CHAPTER 5 - A Parliament Hill

As Ace and his team arrived at Lyon with a reluctant member of parliament's central cabinet, another member of that cabinet was also arriving at a railway station, but a much smaller one. The sprite path from Bodenmais station to the re-training camp led through a lovely section of the Bohemian Forest. Glade after glade was full of morning sunlight and the air was still fresh and cool. It would have been a delightful journey for anyone with time to look about him, but the elf now jumping through the trees was in a hurry. At the end of his journey there would be a friend he hadn't seen for months. And besides his hurry, he had to concentrate. He hadn't been here before, and he needed to spot every marker to make sure he didn't lose his way. He wasn't quite certain whether the path would lead him first to the camp itself, or to the guards' camp at the perimeter. But later on, the path split into two, and he correctly chose the one that would take him to the perimeter camp.
There, the first person he saw, standing at the door of a hut, taking in the morning air, was the very elf he wanted.
“Klethra!” he called.
Major Diolkos turned quickly, an expression of puzzled wonder on his face. Then he smiled.
“Lord Protector!” he called. “Welcome. It's very good to see you.”
“You too. But I am always just 'Lars' to you. Where can we talk?”
“In here. This is my own hut, no-one will disturb us. Do you want a drink?”
“Yes please. Just water, but plenty of it. I've been travelling all night.”
“This is your final destination?” asked Major Diolkos, pouring water into a large mug.
“Thanks. Yes, I'll be here for a few days. I've got scouts out in every direction and they'll report to me here. Herdalen's left Wielkopolska and it's not much of a guess where he's heading. But I'm not waiting till he gets here. I'll obliterate his forces before they have a chance to assemble. And besides that, I wanted to see for myself what's been going on here.”
“Ah, you heard about the escapes then?”
“I did. And I wasn't impressed. That idiot fairy we put in charge will be demoted. You'll get your old rank of colonel back and be in charge of the whole place.”
“Thank you. I'll be glad to do it. This kind of disorder is not what you want when the enemy may be on your doorstep.”
“You always understand. Tell me, what did you make of it? Did they have help, do you think?”
“Hard to say. The escapers were real hard core, who'd thought about nothing but escape day and night since they got here. They'd be fast to take advantage of a loose blindfold. But then, a loose blindfold doesn't give you the materials to make a knife, when you've been checked and checked again. So yes, I think it's possible they had help. But rumour and gossip are blaming my lads, and that's hard to believe. They complained about the harsh treatment the prisoners were getting, that's why. In fact, one of them came to me, to ask me to ask you to overrule it. And to be honest, I was considering it. But before I'd decided, news of the escape came.”
“Who did the complaining?”
“Stan Gruski. Ex-Wielkopolska Unit.”
“Gruski is a founder colony. It's hard to believe an elf from there would betray us. How came he to be a Renegade, what did he do? I don't remember him.”
“He had a bad reaction to a potion. His friend broke orders to help him, was sentenced to two years in Renegades, and Stan asked if he could go too.”
“Oh wait, I remember now. It was just before the Wielkopolska Unit got captured by the army. The friend... yes, he was the army placement for that year. What's his name?”
“Wayne Langdon. He's English.”
“English? I don't like the smell of this. The ones who escaped, have you got a list of their names?”
“Yes, I have somewhere. The first few days, we were going all out for recapture. Yes, here it is.”
General Huskvarna scanned the list and his smile grew broader as he remembered his humiliation at Owler Tor.
“Well, well. I think we've found your traitor. Send for Stan and Wayne, would you, Klethra?”

Stan and Wayne had been out on patrol. By the time they arrived, rather breathless, General Huskvarna had lined the hut with every off-duty Renegade he could muster. He beamed a genial smile upon them, and, as he'd intended, they looked even more nervous.
“Stan Gruski, step forward. So, what's all this I've been hearing about you? Why did you help those prisoners to escape?”
“Oh no, sir, I didn't! I've no idea how they escaped.”
“It's all right. I understand. They were being horribly treated. No decent elf would have tolerated it. I certainly wouldn't have. If I'd been there, I would have done the same as you. It's quite all right to admit it.”
“I'm glad to hear you say so, sir, but actually I did nothing to help them, except to speak to Major Diolkos on their behalf. That's all I did, I swear it.”
“Your soft little heart was sorry for them, was it? And then we learn that someone helped them to escape, and you expect us to believe that it wasn't you?”
A quiet but angry murmur rippled round the walls, and Stan's mouth twitched nervously.
“I don't believe you,” said General Huskvarna. “I find you guilty of treason. Read the sentence please, Major... I beg your pardon, Colonel Diolkos.”
“I will, sir. Stan Gruski, you have been found guilty of treason and you are therefore sentenced to death. At midnight, you will be forced to drink poison and your body will be returned to your friends in the morning. Take him away.”
“Oh, General Herdalen said you were clever,” said Wayne, and he didn't sound nervous at all. If anything, he sounded amused. ”You knew very well that no army elf would let someone else die in his place. So yes, I was the one who passed the knife to Betch. Of course I did, we were on the same team at Fjaerland. Ace's team. I'm an army elf, I've always been an army elf. Stan knew nothing about it.”
“General Herdalen thinks he knows everything,” said General Huskvarna coldly. His smile faded quite a lot. “But in this case, he is correct. I am clever. I am very, very clever. The sentence of death falls, where it belongs, on you, Wayne Langdon.”
Wayne didn't answer. He'd gone beyond that place, into some happy memory where they couldn't touch him. They knew it was happy because, although his face was serious, his eyes were shining with joy. Curiously, General Huskvarna's expression was a perfect reverse. His eyes were cold and focused and did not match his smile.
“We've wasted enough time on this. Sergeant! I suppose you do have a secure cell somewhere that you can take him to? Get onto it, then. You, Gruski, get back to work and don't let me ever hear a peep out of you again. Move!”
Everyone in the room started into action at the shouted command. Stan was just staring at Wayne as he was hustled away. He saw him mouthing sorry and then he could see no more. Wayne was grabbed and surrounded.

