CHAPTER 6 - Liberation

It seemed to Ace that Dan and Carda had escorted many arrivals along this route. They knew exactly where to go, and they were insisting on absolute silence, so enemy patrols couldn't be far away. Ace was excited but he was also amazed by his surroundings. He'd seen a lot of wonderful places on his travels, but this Bohemian Forest was awe-inspiring. The trees were so large, and there were so many of them. There were interesting plants everywhere, as well as small animals and hundreds of different insects. He wished he could stop for a moment just to take in the vastness of the place. He could hear birdsong that sounded as if it was coming from miles away.
It was a sunny day. The leaves that had started to turn colour were glowing, and the air was cool and fresh. He stretched his arms and legs as he moved quietly along, glad to be moving again after a long train journey. It was a happy moment, so it had a bittersweet heart to it, because it made him miss Will. But he fought away unhappiness. He could cope. He had to cope.
This may be enemy territory, he thought. But it's a beautiful, beautiful place.

After an hour's journey, Carda slowed everyone down and pointed to a sprite-sized watchtower well-camouflaged amid the trees. She took up position on a boulder and watched the tower carefully. Every few minutes she signalled frantically to Dan, and Dan hustled as many past as she could before Carda signalled to stop and wait again. Ace was pleased to see how quick on the uptake everyone was. They all moved as quickly and quietly as they could, and kept their heads down. Once they were well away from the danger zone, Dan and Carda relaxed and allowed everyone to move more slowly. The next thing that happened was being greeted by perimeter guards of their own, and then being shown to a stream where they could drink. Kneeling gratefully on a sandy beach, scooping up water in his hands, Ace thought this stream was the equal even of the crystal streams of Fjaerland. Then best of all was the sight of Gran Herdalen running down the bank of the stream towards them. He hugged Bjørk, he hugged Ace, he hugged Sizzle and Kasztan and everyone within his reach. Then he saw Betch, and his face took on an expression of immense respect.
“Well done,” he said. “Very well done indeed.”
Then he hugged Betch too. After about half an hour, when he had greeted everyone and thanked Kasztan's people for coming, Gran spoke to them all together.
“I am overjoyed to welcome such a big team,” he said. “How on earth did you persuade Judge Kokořinsko to let you all come?”
“Perfect simplicity,” said Rania, with a grin. “Not knowing his reputation, Ace just asked if they could. And wonder of wonders, he said yes.”
“I wish I could have seen that,” said Gran. “Now, as far as I know, you are the last to arrive. So we attack at dawn, when bird noise will give us maximum sound cover. Our plan is simple – to liberate our friends from this foul prison. So when you have drunk your fill, Dan and Carda will show you to a glade where you may sleep. At 19.00 hours, I'll hold a briefing with detailed instructions. I think we can fit everyone in. Come upstream till you reach a beach of dried mud sheltered by a half-rooted alder. Thank you. And now, where is Envoy Rabot?”
“Here, sir,” called Campanilla.
Gran strode over.
“Thank you so much for taking good care of her,” he said gravely to Maag and Campanilla. “I'm going to take her away now to join some old friends of hers.”
He looked Strelitzia in the eyes but he did not remove the gag that was gently but effectively stopping her from talking or crying out. She tried to give him a knowing smile, but Gran did not respond.
“Follow me, please, Envoy,” he said.
“Excellent,” sighed Bjørk happily. “Everyone had enough to drink? Then lead on, Dan and Carda. I am nearly asleep in my boots.”

Hours later, as Gran Herdalen was checking detail after detail about the camp and its layout with Betch, Bjørk and Sizzle, and outlining his plan of attack, on the far side of the camp, Lieutenant Étretat was making his way through the trees. He had a bottle in his hand and a glum expression on his face. He reached the planted hedge that blocked communications from inside camp and jumped lightly over. He calmed his mind, turned deliberately to face north, then drank a good dose of hawthorn berry juice from his bottle. For two minutes he stood motionless, concentrating, then he poured all his effort into messaging.
General Huskvarna... Lord Protector... please respond. This is Bépin Étretat at the camp. No troops have returned. Colonel Diolkos requests your orders.
He waited another two minutes, concentrating on a reply, but he couldn't sense a thing. He tried again.
General Huskvarna... Lord Protector... please respond.
Again he waited, and this time he thought he sensed something. It was more like a crackle in his mind than anything resembling words. Suddenly, he clearly sensed the word action and then nothing but silence. He sighed, then with a thoughtful frown jumped inside the hedge again. Once again, he composed himself and tried to send his message, once again, there was hardly anything to be heard. Two other words got through this time... at Passau.
Briskly he jumped back through the trees to the camp. At the gate he stopped to speak to the elves on duty.
“No, sir. Not seen anything or heard anything. But something's wrong, for all that. The forest's just too quiet.”
“Well, it might just be a storm brewing. But it might not, so stay alert. You've got your whistles?”
In reply, they simply opened their palms. Their whistles were ready in their hands.

