we could have been overheard, and we've not talked about it again since."
"I see," said Gran, frowning. "Thanks, Clover. Ask Rose to come out, would you?"
Rose was nervous, he could see, but just as sure as Clover that she hadn't told anyone else.
"OK, Rose, don't worry about it. Just send… wait a minute." He'd just realised who hadn't been there. "Where's Ace?"
"I don't know, sir."
Gran looked at his watch. The evening was slipping away, and he still had other messages to send.
"All right, look, I have to go back to Signals. Tell Will to find Ace and meet me in my house in half an hour, would you?"
"Yes, sir," said Rose, and ran back inside.

All the way back to Signals, Gran's mind was racing. This was getting very worrying. It didn't sound accidental. He found himself wondering about the security of messages lying around in trays. Generals wouldn't normally read each other's messages - they had enough of their own to worry about - but how sure could he be of Viorne Vandenesse? Or even Inula Saal? He didn't want to think like that, but he had to. It was beginning to look as if someone had deliberately passed information to Special Brigade.
Pice Inari came in as he was frantically scribbling out some answers, and waited till he'd finished. Then he said,
"What's going on, Gran?"
"Trouble. You on duty? Well, put someone else in charge, will you, and come over to my house with me. We've got a security leak."

In the Southern Forest, Ace jumped from branch to branch, laughing as Blanche swooped between the trees, just in front of him every time, just missing, lighting the darkness like a shooting star. Ace speeded up, but she matched him, her own laughter shivering between the trees like little silver bells. Then, inevitably, they crashed. But that was part of the fun, part of the game. She caught him in her arms, and sank gently down. She set them both down on a fallen tree trunk, but she didn't let go.
"Nice flying, Blanche," said Ace. "And a sweet landing."
"The burden was sweet," said Blanche. "A precious golden elf, strong and beautiful."
"Not as beautiful as you."
"Yes, you are. We are matched in beauty, we are the sun and the moon."
"Day and night, heat and cold."
"Good and evil?"
"I'm not that bad, am I?"
"No, Ace, you are not bad at all. Oh, I'm so glad I came here. I can't bear to remember how dull life was before I met you. You fill my heart with joy."
Ace opened his mouth to answer, and realised Will was trying to message him.
Ace? thought Will patiently, as if he knew this was going to take some time.
Ace resolutely ignored him.
"Blanche, you…"
Go away, Will.

He tried again.
"You fill my eyes… will you stop it!… you fill my eyes with beauty…"
thought Ace. That's what comes of trying to think and talk at the same time.
I wasn't talking to you!
I should hope not! Will you listen!
What d'you want?
It's not me, you addle-pated halfwit, as you'd know if you stopped to think, that is, assuming you still can think. Gran wants us. Something's up. Meet me at his house in ten minutes.
On my way.

"Sorry," said Ace to Blanche. "Got a message, I'll have to go."
"At this time of night? Anything exciting?"
"Could be. General Herdalen wants us, you never know with him."
Blanche stood up on the log, stretched up onto her toes, and spread her shimmering silver wings.
"Fly with me. Let me carry you. Please? Just to the forest's edge?"
Ace was stunned. That was something you just didn't do. He wasn't sure why not. He just knew it was something he'd learned so long ago that he couldn't remember learning it.
"Can you?" he breathed. "How?"
"It's easy. You stand by my side, very close… yes, like that. Then I slip my arm around your waist, and we take off - together."
He knew it was dangerous. It was even more dangerous than he realised, but if he'd known that, it wouldn't have stopped him. Sycamores are famous for a lot of things, but being cautious in the face of danger is not one of them.
Her light was all around him, her smile was luring him like a cool stream on a hot day, his heart was banging in his chest.
"Yes," he said.
Her white arm grasped his waist, his feet left the ground, and they were in the air, as high as the canopy. Her wings were stroking his hair with every downbeat. Ace was dizzy with joy, but whether that was from flying, or from being so close to Blanche, he couldn't tell.
When the trees grew thin, she flew lower. Then she set him gently down, folded her arms around his neck, and kissed him.
"Goodnight, Ace," she whispered, and flew back up into the sky.
Ace watched her for a moment, dazzled, then turned and jumped off in the direction of Gran's back door.