Stan ducked out of the doorway and ran, and didn't stop running until he was well into the forest. Then he threw himself down between the roots of an oak and buried his head in his hands. Trembling... his hands were trembling. He felt sick with fear. General Huskvarna did that to people. But it wasn't just that. Wayne... Stan felt he'd known all along, who Wayne really was. Deep inside, he'd known, without ever wanting to look at it too closely. He'd never had such a friend. Wayne had given him complete loyalty, and the real reason for his fear and panic was bubbling up closer and closer to the surface. Could he leave such a friend to be murdered, without even trying to help him? No, he could not. However terrifying it was, and no matter whether they both ended up dead, he had to try to help Wayne escape. He needed a brilliant plan, and he needed it fast. Calming his mind as much as he could, he gripped tight hold of the tree roots and tried to think. For a moment, his mind was totally blank. But then, to his utmost surprise, the word 'speed' came into his mind. Move fast, so fast they weren't ready, weren't prepared in any way. Hit them before they knew what had hit them. Instinctively, Stan knew he would never come up with a better plan than this. So long as he left right now, ran straight into it, before he lost his courage. He wiped his sweaty hair out of his eyes, checked his knife was in his pocket, and ran.
As he ran, he kept thinking. They would surely take Wayne to the isolation room. It wasn't a cell, but it was windowless and secure, a place to send anyone who was kicking up a fuss or refusing to obey orders. And he was sure they wouldn't go straight there. If Renegades had business indoors, they had to report first to Colonel Mecsek or whoever was on duty at the front desk. Stan couldn't see any reason why they wouldn't do that this time. He chanced a glance behind him. If they saw him, he'd had it, but he'd been running and they'd have been marching... no, it was all right, they weren't in sight yet.
He was within sight of the building now, so he forced himself to slow down. No-one here knew what had happened yet, and running would just attract attention. He gave a wide berth to the main entrance and headed for a side door which he thought was near the isolation room. He was trying hard to visualise the layout of rooms he hadn't seen very often. He couldn't afford to make a mistake. If only he could cause some distraction, some great commotion, that would allow Wayne to slip away. What could he do? He toyed with the idea of starting a fire, but he didn't want to risk the lives of others. But as soon as he got inside, he heard the hum of conversation coming from a room at the foot of a staircase. The isolation room was at the top of that staircase, and the Renegades bringing Wayne would surely come along this corridor. If the sprites in that room would help him, they might be in with a chance.
Stan burst into the room, to see a couple of dozen heads turn towards him with mild surprise. They were all prisoners; by now, there were too many for every activity to be supervised and these elves had been left to get on with the tedious job of making new netting for the fairies' exercise yard.
“Help me!” he begged, in German. “They've discovered Wayne Langdon's a spy. He's been sentenced to death.”
There was no-one there who spoke German well, but there was one who knew the name Wayne Langdon very well indeed. It was Sergeant Olt. He didn't recognise the word for spy, but the word for death he knew, and he recognised urgency when he saw it. He got up.
“What do you need... er, was brauchen?”
Stan explained in the simplest possible words and the army sergeant nodded and passed the word to the others. Then Stan ran out of the room and up the stairs, just as Wayne and his captors came into view. Below him, he could hear a huge noise as the elves sat and sprawled all over the staircase, laughing over-loudly and singing what sounded very like a drinking song. Anyone coming along wouldn't suspect they were a diversion. Just a group who'd got hold of something strong to drink and were now trying to disrupt everything. Stan drew back, peering round a corner and watched with awe at what the army could do. First, the elves on the stairs threw themselves down on the Renegades, squashing the lot of them. But while they were squealing, floundering and laughing, they were acting with precise co-ordination. Wayne was extracted and thrown up the stairs before anyone could see what had happened. By the time order was restored, it would be too late. Stan intended to see to that.
Down two steps he darted, and dragged the stunned Wayne out of sight around a corner. There, he gave Wayne two seconds to get to his feet and gather his wits. But that was all Wayne needed. Together they raced off down the first floor corridor and took the first staircase down, then straight through an outer door. There'd be a pursuit by now, they had to get into the forest as fast as possible. Their footsteps faltered for a moment as they realised they'd come out into the fairies' exercise yard. But if new netting was needed, surely the old stuff was wearing thin?
“Jump!” yelled Stan.
Together they jumped up as high as they could, and Stan slashed at the netting with his knife. To get through the hole was easy enough, but they couldn't jump cleanly, they were wobbling too much. The best they could do was let themselves fall and grab a branch on the way down. And they'd been spotted, they could tell by the noise of elves running and shouting. But just at that moment, about a dozen army fairies followed them through the hole, masking them from view while they hoisted themselves out of sight into the canopy. Whether the fairies were trying to help or just taking advantage of the situation, they couldn't tell, but they were very grateful for it. They didn't look back at the chaos behind them, just concentrated on getting to the perimeter as quickly as possible. After months of patrolling, they knew every tree in the forest and working out the best path was easy, but they didn't dare move too fast. Any movement could be noticed. And the noise of pursuit was now getting louder. Whistles blowing, people shouting... they'd got everyone after them now. But the noise was spread out over a wide area. No-one knew exactly where they were.
“Let's keep moving,” whispered Wayne. “If we keep still we're bound to be caught.”
“Head for the big larch at the junction of red and yellow. That's right on the perimeter, and with a bit of luck, all the patrols will have gone to see what's happening.”
Reaching the larch made them sweat with the tension of moving fast but silently. Using its fringed branches as cover, they slid to the ground. But there, getting hastily to their feet were two of the laziest of the Renegades, Pavel and Cor. They just stared at Stan and Wayne, and Cor opened his mouth to speak, when a voice called out through the trees.
“Who's there on the perimeter? Is that you, Cor?”
It was Lieutenant Étretat. And none of the Renegades liked him, because he was so condescending to them.
“Yes sir,” shouted Cor. “What's going on?”
“Langdon and Gruski, escaping arrest. Have you seen them?”
Stan and Wayne stared imploringly at their former colleagues.
Pavel and Cor stared back. Then they raised fingers to their mouths and waved Stan and Wayne past them.
“Not seen anyone round here, sir,” shouted Cor. “Shall we come and help you?”
“No, hold your position. But if you see them, stop them.”
“Yes sir,” shouted Cor. Then he whispered to Stan and Wayne. “Good luck. Now move it!”

While Wayne Langdon was having a stressful time escaping, his friend Bella was wishing that her life would get a bit more exciting. It had been great at first. When the army had lost Signals, the messengers had been the most needed section. She and Stella Knightwood had been whizzing from one country to another, taking really important messages. But now it was different. So many of the officers had mobile phones, demand was slowing down. Now they even had to deliver some of the phones. It might be just as important, but it didn't feel it. So it was with high hopes that Bella received the order to report to Essen. Now that Major Rhaeadr was there, co-ordinating messages, it had turned into an unofficial HQ. Maybe this time she'd be given something more interesting to do.
Bella had only been to Essen once before, but she remembered it well. She flew up the side of the building and in through the open window just as the sun was setting, and the first person she saw was someone she knew very well.
“Hi, Bella!” Will jumped down from the ledge where he'd been sitting and gave her a hug. “You okay?”
“Mmm, yes. Excited! I have the feeling something interesting's going to happen. How are you? You don't look very busy?”
“I'm not. It's pretty boring, but I can go and join Ace as soon as no-one's asked for my help for three consecutive days.”
“Oh, nice... and how many days are you on?”
“One and a half.”
“And where is Ace now?”
“In Switzerland. He's on a journey, a long one, I think.”
Their conversation was interrupted by Captain Pamisos.
“Hello,” she said briskly to Bella. “Have you reported to Major Rhaeadr? Will, they need you in the donated phones section. Someone's brought one in of a kind they've never seen before. I think it might be one of those smartphones you were talking about.”
Will's face was resigned, but cheerful.
“Catch you later, Bella!”

Bella hurriedly made her way across the workshop area to where a desk had been set up for that stalwart of Signals and champion of gossip, Poppy Rhaeadr.
“Bella Langdon, ma'am, Messengers, reporting for duty.”
“Good to see you, Bella. This is a very big rendezvous of flyers, so there are no orders yet. But for now, where have you come from, and did you see anything of interest on the way?”
“I've just come from Denmark, from delivering a phone to the Judge at Møllehøj. While I was there, I did hear something interesting. Special Brigade had been in the area, rounding up gang members. Some of them escaped, and the police – I mean, the new unit, the Guardians – had offered them help to take refuge in the Hill.”
“And they accepted? Excellent. Thanks, Bella. We've heard of similar things at a couple of other Hills, and it's good news. So, find yourself a spot in the Green Room and make yourself at home. It'll only be a couple of days.”

Bella hadn't been in the Green Room before and like most other sprites who saw it for the first time, she simply stared and then smiled in wonder at the sight of the outdoors indoors. She slipped her backpack off her shoulders, took her shoes off and walked happily across the soft grass, looking for a quiet corner to rest in, or better still, someone she knew. There were already a lot of people here, but it didn't feel crowded because the room was so huge. The noise level wasn't high either. A lot of people were sleeping, and those that weren't were talking quietly. They'd all been flying too hard, for too long. There was a long way to go yet, and if you were given the chance to rest, it was your duty to take it and build up your strength again. Bella stopped to drink from a water fountain, and then she heard an accent she had come to know very well at Fjaerland. Off she went in that direction and soon she saw that neat head of soft brown hair and wings of green and purple.
“Lieutenant Moseley, hello!” called Bella.
Clover jumped up and whirled round.
“I don't believe it!” she cried. “If only Dan were here, then all five of us would be together again.”
Then Bella looked and saw Stella was already there, and Rose too.
“Oh, this is lovely,” said Bella. “I feel like I've come home.” She sank down on the grass with the others. “It's wonderful to see you all again. Where is Dan, still in the east?”
“We think so,” said Rose. “She and Carda flew back to General Herdalen after they delivered the orders. But if I'm right, it might not be long before we see her again.”
“Rose thinks everything is pulling towards the centre,” said Clover. “It could well be. The messages, the phone deliveries, they keep going east, not west.”
“Then we'll see our elves again too,” said Stella. “Fran and Peter went with Ace, and Will's here, of course. But Betch escaped, did you hear?”
“No!” shrieked Bella. “Oh, well done, Betch! Oh, if only we knew where Wayne was, too.”
Bella noticed that Clover, Rose and Stella exchanged quick glances. Of course, they still believed he was a traitor. Only she and Will knew that he wasn't. But Clover had something interesting to say.
“I wonder if there isn't more going on there than we've been told. I think the general must have told Madge, because she gave me some information. You know they put him in their top regiment, but then that regiment was captured by General Széchenyi, but he wasn't there? Well, the reason he wasn't there was because he'd been doing something kind that he shouldn't have been doing, and he got sent to another regiment that only do guard duty. But he's safe, Madge said.”
“Madge is here too,” said Stella. “At least, she's not here right now because she's gone to Duisburg to meet Hanna, but she'll be back soon.”
“Who's Hanna?”

