CHAPTER 11 - The Battle of the Swedish Winter

In central Sweden, winter had begun in earnest weeks ago. The sprites of the Rogue Unit had completed their long and arduous journey before conditions had got too bad. Getting to Jönköping by rail had been easy enough, and very interesting for those who hadn't seen much of the country before. But the cold was another matter. Even Fjaerland hadn't been like this, but Colonel Kinnekulle had looked after them every step of the way, showing them how to cope with the extreme conditions.
They all knew now that they were camped out close to Huskvarna itself and that secrecy was essential, not just to the success of the general's plan, but to their very survival.
“They are hard, here,” the general had told them. “The sprites are hard and cold and they say that is inevitable, living in such a cold, hard place. But Kinnekulle is just as hard and cold, and a kinder, warmer-hearted sprite than our Bjørk you would struggle to find. No, it is a philosophy deeply ingrained, passed on from generation to generation and getting worse each time: me first. It's one way to survive, true. But as you all know without being told, looking out for each other is even better.”
They knew that they could have quite a wait. General Herdalen had said that Huskvarna would come, because there was something he had to do here every winter but he, General Herdalen, did not know precisely when or where.
“He may come alone, he may have a small escort. He may come on the train, or he may come across country. He may come in the daylight, such as it is, or in the hours of darkness. He may go first into the colony or he may go first to his destination. We just don't know. But we have to stop him before... well, let's just say that we have to stop him. And the only way we can do that, with so little light, is the most superb tracking the realm has ever seen, and the most vigilant watching at crucial points like the railway station. We must know the habits of the Huskvarna and Hakarp sprites so well that we can tell their tracks from those of newcomers. We must not leave a trace of a track ourselves. It's a lot to ask, I know. But I know you can do it.”
Colonel Kinnekulle had chosen their base with care. They were just outside the city, but not right into the forest, in a cabin beside the road that skirted the eastern shore of Lake Vättern. There were many cabins on that stretch of road, only used in summertime. Even in there, they couldn't risk much light or fire, in case it aroused curiosity, but it was shelter, it was a place they could relax.

About midday in early December, just when the light was best, Ace and Will were tracking on the route from Jönköping's main station out to the fringes of the great forest to the east of the colony. The feeling had been growing on them for a few days now that the general felt this was the route most likely to be used. They were warmly dressed, in camouflage from head to toe, white with grey patches. They followed a familiar pattern of jumping and looking, while the other kept watch, then swapping over. By now they knew every bird footprint – not that there were many that hadn't flown south – and could tell what had made every indentation in the snow. They themselves were using every stick or stone or fence post to avoid leaving marks. They couldn't disguise their footprints as animal tracks because all the small creatures were deep in their winter sleep.
The problem was, they should have been hibernating themselves. They were all getting sleepy. It was worse for some of them than for others. Gran and the birches were not too bad, but the oaks, Peter Knightwood and Dub Berounka, were struggling and it was hardest of all for Will. Gran had implored them all to keep going – there were a lot of them, but they were all needed, to cover such a large area thoroughly – so Ace didn't have to look far for a reason when Will didn't land quite as neatly as usual on a rather springy branch. He wobbled, and had to turn on the spot to avoid falling. He stood still, watching, then glanced at Ace. But his expression was not rueful or apologetic. Instead, he looked wary. His eyes said, move on and wait for me. Ace instantly moved, taking care not to look behind him and waited until Will landed beside him.
“Tracks,” Will whispered. “Behind us.”
Behind us?”
They jumped on again, pretending not to have noticed anything, but for the next two jumps they increased the height of their positions.
“I'm not sure. I thought I might have seen a flash of movement. You?”
“Not that time,” said Will. “Probably nothing, but let's keep checking.”
Three more jumps and they both felt they'd seen something out of the corner of an eye.
“OK,” said Ace, “let's test it. Get into a rhythm – ten long jumps with five second gaps between – but then follow that with a very short jump and spin around at once.”
The rhythm of the jumps was lulling them into relaxing and they hoped it would do the same to any pursuer. When the time came, they spun around fast. Their senses were so attuned to the detail and scale of what they were doing that they both felt certain this time, even though all they had seen were a few water droplets hanging in the air. Someone behind them had just moved too quickly out of sight.
“Do we catch him?” said Will.
“Not today. Gran might say it's better if he doesn't know we're onto him.”
“True, he often says that. Let's carry on with our route then, but make sure we don't leave the forest till dark. We don't want him to know where our base is.”

So they lingered in the forest until it was very dark and they were sure they could move without being followed. They were the last back from the day teams and there was a look of relief on Colonel Kinnekulle's face when he saw them.
“Oh, good. I was beginning to think we'd lost you. Is everything all right?”
“Not sure, sir,” said Ace. “We thought that we were being followed.”
Ace pulled off his woollen hood and rubbed his hands through his hair.
“Followed?” said General Herdalen. “Tell us everything.”
So they described in minute detail exactly what they'd seen and done. Gran listened carefully. He looked tired and grim, like they all did, thin and dirty from days and weeks of bitter cold and unrelenting caution. But he was still alert and focused.
“I agree with you,” he said. “That is very interesting and curious. First I have to ask” - he looked around at the rest of the day teams - “did anyone here follow Ace and Will today? For a game, for a tease, for a bit of fun? I don't blame you if you did, this work is boring beyond belief, I know that. But if you did, I implore you, say so now.”
“No, sir.”
Everyone at once denied such a thing, and they all sounded genuinely baffled.
“Fair enough. But in that case, what are the other possibilities? Has a local sprite noticed us and felt curious about what we were up to?”
“I suppose that's possible,” said Colonel Kinnekulle. “But such a degree of skill? To avoid being seen like that? It argues for a pretty high level of training.”
“So army or Special Brigade then, you think?”
“I'd say so, yes. Are they here already, then?”
“I don't think so,” said Gran. “I can't be sure, but I think I'd know. I think I'd sense it when he arrived.”
“But who else would come here?” said Captain Dolfawr. “You know Huskvarna will come here, sir. Does he know that you will be here?”
“That's a good point, Collen. He might guess, with the war at the point that it is. Let's say, it won't surprise him much when he finds out.”
“So he could have sent someone ahead, a scout or scouts to find out, before he gets here?”
Gran considered that.
“Yes, could be. If it's Special Brigade, then that's probably the most likely reason. And it's hard to see how it could be army. How could anyone know we were coming here?”
“That gang at Malmö, though,” said Bjørk. “We don't know what they may have said. Army sprites could be onto us.”
“I think we need more information. Tomorrow I'll set some traps, try to find out how many there are and exactly what they're up to. I will think this all through carefully. But you all need to rest. We'll have a small fire now and when you've had a warm and a hot drink we'll all wrap up and try to sleep. Are we having a story tonight, Campanilla?”
“Oh yes, sir. Tonight I will entertain you with the story of the White Cat of Eciza. That is a mysterious and exciting one and will take you all to sunny Spain in your dreams.”
“Good for you!” said Gran heartily.

