CHAPTER 19 - The Black Forest
Ace was awake long before dawn, almost shivering with excitement. This was it, their journey was nearly over. Today, they would reach the lake called Titisee and become part of the largest gathering of sprites and Allies the modern world had ever seen. Just the thought of seeing David again, and Aesculus, made him quite dithery. When he thought of what else might happen, when he thought of Marta, his head spun with so many thoughts they seemed to burst out like sparks from a Catherine wheel. Perhaps they really had, because Will woke up too and leaned his head on his hand.
“Oh, Ace,” he said, “don't get your hopes up too much. It might not happen. Why should it? Everyone's happy.”
“Oh, I know. I keep telling myself that. The realm is safe now, that's all that really matters. Wishing for that one last thing is almost greedy.”
“Yet you do. Of course you do, but I'm not sure even Gran is still hoping. So long as you know it's just sycamore optimism.”
“I'll remember,” said Ace.
They dozed a little longer, but it was almost time to move. Silently, the army roused itself from its grassy bed in a Freiburg park. Blankets were rolled and packed, faces were washed in the dew and clothes were smartened up. This was a big day. At 5am, most of the flyers left, in six big V-shapes, like wild geese, each following an imp or fairy who had memorised the route. At 6am, the Salvesens arrived in Leif's truck, from the hotel where they'd spent the night. Pedr was still asleep on Inge's lap, but Marta jumped out to help her father. Ace gazed at her. Even in jeans and a t-shirt, pulling a tarpaulin off a truck in a German park, she still seemed to be not quite of this world.
Leif lifted the five helicopters out of the back of the truck.
“Good morning, sprites,” he said quietly. “Where is Commander Gia? Oh, there you are. We are ready when you are. There is no rush.”
“Thank you so much, Leif,” said Gia. “The last leg of a journey is often the hardest for us, but you have made it easy today. Will, Rob, can you please do your pre-flight checks? Helicopter passengers, please stand aside. Everyone else, please jump or climb into the back of Leif's truck and make yourselves comfortable for a journey of about one hour.”
Once everyone was in, Leif and Marta waved goodbye and jumped in too. The pilots and navigators climbed aboard the helicopters, then their passengers, then finally the Commander came aboard Elf 1 and closed the door.
“This is very exciting!” she said. “Ready when you are, Will.”
Ace was in the navigator's seat, but he knew he wouldn't have any work to do. Will had had the whole route in his head before they left Otta.
“Elf 1 to fleet,” said Will into the intercom. “Due east, and don't get the sun in your eyes. Next stop, Titisee.”
Ace spent the whole journey staring out of the window in awe, and so did everyone else. Even Bergfrue Grytten, well-used to the beauty of Norway, looked impressed. The red roofs of the old city were completely surrounded by the trees of the Black Forest. Little winding roads and railway lines seemed so tiny in the vast sea of green. Down into valleys and up the sides of steep little hills, the trees seemed to march on forever. On and on they flew, just clearing the tree tops, flying through trails of morning mist as the sun rose higher.
“So beautiful,” said Ace. “You know what, Will? This is England 3 flying together for the last time. After this, we all start new journeys.”
“So it is.” Will switched on the intercom again. “Wouldn't Rowan have loved this?” he said.
“Elf 2 to fleet,” said Pendo. “Peace, brother.”
Ace wiped his eyes, remembering. The Commander leaned across and squeezed his shoulder. Then she asked Will if she could use his intercom.
“Commander to fleet,” she said. “He would have been so very, very proud of you all.”
They flew on in silence for a while, until, quite suddenly, the lake came into view and a great gasp went up at the sight. It was so long, stretching from the little town on the shore right to the feet of a great mountain. All around it, forested slopes rose gently, so it shone like a blue jewel against the green.
“Elf 1 to fleet,” said Will quietly. “Lose height, follow north shore. Follow my descent to landing place.”
They were over the water. On the shore, through the trees, they could see a track.
“There it is!” said Will. “I can see Karl, waving!”
Everyone waved back, and Karl pointed to a large field. Around the edges of the field were hundreds of sprite-sized tents. In the centre was a large empty space and here Will landed, followed by the other four machines. As they all emerged, watched from a safe distance by wide-eyed sprites who'd never seen such a thing before, Gran Herdalen came striding over with a big smile on his face. He shook hands with Gia and all the pilots.
“Truck arrived a short while ago,” he said. “Karl's taken the Salvesens to a cabin where they can rest. All the other humans have gone into town, he said, to give us all a chance to catch up with each other. This field is sprite camp, and Karl is bringing refreshments.”
“Thanks, Gran,” said Gia. “What wonderful Allies we have! And what a lovely place.” She raised her voice a little. “Hello, everyone! Army, remember you are now on leave. Very well-deserved leave! Do whatever you like.”
Ace didn't know what he wanted to do first. Right now, it was enough just to be here. But Karl was coming with a big tray, covered in jugs and bowls, some of them steaming, and he decided a hot drink would be a very good start. Will was already showing the helicopters to a bunch of little sprites who'd been brave enough to come close, so Ace got their cups out of their backpacks. Karl had set the tray down on the grass and left, waving, so he too was deliberately keeping out of the way to let them all settle in. The flyers hadn't arrived yet, but they wouldn't be long. Ace waited his turn and filled their cups, then went back and handed one to Will.
“Thanks, Ace! I am so ready for a drink. What's that? The rotor blade? It pushes the air down, so the helicopter can go up.”
Ace smiled to see the little ones staring in awe at the great machine.
“Wow, can I touch it? What's it made of?”
“Yes, go ahead,” said Will. “It's mostly steel.”
Then another little voice piped up.
“But how does the power get from the engine to the rotor blades? Oh, does it have a driveshaft, like a car?”
Ace stared. The little elf didn't just sound like Will, he looked like him too. Or rather, like Will had looked twenty years ago. By the look on Will's face, he was feeling just as stunned himself.
“Yes, it does,” said Will. “Two, actually – one goes to the tail rotor. And it has a gearbox. Want to come and see?”
