CHAPTER 16 - Green Fire
All over the realm, the buds were causing rejoicing and exhaustion in equal measure. In some places, large numbers had been found the morning after the storm. In other places, they found one or two at a time over the next few weeks. The people on phone duty, both at Herzenwald and at Essen, and the flyers taking messages to and from Hills, had the voting as their priority. But they couldn't help hearing and talking about what was going on.
Poppy Rhaeadr at Essen began to take notes.
“New buds in every country,” she told Madge. “And from every Hill, the same message... how many of their colonies have found buds. People are sending out search parties in case they missed any. Allies have been searching too, and what's more, they have found some. And not just at Moseley Wood!”
“I shall try to drop that into conversation with Colonel Zsennye,” said Madge. “And is word getting out why? Are people hearing what Gran did and how it helped the Tree?”
“Trust me for that,” said Poppy. “The whole realm is talking. Not about votes. They're talking about buds. And about Gran Herdalen.”
Madge came back from the phone tree to talk to Gia.
“Everything's under control,” she said. “It's time. Shall I get them together?”
“Yes please, Madge.”
Even though the Free Sprites had left and a lot of judges and senior sprites had gone home, there were still a lot of sprites at Herzenwald. Madge gathered them around the buds' playpen so everyone could listen.
“All our messages have now gone out,” said Gia. “The realm is voting, our work is done and it is time for us to leave. It may be that some of you will return as envoys. I hope so, because you are just the sort of sprites the realm needs as envoys. But leave we must, so that the new parliament can come in to take our places and make a fresh start. Your hard work has given them not just the Proposals to work on, but a wonderful home. Well done, every single one of you. Thank you. So now, I am taking the old army back to Fjaerland. The rest of you are, of course, free to go your own way. But I very, very much hope that any of you who have never been to Fjaerland will come with us. Fjaerland belongs to us all. The Talende Tree belongs to us all, and you can come and go as you please at any time. But if you choose to come now, we would be delighted to show you the way. And there's another thing. At Fjaerland, the new army will be born. It doesn't matter if you fought in the war or not, and it doesn't matter which side you were on. If you are interested in the new army, the new army will be interested in you. But even if you're not – come and meet the Tree! You will not regret it, I promise you!
We will leave at dawn. Most of us. And here, I must make a difficult request. I need a dozen volunteers to stay behind, to look after the place and to help Erle with the buds. Erle, I hope very much that you will come and meet the Tree one day, but for you, this is not the right time. I must ask for volunteers from the army, who have already met the Tree.”
“I volunteer,” said Kiefer.
“Thank you, Kiefer. You have worked so hard here and your help and kindness have been inspirational. You may lead the caretaking team.”
Gran and Ross looked at each other and nodded.
“We'll stay too,” said Ross. “We've not been here long, we'd be glad to help so that others can meet the Tree.”
“So will Stella and I,” said Rose. “Clover and Bella are going with Debin and Jakub to find the rest of the Wielkopolska Unit and bring them to Fjaerland, so we can help here.”
When they heard that, Sosna, Tomasz and Olcha said they would stay too, and so did Carda and Dan, and Sizzle.
“Thank you very much, all of you. I am sure we are leaving the place and the buds in very safe hands. Kiefer, you will need a phone, we will organise that for you. And everyone who is leaving, don't forget to vote before you leave!”
They were planning fast journeys. The helicopters were taking groups of elves and goblins to main line stations and at the other end they were going to provide a shuttle service between Otta and Hella. The flyers were taking trains too, when they could, except for Calla, who'd been persuaded to stay with the helicopters. Gia knew they were taking a big risk. With experienced travellers mixed up with very inexperienced travellers, with army mixed up with Special Brigade, sprinkled with assorted delegates, any number of mistakes could be made, squabbles or misunderstandings could happen at any time. But sometimes it was right to be bold, and sometimes boldness pays off. By the end of April, the sprites were arriving in Otta.
No-one had refused the invitation. The volunteers who had joined them on the way were all wildly excited about meeting the Tree. But that so many former members of Special Brigade, so many Renegades and even Mento Zsennye himself had agreed to come had surprised and delighted Gia. What had made the difference? Calla, perhaps... or the buds... or David's painting. Or even more likely, the Tree himself. As the shuttle from Otta started its work, crowds began to assemble in Karl's garden in Hella. Karl was just perfect, Gia thought. He greeted old friends warmly, but was just as warm to those he didn't know. It was as if he already knew how important this was, a turning point for all of them. He himself rowed them across the fjord, then wished them joy and rowed back home.
On the beach, Gia imperceptibly drew the army sprites back, letting them know by glance and by gesture to let the newcomers go first.
It mustn't seem as if we are taking them, she thought. They must all feel that they are going where they wish to go.
It helped that that dear little imp from Rabot, Suzette, that was her name, was already tearing up the mountainside in excitement, leading the way like a scarlet beacon.
Curious! No-one's told her to climb, rather than fly. Yet she is. And everyone else is copying her... my goodness, even Strelitzia!
Up they went, wave after wave, finally followed by the army. At the top, all trace of an entrance gate, any indication of guards or checking had all been removed, and no-one was in sight.
Well done, Pice, thought Gia. But where is he?
Once the newcomers were streaming across the former camp, Gia drew the army sprites to a halt and then Pice Inari came cautiously out of the old 1st Squadron building, followed by Finland 3 and the twelve new first years.
Major Inari opened his arms wide.
“Welcome home, army, welcome home!”
Gia hugged him and thanked him for his long, cold watch, and turned to greet every one of Finland 3 individually, and spoke in turn to all the new recruits as well. By the time she'd done that, the newcomers were out of sight.
“Will they find him?”
“Oh, yes. All traces of gates removed, as you said, and we added just a hint of a path through the forest. They'll find him. How about all of you? Does anyone need refreshments?”
“We've only come from Hella,” Madge explained. “I think we should all get over there into the Eastern Forest. They will have questions we can help to answer. A lot of help and comfort will be needed. And it will be good to greet the Tree ourselves after so long away.”
