CHAPTER 13 - The Rogue Unit

New Year's Day for sprites is 2nd February. It's still winter. Even in balmy Mediterranean lands you couldn't really call it spring, and in northern or mountainous places, the thaw is nowhere near. And yet... there's a feeling that the worst of winter might be over, there's just that bit more daylight and some of the plants are beginning to wake up.
Pice Inari, close to the Tree and keenly aware, knew very well what day it was. He knew changes were coming. Quite what would happen, he had no idea, but he felt sure that here, on the very edge of spring, was when they would start. But was anything going to happen on Fjaerland mountain? Surely the whole realm knew by now that the Bohemian Forest was where everything was happening. But then again, everyone also knew the war was over. It was possible, it was just possible. Telling himself it wasn't very likely, and not to be sentimental, nevertheless at dawn he walked down to the beach, just in case any new recruits had arrived. He was no training sergeant, but he was all there was. As he stepped onto the beach, he saw nothing at first. But then – almost as if they too hadn't really expected anything – a few sprites stood up and looked towards him. In ones and twos, they came closer. Pice hadn't a clue what you were supposed to say, so he just followed his heart.
“Welcome,” he said. “You come to Fjaerland at dawn on 2nd February, keeping up a great tradition, so thank you for that. But the world has been turned upside down. Nothing is as it was and the army is not here to greet you. But we will not let that daunt us. Until we hear otherwise, you are the new first years and I will do my best to get your training off to a good start.”
The intrepid few – twelve, there were – looked at each other, looked at him and smiled and followed him back up the mountain.

Many miles east in Sweden, the fourteen elves of the Rogue Unit were setting out on a training run. Their long hibernation had taken away their exhaustion and helped them back to a balance after all they had seen and done, but though they had plenty of energy, they were thin and out of condition. Bjørk had suggested that a few good long runs would put that right and be an excellent way to see a bit more of the countryside.
Will would have preferred to come back in summer for that, when there wasn't so much snow around, but he didn't really object. They needed to do this, to rebuild their unison as much as to have exercise. They had a long journey ahead of them and they couldn't do it all by train.
He'd only woken up yesterday – last, as usual – but no-one had mentioned forfeits. No-one was feeling silly enough for that, Will guessed. Content, yes. Satisfied at what they'd achieved, happy in each other's company, yes, but silly, no.
How good it felt to stretch your legs, to know the joy of keeping pace, to feel the chill of the wind in your hair. Short hair, now, which felt very strange. He and Ace were side by side, with Dub and Lupa behind them. Dale and Betch weren't far ahead. No-one was racing, they were just doing an even pace for a long distance, but all the same, Gran and Bjørk, Gran and Ross and Fran and Peter were a good way ahead. Bringing up the rear cheerfully were Hagtorn Maridalen and Collen Dolfawr, who were rather stocky and also by far the oldest.
Will couldn't remember too much about his dreams. He had a feeling they'd been very complex, full of overwhelming amounts of detail, so perhaps his brain had been having a good clearout. He hoped so. He certainly didn't feel overwhelmed now. Ace had said he couldn't remember much either, and that in any case, he was not going to set any store by anything he thought dreams had been about ever again.
We've all changed, thought Will, as he dug in to tackle a steeper bit of terrain. Some things are so big, they don't just leave their mark, they change who you are.
They'd seen evil, seen what real evil could do, and been overwhelmed by the knowledge of what Gran Herdalen had suffered. And they had seen death, sudden and shocking. Those were not things you could sleep away, but at least freshness gave you a bit of perspective. And Huskvarna was defeated, you had to hold on to that. Surely without him, there was hope for the future. There was a lot to think about. But then again, maybe this wasn't the time. He was slowing a bit, while Ace looked as if he'd really like to be going faster. Will grinned at him, to say, oh, go on then, and dug in deeper to get a bit more speed.

The flyers weren't around when they got back to Kinnekulle. Sizzle had taken them on a circuit of the lake, because they'd all wanted exercise too. The elves got a fire going, ready for when their friends returned. Will was still panting a bit and he wasn't the only one, but their run had done them all good. Even Gran Herdalen was actually laughing at something Bjørk had said. He'd often had a peaceful smile as they'd travelled up to Kinnekulle and soaked up its Christmas warmth and generous hospitality, but laughter, no. That was new.
Will watched the flyers coming down. You couldn't really tell, now, who'd had army training and who hadn't. Some had gained experience and some had gained confidence. They were all great and even an elf could see how well their unison worked in the air. Will helped pass drinks to them all when they landed. But then, he supposed, he had better do a bit of work on the batteries. Elf trees they had in abundance here, but even those wouldn't make your phone work if your battery wasn't charged. Each phone battery needed a battery to charge from, and they had quite a few phones between them. It was going to take a while.
They'd been out of touch for far too long. The general would decide how and when to share their own news, but getting news in was another matter. When had they last seen any news? Not since the last battery had given out and no-one had had enough energy to bother with it. At that time, knowing what was going on in the world wouldn't have made any difference to what they had to do themselves. It had needed all their focus, all their teamwork, to survive in good enough shape to win through.
And we did it, thought Will, tackling the acid with warm and steady hands in a good light. Once the battery was made, he charged his phone, and then took it for a boost on an elf tree. By then, some of the Kinnekulle sprites had heard there might be some news to hear, and were gathering around to hear it. Will brought them up to date.
“The last thing we heard,” he said, scrolling back through messages, “was a text from David Chambers. He was summarising a long post on the website from Clover Moseley. We heard that the former Premier had only just survived his transformation and had shortly afterwards died peacefully. We also heard that Karl Hagen had met the Tree and was going to Duisburg to meet Hanna Schell and David.”
“And we can't see Clover's original post?” asked Gran.
“Not without a computer. You could phone Colonel Dünnwald at Essen and ask him to read it to you. But oh... wait a sec... this is the first of the things we missed, a personal text from Clover herself. She says, Will, I don't know why, but something tells me General Herdalen needs to know this and I bet you're wherever he is. Tell him that when the Premier was an elf again, he was acting like a new-born just out of the chrysalis. Except for three things. He remembered Karl. He remembered Calla. And he remembered something else and suddenly exclaimed 'Lars, no! Wasn't Klethra enough for you? Don't be crazy'."
“Aah,” sighed Gran, a long, heartfelt sigh. “Bless you, beautiful Clover. That testimony... now, when we tell our story, we will be believed.”
“You always said, if we found the Premier, it would explain a lot,” said Bjørk.
“He had disappeared too completely,” said Gran. “Huskvarna was getting too fond of transforming others. I did wonder. But I never heard about the rat! No-one who'd seen him thought to mention it.” He stopped musing and looked up. “Sorry, Will, I'm sure there's more. What else have you got for us?”
“Official bulletin from General Stalden: Colonel Mento Zsennye has arrived at Bohemian Forest to represent Special Brigade at the peace conference.”
“Ah, good!” said Major Maridalen. “He's awful, but he's a real soldier. And a real elf.”
“Yes,” smiled Gran. “Someone has to speak for them, and he's next in line, no question.”
“Another from General Stalden,” said Will. “Oh, this is interesting!”
He told them the news about Sergeant Olt's return from the trials at Virful Hill and the attack on Fayrfield School.
“So all the murderers were caught? And three escaped, heading north? Well, I think we know which three those were.”
“Good old Hogweed,” said Ace. “He defended his school all right, didn't he? That's joyful news. And David drove them to Essen in the Porsche? That's a story I want to hear as soon as we get the chance!”
“More from General Stalden ...conference official winter break, December 15th to January 15th. They've been going again for a fortnight now, then. Official checking-in post from Clover... she and all her team, plus Karl, going to Moseley Wood for Christmas... oh, I'm sorry we missed that!”
“Did Clover say anything about why Karl had to go to Duisburg, or what the Tree said to him?”
“Nothing on that, sir, no. Nothing from Clover since that update, December 19th. Oh, a Christmas message! A text... he's learned to text, Ace! Happy Christmas Will and Ace and General Gran and Betch and all your friends, I love you all from Aesculus Moseley.”
General Herdalen swallowed hard and blinked his eyes.
“The future is in very safe hands,” he said.
“There's a big gap after that. No summaries from Essen... router gone down over Christmas, maybe. Lots more personal stuff, greetings... nothing official until January 15th, General Stalden, Conference officially resumed today.”
“And that is where we should be,” said Bjørk. “We have to go back and explain in person what's happened, and that is the best place to do it.”
“And face the music,” said Gran. “ I think you're right, Bjørk. It's a while till thaw, but we're nearly fit now. We've been deserters long enough.”
“Will's not a deserter,” said Maag. “Sergeant Svir told him to come.”
General Herdalen stared at her.
“That's very true, Maag. What about it, Will? D'you feel you ought to go back to Essen? Or will you come to the Bohemian Forest?”
“I'm coming with you,” said Will. “I'd have joined you whether they told me to or not. Everyone knows that.”
“Good,” said Bjørk. “Another training run tomorrow, then. And the day after, we head south. I will get us back to Malmö. And after that, General Herdalen sir, you will be taking back command?”
Gran nodded gravely. “Colonel Kinnekulle, old friend, I will.”

