CHAPTER 4 - Escape

The gang that Special Brigade had broken that day was the biggest in western Poland. Some of them had been homeless for eighty years. They saw wildness as the only true freedom and had come to despise sprites who led settled, ordered lives. Most of them had abandoned placenames, and their only loyalty now was to each other.
Humans they loathed but avoided. About parliament, they had nothing good to say. All rules and regulations, and trying to force free sprites to live where they said. But about Special Brigade, they had mixed feelings. Special Brigade did parliament’s bidding, but they were good fighters, you had to respect that. And they were very good to do deals with. Any amount of lawbreaking would be disregarded if you directed your raids where they wanted. As these were usually the wettest, peace-loving, army-supporting colonies, it was easy to comply.
The gang’s leader was a fairy who’d forgotten how old she was, but she could remember the tanks rolling through Poland when the humans had been having a war. That was when her own colony had been destroyed. Her name was Dziki, she was a wild garlic flower, and her stiff white hair stuck up in spikes all over her head. She was wise and cunning, and when she woke up to find herself shrunk and caged, she was also very angry. She knew where she was, she had visited this place before. It was Special Brigade’s local base, just outside Plock. She dragged herself to her feet, ignoring feelings of dizziness, and hissed at the nearest guard.
“You betrayed us! We were your allies! Why have you stolen our freedom?”
The guard, a younger fairy, answered peaceably, as she had been instructed to do.
“Hey now, no hard feelings. It’s nothing personal. Everyone’s got to do the re-training sometime, except Special Brigade. It’s a compliment really. First, the army scum, then you lot, and last – a long way last – all the silly duffers in the colonies.”
“That would take years! Decades! You’re crazy.”
“The boss thinks long term. They say it’s the only way to stop the realm being wiped out by humans.”
“What, by wiping it out ourselves instead? Oh, very clever.”
“Don’t be stupid. Once everyone’s in Special Brigade, we can start wiping out humans ourselves, don’t you see?”
“I don’t want to be in Special Brigade! And neither does any of my gang.”
“Ah, well, that’s the thing, isn’t it? Once you’ve done the training, you will want to. That’s what the boss says, anyway.”
“What boss? The Premier?”
“Oh no, he’s not the boss any more. He’s scarpered, no-one knows where he is. General Huskvarna’s the boss now.”

No amount of arguing did any good. Dziki and a large part of her gang were transported against their will to the Bohemian Forest and when they finally stepped out of their cages at the re-training centre, they were hardly given time to draw breath. They were pushed into line and subjected to one thing after another in what seemed like a well-polished routine. They didn't get a moment's respite until they were chivvied outside to exercise. They were restored now to their proper sizes, they had been washed and had their hair cut and been dressed in new but hideous uniforms, and none of it felt good. They knew that really they were in prison.
Not that there was much room to exercise, anyway. The yard was crowded and the netting that stopped you flying away was full of fairies and imps trying to stretch their wings. When a whistle blew, they had to line up to go inside again, and Dziki saw another long line of imps and fairies waiting to take their turn outside. Yet the corridors seemed endless and the rooms were all huge. The thought that such an enormous place could be overcrowded made Dziki shiver. How much organisation and planning had gone into this? Whoever was behind it just wanted total control. For the first time she began to feel afraid.
"That's right, file into the lecture hall and sit down."
An officer gave the order in a voice that was struggling to sound caring. It was Blanche Hakarp.

While the new trainees filed in quietly, as if they were still rather stunned, an elf came onto the platform and opened a flip chart with the word 'humans' on it in five different languages. Blanche waited to see that everyone had found a seat, then closed the door behind her and made her way to the officers' mess.
"Oh, I am so tired!" she complained, kicking off her shoes. "There are just too many of them now. Everything takes so long, every day the same annoying questions from new arrivals."
"I agree," said another fairy. "And some of these gang sprites are so rough and rude! Say what you like about the army, but at least they don't spit on the floor and swear at you."
All the officers at the re-training centre were sprites who for one reason or another had fallen out of favour with someone important. Their commanding officer was a fairy who had the misfortune to be a fellow-colonist of ex-Envoy Mecsek, who had tried to make himself king of the realm. She listened to the comments now and nodded briskly.
"They are appalling," she agreed. "There is much work to be done with them to bring them up to basic standards of behaviour, before they can begin to learn good attitudes."
"It's all going to take so long," said Blanche. "Isn't there anyone who's fit to leave and join the Brigade?"
"We had hoped there would be an outflow by now, to match the inflow," admitted Colonel Mecsek. "The Protector is disappointed. There are only one or two who could be ready, and we really wanted to be sending a couple of dozen off at a time, make a bit of a ceremony of it, to encourage others. But that's not going to happen any time soon."
A sleepy elf in an armchair lifted a cushion off his head and joined in.
"If you ask me, we need to get rid of the hardcore. There are some who'd listen to us with them out of the way. Take the real troublemakers away to a real prison, with harshness, not kindness. You could still make a ceremony of it. Then the ones who are left will start to co-operate. They'd be afraid of having the same thing happen to them."
"That is not a bad idea, Lieutenant Étretat," said the colonel. "Where would you put such a prison? It would have to be reasonably near, and safe from discovery by human scum."
"The Grafenau elves mentioned a place that made me wonder. It's an old ironworks - abandoned years ago - but the structure's usable, and it's a few miles south east of here."
"Hmm. It's worth investigating. Thank you for the suggestion. When you are back on duty, please go to Major Diolkos of the Renegades, and ask him to come and see me about a feasibility study."
"Yes, ma'am."
"And Lieutenant Hakarp, could you please draw me up a list of the fifty worst troublemakers. We have to do something to clear the bottleneck, and this may very well be the answer."

One week later, the elves who had been there the longest - now known as Intake One - were out in the exercise yard. They were making the most of it; they only got twenty minutes these days.
"There's that major from the outside guards, with some of his elves," said Bjørk Kinnekulle. "What's he want?"
"I don't like the look of this," said Betch Knightwood. "Has there been an escape attempt that we haven't heard about? They look pretty grim."
Wayne was there, Betch had already noticed. Looking stern and serious, yes, but also sad. Then the gruesome fairy, Colonel Mecsek, came outside and blew a whistle for attention.
"I have an announcement to make. You will all please come inside. The following elves will line up at the side door, and the rest of you will join your fellow-trainees in the main lecture hall."

By now, Betch knew where every door and every corridor led, so he wasn't surprised to find himself coming out onto the platform of the lecture hall. And when he saw who else they had up here, he had a pretty shrewd idea what was coming.
"Your attention please," Colonel Mecsek called out over the hum of conversation in the hall. Silence fell. Everyone wanted to know what was going on. "We in Special Brigade are patient sprites. Your re-training is of great importance to us, and within reason, we do not mind how long it takes. But our patience is not limitless. Wilful resistance and aggressive attitudes will result in failure. The sprites you see before you now, I am sorry to say, are all judged to have failed the re-training. I will now read out the names of the failures."
It was quite an honour, Betch supposed, that his name was first on the list. Not all the army sprites were on it. Some, like the Commander, had devoted their energies to strengthening and supporting anyone whose will was being sapped, and their quiet resistance had not yet raised the ire of those in charge. But Bjørk's name had been read out immediately after his own, and Sizzle was up here too, the doughty Swiss imp who had led the Alpine team and walked the March of 1,000 sprites. There were sprites of every age, from elderly judges to two young Czech fairies, Rania and Zetia.
"You will now be blindfolded and have your hands tied. You will be taken away from here, never to return. You will spend the rest of your lives in prison, so the realm can be safe from the contamination of your evil thoughts. I wish I could say that I am sorry to see you go, because the prison is a most unpleasant place. But I am not. I am glad to see the back of you."
There was an uproar of protest from the audience, and even some chairs being thrown. But it was all ignored, and guards were advancing with blindfolds and ropes. For a moment, Betch couldn't think of anything optimistic to say. But then he rallied and turned to Bjørk.
"Oh well," he said. "Lots of new escape possibilities there."
Bjørk smiled admiringly.
"You're amazing, Betch. So there will be."