Ace knew that Gran personally would have swapped sunny Spain for this frozen wilderness any day of the week. But Gran appreciated the storytelling talents of Campanilla and their huge contribution to morale. That part was priceless.

Over the next few days everyone was extra alert while out on patrol. Putting their evidence together, they decided it was one elf, working alone and that he was following elves only, not flyers, and only those whose routes led from the railway station. As far as they could tell, he was just keeping an eye on them and if he had gathered information about them, he wasn't doing anything with it. So they carried on with their patrols without worrying about him too much. It was possible, after all, that he was a deliberate distraction. They couldn't afford to lose focus on their main target.
The days grew even shorter and the winter more intense. It had stopped snowing but the wind was bitterly cold. Frozen snow and frozen water didn't even try to melt even in the middle of the day. Will could hardly keep his eyes open and the flyers were struggling too. Lisette was blown around as soon as she went outside and Gazania and Suzette could hardly take off, until Sizzle showed them how to load their pockets with stones to give them a bit of ballast. The mood grew tense and though no-one actually snapped at each other, conversation now was confined to the essentials. No-one had the spirit or energy for anything but survival.
Later in December, they began to notice coloured lights here and there in human buildings, but Christmas seemed remote. It was hard to believe anyone in the world was still happy. Yet the more desperate they got, the more they cared for each other. Gran said thank you for every little thing. Bjørk tried his best to organise everything as smoothly as possible and Hagtorn Maridalen backed him up and encouraged him constantly. Fran and Peter, Ross, Betch and Dale were towers of strength, always the first to volunteer to find water or bring in buckets of snow. Collen Dolfawr exuded a peaceful wisdom and always had the right words to say to anyone who was struggling. At the same time, Dub and Lupa, and Maag and Campanilla did everything they could to raise spirits, with a sensitivity that everyone appreciated. They seemed to know by instinct when a joke would be cheering and when it would simply be annoying. Carda, Dan and Sizzle were flying the longest, hardest circuits, but they just cracked the ice off each other's wings when they got in and acted as if a ten mile circuit at minus five was a walk in the park.
In the face of such courage and excellence, Will and Ace drew back a little. Instinctively they knew their hardest trials would come at the end, so for now they conserved what strength they could and accepted help gratefully when it was offered to them.

It was round about midday – of which day they had no idea, they had lost track of time – when a little sun broke through the cloud and illuminated the landscape. Suddenly the cold world, though no less cold, took on a breathtaking beauty. Ace and Will were patrolling the path alongside the lake just then and the sun on the frozen water was dazzling.
“Probably a beautiful place in summer,” said Ace. “All the same, there's a bad feeling. Sad things have happened here.”
“Mmm,” said Will.
“Swedish lakes. Why does that remind me of Ace Foxfield? I can't remember. Wonder where he is now?”
“Mmm,” said Will. “Movement..”
“Blackbird,” said Ace. “It can't believe it's seeing a bit of sunshine. Don't think it'll find a worm, though. P'raps it wants a drink. I could crack the ice for it, but I suppose that doesn't count as being secret and stealthy.”
“Not really,” said Will.
“It probably knows where to go, anyway.”
Ace stopped and looked at his twin.
“Look, pool a little. Just a little, take some energy. You're nearly asleep.”
“But you're tired too. I can manage.”
“And I've got enough to spare. We're getting very near the colony. It'd be safer.”
“Mmm. S'pose it would, really. Go on, then. Just a little.”
They drew more closely out of sight, between bristling grasses that sprinkled them with snow drops. They put their hands on each other's shoulders and touched their foreheads together. For a moment, Ace sensed the weight of Will's burdens, the tiredness not even the greatest of them, and it nearly knocked him sideways. But not quite... he knew what to do, and pushed back with his own resilient optimism and followed that up with a boost of energy. It wasn't much, but it was enough to make a difference.
“Thanks, Ace. That feels a lot better.”
“And not a moment too soon. Here comes Sizzle. Could this be it?”
Silent as light and nearly as fast, Sizzle landed near them.
“Suspicious activity on the road from the station!” she said. “Orders are, proceed with speed and caution to a position west of the forest road and await further orders.”
“Will do, Sizzle,” said Ace. “Who spotted them?”
“Fran and Peter. They sounded pretty sure. See you later!”
“Oh, excellent,” said Ace. “I mean... you know what I mean. I know it'll get worse before it gets better.”
“I know what you mean,” said Will. “We have to get through this bit if we're ever going to get past it.”

Excited now, they retraced their steps around the lake and headed off across country, knowing this area now as well as anywhere they'd ever known, snow-covered and featureless though it was. It was a long, long slog across meadowland before they got to the road, but the rough ground made for landings where you didn't have to worry too much about footprints and you could jump long so long as you took care to keep low.
When they reached the road, they went carefully right onto it, to see if they could spot anyone or anything, but there was nothing in sight. They drew back, out of sight from the road but in clear view of any flyer bringing them a message. In a while, an ancient pick-up truck puttered out of the forest with a load of firewood, shattering the silence, but after that, an even deeper silence seemed to descend and slowly but surely the world grew gloomy once again and the elves grew colder.
“Walk about a bit,” whispered Will. “You have to keep warm enough to move when you need to.”
“True,” said Ace. “It does help. And it'll help our flyers spot us. Surely someone will bring news soon, even if it's only False Alarm.”
After walking up and down for half an hour, they agreed that they didn't feel any warmer at all, but at least they hadn't got any colder. Then they were almost startled as Gazania, all in grey, flitted down beside them.
“Fresh orders, sir,” she said to Ace. “General Herdalen says this is it. Proceed to cross the road and enter the forest with extreme caution, each pair of elves supported by a marker flyer. I'm yours!”
“Brilliant,” said Ace. “We are the lucky ones, then.”
“Oh, this is so exciting! I wonder what will happen.”
“So do I, Gazania,” said Ace. “But I tell you one thing. You've lived through the longest, hardest battle of the war, the battle of the Swedish Winter. And whatever happens tonight, it'll be one of the most important things any of us ever do.”
Gazania had her eyes fixed upon Ace with an ecstatic, fervent gaze. Suddenly, she remembered what she was supposed to be doing, and took up position about twenty feet above them, wings moving imperceptibly, gently drifting through the sky like an indetectable wisp.