When the Rogue Unit reached Malmö, Clover and her team were arriving in Prague. Karl had gone back to Norway after Christmas, but the weary sprites had needed time to hibernate before they were ready to travel again. It had taken them over two weeks to reach Prague. Calla was most reluctant to use trains, so they had adopted a simpler version of their old technique, deciding on daily rendezvous points, with elves and fairies choosing their own routes. It had been very cold and often snowing, so Clover was grateful that they had at least convinced Calla of the advantages of hitching lifts on the top of lorries.
After Prague, the journey got slower, with the roads getting smaller and the towns less frequent. The nearer they got to the Bohemian Forest, the more carefully Clover kept track of what day it was, and kept her phone charged and checked regularly for messages. So she knew that Ace and Will were on the move again and that General Herdalen had been delighted with her message. She was getting chatty texts from Rowan with news from home and she knew that David had started work on a painting that he hoped would be his best yet. And she had received some very welcome instructions from General Stalden to aim for a station called Bodenmais, where they would be met and escorted to the Peace Conference. And now, they were into the fringes of the forest, following the little single-track railway line. Their epic journey was nearly over.
She glanced across at Rose and smiled. And Rose smiled back, understanding. They had gone from their work of short hops across France and Germany, all the way to Greece, then across the continent to Norway, down to England and now across Germany again. The end was in sight. A little station was coming into view and old friends were ahead, including Madge. Clover realised she wanted to see Madge again more than any other sprite in the world.
One by one, the fairies landed on the station roof and folded their wings. Cautiously, Clover lowered her hood. It wasn't that cold, in fact it was rather a nice morning. Somewhere nearby, a blackbird was singing. Apart from that, there was silence, without even the gentle rush of wind and wing that you heard when you were flying. The silence was broken by a loud squawk from Bella.
“Wayne!” she yelled, and dived off the roof. Clover and the others quickly followed her, to see Wayne and another elf coming out from the cover of undergrowth and waving to them.
“Hi Bella!” shouted Wayne. “Oh, it's wonderful to see you all again! Oh, this is Stan! And...oh!”
Wayne bowed respectfully and so did Stan.
“Miss Calla, welcome. We've come to escort you. Are the elves coming on the train? Five minutes, then. It gets in at 11.21. Some water, Miss Calla?”
“Thank you. You are Stan Gruski? You have done great honour to your colony. Tell me, does Wici Gruski still live?”
“She does, ma'am, in fact she is here right now. She and Jesion travelled together to bring the founder colonies together and then came on here. Is she a friend of yours, then?”
“Yes, we worked together at Wielkopolska for a while. Many years ago now.”
“Here's the train,” said Clover.
They all stepped back a few paces into cover. The little train pulled quietly to a halt. This was the end of the branch line, and it wasn't going back just yet. A couple of passengers got off and headed straight towards the nearby village. The guard walked down to the engine to talk to the driver. And five elves jumped from the roof, so fast you would never have seen it unless you were looking out for it, and even then it just looked like a trick of the light. They touched down together onto the rather mushy little platform and instantly disappeared into cover.
“Over here!” called Clover softly and presently they reappeared, pushing aside a drooping larch fringe.
“Hello, Captain Wilanów,” said Wayne.
“Oh!” exclaimed Debin. “Wayne and Stan! How glad I am to see you again, alive and well after all your adventures. You remember Jakub, of course. Did you ever meet Sosna... Olcha... Tomasz?”
“I remember your faces well,” said Stan, shaking hands. “I'm glad to meet you properly. Let's get you all back to base so you can rest after your journey. D'you want to lead, Wayne? I'll bring up the rear.”
Bella was at the front, chatting to Wayne the whole way. Stella was flying slowly overhead to accompany Calla, who didn't want to walk. Debin and the others were talking over their shoulders to Stan. They were talking Polish, so Clover could understand her friends but not Stan. That always seemed extremely weird to Clover so she tuned it out and talked quietly to Rose who was walking alongside her.
“This is an amazing forest,” said Rose. “It's so big! It makes me want to whisper.”
“It's wonderful,” said Clover, looking round. “And so quiet! And so beautiful. And this is February, when absolutely everything looks its very worst. Imagine what it must look like in spring!”
“Watch for the spring,” said Rose happily.
“We're in the right place for that.”

