CHAPTER 17 - Our Ancient Law
It was David who heard about it first, in an email from an Ally in Aachen, called Yvonne. She wrote in French, which David did understand quite well, but there were some words he didn't know so he copied the lot into his translation software.
Dear David, he read. I just heard a report on local radio. A girl claimed to have seen two fairies. They were dressed in chic capri pants and little t-shirts, she said. They didn't have wands, but they did have wings. They were trying to pull something out of a ditch, something very small and green and pretty, with arms and legs. When she went to catch a fairy they flew away, so she caught the green thing instead. “I took it home and put it in a cage,” she said, “but it escaped.”
Why the station broadcast this, I don't know. Perhaps they thought it a good joke. But it's obviously true, that description of a bud is just too perfect. The fairies know they were seen, they know a human has taken a bud. Have they told anyone, is anyone doing anything? Do you think there is anything I can do to help?
Do you have any more details? David replied. What day did this happen, where, what time? Any idea what colony the fairies came from?
Yvonne replied at once. It happened yesterday afternoon, 4th May. The child was walking home from the school bus. The radio station covers quite a small area so the colony is likely to be in east Belgium, west Germany or possibly Luxembourg.
Thanks for the tip-off, David answered. I don't think there's anything we can do except let the army know. If they need human help, I'll tell you at once. I'm going to phone Essen. They'll take it from there.
Poppy Rhaeadr was now en route to Norway so Colonel Dünnwald took the call himself. He thanked David and promised to alert the Commander and also Croix Scaille Hill, which was in the east of Belgium. He sounded most concerned about the safety of the bud. David knew that could be the least of their worries. He sent a text to the Commander, saying Colonel Dünnwald would be calling, including all the details he knew and what he was worried about. When the Commander read it, she rounded up her senior officers and told them what David had said.
“David says this is not a nice child. She put a bud in a cage. Her instinct was not to make friends, but get publicity. She knows the fairies will want the bud back. She will calculate that they'll be waiting to see her again so they can follow her. If she can capture a fairy, it won't be radio, but television. What do you think? Is David right to be worried?”
“Yes,” said Gran.
“Yes,” said Madge. “This could be awful.”
Then Colonel Dünnwald phoned and the others waited patiently.
“Good gracious!” said Gia. She turned to the others. “Croix Scaille said, 'Close call, but no harm done. One lost bud isn't too bad, the way things are. We're drowning in buds as it is'.”
“Can you believe it?” demanded Madge. “Are they really so silly?”
“Surely we must get flyers out to every possible colony and warn them,” said Gran. “Let's hope it's not too late. Has anyone got a map?”
General Stalden had a map, a very good map. She quickly identified three possible colonies, all near the city of Liège.
“Chaudfontaine, Tihange or Stavelot,” she said.
“We have flyers at Arnhem, watching the Rhine crossing,” said Gia into her phone. “Colonel Dünnwald, are they nearer, or are you?”
“Not much in it, ma'am,” said the colonel. “I can send a couple of our fastest to Liège right away. At least they'd be on the spot then if you need action.”
“Yes, please do that. Nella is messaging Arnhem. I'll call back.”
Gia called David.
“It would be good if we could have people there when this child gets off her bus. Please could you ask Yvonne if she can make a guess as to which school she goes to? And what time do schools finish in Belgium?”
“Will do,” said David.
After that, it turned into a flurry of texts and messages and phone calls. They were coming so thick and fast that Gia moved everyone to Signals, called for Pice to do the messaging, asked Gran to keep texting David and Madge to stay on the line to Essen, while she tried to co-ordinate this.
“Two flyers now en route to Liège from Essen,” said Madge. “Mona and Trema Camilo, both good at messaging and they have a phone. Anything from David yet?”
“Yes,” said Gran. “Yvonne lived in Liège as a child, went to school there herself, but reports that there are too many schools to make a guess. She thinks the child sounded about 11 or 12, so secondary school, and they come out about 16.15.”
“It's nearly that, now,” said Gia. “Our flyers cannot possibly get there today, it must be over 80 miles. But tomorrow we can try something. Pice, any luck with the colonies?”
“Only Tihange. They say no-one is off the colony just now, and no fairies mentioned losing a bud yesterday, or being spotted by a human. But they admit that isn't a thing you'd mention if you could get away with it. They say it sounds like Chaudfontaine to them, because they're a scatty lot.”
“OK, that's a clue then. Keep on at Chaudfontaine. Surely they've got someone who can message?”
“I'm not so sure,” said Madge. “It's not a name I remember ever hearing before.”
“Cheer me up, Madge, why don't you?”
Gran and Madge turned their phones off to save the batteries while Pice tried to contact Chaudfontaine again and again. Over an hour passed with no success and he had to admit defeat.
“I think it might be better to try Croix Scaille Hill again,” he said.
“Yes, I think you're... hold on... yes, Gran, what does David say?”
“David says we're too late. She's caught a fairy. It's on Youtube. A fairy in a cage, filmed on a phone and the video uploaded to Youtube. It's getting a lot of hits.”
“What does that even mean?” said Pice.
“It means the child captured a fairy. And filmed her. And put the film on the internet for all the world to see.”
“This is going to be Total Contact. Our most ancient law, broken.”
“There may still be things we can do,” said Gran. “Hang on, more from David... he says, does Colonel Dünnwald know how to see Youtube on the computer at Essen? If he watches the video, he may pick up a clue as to who the fairy is.”
“Brilliant,” said Gia. “Pice... no, he's concentrating.” She stood up and called the nearest sprite over, which was easy as Signals currently had no walls. It happened to be Sam Groszowy.