Ace and Will moved, a little stiffly at first, but soon going at a good speed, silent like tiny shadows, until they were well inside the forest. Gazania came lower, keeping closer to them. They could see Dan not far away, keeping her eye closely on whichever elves she was marking. And hovering nearby would be Carda and Sizzle, Maag and Campanilla, and Suzette and Lisette. Ace tried to visualise the pattern. Were they drawing a net around their target, or were they moving in a line? Was anyone on a wing, and might they have to move out wider, or change direction? He was alert to watch Dan as much as Gazania, wanting to understand exactly what was happening, because that was exactly what Gran would expect him to do. The ground level work of choosing where to jump, efficient and silent, he was leaving to Will, knowing he could trust him and just follow him, without needing to ask.
Gazania was still above him, and Dan to his right, when Suzette came into sight on his left. There was something about the direction she was facing that gave Ace a clue.
It's a circle, he thought. That's why we had to wait so long. Gran was moving people into position on the other side of the forest. As soon as he knew that the forest was Huskvarna's first destination. But Gran doesn't know exactly where he's going. So soon we'll probably halt. The flyers can't see everyone, but they can see the next flyer. So they have to have hand signals.
Just as he expected, Gazania landed soon.
“Signal message,” she whispered. “Land, wait ten minutes, rise.”
Ace and Will put their arms across her shoulders to warm her and she huddled gratefully closer to them.
Why here? thought Ace. What can there be in this forest that's more important than the colony to him?
The answer came straight away to his mind... his tree.
Yes, of course it would be. Lars... that was larch. They were going to a larch. Yes, that would be why Gran knew what would happen, but not exactly where. He knew Huskvarna's tree was round here, but not which one it was. And there were hundreds, no, thousands of larches in these forests.
“Ket was a larch,” said Will.
Then Ace knew that Will's mind was on the same track as his own. Yes, Gran's twin had been a larch and Ace thought about that for a moment, considering how awful that your worst enemy should be the same tree as your beloved twin. It was gross, offensive, a crime against the natural order of things.
“It shouldn't be allowed,” said Ace, knowing that Will would fill in the gaps. He always did.

The ten minutes was up. Gazania spread her wings and rose cautiously. Then, constantly looking right and left and checking her position, she signalled to Ace and Will to move forward. The circle must be getting smaller now; Ace caught a glimpse of Ross, to his right, being guided by Dan. How carefully planned all this was. Gran had been tense, so tense, for days, but none of his skills had deserted him. And Bjørk would have helped. Ace had the feeling that the unflappable Swedish colonel understood more than the rest of them did about what was really going on here. He and Gran had been recruits together and friends now for decades.
Ace was musing while moving very carefully, when suddenly he saw it ahead of them, the larch they were aiming for, because it had that indefinable quality that marked an elf tree. It sounded daft to use words like poise or confidence about a tree, but those were the words you needed.
Gazania landed, just as all the other flyers did the same, encouraging the elves now to join them in forming a circle. The larch was now surrounded. And so was a group of three sprites who had just that very moment come into sight. One was a fairy with white hair, one was an elf with bristly hair, and the third, of course, was Lars Huskvarna himself. At a signal from Bjørk, all the army sprites drew their knives. All except Gran. He wasn't looking at Huskvarna, he was looking at the larch.
“Not this time,” said Gran, without turning his head. “You'll never touch this tree again.”
“Gran Herdalen,” sneered Huskvarna. “Gran Herdalen, with his clever little plans and his perfect timing. You think this riff-raff of deserters can stop me touching my tree?”
“I'm not sure it is yours any more,” said Gran conversationally. “If I turn my hat gold, it's still my hat. If I turn it into real gold, but it's still wearable, it's still my hat. But if I turn it into solid gold, is it even a hat any more?”
Ace looked at Will and saw the horror he felt reflected on Will's face. This was beginning to make sense and it was worse than he could possibly have imagined.
Huskvarna sighed. “You always were a sentimental fool. Don't you get it? Can't you, just for once, see the bigger picture? I am trying to save the realm, here. The whole realm. All of it. Even you. A few casualties along the way do not matter.”
“I know that you honestly believe that,” said Gran. “And that is why you must be defeated.”
“Defeated? By you lot? I don't think so. You do know the whole of Huskvarna and Hakarp colonies are on their way here, and that any moment now you'll be surrounded?”
“Yes, I know that,” said Gran calmly, as some of his team glanced around nervously. “I know who you sent to get them. Gran Starheim, who followed us from the Bohemian Forest and has been tracking us for weeks. Not a bad elf, really. He always does the right thing for the wrong reasons. He's probably trying to impress the Commander by arresting the deserters. But he's young, he has time to learn better ideas.”
Gran spun round and Ace could see how tightly his hands were clenched and how the veins were pulsing in his neck. His self-control was at its very limit.
Gran Starheim! thought Ace. So that's who it was. Yes, that's just the sort of thing he'd do.
“His motives don't concern me,” shrugged Huskvarna.
“And your motives don't concern me,” said Gran. “But your methods do. The end does not justify the means, did no-one ever tell you that? Right is right and wrong is wrong. Always. But does anyone but I know how foul a thing you did all those years ago? Do you, Klethra Diolkos? Yes, worse even than what he did to you?”
“To me? What do you mean?”
“Diolkos isn't a colony. It's a railway line. A means to an end, like everything this leader of yours does. Tell me, Klethra, what's your earliest memory?”
“What's that got to do with anything?”
“Oh, quite a lot, I assure you. And you, Blanche Hakarp, do you know quite how evil this elf is?”
Blanche? thought Ace. Good grief, so it is. I hardly recognised her.
“We happen to believe the end does justify the means, Gran Herdalen,” said Blanche. “I suppose you are talking about the few dead babies at Amutria. The Lord Protector did not murder any of them and neither did Colonel Diolkos and neither did I.”
“No, no, you kept your own hands clean, I realise that,” said Gran. “Nevertheless, Lars Huskvarna is a murderer and I will prove it to you.”
“That is a very serious accusation.”
The voice, a thin, shrill one, almost weedy, came from beyond their circle. Silently, while everyone had been listening with rapt attention, the Huskvarna sprites had arrived. Ace looked carefully, sizing them up. An impressive force... about fifty of them, no old or young ones. All elves, all of fighting age, with someone in charge.
“It is indeed,” said Gran, raising his voice now so all could hear and switching to Swedish. Amazingly, a tiny streak of moonlight filtered down through the trees and illuminated him. Ace could have wept to see the pain on his face.
“The story goes back many years,” said Gran. “Thirty-five years ago, two elves were in prison at Oslofjord Hill, awaiting trial for insulting parliament. Two very young elves, twins. Lars Huskvarna was a sergeant of police – yes, he was in the army then – and he was responsible for their care. Even though they had not been found guilty, he chained them in a cold, damp room and one of them caught pneumonia. His name was Ket Herdalen and he was my twin. I pleaded with Huskvarna to take my blindfold off and let me help Ket. He ignored me. I begged him to let someone, anyone, help Ket. He ignored me. I listened while my twin's breathing got more and more painful. I fought against the chains until my own wrists broke. I screamed and yelled for help, but no-one came. Only Lars Huskvarna stood there, patiently watching my twin die. Then, after days had passed and all hope was gone, he took off my blindfold. I saw him then. He pooled with Ket and for a moment I thought he was going to save him. But no. He sucked out Ket's remaining strength, and took his whole spirit and personality, took them into himself. And as soon as he let go, Ket's body fell lifeless to the floor. Then he walked away, smiling. He murdered Ket, and I saw him do it. But just then, I didn't know why.”
Gran paused for breath, a great shuddering breath that told its own story. Everyone else kept completely silent. Ace wiped his eyes and swallowed hard. He had to concentrate, to listen carefully, to be ready for anything.
“I stood trial alone,” said Gran, “and was found not guilty, by kind sprites, full of compassion for my loss. And I went to join the army, at that time only seeking revenge. But Huskvarna never returned to the army. He went instead to Wielkopolska and rapidly rose to become head of Special Brigade. From afar, I watched him. I had found work that gave my empty life some meaning, and I had found friends, good, good friends, but still, I watched him. Year by year, it became clear why he had done something so wicked. He had the strength and skill of two, the energy and power of two, the intelligence and focus of two. Yet how was it possible that he was still so evil? Where was Ket's goodness, where were his friendship, loyalty and kindness? Where were his hopes and dreams? Where were his passion for justice and respect for tradition? It took me a long time to understand what Huskvarna had done. He had taken everything that was Ket, but he could not bear the burden of all that goodness. He had to have pooled the best and most beautiful part with another living thing. And what elf, faced with such a need, would not choose his tree? By a sorry mischance, they were even both larches. I don't know how soon he had to unburden himself. But I know that every winter for many years, he has returned to boost his powers and draw again on the spirit he stole.
But trees are purer than elves. They do not harbour vile ambitions or cruel thoughts. Year by year, Ket's love has changed this tree. I say to you, Lars Huskvarna, that this is no longer your tree. It is Ket's. And I intend to prove the truth of all that I have said by setting him free.”