It takes courage to walk confidently when blindfolded, but it's not quite so bad when you're in a long line, roped to the person in front of you, and the leader can see. You get into a monotonous rhythm. The worst part, thought Betch, was the stifling heat, and the flies. They banged into your face when you couldn't see them coming. He flexed his wrists experimentally.
There wasn't much play in his bonds and struggling to loosen them would soon be noticed. There were a lot of guards around. The journey, they'd said, was a very long walk, it was going to take two days. They weren't going to take any chances. Lieutenant Étretat, who wasn't stupid, was in charge, and there were local elves from Grafenau in the escort. They would know the forest well. Besides that, there were plenty of the thugs from the Renegades, and they'd be quick to hit anyone who stepped out of line. So for now, he kept listening and thinking hard, as he always did.

By the time the lieutenant called a halt for the night, Betch was in a bad way. Dizzy and exhausted, he sank to the ground, and so did all the other prisoners.
"Are we taking their blindfolds off?" called someone.
"Don't be stupid, Ferkel, they'd be off into the forest in no time."
"You can't keep us blindfolded all the time!" shouted Sizzle.
"Don't you understand yet?" sighed Lieutenant Étretat. "Your blindfolds will never be taken off. Your hands will never be untied. You'll get water twice a day and that's it. No comforts whatsoever, those are the colonel's orders. So if you freeze to death when winter comes, you freeze to death."
"That's murder," said a quiet voice.
It spoke in slow German, but to Betch it came through as English. He knew that voice.
"Shut it, Langdon, what do you know? You Renegades are here to provide the muscle, nothing else. Eich and Lärk, go and find a stream and bring water. Ferkel, check all the blindfolds."

After a while, Betch felt his head being roughly shoved from side to side as his blindfold was checked, but it wasn't long after that that the water arrived. He couldn't hold a cup for himself, he had to drink from a bottle that was held for him, but at least it was done carefully, allowing him to sip and swallow at his own speed. But that was all the attention they got. Still roped to Bjørk and someone else he lay down and tried to get comfortable. At least the grass wasn't wet. But he wasn't going to sleep, not yet. He had to keep listening. Any scrap of information might be priceless.
Two of the guards were walking around the long line of prisoners. From the speed they were walking, and the time it took them to get round, Betch estimated they were spread out over about ten yards of forest. A long line, and it would be dark by now. They weren't able to watch all of it from one point. The rest of the guards were positioned about half way down the line, not far from where Betch was lying. They were sitting down, they had lit a fire, and tantalising smells of tea were drifting over. They were talking, but only about Colonel Mecsek and some boring dispute about duties. Betch wriggled as a beetle crawled inside his shirt. There was nothing he could do about it but squirm. Eventually, it either settled down or crawled off, he wasn't sure which, but by then the conversation had taken a more interesting turn.

"It's all very well saying we'll only be here until the war's over, but I don't think it's as nearly over as they say. The whole army wasn't in Norway, was it?"
"Nowhere near. Half of it was in Poland, I heard. And where are they now?"
"Colonel Mecsek says they're still there."
Betch could put a face, and sometimes even a name, to the voices he heard. That last one had been Lieutenant Étretat. And he could understand plenty of German now - far more than he could speak - and it was more than enough to understand. But the next person to speak was Wayne, and every word, every nuance, came through crystal clear. It was like breathing the clean air of Fjaerland or drinking its pure waters, and Betch felt refreshed.
"I don't think she'll still be saying that today," said Wayne. "Our major will have told her by now. He had a message. He didn't say who it was from, but it must have been someone important. Maybe the Protector himself? They're friends, you know. Anyway, whoever it was, was high enough up to use a courier and the drop box at Bodenmais station."
"Oh, fair enough," said Lieutenant Étretat. "Hadn't heard that. Did the major say where they were heading?"
"No, sorry. Only that they were on the move. But if it's true that General Herdalen was there, then I wouldn't be surprised if they were heading this way."
"I'm only guessing. Depends what information he's had. If he's heard about Zurich, he might be going there. But if it's true that he's destroyed Wielkopolska, then he might think the re-training camp would be a good place to destroy next."
A flurry of different voices followed Wayne's suggestion.
"So we might get a battle?"
"Oh well, I don't mind staying here if the war is going to come to us."
"Thanks, Wayne!"
"How far d'you think he'll have got?"
"Hmm, that's tricky. You'd have to allow about a week for the Protector to get the news and send it. And then I can't see Herdalen using trains with the numbers he's got, and he doesn't use potions, so he'd be slow. But even going slowly he could be in Czechia by now. If I were him, I'd come up the Vltava valley. That's the obvious way. I bet Colonel Mecsek will send look-outs to all the major bridges."

Betch was stunned. Why was Wayne giving the enemy all this useful information? Then he got it. Wayne wasn't giving it to them, but to him. To let him know that, if he managed to escape, General Herdalen was within reach. And he was passing them false information too. If the Vltava valley, wherever that was, was the obvious way to get here, then there was no way anyone as devious as General Herdalen would use that route. Wayne and Betch and Bjørk all knew that.

"It'd have to be fairies. The lookouts on the bridges, I mean," said someone. "They'd never get the news back fast enough otherwise. You know what it's like. No-one's admitting anything, but messaging is hopeless."
"One of our fairies at home said she met a Brigade fairy flying from Zurich to Prague, and this fairy told her the Enlightener must be dead, and that was why all the potions weren't working properly."
"What a load of nonsense. Just fairy gossip, jumping to conclusions."
"How could anyone kill the Enlightener, he's the most powerful tree ever, he's too strong to be dead!"
"I wouldn't say that," said Lieutenant Étretat. "Even a tree of power isn't immortal. But this is all gossip and superstition. You sound like the army! All that's happened is that different people have been brewing potions, and not in the still room at Wielkopolska either. So the ingredients weren't balanced properly, or the temperatures were wrong. Something like that. They'll get over the problems and the next batches will be better, you'll see."
"Or when you hurt the Talende tree you hurt every plant in the realm," muttered Bjørk. He spoke softly in Swedish, but Betch caught it and understood. So did Wayne.

Finally Betch did sleep. He was surprised he'd been able to, but he woke shivering, stiff and thirsty in a grey, pre-dawn light. Guards were still circling the line of prisoners. They must have been doing that all night, taking turns no doubt. Some of the prisoners were now in a very bad case. There were older elves groaning with pain and one of the fairies was crying.
"Cheer up!" shouted Lieutenant Étretat.
The little thug was enjoying this, thought Betch.
"Water is coming round. Then we can all have a nice long walk to your final destination. There you can rest."
Yes, thought Betch. Sit and rot until we die. That's your plan, isn't it? Well, it's not going to work. I'll listen to every move you make until I know your routine better than you know it yourselves. And sooner or later, you'll slip up. And when you do, I'll be ready.
In the meantime, there were people who needed cheering up. Betch knew what Ace had been doing and he thought that was just what was needed here now. He couldn't sing as loudly as Ace could, but he could sing in tune and he knew the words. That was all that mattered. He took a deep breath and braced himself for the inevitable blow that would soon be coming his way.
Hail to the Queen of Sprites, who guards our ancient laws...

He got through a whole verse before they managed to shut him up, and that was cheering. But the cheering effect didn't last long. Today's journey was even worse. Hour after hour, they trudged along, stung by nettles, bitten by flies and scratched so many times that Betch began to suspect they were being led through hawthorn thickets on purpose. Suddenly, the line juddered to a halt, with much bumping and stumbling. Listening, Betch realised that one of the older fairies had collapsed. He heard a name - Bergfrue Grytten - the Judge from Vingen in Norway. Again, Betch heard a mix of voices.
"Cut her out of the line. Leave her there by the path."
"What, still blindfolded? And tied? Something will eat her!"
"Oh, come on, Lieutenant! An old fairy! We're not monsters!"
"What else can we do? She'll die whatever we do, she's too frail to take it."
Then came a voice Betch knew very well.
"No!" thundered Bjørk. "Tie my hands in front of me, and lay the Judge in my arms. I will carry her. All the way to our destination if necessary."
"Oh well, if you want the exercise, I suppose we can manage that."
"Nice, Bjørk," said Betch as they laid the unconscious fairy in Bjørk's arms. "Så tapper. So brave."