The news-sharing went on for hours. Later in the evening, Will came to join them, and so did Ratzo, and Lily and Camellia Royden, and the chatter became less serious and more light-hearted, just the reunion of friends. But all of them noticed more and more senior fairies arriving. Madge came back, and Cam Bruach, colonel of first squadron, was there. Arda Svir arrived and last even Nella Stalden. When Bella finally lay down, her head was buzzing with so much news she thought she'd never be able to sleep. But the sweet scent of green things growing worked its magic, and she did.

In the morning, the word speeded round that the other Major Rhaeadr, Heather, the one from Intelligence, had arrived, and was deep in conversation with Gilly Basa, colonel of Search and Rescue. Everyone hurried to get ready for the day as fast as she possibly could.
“Gather round,” called Madge, as soon as she thought everyone was ready. It was six am. “If there are any friendly elves or goblins lurking around, shoo them out. We need to talk freely. None? Excellent. Bring over some chairs please, half a dozen should do. Thanks. Right, I'll sit here, next to General Stalden, and if Major Poppy and Major Heather could join us, along with Colonel Bruach and Sergeant Svir, that would be great. We six are going to discuss the current situation, so that all of you can hear all the issues, the decisions and the reasons for them.”
The senior fairies present sat down as requested and everyone else settled down on the grass nearby.
“I'm afraid I can't ask for opinions from everybody,” Madge continued. “It would take too long. But please do contribute if you have any relevant information or details. Just raise your hand and I'll come to you. So. When we last met, at Oslofjord, I read out the orders from General Herdalen and various teams, mixed teams, went off to do various jobs. Most of those jobs are still in progress, but probably nearing completion. All of us here were exempted from those jobs, because we were busy. We had few phones then and nearly everyone was taking messages or trying to find out where people were, both friend and foe. And General Herdalen knew that, of course. Although he is an elf, he is not completely silly. His precise orders to me were, Keep back all you need for messaging and organisation. We can't afford to lose anybody. But then he goes on to say, When the situation stabilises, take action as your own good sense recommends."
“And the situation has now stabilised,” said Nella Stalden. “So what precisely shall we do, and how shall we do it?”
“General Herdalen is a brilliant tactician,” said Cam Bruach. “But he is often the only one who can see the whole picture. I have even seen him build into his plans things that he knows others will do, even when they haven't been given orders.”
“So we have to guess what he expects us to do?” said Arda Svir. “This is harder than I thought. Is it true that things are moving east?”
“From here they are,” said Heather, “but it would be more accurate to say that our troops are moving to a central position which I estimate to be in Germany or Czechia. But Special Brigade are moving too. They are escorting arrested gang members east, and not coming back. This has been observed on the border between France and Belgium, in the forests of Sweden and on the Baltic coast in Finland, so no doubt it's going on in other locations too. Yes, Lily?”
“I saw this happening too, in Bordeaux.”
“Thanks, Lily,” said Madge. “It makes sense. It was in the west that gangs were allowed to roam free. Those in the east, already in refugee camps, would have been easy to transfer to their re-training camp.”
“That place must be bursting at the seams by now,” said Arda Svir. “Can we assume that General Herdalen's ultimate plan is to liberate it?”
Madge looked around at everyone, and everyone nodded.
“Yes,” she said firmly. “But it's no use trying to guess his route. Even the people taking it won't know that till the last minute.”
“He must think he's got enough people to take the place, or he would have specifically requested more as soon as they were available,” said Heather.
“Agreed,” said several voices.
“So,” Heather continued, “as General Herdalen – and General Huskvarna too – have concentrated forces in a small area, where we are not required, perhaps our task is to look at a wider area. Maybe even the whole realm?”
“We are few in number for such a task,” said Nella. “And yet – as has been often and wisely said – every sprite of goodwill is on our side.”
“Many of them think the army is defeated,” said Poppy. “I've heard that time and time again in messages. Parliament has exaggerated its successes and then broadcast far and wide that it has won.”
“Then let's get out there and tell them it hasn't,” said Arda.
“Yes,” said Cam. “That's achievable. Spread ourselves out, north to south. Then move east, visiting Hills and colonies.”
“Tell them the truth,” said Madge. “And ask them what they want to see happen.”
“Oh, that's good,” said Heather. “And we can tell them that parliament is on the run. For if they are moving east, they are abandoning lands behind them.”
“That is it,” said a voice behind them. “Reclaim the west.”
Everyone turned instantly, some faces lighting up in hope. That voice... wasn't that...?
“General Széchenyi!”
The name poured jubilantly from dozens of imps and fairies. The senior fairies rushed across and engulfed her in hugs, and everyone else went wild with shrieking and cheering.
General Széchenyi looked overwhelmed, as if she had not realised she was loved as much as that. She also looked a bit puzzled.
“But Madge,” she called over, as soon as she could, “didn't you tell them?”
“Didn't want to spoilt the surprise,” grinned Madge. “Very good for morale!” She looked with love and complete understanding at the general's slightly trembling lips, and added very softly, “Everyone's.”

“Well, that's it, then,” said Bella happily. “We've got General Dizzy back, and we've got a plan.”

To Will, listening outside, the outpouring of joy had been wonderful to listen to. He was so glad for the flyers and so glad for the whole army. They'd missed the general for her unquenchable optimism, her dynamism and her daring. She was the perfect foil to General Arley's realism and General Stalden's caution. There'd be no stopping the flyers now. Will expected they'd soon be off, with all sorts of things to do. For himself, he wasn't busy, because he was keeping out of the way, to avoid being asked questions. They all knew what they were doing now. If he wasn't in sight, they'd be more likely to think for themselves and find that they didn't really need help at all.
He wandered up to the roof and looked south, to where Ace was. He needed to get back to his twin. He was starting to feel unbalanced, and if he was, then Ace was too. And for Ace, that was dangerous. He was out there in enemy territory with a dozen people depending on his leadership.
What are you doing now? Is it even safe to try to tune in? Are we even still near enough to do that, the way things are at the moment?
Ace, can you hear me? Where are you?
There was a long pause, just long enough for Will's hope to begin to fade. But then Ace answered. It wasn't quick, it wasn't clear, but it felt like a miracle.
Oh, Will, I was just wishing you were here! I'm just waiting for a train. We missed the last one, didn't all make it on.

It happened. The more humans there were around, the more likely it was to happen. It happened so often that the army had a standard procedure for coping with it. The ones that had made it on had to jump off at the next station, and make their way back, to try again. But even so, Will couldn't help feeling guilty, as if it might not have happened if he'd been there.

So long as you're all safe. Better slow than sorry. But there's great news here, General Széchenyi turned up!
She's alive? How wonderful is that! D'you know, I thought she might be. Some people take an awful lot of killing.
Not just her, either. Bella, Stella, Rose and Clover too.
You've seen all of them?
They're here now. Big meeting of flyers going on.
I'm so proud of all our old team. Won't it be wonderful when we can all get together again one day?
When the war is over. D'you think it ever will be?
Of course it will be. Cheer up, we're going to win. Think of Gran. He knows what he's doing.