You bet he wanted to come and see, thought Ace. He'd never wanted anything so much in his life. Will drained his cup and lifted the little elf into the helicopter. Ace finished his drink in a more leisurely fashion. He knew this would take a while.
When they came out, the little elf looked speechless.
“Ace, this is Cap, he's one of Hogweed's pupils! He's the one who helped David set up the alarm system.”
“Oh, good work!” said Ace. “Nice to meet you, hey... Cap, you said? Does that mean...?”
“Yes,” said Will. “First time either of us has met another actual Salix caprea. I mean, plenty of willows about, but caprea, that's special, right, Cap?”
Little Cap nodded in awe.
“Didn't know you were all geniuses,” said Ace.
Will was rummaging in his backpack. He pulled out a screwdriver and gave it to Cap.
“I want you to have this. First one I ever had! Never be without a screwdriver.”
“Thank you, Will,” breathed Cap.
“So where is Hogweed?” said Will.
“Making tents,” said Cap. He pointed. “Over there.”
“Brilliant,” said Ace. “Let's go and say hello.”
Hogweed saw them coming and ran to wrap them both in giant goblin hugs.
“At last! It's been so long! I heard about what you did in Sweden. You are war heroes!”
“So are you,” said Ace. “We heard what you did, too. Knocked out a dozen of Special Brigade practically single-handed!”
“Oh, well, being big comes in useful sometimes! I was just glad it all worked, raising the alarm and everything. And that the murderers went to trial. When I think what happened at Amutria, I still get angry. But they're here, you know, all the other little ones, with their teachers, and having a lovely time. And the other two schools should arrive today.”
“Wow,” said Will. “No wonder you're making tents!”
“Oh, I am just tearing pieces off this old tent Karl brought, to hand out. Here, have some, you'll be wanting tents yourselves.”
“Thanks,” said Ace. “Where are you camped?”
“In that corner.” Hogweed pointed. “I'll have to stay with my pupils, but maybe you could be nearby? Val and Primrose are over there, too.”
“Great idea. We'll make a tent and bag a spot. Want to show us where to go, Cap?”
“You know Primrose and Val, don't you, Cap?” said Hogweed.
“The ones with all the...”
“Exactly,” beamed Hogweed. He looked at Ace and Will. “They have a surprise for you.”
“Catch you later then, Hogweed!”
Ace and Will hurried off after Cap.
“Hey, Cap, do you know Aesculus too? Or Viola?”
“Oh yes, I met them, they're nice. I think they went swimming. A lot of people went swimming, they might not have seen the helicopters. Shall I tell them you're here?”
“If you see them, yes, please. But we don't want to spoil their fun.”
“I wouldn't mind a swim myself,” said Will.
“Now you're talking... oh, there they are! Primrose! Val!”
The fairies had been sitting outside a tent, chatting, but when they saw who was coming, they ran to greet them. Cap ran off in the direction of the beach, and Primrose, trying to keep her face straight, pulled back the flap of the tent. Immediately, twenty-four excited buds crawled out.
“Oh!” yelled Ace. “Oh! You brought them! You brought them all this way! Oh, you are amazing, amazing! Oh, thank you, thank you! Oh, look at you all! Oh, Will, look! Look at all our buds!”
“I'm looking, believe me,” said Will. “Fantastic.”
Ace sat down on the grass and all the buds at once made for him, crawling over his legs and holding up their little hands to be picked up.
“How do they know?” gasped Val. “It's just like Wici said. Instinct. They know Ace is their senior sprite, just like they know we care for them. Awesome.”
“They know me?” said Ace, in a daze. Of all the excitements, this was the greatest and he hadn't even been expecting it. “Oh, look at you all! You are all so cute.”
He was stroking them and patting them when Aesculus arrived, still damp, tearing across the field in great leaps and bounds. Will got up to greet him and Aesculus jumped right into his arms, knocking him over so they collapsed onto Ace and the buds. They disentangled themselves, laughing.
“I hope we haven't squashed a bud,” said Ace.
“No, they'll be all right. Miss Galantha said you can't kill a bud, no matter how hard you try.”
“I don't think Miss Galantha meant it quite like that, Aesculus,” said Primrose. “But true, that was the gist of it.”
Still clutching onto Will, Aesculus began to tell Ace which was which, as Ace began to pick them up one at a time. He wanted to say hello to each one properly and individually. He felt it mattered, though he wasn't sure why. But then he found out. He'd been worried that when the time came to tell them their names, he wouldn't know what they were, but as he picked each one up and spoke to it, he saw a picture in his mind, not just of a plant, but of the precise plant back home that each bud belonged to.
“That's Big Bum,” said Aesculus.
“He's a goblin,” said Ace. “From the bulrushes in the little pond beyond the beech grove.”
“How did you know?” gasped Primrose.
“I don't know. I just saw a picture in my mind.” He picked up another one. “A bluebell,” he said. “Hello, little fairy. You came from the railway embankment.”
“Do Burper!” said Aesculus, passing a bud to him.
“Oh, you're an elf. The big beech that hangs over the motorway bridge. Oh, what a giant you're going to be! Nice to meet you. Next one please, Aesculus.”
“Dive Bomber,” said Aesculus.
“We have an imp! The coreopsis in Sally's garden.”
“Right again!” said Val. “This is amazing.”
“You're the same flower as General Széchenyi,” Ace told it. “That's an honour. Who's next?”
“Another fairy... lily of the valley... in a garden, but not Sally's. Somewhere on Cherrytree Close, I expect.”
“This one's Mardy Pants,” said Aesculus. “It's not very brave.”
“Crumbs, Aesculus, it's only a bud,” said Ace. “P'raps it's just clever and thoughtful.”
The maligned bud gazed thoughtfully at Ace and smiled.
“Oh, how lovely, we're going to have another Cory. This is a hazel, from Moseley Wood itself. Hello, little elf!”
“Oh, Val, that must be the one Elfcat found!” said Primrose.
“So it must. We had no idea where he'd found it.”
“Sleepy Head,” said Aesculus, passing Ace a drowsy bud.
“Oh, is this the one Clover thought was ...she was right! Another Clover, what a hoot! There you go, baby Clover. Have a nice sleep.”