Finally they arrived at a great glade surrounded by huge trees of outstanding beauty. All through the trees they could see sprite houses, hundreds of them, of all styles and shapes and sizes. It was like arriving at an enormous colony. Around the glade, criss-crossed with sprite paths through the snow, were several buildings, some basic and practical, and some cosy and welcoming. But in the centre was the most amazing sprite building Clover had ever seen.
“That's Rowan Hall?” gasped Rose. “It's awesome. Look how it shimmers, it almost disappears.”
“I never saw anything like it,” said Clover. “I can't wait to see inside.”
Wayne led them first into one of the cosy places. A crackling fire, comfortable benches and even better, steaming urns.
“Conference is still in session,” said Stan. “ I bet you get loads of questions when they come out. But for now at least, you can have a rest.”
“Mug of tea, Rose?” grinned Wayne.
“Ooh, yes please.”
“An Ally gets tea for us,” said Wayne. “We have so many Allies now! We have some human money. It's Norwegian, but they don't mind. We can send shopping lists by text, and then send people to collect the supplies.”
“Very good organisation,” said Debin. He looked very impressed. “Stan, is there anyone else here from the Wielkopolska Unit?”
“No, sir. Some from Special Brigade, yes. Colonel Zsennye is here now, and a few other officers, plus the people who were here already like Major Mecsek and Sergeant Brunescio. But from the unit itself, no.”
“Does the rest of the unit know the Premier's been found?” asked Wayne.
“They will by now,” said Debin. “Mr. David Chambers has sent out this news, with a request that it gets passed on to parliament Hills in particular. What will they all do next, I wonder?”
“What would you have done?” asked Clover. “If you had heard that another team had found the Premier, and there were no other orders?”
“Hmm. You know, I think I would return to Wielkopolska. Hoping we could regroup there and decide together what to do. You think that is what the rest will do? Yes, it could be so.”
There began to be a bit of bustle outside. Some sprites came in with teapots on trolleys and filled them at the urns. Others came in to carry spare benches out into the midday sun. Leaving Calla dozing comfortably near the fire, Clover and the others went outside to see what was happening. Sprites were beginning to emerge from Rowan Hall, most of them slowly, still talking things over in little groups. Some flew up to stretch their wings, some headed purposefully towards the little canteen. One was looking around... one very familiar face.
“Madge!” called Clover, waving hard.
Madge's face lit up. Clover raced towards her, Rose and Bella and Stella not far behind.
“Oh, my dears,” said Madge, embracing them all at once. “I am so glad to see you all again. Well done, very well done indeed. Everyone in the army is so very proud of you. Where is Calla Babele?”
“Asleep by the fire,” grinned Clover.
“Then we will let her rest,” said Madge. “She'll be needed this afternoon. You all will. Everyone's agog to hear every detail. Take me to meet your splendid elves, will you?”
So Clover introduced Debin and the others. They were a bit shy at first, but Madge soon got them to relax. She helped herself to a drink and explained to all of them what was needed.
“If you feel up to it, we'd like all of you on the platform in there this afternoon. Let Clover tell the story from her point of view and let Captain Wilanów tell it from his. Then the Commander will invite questions. Questions may be put to any of you. Some people will be sceptical, they will want to cross-check every fact. That's fine. It's good, really. Don't let them rattle you.”
“Oh, goodness,” said Clover. “On a platform, in front of all those delegates?”
“You can do it,” said Madge. “You have tackled everything life has thrown at you and done it very well, and you can do this.”
“Could we go in and have a look round now, while it's empty?” said Rose. “It might not seem so scary, then.”
“That's a good idea, Rose. Go right in and make yourselves at home. It really is a beautiful building.”
As the others started to move off, Madge had another quiet word with Clover.
“Have you heard from Ace since Christmas?”
“Yes, a couple of texts. They're all awake now and I think they're on the move.”
“No clue where they are or what they've been doing?”
“No,” said Clover. “Not even a hint. I'd tell you if there was, Madge, but he's said nothing about that. Nothing at all, as if it wasn't his story to tell. But for all that, whatever they were doing, I think it's over. I've known Ace since he was born and it's nothing more than a feeling, from the words he uses and the way he phrases things. But I think they've succeeded, I think the cost was high and I think they're coming here.”
“That in itself is very valuable information. I trust your intuition. Even for a fairy, it's remarkable. Thank you very much, Clover. And now I must go and greet Calla Babele.”
“I'll come and wake her up for you,” said Clover. “I've had a lot of practice at that.”

By the time Clover caught the rest up, the Commander had come in to talk to them. She, too, wanted to thank them for their efforts and to warn them what would happen in the afternoon. Clover found herself feeling less nervous now. After all, what was there to worry about? All you had to do was tell the truth. And meanwhile, there was this fantastic building to look at. By sprite standards, it was huge, even bigger than the Great Hall, though possibly not quite as lofty. And so beautiful, full of lovely detail everywhere and so clever.
“I can't get over these windows,” she said. “So thin, yet they let in so much light!”
“I never saw anything so clever,” said Tomasz. “From the outside, they change the angle of the light so much that the building seems to disappear. Yet inside it is so bright!”
“But never dazzling,” said Rose. “So green and gentle. I love it! I was feeling a bit nervous when Madge said we had to sit up here but I'm not now. Just looking around makes me feel happy.”
“Who has made this?” asked Debin in wonder. “I never saw anything like it. These pillars... surely they are exactly like the ones at Wielkopolska? How is that possible?”
“We'll find out,” said Clover. “I'm sure we'll get plenty of chance to talk later. Oh!”
Running in through the main doors were a lot of old friends. Wayne and Stan had told everyone who knew them. Kiefer Schwarzee was there, as well as Droz, Kes, Vin, and Phil and Rob. Jenny Gutsch came too, and following her in a friendly but more stately fashion, the senior sprite from Knightwood, one of the delegates, who wanted to congratulate Stella in person.
“They are so loved,” said Olcha. “I mean, this does not surprise me, but how kind they are in the army! I had no idea they were like this.”
“It is more than comradeship,” admitted Tomasz.
“I like it,” said Sosna. “They are so warm!”
“When this is all over,” said Jakub, “I thought we would get sent home to Poland. But now, I'm not so sure. They would find room for us here, if we wanted it. And actually, I think I could do that.”
“I was just thinking the same thing, Jakub,” said Debin. “But here come a lot of older ones, taking their seats again. It must be nearly time for the questions. Hey, Clover! Where shall we sit, do you think?”
“Oh,” said Clover, feeling a bit nervous again when she saw the place filling up. “Not on the stage – not yet – but near it, so we're ready when they want us.”
“Should we not go and get Calla?” asked Tomasz.
“No, I'm pretty sure Madge – I mean, General Arley – will be looking after her.”
On the stage was a little desk for the Commander, for her notes, and behind it a stool where she could perch when she wasn't talking. Now a couple of goblins that Clover didn't know came in and grinned at the newcomers in a friendly fashion. One of them brought spare chairs from the side of the hall and tossed them one by one to the other up on the stage. One, on the Commander's left, they covered with a blanket and also a cushion. On the other side were nine plain chairs, five behind and four in front.
“No, no,” said Bella. “Five in front. Put the elves in front!”
The goblin replied cheerfully in Czech.
“I'll tell him,” said Jakub. “She said, 'It's perfect, thank you!'”
The goblin gave Jakub a thumbs-up and left the stage.
Bella glared at Jakub. The Commander was coming in now, escorting Calla. The entire hall rose respectfully to its feet. It was too late to mess about now.
“Don't worry, Bella,” whispered Jakub. “I will sit behind you, and every time you speak, you will know that behind your head my hands will be making the signs of animal horns.”
“You are so dead, Jakub,” said Bella, smiling sweetly as the Commander beamed encouragingly at them all.