“I think you're right, Madge,” said Gia, “but I ought to let Dizzy know we've arrived and my phone needs a tree charge.”
“Are you sure, ma'am?” smiled Pice Inari. “Have a look. I have not needed to visit Bessheim for an elf tree myself. Not once since my phone arrived. Judge Grytten herself brought it from Vingen, fully charged. I have made and received countless calls since then, and charged the battery every day. But the green screen, the elf network, never fades.”
Will already had his own phone out, checking, and everyone else with a phone copied him. It was just as Pice had said.
“You're right!” said Gia, astounded. She stared at her phone. “I don't understand. Or wait... maybe I do.”
“Of course you do,” said Calla. “Your phones need an elf tree? How is the Talende Tree not the greatest elf tree of all?”
“We don't need to touch him?” asked Colonel Arnsberg.
“I think we already are,” said Major Inari. “Our feet are touching his mountain and that is enough.”
Will was already checking his messages.
“Oh, Clover's reached Wielkopolska!” he exclaimed. “She says Debin was right, the rest of the unit had gathered there.”
“Thanks, Will,” said Gia. “I think Debin will be able to persuade them to join us here.”
“I shall be very glad to see Debin again,” said Pice. “I never met such a courteous elf. Shall we go?”
“After you, Major Inari,” said Gia. “Lead us on.”
The closer they walked to the Eastern Forest, the more Gia sensed tension. Tension in the air... people were nervous. They'd heard the stories. They knew the Tree was powerful again, more powerful than the youngest of them had ever experienced. They weren't sure what to expect. There was tension in the earth, too, the sort of tension that makes you feel something is going to burst. Ace and Will were very quiet, and were keeping close to Gran. Gia saw wariness on many faces. Wariness, and wonder too.
For no-one had ever seen the forest look so beautiful. The day was bright and fresh new grass was soft underfoot. Every tree was bursting with life, and flowers bloomed everywhere, great banks and carpets of them. Bees and butterflies filled the air and so did a delightful warm scent, as fresh as spring and as warm as summer. And as they drew nearer to the Tree himself, they felt the ground actually humming, tickling the soles of their feet through their shoes.
Then they saw Suzette Rabot, in tears.
“I want Sizzle!” she sobbed.
“Sizzle's not here, darling,” said Madge at once. “Can I help?”
She drew the distressed imp down onto the grass beside her and hugged her.
Gia spoke very quietly.
“Much help will be needed. Advance slowly now. Help whoever you can, but let them come to you. We won't greet the Tree ourselves until we're sure everyone's all right.”
“And then prepare to be overwhelmed yourselves, more perhaps than ever before,” said General Stalden. “Then, who knows, maybe then they will be comforting us. Or maybe there won't even be a them and an us any more.”
For hours, Gia watched and listened, not interfering with anything but ready to help. She saw a Special Brigade elf banging the ground with his fists in frustration. Wayne and Stan went to help him, and he punched them both. But once he'd calmed down, they shook hands amicably and wandered off, talking. Strelitzia Rabot herself came to talk to Gia. She looked a bit stunned but still self-controlled.
“I do see what you all mean,” she said. “But no, I don't need to talk, thank you. I think I'll just go for a walk by myself.”
Gia just nodded with a smile and let her go. Everyone was different. Calla herself was talking to Major Mecsek. Ace and Will were doing their best to answer excited questions from some of the Czech volunteers. Everywhere, help was being given where it was needed and people who wanted to be left in peace were left in peace. Finally, as the light began to fade, with perfect timing Pice Inari passed word around that in some of the old army buildings there were hot drinks and blankets, plenty for everyone. Gradually, very gradually, people began to walk back across camp. And then, one by one, the old hands took their turn. Gia saw Madge almost reeling, trying to take everything in. Last of all, she herself knelt and touched the Tree and felt herself reeling as Madge had done, under a torrent of images, flickering pictures of exciting things, like a dream, but not keeping still long enough to focus on any one thing. And underneath it all, the same two words, over and over again: thank you – thank you – thank you.
“Thank you,” murmured Gia. “It's so wonderful to have you back.”
Then the golden-green light flooded the glade and the Tree shone for joy. Ripples of light seemed to travel through the ground, all across camp. Gia walked back alone, thinking hard. Madge was waiting for her.
“I can hardly put it into words,” said Gia. “Images! Hundreds of them. Glimpses of the future, I think. The future we could have if we get it right. You too?”
“Yes, indeed,” said Madge. “I think young Clover would find a pithy human expression for it: You ain't seen nothin' yet.”
“Yes,” said Gia. “That's perfect.”
In the morning, there were people who were ready to leave. They had come to see the Tree, no more and no less, but what interested Gia was the sense of purpose in their eyes. They might not want to stay and join the new army, but they knew where they were going and what they were going to do. Some had been delegates, some volunteers and some had been Special Brigade. Among them were Major Mecsek and Strelitzia Rabot. Gia went to say goodbye to all of them and wished them luck. Koivu from Finland 3 offered to row them across the fjord to the helicopters, which were still at Karl's, and Pendo offered to fly them to Otta. Some of the Elf Squadron went too, to let Karl know how it had all gone and to bring the other helicopters back.
When they'd gone, Gia gave no orders. She just let everyone wander around, reminiscing, or talking over the battle, or mourning the loss of so many well-loved buildings. But when the helicopters came back, they lifted everyone's spirits just as they had the first time they had flown onto the mountain.
Everyone drew together without needing to be told. They wanted to know what was going to happen next.
“Today is 1st May,” said Gia. “In Essen, they will be starting to count the votes. When we have a new parliament, the army may lose some responsibilities. We may gain some new ones. We will re-organise, to meet whatever challenges the future holds for us. But we will not forget our traditions. In two days, it will be full moon, and any who wish to join us will be enlisted.
We will be here. The Peace Treaty itself guarantees that. Fjaerland is ours. But we must not keep it to ourselves any longer. We do not have to share it. We choose to share it. Sergeant Olt, Corporal Lavall, will you now share with us all your plan for how we may share the mountain?”
