The river Rhine rises in the Swiss Alps and flows west and then north across Europe until it reaches the North Sea. For hundreds of miles, its banks are lined by scenes of great beauty, but then it reaches the river Ruhr in Germany. There it is surrounded by an almost endless string of cities, where there is never silence or darkness by day or night. One of these cities is Duisburg, and there lived Hanna Schell. She had lived there all her life, and that was a very long time indeed. Much longer, in fact, than she ever told people, but people didn’t need to know how old she was, did they? She was a great believer in keeping in touch with modern ideas, and that, she was sure, kept you young in your mind. Who would ever believe that a lady who had a smartphone and a computer could be over eighty? Sixty or seventy at the very most, they would think.
Hanna would have been the first to admit that Duisburg was not Germany at its most beautiful. When she was a little girl, the skies had been black with the smoke from the foundries, and furnaces had blazed red. She had run from the Allied incendiary bombs during the war, and she had watched the rebuilding afterwards. She had watched the poverty creep in as the heavy industry moved away, and she had watched as regeneration had slowly got a grip. Now, the waters were cleaner, there were Turkish goods in the shops alongside German, and the city had the biggest inland port in the world. Life was better now, and Hanna was not about to abandon the old place.
Besides, if the press of people or dirt or noise got too much, she had a refuge. Inside her modest little house was a world of light and enchantment, because it was full of fairies. Not real fairies – Hanna firmly believed they existed, though she had never seen one – but figurines, dolls, painted plates, books, glass, china and pictures. There were tiny fairies all along the windowsills and elegant, grown-up fairies on the mantelpiece. There were fairy dolls on every chair, and a fairy calendar on the wall. The bookcases were crammed with books about fairies and even the clock had a fairy on it. On top of her computer sat a fairy rag doll whose long legs dangled partly in front of the screen. They got in the way a bit sometimes, but Hanna didn’t mind. When she’d been at work, in a shipping office, that same doll had sat on her computer since the first day the office even had a computer, and she’d miss her now if she wasn’t there.
She was at the computer now, looking at posts and replying to some. She was a member of just about every fairy forum there was, German, French and English, and even a Japanese one. She didn’t understand a word of that one, but they had very good pictures. She was getting a little tired now; it was late, and maybe it was time she was under her fairy duvet. She idly clicked on a link to a Youtube video, and very shortly all thoughts of sleep were forgotten.
The video was short, but beautifully made. It was well-lit, the camera didn’t jump around, the sound was crystal clear. Hanna saw a beautiful young girl – very young, only about sixteen – standing beside the back door of a house. It was twilight, and the brightest thing in the picture was a necklace the girl was wearing. Diamonds, possibly – what else could shine like that?

“Do you believe in fairies?” said the girl. “I didn’t. But I do now. I believe in them because I’ve seen them. And not just fairies, either. Elves, imps and goblins too. They call themselves sprites. It doesn’t matter what you call them, the names are different from place to place. What matters is that they’re real. They’re part of this world, just as much as we are.”
The camera pulled back to reveal a lovely garden, small but full of flowers. The girl half-turned towards the plants.
“Are they plants, or are they animals? They’re not sure themselves! True, they look like humans – tiny ones – apart from the markings on their skin. But they are born from plants and they survive as plants do. From the most beautiful plants come the fairies, from the most robust and brightest come the imps. The goblins come from the strongest and toughest, and from the noblest of all, that we call trees, come the elves.”

Hanna’s mouth dropped open. She needed to watch this again and again, check every word in her dictionary, absorb all the meaning. All she’d thought about, all she’d discussed all these years, suddenly crystallised into certainty by this young voice of authority. And what, just what, was she wearing round her neck? Those weren’t diamonds. They were too beautiful for that. Avidly, Hanna listened to every word.

“My name is Rowan Grey,” said the girl, “and I live in England. I’m a sprite Ally. That means they trust me. You can be one too, if you want to. They desperately need more. All you have to do is make friends with one. It doesn’t matter where you live – there are sprites in every country. Here in Europe, the sprites are at war – with each other. Some of them want to cut themselves off from humans completely. Some even want to destroy humans. And some want the old ways back, when sprites and humans lived closer together, made friends, worked together. In the old days, humans who wanted to make friends with sprites left some milk on the doorstep. In return, the sprites would do things for the humans in that house. You’ve heard of the elves and the shoemaker, I’m sure!
There’s nothing magic about what they do. They just use science differently, that’s all. Well, they still like milk! But what they need, right now in this war, what they need more than anything, is your old mobile phones. Don’t worry if they’re broken – they can make them work. But if you have an old mobile, please leave it on your doorstep. Sooner or later they’ll find it, and you’ll know it was them when something special happens for you. I mean – look what they did for me.”
She slipped off her necklace and held it out. The camera came in closer, and then Hanna could see that it was not made of polished stones of any kind. Beads – completely transparent, almost invisible, and trapped inside each bead was a tiny light. The camera moved to show clearly that there was no lead or power of any kind attached to that necklace. At that point, a sceptic would probably have shrugged and dismissed it. A clever trick, but nothing impossible about it. LEDs, probably. But Hanna didn’t think so. Every little light was different, moving in its own way at its own speed. Hanna didn’t know of anything human that could do that.
“I love my necklace,” said the girl. “But most of all I love being friends with sprites. And if you’ve watched this far, I bet you would like that too. Just dig out an old mobile” – here she pulled one out of her pocket – “and leave it on your back doorstep.”
She crouched and placed the phone, stood up and smiled at the camera. She seemed to be looking right into Hanna’s eyes. She gave a little nod, as if for a shared secret, then whispered four words.
“Know and be known.”

Hanna just stared at the screen as the video finished and Youtube began to suggest other things she might enjoy. She closed the link and returned to the forum, to see what others had said about the video. As she expected, there was a lot of comment about the necklace, but most of the speculation was about the girl, who she was. Hanna did not feel inclined to join in. No, this girl was not ‘one of them’. She didn’t belong to any fairy forums. She didn’t need to. She lived with real fairies in the real world. There was so much Hanna wanted to think about here, but before anything else there was one important thing to do. She stroked her shiny new smartphone thoughtfully. Where had she put her old Nokia?