“Sam, this is really urgent. Please find Will Moseley and ask him to come here at once.”
Sam jumped off at high speed while Madge got through to Essen again. By the time Will got to Signals, Colonel Dünnwald had his phone in his hand and was sitting in front of the computer. The people at Fjaerland couldn't see it, but everyone at Essen was gathered round too, waiting to see what would happen next.
Gia greeted Will with relief. She filled him in as fast as she could, grateful that he could take things in so quickly. Will used his own phone to call David in person, while talking to Colonel Dünnwald on Madge's phone.
“Open the internet, sir, and type Youtube – all one word – into the search bar... what's the video called, David? You got it, sir? Now type in J'ai capturée une vraie fée – yes, in French – I captured a real fairy. Then hit 'Search'.”
Madge's phone had once been Clover's. It was a very good one. Will changed the settings so that Colonel Dünnwald's comments came through on speaker phone. Suddenly, everyone there could hear him.
“Oh, the poor fairy! She's in a cage. She doesn't realise she's being filmed. She's pleading to be set free, I think – she's speaking French. She's asking, where is the bud you took? Whoever is filming is not replying. Then the fairy seems finally to understand that she is looking at a camera, and turns her back. Now, another voice – we don't see who. She speaks in French – 'I am the first person in the world to capture a real fairy. Today, radio and Youtube, tomorrow, RTBF and the world'.”
“RTBF?” said Madge.
“David will already have Googled it,” said Will. “Thanks... Belgian French-language TV network.”
He listened to David again, his face very serious.
“I get it. I'll tell them. Thanks, David.”
He spoke to Colonel Dünnwald and the others at the same time.
“David says Youtube is full of strange things. So much trickery is possible with cameras. Lots of people will see this, but most of them will think it's a fake. But if it gets on television, that's very different. We have to stop her getting it on television. Once that happens, it's too late. Thanks, sir. Handing you back to General Arley now.”
Will stood quietly, waiting. The Commander was thinking hard.
“We need an excellent plan now,” said Gran. “And this is not happening in our world. Will, where's Ace?”
“Over there, sir.”
Will pointed a short distance away, and the senior officers noticed for the first time not just Ace, but a large crowd of sprites, all staring, aghast.
“I will listen to suggestions from anyone,” said Gia to them all. “We must guard our ancient law. We must. Ace, you are famous for plans, and you know humans well. What would you do?”
“Guard our ancient law?” said Ace. “The words from the Song for the Queen. We'll have to do it ourselves this time, then. We have to rescue this fairy. And the bud too, if possible. And to do that, we have to know where this girl lives. I'd start by asking Colonel Dünnwald to get a French speaker to watch that video – and ask David to get Sally to watch it, her French is better than his – and say, don't look at the fairy, look at the background, see if you can spot any clues. If you could get anything at all to narrow it down a bit, you could have flyers circling the area, looking out for the TV van arriving – it'll be one of those little outside broadcast vans with an aerial on top, easy to spot. Then get inside, eavesdrop where they're going, sabotage the van, get there first, rescue the fairy and we're safe.”
Gia looked slightly stunned, but rallied fast.
“Madge, ask Colonel Dünnwald if he has a French speaker. Thank you, Ace, looking for clues in the background is an excellent idea.”
“David's calling Sally,” Gran reported.
“Colonel Dünnwald's got a French fairy watching now,” said Madge. “Will says, make sure the setting's on Full Screen, whatever that means.”
There was nothing they could do now but wait. Finally, the French fairy in Essen reported that all she could detect was that it was a girl's bedroom but added that, in her opinion, the fairy was undoubtedly a buttercup. That made all the fairies groan, and even the elves knew why. Like beeches, buttercups have a bit of a reputation for being nice but dim.
Then Will's phone rang, and it was Sally. He switched to speaker phone at once.
“I think I've got something. There's a school exercise book on the floor. I can't make out the girl's name, but you can read the name of the school, College St. Robert. We've looked it up, it's in the west of the city of Liège. I'm sorry that's all I could get, but I hope it helps.”
“That helps a lot,” said Will. “Thanks a million, Sally. Everyone OK? How are the buds? Oh...yes, ma'am. Sorry, got to go!”
Colonel Dünnwald had a map of the area.
“I've found the school,” he said. “Within what sort of distance is the child likely to live? Ten miles?”
“I think that's plenty,” said Ace. “Probably more than enough.”
“Yes, ten miles is good,” said Gia. “Please tell your flyers to rest when they arrive and then take the south and east quadrants of a circle of ten mile radius from the school. I'll tell the two from Arnhem to take north and west. At first light they start looking for a van with an aerial on top. I'll get back to you with detailed advice of what to do when they find it.”
She nodded at Madge, who switched off the phone. Then Gia spoke to everyone around her.
“We'll get back on to Croix Scaille to help too. At the very least, they can send flyers out to Chaudfontaine to see if they have lost a Buttercup. And if they have, the fairy who was with her on the first day must be asked where they were when they were spotted. That information would help narrow it down even more.”
“I'm onto it,” said Pice.
“Thank you. Gran, would you and Ace and Will stay a little longer. We need to think what happens next when one of our flyers spots the van. Everyone else, back to work, please, then rest early. We must be up before dawn to get on with this search.”
Gilly Basa, the young colonel of Search and Rescue, had been based at Arnhem to watch the Rhine crossing for weeks now. Like everyone else, she'd been excited to hear about the elections and to vote, and even more excited to see that Signals was back, but for a while now she'd had the feeling that everything exciting was happening somewhere else. The sudden order to fly to Liège with her team mate Poppy, to rescue a fairy who'd been captured by a human was unexpected and even alarming, but definitely exciting.