“Big Nose,” said Aesculus.
“Another hefty one! Are you another goblin? Oh yes, I see you are. Those big cabbagey leaves that grow near the brook. But what are they called? I don't know.”
“Oh, I know what you mean,” said Will. “The humans call it Devil's Rhubarb.”
“Oh dear, that's not a very nice name.”
“Perhaps it has another name. Lots of plants do. Or it might be better in Latin. We'll find out.”
“Now for Greedy,” said Aesculus.
“Oh, he's a holly, no wonder he gets thirsty. Another elf!”
They'd gone though all the ones Aesculus had nicknames for, but Ace carried on identifying them with no problem at all. He was just as amazed as everyone else, he didn't know when he'd ever felt so surprised. There were six goblins, five imps, six fairies and seven elves. When Ace told them what the last elf was, Aesculus was jumping for joy.
“A little rowan in a back yard? It's David's back yard, he only planted that last autumn! It's a baby tree itself! Oh, David's going to be so excited!”
“David found it himself,” said Val. “He was so hoping it was a rowan, and it is!”
“Another Rowan?” said Will. “A Rowan Moseley – and in David's own garden? That's no coincidence. That's the Tree saying thank you to David.”
“How beautiful,” said Ace. He smiled at Will. “I think you're right.”
“What a wonderful crowd they are,” sighed Will, picking one up himself. He couldn't see the images like Ace could, but he could see the differences between them even better than Aesculus could, and he had been listening carefully. He already knew which was which.
“Hey, Aesculus,” said Ace. “Want to know what your nickname was when you were a bud?”
“Pest,” grinned Ace. “No change there, then...”
All thoughts of swimming were forgotten. The buds were much more fascinating. For a couple of hours they sat there, giving them drinks of water and watching them crawl and play, hearing the latest news from home from Val and Primrose, and about the exciting journey here from Aesculus. Then Viola spotted them and came running over, followed by a crowd of young fairies from Fayrfield and Amutria. Viola just wanted to hug Ace and Will, while the other little fairies wanted to hold the buds.
“Look at you!” said Ace. “You're so beautiful, Viola, and even better, you're so kind. It's wonderful to see you.”
“Ace, I want to ask you something. Please may I be a Moseley too? Sergeant Gromwell came to see us one day and he told me no-one lives in Foxwood any more. And I don't ever want to leave Moseley Wood, you're my people now.”
“Viola Moseley,” said Ace, “don't you ever leave us. We love you far too much for that.”
While they'd been talking, two more big groups of sprites had arrived.
“Perhaps a train just got in,” said Will. “Wow, look at them all! There are a lot of little ones.”
“Oh, it's the other schools!” exclaimed one of the Fayrfield fairies. “Let's go and say hello.”
“Not just yet,” said Viola. “I'll catch up with you later.”
She was watching the sky, and she wasn't the only one. The army flyers had arrived.
“Wow, look at that, what a sight!” said Ace. “Look, Viola, see how they angle their flight, and dip, and turn. That will have made them invisible from the lake.”
“They're coming lower,” said Viola. “Oh, so many! How do they move together so perfectly?”
“At the risk of sounding like Sergeant Olt, sorry, General Olt, practice. It's a beautiful sight, isn't it? Watch them come in to land... oh, a spiral, very classy. They know everyone's watching.”
The whole field full of sprites seemed to be applauding.
“That's Madge Arley,” Ace told Viola. “Senior Fairy of the Realm. Beside her is General Nella Stalden from Switzerland and behind them is General Dizzy Széchenyi from Hungary.”
“Oh, who's that beautiful imp the general is talking to? She's lovely!”
“Sizzle Speicher,” said Ace. “Senior Imp of the Realm, and a good friend of ours. But look now, who's this?” He waved energetically. “Rose Moseley, Foresters Regiment, Captain Dan Moseley, Marcher Regiment and Envoy Clover Moseley of Owler Tor. And here's Hogweed too! At last, at last!”
Then the Moseleys were re-united, with hugs and tears and exclamations and silly jokes that went on for ages. But finally they did sit down together and Viola brought drinks for the thirsty fairies and everyone talked about the buds again. Not one of them had crawled off. It was as if they knew this was special and these were all their very own people. Aesculus picked one up and handed it to Clover.
“Oh yes, I remember you,” said Clover. “Still sleepy, are you, darling?”
“Now we know why,” said Will. “She's a clover.”
“You know for sure? Really?”
“Yes, really. Ace just knew what they all were as soon as he picked them up. You've got a namesake.”
“I don't know what you're laughing at, Will Moseley. Like willows were so famous for staying awake.”
She stroked the little Clover's face tenderly, then lay down on the grass with her.
“Well, I don't know about the rest of you, but we Clovers are going to have a nap.”
There was time to swim, and play in the dappled shade on the beach and rest on cool grass. There was time to walk around and see for yourself just how many sprites there were. The whole field was covered with tents now and little camp fires. Here and there, people had put flags up, or even banners, all bright and cheerful. Ace and Will wandered around together, sometimes spotting someone they knew, but not that often.
“Hey, Major Rhaeadr, hello!” said Will. “What a crowd! Is this everyone, now?”
“I think so,” said Poppy. “People have come in big groups, and I had a rough idea where from. I don't see anyone missing, and I hear the local sprites from Titisee colony have just arrived to join in. But where are the humans, do you know?”
“We heard they were keeping out of the way for a bit, to let everyone settle in.”
“Ah, then we'll probably all meet up in the evening,” said Poppy. “See you later!”
“Aren't we noisy?” said Will. “The sound of thousands of sprites talking, so shrill!”
“It sounds like those creatures that live in the south of France,” said Ace. “Cicadas, they were called. What a din!”
But then the din slowly died away and people stared and then others fell quiet too and tried to see what they were looking at. At the edge of the field, standing quietly, were six children. Marta, Laura and Dorota came first, walking slowly and very carefully, so they didn't hurt anyone. They were followed by Adam, Joseph and Tony. They just walked round and round the field, saying hello, smiling, saying their names, and the sprites mostly gazed in amazement. Some of them knew the children and called back cheerful hellos, but for most of them, it was the first time they'd been so close to a human. Many had heard their names before, because stories about the doings of the Allies were very popular, but to see them in real life was going to take a bit of getting used to.