Will was waiting for him. Ace landed unerringly at his side, but Will could see he'd done that on sheer instinct, he hadn't been looking where he was going. His eyes were glazed and unfocused, his mouth was open - and his hair was a mess. 'Goofy' didn't begin to describe his expression.
"Have you been flying?" said Will. "I don't believe this. For pity's sake, Ace, comb your hair!"
"Oh, come here…."
Will whipped out his own comb and tidied Ace's hair as best he could.
"There, you'll do."
He banged on the door and they quickly slipped inside when Gran called them. Major Inari was pacing about, talking, but he broke off as they entered.
"Thanks for coming," said Gran. "We've got a problem, we may have a security leak. Don't be offended, but I have to ask - did either of you tell anyone else the news Clover told you, about where Madge and Heather were?"
"No, sir," said Will.
"Er, no, I don't think so."
Gran looked at him sharply.
"What do you mean, you don't think so? Aren't you sure?"
"Yes, sir," said Ace desperately. "I mean, yes, I'm sure I don't remember telling anybody."
Will you get a grip!
I'm trying!

"Ace, are you feeling all right?" asked Major Inari with concern. "Did you bang your head when you fell off your snowplough?"
"No sir, I'm fine, honestly."
Gran looked at them both suspiciously. Ace did look like someone who'd had a blow to the head… but Will looked as if he knew very well what Ace had been up to, and wasn't happy about it.
"What's the date?" he said.
Ace stared, trying to think, but Will shot him the answer.
"It's the 22nd, sir," said Ace brightly.
"Of what?"
"Huh? Er… February… no, March."
"Will, wait outside," said Gran sternly, and Will went, after giving Ace a worried smile. He hadn't heard Gran sound like that for a long, long time.
"All right," said Gran quietly. "On your own this time. What day is it?"
Ace thought very carefully before answering. It took him a while, but his wits were returning, slowly.
"Friday, sir."
"Took you long enough. I'll speak to you when you're making more sense. Off you go. Send Will back in, please."
Ace went, glad to escape, and leaned against the wall of Gran's house, breathing hard.
"Sorry," he said, ruefully. "Your turn."

When Will went back in, Gran was sitting down with his arms folded, and Major Inari was sitting opposite him. Neither of them was smiling.
"Don't you ever pull a stunt like that on me again, d'you hear me? You might be able to fool some people with your speed, but do you seriously think I can't tell?"
"No, sir. Sorry."
"All right," said Gran. "Why's he acting as if he's had his brain removed? What's going on? Has he hurt his head?"
"No, no, it's nothing like that. He'll be all right soon. He just… sometimes he goes a bit vague, you know? With his mind on other things."
"But he's never been like this before! Even when he's worried, he's sharp, focused…"
"No," interrupted Major Inari. "I talked to Ace every day last summer, while he was… off camp. There were times he sounded a bit vague."
He smiled at Will, a wise, old smile.
"I think that was a pretty girl who was looking after him, wasn't it?"
"I believe she was, sir," said Will, trying his best to look non-committal.