As she flew south at top speed, she kept an eye open for two fairies who were coming from Essen to help. Their flight paths might converge at some point. It was two of the 3rd Squadron scavengers. Not Maag and Campanilla, old friends since they'd found the first phone and met Hanna together, but two she'd only met once, Mona and Trema. But she knew they were tough and sensible, like all of that unit.
They made good time. She and Poppy landed at the rendezvous point just as it was going dark. It was the roof of the school that was the centre of the search area. Mona and Trema weren't there, which was a bit worrying. Would they be able to find it in the dark? But they had a phone. They could text, and they did, from not very far away. They only needed help for the last kilometre.
“Well done!” said Gilly warmly as the weary fairies landed. “Rest now, and I'll message to the Commander at Fjaerland to report in.”
Major Inari received her message and seamlessly transferred her to the Commander. And the Commander congratulated them on their speed and emphasised that the search must begin at first light. And then she went over in great detail a plan to hinder the television workers, once they had been led to the right house, and another plan to enter the human house and rescue the fairy, whose name, it was now known, was Renoncule Chaudfontaine, which sounded terribly grand but probably wasn't. Gilly listened carefully, very carefully, because it was quite complicated.
I understand, ma'am. I know what's at stake. We will do our utmost.
I know, Gilly. I trust you and I know you will be able to think of alternative actions on the spot if anything goes wrong. Keep in touch when you can. Someone will be on duty in Signals night and day. But don't be afraid to use your phone instead if that is easier. In fact, if you need any kind of help concerning the van, text Captain Moseley direct, he knows an awful lot about vehicles.
The Commander gave her Ace's number, wished her luck, had a quick word with Poppy, Mona and Trema and that was it. Then Gilly explained the plan to the other three. They all looked horrified.
“I never heard such a crazy elf plan!” protested Poppy.
“I know,” said Gilly. “It does sound impossible, but if we can pull it off, it will do the trick.”
“If!” said Mona. “If we find this van, and if we don't lose it, and if we succeed in this crazy elf plan, and if we get into the house... and if we don't, it's Total Contact?”
“Try not to worry about it,” said Gilly. “Drink some water, wrap up tight and get a few hours' sleep. Then we'll be off.”
Earlier that evening, David had called Yvonne in Aachen and told her all the latest news, how very grateful the sprites were to have got the news so quickly and how the army sprites had made a plan. The Youtube video had changed everything, David had told her. Everything now depended on getting there before the TV cameras did.
“They say they've got it under control, so I don't think there's anything else we can do,” said David. “But as soon as I hear any more news, I'll let you know.”
“Thank you, David. Goodnight, my dear.”
Yvonne put her phone down, thinking hard. She was not so sure that there was nothing humans could do. Yvonne was not as old as her friend Hanna in Duisburg, but she was a lot older than David and it seemed to her that rescuing the fairy was not enough. This girl must be made to understand what she had done, so that she would not try to do it again. Removing the fairy would remove the proof of what she had seen. It would not remove her memory. Without help from the Allies, she might simply turn to searching for sprites, to capture another one.
She phoned Hanna. She and Hanna had been friends for years – since the first fairy forums started on the internet – and when Hanna had met real fairies, Yvonne had been the first to believe her, and had met elves and fairies at Hanna's house and had instantly become an Ally. She had never met a sprite in her home city of Aachen or her native city of Liège, but she felt for them. If this story got out of control, they would get a terrible reputation for incompetence and she wanted to help finish it once and for all.
Hanna, of course, had been following David's updates avidly and had seen the video on Youtube. She firmly agreed with Yvonne that humans should be having a word with the human involved.
“And we can do that,” said Hanna. “We don't know where this girl lives any more than the fairies do. But we can try to find her. They will use their fairy instincts and we will use our human ones. I'll come to Aachen tonight.”
“But how, Hanna, you don't have a car. Do you want me to come and get you?”
“No, no, you will need to drive us from Aachen to Liège and we will need a very early start. You must rest. One can hire a car with a driver, and the driver will take me from my door to yours. It's only about 170 kilometres, a journey of two hours or so at this quiet time of night.”
“I'll leave the door open for you,” said Yvonne. “Come right in.”
Hanna searched online and soon found a chauffeur service that would take her to Aachen that night. Only an hour later she was on her way, with a small bag, a fully-charged phone and a print-out of school bus routes in Liège. She settled back in the comfortable BMW to enjoy the journey, and by midnight she was sipping cocoa with Yvonne.
Yvonne had printed out a street map of Liège, and onto this they drew the ten mile circle surrounding the school, which the fairies planned to watch. And now they knew the colony involved was near Chaudfontaine, they drew a circle around that too. Now they had an overlap.
“The fairies will know about this overlap by now,” said Yvonne. “Sure to be watching that carefully. But if we can work out which is the right bus route, we may get even closer.”
“She mentioned a ditch,” said Hanna. “Does that suggest out of town to you? It does to me. Just on the edges, where you might suddenly find that one side of the road has no pavement.”
“It does. And also the fact that she was alone. She had no-one to walk with, so perhaps not a part with many houses.”
“It could be so. It sounded a quiet spot.”
“There seem to be two bus routes that head out in that direction.”
“Then let's follow them in the morning. When they cross our overlap, I suspect we will be very close.”
“And then what? We look out for the TV van too?”
“Yes. They will find it their way, and we will find it ours.”
The ladies rested, just as the fairies were doing, and at 5am they left for Liège. They followed the first bus route, but it ended at an out-off-town shopping area, with not much residential property around. Patiently, they tried the other one and this one entered their overlap clearly.