“Good idea to send the youngest and smallest first,” said Will. “They've thought this out really well.”
“Mmm,” said Ace.
Then the girls spoke one after another. Laura spoke in English.
“Dear sprites, the Allies would love to meet you. You don't have to come, but if you would like to, follow us for a warm welcome!”
Then Dorota repeated it in Polish and in Czech, and then Marta spoke. Ace held his breath as her lovely voice repeated the words in Norwegian.
A buzz of interested conversation broke out across the field and some sprites at once got up to go and greet the Allies. But what they did not do was flock around Marta, nor Laura either. They didn't call her name. For a moment, Ace felt as if he'd been punched in the stomach. But then he rallied bravely.
“The great thing about sycamore optimism,” he said cheerfully, “is that you enjoy dreaming about impossibilities that other people don't even get to see in their dreams.”
Will put his arm round Ace's shoulder and hugged him.
“Definitely beats seeing all the things that could go wrong,” he said. “Come on, let's go and see David!”
Back on the lawns near the cabins, the older humans were waiting, sitting on rugs on the grass, deliberately not standing tall to intimidate anyone. Gary and Sally, Rowan and David, Karl, Janusz, John and a crowd of others too. They were well spread out, to make room for the sprites. Many sprites were coming, but often cautiously. The Ally-makers from every country were tearing ahead, eager to greet their friends.
“Ace! Will! Oh, it's good to see you!”
David looked at them hard.
“What's up? Is my face dirty?” said Ace.
“No... it's different. I know you've had a hard time. I didn't realise how hard until I saw you. You look older. Stronger.”
“Yes, it's been hard,” said Will. “But it was worth it. Even if we'd died it would still have been worth it. For all this! Who'd have thought, a year ago, that all this would have been possible?”
“You're older, too,” said Ace. “You're a man, now.”
“Yes,” said David. “A very young man, but yes, I am a man now. But I'll always be an Ally.”
“You dug the holes to trick the surveyors,” said Ace. “Back on Wildside, before we'd even met you. Karl may be the chief Ally but you're the most famous.”
“I'm not that keen on being famous,” said David. “I'd rather just be with my friends.”
“He's not just an Ally,” said Will. “He's practically an elf.”
The Wildside fairies had been talking to Rowan, while her parents were talking to lots of important sprites who wanted to say hello. But then they all drew closer together as Laura and Tony came back, carrying their buds.
“Clover says you already know their names, Ace,” said Rowan. “Tell us who they all are!”
“OK,” said Ace. “Here are the fairies, Bluebell, Lily, Daffodil, Clover, Buttercup and Silene.”
“Silene?” said David quietly. “Red Campion? Like...”
“Yes,” said Ace. “Like her lost namesake. And these are our elves, Gus, the beech, Holly, Cory, Sam, the elder, and Alba, the white poplar. The spruce can have the honour of being called Gran. And last but very not least, Rowan.”
“Oh, you're kidding!” yelled David. “Really? Oh, wonderful.” He held his hands out for the bud. “Hello again, little Rowan.”
“Now for our imps,” said Ace. “The coreopsis is Tikki, from its other name, Tickseed. The coltsfoot is Tussi, the fox-and-cubs is Sella. Convolvulus is Arvva and alkanet is Kenni.”
“Isn't it unusual to have that many imps in England?” asked Laura.
“It is,” said Ace. “More usual in hot countries, where in some places there are more imps than anything else. Some people, even these days, are snooty about them. But Moseley Wood's not like that. Most of us are weeds, or street trees, or opportunists, or wild flowers desperately hanging on in a hard world. Our imps will do just fine.”
“And so will our goblins,” said Hogweed. “What a fine bunch they are! I can hardly take my eyes off them. Rumex the dock, Typha the bulrush, Thistle, Snowberry and Fireweed. But Ace, did you find out another name for Devil's Rhubarb?”
“Devil's Rhubarb?” said Rowan. “Is that what this goblin is? Poor little goblin! Well, another name for it is butterbur.”
“Oh, that's much better!” everyone exclaimed, and Ace beamed happily.
“That's the last name sorted, then! Thanks, Rowan! Hello, Butterbur Moseley.”
Hogweed carried the goblin buds in his arms, taking them to meet Kulsukker and show them to his friends from school. All the school sprites seemed to have gathered to John, not just the current pupils, but also ones who had passed through years ago, like Lance and Douglas. John was surrounded. He looked like a man lost in a very happy dream. Ace looked around the wide lawns and saw the same happy crowds repeated again and again. Lots of sprites had gathered towards people who spoke the same language. Lisette and Saul Lavall, Suzette and Gazania, and maybe even Strelitzia were probably in that huge crowd chattering in French. The crowd talking German was even bigger. He could see Kiefer, perched up high as usual, and Sizzle, and Ross, Gänse Immindingen and Heldreich Pesentheim.
Then there were more English friends coming to say hello, Filbert Calder and Daffodil Shacklow from Owler Tor, Petunia Elmdon from Meon Hill, Daffodil Hestercombe from Bat's Castle, and with them some very dear friends indeed, Fran, Peter, Betch and Dale Knightwood.
“Betch!” screeched Aesculus, jumping up and hugging him. “I haven't seen you for ages! Oh, you did so many brave things!”
“Hello, Aesculus! Hello, Viola! We had a good adventure, didn't we? It's good to see you safe with your own people.”
“Hello, Betch,” said David. “The one elf I really wanted to meet. I've heard so much about you. All of it good.”
“This is David? Wow. What an honour. I mean it. I never thought I'd be meeting all these famous people.”
“Why have you got green paint on your ear?” asked Dale.
“Have I?” said David, rubbing his ear. “Er... gets everywhere, paint.”
“Oh!” said Betch, his eyes shining. “Oh, it's going to be all right, isn't it? Oh wow, this is amazing.”
He seemed to sense he might have said too much and rapidly changed the subject.