“This afternoon we welcome new arrivals,” said the Commander. “Calla Babele, formerly Chief Interpreter to the parliament and latterly interpreter to the tree of power known as the Enlightening Tree, needs no introduction from me. Her fame crosses the realm. Her recent companions, though, we will now invite to introduce themselves.” She turned first to Debin. “Would you please come up now and state your name, nationality, rank and unit and take a seat.”
Led by Debin, they filed up.
“Debin Wilanów, Polish, captain in the Wielkopolska Unit.”
Jakub, Sosna, Tomasz and Olcha followed him, then it was Clover's turn.
“Clover Moseley, English, lieutenant, Search and Rescue Unit,” she said, as confidently as she could. So many eyes were looking at her! She looked up higher instead, only to see all her Fjaerland contemporaries in the gallery, cheering silently and pumping the air. She wasn't sure that helped.
“I now invite Calla Babele to address the conference,” said the Commander.
Calla rose to her feet and bowed gravely, then stood up straight and spoke clearly in faultless German.
“Thank you, Gia Biagioni. Thank you, sprites of the realm. I have two facts to lay before you, then I will finish with a warning. I tell you now, the Enlightening Tree is dead. He died on the night the Talende Tree was injured by Lars Huskvarna. On that night also, a shock went out across the realm, weakening every plant. The obvious conclusion is inescapable. The Talende Tree is, and always has been, the pre-eminent tree of power in the realm.
I tell you also that Vinco Gennargentu, formerly Premier, is dead. He died in my arms. He had been transformed into a rat, for so long a time that there was very little of himself left. You will hear evidence about who was responsible for this.
Now for the warning. There is a glimmer of hope for the future. Only a glimmer – we are still fewer and fewer each year. It will require unity of purpose. Army, parliament, Hill and colony must work together. Without this, all will fail. Yet it is so simple to achieve. All – all who can – must meet the Tree. There must be free access for all, day and night, summer and winter, with no need to ask the permission of any other sprite whatsoever. Without this, any success will be temporary and superficial. With it, however, the future could be better than any of you could dare to hope.
Parliament, I say to you: you lost. It is no wonder you lost, you were led by those who cared only for their own plans. Be grateful you are here at all. Army, I say to you: the Talende Tree is not yours. He belongs to us all. In a moment I will sit, but first I will pay tribute to these nine sprites you see before you. With courage and kindness they have conquered every difficulty that lay in their way. If you here all work together the way they have done, you will have peace before the sap rises and by Midsummer, a new realm.”

The applause wasn't instant – Calla had a way of coming straight to the point that did stun people – but once it started, it was long and loud. As it died down, the Commander stood.
“I will now take questions,” she said, “but may I just say that I personally agree with every word Calla has said.”
At first the questions were all about the Premier's death. Someone called Pepeo Drina, who was the Chief Lawyer, darted questions at each of them in turn, perhaps trying to catch them out on details, seeing if they had made all this up. If there was anyone who hadn't believed Calla, they weren't going to say so, but they would pick holes elsewhere if they could. Who else was there? What day was this? The more calmly they answered the questions, the more the story seemed to be accepted. They were just checking, Clover told herself. It seemed to her that many of them had already thought the Premier to be dead. Then Clover was closely questioned, as she had expected to be, about the Premier's last words. She described very carefully how he had changed from newborn wonder to a frightened memory, and then back to newborn again, and repeated his exact words precisely, time and again. All the others were asked to repeat the words too, and they all did so, with perfect accuracy.
“I believe your testimony,” said the Chief Lawyer. “And I agree that it appears to accuse someone called Lars of being the one who transformed him into a rat. Sudden memory of the moment before transformation is a well-known phenomenon. But it does not prove that the Lars in question was Lars Huskvarna. Lars is a very common name, with variants in every language. What language was the Premier speaking?”
“Basic working German,” said Calla, “as spoken at Wielkopolska between sprites who do not know each other's languages.”
“Fair enough. And the use of the name Klethra does remind one of Lars Huskvarna, I admit. The connection is obvious. But I have never heard any story about Huskvarna transforming Klethra Diolkos into a rat. Has anyone here ever heard of such a thing?”
Bergfrue Grytten spoke up.
“His troops invaded Vingen Hill transformed into mice,” she pointed out. “Perhaps Diolkos was there on that occasion, and the Premier was referring to that?”
“Possibly,” said the Chief Lawyer. “I'm not saying I don't think it was Huskvarna that transformed him. I think it probably was. But it doesn't matter what I think. What matters is proof. Now, you've proved the Premier's dead. Ten eye-witnesses, that's good proof. You've proved where he's been since the Battle of Fjaerland – in the care of this Ally. How did he get from Wielkopolska to Fjaerland? Can anyone explain that?”
General Stalden gave evidence then, of how Special Brigade had put shrunken captives into cages and how army flyers had mounted a rescue mission.
“We liberated over a hundred,” she said. “But in one of those cages we found the rat. Now we know it was really the Premier. Evidently, the Premier was not captured fighting for the army. So he must have been in Special Brigade care already. Already caged.”
“That seems logical. Is any member of Special Brigade here who remembers the rat being brought to Fjaerland from Wielkopolska?”
There were a few members of the brigade there, but as people glanced at them, they shook their heads. Then Mento Zsennye himself rose to speak.
“I saw no rat,” he said. “There was no talk of such a thing. However, if Lars Huskvarna had transformed the Premier, he wasn't going to say so. Not back then, at any rate. It seems reasonable to suppose that the rat made the journey with Special Brigade, perhaps in the care of some lower ranker, sworn to secrecy. But I dispute that this transformation was done with ill intent. Granted, it seems to have been done against his will, but he was taken away from those who knew who he was! It was the army who stopped him being restored.”
A host of indignant voices rose up at that.
“Because Special Brigade had transformed hundreds of sprites by shrinking them!”
“Not the same! Shrinking isn't transformation.”
“It is if you don't agree to it, it's just as illegal!”
“He was a caged prisoner, just like our people!”
“Stop bickering!” shouted Strelitzia. “Didn't you hear what the Chief Interpreter said? This isn't the way forward. It's time for a bit of fairy common sense. Lars Huskvarna transformed the Premier to get him out of the way, but he could have produced him again at any time if he needed to. And if he didn't need to, he would have died in that cage. We may not have proof, but anyone who doubts that isn't thinking clearly.”
“If it looks like a duck...” said Clover.
Unfortunately the hall had gone a bit quiet when Strelitzia finished and everyone heard her. Suddenly, all those eyes were looking at her again.
“Sorry, it's just a saying humans have,” Clover faltered. “If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck.”
The hall collapsed into laughter. Even the Commander was wiping her eyes.
“But I wasn't trying to be funny,” Clover whispered, appalled. What had she done?
“They really don't understand humans very well,” said Rose comfortingly. “Don't worry, Clover.”
“Very neat bit of reasoning!” said Chief Lawyer Drina, smiling for the first time that afternoon. “Madam Commander, on behalf of parliament I accept the evidence that the Premier is dead, and I accept the reasoning that Lars Huskvarna was responsible for an illegal transformation that ultimately, though possibly unintentionally, led to that death. And I thank Lieutenant Moseley for the interesting new phrase!”
“There's another thing humans do,” said Clover. “At a gathering like this, humans would keep a minute's silence, to honour the dead person and remember them.”
Calla rose to her feet and everyone followed her.
“Let us do that very thing, right now. For one minute, remember in silence the life of Vinco Salix viminalis Gennargentu and mourn his loss.”
Clover found herself remembering the strange scene in Karl's kitchen and how moving it had been. It took away her own embarrassment at having said too much. She knew nothing really about who the Premier had been or what he had been like. Calla had loved him, so he had been someone special and she held on to that.
When the silence was over the Chief Lawyer spoke again.
“I move that Conference formally commends Gran Herdalen for his foresight in starting the search and his generosity to the Wielkopolska Unit. I also move that Captain Wilanów and Lieutenant Moseley be invited to join us as delegates.”
Both motions were passed unanimously.