“So she came home on this route,” said Yvonne as she drove. “And when she got off, between the stop and her house, there was a ditch.”
Hanna watched out for ditches and when she saw one, they stopped the car and got out.
“So if she got off here, where was she heading?”
There were a few houses along the road itself, and further out, a couple of farms. But along a side road they discovered a fairly new housing estate, which looked promising. They were as close as they could get. They got back in the car and drove around, patrolling, looking out for the fairies, looking out for the TV van. For one hour, then two, they stuck at it, despite being hungry and thirsty. A third hour passed and still they drove round, widening the circle in case they had miscalculated. Then, finally, they saw it, slowing down on a pleasant road on the housing estate, a van with an aerial on its roof, RTBF on its sides and four fairies in desperate pursuit.
Yvonne stopped the car, not too close, but close enough to watch unobtrusively. The driver of the van was a young woman and they saw her face as she decided which house she wanted. At that very second, the fairies burst into action.
“But that is Gilly!” exclaimed Hanna. “One of the first three I met. Whatever is she doing?”
What she was doing, with every bit of concentration she could possibly muster, was expanding metal. The very edge of the van's door, and the metal framework next to it... soften, expand, meld together... just a few inches would do, they said. Then those inside wouldn't be able to get out. Not without help. Better than going for the lock, they said. You could open broken locks from the inside. She had to be fast, keep out of sight... on the other side, Poppy was doing the same thing, with Mona tackling the back door and Trema the side door. She saw it growing darker inside the van. They'd started on the windows. Angling her flight so she could look up, she did the same thing to the window on her side. Crystal clear now, growing smoky, grey, darker and darker until the glass was no longer transparent at all. It was brutal, she knew. The humans inside couldn't get out and couldn't see out. They would be disorientated and frightened and she was sorry for that, but they were desperate. And they would have phones. They would call for help and help would come. They had maybe half an hour.
As soon as the last window was finished, the fairies flew over a few bushes and huddled together, panting for breath, shaking with reaction from their efforts and the fear of failure.
“It's okay,” Gilly got out. “It's okay, we did it. Oh, you were all wonderful. Breathe now, breathe, relax. We haven't got much time. It's all worked so far. Even the crazy elf-stuff. Now all we have to do is get into that house and rescue Renoncule.”
As the fairies circled the house, Hanna and Yvonne left their car and walked over to the TV van. From inside, they could hear agitated voices making urgent phone calls.
“Awesome,” said Yvonne. “So fast, so well-planned! What are they doing now?”
“Looking for an open window, I think,” said Hanna. “But they haven't found one. Gilly!”
Gilly looked down, startled.
“Hanna! Oh, good to see you! We can't get in.”
“I think we can help there,” said Hanna. “We want a word with this girl. We will simply ring the bell. When someone answers, you will be able to whizz in above our heads, won't you?”
“You bet,” said Gilly. “Hey, team! These are Allies, come to help. When the door opens, full speed in!”
Hanna walked smartly up to the door and pressed the bell. It was opened by a man in his forties, who looked surprised to see two old ladies. Hanna put a foot across the threshold.
“Good morning,” she said, in French. “We have come to have a word with your daughter.”
“Oh, is it about school attendance? I thought you would make an appointment. It isn't convenient right now. We're expecting a TV crew, as it happens. In fact, there they are, look, the van has arrived.”
“They are having a few problems,” said Hanna, who by now had heard the gentle rush of wings overhead. “And we are not,” she added, as she walked inside, closely followed by Yvonne, “anything to do with the educational authorities. We have come to speak to your daughter about her kidnap of two living beings belonging to another species. Where is she?”
A girl came into the hallway. Beautifully dressed, and wearing rather a lot of make up for her age, she looked sad, as if high hopes were falling down around her.
“Good morning,” said Hanna. “You have to set her free. And the bud too, if you have found it.”
“You're too late. The TV cameras are here, look.”
“They are not coming in,” said Hanna. “Look more closely. It does not do to mess around with sprites. They have powers we cannot understand. Do you really want to spend the rest of your life wondering what strange thing is going to happen to you next? Set her free.”
“Are you threatening my daughter? You're German, aren't you?”
“Yes, I am German. If that causes you grief, I am sorry for it. But I am not threatening your daughter... what is your name, my dear?”
“I am pointing out to Lise that her actions may have consequences that she would not enjoy. Yes, sprites exist... what use to deny it, when you have seen them? You are putting them in grave danger. If humans in general learn of their existence, they will soon be wiped out, like many other species. The danger is even greater than they themselves realise. People will pay tens of thousands of Euros for some exotic birds. How much do you think they would pay for a living fairy? Then there is the matter of their extraordinary skills, skills that could save humans a fortune. They would be enslaved. And they would not be able to endure it, and they would die. A whole species that must, must be kept secret for its own protection, wiped out because of a girl who wanted to be on television?”
“Listen to Hanna, Lise,” said Yvonne. “Set the fairy free.”
“What do you think, Dad?”
“Perhaps it would be safer.”
His eyes were on the recovery truck driver who was trying to crowbar the TV crew out of their van.
Hanna had already heard wings again.
“Good. I wanted you to come to that decision. But you do not actually need to do anything. While we were talking, her friends have freed her.”
Lise stared and ran upstairs but quickly came back.
“The cage is empty. She has gone.”
“Then all is well. Yvonne and I will leave now. But before we go, I would like you to have this.” She reached into her bag and pulled out a lovely item from her fairy collection. “This fairy was hand-carved in the Black Forest over a hundred years ago. I believe she was carved by someone who had seen a real fairy. Look at her warm stockings and sensible boots. Look at the streaks of colour on her skin. I give her to you, because you had mercy on a living fairy. Goodbye, Lise. Goodbye, sir.”