When they arrived at their new prison, most of them were too tired to care. Betch found he learned a lot just from his sense of smell. Ancient stonework, wet with mosses... open to the sky... foxes had been around. The plants were way above their heads, the place had been long undisturbed. Stumbling then down broken steps, that were like mountain scree. Once they had been made for human feet, but they had crumbled. Then, surprisingly, the smell of raw timber. A new door, to enclose some space? A door to lock on the prisoners? It seemed so. They were now in some kind of room that was half underground, where little daylight came through the blindfolds. Then the door was closed and the darkness became complete. The floor was bare earth, but no-one scorned it. Even Betch knew he'd be no use until he'd had a rest, and Bjørk had worn himself out, though Bergfrue had come round and managed to walk some of the way unaided.
It was about an hour later, Betch thought, when the guards returned. Had a good rest themselves, probably, with hot tea. But now they had work to do. Betch listened carefully.
"Use the new ropes," said the lieutenant. "Tie each sprite separately around the waist and attach the rope to the beam behind them on the wall. Be careful with the length. They must be able to stand, sit or lie down, but not reach any other sprite. So you'll have to space them out carefully."
It took a long time. When Betch's turn came, there were two of them holding him still while the rope that had linked the line together was removed and he was fastened instead to this beam. Unfortunately it wasn't rotten old wood but more new timber, thick and strong. Someone had thought this out well - too well. His hands were re-tied, still behind his back but in a slightly more comfortable position. Finally, they finished their work and came round with water. And that was that. They heard footsteps leaving, they heard the door close and a key turn, and as far as they knew, they were left alone.
"Have they all gone?" said Bjørk. "Everyone listen carefully."
They kept silent and motionless, and no-one heard a sign of another presence, but still, they couldn't be sure that no-one was there. They couldn't make plans or discuss ideas unless they were certain they were alone.
"Let's test these ropes," said Betch. "They've been careful, but were they successful? Everyone try to move as far as possible in every direction, see if you can reach anyone else."
But they might as well have been in isolation. They were too well separated. Still, even trying that without interruption gave them more confidence that they really were alone.
"What we need to know next," said Bjørk, "is how many of them are staying. They needed a large escort but they won't need that many to guard this place."
"They could manage with two," said someone.
"If only! With two, we could be more certain exactly where they were."
"We need to listen carefully in the morning, then. Make sure we know how many have left."
"How many were in the escort?"
"Sixteen," said Betch. "Twelve indoor guards and four outdoor."
"Excellent observation, Betch," said a fairy.
Betch recognised the voice. Gänse Immindingen, a senior sprite and an important one. He was honoured.
"This is a horrible situation to find ourselves in," she continued. "But don't despair. Don't anyone despair. With elves like Betch and Bjørk around, there will be something, somewhere we can exploit."
"Hear, hear," said an old elf. That was Sambucus Wensum, Judge of Meon Hill in England. "And I have a suggestion. Let us each call out our names in turn, so we can check that everyone is all right."
"Good idea," said Bjørk. "Why don't you start, Judge, and then go round clockwise from you."
It was actually quite cheering, to hear all those names called out, some calmly, some defiantly, but none, not one, sounding broken.
Because that's what they're trying to do, thought Betch. Break us. But they haven't succeeded yet.

When Wayne woke up, beside the remnants of a campfire and stretched out under his blanket, his first thoughts were of Betch. Blindfolded for two days, he'd spent the night in that horrible cellar, roped to a beam and with his hands tied behind his back. At least he wouldn't have been cold, in fact it was probably very stuffy in there by now. But there was no way any of them would survive the winter. Wayne knew that even some of his fellow-guards were shocked at how the prisoners were being treated, though they weren't prepared to do any more than say so. Wayne was appalled and sickened. So much so, he knew he had to act. Even if it led to his being outed as a spy, even if it led to his own death, he knew without a shadow of a doubt that any senior army officer, seeing the situation, would have fervently agreed that he should throw caution to the winds and take action.
He had a plan - in fact he had two plans - so if the first one didn't work, the second one should. If he heard, in a couple of days, that the prisoners had all escaped, then all was well. If he didn't, he would simply return on his own by night, overcome the two guards and release everyone. If it came to that, then of course his own cover would be blown and he would have to flee with the prisoners. That would mean he'd probably never see Stan again and that made him sadder than he would once have thought possible, but it would have to be done. But it might not come to that. It depended on Betch. And of Betch's abilities, Wayne had a very high opinion indeed.
Other elves were getting up now. No-one was wasting any time. Most of them now had to get all the way back to camp, and although they'd be able to travel much faster without the prisoners, it was still a long way. Lieutenant Étretat was packing his backpack, while giving orders to Eich and Ferkel, who were the first to stay.
"You do five days on guard duty, and then on the sixth day, another pair will come to relieve you. As soon as they arrive, you can head back to camp. We'll leave you plenty of supplies and the relief will bring more. In case of some unexpected emergency- I don't know, say, wild animal attack - take hawthorn berry and message the guard in the nearest watch tower, they're outside the hedge."
"OK, Lieutenant," said Ferkel. "What if it gets really hot? They still only get two drinks a day?"
"That's the order," said the lieutenant. "But once you're on your own, there's nothing to stop you using your own judgement. No-one's looking. Keeping them docile is an order too, for example."
"We get the idea," said Ferkel.
"Make sure you check their bonds before every water run. In fact, we'll all come and help you with that before we leave. First night - some of them will have been struggling all night and there could be loose knots."
Yes, thought Wayne. I thought you'd say that. Excellent.
It was an important part of his plan.

Lieutenant Étretat led the way, advising them all, but especially Eich and Ferkel, to open the door with caution.
"If anyone did untie himself, behind the door is where he'll be waiting, to attack you as you come in."
Casually, imperceptibly, Wayne filtered towards the side where Betch was. He'd already calculated that being third in line would bring him naturally to Betch without making it obvious what he was doing. It nearly didn't work, because the guard in second place was checking a bit too quickly, but the lieutenant told him to slow down and be more careful, so that was all right.
The wonderful thing about Betch, thought Wayne gratefully, was that he was so quick on the uptake. He leant a comforting hand on Betch's shoulder, so Betch would know it was him. He didn't say a word, didn't have to. He checked all the knots. Unsurprisingly, some of them showed signs of a lot of struggle. Then he shrugged something down his own sleeve and stroked Betch's hand. Betch opened his hand and closed his fingers around the penknife in a second. Wayne carried on down the line, taking his turn at checking, but his heart was banging in his chest. He'd done it, and absolutely no-one had noticed. He just wished he had some way of letting Betch know how long he'd got. But then Ferkel, coming in with the water, innocently asked a question.
"What time do we do the other water round? Sunset?"
"Good question," said the lieutenant. "Sunrise and sunset change too much. What's the time now... 8am? Keep them exactly twelve hours apart, I'd say. Eight in the morning and eight at night."
"OK, Lieutenant," said Ferkel. "Stop glugging, fairy, you'll only make yourself cough."
Twelve hours, thought Wayne. If Betch can't cut through his bonds in twelve hours, I don't know what Ace's team is coming to.

"I know they're the enemy and the worst cases," muttered Stan as they lined up to jump off, "but the poor devils. They'll never see the sun again. They'll die in that cellar, all of them. It makes me feel sick."
"I know, Stan. I feel the same," said Wayne. "In fact, I was wondering if there was anything we could do."
"Can you think of anything?"
"Well, we can't go against our orders. Not when we're already Renegades. But a word in the right ear, so the orders get changed? We could do that much."
"It's no good complaining to Colonel Mecsek. She's as bad as the lieutenant. Worse, really."
"No, she wouldn't listen. But Major Diolkos might. He trusts us, he thinks we're his best pair. And he could go straight to General Huskvarna. He's his friend."
"That's clever! I knew you'd think of something, Wayne. You're right, that's the way to go about it, and what's more, it might be successful. They say the major is the only one General Huskvarna listens to."
"Let's hope so," said Wayne. "Here goes... we're off."
Following the lieutenant in a loose formation designed for travelling through thick forest, Wayne felt glad to have reassured Stan, who'd really been worrying. But for himself, he hoped it wouldn't even come to that.

