CHAPTER 12 - Home for Christmas

In the Bohemian Forest, the snow lay thick now. The oaks and beeches had their bare bones dressed in white, while the great conifers had their branches weighed down with great swags and bunches of snow. On the ground, the surface was crisp and sparkled with ice crystals. It was early morning, the sun had just risen and a few fairies were out flying, taking some exercise and looking at the new day. One of them was Gia Biagioni, flying wide across the whole encampment, checking all was well. There were hundreds of sprites here and she felt responsible for their safety, just as much as she had done back at Fjaerland.
The Peace Conference was having an official winter break, four weeks to give the elves the chance to sleep properly and for all the sprites to take as much rest as they needed. All over the realm now, sprites would be hibernating. It was two weeks since there had been any news; that had been from Clover Moseley and her party, to say they were travelling to Duisburg with Karl to meet with Hanna and David, and then all of them were going to England for Christmas, to see old friends and take a winter sleep in safety. Gia had no idea what this meeting in Duisburg was about, but she knew and trusted Karl, and knew that Madge thought very highly of Hanna, so there was nothing to worry about there.
It must be nearly Christmas now, thought Gia. She'd lost track of the date. She worked it out and realised it was Christmas Eve. That made her think fondly of her home, the great forested mountainside in Italy and the tiny village nestled in the valley below. How pretty it looked at Christmas time, the lights in the trees, the music coming from the church, the little scenes full of lovely figures in all the houses. No matter what was going on in their world, humans always stopped for Christmas. Gia knew humans well enough to know that it didn't mean the same thing to everyone, but still, it was always there.
I suppose it's a bit like full moon is for us, she thought. It happens, no matter who you are or what you're doing. And all you have to do is take what you need.
Gia looked down to see who was calling her, already beginning to descend. A small elf was waving... one of those irrepressible pines that don't need much sleep... Kiefer Schwarzee, that's who it was. Gia landed to see what he wanted.
“Sergeant Olt's back, ma'am! He and Cor just arrived. General Stalden's got them in the winter canteen, giving them hot drinks.”
“Excellent,” said Gia. “Thanks, Kiefer. Please could you find General Arley and give her the news too?”
The winter canteen was a cosy place, with a good fire kept burning night and day, where the sociable could always find someone to chat to, and anyone might pop in to get warm. Thanks to Kiefer shouting out the news to everyone he met, by the time Luke Olt and Cor Dniester were ready to start their story, the place was full and more were crowding around the door to listen.
“A long, hard journey,” said the sergeant, “and a tragic reason for it, but a successful outcome. We travelled to Amutria first and gathered the evidence. There were plenty of eye witnesses and we took signed statements from every one of them. Between them, they described nine elves clearly and the best descriptions were of the four who had done the actual killing. So, armed with that, we expressed sympathy again on behalf of everyone at the Peace Conference and left for Virful Hill. And then the most extraordinary thing happened. A party of armed fairies – army fairies – turned up with nine elves under arrest – nine elves who matched the descriptions exactly! They'd been arrested at Fayrfield School in England and delivered to Essen by an Ally.”
“David Chambers,” said Madge with admiration. “We have David, and Hogweed Moseley and John Selby to thank for this.”
“The fairies in the escort mentioned those names,” said Cor. “They said that Hogweed and the headmistress, Galantha, would travel to give evidence if necessary, that these elves had invaded the school with knives drawn, intent on murder. Also that three sprites had escaped, two elves and a fairy.”
“We did not need to ask them to make such a journey,” said Sergeant Olt. “Whatever crimes had been intended at Fayrfield, they had not succeeded. And we had the ones who had been guilty at Amutria. We held the trial right away. It was lucky we were there, we were kept busy translating. No question that they were guilty, four of murder and five of conspiracy to murder. The Judge now has them in custody at Virful. And he sends two messages. One, to thank the army for organising this miracle. And two, to ask, now that parliament has gone, how are convicted prisoners to be dealt with? Are there still going to be prisons?”