“Goodbye, Lise,” said Yvonne. “If you really want to be on TV, work hard at school. Do something excellent, and fame will be yours. And if you ever meet a fairy again, don't try to capture her. Just say hello, and make friends.”
“Thank you,” said Lise. “Goodbye.”
Hanna and Yvonne returned to the car and sat inside with the windows open.
“Phew!” said Yvonne. “You were brilliant!”
“So were you! Great teamwork. Ah, here they come!”
Five fairies flew in through the window.
“Thanks for your help,” said Gilly. “I heard what you said to that girl, you were wonderful!”
“Oh well, it needed saying. So this is Renoncule? Oh, and you found the bud!”
“It found me,” said Renoncule. “Thank you for coming and helping to rescue me.”
“You are very welcome,” said Hanna. “By the way, this is my friend Yvonne, who has driven us here from Aachen. She is an Ally too, of course.”
“Pleased to meet you, Yvonne!” said Gilly. “And these are Poppy and Mona and Trema.”
“What do you want to do next? Is there anything we can do to help you?” asked Yvonne.
“I think we had better escort Renoncule and the bud home to Chaudfontaine,” said Gilly. “They have searchers out too, and so does your Hill, Croix Something.”
“Croix Scaille are looking for me too? Oh, my goodness.”
“They'll just be thrilled you're safe,” said Poppy. “But we can let them know, so they can stop looking.”
“I'll message the Commander from the colony,” said Gilly. “But our phones need charging. Could you text David, or Essen, to let them know too?”
“We can do that right now,” said Yvonne. “Let's see: To David, from Hanna and Yvonne in Liège. Operation Rescue a complete success. Gilly will message Commander as soon as they arrive in Chaudfontaine.
“Thank you,” said Gilly. “For everything. I hope we meet again soon. Lead the way, Renoncule!”
Renoncule gathered the bud safely in her arms and smiled shyly. Then she flew out of the window, swiftly followed by the four army fairies. Hanna and Yvonne smiled at each other.
“Breakfast,” said Hanna. “At the best cafe we can find. My treat. What's a speciality of Liège?”
“Boûquetes,” said Yvonne. “Lovely pancakes with syrup.”
“Oh, yes,” said Hanna. “And lots of Belgian coffee.”
“Leave it to me,” said Yvonne. “I have an unerring instinct for finding the best cafe in town. Fairies aren't the only ones with special talents.”
Gilly's message to the Commander was long and detailed. It included everything Hanna had done, how she had arrived, by human logic, at the right place at the right time, and it included every word Hanna and Yvonne had said to Lise. And thanks to Pice Inari, lovingly using all his Signals skills with the power now greater than ever, the message was heard by everyone on the mountain. True, they were all gathered closely round, anxious to hear the latest news, but even so, it was a great achievement. And it didn't stop there. Poppy Rhaeadr had arrived, very keen to get on with her proper work of passing news on to everyone she knew.
Nor was she the only one; there were a lot of people who hadn't been able to message for a long time, only too keen to be first with the news to friends in remote places. By midday, the names of Gilly and Poppy, Mona and Trema and Renoncule were being mentioned all over the realm. And so were Hanna and Yvonne.
By evening, the buzz had got back to the Allies, who talked about it in the forum on David's website. What everyone wanted to know was if this was the sign Karl had been waiting for.
“Yes,” said Karl. “This is it. It is a big gesture of faith we are making here, but I truly believe this is what the Tree wishes we would do. I have booked the whole campsite for two weeks either side of Midsummer's Eve. So book leave from work, make your plans to travel. If I am wrong, we will all have a fine holiday together in a lovely place, and that is no bad thing. But if I am right, we will forge a new link between Allies and sprites that will protect them for generations. See you in Titisee.”
The next day, 14th May, Clover was leaving for England, Will was leaving for Essen and visitors from Sweden and other parts of Norway were going home. Major Thurlgrove gave Ace permission to fly anyone who wanted it to Otta in one of the helicopters. Rob came with him to help navigate and they stayed until everyone was safely on a train south. Ace watched the train disappearing, expecting the familiar wave of sadness, but instead it felt different. Puzzled and wary, he pushed his own feelings aside and turned to Rob with a smile.
“Want to fly us back? The major won't mind.”
“Thanks, Ace, I'd love to,” said Rob.
Ace knew he was being too quiet, but he couldn't think of anything to say. Fortunately, Rob kept up a gentle flow of cheering conversation, as if he suspected that Ace might be feeling a bit low. He was talking about the flight he had made from Herzenwald to Greece, and actually Ace found he was soon listening with genuine interest. That kept him going until they had landed the helicopter back at camp and Rob had gone off to find Phil.
Ace went to join in with the day's building work, and threw himself into it with reckless abandon. They were taking down the old Camp HQ building, one of the oldest buildings there, right next to the Great Hall. The old roof timbers were covered with grass and had practically grown together. Instead of patiently shrinking the edges, Ace just tugged as hard as he could until the turf tore and the timber came away. Most of it was too poor to re-use and would go onto tonight's bonfire, but they couldn't take the walls down until it was off.
The first few times he got away with it, but then he tugged too furiously hard and when the wood gave way, he went with it. It was too sudden to regain his balance and he felt himself falling backwards off the roof. He tried to twist in the air to land properly but then he saw a flicker of wings and a fairy grabbed his arm. He dragged her down with him and they both landed with a bump, but she'd saved him from broken bones.
“Lisette!” said Ace. “Thank you very much, that was a close one! Sorry about the bump.”