The rush of gratitude that Betch had felt when Wayne had slipped a knife into his hand had been so great, it had been hard to stop himself smiling or laughing. The old words had come into his head - what a team. He knew very well that in doing what he had done, Wayne had risked his life. What Betch had to do now was make the best possible use of this precious gift. He had twelve hours to release himself and everyone else in this prison, and then he and Bjørk would get everyone away to freedom.
He didn't rush it. He felt the knife carefully until he knew exactly how to open and close it quickly and quietly, where it was sharpest and what angle he could work at. He had to free his wrists first. Once he had done that, the rest would be easy. The blade was small, so Betch decided the most effective thing would be to keep digging it into the rope, slicing a few fibres at a time. It worked well. He had to be patient, but when despair has changed to hope, it helps a lot. And it's easier to be patient when you can feel that every tiny cut is making a difference. It was like watching the hands of a clock move. You can't see anything happening, but you know it is. With mounting excitement, after two hours he felt the rope give. He hadn't cut it right through, but it was now so weakened he could slip his hand out. He nearly groaned out loud with pain as he brought his hands round in front of him. He felt as if his shoulders would never move properly again, but perhaps that would wear off. Now at last he could pull off the hated blindfold. He blinked hard. This cellar they were in was not as dark as he'd supposed, not now it was daytime. Chinks of light were flooding in all over the place, the sudden brightness made his eyes water, but he quickly rallied. The sight of his fellow-prisoners stirred him to find reserves of strength he didn't know he had.
The next thing was to expand the knife, make it big enough and sharp enough to cut through ropes quickly. That took time. It was hard to calm his mind enough to concentrate, and he felt out of practice. The blade he ended up with was certainly not straight, nor of an even thickness, but it was bigger and sharper and right now that was all that mattered.
He'd been thinking carefully as he worked, what to say and how to say it. Eich and Ferkel spoke German, so he couldn't risk that. They didn't know English, but neither did everyone in here. But enough did... there were only five or six who didn't know a single word, and they all had people here who could translate for them.
Some of the sprites had been talking quietly about their home colonies, to keep their spirits up and pass the time, and at a suitable moment, Betch joined in, taking care to keep his voice like theirs, low and conversational and not whispering, which might arouse suspicion.
"I know most of you can understand me," he said. "What I'm going to say next, please don't anyone shriek out or even gasp. Whatever I say, keep this easy tone going, okay? I've managed to free myself. I've got a knife and I'm coming round to free everybody else. But before I move, I need to know everyone understands, so no-one is startled into making a loud noise. Please translate that for anyone who doesn't speak English."
"Oh, well done, Betch," sighed Bjørk happily.
They listened to the quiet conversations taking place in Czech, Latvian and Croat, and as they died down, Betch spoke again, slowly and clearly and just loud enough for everyone to hear him.
"I need to free people in order of their fighting ability, in case we are disturbed. Please don't think anyone that I have forgotten you. Fifty of us came into this place and fifty are leaving."
"Don't worry about it for another second," came the voice of Sam Wensum. "We older sprites will carry on talking. It will disarm suspicion and mask any slight noise."
"Thank you, sir," said Betch.
By now he had freed his waist from the beam and was kneeling by Bjørk's side. As soon as Bjørk was free he hugged Betch and came round to help him. It's much faster to cut rope if someone's holding it taut. When over half of them were free, and he saw that Betch's hands were tiring, he took over the cutting. Once all the youngest and strongest were free, they started on the oldest and frailest. And all the while, Sam and the others from Meon Hill, and Gänse Immindingen kept up a hum of conversation. As the last few ropes were cut, Bjørk spoke.
"I don't see why we need to wait until they come back in at eight. Why don't we all sit down again, and start making a tremendous noise? They will come in to investigate, they'll be well into the room before they notice the blindfolds are gone, and then we can pounce."
It couldn't fail, thought Betch happily. Not with odds like they had now. He enjoyed every second of it, from the part where everyone screamed and shouted, to the bit where they tied up Ferkel and Eich to the beam. Gänse set a time limit on the ropes, as she rejoined some cut lengths to reuse them.
"We will give you water now. And in twelve hours you will be free, to return to your camp and explain to your commanding officer how you lost all your prisoners. But it's no use coming after us. We'll be long gone."
Before they left, they closed, but did not lock, the cellar door, and helped themselves to knives and matches and anything that looked useful. Keeping closely together, they instinctively headed east, to put the greatest distance between themselves and any pursuit. They didn't know exactly where they were. They had five knives between fifty of them. They had no maps, no mobile phones and no plans. For the moment, they just moved, exulting in simply being able to move, to jump, to fly, and above all, to see.
"We're free!" sighed Rania. "I can't believe it. Thank you, Betch.”
There was a swell of agreement. Betch stood on the branch of a birch and gazed out across the beautiful forest.
"Don't thank me," he said. "Thank Wayne Langdon who gave me the knife."
"What, the Renegade?"
"I want you all to know," said Betch. "In case any question of his loyalties comes up, in case he ever needs our help. Wayne's been working undercover since before he even graduated. Reporting directly, I think, to General Herdalen."
"He's a spy!"
"Yes," said Betch. "And the bravest elf in the army."

After two days, Betch and the others were clear of the forest and they began to feel safe. They needed to make some plans, but it wasn't easy. The older sprites were tiring badly and wanted to get home to their duties in Hills and colonies. Betch, Bjørk and the other army sprites wanted nothing more than to meet up with General Herdalen and get on with fighting the war. Their main problem was they didn't know exactly where they were. They could tell, by the language on signposts, that they were still in Germany, but that was about it.
“We have to find a map somehow,” said Bjørk. “It'd be a start. But even then, we have to guess where General Herdalen will be.”
“You know him best,” said Sam Wensum. “But I'd say you don't need to work out where he is now, only which route he will take to the prison camp. And all we can be sure of is that he won't take the Vltava valley. As young Wayne knew very well, that's far too obvious.”
“The general has a great reputation for shrewdness,” said Gänse Immindingen. “If he is in Czechia, why might he not decide to cut west on a train, come at them unexpectedly from the west? To get to Regensburg, for example, would be an easy matter.”
“And a shorter journey on foot,” said Betch. “But that would mean we'd come out of the forest on the wrong side!”
Everyone groaned, and Sizzle pointed out that there were lots of other options, even more devious than that.
“Passau, that's a good rendezvous place. Who knows who he might be joining up with?”
“Passau must be south of here, surely?” said someone.
“Undoubtedly,” said Gänse. “Second guessing General Herdalen may be difficult, but finding out where we are is less difficult. Let us follow the first signpost we see to any sizeable town. Somewhere in that place there will be a map, and we will find it.”
So that was what they had done, and the place was called Strakonice, and that name told them they had crossed the border and were now in Czechia.

The name of the place began to ring bells in Sizzle's mind. She was sure she'd heard that name before. A colony's name, she thought, so probably someone's place name. But the more she thought, the less she could remember whose name it might be. It was quite a big town, and it didn't take them long to find what they were looking for. There was a petrol station, and the petrol station had a shop, and in the shop, plain to be seen on a rack, was a large selection of maps.
“We'll not do better than that,” said Bjørk, rubbing his hands together in excitement. “Some of us can come back tonight after the place closes.”
“Jenny and I could check it out now,” suggested Sizzle. “Make sure a window is left open a crack, something like that.”
“Great,” said Bjørk, “go for it. Thanks, Sizzle.”
The sprites spent the rest of the day in a nearby park, where they could rest, and drink from a fountain. But at eight in the evening, as soon as the lights went out in the petrol station, a team of twelve was ready for action. Sizzle and Jenny led them in through an ill-fitting skylight in a storeroom. Working together, all the flyers lifted a local map from the rack and carried it back into the storeroom, where they felt safe enough to turn a light on. They crowded round the map, noting all the important routes by road and rail, then they found some scrap paper to make a copy of the most useful part. Rania was just doing the copying when Sizzle shrieked out loud. The Czech fairy muttered something under her breath. She'd lost her concentration.
“Sorry,” said Sizzle. “But Waldkirchen! Look at that place there, it says Waldkirchen!”
“So?” said Betch. “It looks a really tiny place.”
“But it's reminded me why I knew the name Strakonice. The march of 1000 Sprites stopped nearby.”
“You mean there's a colony here?” said Bjørk. “That could be useful.”
“There's something even better in Waldkirchen,” said Sizzle. “And it's only one day's journey south west. Uwe lives there. He's an Ally and so is Gertrud his wife. They took us in, all of us.”
“That's wonderful!” said Gänse.
“Yes, it is,” said Bjørk, “but I don't understand why it's better than a colony. A colony might have some news, useful news.”
“Forgotten about computers, Bjørk?” grinned Betch. “This guy and his wife have probably got one, haven't they, Sizzle?”
“You bet. He talks to the other Allies every day. He won't just know some news, he'll know all of it.”
“Let's get back and tell the others!”
They grabbed their new map and jumped and flew. There were some wild celebrations in a Czech park that night.