It took Madge nearly twenty-four hours to persuade Clover that they were serious. Even next morning, she was still arguing that it had only been a joke.
“And even if it wasn't, I can't make them laugh every day! I wasn't even trying to be funny.”
“Is that what you're worried about? That isn't why they want you, Clover. That Chief Lawyer is quite sensible, for an elf. He realised that you know a lot about humans and might have useful information to contribute. And your handsome Polish captain, what's his name, Debin... there's a good few of Special Brigade here but not a single one from Wielkopolska Unit, unless you count Stan and Wayne. Theirs was a voice that was missing. So get your shoes on, get a move on and come to Rowan Hall. You're a delegate!”
Madge left, having more people she needed to catch before the day's talks started. Clover looked at Rose, Bella and Stella in the little house that Captain Thurlgrove had given them.
“I suppose I'd better go,” she said. “What are the rest of you going to do?”
“Report to Captain Zawoja,” said Stella. “She's organising duties, and it's better to keep busy.”
“What's Calla doing?” asked Rose.
“They found her a house near her friend Wici,” said Stella. “She really is amazing. She takes everything in her stride, even settling down in this busy place.”
“I shall try to follow her example,” said Clover gloomily. “Oh, but here's Debin!”
“I thought you might like to walk over together,” he said. “It is rather daunting for us to enter as delegates.”
“It certainly is,” said Clover. “Thanks, Debin.”
Rose, Bella and Stella waved them off. The other Polish elves, they knew, were planning to spend the day exploring, and talking to as many people as possible, to find anyone they knew. So the fairies went to see Captain Zawoja. They were astounded that she had already heard of them, until she explained that until recently, Dan and Carda had been in her unit.
“But now they have gone with General Herdalen, so we must hope that whatever they're doing will be successful. You haven't heard anything from them, have you?”
“Not a thing,” said Rose. “But whatever they're doing, if the general thought it was that important, then I'm glad Dan and Carda can help him. Now we are no substitute for those two. Bella can fight, but she's not as fierce as Dan. But she's a good navigator and so is Stella.”
“Excellent,” said Captain Zawoja. “I need more flyers out on long-range patrols. People are still arriving – usually former envoys who weren't invited but think they ought to have been! But anyone can come and listen and we don't want people getting lost. More serious than that, we've had messages from 1st Regiment in several countries that Hills are releasing their prisoners, thinking there's no point keeping them now the war's over. There's a danger they may re-group and attack, just for the sake of it, so patrols must always be looking out for signs of enemy activity. What do you think, Bella and Stella, are you up for that?”
“Yes, please,” they said.
“I don't think I'd be very good at that. Not without my partner Clover, and they've made her a delegate. This is a big place to look after, is there a team for making things?”
“If that's what you fancy, report to Captain Thurlgrove. He'll be very glad of you.”

So that was what Rose had done, and she was having a very happy time. She didn't complain about adventures when they happened, but she didn't hanker after them, either. Given the choice, she would always pick hearth and home. Every morning she saw the others off, then went to see Calla, to walk across to Rowan Hall with her, giving her an arm to lean on if the ground was slippy and helping her into a comfortable chair near the front. She waved to Clover, who by now was always discussing the latest issue with other young delegates, then flew across to Captain Thurlgrove's workshop.
Now that the building was mostly finished, and now there were so many other jobs to do, he was working with a smaller team, all keen on crafts and making beautiful things. He'd managed to keep most of England 3, when they weren't busy with the helicopters, but he didn't have many fairies, so Rose had been very welcome and soon felt at home. She'd already met England 3, on the epic helicopter flight across the North Sea. It was good to see familiar faces so far from home.
The captain himself was working on an office building just now, a place where people like Sergeant Olt and Corporal Lavall could do their work, or informal classes could be held for sprites who wanted to use their spare time to study and learn. Rose often flew out scavenging. They had plenty of wood, of course, but apart from that they were short of materials. There was a village not far from the railway station, but if you didn't mind a long flight, you could reach a sizeable town. Rose always returned with a backpack stuffed with useful bits and pieces. But her favourite thing, as always, was textiles. No-one could make better sheets and blankets. But she didn't stop there. She made pillows and cushions and curtains and sometimes even clothes.

One day, the fairies who went to collect the tea came back with a real treasure, a whole book of cloth swatches, and Captain Thurlgrove had said to give it to Rose. From then on, anyone whose clothes were getting shabby had a whole range of fabrics to choose from, and if they weren't confident, or were too busy, Rose would make them the garment they wanted. And when people wearing Rose's well-shaped clothes were walking round the place, other people noticed how shabby their own clothes were, so she was kept busy. Even the Commander came, and went away delighted with a smart grey suit and a beautiful white blouse to go with it. And then Rose got some help, because two older fairies, Ros and Linn, arrived from Sweden.
“We used to work at Supplies in Stockholm before the war,” Ros told Rose while they were working. “But when we lost Signals, that base was closed, just like Stavang was, and everyone was doing nothing but take messages.”
“It was a crazy time, wasn't it?” said Rose. “I was doing the same thing. Criss-crossing Norway to find stragglers after the battle and put them in touch with each other. Herding everyone towards Olsofjord. But then we got phones, and teams went out on missions, and everything calmed down a bit. Were you at the big meeting at Essen, then?”
“No, we never got there,” said Ros. “Special Brigade were trying to round up gangs. They didn't manage to, but they made the gangs very angry. They were rampaging around for months, trying to show how invincible they were, I suppose. The goblins and elves that were already stationed in Sweden were so busy, trying to calm things down, that we stayed to help them.”
“There aren't many Hills in Sweden, for the size of the place,” said Linn. “That was the trouble. Some phones were arriving for Sweden 1 to use, but they weren't finding time to get to a Hill. But finally they did and finally we got to Essen and reported to General Széchenyi. And when she heard we'd been in Supplies, she sent us here, thinking we might be able to help.”
“Well, she was right there,” said Rose. “Rowan Hall is just wonderful, but there's plenty of work left. Lots of things to make. Did you hear any news on your travels?”
“Sergeant Svir asked us that at Essen,” said Linn. “She seemed particularly interested when she heard we'd just come from Sweden. As if she was expecting something to have happened there, didn't you think so, Ros?”
“I agree. But we didn't have much to tell her, only a couple of wild rumours that had landed up at Tiveden Hill. One was that a gang near Malmö had seen a gang of foreigners invading Sweden, a huge gang, very fierce. And the other, that General Huskvarna had come home for Christmas as he always does, and had been eaten by a dog.”
“Goodness!” said Rose. “He's a horrible elf, I know that, but I wouldn't wish that on anyone.”