Gran's first feeling was relief. If that was all it was… he'd been starting to think something was seriously wrong. The feeling didn't last long.
"So," he smiled, "who's he besotted with this time? What's her name?"
Will gave up. After all, Ace hadn't done anything wrong. It was too late now to stop him making an idiot of himself, he'd already done that.
"It's that frost fairy in the first year, sir. Blanche Hakarp."
Gran froze. The smile died on his lips, and his face paled.
"Hakarp? You can't be serious?"
Will just stared. So did Major Inari.
"But why wasn't I told? We get a recruit from Hakarp, and no-one thought to mention it!"
He got to his feet, turning this way and that in confusion, then he seemed to come to a decision.
"Pice, get on to Bjørk for me, will you? He's in Sweden. Get him to find out every last bit of gossip he can about this - and fast."
"On my way," said Major Inari.
He rushed out, and Gran looked at Will, seeing his own fear and concern reflected on Will's face.
"I have to check this out, Will."
"I know."
"Sober him up, and come back later."
"It'll be after midnight, sir. We've got to go sweeping snow."
"So you have. That doesn't matter, though. I'll be up late."
Will nodded, and tried to smile. Gran put a hand on his shoulder.
"Hey, Will. It was a beautiful snowplough."
"Thanks, Gran. See you later, then."

First Gran tracked down Modřín Kopec, and asked to see the forms the first years had filled out when they arrived. Sergeant Kopec was puzzled, but willingly took Gran to his office, where he lit a lamp and pulled out the sheaf of forms.
"Here you are, Gran. What's biting you?"
Modřín Kopec, like Pice Inari, was totally committed to the cause, so Gran didn't mince his words.
"I think we may have picked up a spy. Yes, here she is. Blanche Hakarp. So it's true, she really is from there."
"Never heard of it. What's wrong with Hakarp?"
"It's two kilometres from Huskvarna. It's practically the same colony."
"What! Gran, I had no idea! I'd have told you at once if I'd…"
"It's not your fault," Gran hastened to reassure him. "No-one expects you to know every detail about every colony. It wasn't your responsibility. What's she like, this fairy?"
"Beautiful, of course - you know she's a frost fairy? - but not silly or vain. Works hard, concentrates well. Slightly aloof, perhaps, from the other fairies. Spends a lot of time with one of those twins in the second year."
Then the significance of that hit him.
"Oh. He's one of the ones who made the new Allies, isn't he? This doesn't look good, Gran."
"You can say that again."

He screwed his face up, thinking. Every instinct he had was warning him of danger, but he had no proof, so he tried to be fair.
"I'm trying not to pre-judge her. She may be all she claims to be. But… keep an eye on her, Modřín. Keep an eye on her."
"I will," said Sergeant Kopec firmly. "It's true that sometimes a good plant grows in bad ground. But there's been nothing but poison out of Huskvarna in living memory. You going to tell Gia?"
"Yes. But first I want a little chat with Viorne Vandenesse. He did see those forms, didn't he?"
"Oh, yes. I showed them to him practically as soon as he arrived. He didn't remark on this - what was it? - Hakarp. But then, he didn't even remark on Immindingen."
Gran shook his head in disbelief.
"They seem good lads, that crowd from Immindingen," he said. "There's a lot of worrying things going on, and I don't want them coming to any harm. Put them under the same protection as Phil Royden, will you? Discreetly, of course - don't want them to think we're fussing. But none of them goes off camp without extra patrols out."
"If any harm comes to any of them, it'll be over my dead body," said the sergeant. "But I think it's about time Luke Olt took his blinkers off, don't you? We don't want anything happening to the second years because he didn't spot the danger."
"That's a good point. Do it, Modřín. Get Saul Lavall to help you. That one's got his eyes open, and his heart in the right place."