“You know, when we all went to Fjaerland, no-one had heard of Moseley Wood. Now, everyone has. One of the most famous colonies in the realm. But it's not just because of this lot, brilliant though they are. It's thanks to all of you, too.”
“I hope it helps everyone to see what we can achieve together,” said Sally. “Peace is a wonderful thing in itself, but there's still so much to do. I wish we could make rivers cleaner, stop people dropping litter, just make everywhere safer for plants and animals.”
“What sort of things did you have in mind?” asked Betch, interested.
His friends were rather stunned to see him immersed in a serious conversation, but when they thought about it, they weren't so surprised. There was always a lot more to Betch than the joker; what he needed now was a mission in life. But they set their conversation aside for a while when another elf arrived, enquiring for a human called Sally.
“Yes, I'm Sally.”
“Oh,” sighed the elf. “Sally Cain. Do you remember me? I'm Rowan Kiondroghad. From the Isle of Man.”
“Oh, boy,” said David. “Have you got a lot to answer for!”
All through the evening, the circles ebbed and flowed, as people moved around, meeting as many as they could, or getting drinks, or just taking in the scene. Debin and the Polish elves came to see Gary and Sally, and so did Stella. Wayne and Bella stopped by and took Ace and Will to meet the rest of the London sprites. They met more Knightwoods too, and caught up with some fairies from Harpsden colony.
“Oh, I'm glad to find you!” said one of them. “We heard about the new regiments and realised you might not come back to the wood, so we brought the things you left behind on the day you went off in the helicopters. Come with me.”
She showed them a heap of shrunken backpacks, rather battered, which Ace promised to return to their owners. But best of all, she'd brought their guitars, very shrunken but carefully wrapped. Ace was quite overcome and thanked the fairy again and again for her thoughtfulness.
“It was no trouble,” she said. “We'll always remember England 3.”
Ace and Will wandered off, holding their guitars. They had no amp and no speaker, they couldn't play them, but oh, it felt good to be holding them again. They were heading back to David and the others, and to even older memories.
“The guitar bridges the gap,” said Ace, hoping Will might guess what he meant, because he wasn't that sure himself. “Between the Ace I was on Wildside and the Ace I am now.”
“Yes,” said Will. “When your mind's jumping from one memory to another, it helps you feel whole. And so does he,” he added, nodding in the direction of their latest visitor.
“Professor Gran!” said Aesculus.
“No, Aesculus, darling. 'President', not 'Professor'.”
“President Gran, look at this!” said Aesculus.
“One of your buds? What a fine collection you have!”
“I wanted you to meet this one specially. This is Gran Moseley.”
The President of the Realm seemed to be struggling to get his voice under control. But when the Talende Tree is alive again and you're all twins together, you don't really need voices. His eyes met Ace's.
He picked Aesculus up, who was still holding baby Gran, and rocked them both in his arms.
The sprites and humans talked long and late, and if it hadn't been for a sudden shower of rain in the early hours of the morning, some of them might never have gone to bed at all. But the next day was Midsummer's Eve and by 4am it was already light and the sun was sparkling on the water of the lake. It was going to be a beautiful day. Ace peeled off a few buds that had been sleeping on top of him and crawled out of their tent. This was it, the official day of the Celebration of Peace, with the usual Midsummer celebrations in the evening. They'd made it. Someone had pinned notices up all around the field. Ace wandered over to the nearest one and had a read, joined by a few other sprites he didn't know, equally curious.
Welcome to the Celebrations! he read. Programme for the Day: 10am in the big field, competitions of all kinds, open to all comers. Come and compete, or watch the fun! 2pm, musical performances and dancing. 6pm on the lawn, please assemble for the evening, wearing your usual Midsummer dress. There will be a few short speeches, followed by the bowl ceremony and the ring dancing.
Ace felt excited, but also thoughtful. He hadn't given a thought to clothes, but perhaps he ought to. He looked into the tent. Will was almost invisible beneath buds, but he was still asleep. Ace ran down to the lake and dived in for a refreshing swim, making sure he got his hair clean. It wasn't a bad length now. Not as short as it had been in Sweden, but not long either. He wasn't the only one in the water, even this early. A lot of people would be thinking of smartening themselves up for today. He didn't stay in too long, and he didn't waste time lighting fires and brewing tea, he just drank some water and had a look what clothes he had to work with.
In the bag from Harpsden Wood he found his best boots, so that was a great start. A white shirt he had, but it was dirty. He went back to the lake to wash it, and hung it on the tent to dry in the sun. Woollen leggings were easy, he had plenty of woollen cloth and turning them the right shade of green was simple. And he had a belt. Finally, he split everything in two and expanded the halves, so Will would have uniform too.
Then Will woke up. Ace filled a beaker and started giving drinks to buds.
“What're you doing?” yawned Will.
“Uniforms. Midsummer's Eve.”
“Two sets? Oh, thanks Ace, that's really kind.”
“You're welcome. You'll have to adjust the fit, but that won't take long. But we've no leather for tunics, unless you've got a bit. And have you still got your boots? Mine were in my bag from Harpsden Wood.”
“I'll have a look,” said Will.
Ace finished giving drinks to every bud that happened to be awake, while Will rummaged through his belongings.
“Yes,” he said. “My boots are here. And lots of stuff... hey, is that what happened to that circuit board? Now what was... “
“Will,” said Ace sternly, “focus. Clothes. You are a captain with three – no, four – medals. You have to look smart tonight.”
“Right. Clothes. Right, here's an old belt with no buckle. We can get tunics out of that, can't we?”
“It'll take a bit of work. Go and have a swim and get a drink, then we'll get cracking.”
“Ace, you have got your stone, haven't you?”
“Oh, yes,” said Ace softly. “That's been with me through thick and thin. And for once, I'm looking forward to wearing it.”
There was a lot of clothes-making going on that morning. The army fairies, in particular, hadn't given it much thought, and were even busier than Ace, doing the best they could with whatever they had. Rose came to the rescue for a lot of her friends, because she had fabrics to spare from her backpack. Just before 10, Ace and Will got a message to help move the helicopters, so they flew them a short distance into a spare bit of the car park. When they got back to the field, they found that the central section where the helicopters had been was now roped off, forming a square arena around which sprites were beginning to gather. Nearby on camp chairs to watch the fun, the Allies had gathered.