“Aesculus! Aesculus, where are you? What're you up to, under the bed?”
“Making a surprise for Viola's birthday. Don't tell her, will you, David?”
“A surprise? With violet coloured ink? Wouldn't a present be nicer?”
“No! Sprite birthdays are for tricks, not treats, Ace said so.”
“Oh, OK, fair enough. You're the elf. Just don't upset her, will you? But leave that now, just come and see this email!”
“Who's it from?” said Aesculus, jumping onto David's shoulder.
“It's from Uwe. You'll never guess who's at his house – your friend Betch!”
Gently, David detached Aesculus' tiny hands from tugging at his hair.
“Betch has escaped! Oh wow, isn't he clever!”
“I'll say. I can't wait to meet him, he sounds a real character.”
“Is he all right? Where's he going now?”
“He's fine, he and some other army sprites are going to join up with General Gran, because Uwe knew the big rendezvous would be at that Mladder place.”
“I have to go and tell Viola! She loves Betch, she thinks he's even more handsome than Ace.”
“Oh, right,” laughed David, as Aesculus jumped down out of the window. “I hope she doesn't tell Ace that.”

While Aesculus was away, David lost no time in sending Uwe's email to the new computer at Essen, and posting the news on the Allies' website. He also sent a brief summary by text to all the senior officers out in the field. By chance, a reply came from General Herdalen really quickly.
Wonderful news! Thank you, David. Please ask Uwe to give my deepest respects to Bjørk, Betch and the others, and tell them I can't wait to see them again.

Then Aesculus came bounding back in.
“Told her! She was so happy. I left her telling Primrose and Val all about him.”
“I must go and see them tomorrow at Moseley Lodge. I'm a human so I'm taking Viola a present.”
“You don't have to,” said Aesculus. “Walk over there, I mean. She'll probably come here. It's possible she might want to borrow your bath.”
“You scamp,” said David. “OK, work's done for now, what d'you want to watch?”
“Isn't Rowan coming round?”
“No, she's gone to Tatton to do more tree surveying for her school project.”
“Oh, then I want to see the video with Hanna again!”
“What, again?” smiled David, though he wasn't really surprised. Aesculus had been to Germany with them, and he'd had a wonderful time.

The video started, as the one starring Rowan had done, in a garden – Hanna's garden – but this time in clear morning light. The sun shone on Hanna's silver hair, and she was wearing her very best and smartest dress. She didn't look at all like a crazy old lady who would ramble on about fairies. On the contrary, she sounded crisp and sensible, and if anything, even more convincing than Rowan.
“If you want to see an elf, you'll have to watch carefully,” said Hanna, in German.
“I love the next bit!” said Aesculus.
“There, look!” said Hanna.
A faint blur moved across the screen, as if something incredibly high-speed had crossed in front of the camera lens.
“Did you see him? No? Ah, never mind. When you are an Ally, they will not jump away.” She winked at the camera, then, just as Rowan had done, finished with the Allies' passwords. “Kennen und werden bekannt.”
As the video closed, Aesculus jumped down from David's shoulder onto the desk and raised both arms in triumph.
“Aesculus Moseley, video star!”
“You certainly are,” said David.

When Karl got in from his work at his home in Hella, Norway, he noticed the email from David and opened it at once. He too was delighted, especially for Bjørk Kinnekulle, whom he'd met. But being older than David, and wiser, he was more concerned about the story of what had led to the escape. The harshness of the new kind of prison they had got away from seemed to him to mark a new level of nastiness that this war had not seen before. He knew that in war, expediency leads sometimes to worse cruelty than ideology. He walked into his garden and gazed across the fjord to the Fjaerland mountain where the sprites had their home, and wondered once again if there was more the Allies could or should do.
Though small, the sprites were not children to be sheltered or protected from themselves. There was a fine line between help and interference and it was a line that Karl was determined not to cross. The other Allies, he knew, would follow his lead on this, so he had to get it right. His instinct had been telling him to stand back, but right now he felt it wasn't as simple as that. The army – and not just the army, but all the best sprites – wanted sprites and humans to become closer again. Yet there were other sprites, and not all committed to parliament, who hated and distrusted humans so much they wanted to destroy them. Might it not be up to humans to take action, to show them it didn't have to be like that? But then he sighed, remembering that many humans really were as bad as those sprites suspected. It needed a lot of thinking about.
“What do you think?” he said, looking down at the little brown rat on his lawn.
They'd made a comfortable run for him, to keep him safe from predators, but no-one knew who he was. Army flyers had rescued dozens of shrunken captives in the last phase of the battle for Fjaerland, but when they'd opened one of the cages, there had been no sprite inside, only this rat. Had Special Brigade, for reasons of their own, been carrying a rat around with them? It seemed unlikely. Was this an army sprite whose shrinking had gone wrong? General Stalden had said that it wasn't impossible, though she had never heard of a shrinking going as wrong as that, especially when the method was potion. Severe illness, a bad reaction to the potion, was far more likely.
The general had suspected that the rat was indeed a sprite, but one of Special Brigade's own, who had been transformed but for some reason could not yet be transformed back. Many of the fairies had agreed with the general, saying that they thought the rat was trying to talk. They'd explained that sprites could usually understand the natural squeakings of small animals, especially ones who shared the land they lived on, but that this one didn't seem to be squeaking naturally at all, but trying to speak a human language with a mouth not designed for that purpose. Yet if it had been a friend, someone who'd been on the mountain, surely they'd have made out at least one word?
So when the fairies had departed for the rendezvous at Oslofjord, the rat had stayed behind. Karl had cared for it as if it had been his own beloved pet. It didn't matter a scrap that it was an enemy. It was down on its luck and needed care, and that was enough for Karl, who could never have harmed any animal. The rat didn't answer his question, but it did raise sad black eyes to look at him. It didn't make much noise now the fairies had left. It was as if it had given up trying to be understood. Karl lifted it out of the run and stroked its back.
“Poor little rat,” he said. “I know you don't understand me, but I hope you can sense that you are safe, and you will never go hungry or thirsty.”
The rat rubbed its face against Karl's finger, almost endearingly. It seemed to understand the kindness and reassurance in Karl's voice, if nothing else. But then its nose quivered and it stood up on Karl's hand, looking intently across the garden. Karl turned at once to see what it was looking at, and his eyes widened as he saw an imp he had never seen before striding across the grass towards him.
Neither young nor old, but somewhere comfortably in between, she was tall and strong and looked clever and impatient. Her vivid streaks were orange and yellow and she was dressed in what looked like a boiler suit made out of a piece of black plastic bin liner.
“Hello!” she called fearlessly. “Are you Karl?”
Karl gently placed the rat back in the run, then sat down on the grass to address the imp.
“I am,” he said, “and you are most welcome, dear imp. What can I do for you?”
“News, more than anything, I hope,” said the imp. “We've never met, but I've heard a lot about you, from Gran Herdalen and Boris Teplou and Will Moseley. And when elves with brains like theirs praise a man so highly, you know you're onto a good thing. Dizzy's my name – General Széchenyi if we're being all official – and from what I've just heard up at camp from Pice Inari, I have the dubious honour, which I'll probably never live down, of being the last to make it back after the battle.”
“General Széchenyi!” exclaimed Karl. “But this is wonderful! The whole army will be rejoicing to hear you are safe. Someone had seen you fall, over the fjord, and when it was known that you had not returned, some were beginning to fear the worst.”
“Well, I nearly did drown,” Dizzy admitted. “I remember falling, and I remember swallowing water, so I think I must have been floating unconscious. The next thing I knew, I was being carried along in the beak of some enormous bird. There was nothing for it but to go along for the ride, and hope I could escape before I got fed to its chicks. And I did, but one of my wings was torn, so I was in for a long walk.”
“You have had a lot of practice for that,” said Karl.
“Very true,” said Dizzy, “but it's not so much fun without company. I was way up in the mountains, and as you know, there's nothing up there but goblins, and all the decent ones had already come down to Fjaerland to help, so I steered clear of other sprites. And then I went badly wrong. In fact, I realised I was nearer to our air base at Stavang than camp, so I headed there first. But not a soul around, so I turned towards camp, and nothing, but nothing, prepared me for what I saw. No army, but no Special Brigade either. Just wanton destruction. What did it all mean? At that point, I must admit, I did wobble a bit. But then that wonderful elf, Pice Inari, came running over. Explained just what had happened. Bad. Very bad indeed. But not defeat. Not total defeat, anyway. Not yet.”
“How is the Tree, did he say?”
“Getting better, he said, but very slowly. But he said a strange thing too. He said the loss of Signals wasn't just because of the damage to the Tree, but because of the shockwaves that went out as a result of it. They destroyed the balance and rhythm. And even though the Tree is getting better, the shockwaves haven't even stopped travelling yet. Does that make sense to you?”
“I don't understand the biology,” said Karl. “This is a phenomenon that humans haven't investigated at all. But the pattern you are describing, yes. It's just like ripples in water, isn't it? A drop of rain hits the fjord, and out go the ripples, circle after circle of them. It might stop raining then, but the ripples won't stop, they will carry on until they reach the shore.”
“There'll be damage, then. Maybe not great, but widespread. And it won't stop until it reaches the borders, Russia, Finland, Greece. What is that rat trying to say?”
Karl explained about the rat, and Dizzy listened carefully. The rat became quite excited and seemed to put all its efforts into saying a few words as well as it could.
“Can't make out a word of it,” said Dizzy. “And I speak seven languages and can recognise the sounds of more, but all from north of the Alps.”
“So it is a language of the south? Spanish, perhaps. Portuguese, Italian, Greek?”
“One of those, I'm sure. If we can't find a friend of his, then at least we may be able to find someone who can understand him. He's probably better off with you than with Special Brigade, anyway. I never saw such a well cared-for rat.”
“Caring for you is my priority right now,” said Karl. “Let's go to the computer and pass the joyful news on, and then – not criticising the bin liners – but some new clothes, perhaps? And a drop of something strong to drink, after your ordeal. And of course, you can read the news for yourself, every bit of it.”
“You are a hero,” said Dizzy.