Huskvarna said nothing to Gran. He raised his eyebrows and looked towards the other Huskvarna sprites.
“Who is in charge here? You, Hassel? Have you nothing to say to this nonsense?”
The weedy-voiced elf cleared his throat and spoke, hesitantly at first but with growing indignation.
“You don't have the right to start causing trouble in our colony, no matter who you are or what's been done to you. You should wait till the senior sprite comes back from Zurich and present your case to him.”
“Shut up,” snarled Bjørk Kinnekulle. “You are here as witnesses. No more, no less.”
Ace barely heard them. All his attention was focused on Gran. Gran was taking something out of his pocket ... Ket's tinderbox. He stroked it lovingly and whispered something. Then he raised his voice again.
“Now we shall see who this tree will respond to.”
He opened the tinderbox and scratched out a spark and lit a piece of lint. He held the tiny flame about a foot away from the snow-sodden bark.
“Come on, Huskvarna, pool with the tree if you can. Plead with it not to burn. And I will ask it, if it would like to, to help itself to the flame and set itself free.”

For a moment, Ace wondered if this was where he had to intervene, before Gran made a fool of himself. Some of their own team, even, were looking uneasy. But one look at Will steadied him. Will's face was screwed up with tension and compassion, but not concern. And whatever Arda Svir had been worried about, it couldn't possibly have been anything like this. Huskvarna approached, but he seemed more interested in sizing up his opportunities of knifing Gran than of pooling with the tree. Ace and Will, who were already closer than anyone else, moved closer to Gran and watched Huskvarna carefully. Gran wasn't even looking. He was lost, deep in conversation with the tree, still holding out the tiny flame. A startled scream, quickly stifled, from one of the fairies made Ace spin round to look at the tree. One of its branches had lashed down, as if blown by the wind, except that, just then, there was no wind. It seemed as if it would knock Gran flying, but at the last second it seemed to slow down and the branch gently wrapped itself around him, while tiny twigs on the end of the branch dipped into the tinderbox and took the flame, tipping the little old box back into Gran's hand.
The branch withdrew. Within five seconds the whole tree was on fire, blazing with a brilliant glow that cast everything else into darkness. The flames didn't seem to be consuming the tree. Its shape was still visible through the column of burning light. Then, from inside the burning, a glowing shape of a figure appeared and seemed to move forward a little until it was in front of the tree. Ace shielded his eyes a little from the brightness, but only so he could see more clearly. The shape was the shape of an elf, but taller, more tree-like, as if a spirit could take any size it wanted.
Ace was watching in wonder and fascination and he was sure everyone else was, too. They couldn't ever have seen anything like this before. But then Gran staggered as if someone had hit him with a mighty blow. And Huskvarna was standing completely still, his eyes fixed upon the tree, focusing with powerful intensity. A battle was going on before their eyes, a fierce invisible battle. The glowing spirit shape became more shapeless, twisted and pulled this way and that. It wanted to stay with Gran, but Huskvarna had controlled it for all those years, and for all those years Gran had been alone. Ace understood. Gran had had to forget he was a twin, to cope with the pain. This was not an equal fight. Could he and Will help? Was there anything they could do, or would it be a distraction, a fatal distraction, to Gran if they tried to intervene?
He didn't even have to look at Will to sense the same agony of indecision in him, too.
“Ha!” Huskvarna's gloating cry cracked the silence. “Not my tree, ha! Maybe this is not your twin any more, fool!”
Ace and Will didn't hesitate. Together they piled into the battle, their minds joined as never before, not knowing or caring that to those watching, they now looked like rigid statues, just like Gran and Huskvarna did, all four of them locked in mental combat. Ace was ready and braced for the hammer blow of depth that would hit him as he pooled with Will, just as he knew Will would be ready for the rush of speed he would have to cope with himself. As soon as they were balanced and one, they poured their strength into Gran. It wasn't easy, like helping each other. It wasn't that Gran was resisting their help, more as if they didn't know the way in. Memories... that was the way. Friendship and love that had been there ever since they met, memories of moments of deep connection... two pairs of warm gloves... being carried through the Eastern Forest... a mug of beer... the look on Gran's face when they were pulled alive out of the dark, wet mountain... they were there. Like a new leaf pushing off its sticky sheath, they were out of the darkness and in a strange, new place. Together, they took the blow of the power of Gran's personality. Strength... strength of every possible kind, strength that even so was struggling now to fight back, to overcome. Keep it simple, that was the way. Pour out strength, give him every bit of theirs, physical and mental twisted together and moving relentlessly on, unstoppable, like the root of a willow, like the shoot of a sycamore. This was it. The glowing spirit was now all they could see, the force of Huskvarna fighting back was all they could feel. Don't be distracted, that was the way. This wasn't their fight, it was Gran's. All they had to do was strengthen Gran. Another great push, focusing on Gran, on him alone. Herdalen... his love for the Norwegian valley he called home... how he loved the cold and strength of winter, how he hated the sapping heat of the south... his kindness, his utter reliability. Love... how much the army loved him. How much they loved him.
To hold on, to keep concentrating, no matter how much their minds wanted to rest. It wasn't enough. The battle was poised now, it was balanced. It could still tip either way. They had to do more, to give more. They didn't hesitate. They knew what to do, they had done this before. Go deeper, that was the way. Give more of themselves, not just their strengths, but their very essence. Wildside... their own trees... memories so precious and personal you could hardly put a name to them... just being twins.
They felt as if their minds were melting. It wasn't possible now to know where they started and finished. They had done that before, too, and it wasn't good, but if that was the price, they would pay it. Anything, anything... this had to be done. Ace sobbed out loud, or maybe Will did, he wasn't sure. Something was cracking, but what? Would they still be alive, would they still even be twins? Gran hated them because they were twins... no, no, that was the other Gran. Maybe, deep down, he really wished he were a twin himself. A flash of understanding, so deep and so swift, and they turned to the attack, focusing on Huskvarna's weakest point.
All for the good of the realm, was it? Are you sure, are you really sure, you weren't just a bit jealous?
They sensed Gran's joy and relief as Huskvarna faltered. Together, all three of them pushed hard, and the glowing spirit stopped writhing and took its shape again. Then came a flare of light so bright and intense that it caused some of the watching sprites to cry out in fear and alarm. Ace and Will sensed it more than saw it, and knew what it was. Two other twins had joined forces in that moment. They withdrew at once, mentally stumbling, to let Gran and Ket gain the final victory together. Yet they still sensed Huskvarna's mind crumpling under the onslaught, just as their eyes, more aware now of what was happening around them, saw Gran's defeated enemy on his knees in the snow.
Then out of the flaring light a figure stepped, truly elf-sized this time, and they knew they were looking at the face of Ket Herdalen. The years of suffering had left no mark on him as they had on Gran. He was young, and golden and beautiful. He had an infectious grin and steady, trustful eyes. He gazed at Gran with pure love, then touched his hand to his temple, a gesture that was half salute, half greeting, then seemed gently to disappear, like sparks flying upwards.
Gran walked towards him at the same moment, his arms outstretched, and at the same instant Ace realised that Gran wasn't stopping, he was moving forward still, and that the larch tree was now burning furiously in a very ordinary way. A branch fell to the ground and sizzled out in the snow.
As fast as thought, Ace moved.
“Gran, no! Come back!”
As he grabbed Gran's arm, the flames caught his sleeve. The fabric was thick and padded, but it wouldn't take long to burn through. Will was there too, of course, pulling Gran's other arm. A shower of sparks fell across Will's head, but he never let go. They pulled with all their strength but Gran was stronger, and oblivious to anything but reaching his twin.
“He's gone, Gran, he's gone,” Ace sobbed. “You did it, you set him free. Don't die yet, not you. We need you. Come back, we love you.”
He felt his words turn into a harsh cry as the sleeve burned through and his skin began to burn. The world was full of pain. But then all three of them were tugged back by stronger arms, Bjørk was there, and Fran and Peter. It was all right now, Gran was safe. Ace was sitting in the snow where he'd fallen, still close to Gran, and Will was on his other side. Kind hands were touching them, comforting them, putting cold snow on their burns. Gran was in a state of shock; he seemed not to be hearing or seeing anything yet, but Bjørk was on his feet, taking command of the situation.
“You, sprites of Huskvarna, do you agree that Gran Herdalen proved his point?”
“Er, yes,” came the weedy voice of Hassel, a little closer this time. “There would seem to be no doubt about that. No doubt at all.”
Huskvarna was now on his feet, but surrounded by army elves, their knives drawn.