“Indeed we will, ma'am. You have the drawing, Corporal?”
Corporal Lavall produced a large sheet of paper and concentrated hard. The paper hardened into wood and expanded until everyone could clearly see the drawing on it. It was a plan of the mountain. They propped it up against a nearby wall and stood back. Gia, and the other senior officers who'd already seen it, were more interested in watching reactions. Some people looked baffled, trying to match this new design to what they remembered. Will Moseley had taken it in at a glance, and gave a smile and a little nod.
“Lots to build!” said Herbert ecstatically.
All of England 3 looked pleased, Gia noted.
“I still don't like it,” said Buchel Arnsberg grumpily. “I don't think it'll work. But still, you've done a good job on the plan, Luke and Saul, and if that's what everyone wants, I suppose I'll have to go along with it.”
“What do the colours mean?” asked Captain Zawoja. “I'm sorry, it's so long since I was here. I can't visualise this.”
“Zones,” said Sergeant Olt. “The red zone, covering the old assault course and the combat training ground – basically the Northern Forest area – will be exclusively for the army. Our new home. The yellow zone, mostly the southern forest, including the deep glade and the area where everything got burned, will be called the Campus. We will not build there yet, though I hope we may help when the time comes. If the new parliament agrees – and we all think it will – this will be the home of the Sprite College.”
That caused quite an uproar of excitement and interest, as Gia had expected. She came to the sergeant's rescue.
“Education – the one thing everyone agrees we need more of! Lots more schools, lots more well-educated sprites. Sprite College will be a wonderful experience, I am sure. Parliament will appoint a Principal, and he or she will be in charge of deciding what buildings are needed. The important thing for now is that space has been saved for it.”
“Thanks, ma'am,” said Sergeant Olt. “Now the blue zone, in the middle, is a shared area. You'll see that, although many unburned buildings remain in this area, only three will still be there when all this is finished – the Great Hall, Signals and the hospital. They will be counted as belonging to the realm. The rest of the buildings we will dismantle and either rebuild or recycle. In their place, as you can see, things that army and students and visitors can all share. Lawns and fountains. The largest music arena in the realm. Swimming pools and sports pitches. Canteens of course, and hostels where visitors can stay. The army will build all this and organise it, but discreetly. The most important thing of all is that no-one has to feel that they have to cross army territory to get to the Tree.”
“So what do we do first?” said Pendo. “Oh, wow, I can't wait to get started!”
“First, we build a road,” said Gran. “We smooth and make as clear as we can the climb from the beach. Then, following the route of the old path across camp from west to east, we make a lovely smooth road, twice as wide as now, and when it gets to the Eastern Forest we turn it into a more subtle forest path. No-one then needs to ask how to find the Tree, no-one needs to speak to anyone at all if they don't want to. But if they do want to, they will find all sorts of good things to join in with.”
General Stalden took up the theme.
“Along the sides of the road we will encourage flowers to grow, and some trees, too. It will make it look special and help it become peaceful and private.”
“To achieve this, many buildings first need taking down,” said Sergeant Olt. “Now, I'm no great builder, but I'm not a bad organiser. I'll put you in teams and assign the work. Major Thurlgrove will be in charge of the building work. And some of you will need to do training – our new recruits mustn't be neglected while all this is going on!”
“Oh, but we want to help too!” exclaimed Robert. “This is special.”
Sergeant Olt thought about that.
“All right,” he said. “At least to start with. You'll be learning an awful lot about materials, and transforming, while you're working. I'll have to split you up, so you're with people who can really show you things.”
“You know what, Sergeant?” said Major Thurlgrove. “While you're organising that, I think we could get started this afternoon. All working together – I could show everyone how to take a building down safely, so it doesn't fall on your head. Where to start, what to save and where to store it. What do you think, Commander?”
“Lead on, Major. I'm coming to help.”
They started on the old transit barracks which were near where the western gate had been. They were far too close to the path.
“First we must empty the building,” said Major Thurlgrove. “We'll make a chain for that.”
Passing things from hand to hand, they brought the furnishings – all very basic and simple – outside. The the major showed them how to remove the windows in their frames without breaking the glass and how to take the doors off and still keep the useful steel screws, nails and plates. Next, the roof and how to decide if timber was too rotten or fire-damaged to be re-used, or if it was good quality. Then the walls, and how to go round and round, and not take a whole wall down while others stood unsupported. Then the floorboards, and finally the reviving of the squashed ground underneath.
“That's a great start!” said the major. “If in doubt, imagine you were building and reverse the order. Now then, we must remove all these fine materials. The old training ground, Sergeant?”
“Yes please, sir. Plenty of space there and we don't need to build on it yet.”
“Ooh, what's going there?” asked Dub.
“Waterworld,” smiled Major Thurlgrove.
“You mean a swimming pool?”
“Sort of. But just 'swimming pool' is a tame way to describe Waterworld. The slides alone are going to be like nothing you've ever seen. But meanwhile, it will do as Storage Area Blue. Here a stack of logs, here a stack of long planks, here a stack of short planks, a bin of screws, a bin of nails... you get the idea. Off we go, then. Just carry what you can manage, and the really big pieces we can shrink.”
No matter what the major said, the goblins had to vie with each other over carrying the largest logs, but everyone could manage something. Even Calla managed a bag of nails, though she soon looked tired and when Gia noticed that, she urged her to rest.
“You are a kind fairy, Gia,” said Calla. “Very thoughtful. And it is true that I am too old to do such work every day. But for today, I will work as long as others do. For months, I lived with the absolute certainty that the realm was doomed. And now, everything is different. There is hope for the future in every little nail.”
By the time it went dark, they'd cleared all four transit barracks. By the end of the next day, the whole central strip had been cleared and Gran and the goblins had started work on the road. That evening, they had a bonfire using some bits of rotten wood, and sat outside together watching the moon, so close to the full, rising over the forest. And the next morning, Ace woke with very mixed feelings.
This was the day the election results would arrive, and he was excited about that. He was just as keen as anyone else to see who'd won. But inside, he felt sad when he thought about how much he had wanted a queen.