Dizzy was robust and cheerful even for an imp and nothing usually daunted her. That she should even feel a wobble, much less admit to it, was testament to the shocks and hardships she had endured. She had gone straight from the March of 1000 Sprites into the frenzied, desperate flight home to defend Fjaerland, only to be injured – knocked out by a blow to the head – in the battle over the fjord. She'd made light of the fears and pains of her flight in a bird's beak, her torn wing and her long walk, but none of it had been easy. When it all ended in the sight of the devastated camp, she had felt the worst she had ever felt in her life. But she was rallying fast. She could see reasons for optimism in everything Karl showed her on the computer, and a drop of whisky was helping too.
“This thing with the phones is incredible!” she exclaimed. “Essen, this is where I need to be. I'm head of logistics, I should be helping to organise all of this. Madge is organising people, and Gran, of course, is making plans. Nella has her hands full with her messengers, and Urzica Ormul with his police work. I must be working as hard as they, as soon as possible.”
“But your wings,” said Karl. “You could fly there so quickly if they were fixed. Is there anyone in Norway who can help you?”
“I don't know. Don't think so,” frowned Dizzy, thinking. “You're right, of course. It would be so much faster. But who is there, except Pice, and he already admitted he wouldn't know where to start.”
“Does it have to be a close friend?”
“Not for this. It's only a bad tear. Any other imp would do, or anyone with healing skills. Ben Gourdon could do it, or young Lieutenant Polesie.”
“Ben Gourdon? I don't know him, but I've seen that name somewhere. Just a moment...”
Karl opened a few old emails, then pointed to the screen.
“There he is – on a list that Madge sent here to Nella, the names of all who were remaining with little Marta on the farm. He is here in Norway, and I could take you there.”
“You would do that for me?”
“I would do a lot more than that for you, dear General Dizzy,” smiled Karl. “Besides, I have been wanting very much to meet Leif and Inge, this gives me the perfect opportunity. I'll give them a ring and check it's okay. And if it is, then in the morning we can drive up to Dovrefjell.”

Gran had not been joking, Ace thought, about this mission being a tricky one. He'd never felt so baffled by a situation in his life. They'd been here in Grenoble for two weeks now, but despite reconnaissance at every hour of the day and night, it felt as if they were no further forward. Time was getting tight. It was a long way to the rendezvous in Czechia and they had to be there by 1st September.
It wasn't the place itself that was causing the problem, although it was unlike anything he'd ever seen before. A fair-sized mountain – more of a cliff, really – with a wide and fast-flowing river at its base. The Citadel, it was called in these parts, because it was covered in fortifications from different eras of human history. These days, it was a tourist attraction, because the view from the top was terrific. You could go all the way to the top in a swanky new cable car, that started on the city side of the river. There were old barracks, that were now restaurants, and caves, and an ancient underground communications passage, there were buildings of every kind, and wild parts where nature was reclaiming the place. At the bottom, just above the river, there was even a beautiful garden. All these things the whole team had seen and studied with the greatest care and caution. But what they had not seen, not even a glimpse, was a single sprite in the whole place. It was baffling! It was possible that they'd abandoned the place, but Ace didn't think so. The signs were there, if you knew what to look for. A tiny discarded cup under a human-sized picnic table, a lost shoe in a muddy patch... these things looked recent. Ace sighed with frustration and lowered the field glasses he was using to stare across at the Citadel. He wiped the sweat from his brow with the back of his arm. It was way too hot here. Gran wouldn't have liked it at all.
The sun was high overhead, so it was easy to use patches of deep shadow to move from place to place. Ace began to make his way down to street level again, then crossed the river and climbed up into the garden at the foot of the Citadel. Finding anyone from his team wasn't easy at all. Everyone, including himself, was in deep camouflage. They had to get close enough to the sprites of Rabot to be able to spot them, but they couldn't afford to be spotted themselves. It wouldn't matter how brilliant a plan they came up with if they had lost the element of surprise.
He spun round, trying to see who'd hissed his name, then spotted Gazania peering at him from under a lavender bush. He quickly joined her.
“Maag and Campanilla have found a sprite path!”
The fervent little imp's face was beaming with excitement.
“Oh, brilliant!” said Ace. “At last. Lead me to it!”
Maag and Campanilla were waiting for them in a low branch of a small tree with dark bark and thick leathery dark green leaves. Ace didn't know its name, but it had a Mediterranean feel to it, like so many of the plants round here.
“Well done, you two, well done!” said Ace, hugging each of them in turn. They went rather quiet and Ace hoped he hadn't offended them. “Where is it? Ah, I see...”
The tiny path led to a water supply. It was only an ornamental rill, but the water looked clean and good and it was a lot nearer than the river.
“So where's it coming from? Those shrubs over there, against the rock face? Right. Has anyone seen any sign of a house?”
“No,” said Campanilla. “We chanced an overhead flight but we didn't see anything. It must be pretty gloomy in there.”
“In a hot place like this, they would think that a good thing,” said Gazania. “Shade is welcome.”
“That's a good point,” said Ace. “Most of us are from damper, cooler places and the houses won't be where we'd expect them to be. Gazania, could you have a whizz round and see if you can spot anyone else from the team? The elves are probably watching the cable car.”
It didn't matter how often Gazania and Lisette told the elves it was called the télépherique. Ace and Phil, remembering one of their favourite songs, insisted on calling it the cable car. In fact, Phil had been disappointed that it wasn't the only way in. He'd been looking forward to re-enacting Where Eagles Dare on a French hillside in August. Unfortunately, there were dozens of different ways up, the place was criss-crossed with paths of every size. All the same, Phil and the other elves were convinced that the colony elves, if any, would be sure to use it to get up and down, because it looked such good fun. So Gazania found them, as she had expected, in deep cover very close to the télépherique station.

The elves were very pleased to hear her news, and followed her willingly down the mountain side. But when Phil arrived at the tree where Ace was waiting for them, his interest in sprite paths evaporated. His face took on an expression of wonder and disbelief, while his hands reached out for the bark.
“Phil! What's up?” said Ace, instantly noticing that something was wrong, but not knowing what. But then the rapturous look that Phil gave him made Ace understand.
“Yours? Is it? Wow, I'm so glad for you! So that's what a Phillyrea looks like.”
He touched the bark himself and spoke to the tree.
“I am very, very glad to meet you,” he said.
He stayed with Phil while Maag and Campanilla were showing the others what they'd found, keeping one ear on Phil's happy murmurings and the other on everyone's comments and speculations. By the time he and Phil rejoined them, a plan was forming in his mind.
“I agree with Maag,” he said. “We have to follow this sprite, whoever he or she is. I'd like to position everyone across the mountainside, so we can signal someone else to take over if necessary. Tonight's going to be our lucky night, I can feel it in my bones.”