The city of Opole in the south of Poland is a place with a rich and complicated history. It has gracious buildings from every era, and a fine river. But none of this really interested the sprites approaching it on a very hot day towards the end of August. What they were really interested in was the railway station. Opole Glówne was built in a curious mixture of styles and it had a huge, unused roof space. This was the location Gran Herdalen had chosen for the rendezvous of all the teams he had sent out in July. His own team he had led here on foot, visiting colony after colony on the way, helping where he could and receiving much useful information in return. He knew now that gangs in the area had been rounded up, and that he was getting closer to the notorious parliament-supporting Hill at Mladá Boleslav. He knew that many sprites he might encounter might be hostile, and he had no problem with that. But nearby, he had heard, was a friendly colony called Groszowy. That was good news. He'd need to visit it to be able to use his phone, and he just hoped they had an elf tree. What he didn't know was exactly where it was. He drew his team together in the shade of a huge tree as soon as the station was in sight.
“Well done, everyone. You've come a long way today and you can rest soon, but we've got a bit more work to do first. Where's Dan?”
“Here, sir.”
“I'd like you and Carda to see if you can find the colony of Groszowy. If you can, fly back and give me directions and I'll visit it this evening.”
“On our way, sir,” said Dan.
“Now I need a goblin who's good at climbing,” said Gran. “You volunteering, Mikos? Thanks. I need you to punch a hole in the roof of that station, just big enough for you to get through. And it needs to be out of sight, under that branch of the big ash there, that overlaps the roof, you see it? I'll come up with you, and if all the other goblins will follow us up, we'll evict any mice and pigeons from the roof space. The rest of you, scavenging please. A lot of our comrades are coming, in fact some may arrive as early as tomorrow. We're going to need blankets and water buckets, cups and shoe leather and ropes and tea. Bring as much as you can, but be back here by 20.00 hours and enter the roof by the hole under the ash tree. Okay, let's move.”
Gran moved with the goblins stealthily and cautiously across to the ash tree and watched with approval as they climbed the trunk. Their knives were out and they cut grooves anywhere it was hard to find a foothold. Each goblin cut in the same place so that by the time they'd all reached the roof, a set of tiny steps circled the trunk.
“Ah, tiles,” said Mikos. “Maybe there's a loose one?”
“Let's check,” said Gran.
They all spread out and started tugging.
“Here's one.”
Someone called out quietly and they moved across to help him tug. The tile came off cleanly but everyone, including Gran, stumbled backwards when it gave. But no-one fell, and the goblins laid the tile in the gutter so they could replace it when they left. Punching a hole in the roofing felt was easy, and Mikos led them inside the roof space. It was very hot and completely dark, but there were no other living creatures around.
“Shall we make more holes for light?” someone asked.
“It's a good thought, but no,” said Gran. “If light is not getting in, then it won't get out either. That means we can have lights at night without worrying.”
The goblins made murmuring noises to show how impressed they were with the general's braininess.
“Need fairies, then” said Mikos. “Not got many fairies.”
“No, we haven't,” said Gran. “And the ones we've got are better at fighting than at handicrafts. But we don't need things of beauty. Surely even Dan and Carda can rustle up something functional?”
“If they can't, I have a go myself,” said Mikos.
“Goblin lights!” chuckled the others, slapping each other on the back.
Feeling that was enough goblin humour for now, Gran set them their next task.
“I need a good trail – red, I think – to lead to our ash tree from the river and also from the Wroclaw/Katowice road. Most of our people will come by train, but some may not.”
The goblins' faces lit up. This was like a game to them. To find an assortment of objects, human-made or natural, and strew them around so that no-one would notice them except a sprite who was looking out for them, that was one of their favourite things.
“Take your time,” smiled Gran. “But be back by the evening, like the others.”
The goblins rushed off, chattering quietly and happily. Gran took a moment to look around and visualise how they could use the space, then he left the roof and went up high into the ash tree. He found a good perch and opened his note book. Teams and dates and railway lines... he had to know where everyone was for this plan to work. He was taking a terrible risk. If it went wrong, it was hard to see how they could ever win the war. They'd be reduced to guerilla operations, small units hiding out in remote places, trying to stay one step ahead of the enemy. It was a terrifying thought, and if it happened, it would all be his fault.
Every good sprite trusted him. He'd even heard them ... Gran Herdalen knows what he's doing... heard how confidently they encouraged one another with those words. But he had to stop thinking like that. Complete focus, complete concentration, that was what he needed. Because if this plan worked... well, it wouldn't be the end of the war. But it would look like the first buds appearing, just when you were beginning to think that spring would never come.

When he came down again, once more feeling calm and confident, he found Dan and Carda waiting for him, sitting in the middle of a good stash of materials. It looked as if the scavengers had been bringing things back and going off for more.
“Did you find Groszowy?” Gran asked eagerly as Dan and Carda stood up.
“Yes, sir, we did, because they were looking out for us,” said Dan. “They'd had a whisper from another colony.”
“And they sent an escort for you,” said Carda. “He's waiting for you at the foot of the ash. His tree is so far from the centre of the colony, it's quite near the town, and he'll take you straight to it. He's called Kasztan.”
Gran felt quite overwhelmed with gratitude.
“That's wonderful,” he said. “I'll go with him now. Thank you so much for your great work. Meanwhile, could you have a try at some lights?”
Dan's horrified expression only added to Gran's happiness as he climbed down to meet Kasztan.

Gran spent a long time with Kasztan, getting to know him, because he had felt straight away that this was just the elf he needed. That feeling grew stronger as he observed his generous spirit. When they went into the colony, Gran saw what a leader he was among the young sprites. The only friendly colony this close to Mladá Boleslav, they'd kept their heads down to avoid arrest, but now, with the army on their doorstep, Kasztan was quick to bring his friends to meet the general.
“You can help more than anyone,” Gran told them, “because you belong here and it won't arouse suspicion. Parliament – well, Special Brigade really – are searching hard for this section of the army. What I would love, what I would really love, is for one of their search parties to overhear some local sprites talking about some news they've heard. Army sprites, they heard them talking! Mladá Boleslav, they were going to!”
Everyone laughed at Gran's innocent expression.
“So, that is where you are not going?” guessed the senior sprite.
“Very true,” said Gran, “but I'd really like Special Brigade to go there.”
"I've seen patrols searching," said Kasztan. "They fly a triangle every day, Annaberg Mountain, Lake Turowskie, Grodkòw. If we could only find out where they stop, some of us could be waiting there before they arrive."
"Oh, well done," said Gran. "I really hope you'll join the army soon, Kasztan. I have just the flyers for the job and will get the information to you by the day after tomorrow."

Of all the sprites in General Herdalen's section, the happiest were Dub and Lupa Berounka. They were having the time of their lives, and especially today. When you're used to being laughed at and are considered, even by yourselves, to be a bit dim, it's enormously cheering to find yourself praised to the skies. But that was exactly what had happened to them.
They knew from their experience of helping their friends Maag and Campanilla that a town this size would have a recycling centre. They had found it and shown it to the other sprites out scavenging. Most of them had never seen such a place, they had been stunned. Everything, absolutely everything the general had asked for was laid out before them for the taking. Dub and Lupa had been the heroes of the day and they knew it was a memory they'd treasure for ever. Captain Zawoja, the senior fairy, had asked their advice about how to organise the operation and the work had been done smoothly and efficiently. And now, they were sitting in this strange roof space, with a warm glow in their hearts, making blankets out of red wool by the light of some extremely wonky but perfectly functional fairy lights.
"I am a bit puzzled," said Lupa quietly. "I thought we were going home to Czechia. I have heard Mladá Boleslav mentioned so many times. Yet every sign around us says that this is the big rendezvous, here at Opole."
"Hmm, that's true," said Dub. "The only explanation I can think of is that here is a big rendezvous and that at Mladá Boleslav there will be an even bigger one."
"It could be. That would be the sensible explanation. But I don't know... General Herdalen looks as if he is trying hard not to look excited. Just like Ace did, before he did anything very clever."
"Oh," said Dub, "then maybe we are in the middle of a very clever plan!"
"That's what I think. But if we have noticed, others will have noticed too. It will be very interesting to watch what happens."
"This is wonderful," sighed Dub happily. "But we had better sleep for a few hours now. We are on guard duty at 4am."
Dub and Lupa handed in the blankets they had made and stretched out in the quiet corner the general had designated for sleeping. Lupa woke Dub just before four. They pulled their boots back on and slipped outside to relieve two elves from Norway 1.
"Nothing to report," said one of them. "But remember to look out for friends as well as enemies."
"Will do," said Dub.

He chose a position where he could watch all the approaches to the ash tree and Lupa sat on a fence where he could see a wider area and also the front of the railway station. How confident Lupa had grown, thought Dub. He could remember a time when Lupa would never have simply chosen a good position for himself. He would have asked where to go. And it wasn't so long ago, either, that their only aim in life had been to have fun, the sillier the better. Even at Fjaerland... Dub was a bit embarrassed now, remembering just how silly he had been. What had changed them? The war... yes, maybe. You couldn't be silly with such things going on. But it was before that. To be chosen for deliveries... to know about trains... that had all come from that wonderful expedition at Fjaerland. To be treated as friends and equals by elves like Alnus and Ross, Ace and Will... it made you want to live up to them. Dub felt he had grown up more that week than any other week in his life. It made him feel good, just remembering it. It made him stand up straighter. And he had his reward when some army elves came into view across a road and he spotted them at once. He raised an arm so they would see him and also see his wristband and the elves made their way towards him with cautious efficiency.
“Very alert guard, well done! What's your name?”
“Dub Berounka, sir. Shall I take you to General Herdalen?”
“So it really is here! I must admit, I was wondering if I'd written the co-ordinates down wrong.”
This remark confirmed Dub's suspicions, but he didn't talk about it, just chatted quietly as he led the way to the ash tree and the doorway in the roof. There were ten in this team – he recognised Captain Dolfawr from Signals at Fjaerland – and one of them was carrying a large basket, the kind humans use to carry cats.
Dub stuck his head through the door way and called out.
“Major Jokkmokk's team has arrived from Amsterdam.”
“Oh, excellent!” Gran Herdalen came over with a welcoming smile on his face. “Thank you, Dub.”