Lieutenant Étretat jumped up the drive and entered the main building. He went past the deserted reception desk – there'd been no new arrivals for weeks – and jumped up the stairs to the officers' mess. Lots of heads turned quickly towards him as he entered. Renegades, re-trainers, indoor guards... the small team the general had left behind had to work together now. But at least Colonel Diolkos was a better leader than Major Mecsek had ever been. Both of them were in the room, and Major Mecsek was the first to speak.
“Did you get a reply?” she demanded.
“Very little, ma'am,” said the lieutenant. He turned to Colonel Diolkos. “On one attempt, the word 'action', sir. On another, the words 'at Passau'.”
Everyone in the room started talking, speculating on possible meanings. Colonel Diolkos held up his hand.
“Could be anything,” he said. “Guessing may do more harm than good.” He looked at the lieutenant. “The problems were the same?”
“Worse, sir, if anything. Contact made, but too weak to be any use. And exactly the same on both sides of the hedge.”
“And that was the strongest brew of hawthorn we dared try. And you are a hawthorn. If you couldn't get through, no-one can.”
“No, sir,” said the lieutenant.
“But the hedge!” exclaimed Blanche Hakarp. “The prisoners will be able to... oh no, they won't. They can't message either, can they?”
“Not as far as we know,” said Major Mecsek. “But their methods are different, we can't be certain. It's a worry.”
“Well, the Lord Protector saw this coming,” said Colonel Diolkos. “You have to hand it to him for that. That's why he formed a new unit simply to take messages. But he only left us one, and we sent her off to find him over a week ago and she hasn't returned.”
“D'you want me to go?” asked Lieutenant Hakarp. “I could go to Passau and see if I can pick up any news. It's likely that something has happened, is happening, or is going to happen there.”
“True,” said Colonel Diolkos. “ It's difficult, when we only have a hundred to run this place and guard it. We can't keep sending out fairies until we have none left. But I think you'd better. Leave at dawn, lieutenant, fly high and fly fast, and return as fast as you possibly can.”

The white-haired fairy leaving the camp at dawn was easy to spot against the dark wooden fences. Captain Krokus Zawoja, leading the army flyers who were in position high in the trees around the camp, didn't waste a moment.
“Dan, with me,” she hissed. “Stay under the canopy until she's out of sight of anyone watching.”
The two fairies streaked through the trees, keeping low, keeping aside, until Blanche passed a massive ash that blocked the camp from view. Then they soared above her and swooped down on opposite sides. The rapid movement drew Blanche's attention and by the time Dan and the captain fell upon her she had her knife in her hand but it didn't do her any good. They got a wrist each and twisted her arms until she was in just enough pain to co-operate and flew her between them back towards the camp. They heard a rustle of activity below them.
“It's starting!” said Dan. “We've no time to waste.”
“Tie her up,” said Krokus, pulling a cord from around her waist. “We'll come back for her later.”
Dan tied Blanche's hands behind her and Krokus clipped her wings together. They left her sitting astride a branch and flew back to their positions. Just in time... the elves and goblins below them were advancing from the trees towards the perimeter fence. With great co-ordination, they began to destroy it, shrinking it or kicking it down according to preference. Krokus flew up and signalled, and all around the camp, flyers picked up ammo bags from the branches where they had left them, slung the bags over their shoulders and flew down, hovering carefully over the elves and goblins.
Dan watched almost unblinking. Any second now, there would be a response, but what would it be? Sizzle had said that General Herdalen seemed to have plenty of plans up his sleeve, but the main order he'd given Captain Zawoja was, watch. Defend the ground troops, yes, but watch. Keep the whole area in view and tell him at once if anything happened that the ground troops couldn't see. To this end, he had requested marker flyers, two flyers to do nothing but track his movements, hovering in clear sight above his position, wherever he was. They'd have to wear a bright colour – it was usually red – so they themselves could easily be spotted. It wasn't a popular job. You'd be a prime target for enemy flyers and you wouldn't get to do any fighting yourself. Dan grinned to herself, imagining how Captain Zawoja would have wondered where she was going to find volunteers for that. But surprisingly, she had. Two fairies Dan didn't know, who'd come with Ace's team, had volunteered at once. Dan had been amazed – that much courage didn't usually go with so little desire to fight – but she'd cheered them loud and long and so had all the other flyers. She could see them now, just, a good way south of her position.
Then, suddenly, troops poured out of the main entrance, some running around the left side of the buildings and some around the right. There weren't many of them, they were thinly spread but they took up position between their broken fence and their buildings. Their fairies were on the ground with the elves, which told its own story. They were so short of people they were concentrating their strength. They didn't attack, and neither did the army. It was as if everyone knew something was going to happen, and they were waiting to see what it was.
“Over there! Smoke!” yelled Sizzle.
“Investigate and report to the general!” Krokus yelled back. “Dan, go higher. Anything happening in the buildings?”
“Nothing yet,” Dan shouted down. “No, wait... a door's opening... prisoners being herded out onto a flat roof. Not gagged, but bound and blindfolded. I can see the Commander!”
“Report!” Krokus shouted back.
Dan flew towards the hovering red shapes but it was easy to spot General Herdalen as she drew closer. She gave her report and the general nodded.
“Thanks, Dan! Get back up there. Ace, text now!”