General Vandenesse was surprised and pleased when he heard a knock on his door at only ten o'clock. She was early tonight, he'd be able to get a good night's sleep! He smiled, and called,
"Come in!"
The smile faded when General Herdalen marched in with a face like thunder.
"Got a question for you, Viorne. Let's take it in easy stages, shall we? I wouldn't want to confuse you. D'you remember when you came here, Sergeant Kopec showed you the forms the new recruits had filled in? So you could read them and take note of anything the army should be particularly aware of?"
"Yes," said General Vandenesse warily, wondering what this was about.
"So far, so good. And what did you take note of?"
"Well, that there were so many of them! I'm not silly, whatever you may think. I know numbers haven't been too good recently."
"Everybody knows that. Anything else?"
Nothing came to mind. He tried to bluster.
"Look here, Gran, I don't think I like your attitude. You shouldn't talk to me like that any more. I'm a general too now, you know!"
"You hold the rank of general, but you'll never be one. I've got lieutenants who are better generals than you'll ever be. I've even got recruits who are better generals than you'll ever be! Did you not notice that one of the recruits was from Hakarp? Did that name mean nothing to you? Did you think I wouldn't be interested?"
"You've never heard of it, have you? You should have done! That's your job! You're supposed to know these things!"
"Well, but I haven't been doing the job long! You can't expect me to know everything at once!"
"You're Chief of Staff. You're supposed to bring a solid foundation of knowledge, wisdom and experience. Bring it, not learn it on the job!"
Gran banged around the room in frustration, then came and leaned his hands on the arms of the chair that General Vandenesse was sitting in.
"Have you ever heard of Huskvarna?" he said quietly.
"Er… it's in Sweden, isn't it?"
"Yes. It's in Sweden. An ancient colony, and Hakarp is its neighbour. A place where sprites are brought up to admire, copy, emulate their most successful elf. An interesting career, he's had. He started off in the army, you know. Was appointed to the police, he was a prison guard in Norway when I first met him. Then decided that wasn't enough, deserted, and joined Special Brigade. Shot through the ranks like a bramble in August, and is now their commander. General Lars Huskvarna. He smiles when he's happy, he smiles when he's not. He smiles when he's watching people die. Quite possibly the most evil sprite who's ever lived."
General Vandenesse swallowed, hard.
"I'm sorry, Gran. I had no idea."
"I know," sighed Gran. "If I thought you were colluding with the enemy, I'd be tempted to knife you. But I know it's only incompetence."
"I do my best," said General Vandenesse sulkily.
"Try a bit harder," said Gran. "For all our sakes."

General Vandenesse watched him turn and walk out of the house, then wondered if he should have mentioned that this Blanche Hakarp came to his house to use her mobile phone. He thought, on the whole, probably not.
It doesn't do any harm, he thought. She's only chatting to her old friend, the envoy. No point getting Gran even more worked up. He's obviously got a lot on his mind.

Hard labour wasn't so very hard that night. It hadn't snowed again since the afternoon, so most of the paths were still clear. It wasn't even that cold, and the fresh air, combined with the gentle, monotonous rhythm of sweeping soon helped Ace's wits to settle. It was then he realised that Will had gone quiet on him.
"Are you mad at me?" he ventured.
Was he? Will thought about that. Worried sick, hurt, frightened… he was all of those. Mad, no.
"No," he said, and carried on sweeping.
"What's bugging you, then?"
"You and Blanche."
"Oh," said Ace.
He kept quiet himself then, knowing that if he gave Will time to think, he might say some more. And he did.
"I didn't trust her, from the moment I saw her. Thought she was out to harm you. But I had no evidence, so I came to think maybe she just liked looking at you, the way you liked looking at her. So I let it go."
Might be the biggest mistake I ever made, he thought, remembering the fear on Gran's face. Oh, what have I done?
"She's not harmed me, Will," said Ace gently. "Why would she want to do that? OK, maybe I lost the plot a bit tonight, but that's because I was daft enough to let her fly me. Didn't know it would be like that. But that was my fault, not hers. I could have said no."
Then Will stopped sweeping and turned to face him.
"She should never have suggested such a thing! She should have known how dangerous it was, if you didn't!"
"Hey, cool it, our own fairies have flown us down out of danger before now, it's not that much of a big deal."
"Down, yes, you blithering idiot. Not up! Have you no idea of the force required for them to take off? I know she's a bit bigger than you, but you're still heavier! What if she'd dropped you? You could have been killed!"
"You are mad at me. You said you weren't."
"I'm not mad. I feel too sick to be mad. I feel… let down."
Ace stood very still.
"You think I let you down?"
"Well, how would you feel if I'd done a stupid thing like that? If I was lying there, dead and broken, because I'd let a fairy fly me? Think about that!"
"I don't know," Ace faltered. "You'd never be… "
Then he got it.
"I suppose… I'd think you didn't love me very much, to do a thing like that."