Bjørk spoke again.
“I don't understand any more than you do of what we have seen tonight. When Gran told me what he hoped to do, I could never have imagined anything like this. But he was right, so I am sure he was also right about another thing. Everything this murderer achieved by drawing on another elf's stolen spirit will now weaken and fail. How are you feeling, Klethra Diolkos? I tell you now, while you can understand me, that no blame falls on you. I know that what was done to you was not by any choice on your part. What animal were you, before he chose you to be a purpose-built friend? He wanted Ket's loyalty, not in his own heart, but focused just on him, didn't he? Not all of Ket went into that tree. Some of it went into transforming you, and now it has left you. Do you even remember what animal you were?”
Klethra Diolkos, who still looked exactly like an elf, opened his mouth and growled.
Bjørk's face looked worried now. Perhaps he had been sure it would be a rat... now, you could see, he was considering the possibility of a much larger animal. The elf coughed and fell to his knees, then leaned forward so his hands were in the snow. At first he just looked as if this was all too much for him and he couldn't control his emotions. No-one would have blamed him for that, because that was just how everyone there was feeling just then. But then his shape changed with terrifying speed, clothes ripped so fast they disappeared.
The larch behind them crumpled into shapelessness, just a bonfire in a snowy forest. Nothing else had caught fire, nothing at all. But in the firelight, everyone was staring at a very large dog. It would have seemed a big dog even to humans; to the sprites, it was a monster. Even Ace felt a shiver of fear as he gazed up at its huge head and mouthful of large teeth. One paw alone could have crushed a sprite without the dog even noticing what it had done. Huskvarna had had some nerve to get close enough to that to transform it. Some of the sprites there had had more than enough, there were screams and panicky yells and the sound of people backing away. Ace felt that his job was to get Gran to safety, but he could barely move, and Gran and the other sprites around them seemed rooted to the spot. Gran seemed only just to have come back into the present. He was staring at the dog with a detached wonder.
“A dog, of course,” he said. “He would choose a dog. Dogs are very loyal animals, he had that to latch on to.”
So for thirty-five years, thought Ace, part of Ket's soul was in Huskvarna's tree, but a bit of it was in Klethra Diolkos. A fake elf. Just the elf Huskvarna wanted, mindless, obedient and loyal only to him. He'd turn us all like that, to keep us safe. Well, I'd rather we died than behaved like that. There's no shame in losing a fight. At least you tried.
The wary sprites were all watching the dog closely. If they had known more about dogs, they might have been puzzled by its behaviour. It was clearly a fully-grown animal, yet it was jumping about like a puppy, excited and boisterous, like a puppy going outside for the first time. There seemed to be so many interesting smells, it couldn't decide what to do first. But then it stopped dead as if it remembered something. It cowered, lowered its head and whimpered.
Huskvarna seized his chance. Ignoring the drawn knives, he walked up to the dog's head and stroked it.
“It's all right, Klethra. It's all right. I'll bring you back.”
The dog lifted its gaze and its eyes seemed to be full of hatred. Ace told himself he was just being fanciful but it did seem that for one moment the dog knew exactly what had been done to it and who had done it. It opened its mouth and engulfed Huskvarna, closed its mouth and made chewing movements with its jaws. Everyone yelled with shock and horror, Ace included. It was too much. Too horrible to bear. And they were all in awful danger.
“Everyone keep completely still and quiet,” said Bjørk, in the shakiest voice Ace had ever heard from him.
A few sobs and cries were instantly stifled. Every eye was riveted onto the dog. But once again, its demeanour changed. Its moment of memory, if memory was what it had been, had gone, slipped out of its mind completely. It was jumping around again now, ignoring the sprites, snuffling in the snow and letting out little joyful barks. Then it spun round and galloped off into the night.
“Will it be all right?” asked Campanilla tearfully.
“Who cares?” said Ross. “I'm just glad it's gone.”
“It will be fine,” said Bjørk. “Swedish people are kind. A fine elkhound like that will soon find a good home. Don't worry about it, Campanilla.”
As soon as the reborn elkhound had gone, there was an uproar. It was shock and fear and bafflement, Ace realised that, but he couldn't do anything to calm it down, even in his own head. Even Gran's team, who wouldn't grieve over the loss of Huskvarna, were horrified by the manner of his death. They were shrieking and frightened, and so were the Huskvarna sprites, who were also angry. It was someone's fault that one of their elves had met such a grisly end and it was very clear who they were blaming. They were charging in to fight and if the army sprites didn't get themselves into good order very quickly, they were going to be defeated. Ace was not in the best shape, but neither was anyone else, and as he had found before now, sometimes being a good leader meant having the loudest voice.
“Defend the general!” he yelled.
That was clear and simple, surely everyone could get their heads round that. At least it pulled everyone together. They were in a rough semi-circle, facing outwards. Gran was getting to his feet and drawing his knife. He still looked in shock and wasn't capable of giving orders but he could see he needed to fight. Ace glanced back at him and saw that Bjørk was by his side. Bjørk nodded at Ace, as if to say, Sort this out, so then Ace didn't hesitate a second longer.
“Sizzle! Get the flyers behind them, drive them together!”
It might be enough. The flyers couldn't find stones for ammo under the snow, but they could get sticks, and with flyers like Dan and Carda around, they wouldn't be little ones. The important thing was not to get surrounded, not when they had a fire at their backs. The fire was helping the enemy; they themselves would be clear targets, silhouetted against the flames, while the enemy elves were coming at them from the darkness. Ace had only seconds to think all this before the first knife clashed with his own. He disarmed that one by knocking his knife out of his hand and then tripped him up. A speedy glance around the line showed him that no-one was down, no-one was struggling. Gran and Bjørk were in the line now, fighting hard. Ace fought again as another elf came for him, yelling at him in Swedish.
“Yeah, right,” said Ace and got him across the ear and tripped him up too. Maag was there in a flash. As Ace tackled his next opponent, he noticed that she and Campanilla were pouncing on every enemy who went down and immobilising him by the simple but brilliant trick of pulling his hat down over his eyes and shrinking it so small he couldn't pull it off. The next opponent was a bit too big for Ace, he didn't even try to tackle Ace's flickering knife but just punched him in the face and knocked him flat on his back. Completely dizzy, Ace did the only thing he could think of, and slid on the mushy snow through the elf's legs and got him with a crafty slash behind the knee.
Another glance down the line... he saw that Fran had lost his knife but was more than holding his own by punching as hard as any goblin, while Dub and Lupa were yelling triumphantly in Czech. Had they won, then? Nearly... over there they had. Dan and Carda and Sizzle were on the ground now, so the enemy elves were fighting in both directions. But over this side, someone was down, he was getting slashed by a very angry elf. The one doing the slashing was one of those tall, thin elves like Betch, who are stronger than they look. The one who was down was Gran Starheim.
Ace didn't hesitate, he jumped across, and just when he needed to do something brilliant, he landed badly and skidded on the snow. He dropped his own knife and landed on his back right under the tall elf's arm. The knife was poised to stab, not slash and the point was aiming right at Gran's heart. Ace reached up and grabbed his arm, tugging with all his might to hold him back. Gran was pinned down, the tall elf's foot was on his knee. All three of them were sliding now, until Ace's foot struck a root. The sudden jarring halted them, the root gave Ace leverage and he tugged again. The tall elf was pulled over and his knife plunged, not into Gran's heart but right into Ace's thigh. Ace watched it go in with a strange detachment, feeling the flesh part but for a second just delighted that he'd saved Gran's life. Gran twisted and freed himself and knocked the tall elf out cold with one furious punch, then knelt in the snow beside Ace to help him. Ace thought suddenly of Marta and realised he hadn't been in this much pain since he broke his leg. He yelled out, he couldn't help it and it only took Will two seconds to get to his side. Dimly, under the pain, Ace felt a sense of relief that Will could still do that, but he didn't know where that thought had come from.
“Oh, good grief,” said Will. “OK, Ace, hang on, this is going to hurt like hell. Hold him tight, Gran. It's all right. We've won. Everything's all right. Try and relax for...”
Before Ace could tense up, Will pulled and the knife came out cleanly.
Will quickly wiped Ace's blood from the blade. The blade shone in the moonlight. It was long and plain and silver.
“Huh?” said Ace. “Oh! How on earth... incredible. Thanks, Will... thanks, Gran. Let me have that knife, will you? I want it as a souvenir. And this nasty piece of work did give it to me, in a way.”
“Sure,” said Will, handing it over. He was already tearing apart Ace's white Arctic camouflage trousers to stop the bleeding, if nothing else.
“He certainly did,” said Gran. “That was so... so very frightening, actually. Thank you, Ace.”