“That's all right! Glad I was near enough to grab you!”
She smiled and went back to gathering up the pieces of turf. Major Maridalen, who was supervising the work, came over to check Ace was uninjured.
“If you're feeling restless, a roof isn't the place to work,” he said. “Can you start dragging the poor timbers away instead?”
“Yes, sir,” said Ace.
He didn't care what he did so long as it was difficult enough to stop him thinking. But Gran Herdalen had seen what had happened. When the day's work was over he came to find Ace.
“Come for a walk,” he said.
“OK,” said Ace. “Where to?”
“Where would you like to go?”
Ace thought about that.
“General Cherapont's walk.”
They walked across camp, through the open spaces where buildings that had been burned had once stood.
“Is something making it worse than usual?” asked Gran.
“It ought to be,” said Ace. “It's our birthday. But it's not. Not worse, I mean. It's different, very different, and it's freaking me out.”
“Different? How... Ace, is this the first time you and Will have been apart since what happened in Sweden? It is, isn't it?”
“Yes. Oh. You think something's changed, and we're only just finding out? Could be... at least that would be a reason. But I don't want not to miss him! I want to miss him! That's how it's supposed to be!”
“What do you... you mean you're not missing him?”
Ace stopped walking and screwed his face up.
“No. No, that was an exaggeration. I am missing him, but I don't feel like I usually do, like I've been torn in half. It feels like he's still around, as if he was over the other side of camp or something, messing about with circuits or engines.”
They walked on. Ace felt a bit better for having got that out, to the only other person who could understand, and he appreciated the way Gran was obviously thinking carefully about this before he said anything. They waded through some long grass and reached the path up the hillside.
“Something changed for me too,” said Gran. “Now, I can talk to Ket, and I know that he can hear me. I never could before. I can't hear him, of course. But he can hear me, because he's free now, and oh, what a difference it makes!”
“Oh, Gran, really? That's beautiful. I'm so glad for you. For both of you.”
“Thank you. It's good to be able to talk about it. You and Will are the only ones who would understand. This happened because of what we did in Sweden. Now, the last time you two pooled as deeply as that, you found your connection was so much stronger that you could message when you were both off the mountain, you could message even after we lost Signals. This time, I suspect, you have strengthened your connection so much that you can't lose the feeling of the other's presence any more. Even when you're miles apart.”
“You make it sound like it's a good thing. Like we've gained something, not lost something. It doesn't feel like that, it's all too strange.”
“You probably need time to readjust, that's all. You need to talk to Will about it.”
“He'll be in touch, later. He'll wait till he's in the Green Room.”
“That's good, then. You'll make sense of it, between you, I am sure of that.”
They walked along quietly then, just thinking, and then Gran changed the subject. At least, that was how it seemed to Ace right then. It was days later before he realised that Gran hadn't been changing the subject at all.
“I was in a meeting all morning,” he said. “The Commander is giving a lot of thought to the future. The future of the army, I mean. Streamlining. In some ways, going back to basics, how things used to be. In other ways, making us more flexible, faster, ready for the future. Taking a lot more account of people's real talents, and of their own wishes. I told you once I'd never split you up unless you asked me to. It won't be up to me any more. It will be up to you. The time is coming when you're both going to have to decide what you really want.”
“Oh, I just don't want to let anyone down,” said Ace. “There are times when I feel I ought to be at home. We've got twenty-four buds, two little ones and only two fairies to look after them all. Who are doing a great job, and have nine Allies to help them, but even so.”
“And at the same time, you want to be with Will. Who needs to be at Essen if anyone does.”
“Making things is good fun. But electronics... patiently fiddling about with tiny stuff...”
“You need a lot more action than that,” said Gran. “Of course you do. But I don't think you need to worry about the buds. You can trust your instincts. If a time comes when you need to be there, you'll know. You want them to have plenty of freedom, don't you? And as well as that, things like schools are going to have to happen sooner than we thought!”
“D'you think this avalanche of buds was a one-off?”
“In a way, perhaps. The Tree letting out all that pent-up power after being sapped for so many years. But that also means there'll be buds every year now. Nothing to stop it any more! Maybe not so many, but still plenty!”
“It's awesome to think of. Exciting!”
“The realm will look very different in twenty years. The Commander's right to look to what future needs might be. So for once, just think of yourself. If you weren't a twin or a senior sprite, what would you be hoping for?”
“Oooh, plenty of action. Variety. Something where you don't know, when you wake up, what you'll do that day or where you might end up.”
“Yes. Yes, I can see that. Some people would hate that! Well, I don't mind telling you that there are going to be Rapid Response Forces dotted around the realm. They're going to need leaders who can lead a mixed team anywhere, analyse a situation, plan a response and pull it off. At a moment's notice.”
“Oh, wow, that would be my dream job!”
“And you would excel at it. But no-one's going to make you. The choice will be yours, and I think that knowing you had a choice would help a lot. And no-one's going to be stuck in the same job forever, not any more. When anyone is ready for a change, they only have to say so.”
They'd got to the steep bit now and clambered up the rocky path to the place where you could perch and take in the view.
“Wow, it looks so different!” said Ace.
“It does. You can really see the shape of it now, can't you? How it will all fit in.”
“I love the new road. It looks stately and cheerful at the same time. I wonder if anyone's come yet? Anyone who wouldn't have come before, I mean.”
“I believe so,” said Gran. “Major Inari did mention he saw someone arrive and leave without talking to anyone. Just came to see the Tree.”
“Good, that was the idea, wasn't it? You'd think the new envoys would want to come, if they'd never been before, so they'd understand everyone when they get to Herzenwald.”