“It's a good question,” said Gia, “and one we must soon tackle. The Judge at Virful has them safely locked up for now?”
“Oh, yes. He's asleep now – he's a willow – but his people have them well-guarded, Owler Tor standards.”
“Colonel Zsennye is awake, I think, but Senior Envoy Héfiz is not. As soon as he wakes, we three will come up with a temporary solution and I'll send Lieutenant Retezat to Virful with a message. How was crime dealt with before parliament invented prisons, I wonder?”
“Probably within the colony, ma'am,” said Sergeant Olt. “People didn't used to travel about so much. And colonies were bigger, senior sprites had more resources to use. That wouldn't work now. The world's changed too much.”
“This is the problem we keep coming up against again and again,” said Madge. “We must use our imaginations. I think it would be a good idea to give different people the job of coming up with definite proposals for specific problems. That way, when we get going again, we'd have something to work on. It would speed things up a bit.”
“That is a good idea,” said General Stalden. “Yes... fair-minded sprites, who could be trusted to look at a problem from all sides... that could work well.”
“Who would you choose to think about crime and punishment?” said Gia.
“None of us,” said Madge. “Too soft-hearted for most people, I suspect. But not anyone who thinks that execution is a valid option, either. Someone hard but fair, I think, like Envoy Rabot.”
“Thank you, General Arley!” Madge looked up to see that Envoy Rabot was there, listening. She was wearing a slightly mocking smile, but she looked interested.
“If I were offered this task, I would accept it,” she said. “I, too, think it a good plan.”
“Thank you, Strelitzia,” said Gia. “As chair of the peace talks, I do offer it to you. And Madge, I know just what I would like you to do. Put together the arguments for having a queen and say what a modern queen would and would not be able to do.”
“Oh!” said Madge. “Yes... yes, I could do that.”
“Judge Kokořinsko we can ask to come up with a set of proposals to strengthen the Hills,” said Gia, warming to the theme. “And someone must summarise the ideas about setting up schools. Who'd be good at that?”
“Someone young, who knows how young sprites think,” someone suggested.
“I would recommend the fairy who spoke fervently about this in your debate, Strelitzia,” said Madge. “I think she is the Judge from Kamieniece? She is young. What is her name?”
“Oh yes, I know who you mean. But her name... no. Polish names are so hard!”
“Makroślina Władysławowo!” someone called from the back. “She is teaching right now, when she found that some of the Groszowy sprites couldn't read.”
“Thanks, Krokus!” called the Commander.
So many suggestions were made that Gia had to make a list, but the encouraging thing was that once a subject was mentioned, the right person to tackle it quickly came to mind. But there was one thing Gia had thought of that she didn't want to mention out loud. Too much gossip and speculation on this one could be divisive and dangerous. But she knew exactly who she wanted on the task. When the conversation in the winter canteen grew more general, and Cor Dniester had slipped away to find his friends, Gia turned to Sergeant Olt.
“Come and walk with me, will you, Luke?”
When they were alone, Gia came straight to the point.
“I'd like you to write one of these proposals, when you've had a sleep, of course. No-one knows Fjaerland mountain like you do. You climb to Harevollnipa every year, you lay out the course for the Race around the Mountain, you look to the maintenance of the combat training ground and the target range. What I want you to think about is how the mountain could best be shared.”
“Shared!” said Sergeant Olt, astonished.
“I think it is the key to peace. We have won, but to win the co-operation of our enemies we must make a grand gesture. We have failed, Luke, in making the Talende Tree open to all. We have kept the journey difficult and challenging. We have had army guards on the gates and made a ceremony of full moon that keeps people away at other times. Whatever else we do or don't do, there must be an easy path from the beach to the Tree, with no need for anyone even to speak to an army sprite if they don't want to.”
“I see. I do see your point. When you think how it must all look to an outsider... yes, I can think how we can organise that. But there's more, isn't there?”