Ace felt as if they were teetering on the brink of a chasm. One wrong move and they'd plunge over. The line between love and hate was so thin, so thin…
"Yes," said Will. " 'It must be great being a twin' - that's what they all think. Sure, it's beautiful. And dangerous, and scary and inescapable. My happiness depends on you, and yours depends on me. You can't get away from it, even if you want to. I thought you knew that."
"I know that. I don't want to get away from it. I think maybe I forgot it tonight. I'm sorry, Will."
Will looked at him with great sympathy.
"I'm sorry I spoke so harshly. But I had to try to get through to you. Seems to me I've caused too much trouble in my time from being afraid to speak out. But remember this, Ace - anyone who tries to come between us is either very stupid or out to do us some harm. And Blanche isn't stupid."

Across the quiet camp, they heard Crocus whistle to them. She waved, and tapped her wrist. Will looked at his watch.
"Gone midnight, we're through."
He didn't know how to say this, he didn't know how to say this at all.
"Let's take the brooms back. Then… then we have to report to Gran."
"Again? Why? What's going on?"
So he can interrogate you and find out if you've betrayed us? thought Will. Is that what I'm supposed to say to you?
"When he'd sent you out," said Will carefully, "he asked me who you were besotted with this time. I told him her name. And he was horrified, Ace. I don't know why, but her place-name shocked him senseless for a moment."
They stacked their brooms in the shed, called goodnight to Lieutenant Smerek, and headed off towards Gran's house.
Ace was listening warily. It seemed to him he'd missed a lot tonight, and that wasn't good.
"So now," Will continued, keeping his voice even so Ace wouldn't think he was accusing him, "we have a situation where Special Brigade have got hold of some top-secret information. Information that you knew. And you were so out of it you told him you couldn't remember if you'd mentioned it to anyone or not. And now he knows you're besotted with someone he obviously doesn't trust."
Ace stopped dead, his thoughts in turmoil. How had everything gone so wrong?
"He thinks I told her… and she told Special Brigade?"
Then he looked Will in the eye, and said, "Do you think I did?"
"I don't know," said Will. "You're capable of anything, Ace, that's the scary thing. If you tell me straight that you didn't, then I'd believe you without question. I know you wouldn't lie to me. Can you tell me that?"
"No. I don't think I did, but I can't be sure. If she made me forget I was a twin, she could make me forget anything."
"Yeah, well, that was my fault too. I shouldn't have let her. But I'm with you, whether you've done something stupid or not. Whatever comes of it. Share the blame, just like we always have."
"Will! That was for silly, childish stuff, not horrible grown-up… crimes, like passing information to the enemy."
"Rubbish. That was for life," grinned Will. "Well, here we are. Do you want to knock, or shall I?"
Ace grinned back. That was what they'd always said when they were standing outside Cory's door.
"Together," said Ace. "We're in trouble again, aren't we?"
"Yes," said Will. "We are."