I don't think the general knew my name when we were at Fjaerland, when I was a silly elf. But he does now. I am an elf he knows and trusts, and Lupa is, too.

The warm feeling inside him as Dub went back on guard was not pride. It was something he had never known before: self-respect.

Inside the roof, Gran greeted every one of Major Jokkmokk's team. Patiently, he found them everything they needed and made sure they were comfortable before he turned to Lärk Jokkmokk.
“Got a drink? Good. Come and talk to me. You're the first person I've seen who was there at Fjaerland.”
“I am? Oh, I see. It was just awful. Like you could hardly believe what you were seeing. And Madge was great, and so was Buchel Arnsberg, and as for Rowan Harpsden, he was a hero. But for all that, it felt as if nothing we did could have made any difference. As if it was meant to happen.”
“It may very well be so,” said Gran. “Madge said much the same thing. Something big is happening, bigger than we are, and it's hard to know what to do or how to do it.”
“We surely have a part to play,” said Lärk. “To find our way, we must be sensitive to what's going on around us. On my journey here, I have noticed concern that all they are hearing of is Special Brigade. Where is parliament? People are asking that question.”
“Good, good,” said Gran. “It's the colonies who'll decide the result of this war, and it always has been. Friendly colonies are already taking action, but what we need now is for the enemy colonies to understand what's really going on.”
“I agree. Too many of them – Jokkmokk included – have this rosy view of parliament as perfect democracy and representative government.”
“Huh. If it was, I wouldn't have so much of a problem with it. But it was never that, not even in the early years. The founders didn't get it about voting. And now, it's a dictatorship.”
“Where is Huskvarna?” asked Major Jokkmokk.
“We tracked him east from Zurich as far as Munich. It could be he's in the Bohemian Forest. He knows we're coming, he's got to know that. My guess is, he'll want to deal with us himself.”
“He's taking an awful risk. He must know we'll free the prisoners and they'll fight on our side.”
“Yes, indeed,” said Gran very quietly. “We have to be twice as clever, to prevent whatever awful thing he has in mind for them.”
“Oh, Gran, I'm glad you're planning this. I couldn't think around all that.”
“No matter. I wouldn't get far without the backup of sprites like you. You got to the right destination, you got here first, and you brought the Senior Envoy with you.”
“I was very hesitant,” admitted the major. “Everyone's been talking about Mladá, I couldn't believe my co-ordinates. Isn't it possible some of your teams may just head for Mladá without checking?”
Gran grinned, a beautiful smile that made him look twenty years younger.
“One will,” he said. “I know he will, and I know why he will. What he'll do when he gets there, that I don't know, but that's all right.”
“It's all part of the plan?”
“Oh yes, it's all part of the plan. When the enemy is holding his sides, laughing at our incompetence, that's when we strike.”

Over the next few days, more and more teams arrived. Colonel Pesentheim arrived from Łódź with the Chief Scientist in tow. The Chief Administrator arrived in the care of Captain Vidilica, with Kes, Vin and Droz on his team. They came from Prešov. From Magdeburg came Major Sauherad, whose team had captured the Chief of Intelligence.
Some came by road and some by rail, some had had a hard time of it and some had not, but all of them looked relieved that they had arrived at the right place. The roof space, which had once seemed so vast, was now crowded with sprites, using the space with military efficiency.
Right at the centre, surrounded by army sprites night and day, were eight captives. Gran visited them morning and evening, courteously enquiring if they had everything they needed. Requests for hot drinks, or blankets, or fresh clothing, were at once fulfilled. Requests for news, however, were met with an apologetic smile.
As the moon of August grew fuller and fuller, Gran often left Major Jokkmokk in charge so he could spend more time with the sprites of Groszowy. Their help was crucial, because they knew who they could trust, even from enemy colonies. He spent a lot of time at Kasztan's tree. He called Madge frequently, he called Poppy at Essen and he called Captain Thurlgrove who had moved his unit to a quiet location called Zollverein on the outskirts of Essen. He knew he must look grim and tense as he checked and re-checked positions. He didn't want to worry his teams, but he just couldn't help it. Everyone was being very careful not to distract him, and he did appreciate it. It made him listen patiently to Gran Starheim who had come to him with a worried frown.
“It's Ace, sir,” he said. “Ace Moseley. Why isn't he here? D'you think it's possible, sir, that he's just gone straight to Mladá without checking the co-ordinates?”
Gran nearly laughed out loud, but he didn't. He smiled encouragingly instead.
“I do know what you mean,” he said. “And it was well spotted, well noticed by you. But don't worry about it, Gran. Could I have ordered England 3 to make helicopters? No, because I didn't know sprites could make them. Some people, all you need to do is unleash them.”

Eight members of parliament's central cabinet were now in Gran Herdalen's care. Of the remaining four positions, one remained empty. Calla Babele, formerly Chief Interpreter, had not so far been replaced. Despite wide enquiries, no-one had been found who spoke even half the languages she did. One was the Head of Special Brigade, Lars Huskvarna himself, and one was the Premier, who was nowhere to be found. The last one, the Head of Communications, Strelitzia Rabot, was walking blindfolded up a hill in Czechia.
She banged her foot against a stone and swore loudly in French.
“Be quiet,” ordered Suzette. “If you don't want to walk, we can always get Campanilla to shrink you again.”
Campanilla grinned. She'd always been hopeless at transforming – clumsy, Sergeant Svir had called her – and there was no doubt it was a very uncomfortable process for her subjects.
“No, no, it's all right,” said Strelitzia hastily.

Ace, walking behind with the elves, looked fondly at his five flyers. How well they worked together. Lisette, the French fairy and Gazania and Suzette, the French imps... Suzette wore the orange volunteer wristband now, the same as Lisette. Maag and Campanilla, the scavenger fairies from Third Squadron... not a team that many people would have valued, but Ace thought they were superb. They were tough and hard-working, with great endurance. Lisette was clever and a fast thinker, and the imps were brave and keen fighters, but Maag and Campanilla had their strengths too, being unfailingly kind and cheerful and full of shrewd common sense. Ace felt he wouldn't have swapped them, even if he'd been offered Rose and Clover and Carda and Dan. He felt the same about the elves who were with him. He wanted Will, of course, but he couldn't have him just now. But he did have Fran and Peter from his team at Fjaerland, as well as their lieutenant from England 1, Tivo Waterperry. He had Phil Royden, a very old friend, and Betch's friend Dale. And from England 3, from the Elf Squadron, he had Sal Loughton and Herbert. They hadn't all known each other from the start, but they did now. This journey had brought everyone together.
They were looking smart, too. Several days of rain had left everyone looking bedraggled, but knowing that today they should reach the rendezvous, last night they'd made a big effort. They were moving cautiously now, in case of enemy surveillance, just walking together with no jumping or flying. Ace estimated that once they'd cleared this hill, the Hill they wanted would come into view. Mladá Boleslav... a very important Czech Hill. He didn't know much about it – he'd only just learned how to pronounce it – but he had a feeling he'd heard someone say it was for parliament. Surely that couldn't be right, if Gran had arranged the rendezvous here.
“We're all from France or England,” he worried out loud. “This is the furthest east any of us has ever been, isn't it? I wish we knew a bit more about what to expect. There could be any amount of very different things. We're a long way from home.”
What he was really missing, though he didn't realise it at the time, was Will's calm reassurance. Yet somehow, Sal knew it, sensed it and tried his best to help.
“It can't be that different,” he said. “That colony last night, near Vsetaty... we decided not to stay because they didn't look friendly, but the colony was exactly the same as any other colony.”
“True,” said Ace, trying to sound more cheerful than he felt. “And we'll soon find out what's happening. We can't be the first to arrive, some teams only had to come from places like Łódź and Prešov.”