“Yes, there's more. And I must tell you now that Buchel Arnsberg and Heldreich Pesentheim are strongly opposed, saying it will destroy the army's traditions. But it comes from this new idea about more education. A Sprite College is wanted, where the best students from different countries can come together to learn even more, to get to know each other...”
“... and to meet the Tree.”
“Mmm. I can see why Buchel and Heldreich wouldn't like it. Buchel's completely sound but he hasn't much imagination. And Heldreich never learned to get his brain in gear before he opened his mouth.”
“If you showed them how this could work, they could be won over, perhaps?”
“I don't see why not. Yes, it would mean big changes, but half of camp was burned anyway. If there are to be changes, then now is the time. Sprite College! Just think about it... all the most intelligent young sprites sharing the mountain with the training camp, observing – from a short distance – all the exciting things you can do in the army. Recruitment will go through the roof!”
The sergeant was so interested, he began to pace more quickly, so that Gia had to hurry to keep up. But she didn't mind. She was delighted.
“There must still be a route into the army for the not so clever, of course, but that is easy to organise. This is the separation of education and military training! Imagine if we had recruits who could all read and write, who already knew some maths and science and history. Just think of all the great things we could have instead of classroom lessons!”
“Graded weapons training...”
“Tactics for all!”
“Peacekeeping and diplomacy skills.”
“More strength and fitness training, sports and contests of all kinds!”
“Thank you, Luke,” said Gia fervently. “I knew you'd get it. This is the most important job of all. It will reconcile parliament to losing. It is the base of the army of the future, and also of the well-educated sprites who will be the Hill workers and Envoys of the future. Find me something that uses the space so well that Buchel and Heldreich find they have lost nothing more than a few classrooms. Find me a route to the Tree for all, and space for a beautiful college.”
“And some shared facilities? So we don't all keep ourselves to ourselves?”
“Oh, yes indeed. Swimming pools, sports fields... all kinds of leisure time facilities are easy to share.”
“Music,” said Sergeant Olt firmly. “What really brings sprites together more than anything? Music. That Concourse was never really big enough. A massive place for music, to be shared by all, that's what we need.”
Gia hadn't even thought of that. This was so exactly what they needed.
“And Gus Thurlgrove will build it for you. Whatever you can imagine, that elf can design.”
“I'll need some help,” said the sergeant. “Someone else who knows the whole mountain, someone to bounce ideas off, someone who can draw. Where's Saul Lavall, ma'am? Not that he'll be awake, but he could come when he was.”
“I don't know,” said Gia, “but General Széchenyi will, in fact Madge might know. We'll send for him.”
“Thanks, ma'am. I'm not sure I can sleep now, I'm so excited!”
“Dream deep, my friend,” smiled Gia. “The future is in your hands.”

On Christmas morning, Gia awoke feeling happier than she had for a long time. Optimism about the future had been replaced by confidence. She didn't know why. Nothing had really changed yet. Perhaps it was Sergeant Olt's enthusiasm. Perhaps it was just because it was Christmas Day. Somehow that always seemed like the turning point of the year. The days would get longer again, spring would return. Gia stretched contentedly until her toes peeped out from beneath her blanket, then rolled over. Just for once, she would treat herself to an extra half hour in bed.

In Kinnekulle, Sweden, where the landscape was hard and cold and the sprites were warm and kind, everyone was still asleep. It was still completely dark. Soon, some would wake, but not the exhausted group that had come with their dear friend Bjørk. They were all deep into hibernation, even the pines and the little French imps. Kinnekulle sprites crept each day into their sleeping places, stoking fires and tenderly pulling up blankets over their guests. There was mending going on there, healing and peace and deep, deep dreams.

Over in England, in Cherrytree Close, the time was an hour earlier, but in Gary and Sally Grey's house, no-one was asleep. Laura was still young enough to want everyone up at dawn to open presents, and besides that, Gary and Sally had a special dinner to prepare. Six humans would be sitting down to dinner, with fourteen sprites. When presents had been opened and breakfast cleared away, they set to work. Sally was looking in the fridge.