The fight had gone out of the Huskvarna elves. None of them was badly hurt, and they were getting up, freeing themselves from improvised bindings and shuffling together, looking rather embarrassed, as if they didn't know quite why they had done that, or how they had let themselves be beaten.
“To me, Huskvarna”, called Hassel, sounding now just very tired.
His elves lined up behind him, and he looked around for Colonel Kinnekulle and spoke directly to him.
“This has been a very strange night. But it is late and it is cold. You had better all come back to the colony and rest.”
“No,” said Bjørk. “You seem like an honest sprite, but we will not set foot in that elf's colony. We thank you for your offer, but we have our own base.”
Hassel inclined his head and said no more.
“You, Blanche Hakarp,” said Bjørk. “You were in the army once, and no-one is ever turned away. Will you join us, or will you go home?”
Blanche looked at him with contempt and went to stand beside Hassel. Bjørk didn't look at her again.
“Gran Starheim!” he called.
“Yes, I'm here.”
“Then get back here where you belong and stop trying to be a hero. Just be an ordinary decent elf. That's all we ask. That's all we ever ask.”
“Yes, sir,” said Gran, and went back to Ace.
“Starheim, you twerp,” said Ace, “you were a deserter too, did you never think of that? Give me a hand there, will you? I'm not sure I can walk very well.”
For a moment, Gran looked as if he didn't know whether to laugh or cry. But instead he just grinned and put an arm under Ace's shoulder, helping Fran who had his other arm.
“Let's go home,” said Bjørk.