“Madge has been dropping large hints that that would be a good idea. And Senior Goblin Saal messaged the Commander as soon as he heard that Signals was back. Said he was impressed by the results of the Peace Conference, hopeful for the future, and fully supported the army's role in the new arrangements.”
“Good for him. He's not so bad. And Sizzle's wonderful and so is old Dub Koko. It's that Senior Fairy I'm worried about. Very dubious character.”
Gran snorted with laughter, then added that this mysterious character, the President, was even worse.
“How are you going to tackle that?” asked Ace.
“I have had a few ideas. The President will go wherever he is invited, for a start. If a Hill invites him to go to an award ceremony for its schools and make an inspiring speech, he will go. If an army unit invites him to go along and see a bit of action, he will do that too. He doesn't want to get rusty.”
“I'll remember that!” said Ace.
“He will let it be known that invitations to places south of 50º N would be more welcome in the winter months.”
“Will they even know what that means?”
“South of Paris, then. Seriously, though, I plan to keep well away from parliament. The four Seniors have the final say. And I do think that was a good idea. There was no way the Hills were going to choose equal numbers of each order. This way, at least each order gets an equal say in final decisions.”
“I know, it's great. But will you just drop in on people too? Isn't that what the queen did?”
“I believe so, but I don't know how it was arranged or how she chose where to go. Or how she got there, for that matter.”
“All I remember from history was that people thought the last queen, Queen Silvia, was no good. But why was that? What did she do wrong?”
“I have no idea. I always thought that was a bit of an excuse, put out by the founder colonies who wanted a parliament. But it might not have been. I wonder if Calla knows?”
“Let's go and ask her. This might be your only chance to talk to someone who remembers when we had a queen!”
“All right, we will. People will be gathering round the fire by now ... yes, look, it's just been lit, you can see the smoke.”
“OK. Race you back!”
“What! I'm too old for ...oh, go on, then.”
Laughing and teasing each other, they raced back down onto camp. A few people saw them and wondered what the matter was until they realised it was just a race. How long was it, people wondered, since Gran Herdalen had been so light-hearted? What a burden he had carried, and how the lifting of it had helped them all. It made everyone just that little bit more patient when Gran went to sit near Calla, with Ace close behind him, and asked her to tell them everything she knew about queens in general and Queen Silvia in particular.
Normally, such a request would have produced stifled groans. Calla was wonderful, everyone agreed on that, but she was so very serious. True, she did get to the point, she didn't waffle, but that didn't help much when she had so many important points to make. Not really what you wanted when you had been looking forward to a jolly evening around the bonfire, with plenty of gossip and silly jokes. Still, it was Gran Herdalen who had asked, and you could see why he wanted to know. How could the President replace the queen if he didn't know what queens had done?
“Queen Silvia? I remember her coronation. At Elveden, where your young pilot Pendo comes from. That was the place she chose, being English.”
“Wow, is that old story true then?” said Pendo.
“I never knew she was English!” said Ace.
“Who chose her?” asked Gran.
“The other Allies, I suppose,” said Calla, “though now I have met the Tree, I would say that he probably helped.”
“The other Allies?” said the Commander, interested. “She was not chosen by sprites?”
“She was accepted by sprites. She was the one who came, and we chose to accept her. She was transformed, in private of course, and she received her crown – from the two youngest sprites in Elveden colony, Pendo.”
“Transformed?” said Madge, amazed.
“Yes, of course,” said Calla. “Why do you sound so surprised, young Madge? She was transformed into a fairy, to become queen of the sprites. But she remained human-sized. As a fairy, she could fly from place to place with her retinue. But she could still work in the human world when she needed to defend the secrecy of the realm.”
“So that's how she travelled around!” said Maag. “How lovely.”
“She became a fairy?” said Mento Zsennye. “That is not as bad as I had thought.”
“You thought a human used to boss sprites around, and that's why you didn't want a queen?” said Calla. “Well, you are right and you are wrong. Queen Silvia lived at a time of great change, just like today. At first, she tried to warn sprites of the dangers. Her warnings were about the spread of roads and cities and all the destruction that would bring. Well, we didn't all listen. Or even want to listen. Queen Silvia got more insistent, trying to tell sprites what to do, and people began to say she was bossy. So you are right there. But if you think she made laws, or even tried to, you are wrong. It is hundreds and hundreds of years since queens had anything to do with laws, and that was only to help, when sprites decided for the first time that a few laws might be a good idea.”
“So when she died, that's when Gruski and the others had their idea of copying humans and having a parliament instead,” said Stan.
“It was a start,” said Calla. “Not all was done well. The new parliament will be better. But no-one asked the Allies who the new queen was. No-one held a coronation. If there was a new queen, she worked unloved and unrewarded and unacknowledged. I myself think there was such a one, because someone smoothed over the problems at Cottingley. You remember the incident, when some fairies allowed themselves to be photographed by two human girls? Someone – some human – produced fake photos and substituted them for the real ones, so the story was not long believed. That is what a queen would do. But by now, she too will have died. And when that happened, how many Allies were left, anywhere? Who was listening to the Tree? Indeed, had Lars Huskvarna's evil work already started, and the voice of the Tree been diminished? Now, of course, things are very different. The realm is full of splendid Allies and everyone is listening to the Tree. I do not pretend that I always understood the importance of this. I did not. But I do now.”
“You mean... what do you mean?” said Gia. “The Allies have chosen a new queen?”
“Not chosen, exactly. But they know who she is.”
“And the Tree knows.”