Karl stood up and the sprites gazed up at him in awe.
“Dear friends,” he said, “today we celebrate! Let the Peace Games commence. First, we have contests for our little ones.” He consulted a list. “For all flyers under the age of fourteen! Assemble in the square and then race. First to land on the spot wins!”
Ace was delighted to see Viola joining in. The little flyers raced around various trees and then came in to land on a red spot that had been laid down in the centre of the square. Viola didn't win, but her new friend Lavandă did, which made the Amutria sprites cheer. The little goblins had a throwing contest, making the audience near the targets duck out of the way, and the elves had a high jumping contest. David gamely volunteered to be the target, saying he was quite used to having elves trying to jump on his head.
Then they had a race for the buds, which had all been rounded up. A bowl of milk was in the centre on the red spot and the buds were spread out around the perimeter. The sprites cheered them on as they crawled around, nearly weeping with laughter as most of them went in totally the wrong direction. Some crawled right out of the square into the audience, some crawled into each other and rolled about. One – and the Moseleys had their suspicions which one – appeared to have fallen asleep. But after five minutes chaos, some of them got the scent of the milk and started to crawl in earnest towards it, with David doing a commentary as they got nearer.
“Oh dear, too fast, that one's landed on its nose. Oh, the one in the pink vest is going strong! Ah no, don't stop to play with the ladybird! Oh yes, two neck and neck now, they're going to tie for first place! Oh dear, they've spilt the milk.”
Two little buds now sat happily on the red spot, splashing their hands in the spilt milk and licking their fingers.
“Anyone recognise them?” said David. “I don't think they're ours... oh, Gruski, are they? Congratulations, Gruski buds are the winners!”
They got a big round of applause, and it wasn't until the noise died down that everyone heard the tooting of a car horn at the gate. Karl got up at once and came back very soon, escorting two elegant old ladies. One was Yvonne and one was Hanna, and they were both smiling with joy at the sight of all the sprites. They were simply dressed, just as any other old ladies on holiday in the countryside, in shirts and trousers and sensible walking shoes. And at the sight of them, all the dizzy laughter fell away. The crowd was still and silent. Yet suddenly everything seemed more alive. The sky seemed brighter, the wind softer and scented, and the grass seemed to tremble with some unseen energy, beneath your feet. Then Yvonne stood still and Hanna stepped forward alone and performed a deep and graceful curtsey to the sprites, just as if she was a fine lady in a ballgown, not an old lady in sensible shoes. A soft sigh went up from all the sprites, but no other sound. Then they began to move towards her. Elves and goblins gathered round her feet, imps and fairies swirled around her like a great cloak billowing in the wind.
“Hanna,” they sighed.
“Hanna, Hanna, Hanna! Hanna, Hanna, Hanna,” chanted the deep voices of the goblins.
“Thank you, Hanna,” said Gia Biagioni.
“Thank you, Hanna,” said Madge Arley.
“Thank you, Hanna,” said Gran Herdalen.
“Thank you, thank you, thank you,” sighed the sprites. “Hanna, Hanna, thank you, Queen, Queen, thank you, Queen Hanna, Queen Hanna, Queen Hanna.”
Ace felt a perfect, quivering joy that he couldn't understand. His heart was light, and he gladly chanted the words that his heart was feeling, but his mind was reeling.
Hanna? Not Marta, but Hanna?
Then it seemed to him that Hanna looked right into his eyes and he saw into hers and he understood. In a flash of perception, he understood it all, and maybe everyone else did too. Those eyes had known war, and seen how peace could be built. Those eyes had seen what people could do to each other, the best and the worst of it and through it all, this human, this woman, had kept on loving. Not Marta. She was far, far too young... and in another flash of perception, he realised that Marta's time would come. One day, but not yet. He looked across at Marta and she smiled at him and nodded slowly, as if she knew it too.
Then joy overwhelmed him as all the pieces fell into place. Tears fell from his eyes and he turned to Will, not surprised at all to see that he was crying too. They clasped hands and ran forward together, part of the throng, chanting, whispering, singing, shouting.
Queen Hanna, Queen Hanna, Queen Hanna.
Hanna sank to the ground, sat there on the grass just near the other Allies. Yvonne sat just behind her, and Ace realised for the first time that some fairies had arrived with them. Six fairies, and two of them were Maag and Campanilla.
“Hello, sprites,” said Hanna. “Thank you for your welcome. And thank you for the acclamation. I did have warning that this might happen! From the Talende Tree, through Karl, the chief Ally. I accept the job. Thanks to Gary and David and Rowan, who made the video, I learned that what I had long believed was true. Sprites are real. And then I met dear Maag and Campanilla and Gilly and became an Ally. I vowed that day that the rest of my life would be spent doing whatever I could to help sprites. I am here to serve.”
All the sprites were clapping and so were the Allies. Nearly everyone was in tears. For so many of them, this was a moment they'd dreamed of for years. Yet all of them had accepted that it wasn't going to happen, some of them weeks ago, one only yesterday. And now it had. It was hard to take it in. It took your breath away. The other Allies shook hands with Hanna, or kissed her.
Then Karl said, “Shall we carry on with the games, Queen Hanna?”
“Yes, indeed! I haven't come to spoil the fun, but to join in.”
So they carried on, and the speed of the races and the weights the goblins lifted and the lengths and heights the elves jumped were all record-breaking. Joyful hearts teamed up with a desire to do your very best in front of the new queen. The final event was a tug-of-war between the elves and the goblins, and for once the elves won.
“Thank you for the entertaining games!” said Karl. “Come back this afternoon for music. If you have your instrument with you, please bring it. Collen Dolfawr will also be having a word with you to organise the music for tonight.”
Everyone applauded Karl then and the Allies took Hanna and Yvonne away with them. Maag and Campanilla and the other four fairies went too.
“They're going to transform her,” said Ace.
“Yes,” said Will.