It should have been Marta, he thought. Marta would have made a wonderful queen.
Well, maybe something was going on behind the scenes and maybe it was not. Either way, some people somewhere would have to put up with things they didn't like. And the elections were exciting, of course they were. The first sprite elections! Ace had voted for Daffodil Shacklow for Owler Tor, and for Senior Elf of the realm he'd voted for Judge Kokořinsko, who he thought was not nearly as scary as everyone made out and was respected by all. And for President, of course there was no contest.
Once he was outside, he had a look round. There weren't many people up yet. How different it all looked... but it was good. They'd get used to it. He walked along the bit of road that was finished, admiring the skilful stonework, when something caught his eye. Over there, where only yesterday a building had been, were fresh green shoots. Grass was coming up already. He bent to stroke the shoots. Amazing.
Gradually, other people began to emerge, and as they gathered and talked, it was the election results that were on everyone's mind. Sergeant Olt knew that the best thing to pass a time of waiting was work. He asked Ace to show a group of recruits how to shape steel, and make a spade.
“Then you can all have a go at digging,” said the sergeant. “Make a start on these flowerbeds that are to line the road.”
“Yes, Sergeant,” said Ace, pleased with the job. Not too much concentration needed there. He wasn't sure he'd be able to concentrate much today, and as for the recruits who were going to be enlisted tonight, they'd just be in a dither. Digging was the perfect solution.
All the same, he couldn't help keeping an eye on the Commander. She was taking a great interest in every job that was going on, but in between, she kept checking her phone. Any time now, someone would call from Essen. Then the Commander would summon Madge or General Stalden to help her. Someone would need to write all the names down. Then she would tell them the results.
It was early in the afternoon before the impatient sprites saw any sign of activity. But finally, they saw Madge sitting down at a desk that had been brought outside. Madge, with a pen in her hand, and the Commander with her phone to her ear. This was it. Word spread like a ripple of wind through grass and everyone gathered at a respectful distance. Will, who'd been carefully stripping copper piping out of a building that had had running water, ran straight to Ace's side.
“Oh, I do hope it's all well-balanced,” said Ace. “You know, enough people from each side.”
“I know,” said Will. “I think it will be, I really do. The realm has got its balance back. But who have the fairies chosen as their Senior? That's the question. What if it's the Commander?”
“It's a weird thought. But it could be. She did a brilliant job of leading that Conference, everyone says so. Which job would she do? She couldn't do both.”
“No, she'd have to choose. But remember what they said; if you get elected but you can't accept, you get to choose your substitute.”
“That sounds odd at first, but when you think about it, it makes sense.”
“It does. But I don't think it will be the Commander. If you were a fairy, would you have voted for her?”
“No,” said Ace. “I'd have thought of her. But then I would have thought, no. We need her where she is.”
“This is it,” said Will. “The Commander's switched her phone off.”
Without any comment or any change in facial expression, Madge handed the sheets she had written to the Commander. The Commander turned and almost jumped to see the silent crowd waiting. Then she laughed.
“Here is the news you've all been waiting for. Our first election results! I won't read out the name of the envoy for every Hill, I'll pin the list up so you can check on the places you're interested in. I'll go straight to the exciting bit. Senior Elf of the Realm, Dub Kokořinsko. Senior Fairy of the Realm, Madge Arley. Senior Goblin of the Realm, Inula Saal. Senior Imp of the Realm, Dizzy Széchenyi. And... President of the Realm, Gran Herdalen.”
Gia was smiling now, as if she was very well pleased. Madge was looking as if someone had just hit her on the head with a heavy object. The crowd was going wild, laughing and cheering, shouting congratulations, shrieking with excitement.
“It was a no-brainer, that, right from the start,” said Ace, as they ran to find Gran. “D'you think he guessed?”
“Not a chance,” said Will. “He's probably the only sprite in the realm who didn't vote for him. Oh, and the ones in Huskvarna, perhaps.”
They found Gran at the back of the crowd, not just stunned, as Madge had been, but in total shock. Elves and goblins were calling congratulations in his ears and thumping him on the back, but he just stared in front of him, frozen. Ace and Will squirmed through the crowd until they were standing behind him. Each of them put a hand on Gran's shoulder, protecting him from over-enthusiastic thumps and letting the reassurance of their presence sink in.
Eventually, Gran whispered, almost to himself.
“Has the realm gone completely mad?”
“No, it's come to its senses!” shouted Dub Berounka. “Three cheers for President Herdalen!”
There were a lot more than three cheers. They went on and on and on. But gradually, the elves and goblins began to see that Gran really was stunned and need time to take it in. So they left him in peace and finally he was left with Ace and Will, Bjørk and Collen and Hagtorn, and Dub and Lupa. All elves who'd been with him in Sweden.
“What is this?” asked Gran. “I don't want to be a President! I didn't even want a President! I wanted a queen!”
“We all did,” said Collen. “But the realm wants a President. And the President it wants is you.”
“But we've never had one before! What is a President supposed to do?”
“Ah, now there you have an advantage,” said Lupa. “No-one can compare you unfavourably with what has gone before!”
“Lupa's right,” said Bjørk. “It will be whatever you choose to make it.”
“But for goodness' sake, Bjørk! Why me? Why not Calla?”
“I daresay some people voted for Calla,” said Hagtorn calmly. “Many will have considered her. A superb choice in many ways. But then, they will have thought, no. She is just too old. It wouldn't be fair on her. Or on the realm, which needs stability. Not someone who already understands everything, but someone who will help us find our way to the future.”
“Exactly,” said Bjørk. “Everyone knows what you did. You saved the realm from the evil tree of power! You were right all along about Huskvarna. And because you were right in the past, they trust you to be right in the future.”
“That wasn't just me...”
“The bit that matters was,” said Ace. “The thirty-five years endurance. The strength and tenacity. That was all you.”
“And little things count too,” said Dub. “Every colony we visited, you took an interest in them. You told them what they wanted to know. You helped them build things. Wherever you went, you gave people hope.”