“I hope we've got enough milk.”
“I'm sure we have,” said Gary. “And fruit juices in several colours. And vodka.”
“Apparently Polish elves love vodka.”
“Oh. Well, try not to let Aesculus get any. That elf is as daft as Ace and Will were when we first met them. D'you remember the Christmas when they got so drunk they fell asleep under the table?”
“Vividly,” said Gary. “That was the outdoor one. Was good fun, actually. But don't worry, nothing's going to go wrong today.”
And it didn't. Early in the afternoon, Val and Primrose came over from Moseley Lodge with Aesculus and Viola. They exclaimed with delight at the table. On top of the table, like a smaller layer on a wedding cake, was another table, dressed just the same in white and silver, with fourteen little chairs round it. In each place was a little goblet, made by Aesculus. They were only stainless steel, but they shone like silver.
“So pretty!” said Val. “You shall be the sprite host, Aesculus, even though you are the youngest, because you have lived here the longest.”
Sally met Val's eyes and smiled. That was a good way of making sure Aesculus behaved himself.
“That's your chair, at the head of the sprite table,” said Sally.
“But Clover's coming! Clover's the senior fairy!”
“But she's coming as a guest,” said Sally. “It's easier for her that way. It's hard coming home when you're so tired and you can't stay long anyway.”
“They're here!” called Rowan from the window.
She ran out to greet David and the rest of their guests, who'd been staying with him at his house. They'd walked round together from Hilton Street. Rose and Clover were there, and two of their team-mates from Fjaerland, Bella Langdon from London and Stella Knightwood from the New Forest. With them were five awesome elves they'd been having adventures with, and a tiny, very ancient fairy called Calla Babele, flying alongside the famous Ally who lived right near Fjaerland, Karl Hagen.
“Karl! Great to meet you at last,” said Gary, coming forward with his hand outstretched. “Welcome.”
“Thank you, Gary! Sally, thank you for your hospitality. And this is Rowan of course, and you must be Laura. It's wonderful to meet you all in real life.”
In a very short time, everyone had met everyone else and they were all seated around the double table, the humans tucking in to a delicious Christmas dinner, and the sprites taking their choice from all the sprite-sized jugs and bowls.

Relaxing now the cooking was over, Sally looked contentedly round at them all. Laura, fascinated by the ancient fairy but politely trying not to stare. Rowan, sharing glances with David. They were still so young, those two, but Sally thought they'd last. They did seem to belong together. Dear Gary, smiling fondly at her from the other end of the table. She returned his smile. And Karl, already a friend from many online chats, how impressive he was. He looked just how Sally imagined a real Viking would have looked. And the sprites... Rose and Clover, practically family, dear as daughters. Val and Primrose, a little shy in such a crowd, but what a brilliant job they were doing of raising the two little ones. Aesculus and Viola were immaculately dressed and beautifully behaved. Stella, Sally could tell, hadn't often been in a human house before. She was looking round in fascination. Bella and Jakub were cronies in mischief, she guessed. They kept making each other laugh. Debin only had eyes for Clover. Handsome Tomasz looked the quiet, observant sort, but just now, he and Sosna were exclaiming over the quality of the vodka and teasing Olcha that it was far too fine for such a youngster as himself. As for Olcha, he was just sweet, not that Sally would ever have insulted him by saying so. In fact he wasn't much taller than Aesculus, who was about twenty years younger.
But Calla... Sally knew that sprites lived about twice as long as humans, but you had to look at Calla to see what that really meant, to actually meet someone who was nearly two hundred years old. When she'd been born, Queen Victoria had been a child of eleven, not even queen yet. Calla was neither impressed nor daunted by her surroundings. Her courtesy was perfect, but to her, everything was just what it was. The past held no sway over her and neither did the future. Yet nothing escaped her. Her mind was sharp and clear.