They chose positions, and practised signals, then everyone split up. Ace said he'd whizz about with the latest news, so they'd all know what was happening, and added that in his opinion, they'd see some action about sunset. Sure enough, just as the shadows began to lengthen, he and Gazania, who'd stayed in the Phillyrea, saw their first sprite from the colony of Rabot. It came as a bit of a shock. The imp – she was clearly an imp, because both her hair and her streaks were scarlet – looked completely woebegone. She trudged with slow and dragging steps towards the water, filled two buckets, then started carrying the heavy weight up a very steep path. Ace and Gazania slid silently down from the tree and followed her.
“Oh no!” exclaimed Gazania. “Look, Ace, look – her wings have been fastened together with a chain so she can't fly away.”
“What!” gasped Ace, as quietly as he could. “I didn't know such things could happen!”
“Let's go and free her!”
“You bet we will,” said Ace. “But not right this minute. We need a bit more information first. Look out, she's stopping.”
The imp had put the buckets down on a slab of stone and looked as if she was waiting. In a little while, two fairies emerged from some long grass. They didn't look quite as miserable as the imp, but they didn't look happy, and they were dressed very drably, with no pretty clothes such as fairies usually wore.
“Thanks, Suzette,” said one of them. “You all right?”
“No,” said the imp. “Is there any news?”
“If there is, no-one's told it to us,” said the other fairy. “Oh well, back to work.”
She handed the imp two empty buckets, then she and the first fairy took one full bucket each and continued up the mountainside.
Ace signalled to Fran, who was nearest, and managed to point the fairies out to him, then went back to Gazania. By the time they'd watched the imp, Suzette, repeat her actions all over again, he was getting very curious about this colony. He snatched a word with Fran, who reported that the two fairies had passed the buckets to two other fairies, and that Tivo was now shadowing them.
“Excellent,” said Ace. “Stay on your two, see if you can get close enough to hear any conversation.”
“Will do, Ace.”
Ace and Gazania followed Suzette back to the water rill. This time, she just scooped a little water up in her hand for herself, then sat still, all alone, looking at the moon.
“Come up one on each side of her,” said Ace.
It was the last moment before she heard them.
“Tiens, qui est lá? Oh! Oh, ne me touchez pas, je vous en prie!”
Ace just smiled at her, as Gazania began translating. He went behind her, and concentrated on the metal links of the cruel little chain. The links scattered on the earth.
“You're free,” he said. “Go where you please. But if you're interested, I've got news. Loads of news. What would you like? Gossip, hearsay, politics, war news?”
“War news? You have war news? What's happening?”
“Well, parliament think they've won,” said Ace, watching Suzette's face carefully. “General Huskvarna is swanking about calling himself Lord Protector. He's so sure the army's finished that he's started arresting gang members now.”
“And you? Do you think the army's finished?”
“Not while I've got a breath left in my body,” said Ace.
Suzette squealed and jumped about and hugged first Gazania, then Ace, then Gazania again.
“I knew it! I knew it! You're the enemy to Madame, so you're both friends to me!”
“Dead right,” said Ace, “but could you keep it down a bit? This is supposed to be a secret mission, you see.”
Ace suspected from Gazania's terse “Tais-toi!” that she'd translated that a lot more abruptly, but Suzette didn't seem to mind. She opened her eyes wide, clapped her hand to her mouth, and started whispering.
“She asks what she can do to help,” Gazania summarised.
“Didn't I say this was going to be our lucky night?” said Ace. “Tell us everything you can about this colony, and especially about Strelitzia Rabot.”
“About Madame? Are you going to murder her?” whispered Suzette excitedly.
“Not murder,” said Ace, “just kidnap. But if she was responsible for that chain on your wings, then it won't bother me if she gets a few bruises in the process.”
Suzette did a little dance of joy, hugged Gazania again, and then settled down, talking very fast and very quietly.