To Rose, the strangest thing in all that was that General Huskvarna habitually went home for Christmas. It seemed such a very unlikely thing to do, the action of a very loving and slightly sentimental sort of elf. And those were words, she felt sure, that no-one had ever used to describe General Huskvarna. But suppose, for some weird reason, it was true? General Herdalen had gone off after Huskvarna, everyone thought that. The team he'd taken with him could easily have been seen as a gang of foreigners by a Swedish gang. Had General Herdalen known he needed to head for Sweden? And had some dreadful accident involving a dog stopped him from ever confronting his enemy? Maybe the rumours weren't true. Rumours often weren't. But if there was any truth in them at all, then maybe soon Ace and Will would come back.
Oh, I hope so, thought Rose, as she concentrated on faultless seams. I miss them so much.

So much progress was being made at the Conference that paper and pens and pencils were in great demand, and there was a need for even more desks and chairs. Rose was good at cleaning and smoothing scraps of paper until they could be expanded into lovely fresh sheets. But whatever was needed, they found a way to make it. Unofficially, gradually and naturally, a new Supplies Unit had been born. They weren't just making everyday things, either. One day, Kiefer tripped over a step in the entrance of Rowan Hall and remarked that it was a bit gloomy in there, now that the cold winter sunshine had been replaced by thick cloud.
“He's right,” Captain Thurlgrove had said. “The hall is beautifully lit whatever the weather, but the entrance isn't. How about something rather splendid in the fairy light line? Rose, Ros... all you fairies... what do you think?”
“Oooh!” said Linn. “Wait a moment.”
She came back, puffing a bit, from retrieving something from a bag.
“I've had these for years. There's not many, but we could use them to make more... imagine these, with fairy light inside!”
She held out a handful of beads that had once been a necklace.
“Crystal!” said Herbert, rubbing his hands. “Oh, those are beautiful. A chandelier! A sprite chandelier, made of crystal and fairy light!”
“Knock their socks off,” said Captain Thurlgrove.

Somehow, it was the sight of the finished chandelier that made Rose realise something. Maybe she was just slow on the uptake, she thought. Maybe everyone else had thought this already, but it had only just struck her.
This place is forever, she thought. I don't know if it was planned this way or it just happened, but this is the new headquarters, the new centre of the realm.
Yet it might have been that she was not the only one to have been struck by that thought, because a few days later, Droz Zlatni had some news.
“It's true, fresh from General Arley's own lips,” he told a group who were taking a midday drink together on a bench. Rose was there and so were Kiefer and Wayne and Stan and Sal Loughton and Captain Vidilica and several others. “She knew I could hear her – I was taking drinks to the Commander's house – so it can't be a secret. There's going to be a competition. They want a new name for this place.”
“Good,” said Captain Vidilica. “The former re-training camp in the Bohemian Forest is a bit of a mouthful, as well as being very boring.”
“So that's the competition – open to everyone in the realm – to come up with a new name.”
“So how is everyone going to hear about it?” asked Kiefer.
“In the old days at Wielkopolska,” said Stan, “you'd have sent a flyer out to each of five Hills, and those Hills would do the same until every Hill had been contacted. Then each Hill would do the same until every large colony had been contacted, and the large colonies would contact the small ones. Then the answers would come back the same way, in the opposite direction.”
“However long did that take?” asked Wayne.
“Ten weeks, usually. But now, with these wonderful phones... well, suppose the people here knew that at least one person at every Hill and large colony had a phone, then the flyers would only have to go out from large to small colonies. Which are probably not far away. So the question could reach everyone in a day. One day! Say a day to think of your answer... then on the next day, answers delivered to large colonies by flyers, then the answers phoned to the Hills – probably texting a list – that would take a while to put together. Say another day. Then the Hills text their lists here, or Essen, to be collated first, a couple of days for that.”
“Five days,” said Sal. “Awesome. It's a trial, isn't it? A dry run.”
“A trial? No, it's a competition,” said Droz. “What do you mean?”
“He means it's a good way to check if it really works, reaching everyone in the realm in this way,” said Wayne. “If there are snags, or bottlenecks, they can be smoothed out before the ones that really matter.”
“The votes,” said Sal. “They're talking and talking in there and coming up with loads of ideas, plans for the future and all the rest of it. But if they've got any sense – and they have, that's for sure – they'll get everyone to vote. Either on the ideas, or on the people to decide the ideas. Either way, there'll be votes.”
“Yes,” said Stan. “That's what went wrong in the first place. We copied humans by having parliaments without realising there had to be votes first. If we put that right, it's got to help, surely?”
“What a horrible lot of counting,” said Kiefer. “Glad I haven't got to do that. I'm more interested in this competition.” Then a thought struck him. “How do we enter, then, when we're here already?”
He didn't notice Madge coming up behind him, carrying a tray of cups. She handed Kiefer the tray.
“Write your idea on a paper and post it in a box,” she said, with a twinkle in her eye. “You can make the box. Ornus, come with me, will you? I'll give you the exact details and then you can make me a poster to advertise the competition. In German and English, please. I'm sure Rose can find you a big piece of paper.”
“Yes, ma'am,” said Captain Vidilica. “Come on, everyone, let's get back to work.”

The gloomy grey skies soon brought rain. The wind was in the west and all the snow was washed away. Everywhere looked bleak and rather bare, as if winter had gone now but spring hadn't arrived yet. Rose felt cheered, though, despite the weather.
Watch for the spring, she reminded herself.
Calla said it too, next morning, and so did Clover the following evening as she dripped into the house after getting caught in a heavy shower.
“It can't come soon enough for me. Oh, thank you,” she added, as Rose passed her a warm towel. “Have you chosen a name yet?”
“Yes, I posted it this afternoon: Heart of the Forest.”
“Oh, that's lovely. I'm going for Touchstone. It's an army word and it works for a place that everyone will need to keep in touch with. How about you, Bella?”
Treffpunkt. It's a fun word and very snappy but it only means 'meeting point'.
“Oh, I like that!” said Stella. “I chose Hill of the Realm. I just like the idea that this place is like a Hill, only for the whole realm.”
“It is, too,” said Clover. “Good thinking. I think between us we've covered just what this place is going to be about.”
“And if it really does only take five days, we won't have long to wait to find out which name won,” said Rose.