The fairies had reached the brow of the hill and took care to stand near taller plants as they stopped to breathe and take in the new terrain. The elves soon caught up with them and Ace and Tivo, who each had field glasses, immediately used them to scour the landscape.
“That's got to be the Hill, surely,” said Tivo. “You can even make out some of the sprite paths.”
“Even without glasses, you can see it looks like a Hollow Hill,” said Campanilla. “It's just such a perfect shape and size. And look, you can see the outskirts of the town, just beyond the Hill.”
“But where are all the other teams?” demanded Lisette. “If it's a rendezvous, they can't hide themselves away completely, or nobody will be able to find anybody.”
“I bet they're all in that wood near the foot of the Hill,” said Ace. “Maybe it really is a parliament Hill. Maybe it's garrisoned, maybe we're all going to attack it!”
“It wouldn't be hard to get down to that wood,” said Tivo. “Look at that dry stream bed. We can get across to it in good cover, then just walk down into the wood.”
Ace slapped him on the back.
“Well spotted. Let's go. You and I will take the lead, in case of ambush, the prisoner and her guards in the centre please, and Fran and Peter on rear guard.”

Halfway down the slope, the stream was joined by another that wasn't so dry, but they simply filled their water bottles and moved on along the bank. They were nearly inside the tree line now, anyway. Everything was going smoothly and quietly until Dale stumbled, rolled against a tree trunk and banged his head. He quickly got to his feet.
“I'm all right!” he called cheerfully.
“Wonderful, but shh!” said Ace.
Dale clapped his hand over his mouth.
“Too late,” said Sal. “Someone's heard us.”
Feet – sprite feet – were pounding the earth towards them. First to appear was a tall, slim elf with a flurry of pure white hair. As soon as he saw them he yelled with joy.
“Dale! I don't believe this! This is amazing! Oh, Dale!”
“Betch?” said Dale wonderingly. “Betch! It's really you!”
They ran towards each other, and the joy on their faces almost brought a tear to Ace's eye. He patted Betch's back – just as Fran and Peter and Tivo were doing – and looked to see who else was there. Quite a crowd... this was the party that had escaped from prison. He hugged Sizzle and Jenny, and walked up to Bjørk Kinnekulle and saluted him.
“Hello sir,” he said. “It's wonderful to see you again.”
“You too, Ace, you too. Is Gran with you?”
“Not seen him yet, sir, in fact we've not seen anyone else at all. But we can't be the first to arrive, there are dozens of teams coming to this rendezvous.”
“Oh,” said Colonel Kinnekulle, frowning, “but there's no-one else here at all, only the Hill sprites, and we've kept well away from them.”
“No-one?” said Phil, who'd just finished greeting Betch himself. “Ace, this doesn't feel right. Maybe we're on the wrong side of town. You said Mladá Boleslav, not the Hill. What were the co-ordinates again?”
“That's a point,” said Ace. “Hang on.”
Ace flicked through a notebook to the right page, then frowned.
“Who's got the map?” he asked quietly.
Suzette passed it to him. He looked from his notebook to the map and back again, then hit himself on the head with the back of his hand.
“I don't believe this. We're in the wrong place! Oh, I am useless without Will, useless. Opole, that's where we should be.”
“Opole?” said Phil. “Are you sure? Can I have a look?”
“Sure, please do,” said Ace. “I should have asked you to double check, but I'm so used to not needing to ask.”
“Which Gran Herdalen knows very well,” said Colonel Kinnekulle. “Don't worry, Ace. You and your team are here for a reason. And so are we, because he could easily have corrected us when he heard we were heading here, but he did not.”
“Excuse me, sir,” said Tivo to the colonel. “How did you and your team hear about Mladá Boleslav?”
“From an Ally called Uwe. All the Allies had heard the rendezvous was here.”
“But it isn't,” said Fran. “So General Herdalen spread that information as a decoy. Everyone knew... so somehow, Special Brigade would get to hear about it. And only when people checked their co-ordinates would they realise that it was Opole instead.”
“Everyone except the twit who didn't think to check,” said Ace.
“And the twit who didn't know about it,” said Bjørk.
“No,” said Phil. “Sorry, but you're both wrong. Everyone except the only other elf in the army who's as devious as the general, and the only other elf who's as brilliant as the general. He doesn't know what's going to happen here. But he wanted you both here, and for some reason he wanted it to look like a mistake. But whatever happens, he trusts you to deal with it.”
“Crumbs,” said Ace. “That would be very exciting, if so. I hope you're right, Phil.”
“He's right,” grinned Bjørk. “That's just how the general thinks. And his timing is always perfect. I bet something's going to happen tonight.”
Ace's spirits, which had been down in his boots, soared.
“Then we'll be ready for it.”

Though Ace was dying to talk to Betch and hear all about his adventures, he made himself concentrate. Colonel Kinnekulle was in charge, naturally. He was by far the most senior officer. But Ace knew he was the sort of officer who would welcome suggestions, and the first thing Ace suggested was deep camouflage for everyone, and that was quickly achieved. Then the colonel himself suggested that Sizzle should take half the flyers on a wide reconnaissance flight. They had plenty of flyers; there were twelve with the colonel's party as well as Ace's five.
What a good leader Sizzle was, Ace thought, noticing how she made Suzette feel welcome and wanted, while tactfully finding out what she could do. He watched them fly up, so fast, then split up into a sort of star pattern, circling the Hill and all the surrounding countryside. Ace tried to be equally tactful with the elves, making introductions, making sure he knew everyone's names, finding out who could fight and making sure their knives were sharp.
It was only about half an hour later when he realised that Sizzle was coming back at top speed., her flyers coming down after her in a spiral. Sizzle's feet barely touched the ground as she spotted the colonel and flew towards him.
“There are hundreds of sprites coming,” she said. “Every order, young and old. They're not marching or running away, they're just walking along. I don't think they're army or Special Brigade. I think they are just local sprites coming to their Hill for some reason.”
“Excellent work!” said the colonel. “We had better keep out of sight. But I'd really like to know why they've come. Are they Czech or Polish, do you think? We're very close to the border here.”
“I don't know, sir,” said Sizzle. “What do you think, Rania?”
Sizzle turned to the Czech fairy who also spoke English.
“Could be both,” she said. “There are so many of them, they must have come from miles around. They'd have no problem understanding each other, the languages are very similar.”
“So you and Zetia could understand all of them?” said the colonel. “In that case, could you two get alongside them, try to blend in, and find out what they're up to?”
“No problem, sir,” said Rania. “I bet these sprites don't all know each other, there's far too many of them.”
She explained rapidly in Czech to Zetia what they had to do, and the pair of them flew off.

The rest of them waited, full of puzzlement and speculation about what was going on. They saw the crowd come into view, and watched as the leaders climbed higher and higher up the Hill and then stopped, presumably near the entrance. Almost as soon as they stopped, about a dozen sprites emerged from the Hill. They looked very confident and also very serious and the sprites watching felt sure that this was the Judge and his most senior staff. While they were staring at the scene, Rania and Zetia came back.
“They don't know what they're doing here!” said Rania. “They're all following someone called Kasztan, who sent secret messages out to every colony for miles around for anyone who was willing to help the army.”
“Excuse me, sir,” said Ace. “Is it all right if I send another patrol of flyers up?”
“Oh, sure, Ace, good idea.”
“Go south,” Ace asked them. “I want to know what's happening on the other side of that Hill.”

The Judge and the Hill sprites seemed suspicious, dubious. They seemed to be asking the vast crowd what they were doing there, what they wanted. A tall and handsome young elf stepped forward, arms outstretched with palms upwards, a gesture unintimidating but insouciant. He was clearly a horse chestnut, from his shiny brown skin and spiky streaks, so perhaps this was Kasztan.
“Shall I fly back and hear what they're saying?” said Rania.
“Yes please,” said the colonel. “And the rest of us must be prepared to move fast if we have to. We need to decide now what to do with the prisoner.”
Suzette and Gazania pulled their knives out and walked towards the prisoner, smiling hopefully. Sizzle sighed, and pulled them away by their collars.
“I think we could leave her here,” said the colonel. “But I'm afraid we'd have to leave two behind to guard her. Any volunteers to miss out on any action that's going?”
“Ah, I think that would be us, sir,” said Maag, indicating herself and Campanilla. “To be honest, we're not very good at fighting.”
“Don't worry about that,” said the colonel. “Thank you. And don't hesitate to transform her if she gives you any trouble.”
Strelitzia herself seemed indifferent. She was watching and listening, just as interested as the army sprites were in what was going on.
“The flyers you sent south are returning at some speed,” she remarked.
Ace whirled round and stared at the brow of the Hill. In only a few seconds, something happened. At first it looked like a black line, but the line moved and another line came behind it. At this distance it looked like a swarm of insects.
“Oh no,” said Bjørk. “It's the enemy. I know it is. So many of them!”
“But how did they... oh!”
“What've you spotted?”
“Yes, it's the enemy,” said Ace. “Here, and not in the Bohemian Forest. Here, where they've heard the army is having a rendezvous. Here, where their scouts have confirmed that a large number of sprites is approaching.”
“Gran, you genius,” sighed Bjørk. “I bet he's waiting for us to...”
He broke off with a smile when he saw that Ace was already tapping the message into his phone. Instead he looked round at the other faces. Sizzle was nearly there, he could see, but Betch's friend Dale looked about half an hour behind.
“General Herdalen has sent out fake information,” he said. “He let it be known that the whole eastern army was gathering here, and made sure enough sprites really did come here to make it plausible. The enemy has taken the bait, and come here to meet him, leaving the prison camp lightly defended. So while we keep them busy, he will swoop round behind their backs.”
Ace switched his phone off with a happy sigh.
“General Herdalen and the eastern army are on the move,” he said. “Can we get up in the trees, sir, for a better view?”
“Good idea,” said Bjørk. “Everyone take care, though, not to be seen. At least, not yet.”