Flying high again, Dan watched as the stalemate on the ground held. On the roof, more and more prisoners came out, hundreds of them, until she began to hope that the roof would take the weight. Finally, they were followed by a tall elf with an air of command about him. This elf had a megaphone, and he raised it and spoke.
“Welcome, friends from the army! Come in, come in. There was no need to knock the fence down. We would have let you in at the gate. Fall back, camp guards, fall back, and let our friends approach.”
“Stay above our elves and goblins,” warned Captain Zawoja. “Pass it on. Don't get ahead of them, and prepare to dive if necessary.”
It was easy to see, by the marker fairies, that General Herdalen had given the order to move. Keeping pace with him, the army ground forces moved forward. It was eerily quiet. The camp guards fell back, the flyers hovered and the prisoners on the roof stood still, waiting, listening. Then Dan jumped as the elf with the megaphone spoke again.
“Open the big gate please, Lieutenant Étretat.”
Everyone stopped and watched as an elf pushed open both sides of a double gate within the grounds. Through the gate the camp guards marched smartly, with the army moving cautiously behind them. As she got closer, Dan could see a huge grassy area like a garden. But she could also see where the fire was. She gasped with horror. It was burning, bright and fierce and self-contained in fire-pits just below the edge of the roof. On a chilly evening, no doubt they were decorative and cheering. With blindfolded prisoners herded just above them, they were lethal and terrifying.
“It's a trap, it's a trap!” she called.
Captain Zawoja had already gone to the general. Dan's eyes met Sizzle's, as desperate as her own.
“We have to be ready to catch any prisoners who fall!” hissed Sizzle. “Pass it on!”
Word was passed on quickly and Dan knew that every flyer was straining, like she was, to fly to the rescue. But no-one moved, not yet. Then with the sharp crunch of boots on stones, General Herdalen moved out in front of his troops and walked briskly through the gate, and all his troops followed him, alert but confident.
“Ah, it is General Herdalen himself!” came the voice through the megaphone. “Come in, General, come in.”
Dan watched the prisoners on the roof. You could tell that they were all instantly more alert at the sound of that name. Captain Zawoja came back, this time flying low and out of sight of the officer on the roof.
“Zetia, Gazania, Carda, Dan, with me,” she said. “One above each fire-pit. High above, so you don't burn yourself, but below the roof edge, to catch people.”
Instantly, Dan took up position, and she could feel it was stiflingly hot and airless, but she thought she could cope. Because General Herdalen had lined up his troops, and right in the front row were Betch and Bjørk and three other big strong elves who had escaped from this camp. The general knew what he was doing.
“It's wonderful to see you all,” crowed the elf with the megaphone. “I am Colonel Klethra Diolkos, and I welcome you to your new home. Close the gate again, Lieutenant Étretat. Now then, army elves, march inside and surrender. Because if you don't, I will start pushing. Then all your friends will start falling off the roof. Some will smash onto the ground, of course, but some will fall straight into the fires. It will be interesting to watch, won't it?”
General Herdalen raised his voice to answer, and he didn't need a megaphone.
“Klethra Diolkos,” he said, “you have grown in evil since we last met. Yes, of course we would surrender, before we would let you harm a hair of our friends' heads. But just consider one thing first – perhaps you would like to surrender to us?”
The laughter for a moment masked the noise of engines, but only for a moment. They were coming too fast and they were much too loud. Into sight above them came the five helicopters of the Elf Squadron, and the army cheered. Colonel Diolkos looked this way and that, trying to work out exactly what the threat was. The helicopters hovered above the lawns, and doors were opened in their sides. From each door, a sprite was lowered on the end of a rope. They weren't bound or gagged, just trussed comfortably in the ropes, harness-style, but it must have been terrifying, dangling there in mid air. Just as alarming, in each doorway above them sat an elf, swinging his legs in a cheerful, nonchalant way, and holding to the rope the edge of an extremely large knife.