It was the future that Sally was most concerned about. The war might be over, but so many things could still cause problems. She was relieved that all the sprites she knew and cared most about were safe, at least as far as she knew, but they had all passed through so many dangers. She was concerned for her family too. The future looked unsettled and uncertain. She couldn't shake off the feeling that great changes were coming. And Gary felt the same, she knew that. And with him, the great reader of history, it was more than just a feeling. Once there is peace, that's when you get the upheavals, he had said, and Sally, looking back to things she'd been told about life in England just after the two world wars, could see nothing to contradict that theory. It was the Tree more than anything, Sally thought, as she passed around slices of Christmas Pudding to the humans. She had known that sprites were real before she was old enough to consider that they might not be. Knowing that there was a Tree in Norway that talked to sprites had only been one step further. But to be mentioned in a message from the Tree, that was almost a step too far. For her to know such a Tree existed was one thing. For a Tree to know she existed was unsettling, even for an Ally.
Karl's eyes widened with surprise.
“This is delicious!” he exclaimed. “What a flavour.”
“Don't you have Christmas Pudding in Norway?” asked Laura.
“Not like this,” said Karl. “We have Julegrøt, a pudding made of rice, and we eat it on Christmas Eve.”
“Oh, that's nice,” said Laura politely, though Sally could tell from her eyes that she was thinking, rice pudding at Christmas?
“I'm so glad you like it,” said Sally. “Not everyone does, but those who do, love it. Do you have all your celebrations on Christmas Eve, then?”
“Yes, all that are in the home. Christmas Eve for the family, then on Christmas Day we go out, to visit friends, or to ski, or for those who have eaten and drunk too much, to rest and recover!”
Sally thought about that while everyone was laughing.
So alike, yet not quite the same. An ordinary human who happened to know about sprites, just like her family, yet he was just that bit different. He was Norwegian and a step closer to the forest, a step closer to understanding the mystery that was going on here, that human science hadn't yet touched.
“You're a bridge,” she said, without realising she had spoken out loud.
Karl looked at her strangely, then nodded in comprehension.
“You have great... ah... klarsyn..."
“Perception,” said Calla.
“Thank you. Yes, perception, Sally. That is just what the Tree told me. I thought at first he meant between sprites and humans, but no. He meant between himself and the rest of the Allies.”
“No-one could be better,” smiled Sally.
“Ah, it is easier for me,” said Karl. “All my life, I have lived close to the mountain of Fjaerland. It always felt different to other mountains. To me, the Tree is the answer to a mystery, not the start of one.”
David was nodding his agreement, while passing his plate up for seconds.
“Absolutely no-one better,” he said. “He may have a Lenovo Legion with 16 GB of RAM, and a camera that can practically see round corners, but his heart's in the forest.”

When even David had eaten enough and everyone, sprites included, was sitting around the fire drinking coffee, Karl told them some more about his meeting with the Tree.
“I have to admit, at first I did not realise how very strange it would all seem to other humans. Alone with Pice and his team, and Debin and his team, it all seemed perfectly natural. I was surprised and honoured that the Tree wanted to meet me, but I did not think how odd it was that a Tree should wish to meet anyone at all.”
“You had already heard of the Talende Tree though, hadn't you?” asked Rowan.
“Oh yes, and I also knew that elves could talk to their own trees, and I knew about Signals. So I suppose it was easier for me to accept this... this extra dimension. But nothing could have prepared me for the experience. I was looking up, up, into a Tree that seemed to touch the sky. I felt so tiny! And that is not a feeling I have often had, as you can imagine. And I heard him speak, just as the sprites do, directly into my mind. I felt his welcome, and his gladness. There was a kind of respect there – not that I wanted or needed that! - an acknowledgement that I was not part of his world and that he was grateful to me for coming. I stammered out something about the honour being mine, and what could I do to help him, and he glowed! Like a tree in full summer leaf, illuminated by the rays of dawn!”