Ace pulled out his field glasses and stared across the valley and up the Hill. He was still unable to make out individual faces but the sprites became tiny separate shapes instead of a seething mass. Then he thought of something.
“Oh, sorry sir, you haven't got any. Here, have mine.”
“It's all right, Ace, your eyes will be sharper. Just give the rest of us a running commentary.”
“The enemy – Special Brigade – have raised a banner. Quite big, green and black I think. It's not the flag of parliament.”
“Could it be a black web on a green background?” asked Betch.
“Yes... yes, it could. Why, what is it?”
“The Lord Protector's personal banner. That means Huskvarna is here in person.”
“Excellent,” said Colonel Kinnekulle. “I'm sure that's exactly what General Herdalen wanted.”
“They're advancing,” said Ace. “Slowly, in good order, downhill, towards the crowd in front of the entrance. And now they're drawing their knives, now they're picking up the pace. The front line is running, they're flowing past the Hill sprites as if they were a river flowing around a stone.”
“What are the local sprites doing?” asked Fran in alarm. “They're not going to be able to defend themselves!”
“They're standing firm,” said Ace, in wonder. “Not running away, but not preparing to fight, either. Standing there, braced and ready for whatever hits them. They have a good leader – he's just out in front of the rest – and he's planted as firmly as if he had turned into his tree. Special Brigade are faltering. They weren't expecting this. Some are attacking and using their knives. Some are looking back, looking for fresh orders.”
“I don't believe this,” said Tivo. “He must have seen by now that they're civilians! But he's waving them on, encouraging them to attack!”
“I think Strelitzia needs to see this,” said Bjørk.
“I'll go, sir,” said Phil.
“Something's happening,” said Ace. “The local sprites are moving – oh, neat work, they had this planned, you can tell – the small ones, the old, the very young, are pulling back, while the biggest and strongest move forward. They're still not armed, and they're taking a lot of cuts, but they can disarm the opposition, they can defend themselves.”
“Look, Ace, look at the sprites from the Hill,” said Tivo. “They're trying to stop Special Brigade! I don't get this. This is a parliament Hill, isn't it?”
“It certainly is,” said Bjørk. “It's up there with Zurich and Kamieniece.”
“And they are honourable,” said Strelitzia quietly. They hadn't heard her coming. “They wanted a parliament, not a dictator who attacks unarmed civilians... their own unarmed civilians. They will not tolerate Huskvarna. But it doesn't mean they've changed sides.”
“Nevertheless, we will help them,” said Bjørk. “Envoy Rabot, will you remain here with Maag and Campanilla?”
“I give you my word,” said Strelitzia. “Until the battle is over and you have returned.”
Bjørk nodded gravely in appreciation.
“Flyers, keep close until we join the battle, then follow Sizzle's lead. Elves, follow me, we'll curve across the slope and hit them from behind on the right flank.”

Ace felt his spirits soaring as he raced across with the others. The odds were hopeless. They had about forty, the enemy four times that, if not more. But army sprites couldn't just watch when things like this were happening. The enemy saw them coming, of course, and turned to face them. They looked pleased... perhaps this attack on civilians had only been to lure them out? Some of them looked amused. That was good. Gran wanted that, wanted them laughing at their own cleverness and the army's stupidity.
That much Ace took in, before he had to stop looking wide and focus on one enemy at a time. He seemed to have struck a patch of very large elves and it was going to take all his skill to get out of this uninjured. For a while he got on well, focused, intent, slashing and slashing again, always too fast for such big elves. But a yell of pain from someone nearby distracted him for a second. He flung up an arm to fend off a blow that was coming towards his face, and the next moment he was on the ground, his arm pouring with blood.
He tried to hold the wound closed, knowing he'd be even more of a nuisance if he fainted. Then he saw Tivo lying on the ground, and he wasn't moving. Ace crawled towards him as the battle line lurched away from them. At that moment, two fairies darted towards them, talking at a terrific speed in a language Ace didn't know. They must have dressed in their finest for their march, because each of them seemed to be wearing about twenty-five petticoats, and one of them was ripping one up for bandages. Ace accepted her help eagerly.
“Do you speak English?” he asked.
She stopped and stared at him, then shook her head.
“Oh well, thank you very much anyway,” said Ace.
He struggled to his feet, but with a bit of a wobble.
“Wow, that hurts.”
He went across to Tivo, then bent down to turn him over. He wasn't bleeding, but he wasn't conscious either. A boot mark on his face told its own story. Ace looked around for anyone he knew, but everyone was out of sight. The battle line had moved a bit and there was a lot of shouting going on. Ace stayed where he was. There was no way he was leaving Tivo alone, even though that fairy was helping someone else nearby. The other fairy, though, had gone for help. It was only a few minutes later that she came back, with some Hill workers – guards, by the look of them – to help them. By then, Ace's makeshift bandage was green and sodden, and the grass beneath his feet kept trying to slip up and join the sky.
Glad of an arm to lean on, he went along with them, joining a small trail of injured who were being shepherded towards the shelter of the Hill. He didn't really want to go inside. He wanted to see what was happening. But then he felt a huge surge of energy, as if someone had sensed he was injured and sent some help.
Thanks, Will...
He tried to think it, but he could feel it wasn't getting through. He could try again later. He stood up straighter, trying to see where the battle line had got to. He was less dizzy now, but he was making his wound bleed more heavily. An elf – quite an old elf, but fit and strong – caught his shoulders and tried to get him to sit down again. He called out something, and it must have been something like, fresh bandages, here, because bandages were brought very quickly.
“Thank you,” said Ace, hoping his grateful smile would make up for his lack of Czech.
Everyone seemed to be watching that older elf, who was striding across the hillside. Many gathered to him, including those guards who had come out earlier.
He's the Judge, thought Ace. What's he walking out into the battle for?
It crossed his mind that, for all the courtesy and care of strangers, they were probably all going to be arrested, and General Psycho would send them all to his rotten camp, which wasn't fair on Betch and the others. Was this the right moment to slip away? Was there more they could do here? Where was Bjørk, was that fairy who could speak Czech near him, and most of all, what were they supposed to do next?
Out in the middle of the hillside, the Judge stood still, and spoke in such a loud voice that even the people who were fighting stopped to listen. Ace wished he knew what he was saying. But then it became clear, by what happened next. The Hill sprites joined in the battle, and it wasn't on Special Brigade's side. A slow, almost thunderous cheer went up from the local sprites, and they charged forward, some of them now pulling out weapons. The army sprites, tight alongside them, matched their pace. This time, it wasn't a battle line. Special Brigade were surrounded. It wasn't neat, and from his vantage point Ace could see that some of them were getting away, but that didn't matter. What mattered was that the Judge and the Hill sprites had turned the tables. For now, at least, they had thrown their weight behind the army and their own people, and Special Brigade had gone from thinking they had a solid parliament Hill behind them, to finding themselves outnumbered. They were being pushed – not too roughly, but definitely pushed – towards the Hill.
Ace drew back out of the way, and sheltered Tivo from being trodden on again. But then Tivo began to come round, and he thought they were being surrounded.
“It's okay,” Ace reassured him. “You and I are a bit battered, but we've won. Unbelievably, we've won. This horde around us is Special Brigade, being taken inside. I haven't seen General Psycho, though. Done a runner, I expect.”
“He's dangerous,” said Tivo.
“Yes, he is. But not as dangerous as he was an hour ago. And meanwhile, General Herdalen is getting closer and closer to the Bohemian Forest.”
“There they are!”
A screamed shout of relief in French-accented English... Gazania was loud, but Suzette was even louder. The two imps came charging over, swiftly followed by the rest of the team.
“Is anyone else hurt?” asked Ace anxiously.
“No, just you two,” said Fran. “We were getting a bit frantic when we realised we'd lost you! D'you need any patching up, Lieutenant?”
“No thanks Fran, I'm all right now, I think. I got kicked in the head and it knocked me out, but it's not even broken the skin.”
Phil was already taking Ace's bandages off.
“Oh good, it's not that deep. Just long. Here we go then, Ace. Try and keep still for me.”
“Thanks, Phil,” said Ace when it was done. “You're neat, aren't you? That feels great.”
Betch came running to them. Unsquashable even in the worst of times, he was exhilarated now that at last he'd been able to strike a blow for the cause. His joy was bubbling over.
“Ace, you're wanted. Oh no, that wasn't it. Colonel Kinnekulle's compliments and would Captain Moseley accompany him to meet the Judge.”
“What, me?” said Ace. “What for?”
“So you can tell us all about it when you get back,” said Phil. “Off you go.”