It felt like a very slow journey to Ace. He was in a lot of pain, not all of it physical, but he was trying hard not to make any fuss. Everyone was tired and suffering from shock, and all had cuts and bruises and burns, so the sooner they got under cover, the better for everyone. The flyers had gone on ahead. The need for secrecy was over, they could have fires and lights. That meant when the elves finally arrived, there would be warmth and hot water. Bliss. Sometimes the simplest pleasures were all you wanted or needed.
The elves were in a good formation, doing long, low jumps when they could, and just walking in between. Ace had Gran Starheim and Fran helping him, and Gran Herdalen had Bjørk and Hagtorn Maridalen. Will was managing on his own, but Peter was keeping close by in case he stumbled. Betch and Dale, Dub and Lupa had taken the front line and were doing the hard work and also keeping up a string of cheerful talk to drive away the horrors and the vastness of the dark night.
“I always said it was Gran Starheim,” said Lupa. “See, I was right.”
“Lupa, you did not! You said it was a wolf. You said this on eight different occasions.”
“Well, how do you know that this is really Gran Starheim and not a wolf? Perhaps a wicked elf has transformed him too.”
“Oh, look, the moon,” called Gran Starheim. “I feel like howling.”
It wasn't very funny, and Lupa actually looked startled, as if far from sure that this was a joke, but Ace understood. Gran was making an effort, and it didn't matter if it was a feeble one. For perhaps the first time, he was trying to join in.
“I hear there are thousands of wolves in Sweden,” said Betch. “Don't worry, Lupa, we're sure to meet a real one soon.”
“Knock it off, Betch, you lunatic,” chuckled Bjørk. “There are not thousands. Just hundreds.”

The last couple of miles were very hard. The cold was bad, the thirst was very bad. Ace was trying to land just on his right leg, because landing on his left was so painful, but even so, his left leg was bleeding again. He knew his injury was bad because Will was worrying about it so much, and that wasn't good either. They'd gone far too deep into each other's minds and they hadn't got their balance back yet. He shouldn't be able to sense Will's thoughts this clearly. He didn't think it was as bad as last time – he desperately hoped it wasn't – but how could you be sure? Something... something not physical... had definitely cracked in that fierce mental battle, and he didn't know what it had been. He and Will had given everything they had, offered up even their own twinship. And they had had to be completely together to do that.
Together on the timing, the willingness to sacrifice, the mental and emotional effort... together in knowing how and when to attack. It had helped. They had seen the face of Ket Herdalen and helped to set him free.
That really would have been enough for one evening, thought Ace. Plenty of excitement, even for me. But then we had to have Huskvarna getting gobbled up by a gigantic elkhound formerly known as Colonel Diolkos. Good gracious, he's the one David patted on the head once. I wonder if he knew?
But then there had been the other thing. Just as startling and unexpected, in its own small way. And he was going to have to tell Will about it, and Gran too.
I'll never be as wise as they are, not if I live to be two hundred. I really am a complete twit.

The shabby old cabin was the most welcome sight in the world. Ace turned sideways and slid through the crack in the door when it was his turn, to see that the flyers really had cast caution to the wind. A big fire was blazing in the humans' stove, and the paraffin lamps hanging from the ceiling had been lit. Even more wonderful was the smell of coffee brewing. The feeling of warmth and safety was overwhelming.
“It's all right, sir,” Sizzle was saying to Colonel Kinnekulle. “There are no lights on in any cabins nearby, we flew up to check. No-one's going to notice. And there are lots of repairs we can do, to pay for everything we've used.”
“Thank you, Sizzle,” said the colonel. “Thank you very much, all of you. This is a homecoming indeed.”
“Cushions,” said Suzette. “In front of the stove. Sit down, everyone, and we'll bring the coffee. Come on, Colonel, you too.”
“Yes, Suzette,” said the colonel meekly.
Ace sank onto one of the cushions and Campanilla brought him a steaming cup.
“You beautiful bluebell,” said Ace, meeting her eyes. “Thank you. Your kindness... so precious. Keeps us going. Thank you for being so kind.”
“Oh!” said Campanilla. “Oh, what a lovely thing to say. D'you know, I always wanted to meet you, because I'd heard that you were the most beautiful elf in the world. And that was true, of course. But I've kind of forgotten about that, now. Now you're just Ace, my friend.”
“Then I am very honoured,” said Ace.
They smiled at each other, and Ace lowered his head over his cup. His eyes were a bit wet.