“This we all saw, also,” said Debin. “Such beauty, I can hardly describe it.”
“You made him happy,” said Clover. “Your words made him overjoyed and he glowed.”
Everyone was listening intently, trying to understand, Sally included. But Calla, Sally thought, most intently of all.
“His words, though,” Karl continued, “seemed most mysterious. As I have since found out from all our friends here, this is normal! First, he said many kind things, praising me, things I could not repeat without sounding boastful. It is amazing that such a Tree should be so loving and friendly, but he is. But then he gave me three messages. One was for Hanna. Tell her to choose her place, he said, the place dearest to her heart. And take David with you, for him she knows. So far, clear enough, except we don't know why Hanna must choose such a place.”
“That's normal too,” said Clover. “You often don't find out why until the time comes.”
“We will have to be patient,” said Karl. “Next, he told me I was a bridge, and that was when he mentioned all your names, as I said in my email, along with Leif, Inge, Marta, Janusz and others. Gather them all, all who call you leader, when the time comes. Now, we don't know what time the Tree means, but it does sound as if there will come a time when we all need to meet. So I am doing all I can to warn people that this is something that might happen. There are so many more of us now! Since you made the video with Rowan, the number has nearly doubled. Fortunately, we are in touch with all of them through David's website.”
“But where will we have to go?” asked Laura.
“I would say, to the place Hanna has chosen,” said Sally. “Where did she choose?”
“Yes, of course,” said David. “That makes sense. Well, she didn't know why, any more than we do, but she said the place dearest to her heart was called Titisee. Which is an unfortunate sort of name, but there you go.”
“Where is it?” asked Gary.
“In the south of Germany, in the Black Forest,” said Karl.
“As far as we could make out,” said David, “it's a sort of Disneyland for old ladies. It's got a beautiful lake, lovely walks, cafes with gateau, shops with cuckoo clocks and it's all surrounded by forest.”
“Never mind your 'old ladies', cheeky,” said Sally. “It sounds lovely.”
“Does it have a railway station?” asked Tomasz.
“Your mind is working the way mine is, Tomasz,” said David. “Yes, it does. And it's actually not that far from Zurich, the place the sprites chose all those years ago...”
“...when parliament was founded,” Tomasz finished. “There is a pattern here, isn't there?”
“We think so,” said Karl, “because Hanna didn't know anything about Zurich when she mentioned Titisee, nothing about its significance. But it's just as easy to get to.”
“What was the third message?” asked Aesculus.
“Ah, yes,” said Karl. “You wouldn't believe how happy he sounded when he said it! Watch for the spring... oh, watch for the spring!
“He is getting better,” said Clover. “The more people that go and see him, the better he gets.”
“Oh, we need to get more people to go back to Fjaerland then,” said Rose. “Maybe Signals will come back to life!”
“Maybe all the sick trees will get better!” said Rowan.
“Maybe,” said Calla. “Maybe both... maybe even more. To me, he explained many things I had not understood before. But he finished with these same words, Watch for the spring. It should be our one aim, our rallying cry, until we understand its meaning.”
They talked for a long time. Clover and Debin described their adventures, making them as funny as they could, and for a while everyone was light-hearted and laughing. But finally, Rowan and Laura went into the kitchen to clear up. David went to help them, and Viola and Aesculus went too, to jump about and play. Then the conversation around the fire took a more serious turn, and they discussed the latest news from the Bohemian Forest, that had only come last night, that the trial of the murderers was over.
“ 'Justice has been done', that's what General Nella said in her message,” said Sally. “It doesn't seem enough, somehow. What do you think, Calla? You are Romanian too, aren't you?”
“It is many years since I was in Romania,” said Calla. “I had to travel far and wide to learn all the languages. But I think I can say that Romanian sprites will be glad of justice. They will fold their arms and grimly nod their heads, but that will be the end of it. Why, what more could be done? What would humans do?”