“The only reason Judge Kokořinsko got Senior Elf is because every elf had already voted for you as President,” said Will. “I did. And every elf I know did too. In fact, everyone I know did too.”
“We all want you, Gran,” said Bjørk. “And you did say you wanted a change. But don't worry about it now. See what the Tree has to say about it tonight. Let's all go and congratulate Madge.”
When Madge saw them coming she came to Gran and hugged him. There were tears in her eyes and it was plain that she had had a big shock too, but was beginning to rally.
“What do you think, Commander?” said Madge. “About losing Gran and me and Dizzy all at once? Is this right for the army?”
“It's hard for the army,” said Gia. “For us personally, because we love you all and we'll see less of you. But we're not losing you, because we're all part of the realm too. We're glad for you all, because you'll all be brilliant. Are you going to accept, Madge?”
“Yes,” said Madge. “I don't know whether I'm coming or going, but yes. It's the right thing to do.”
Just then, the Commander's phone rang and she excused herself and listened. And listened. She was biting her lip, trying not to laugh. Then she got out, “I completely understand. And thank you for letting us know.”
She slipped her phone back into her pocket, and took a deep breath, fighting for self-control.
“That,” she said, “was General Széchenyi. I can't give you an exact quote, but it was along the lines of, 'If the realm thinks I am going to spend the next few years sitting on my bottom talking, then the realm has another think coming. I absolutely refuse to be Senior Imp and nominate Sizzle Speicher for the job instead'.”
Everyone was laughing, even Gran, and all the imps there were yelling with excitement.
“So in fact, we are losing Sizzle instead,” said Gia. “A superb choice. She'll do a great job. I wasn't sure how this idea of substitution would work, but I do now. You get someone of the same calibre, but younger.”
“It was the only way you could get a bit of youth in the mix,” said Madge. “You need younger people too, but they're not famous enough to win elections. This way, you get them.”
“An ingenious bit of fairy logic,” said Gia. “I like it very much.”
She didn't ask Gran if he was going to accept, Ace noticed. She could see he just didn't know what to think. He looked as if he would like to talk to her and Madge privately, so Ace squeezed his arm encouragingly and offered to go and pin up the list of envoys somewhere where everyone could read it. That made nearly everyone follow him away, which was just what he'd intended.
“Here we go, the wall of Signals will do nicely. Anyone got a couple of nails? Thanks, Sal.”
As he was fixing the list up, his eyes automatically searched for Owler Tor, to see if Daffodil had won. He let out a great yell. She hadn't.
“What?” said Will. “Who is it?”
“Clover! Clover's an envoy!”
“I know! How amazing is that!”
“But how do they even know her?”
They stared at each other, trying to make sense of it.
“From that day she stood up to Huskvarna,” said Ace. “When he'd kidnapped Aesculus and Viola, d'you remember? She must have made a very good impression. And her name's been mentioned a lot concerning Calla and the search for the Premier. She's a fairy that people have heard of and the days when Owler Tor had forgotten that Moseley Wood even existed are long gone.”
“Wow. What an honour. She did enjoy being a delegate, once she'd got over the shock. She'll be so good at this!”
By now the noise level was incredible as people cheered or groaned over the choices their Hills had made. They heard that Sergeant Grybow was now the envoy for Pieniny Hill in Poland and that Strelitzia Rabot had been chosen for a Hill in the south of France. Ace was trying to find Rob and Phil and the Knightwoods to tell them about Clover, when he heard another astonishing bit of news. She wasn't the only one from their year who'd been elected. The new envoy for Fichtelberg Hill was Ross Rangsdorfer. And neither of them was there right now! Then another thought struck him.
“Hey, listen,” he called out. “Don't anyone call or text them yet. They may not know. Essen are getting the word out to us and the Hills and the schools. They may not have thought of a small maintenance team at Herzenwald, or know that Clover's in Wielkopolska.”
“Who's doing the actual calling?” asked Will.
“Major Rhaeadr, that's who called the Commander.”
“I'm going to call Colonel Dünnwald,” said Will. “Just to see if they know.”
Will wandered off to find a quiet spot, but he soon came back.
“No, they had no idea who was at Herzenwald, and how much it mattered that they heard officially. Major Rhaeadr's put them on her list, and she will call Clover personally, today.”
“That's all we can do, then,” said Ace. “But oh, don't I wish I could see her face when she gets the news!”
No more work got done that day. Everyone was far too busy talking. There was still no sign of most of the senior officers, but Sergeant Olt was there, keeping an eye on things. Towards evening he encouraged everyone to calm down a bit. It was time to make a drink, he said, and smarten themselves up to be ready for moonrise.
Help, I forgot about the recruits! thought Ace.
He tried to make up for that by making himself be quiet now, and encouraging others to do the same. This was a special night for the recruits. He saw Major Inari having a quiet word with the ones who had come to the mountain, and he did the same himself for the ones who had come with them from Herzenwald. So many were from Groszowy and all the colonies around Mladá Boleslav; it was wonderful to be able to talk easily to them at last.
“Are you all right? Don't worry about a thing, just enjoy it.”
Simple words of friendship and encouragement, that was all they needed. Mikos and all the other goblins. Rania and Zetia. Lärk, Ferchel and Eich who had been Special Brigade, and Cor Dniester who had been a Renegade. Stan Gruski – Wayne was looking after him, of course – and volunteers who wanted to start properly, like Lisette Lavall. Corporal Lavall was talking very kindly to her. And of course, the littlest of them all.
“All right, Suzette?”
“Oh, Ace, I'm so excited! I'm so happy for Sizzle. Senior Imp of the Realm! I even don't mind that Strelitzia is going to be envoy for Puy-de-Dôme Hill.”
“She did seem to do a better job of being a delegate than she did of being a senior sprite.”
“She's clever. But I'd rather be kind than clever.”
“You're a wise imp, aren't you? I tell you what, if anyone asked me, 'Oh, do you know anyone from Rabot colony?' I wouldn't mention Strelitzia. I'd say, 'Oh yes, I know Suzette, she's in the army, like me'.”
“It won't be long now!”