The next day it was raining steadily. Not a sharp shower, soon over, but the kind of rain that quietly got on with it and gave you the feeling that it intended to stick around all day. Rose felt a bit guilty that she was having a good time in a nice dry workshop when Bella and Stella were patrolling, but then again, Captain Zawoja was in here too, taking shelter and working out rotas. Halfway through the morning, a wet fairy came in to report.
“We've seen something, ma'am. Mixed party just crossed the river near Deggendorf. All on foot, all well-camouflaged. Moving like mist, perfect unison. Hard to count, but we estimated about twenty.”
“Well done. From Deggendorf and heading here, do you think?”
“Yes, a clear bearing north-east from their position.”
“Who's on the Straubing route?”
“Oh, that's Bella and Stella,” said Rose. “They mentioned it this morning.”
“Thanks, Rose. Is that work urgent? Because if it's not, could you leave it and come with me. We mustn't lose this party. They don't sound like visitors, do they? You and I will help by crossing between the Straubing route and the Deggendorf route.”
Rose was already tying her hair back and pulling on her raincoat.
“Ready when you are, ma'am.”
“Great, let's go.” She turned to the wet fairy. “Get yourself a hot drink, then rejoin your partner. Quick as you can!” Then she called out across the room. “Can someone please write a note and quietly pass it to General Arley or General Stalden, saying what we are doing.”
“I can do that,” said Sal, who was already cleaning paper.
“Thanks, Sal. Off we go then, Rose.”

Working with Search and Rescue had taught Rose a lot about tracking in the rain. You couldn't hope to spot colours, or sometimes even shapes. You had to watch for movement, changes in the pattern below, changes in the way grass was moving, or the flicker of water droplets or sometimes skidmarks or footprints. Every kind of weather, every kind of terrain had its own technique. They checked in with Bella and Stella by hand signals, then cautiously crossed to the other side, where a fairy was tracking solo, awaiting her partner's return. They shadowed her, backing her up and also trying to see what she could see. Gradually, their eyes grew accustomed to the low light and Rose saw them, their movements so steady and smooth they seemed to be part of the landscape.
“They are good!” said Captain Zawoja. “They are so good, I wonder if they are army. But why would army come across country from here? Why not stay on the train till Bodenmais? Especially in this weather.”
“I don't know,” said Rose.
She was beginning to get a strange feeling about this. Whoever those sprites were, they knew exactly where they were going and they weren't lost. There was real purpose in every movement. They had taken this route for a reason and they all knew what the reason was. For another mile or so they followed them, until the Fighter Squadron fairy returned. At that point, the captain and Rose took a wide sweep east and another west, to see if any other groups were on the move, but they saw nothing. They returned to tracking, taking a slightly different route, more easterly. Below them, the party kept moving, now more directly north. Just before the tiny village of Zachenburg, they drew to a halt. The four fairies watching reacted at once, not abruptly, but with infinite gentleness fading to a hover. They did it well – Rose knew they'd done it well – but it wasn't good enough. Someone down there had checked the sky the moment they stopped and he had caught the movement. Someone else was checking a compass.
“Yes,” breathed Krokus. “Just at the very spot where you would need to start bearing just a little more to the east. They know this place well. Can they be Special Brigade?”
“No,” said Rose. The one who'd spotted them was telling the one with the compass, and his hood had slipped back a little. Rose caught the glint of golden hair, hair she would have known anywhere, and she felt she had known all along who was down there. “No. That is my senior sprite, Ace Moseley. This is General Herdalen's party. They left on foot, so they'll return on foot, no matter what it costs them.”
Krokus looked again, shielding her eyes against the rain, then she gasped.
“Yes, they have seen us. Someone waved!”
“Betch Knightwood,” said Rose. “Same colony as Stella. I'd know that white hair anywhere, too.”
“We can't greet them,” said the captain. “General Stalden's orders were very precise. Track, follow, but do not engage, not in any way. Report back as soon as may be. I believe you, Rose, so we must now return and tell General Stalden. It is up to her what we do next. I am glad to see they are safe, especially Dan and Carda, but after all, they are still deserters.”
She spoke to her other two flyers. “Stay on them, but keep as much height as you can. Don't let them tempt you down.”
“Yes, ma'am.”
“Come, Rose, let us now fly quickly.”

To Rose's surprise, no-one seemed to react much to what seemed to her sensational news. General Stalden had received the news calmly and quietly, Krokus had said. Thanked her, and told her to carry on with the normal patrols as usual. Rose returned to the workshop and tried to contain her excitement. In the evening, in the house, when the others had returned, at last she could talk about it.
“And General Stalden wasn't even interested?” demanded Bella.
“That's what Captain Zawoja said.”
But Clover was shrewder.
“You bet she was interested. And you can bet that she and Madge and the Commander are discussing it right now. They're generals, aren't they? They have to do things properly. They can't just pretend nothing happened.”
“But... you mean they'll be in trouble?” said Bella. “That doesn't seem fair. Will they be kicked out?”
“No, surely not,” said Stella. “No-one is ever turned away.”
“No,” Clover agreed, “but they might have to have a court martial. And that's a pretty humiliating thing, especially for a general. They might decide to leave rather than submit to it.”
“Oh, goodness,” said Rose. “I never realised it could be that serious. Ace and Will wouldn't leave, would they?”
“I don't know,” said Clover. “We don't know where they've been or what they've gone through. If General Herdalen left, I think they might, too. By going with him, they showed that their loyalty was more to him personally than to the army.”
“Even if actually, he was right and the Commander was wrong?” said Bella.
“I know, it's tricky,” said Clover. “But actually, yes. An army isn't a democracy. Someone has to be in charge, and once the orders are given, that's that.”
“And General Herdalen knows that,” said Stella. “They all know that. That's why they've come back, isn't it? What was it Ace always used to say at Fjaerland whenever he got in trouble? You do what you have to, then you take the consequences. No problem.”
“Yes, he did,” smiled Clover, remembering. “I wouldn't like to be in the Commander's shoes tonight. I wonder what she'll do?”
For once, the news didn't spread. None of the fairies who knew about it said anything, so when the general's party arrived about mid morning on the next day, there weren't many people around. All the delegates were already at the Conference and everyone else had work to do of one sort or another. Only Sam Groszowy ran to greet them because he was on duty to look out for new arrivals. He almost faltered in his genial welcome when he saw who it was. He wasn't at all sure what to do or say. But he swiftly took in how very cold and wet they all were and his kind heart took charge.
“General Herdalen! Er, won't you come inside, sir, everyone, out of the rain?”
“No, thank you, Sam,” said General Herdalen gravely. “But would you please give this message to the Commander: General Herdalen and his Rogue Unit have come to surrender.”
“Yes... yes sir, I'll do that.”
Sam raced off towards Rowan Hall and crept in. The Commander was on the platform but she wasn't speaking just then, she was listening to a talk by one of the delegates. Sam wrote down the message exactly as General Herdalen had said it, then walked quietly onto the stage and handed the note to the Commander. She unfolded it and read it and he expected her to react in some way. He just wasn't sure whether she'd be pleased or angry. He didn't expect indifference. She read the note with no change to her expression at all and tucked it into her pocket.
“Thank you,” she mouthed at him silently, and nodded in friendly dismissal, turning her full attention once again to the speaker. There was nothing Sam could do but walk quietly out again and go back to the general.
“The Commander's on the stage, sir,” he said. “I wrote your message down and passed it to her. She read it at once, then folded it away and said thank you. It didn't look, sir, it didn't look as if she was planning to come out just yet. Won't you come inside, sir? There's the winter canteen where you could wait warm and dry, or there's a few good spots with better shelter than this.”
“Thank you for taking the message,” said Gran. “But no, we will not take shelter or refreshments of any kind. We have come to surrender, not to make ourselves at home. We will stand here until the Commander pleases to direct us otherwise.”
When he spoke, the team behind him lined up more neatly and stood up straight. They didn't smile and they didn't frown. They just stood there as steady as statues, in the falling rain.
“Yes, sir,” said Sam quietly, and walked away.