Betch watched Ace leaving, and shook his head in wonder.
“Amazing,” he said. “Never combed his hair, never noticed he's got blood all over his face.”
“Where's Dale?” said Peter.
“Ah, that was the other thing,” said Betch. “Could a couple of you come and help me heave? He's fallen down a rabbit hole.”

Ace headed in the direction Betch had indicated. At first he couldn't spot the colonel amongst the crowds, but then he noticed Maag and Campanilla bringing Strelitzia. Guessing the colonel had sent for her too, he followed them, and arrived just moments after they did. The colonel and the Judge were waiting in a quiet spot away from the bustle at the main entrance. The lush grass was full of sweet clover. Using simple English and speaking clearly, Colonel Kinnekulle made formal introductions, and immediately afterwards, Judge Kokořinsko spoke to Strelitzia.
“Envoy Rabot, do you know where the Premier is?”
“I do not,” she replied. “I would very much like to know.”
“Do you think the army has kidnapped him too?”
“Actually, no, I don't. This elf,” she said, indicating Ace, “this scruffy little sycamore is over-confident, wrong-headed and foolish. But he is also courteous, kind and truthful. He says the army does not know where the Premier is, and I believe him.”
Ace kept quiet, just as Bjørk was doing, letting them come to their own conclusions.
“We speak of a war between parliament and the army,” said Strelitzia. “I have seen no sign of anyone fighting for parliament. Special Brigade are fighting. They are fighting for General Huskvarna.”
“They certainly were here, today,” said the Judge. He turned to address Bjørk. “General Huskvarna, I think, has escaped. I have in custody scores of his troops, who should answer to the law for their crimes in attacking civilians. But without the Premier and without parliament, who can say now where the law resides?”
“It is a very good question,” said Bjørk. “It may be that we will have to wait until the war is over before we have an answer. And then the answer will be a new one. It will not be exactly as it was before, but it will not be exactly as it was before that, either.”
For a moment Ace was stunned, thinking Bjørk meant he didn't want a queen, but he hadn't said that. For the first time, Ace realised that whoever won this war was going to have to make concessions to the other side. There was going to have to be some kind of an agreement.
“Is it true, Captain Moseley,” said Strelitzia, “that other units of the army have kidnapped other senior envoys?”
“I don't know that for sure, ma'am,” said Ace. “But I wouldn't be at all surprised.”
“Then with the Premier and the envoys unavailable, justice must surely rest, at least for now, in the hands of the judges and senior sprites.”
“I think you are right,” said the Judge. “I will ask the senior sprites from my area to meet here – some of them, I think, are here already – and we will decide what to do. Special Brigade are not parliament and it is time someone on our side told them that.”
“I see much grounds for hope here,” said Bjørk.
“So do I,” said Strelitzia. “I think you are making a wise decision, Judge.” She turned to Ace. “Am I free to go?”
“Not yet, ma'am. Sorry, but that decision's not mine to make. I have to take you now to General Herdalen.”
Strelitzia nodded gravely and said no more. The Judge addressed Bjørk.
“Are you leading this army contingent now to join forces with the general?”
“Yes,” said Bjørk. “There'll be no peace for anyone until Huskvarna's captured. Lord Protector, indeed.”
“Indeed,” said the Judge.
Then Ace got an idea, and spoke up.
“May we invite your sprites to join the army?”
“It is a thing we had forbidden,” the Judge admitted. “Even for those colonies that didn't like parliament. But now... I don't see why not. It will all help to bring this war to an end.”
Ace was feeling too happy to notice how stunned Bjørk and Strelitzia looked.

Last thing that night, as he lay down to catch a few hours sleep in a corner of the reception hall at Mladá Boleslav Hill, Ace tried to get through to Will, as he always did. The connection was there, he could feel that, but at this distance, very little was actually getting through. He knew that because he couldn't make much sense of the few words that were coming through to him from Will. But somehow he could sense Will's feelings from the tone – interested, informative, resigned, restless – so he simply said everything he had to say, leaving it to Will to pick up on what he could.
I had twelve and Bjørk had thirty. We've tripled that in one evening. Some of the real parliament people aren't so bad at all. We're a big unit now, and at dawn we'll be off again to join up with Gran. Phil's helping Bjørk sort out the best route. I wish you were here, Will. Everyone helps, and I can manage. It's not your help I miss, it's just you.

It was all very well drawing lines on maps and reciting lists of stations; it was clear and precise and easy to understand, with themselves at one end and Gran at the other. Putting it into practice was another matter. None of the local sprites had travelled far from home before, and to them it was all a huge adventure. They understood there was a need to hurry, but there were so many interesting things to look at. If they'd had a sheepdog and a Czech speaker who understood timetables, they might have done the journey in a week, but the way things were, it had taken them ten days.
The only consolation that Ace could see was that Gran now knew where they were, and he didn't seem worried. A quick phone call the other night, with a feeble signal and a fading battery, had given them one big boost. Gran had promised to send Dan and Carda to meet them at a place called Straubing. Meanwhile, Ace struggled on, missing Will more and more, but hiding that, dealing with it, while giving Bjørk all the help he could, learning as much Czech as he could, chivvying and cajoling and yet trying to keep it light, keep it friendly. There was no point expecting new volunteers to understand military discipline yet. They were utterly committed and enthusiastic, and that was the main thing.

On the day they got to Straubing, Ace noticed the first falling leaves. Summer was drawing to a close. He also noticed that this was a very dangerous place, neither deserted nor crowded enough for sprites to pass through unnoticed, but the sort of sleepy town where there is always someone watching the world go by. Fortunately Bjørk had noticed this too and chivvied everyone onto the station roof as fast as possible, his big hands ready to push implacably in the right direction when necessary.
“Good, good,” he praised them, sticking to simple English which a fair number understood, and counting them to make sure he hadn't lost anyone. Ace kept a close watch on his prisoner. He trusted her not to try to escape, but they were very close to the enemy now and he didn't trust her not to give away their position if she saw an opportunity. So he wasn't watching the skies, but his two French imps were.
“Wow,” sighed Suzette. “Oh, wow.”
“I know,” said Gazania. “Aren't they, just?”
Ace looked up with a smile to see the two Fighter Squadron fairies descending like hawks, all black leather and gleaming knives. Carda and Dan looked so fierce, so competent, so strong, so confident. Ace had a sudden memory of the first time Dan herself had seen Fighter Squadron fairies, and the look on her face then had been pretty much like Suzette's and Gazania's, now.

Dan and Carda landed at Bjørk's side.
“Colonel Kinnekulle? I'm Dan Moseley and this is Carda Rysy, we're your escort to the assembly point.”
“Thank you,” said Bjørk. “It's great to see you. Is it far? We have a few language problems in this large group.”
“Don't worry about that, sir,” said Carda. “It's not far, but it's a complicated journey that has to be done in cautious stages for security reasons.”
While Carda was talking, Dan rushed over.
“Ace! Phil!” she cried, hugging them.
“Oh, Dan,” said Ace. “This is fantastic. Look at you. I wish your Wildside self could see you now.”
Dan looked amazed, as if she hadn't really thought about it, then she looked moved.
“We have all come a long way,” she said. “In more ways than one! Oh, Betch, hi! Oh, Sizzle!”

Meanwhile, Carda was explaining what she wanted to the volunteers. Speaking perfect Czech, her crisp, military tones were a startling contrast to Rania's gentle voice, and Carda was brooking no arguments and putting up with no nonsense. In no time at all, everyone was lined up in pairs, wearing camouflage hoods and ready to slide down a drainpipe that led to a quiet street.
“Awesome,” grinned Ace. “Let's go.”