They didn't come back in the afternoon, and neither did Sally and Rowan or Gia and Madge. But all of the rest of the Allies did, and, like the sprites, enjoyed resting in the shade and listening to music. If the musicians had been afraid that everyone would be too busy talking to listen, they needn't have worried. The mood was quiet and thoughtful and every player was listened to and applauded. But when the music was over, so was the heat of the day and people began to feel excited about the evening. Will noticed that after organising who would play the music for the evening, Collen Dolfawr stopped to have a word with Ace, but he didn't say anything. He didn't need to, he could guess what that had been about. He and Ace went off to get changed, because they didn't want to miss a thing.
They dressed with care in their fresh uniforms, pulled on their best boots and combed their hair until their heads were sleek and shining, blond and black. Then they pinned on their medals and Ace quietly tied the little stone round his neck, the stone of Moseley Wood that showed he was the senior sprite.
“You'll do,” smiled Will. “Come on, let's go and have some fun.”
They went first to see where the buds were and found that Val had already made sure they'd all had a drink.
“They're all a bit sleepy, I think,” she said. “I've pinned the tent flaps back to keep it cool for them.”
“Brilliant,” said Ace. “You look lovely, Val. Nice dress!”
“Oh, thank you. I'm so nervous with excitement I can't believe it. I so feel for the queen.”
“You know how she must be feeling right now better than anyone,” said Primrose. “A human woman becoming a fairy... well, if she makes as good a fairy as you, the realm will be very blessed.”
They left the buds dozing peacefully and waited for Rose and Clover to come out. They were wearing long green dresses too, light and cool, and they were wearing their medals. Clover had her necklace on, the crystal drop on a silver chain that Ace had made for her as senior fairy. Then Viola and Aesculus came running over, both beautifully dressed, followed by Dan and Hogweed. Hogweed was wearing his goblin cloak and Dan was in a green dress too, not as pretty as the other fairies', but just as smart. When Viola saw Ace, she curtsied. Aesculus just stared.
“Wow,” he said.
“Wow, yourself,” said Ace. “Look at you all! You all look so fantastic. I'm so proud of you all.”
“We're pretty proud of you, too,” said Clover, linking her arm through his. “Come on, let's walk around together until it's time to gather.”
“Sounds good,” said Ace. “Hey, Aesculus, you stick with me and Will tonight, right? You're not a baby any more. You're one of the Moseley Wood elves.”
The Moseleys walked around in the warm early evening, enjoying being together, enjoying wearing their fine clothes, waving to their friends and admiring the clothes from other countries. They saw the Knightwoods gathering and waved. Their stately senior sprite inclined his head courteously to Ace. Ace gawped until Clover pinched his arm.
“Bow back, idiot!” she hissed through smiling lips. So he did, but he noticed Betch grinning, who as usual hadn't missed a thing. Then Miss Galantha stopped them. She wanted to talk to Will.
“I want my pupils to experience a traditional Midsummer's Eve,” she said, “and of course that means splitting up into orders later, and I have no elf teacher with me. Cap and his friend Mal asked if they could come with you, Will – would that be all right?”
“Of course,” said Will. “Come along and welcome, you two. Glad to have you. I'll bring them back in the morning, Miss Galantha.”
“In the morning? Oh... “
“Elves stay up all night at Midsummer,” said Ace gravely.
“Oh, of course – that is fine, then. Thank you! Be good, you two!”
Cap and Mal had looked excited already, but when they heard they could stay up all night they looked ecstatic. This was going to be a Midsummer they'd remember all their lives. They grinned at Hogweed then fell in behind Will and Aesculus.
“Let's go to the lawn now and get a good spot,” said Clover. “It's nearly time.”
On the lawn, white-covered tables had already been set up, mostly sprite-sized, but a couple of human-sized ones too. More and more sprites came over and pressed together, dressed in so many shades of green, with little splashes of colour, that they looked like a grassy meadow with flowers in it. On the stroke of six o'clock, the Allies came out to join them, all very smartly dressed too. Ace's eyes went straight to Marta. She was wearing a white dress and she had a wreath of flowers in her hair. And on her finger was the ring Ace had made for her as a keepsake, all those years ago. When she saw Ace looking at her, she raised the ring to her lips and kissed it.
Karl stepped to the front and opened his arms wide.
“Welcome, all! Midsummer's Eve is here. A very special one for all of us, this year. Thank you, from all your Allies, for allowing us to join in with your celebrations. If you feel as full of joy as I do, then you are joyful indeed. My wish for you all is that you can carry that joy with you when you go home, and never lose it.”
Everyone cheered and clapped.
“Karl! Karl! Thank you, Karl!”
“But tonight we are not just celebrating Midsummer, but also peace. And who better to speak of peace than the elf who did so much to bring it about, the elf who is now President of the Realm. Gran Herdalen!”
“Gran! Gran! Gran!” chanted the sprites.
Gran jumped up onto one of the big tables and looked around at everyone, smiling. He looked young and happy and absolutely resplendent in Norwegian uniform.
“On behalf of the realm, thank you, Karl, for organising this,” he said. “Thank you, friends and Allies, for all you have done for us, all you have provided for us, from the beginning of the war right up to tonight. What we have done, we could never have done without your help. Thanks to you, the realm is in a better place to face the future than we could ever have dreamed. And what a future! The realm teeming with new life, what better sign could there possibly be? It is our responsibility now, to raise this wave of buds - and the next, and the next - to be the best they can be. Yes, the world is still a dangerous place. Yes, some humans will imperil us and the places we love. My first message to you is this. No-one has to struggle alone. We have the best communications we have ever had, we have a government we can trust and an army that will be fast to respond when help is needed. We have Allies in every land and we have a queen. Oh, and a president too, of course! There is no problem we cannot solve if we work together.
We have peace now, but that doesn't mean that war has gone away. That shocks you? Yet it is true. Civil Wars are never really over, not for humans and not for sprites. No matter what the subject, you will always find that about half of people think the opposite to you. It's when you start hating the ones who think differently that civil war starts bubbling up to the surface again. Don't let it. Remember that the other person is just as sure you're wrong as you are that he is! In some strange way, both sides are needed. I think the whole realm knows by now that I was once a twin. And all twins know that the two halves match, because they're not the same. My second message is this. Whoever you are, whatever you think, you matter. You are an important part of the balance – and so is the other person.