Two hours later, Ace had made a plan and passed it on to everyone else. He was now in deep cover waiting for the lights to go out in the cable car station. At that point, he had learned, the elves who had been guarding Strelitzia's rooms would go off duty, to be replaced for the night by a fresh team. These elves were the elite of the colony, second in rank only to Strelitzia herself, and they all lived close to the summit. They would cross on the tree-lined scenic footpath that had once led to the powder store, and just off this path was where Ace's team had taken up position.
It was dark now. It felt strange for it to be dark and yet still so warm. Pleasant, but weird. The lights still weren't out, and in fact, the last party to leave the restaurant was not even at the cable car station yet. Ace could see them if he tilted his head back, strolling down a path that was higher than this one. There would be a while to wait yet. He found himself thinking over what he'd learned about Rabot colony.
Snobbery... ugly, rampant snobbery, worse than anything he'd encountered back home. Imps were the lowest of the low, forced to live at the bottom of the mountain and treated as servants. How they'd have treated goblins, if they'd had any, Ace didn't want to think. The elves and fairies were ranked in order of the so-called importance of their plants. The more important you were, the more important the work you got to do, and the higher up the mountain you got to live. And at the very top, waited on hand and foot, the focus of the colony, Strelitzia, Envoy Rabot, the bird of paradise flower. No wonder Gran had called her a hag. But how many of these sprites would take her side when it came to fighting? Some would, for sure, but Ace was prepared to gamble that some of them would be glad to see the back of her.
Suddenly, the lights went out, and Ace felt a moment of unease. Not just the lights in the cable car station, then, but all the lights along the paths, everything. It had gone very dark indeed, and that could cause problems. Cautiously, he climbed a little higher so he could look out across the surface of the path. There was an elf standing there, looking back, in the direction of the station.
“Phil!” hissed Ace. “What's up?”
The elf spun round and Ace realised it wasn't Phil at all – at least, not his Phil. Cursing himself for jumping to conclusions – why would his Phil have been standing there anyway, Ace demanded of himself crossly – he piled in to the attack before the enemy elf could sound the alarm. Ace had no trouble disarming him, unprepared as he was, but the other elf let out a loud volley of agitated French, while it was happening. At that point, too many things started happening all at once. Some elves came down the path, in a fairly tight pack, drawing their knives as they ran. They'd be the ones coming off duty... they'd heard that French elf loud and clear. Others were coming up the path, in twos and threes, looking to see what was going on, but not alarmed yet. That wouldn't last long. Ace's team, seeing the trap had already been sprung, jumped out from hiding and started to fight. Ace himself didn't waste a second regretting his mistake, but started dealing with the situation as it was. At least he could see now, his eyes had adjusted to the darkness. There seemed to be a lot of enemy elves – about twenty all together – but from what he could see, they were all pretty small. Fran, Peter and Tivo were dealing easily with the crowd coming off duty, not even bothering with their knives, but just swinging their fists.
Ace turned to fight the enemy coming at them from the other direction. They were fresher, they'd taken the time to work out what was happening, and they were in a good formation. Sal and Phil ran to Ace's side. They were all small, but Dale and Herbert were coming too, and they were tall enough. They were gentle souls, though, not natural fighters. They needed firing up.
“For the Tree!” Ace shouted in Norwegian, and his five raced towards ten of the enemy, knives drawn. As the lines ran into each other, Ace and his elves were immediately knocked backwards onto the ground. They just didn't have the weight to absorb the impact. Behind them, someone was blowing a whistle, no doubt to raise a general alarm. They all got up quickly. Ace was on his feet in less than a second and proceeded to show his enemies just what an army-trained sycamore could do with a knife. Ace got in blow after blow and saw two of them staggering back, clutching at wounds. But Herbert was down, and Ace was acutely aware that he didn't have Will there to help his own wounded. He felt that his own fighting didn't have its usual edge either, and he couldn't help thinking he'd have demolished this lot by now if he'd had Will at his side.
And now, raised by that whistle, more sprites were arriving. A lot of them were fairies, and though he couldn't spare more than a quick glance, he thought that not many were joining in. Most of them were hanging back, watching. That was fine. Because any moment now, the turning point would happen, when Envoy Rabot came out to see what was going on. She was sure to. You didn't volunteer to be an Envoy, you didn't run a colony the way this one was run, unless you liked controlling others. And controlling-type people don't ignore disturbances. They come along, they investigate, they ask questions.
But she wasn't here yet, and now there were two elves and a fairy going for him, and for now he had to give all his concentration to his fighting. The fairy was trying to pull his hair. Ace jabbed his left arm back and elbowed her on the nose. Judging by the fuss she made, she'd had enough already. The elves were more determined, their concentration was good and their knives were sharp. But they weren't well trained. Their strokes were very predictable, so Ace guessed they wouldn't know many tricks. He was going to have to be patient, and just keep fending them off until he could get a really clever stroke in. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw that he was no longer in the lead. Someone was forging ahead, lashing out quite recklessly, in a real fury. Ace was astonished to see that it was Phil. He realised he hadn't seen Phil fighting for a long time. Phil was trained too now, but somehow Ace wouldn't have expected this to be his style. Something about this place had really infuriated him.
The two elves were still clashing with him, he couldn't get past them both at once, when a fairy whistle pierced the air. This was it, then. The whistle had distracted him, but it had distracted his opponents too, and Ace recovered faster. He got one under the armpit – a really useful disabling stroke – and that one's yowl of protest distracted the other enough for Ace to get him tight and disarm him with a wrist flick. He tossed the captured knife into some long grass and looked up.
The whistle, Ace knew, would have come from Lisette, and he hoped she was well out of sight. But no-one seemed to be looking for her. For flying languidly down from the pinnacle of the mountain was the most extraordinary fairy Ace had ever seen. She was extremely tall – taller than most elves – and intensely thin. Her wings were orange, her hair was purple and her long, flowing gown was bright blue. Her streaks were a vivid yellow, and, just to complete the picture, she had painted the claw-like nails of her fingers a startling scarlet. At the sight of this vision, the Rabot elves all bowed and a lot of the fairies curtsied. Ace ignored them, and her, and turned at once to help Herbert.
“I'm OK, Ace,” said Herbert bravely. “Just a bit dizzy.”
Ace ripped off his t-shirt from under his jacket.
“Hold this tight against the cut, till we have time to fix you up.”
“Thanks. Is it working?”
“So far, so good. She's rabbiting away in French, and I think she's telling them to capture us and be quick about it. You just sit tight and don't do a thing, I'll be back as soon as...”
Ace couldn't finish his sentence, he had to leap to his feet and defend himself. He fought now with all the speed he could muster. The important thing was getting enemies down on the ground. Didn't matter if they'd be up again in ten minutes. He just had to create the impression – to anyone watching from above – that the intruders were winning. So he slashed cheeks, tripped people up and nicked wings, and he knew the rest of his elves would be doing exactly the same thing. Especially cutting wings – not to do any permanent damage, or even anything difficult to heal. Just enough to keep them firmly on the ground for the next ten minutes, that was all that mattered. Because any moment now, Strelitzia would realise she was in danger, and yes... she was retreating, flying higher, out of danger.
That's what you think...
Ace was grinning to himself, resisting the temptation to look up too soon. But as soon as he heard the fierce shouts of angry imps, he stopped fighting and looked up. There, in the sky above, were Gazania and Suzette, Lisette, Maag and Campanilla. Four of them had tight hold of Strelitzia, who was struggling hard. The fifth – Gazania, he thought – was armed with a very big stick. She swung it hard, cracked it onto Strelitzia's head, then shoved the stick through her belt and freed up her strong little arms to help carry the now limp and docile fairy to the rendezvous. Ace's elves cheered their flyers with raucous joy and watched them out of sight.
“And that,” said Ace happily, “is that.”
“Not quite,” said Phil.
He walked across to the elf who looked so much like him, and punched him in the face.
“You disgrace to the name!” thundered Phil. “Your tree – our tree – unique, noble, beautiful, deserves an elf who at least tries to be worthy of it. But you – Why? For a quiet life? - let that poisonous envoy turn Rabot into such a foul colony? Kept quiet about wicked cruelty and loathsome snobbery? All my life I've longed, desperately longed, to meet another Phillyrea. And look what you are, what you've let yourself become! I'm ashamed of you. You've broken my heart, you know that?”
He didn't know that, because it was plain he didn't understand enough English to know it. And yet it seemed he had understood all of it, in a way. There were tears in his eyes. He spoke quietly, in French, and it was the English elves' turn not to understand. Yet they could see he was attempting to explain, that it had never been meant to be like this, and the impossibility of standing up to a fairy like Strelitzia. Most of the Rabot sprites were just standing there listening now. Two of the more important-looking fairies had managed to fix each other's wings and flew off to look for Strelitzia. Ace let them go. They wouldn't find her – she'd be well out of sight by now, under the rubbish skip next to the railway station. He just crouched nearby, next to Herbert, healing his cuts as best he could, and waited, until everyone had said all he wanted to say. Then he stood up and squeezed Phil's shoulder.
“They were nearly all afraid of her, I think,” he said quietly. “I've got an idea. Let's all go and have a poke around in her rooms.”
By gestures and smiling, he got everyone moving. It was a steep climb, but a short one, and Ace encouraged everyone to go inside a spacious cave that had been made sumptuously comfortable.
“I'm looking for paperwork. Letters, messages, anything General Herdalen might find useful,” said Ace. “Help me, will you, Tivo? The rest of you, try and get the Rabot sprites to take all this fancy stuff away, keep it for themselves, burn it, chuck it in the river, whatever they like.”
Ace's instinct was sound. At first, only the lowliest sprites would venture inside, but the sound of their liberated laughter as they bounced on the bed and helped themselves to delicious red wine, encouraged everyone to join in. They'd never be afraid of her again now, and even if she returned one day, she'd never again be allowed to tyrannise the colony. Ace stuffed a sheaf of useful-looking papers into his jacket pocket and turned to see Fran smiling at the shabby fairies who'd first taken the buckets from Suzette. He was handing them luxurious fabrics from a cupboard, while they held out their arms, looking as if they couldn't believe their eyes.
“This is wonderful!” said Tivo. “I feel as if we'd won the war already.”
“It's a little victory, isn't it?” said Ace. “And every little victory is part of the big one. It won't be long now. Where's Phil?”
“I'm here, Ace,” said Phil. “I went to the cable car station to see if they had any timetables for the main line, and they did.”
“Oh, excellent. What d'you recommend?”
“Train to Lyon at 5.30 am. We can get back to Mannheim from there. And it means everyone can get a few hours' sleep before we leave.”
“Wonderful. Let's get back, then. I think we can leave them to it here now. Liberate one of those bottles of wine for our flyers, will you, Peter?”

Ace and his elves simply walked down the télépherique cable, its strong steel as wide as a path to them. That got them across the river and they jumped through the now-deserted streets to join the rest of the team at the railway station. The first thing Ace did was to praise the fairies and imps for their successful attack. Then he admired the colour changes they'd done to Strelitzia's clothing. She was now in drab camouflage, and was securely but comfortably tied up.
“It's a pity we can't shrink her and throw her in a box,” said Herbert.
“Isn't it?” said Tivo. “But we can't sink to their level, tempting though it is.”
His voice cracked into an enormous yawn, and that reminded Ace that they were supposed to be resting. He organised a watch, then encouraged everyone at least to lie down. The night passed quietly enough, until just before dawn. Sal was keeping watch just then, and had an arm around the throat of an intruding elf in an instant. It was the other Phillyrea. He tried to reassure Sal that he meant no harm, and Sal let him go. He went straight to Phil and offered him a cutting from his tree. Phil stood up, looked him carefully in the eye and accepted it. Then the French elf spoke hesitantly and Lisette came over to translate.
“He says he is sorry he was not brave. He says it will never happen again. He will try to make Rabot the happy colony it used to be. And he asks that you will come again one day to visit, and see your tree. And he calls you mon ami – my friend.”
“Thank you, Lisette,” said Phil. “Please tell him I will come when the war is over.”
Then Phil held out his hand, and spoke to the French Phil.
“Mon ami,” he said.
“What a great night's work!” said Campanilla.
“It sure was,” said Ace. “And now for a great day's work. There's a long way to go yet.”
In less than an hour they were all on the train to Lyon.