“Oh, I don't know. Some kind of memorial, I suppose. Something to ensure that the little ones would always be remembered, and to act as a warning, to take care that such things should not be allowed to happen again.”
“That is an interesting idea,” said Calla. “A thing of beauty, a memorial and a warning. Romanian sprites would be pleased, I think, if such a thing were made.”
The adult humans looked at each other, thinking the same thing.
“David is a very fine artist,” said Gary. “The young sprites who were lost, Carpen and Cires and Achille and Silene, what were their plants?”
“Those were their names? I had not heard their names. Carpen and Cires will be the elves, the trees called hornbeam and cherry. Achille will be the goblin, the plant called yarrow. Silene will be the fairy. The flower is called Silene dioica, in English, red campion.”
Gary was writing it all down.

There was music as well as news that day, games and fun as a respite from war and grief. And soon there would be a proper winter rest for Debin and the elves at David's house and as much as they needed for Clover and the fairies here at this house. For now, they could just enjoy each other's company. It was a wonderful Christmas Day, one that Sally knew she would always remember. When their guests had gone, and their daughters were asleep, Sally was sitting at her dressing table. Gary came into the bedroom and sat down on the end of the bed.
“Karl's great, isn't he? You were dead right about him being a bridge. When he was talking, I felt as if he was answering questions I didn't even know how to ask. I don't feel worried about Laura any more.”
“No? That's wonderful. Neither do I, now you mention it. It's the talk of the Tree that made the difference.”
“Yes. That Tree knows exactly what he's doing. He knows Laura's too young. He knows what's going to happen, what changes the sprites will make, before they know themselves. But Sal, how? This isn't magic. This is science, we know that. How on earth does it work?”
“There've been hints, here and there. That article in the paper... that book Rowan was reading... the idea that plants are all inter-connected. It's not mainstream science yet, but it could be, one day. It's moving that way. Suppose it's true, and plants really are all connected. By underground root networks, by molecules of air and water... imagine the pattern of it, it would look like a map of the internet, server to server, all inter-connected, only far more complex. But one of those servers is at the centre of the web. One had to be first.”
“The Talende Tree is the centre? Yes, could be... so it would pick up everything. Or it could. Could tune in to anything.”
“Yes, but even more than that, because the sprites belong in that network, but they can move around. They have complex minds, thoughts, language, hopes, dreams, regrets, plans... and they go and talk to this Tree directly. They touch it and it can sense their thoughts and memories, so it comes to know them better than they know themselves. And this has been going on for centuries. The more the sprites come, the more it knows and the more it loves them. And the more it loves them, the more they come. Nature is full of perfect circles that don't seem to have a beginning or an end.”
“It's hardly just a Tree any more, then. I mean, it is a Tree, it can't move around or talk with a mouth, but it does seem as if it – he – is a person.”
“A person full of love,” said Sally. “Did the Tree become a person, or did a person – long, long ago – once become a tree? Did some elf love his tree so much he pooled with it until they became one person? I don't suppose we'll ever know. But it's possible. And now he's a big, beating heart of love at the centre of the network, loving everything and knowing everything. So it's no wonder he talks back – or puts his thoughts into other minds, if you prefer. And because he knows so much, his advice and warnings are always good.”
“Yes... yes... and he's not predicting the future in any silly fortune-telling kind of way. He's got so much data... he can put everything together and see the way things will go, and help people be ready for it.”
“And that is how he knows about us, and David and Karl and Hanna. Because we are in the hearts and minds of so many sprites.”
Gary stood up, looking more at peace than he had for quite a while.
“It's beginning to make sense. All this! To be part of all this. I can hardly take it in. And it's all thanks to you. Because you fished an elf out of a well in the Isle of Man.”
He put his arms round her and kissed her.
“David's a lucky man,” he said, “to have our Rowan love him. But he's not as lucky as I am.”