Finally, I would like you to raise your hand if you have been to see the Talende Tree.”
Hundreds of sprites raised their hands, and also cheered.
“Now,” Gran continued, “keep your hand up if you think that it was a waste of time.”
Not a single hand remained up.
“My third message is this, then. If you haven't been to see the Tree yet, what on earth are you waiting for? Go and see the Tree. You won't regret it, I promise you. And now, the time has come to begin the festivities. We can't possibly arrange the whole realm in age order, so spread out to the tables and sort yourselves out as best you can.”
While everyone was moving around, no-one noticed that some of the Allies had slipped away.
Gran waited until everyone was still again, then spoke the words of the invitation.
“Pledge the summer, pledge the realm, pledge each other.”
Quietly, the sprites moved along the tables and filled their cups in turn. Ace smiled as Will raised his cup to him and drank, then he took his place and raised his own cup in turn to Dan. And when they had drunk, they moved away from the lawn, following on, one after another, down to the beach. It all took a long time, without feeling as if it had. And there they stood, still quiet, looking at the lake. Shades of evening were starting to fall, and a few lights were already reflected in the water far away near the town. Here, all was quiet.
Ace gazed at the beauty spread out before him, and it was a while before he wondered why they had come here. But then he knew. Their queen was coming to them, across the water. All the sprites were on the beach now. Ace glanced behind. Some of the Allies were at the back, watching just as eagerly. But they weren't all there. Not all of them at all. Then, as the shadows lengthened, the moon peeped over the forested hillside behind them, and shone on the water and caught a white sail. Sailing across the lake towards them was a beautiful ship, her timbers painted every shade of green, like a spirit of the forest.
“It's the Queen Enid!” breathed Will. “Human-sized!”
“Yes,” said Ace. “Oh, yes. Gran wished for this! She is bringing the queen for her coronation, just as he hoped. This is what Karl brought from the mountain. This is why David had green paint on his ear!”
She was nearer now. You could see the sign painted on the sail, the star in the tree. She was being rowed by the six Ally children. David was at the helm, with the wind in his hair. And seated in the middle of the ship was their queen. In utter silence, in sheer delight, the sprites gazed at the beautiful sight. The Allies brought the ship in to the beach and Karl and Gary went down to help tug it ashore. David and the children stood to attention as Hanna rose. Another great sigh went up as they saw her properly. Her hair was still silver, but it was long and loose. She was wearing a long green dress, simple but beautiful. She didn't look like an old lady any more. She was still eighty-four, but that's not much for a sprite. She looked like a woman of forty-two, old enough to be wise and young enough to be strong. And on her back, folded now, were shimmering silver wings.
“Oh!” sighed the sprites. “Beautiful.”
On the shore, the queen stood before them, and once again curtsied to the realm. Then Gran Herdalen stepped forward, and bowed deeply in return. Ace's heart went out to him. This was the moment he'd been waiting for all his life. Gran straightened up, then beckoned Pice Inari, who came forward smiling, carrying the treasure he'd guarded so long, Queen Luigia's crown. Two tiny elves came forward, an oak and a pine from Titisee colony. They carried the crown to Gran, who transformed it right there in front of everyone, into the perfect size to fit Queen Hanna. Then the six fairies of the queen's retinue, Maag and Campanilla, Gilly and Poppy, Mona and Trema, flew to the crown and surrounded it. They lifted it high in the air for all to see then lowered it gently onto Queen Hanna's head. Then the silence broke like a crack of thunder, and everyone cheered and cheered. Even the waves of the lake rippled with joy and the trees on the edge of the shore bent their branches in greeting. The moon shone brighter and still the sprites cheered.
“Thank you,” said Queen Hanna.
For a moment then, it was quiet again, and Ace was ready. This was the moment Collen had told him to be ready for. He took a deep breath and sang out, loud and clear.
Hail to the Queen of Sprites, who guards our ancient law...
Before he'd got to the end of the second line, everyone was joining in. In every language of the realm they sang, to welcome her, to thank her for everything she meant to them, to acknowledge her with gratitude. When they'd finished singing, Queen Hanna moved slowly through the crowd, bending to greet as many sprites as she could reach, and the crowd moved with her. Ace and Will let the crowd move away a little. Ace was still overcome from the singing, they needed to take a moment and they wanted to look at the ship.
“I remember when we built her,” said Will.
As they stood there, gazing and remembering, Gran came to join them.
“She saw the beginning of the war, and now she's seen the end of it.”
“A perfect circle,” said Will.
“You did it, Gran,” said Ace. “Ket would be so proud of you.”
“I think he is,” said Gran. “He's here too, with us. He's here in the wind and the water and the grass beneath our feet.”
Over on the field, a drum beat sounded. The beat of Midsummer, the beat of life. Gran put an arm round each of them and they ran to catch up. At the edge of the field, three little elves were waiting for them, Aesculus, Cap and Mal. Each holding hands with a little elf, they ran to join a circle. Already, many circles had formed, all around the queen. Still the drum was beating. You could see the drummer plainly, because he was sitting high up on the back of Leif's truck, which had been backed up to the edge of the field. Around him stood many other musicians, their instruments in their hands. When all the sprites were ready, the humans formed another circle around the edges, and then came Karl, with a burning torch in his hand. The circles parted to let him through, and he handed the torch to Queen Hanna.
“Mittsommerabend!” called the queen, in a stong, clear voice. “Midsummer's Eve!” She plunged the torch into a heap of wood in a firepit, and at once flames rose from a bonfire. Cheers came from every voice, sprite and human alike, and the drum began to beat a little faster.
“Lass uns tanzen! Let's dance!”
Karl bowed to the queen and caught her hand, escorting her to the outer circle, as strings and woodwind and brass began to play. Then the circles began to move, feeling the music with light hearts and treading the ground with light feet. Round and round they went, late into the night, and the moon shone down on the sprites and the Allies dancing in the forest.