This time, the word spread quickly. Every single sprite who wasn't in the hall had heard within about ten minutes. But though they all went to see for themselves, it was from a distance. No-one walked up to them or stared, no-one talked to them or tried to distract them. There was something very daunting about their stillness and their steady, calm expressions. They were like one person, their unison so strong you could almost touch it. And still the Commander didn't come out. After an hour or so, it became clear that she wasn't going to, but that they would carry on waiting all the same.
When Rose heard, she slipped out from the workshop and stood out of sight in the forest fringe, just to see them again. The general at the front, alone, standing so tall and strong, as unaffected by the rain as if he had been a great spruce in a Norwegian valley. Behind him, a sturdy row of three imps and five fairies. There was Dan, and Carda and Sizzle too, so still. Behind them... yes, there they were, Ace and Will, side by side as always. Rose was nearly in tears to see how much older they looked. They'd cut their hair, but it wasn't that. There had been suffering. They had suffered before, no question, but this time it had left its mark.
Alongside them, little Dub and Lupa, serious now and intent. No-one would laugh at them again. Ross and Gran Starheim too, old rivalries all gone, irrelevant now. Behind them, Colonel Kinnekulle and Major Maridalen, Captain Dolfawr and the four awesome Knightwoods, Fran, Peter, Dale and Betch, eyes quiet and focused ahead of them. They'd all grown. Not physically, but in stature, all the same. Every one of them rock solid. Everyone must be so cold but no-one was shivering. The rain dripped down their faces but they didn't even stir to wipe it away. Rose couldn't watch any longer and slipped away.
At midday, many sprites streamed out of Rowan Hall, wanting exercise and refreshments. They didn't linger, because of the weather, but many of them looked curiously at the strange scene. Colonel Pesentheim and Colonel Arnsberg appeared, watched for a while, then, after conferring together, walked away. But no generals appeared, neither General Arley nor General Stalden and certainly not the Commander. After a while, everyone went back to whatever they were supposed to be doing, but the Commander still didn't come.
The rain stopped, but it was still cloudy and grey and the ground underfoot was now slippy mud. More hours passed, and at length the clouds turned into the grey of early evening. Here and there some lights came on and slowly sprites began to come out of the Hall, to come back from patrol, to come out of workshops, but they didn't go to their houses and they didn't go anywhere else. They began to gather, at a respectful distance from Gran and the others.
Rose was there, joined now by Bella and Stella and Clover. They were holding hands, frantic with worry. They couldn't stand out here all night, they just couldn't. They'd get too cold, they'd die. Some elves gathered round them and it cheered Rose a little to see it was Phil and Rob with Wayne and Stan.
“They'll be all right,” said Phil. “Someone said the Commander's coming.”
The rest of England 3 joined them then, as if by standing together they could help their friends endure to the end. There were more lights now, fairy lights in the trees and hand-held lanterns. Then, finally, the Commander came, with General Arley on one side and General Stalden on the other. The Commander stood right in front of General Herdalen. She looked up to meet his gaze and didn't look away.
“General Arley, would you please read the third order in the ancient code called Standing Orders of the Sprite Army.”
“Yes, ma'am. Anyone who travels more than one hour's walk from base without permission or orders shall be called a deserter. The punishment of convicted deserters is at the discretion of the Commander and is unlimited by type or duration.”
“Thank you. General Herdalen.”
“Yes, ma'am.”
“Are you guilty of desertion?”
“Yes, ma'am.”
“I speak now to the rest of you. Does anyone feel this order did not apply to him or her, because you were a volunteer, or had not formally graduated, or some such reason?”
Some of them could have claimed that, but no-one did.
“So are you all also guilty of desertion?”
“Yes, ma'am.”
Their unison was still perfect.
“Thank you,” said Gia. “Your return is admirable. Your admission of guilt is honest. I have only one thing to say to you all.”
For the first time, her stern expression relaxed just a little.
“Welcome home.”

“Phew!” said Stan. “The daft people who say the army is soft should have seen that.”
Rose could hardly contain her relief. She was sobbing and cheering at the same time and it sounded so loud, too loud, until she realised that many other people were cheering too. Even some of the parliament people were clapping, as if they had sensed the tension and appreciated what seemed to be a happy ending. Gran himself moved first, to step forward and shake hands with Gia and share a few private words. Only then did any of Gran's unit move, and Rose saw one of them crumple to the ground. A small imp had collapsed, a bundle of red wings and red hair. The general sensed or heard it at once and turned round, bending to pick her up, but someone else was there.
“Allow me.”
It seemed as if the whole crowd gasped at once. Strelitzia bent down and scooped up the unconscious imp.
“Suzette Rabot,” said Strelitzia. She looked at the Commander. “We are from the same colony. It is the least I can do. Where may I carry her?”
“I think this team needs to stay together. Such unison takes as long to wind down as to build up. Captain Thurlgrove, are you here? Oh, good. Have you anything we can offer this weary team?”
“Oh, yes, ma'am. My lads have been busy today. Leave it to me, ma'am. This way, please, Envoy Rabot. General Herdalen, sir, good to see you. Let me show you to a place where you can rest.”

Still dressed in wet camouflage as they were, they soon faded out of sight in the grey evening, and the crowd dispersed.
“We can't go and see them,” said Rose.
It wasn't a question.
“No,” said Clover. “Not yet. You're worried, aren't you, that it'll never be the same again. I know you are, because I am too.”
“They hardly seemed aware of anyone else but each other,” said Rose. “As if that team was the only team that mattered, now.”
Wayne hugged her.
“Don't worry, Rose. Or you, Clover. That was awesome unison but they'll come out of it. It might take a day or two, but they'll get there, and then they'll all remember that they all belong to other teams too, they'll all remember their friends.”
“Wayne's right,” said Bella. “As if any of our team from Fjaerland would ever forget each other! Or any of the Elf Squadron either, come to that.”
“We've made new friends too,” Stella gently reminded them. “In times like these, people get mixed and shuffled. Once there's a bond, like we made with Debin and the others, it'll be there for ever. But that doesn't mean we've stopped caring about our old friends.”
“You're right,” said Clover. “Of course you are. Thank goodness Captain Thurlgrove is looking after them. He won't overwhelm them like we might. He'll just be kind and caring.”
“There really are some lovely people in the army,” said Stan in wonder.
“Ooh, Stan,” said Clover, “that reminds me. I really need to talk to you and Wayne. Debin's so honourable, he won't say a word against the Wielkopolska Unit, even though he knows it wasn't perfect. I need to know more about it, a really true and honest picture. And I really need to get my head round these potions and what they do and why they're dangerous.”
“Oh yes, I think we can help you there,” laughed Wayne.
“Come to our house for the evening, then,” said Rose. “I have nettle wine.”
“Lead the way,” said Stan.