“No. Not long at all. Good luck, Suzette. Enjoy it!”
It was one of the most glorious full moons Ace had ever known. Just into May, it was only just dark and the air was still warm and full of the scent of growing things. The moon itself seemed bigger than usual, brighter, tugging the Earth as it always did, reminding everyone, human and sprite, plant and animal, that life was ebb and flow.
There was no band, and not as much formality as there had once been, yet it was still dignified. The senior officers lined up and led the way, followed by the recruits. They had come to the mountain at different times, in different ways and with widely different experiences, yet tonight they came together. They lined up in their orders as if by instinct, because no-one had told them to. And the rest of the army followed behind. Without torches, they walked to the Tree, and once in his glade, with treelight and moonlight, no torches were needed. The Commander spoke the words of the invitation and the recruits spoke the words of the promise. They came forward to receive their wristbands. But then the Commander added something different. She called forward the people who'd missed their chance to graduate and gave them new wristbands too, Phil and Dale and Rob and all of that year. Then she called for the ones who'd missed their second year.
“You had to learn the hard way, doing the job,” she said. “Fighting and enduring, marching and making. You too have now graduated. You are no longer recruits but soldiers, and I am so very proud of you all.”
Ace didn't know many of them, but one he knew very well indeed and his eyes were fixed on Gazania as she gazed happily at her new brown wristband.
Then, one by one, in no particular order, the sprites went to greet the Tree. It wasn't such a shock this time; more people just came away beaming with joy, and anyone who was overwhelmed only needed to sit quietly and think. Ace waited patiently for his turn, content just to be here. He wouldn't have said he had anything on his mind at all, yet as soon as he touched the tree, he knew he did. The Tree had sensed it. Guilt, that he wasn't at home, looking after his colony as he ought to be. All those buds, and here he was, enjoying himself in Norway. But suddenly he saw a picture in his mind, as clear and vivid as the real scene in the glade. He saw Moseley Wood in autumn, the great beeches scattering their leaves, and he was there, they were all there.
You're going to need a lot of names!
That was all – rejoicing, so happy for him – and Ace felt relieved. It was going to be all right. He would be there when the time was right. He tried to come back down to earth. It wasn't easy, because the sense of joy was so intoxicating and the night was so beautiful. But there might be people who needed him. He looked around. Will had wandered off, no surprises there, but where was Gran, had he wandered off too? No, there he was, he had just that moment come away from the Tree, he was just walking towards Will, who was coming back into the glade, looking thoughtful but happy. Will looked straight towards Ace and waved. Ace had just joined them when the earth trembled so much he stumbled. Will put a hand out to steady him. They all looked down; everyone was looking down, then staring at each other. The earth beneath their feet was humming, vibrations so strong you could hear them. Then it started to glow, here and there... traces of green light streaking below the surface like roots.
“Oh!” yelled Major Inari, and raced off.
“What?” said Gran. “Oh! Come on!”
Ace and Will chased off after Gran and it seemed as if everyone was then running or flying in the same direction, following Major Inari, who was following the rippling green root lights. Once they were out of the forest, they simply stopped and stared. The old Signals building was glowing green, its wooden walls were bulging as if they couldn't contain the pressure within. With a clatter, the walls fell down and a great column of green fire shot out into the night. The cry went up all around, in tones of joy and of sobbing, heartfelt emotion.
“Signals! We've got Signals back!”
Everyone raced towards the beautiful sight. The ones who'd never seen the column alive were speechless with awe at its power and beauty, and the ones who had weren't much better, so delirious they were incoherent. Pice Inari stood there holding his arms out, weeping for joy, with people patting his shoulders and then standing close by to gaze. The Commander was among them.
“Beautiful. Even more beautiful than before. What a blessing! The Tree really is healed now!”
“He has given out so much to give us this!” exclaimed Major Inari. “Is he all right? Come, let's go back! Let each one of us go back and thank him and give him some love. If he has used too much strength, we will be giving him some back.”
“Listen to the major,” said the Commander. “He is right. Not all at once, but in a steady flow, let us do as he suggests.”
“Go first,” said Gran to Ace and Will. “Then come and tell me how he is. I need to make sure Major Inari is all right, and the Commander may need me.”
“On our way, sir,” said Ace.
They walked side by side, briskly, but not running, and plenty of others were following them. There wasn't much talking. They were all still a bit stunned. When they got back to the glade, Ace was relieved to see the light was just as bright as before. He went forward with some caution, then knelt and placed both his palms against the trunk, pushing as if he could push all his love and concern right through the bark.
Thank you, thank you, thank you!
Oh, we are bigger and brighter than ever before!
The Tree's words filled his mind. He stepped back and let Will take his turn. Then Will too stepped back, amazed.
“I'll stay and keep an eye on things,” said Will. “You get back to Gran.”
“OK, Will. See you soon.”
Ace jumped now, great leaps like he'd never managed before except in a big team.
Because we are! All united tonight. What a night!
“He's just fine, sir,” said Ace as soon as he got back. “Bursting with joy.”
He told them what the Tree had said, and everyone around was listening carefully.
“All is well, then, Pice,” said the Commander gently. “Go on. No-one could deserve the honour more than you.”
Major Inari looked around at them all, then took a great breath and walked forward, picking his way across the fallen timber. He raised his hand towards the green fire and at once its outer edges crystallised, just as it had always been, protecting the sprites from the glare and shedding the light in a circle around the column. To those watching, the major seemed now to be bathed in soft green light. He lowered his hand and spoke out loud.
Major Pice Inari to the realm: the Talende Tree is healed, and we have Signals back. Repeat, we have Signals back!
Ace smiled and stepped back.
Did you get that?
Loud and clear, Ace. Loud and clear. Check your phone!
Puzzled, Ace pulled his phone out of his pocket and gasped out loud.
“Check your phones!” he got out, staring at his.
Gran and the Commander, Madge and Colonel Arnsberg, everyone who had a phone had a look. The same message was on all of them, not black on white like a normal message, but green on green.
We are bigger and brighter than ever before!