“Of course. In a way, we already have a queen. We can choose to transform her and crown her, but if we don't, it doesn't matter. She loves us too much to care about that. Either way, she'll spend the rest of her life defending our ancient law. Secrecy.”
“I translated it wrong,” said Ace. “I'm so sorry. In English, I made it say guards our ancient laws when it should have been law, singular. One law. The one that matters, the one everyone has always agreed on.”
“Yes, everyone agrees on that,” said Calla. “You have a parliament, and Seniors and a President. Not to mention an army! You have everything you need to be safe and well-governed. You have Allies who will keep you in touch with the human world. But none of them can do the queen's real work. And she will do it, whether you like it or not.”
“She already is,” said Campanilla.
“Yes, little Spanish bluebell. She already is.”
“But Calla, why didn't the Tree tell us?” asked Gia, aghast.
“He is telling you now. These were his words to me: You must tell them all you know. But not yet. Wait until they ask. Then, they will be ready.”
There was utter silence for a while as everyone tried to take this in. Ace stared into the flames, wondering.
“I, too, have listened to the Tree,” said Pice Inari. “Both when he was weak, and now when he is strong again. His words are always of reassurance: All is well. Past, present, future are all alike to him. We scratch the surface; he is rooted in eternity. Once we know him, we can hear him anywhere. Is it so impossible that there are humans who can hear him too? Tell me, Calla, has a queen ever come onto the mountain?”
“No,” said Calla. “Never. She does not need to.”
Then, of all people, Mento Zsennye spoke.
“If a human loves sprites that much, then it seems to me that not to acknowledge it would be rank ingratitude. If she has been chosen by the Tree and is doing work that only she can do, I would not have a problem describing such a person as a queen.”
“So you no longer think all humans are evil, sir?” asked Debin.
“No, I don't. There is at least one who is so good I would lay down my life for him. The artist who brought us the painting. It is clear that they are not all the same. There are good sprites and bad sprites, and sprites who do wrong things for what they thought were good reasons. It is complicated. And it is just the same for humans. There are some who want to help us. And this Tree, this amazing Tree, who should be listened to, wants them to help us. If the realm acknowledges the existence of a queen, I would wish her well.”
Ace was fighting back tears.
“It's what we fought for,” he got out. “To have a queen again. But what that really meant, deep down, was loyalty to our human friends. We wanted you to know that humans aren't all awful, some of them really love the natural world. Including us.”
“Yes. Yes, I see that.”
“Colonel Zsennye,” said Ace, “I invite you to Moseley Wood. When you have time, come and stay with us and meet David properly. And the rest of the Allies there.”
“Nine of them,” said Gran Herdalen.
“Thank you,” said Colonel Zsennye. “I ... I would like that very much.”
“David has a very strange turn of phrase,” said Calla. “Very strange indeed. But he is an estimable young man. So, does that answer your question, President Herdalen? That is what a queen does. She is the Guardian of the Realm. Yes, queens have done other things, too. Visiting, encouraging, helping, leading by example, inspiring, comforting... yes, and challenging, even reprimanding, and calling to account. And these are things that a President can also do. One who walks alone belongs nowhere, and so he belongs everywhere. The realm has chosen wisely, indeed.”
“Thank you, Calla,” said Gran.
After that, quiet conversations broke out here and there, while some people just sat thinking, including Gran. It seemed to him that things he had heard, here and there, were beginning to come together, beginning to make sense. But he wasn't so deep in thought that he didn't notice when Ace slipped away. He watched him go, and fervently wished them both well.
Yes, I'm here, said Ace, gazing at a mauve cloud in the sky. Just moving away from the bonfire. How was your journey?
It seemed to Ace that Will took his time before answering. He was gathering his courage to speak the truth, because that was what Will did.
Weird. It felt as if you were on the train, too. Yet at the same time, I could feel exactly where you really were, as usual. Flying back to the mountain. I don't know when I've ever had such a strange day. Was it the same for you?
Oh, yes. I fell off a roof.
Did you hurt yourself?
No, Lisette caught me. But Gran saw. Made me talk about it.
Oh, good. What does Gran think?
He thinks that we've strengthened our connection even more. That now – since Sweden – because we pooled so deep, we'll feel each other's presence even when we're apart.
Yes. Yes, that makes sense. I did wonder. But that makes it sound like a good thing, but it doesn't feel good. At least, not yet.
Ace was filled with a wish to match Will's honesty. It had to be said.
All these years, we've been miserable when we were apart. Unbalanced, unhappy. Now, I see what a comfort that was. Knowing that if I was miserable, you were too, and that proved how much you loved me.
Oh, Ace, you brave elf, that took some saying. But you're absolutely right. All day, instead of being glad that I didn't feel torn in half, I've been almost resentful, knowing that you didn't, either!
Me too, I admit it, that's just what it was like. I didn't tell Gran that, but all the same, I think he knew. He said we needed time to readjust.
And reassurance. I still miss you, Ace. Okay, it doesn't hurt as much, but that doesn't mean I love you any less. More, if anything. Because you keep growing, so there's even more to love.
Okay, now you've made me cry. It's a good job there's no fairies around. What a beautiful thing to say. My Willow, I've loved you since the moment we found each other, on Wildside, thirty years ago, and I always, always will, and I'm crying my eyes out here, but I feel so happy again. Hey, Will, you know what?
Again, a little pause, and Ace knew for sure that Will was wiping his eyes on his sleeve, because that was what Will did.
This is a birthday present, from the Tree!
You're absolutely right. Happy Birthday, Ace.
Happy Birthday, Will.
Ace dried his face and sauntered back to the bonfire, completely at peace with himself and the world. The brilliant smile he gave to Gran told Gran all he needed to know.