Fighting makes you thirsty. Being out in the cold for hours makes you thirsty. Fear and emotion make you thirsty. And just being an elf makes you thirstier than most creatures. All the elves were suffering badly, their throats hoarse and parched and dry. Even the injured were not interested in anything but drinks, and for a while they were very quiet, gratefully sipping drink after drink until they felt better. Will was the first to move, going over to where the flyers were already patching up each other's injuries, to ask for a cloth and some water. That got other people moving and talking too, fixing cuts and talking about the battle. The other things they had seen that night, they weren't ready to talk about yet, but a battle was a different matter, being exciting but also a normal experience.
Will washed the fresh blood away from Ace's leg, and shook his head, a bit faster than he would normally have done.
“I wish we had a surgeon,” he said. “I don't know, Ace. This is very deep, it's gone right into the muscle. If I do this wrong, you could end up with a limp. But we can't wait for a surgeon to get here, even if one would come. You've lost a lot of blood already.”
“But you know what needs doing, you know in theory, don't you?”
“Oh, yes, that, yes.”
“Then go for it. I trust you. This anxiety isn't really you. That's coming from... you know where that's coming from. But so is some energy. Do it now, Will, please. Because in the morning, we might be worse, and then neither of us will be able to do anything. Or we might be better, in which case you'll be too tired to see straight.”
“Yes. I see. I do, really. I know what you're saying. All right, then. At least the light is good, in here. But you'll need someone to hold you, to help you keep still... oh, thank you, sir.”
Gran Herdalen was by their side in an instant, and they knew then that he had been watching them, leaving them alone together until they were ready for some help.
“I will lean across you,” said Gran, “so you can't jerk, and hold your leg still with my hands. Feel free to bite my jacket. This will soon be over. Major Gourdon always said Will would have made a very fine surgeon. Got the brain for it, the steady hands, the steady mind, the intuitive understanding of how the body works.”
Ace understood what Gran was trying to do... reminding Will of who he was and what he could do, physically separating them and helping them pull apart again, just enough, just enough for now. The part where Will cleaned deep into the wound hurt so much that Ace really did bite Gran's jacket, but after that he couldn't feel exactly what Will was doing, because it was just one mass of fiery pain. But after what seemed like ages, but was only a few minutes, he realised the pain was subsiding, and Gran was lifting him up so his back was against a fold of cushion and his leg was looking as good as new, just throbbing.
“Thanks, sir,” said Ace. “Thanks, Will. You're wonderful. Knew you could do it. Let me fix your face now.”
“What's wrong with my face?”
“It's covered in little burns.”
“Not as bad as the burn on your arm! We'll do that, first.”
“I could fix the burns,” Gran suggested. “For both of you.”
“Yes,” they said together, understanding. “Thank you.”
So Gran fixed their burns, then they asked if he had any injuries himself.
“None at all, thanks to you two.” He looked carefully at them both. “I know what you risked for me tonight. And I know that without your help, I could never have done it alone. There are no words big enough to thank you for what you did, but I say it anyway... thank you.”
“We were honoured to be able to help,” said Ace. “All twins together.”
“Gran,” said Will very quietly, “what cracked?”
“I don't know,” he replied. “I was worried sick that it was you two. But I see that it was not, and for that I am so very, very grateful. I see your balance getting better by the moment. But something cracked. Perhaps it was Ket's bond to the larch.”
“Maybe we'll find out in our dreams,” yawned Will.
“Dreams,” said Ace ruefully. “Yes, well, better get it over with, I suppose.” He reached into his jacket and pulled out the knife that was his battle trophy. “Long and plain and silver. It glinted in the moonlight. It sank into flesh and I was glad of it... yes, glad that I had saved Gran Starheim's life. It didn't hurt at first. I was even doing the pushing, because I was pulling on the arm that held the knife.”
“This is the knife from your dream?” gasped Will.
“Ah!” said Gran. “I remember. So you never killed anyone, after all. Dreams can be tricky things.”
“Ace Moseley,” said Will, “d'you mean to tell me that you gave yourself all that grief about that dream, all that grief about knives, because you didn't notice that the flesh you were stabbing was your own leg?
“Yep,” said Ace. “There were three elves there, not two. It wasn't as clear as I thought. But the leg was wearing white trousers! I ask you, could my sixteen year old self ever have imagined that my own legs would ever be wearing white trousers?
“I suppose not,” laughed Will. “Honestly, what a loony.”
Gran Starheim looked up at the sound of their laughter, and came over.
“Thank you, Ace,” he said. “I know you saved my life, and I didn't deserve it. Are you all right now?”
“Yes, I am,” said Ace firmly. “Forget it, Gran. You'd have done the same for me. You might not think you would, but you would. We're army, it's instinct. You joined in the battle on the right side, didn't you?”
Gran nodded, then spoke to the general.
“I'm sorry, sir,” he said. “I've done a lot of stupid things.”
Ace and Will decided this was none of their business, and slipped away.

“I followed you, without having a plan. Convinced myself I was doing the right thing. Really, I was jealous, that I hadn't been asked to come. I didn't know what to do next, but when he turned up, it seemed like the right answer. I thought he was going to sort everything out.”
“He was good at convincing people. Very plausible.”
“He was so sure. I liked that. So outspoken. It was appealing.”
“Yes, he had charisma. And he could be quite funny sometimes. Strong leadership, that sorts everything out and makes all the slackers toe the line... I can see how that appeals to people. What made you change your mind?”
“The look on his face when he saw that Ace and Will were there. Just cold hatred. It made me shiver because I knew just how he felt. Jealous. And when you told your story, it all made sense. He was appalling. And if I wasn't careful, I was going to end up just like that.”
“I don't think you would ever be like him, not really. I don't think he ever doubted his own excellence in his life. But I think it's probably true that he was once like you.”
The general was quiet then, thinking, and Gran waited respectfully.
“Don't be too hard on yourself," he said finally. “I happen to believe that everything happens for a reason. Not everyone believes that, I know, and it isn't very scientific, but as I have been told tonight, I am a sentimental fool. I think you were meant to be here tonight and that your presence caused insights into a pattern that helped tip the balance. You don't understand that, and why should you, I scarcely understand it myself, but take it from me. In a weird kind of way, you helped. So that's that. Have a fresh start. And if it's any help, d'you know how I knew it was you tracking us?”
“No sir, how?”
“By the excellence of the tracking. You always were the best in your year at tracking.”
“Thank you, sir,” faltered Gran, looking quite overcome.
“Sonner av Norge,” said the general and clapped him on the shoulder. “Let's go and see if there's any more coffee.”

Everyone slept for so long, there was quite a lot of daylight when they woke. There were still some aches and pains, and things they weren't quite ready to talk about yet, but they were getting there. Bjørk Kinnekulle took charge.
“Our work is over,” he told them all. “You have achieved amazing things, every single one of you, and when we can do such things again, you shall all have a campaign medal for this. But right now, you need time to recuperate, and that you shall have very soon. We'll fix up this old cabin as a thank you then we'll be on our way. I'm going to take you all to Kinnekulle for Christmas. It's not far, an easy train journey. There you can have lights and warmth enough to drive all the horrors away. There you can have leafy beds in warm dens where you can hibernate for weeks. The sprites of Kinnekulle are as different from the sprites of Huskvarna as you can possibly imagine. They will take you to their hearts and love you, and I will be so proud to introduce you all as my friends.”
“Thanks, Bjørk,” smiled Gran. “That sounds wonderful.”

The tension had gone from Gran, thought Ace. His pain was over at last. Yes, he was weary, just like the rest of them, but there was an emptiness in his eyes that worried Ace. When you have spent your whole adult life working for one great cause, one all-consuming purpose, and then, finally, achieve it, what on earth do you do next?