Every phone in the realm received a message from the Tree himself.
“Who tipped the balance this time?” Ace asked Gran. “What did you say to him?”
“Not much,” said Gran. He said 'Well?' and I said 'Yes'.”
The next day, news was pouring in from across the realm. News of well-loved trees that had been dying, regaining health and strength. News of sprites flocking to their Hills to hear the election results, then staying on to party when they heard about Signals. And above all, news of buds. Dozens and dozens of buds, more every day, from colonies far and wide, from the remote goblin colonies of northern Sweden to the widespread imp colonies of southern Spain, from ancient, famous colonies like Schwarzee and from tiny, new colonies like Sivjezero. The realm was bursting with new life and also with optimism and curiosity. As well as news pouring in, answers to questions were pouring out. How could this colony, or this envoy, get a phone? What date would the new parliament open? Was it true there was an Ally at Otta station? Where was the best place to cross the fjord, and were there any boats?
When Gia heard the kind of questions that were coming in, she got busy. She asked Sergeant Olt to have a small team make boats, so there would always be a boat on each shore. And she asked for the boats on the Hella shore to be moored near some recognisable tree or landmark. Major Thurlgrove she asked to concentrate on the hostel for visitors, and Madge she asked to contact her fellow Seniors and choose a date for parliament to open. Then she contacted Poppy Rhaeadr at Essen.
“We need you back here,” she said. “You, and anyone else you've got who used to be Signals.”
“I can't wait,” said Poppy. “There's quite a few here now. We'll leave today. But Colonel Dünnwald needs help. Phones are pouring in and so are requests for phones. Can you send Will Moseley back?”
“I'm sure we can,” said Gia, “at least until things settle down a bit. We have recruits to look after, too. Bring Arda Svir back with you too, will you, Poppy? Corporal Lavall is doing wonders almost single-handed, but he can't teach flying.”
The road across the mountain wasn't quite finished when the first visitors arrived. Judge Grytten had sent some Hill workers from Vingen who'd never been to Fjaerland. They came cheerfully, interested to greet the Tree and see everything that was happening.
“She told us 'Every sprite in the realm should visit the Tree, and Hill workers should be setting a good example. Off you go',” said one of them. “We can't stay long, they're so busy trying to help colonies look after their buds. But before we go, shall we gather some plants for your lovely flower beds? We're all Norwegian, we know where the best things will be growing.”
“Thank you,” said Gia. “That would be a big help. Who is the envoy for Vingen Hill? Not the Judge herself, then?”
“No, ma'am, that's me,” said the fairy. “Bergfrue Starheim. I'm so excited about it.”
“I wish you joy in your new task, Envoy Starheim,” said Gia. “You will do Vingen proud.”
Then Captain Zawoja came to speak to Gia.
“I don't know what to do, ma'am,” she said. “You remember Makroślina Władysławowo, Judge of Kamieniece, who was a delegate?”
“Yes, indeed,” said Gia. “Is she all right?”
“Oh yes, ma'am, it's just that she's been elected as an envoy and she doesn't want to do it.”
“I was hoping very much that the new parliament would appoint her as the Principal of the Sprite College.”
“That's what she wants too, ma'am. She's planning to work in education one way or another, and she's suggested a substitute to replace her as envoy, a very clever young elf. But she's resigned as Judge too. And the Hill, Kamieniece Hill, has chosen me to replace her.”
“Oh, Krokus, congratulations!” said Gia. “Your years of work defending them have not gone unnoticed. You are worried about leaving the army? Don't be. We are living in a time of great change, and many of us will have to move on and tackle new things.”
“You think I should accept?”
“What does your heart tell you?”
“That I long to be back in Poland. There's so much I could do to help. And I love Fighter Squadron too, but there are excellent young fighting fairies who could take my place.”
“Then yes, I think you should accept,” said Gia. “You are a wise young fairy and you'll make a very good Judge.”
“Thank you, ma'am,” said Krokus. “It will hurt to leave, but I see that it is the right thing to do.”
“Have a talk to General Arley before you go. She has to leave us, too. It won't be easy for either of you, or for us, who will miss you. Beginnings always mean endings, too. But then again, endings are also beginnings.”
No sooner had the boats been made than new arrivals started using them. A party from a colony in Sweden arrived, followed by a large group who'd been travelling for several days. It was Clover, Debin, Jakub and Bella with twenty-four of the old Wielkopolska Unit. Gia didn't see them arrive, but she quickly heard about it, because there were so many people around who knew them. They'd gone to see the Tree first, of course. Gia kept an eye open for them returning and saw them all going to greet Major Inari and admire the wonderful sight of Signals working. She went to find Stan Gruski and Wayne Langdon.
“Without staring, cast your eye over the Wielkopolska Unit elves that Clover and Debin have brought here,” she said. “Are they all elves you would want to work with? And is there anyone there senior in rank to Debin?”
Gia admired the way they kept up a buzz of conversation while taking good, unobtrusive looks.
“Those are all decent elves,” said Stan. “Like me, they joined the side their colonies expected them to join. They don't see themselves as parliament, just as elves who chose a military career.”
“I don't see anyone more senior than Debin,” said Wayne. “That's less than half the old unit. I bet some just went home again when parliament lost. I agree with Stan. Those are the decent ones.”
“That's what I expected,” said Gia. “Thanks very much, you two.”
Gia wasn't the only one keeping her eyes open. As soon as Clover noticed she was free, she and Bella came straight over.
“Hello, ma'am! Reporting for duty. Along with the Wielkopolska elves. All the ones who'd gathered at Wielkopolska agreed to come. And now, they're very glad they did!”
“Where are they now?”
“Koivu from Finland 3 is looking after them. I think he might have opened a bottle of vodka.”
“Excellent. I hope they will stay and get to know us, and perhaps choose to join the army. Do you think they might like to?”
“I know that Debin does,” said Clover. “I think Jakub, too – what do you think, Bella?”
“He wants to, but he's a lieutenant and it makes him glum to think of having to be a recruit again.”