Gran opened the door with his eyes closed, then walked away from them and sat down again in his chair, very still and obviously concentrating. Ace and Will were puzzled for a moment, but then realised he was talking to someone, and they were supposed to go in and wait. They sat down side by side on the rug, and waited quietly. After a couple of minutes, Gran opened his eyes and smiled tiredly.
"That was Bjørk," he said. "You remember, Colonel Kinnekulle? He's been asking some questions for me."
Then he looked at them both carefully.
"I see you're back with us, Ace. I don't know what you've been up to, and I don't want to. But the last time I saw someone that bemused, the idiot had been flying."
"Second time I've been called an idiot tonight," said Ace. "From you and Will, I don't mind. I'm not saying you're wrong."
"OK. But have you dealt with it? Both of you?"
"Yes, sir," they answered together.
"Good. The last thing we need right now is for you two to be fighting. You're going to need each other. Now I'll ask you again, Ace - did you tell anyone where Madge was?"
"I still can't remember for sure, sir," said Ace. "I know I didn't tell anyone when I had my wits about me. But when it comes to Blanche… I can't swear to it. Can't remember half the rubbish I said, it's all a blur."
"I was afraid you were going to say that. You're very honest. But you've put yourself in a very bad position. That information got out somehow, and when I start investigating it, I find we've got someone from Hakarp in our midst."
"You're suspecting her just because of where she comes from?" said Ace. "That doesn't sound fair. It's not like you, Gran. What's so bad about this place, anyway?"
"You remember when we went to Mecsek's trial? I pointed out to you the head of Special Brigade, General Huskvarna. Hakarp is very near to Huskvarna. Blanche probably knows him."
"Oh," said Ace. "Yeah, I remember him. Thought he'd look nastier than that, somehow."
"It's time you stopped judging by appearances," said Gran sharply. "Yes, I'm suspecting Blanche because she comes from a place whose reputation stinks. That's stronger grounds than defending her just because she's got a pretty face!"
"I can't believe she's evil, Gran, I really can't," said Ace helplessly. "You've got no proof."
"No," Gran agreed. "Grounds for suspicion, yes, but not proof. I'm trying to be fair, Ace, though you may not think so. But Colonel Kinnekulle tells me that wherever she travelled from to reach Fjaerland, it wasn't from home. And that's not proof, either. But it's evidence."
"Are you going to ask her? Give her the chance to defend herself?"
"I would, if I thought it would do any good. You see, if she's all you think she is, she'll tell me she rejects the values of her home, and totally supports the army, and explain how she got here. The trouble is, if she's not, she'll say exactly the same thing."
"Which won't get us anywhere. I see."
"What do you think of her, Will?" asked Gran curiously.
"From the moment I saw her, I was suspicious," said Will. "I didn't say anything. Probably a big mistake. But I didn't know why I felt like that, and you can't just go by feelings."
"Sometimes it's OK," smiled Gran. "Don't ignore gut feelings, they're often trustworthy."
"Yeah, could be. Because the strange thing is, although I didn't know why then, I do now."
He glanced apologetically at Ace, then continued.
"I don't like the way she zeroed in on you right from the start. You think it's just because you're irresistably gorgeous, and to be fair, you're not the only one who thinks that. But I'm not so sure. I know you better than anyone does. And if someone had asked me to design something that was guaranteed to tempt you and dazzle you, blind you to everything you're meant to be and do, she's exactly what I would have come up with. I'm sorry, Ace. I know you like her. But it's just too damn perfect."

"Thanks, Will," said Gran thoughtfully. "That's very valuable." Then he stretched until the bones in his back creaked. "We'd better get some sleep. I need to think about all this. And I'll have to tell the Commander in the morning. And she's not one to let sentiment get in the way of ruthless efficiency. She's going to be looking on you two, and on Blanche, as security risks."
Ace looked furious at that.
"What! That's not fair! Just because I was totally honest and said I couldn't remember?"
"Hey, cool it," said Will. "We take the consequences, it's not a problem."
"Huh. So what do we have to do to prove we're not traitors?"
"You can't prove a negative," said Will sadly. "Someone leaked that information. Assuming it wasn't you, the only way we can clear our names is by proving who did."
"Exactly," said Gran. "Sleep on it. We'll find the answer."
He walked across to the door with them, and suddenly grasped Ace by the shoulders and made him look up.
"I trust you," he said. "Remember that. So trust me. And trust Will. She's dangerous, Ace. Keep away from her."
For a moment Ace wavered, almost in pain at the thought of turning down any chance to be close to Blanche. But he listened.
"OK, Gran," he said.
Gran stood in his doorway for a few moments, watching them walk away with their arms round each other, and smiled.