“Ah,” said Gia. “Some Special Brigade elves have joined us, and they are going straight into army units when we have time to sort out things like that. We would not insult Special Brigade by suggesting that their training was inadequate.”
“I could drop that into conversation.”
“Good for you, Bella, you're quick on the uptake. And how about you, Clover? Congratulations on being chosen as an envoy. You're accepting, of course?”
“Yes, with your permission. I'm army, not a free agent.”
“I do give permission, and also my very best wishes. But I'll say to you what I said to General Arley and will say to Ross Rangsdorfer – you keep your ranks, and if you tire of being an envoy, or if at some future election they choose someone else, your place in the army will always be waiting for you.”
“Thank you, ma'am. It makes all the difference, knowing there's a way back.”
“You are free of army authority from this moment,” said Gia. “What do you want to do next? I hear from General Herdalen – I beg his pardon, President Herdalen – that they are hoping for 1st July for the opening of parliament, and that a great Peace Celebration is being planned for Midsummer's Eve. Somewhere in Germany, I think.”
“That's helpful to know. I'd like to stay for a couple of days, then, just to catch up with people here. But then I should visit home, as Ace can't, and greet the buds. And I need to visit Owler Tor – that's the name of our Hill – and thank them for choosing me. After that, I'd like to visit as many of its colonies as possible and hear what they most care about and wish for in the future. I think that will keep me busy until Midsummer.”
“It will indeed,” said Gia. “Have confidence, Clover. The whole army is rooting for you and Ross. You're going to make excellent envoys.”
The Commander got called away then to answer yet another query and Clover and Bella wandered around, looking at everything. They saw Sergeant Olt's plan, still propped up for everyone to see, and when they'd had a good look at that, they could understand the work that was going on.
“Everyone's pitching in at this,” said Bella. “No-one's getting sent out on duty yet. I'll be here for a while, I think.”
“There's plenty to do,” Clover agreed. “But don't forget, you can message Stella now. Signals is back, and you're on the mountain.”
“Of course! How crazy, I almost forgot about that. I'll message her this evening when it's quiet. Dan, too.”
“And I'll message Rose. I hope they're all right with all those buds. But I do want to meet all the buds at home, too.”
“Hey, Clover! Hi, Bella!”
It was Ace. They'd know that voice anywhere. But where was he? They looked up and there he was, blond hair shining in the sun, sleeves rolled up, dismantling the roof of the Conference Room.
“How does it feel to be an envoy, Clover?”
“Totally weird. How does it feel to be senior sprite of a colony of thirty-four?”
“Thirty-four?” said Ace, jumping down and hugging them both. “Is that how many there are of us now?”
“At the last count,” said Clover. “It's wonderful to see you. Where's Will?”
“On the phone to Colonel Dünnwald. Arguing, probably. Technical are trying to steal him back.”
“It's where he belongs, Ace,” said Clover.
“Oh, I know. Believe me, I know, and so does he. And when it's vital, we can handle it. But he's needed here too. He's a very good craftsman. And there's so much to do.”
“It's amazing how much you've already done,” said Bella. “I'm sorry to see the Conference Room go.”
“We're only moving it,” Ace reassured her. “We'll reassemble it in the army bit. Not everyone's totally happy about this, but everything we can salvage will make it feel more like home. Will's coming now.”
Will came round the corner of a building and saw them.
“Oh, brilliant! Hi Bella, congratulations, Clover! Had a good journey?”
“It was slow, we brought a big group. But how about you, you're not leaving us, are you?”
“Yes, 'fraid so.” He looked at Ace. “I'm sorry. But I'm not the only one who can do pipework. I am the only one who can make new SIM cards from scratch.”
“Teach them, and come back!” said Ace.
“I'll try,” laughed Will. “The colonel really hasn't got the time. But maybe I can explain it to Penelope. This is really complex stuff. There isn't just one kind, you see.”
“Penelope?” spluttered Bella. “You call Captain Pamisos Penelope?”
“It's her name....”
“Don't worry, Bella, I understand,” said Ace. “Will and Colonel Dünnwald are the only two sprites in the realm who aren't frightened of her.”
“Never mind, then,” laughed Will. “I don't have to go quite yet, I can leave with the next batch of travellers. How about you, Clover? You staying a bit?”
“Couple of days.”
“Excellent,” said Ace. “Meet up tonight, at the bonfire. Almost like old times!”
“Pair of loonies,” said Clover affectionately. “Wouldn't miss it for the world.”
It was a lovely evening, that felt very special to Clover, a moment of real pause between one part of her life and the next. After this, no longer Lieutenant Moseley of Search and Rescue, but Envoy Moseley of Owler Tor. Tonight, she felt, she was neither. Just Clover again, one of Ace's team, at Fjaerland. Sitting near a bonfire, next to Bella, as they quietly messaged Rose and Dan and Stella at Herzenwald. Watching the sky go soft purple instead of grey and black. Watching Ace and Will sitting so close together, knowing that in a day or two they'd have to split up yet again. Weeping with laughter at Betch's impersonation of the pompous elf who'd been selected as envoy for Bat's Castle.
I'm going to have to meet him! thought Clover. He's an English envoy, too. How will I ever keep my face straight after this?
When Debin came over to the fire, bringing all the unit with him, Ace was on his feet at once, shaking Debin's hand, welcoming all of them, making room for them by the fire. Clover was very proud of him. His manners were just as lovely as Debin's, just less formal. Wayne and Stan introduced everyone, with Wayne making them laugh because they could understand him now when he spoke English, but not when he tried to speak Polish.
Sipping hot nettle tea, Clover looked beyond their own group. Dear Calla, warmly wrapped, gazing into the flames. The Commander laughing with Madge and General Stalden. Gran Herdalen quietly talking to Bjørk Kinnekulle, his face at peace. Major Inari and Major Thurlgrove, Sergeant Olt and Corporal Lavall, and all of England 3, animated and excited about the building work, bubbling over with enthusiasm. Visitors from Norway and Sweden, joining in because they wanted to and looking very happy about it. Peaceful and perfect, Clover remembered it. Especially because the next day, something went horribly wrong.