“If you would like to surrender to us,” repeated General Herdalen cheerfully, “we will return to you these members of parliament. The Chief Administrator, the Chief Scientist, the Senior Envoy, the Chief of Intelligence and the Head of Communication. But if you don't want them, we can always let them drop. They're a good deal higher than your roof.”
“Parliament?” laughed Colonel Diolkos. “Are you serious? Parliament is finished. Nobody wants that back. You really need to keep up with the times, Herdalen. We have a Lord Protector now, or hadn't you heard?”
General Herdalen inclined his head.
“In that case, we surrender,” he said.
Dan noticed that he spread out his hands in what looked like a gesture of resignation, but it was a signal. Suddenly, everything happened at once. A scream above her alerted her that Diolkos had started pushing. Two, three, four, five or more sprites fell. Dan hovered lower, almost in the flames, bracing herself. She caught a body, but the weight pulled her, she could do no more than slow the descent. She pushed another body aside so it fell on the ground. But no more bodies fell. Someone must have overpowered Diolkos and stopped him. She realised in the same instant that the heat was less. Someone had covered the fire-pit with a lid – all the fire-pits were covered with lids – of course, that was what Betch and the others had been ready for. They had lived here for ages, they knew exactly where the lids were and how to operate them quickly. Ten sprites had fallen, by the look of it, and there might be some sprains but there were no burns. Betch and Bjørk were dancing with joy. Dan looked at the helicopters. The members of parliament were being lowered safely to the ground. Only then were the ropes cut. There was rejoicing everywhere, but also action. Ace, Fran, Ornus Vidilica, Droz Zlatni and many others were working under the direction of Colonel Pesentheim, disarming the guards, overcoming any resistance, marching them to the centre of the lawns where they could easily be guarded and tying them up. Other flyers, led by Rania, were dealing with the fairies who'd been among the guards. Everything was under control, just as you'd expect when General Herdalen was around.
What a brain! There was no-one like him for turning tables. Dan quickly drew her own knife and freed the fairy she had caught. It was Dziki from the Polish gang, but Dan didn't know that. Dziki was too overcome to speak, but she smiled and slapped Dan on the back. Dan smiled too then flew up to the roof, where all the remaining flyers were helping to free the prisoners. She saw more smiling faces, some she knew and some she didn't, and delight was growing by the minute as the reality of liberation sank in. And it was getting louder and louder. Dan couldn't see who'd overpowered Colonel Diolkos, but his hands were being tied now by Captain Zawoja herself.
A roar went up as the Commander was freed and raised her hands in the air. A door in the roof had been opened, and the freed prisoners were streaming down to the ground. Dan saw the helicopters landing and the Elf Squadron running out to meet their friends. She saw Carda running towards her across the roof. They caught hands and pulled Sizzle and Gazania and Suzette and Lisette along with them.
“Krokus!” yelled Dan. “Come on, Captain! Victory dance!”
And their serious captain smiled. She pushed Diolkos down, and the army flyers swept into the air in a spiral of colour. The morning sun shone on their wings and their clothes as they flew faster and faster, until they looked like a wheel of gold in the sky.

To the ground forces, the picture hadn't been anything like as clear as it had been from above. Some of them, Ace included, hadn't known what was going on at all until they got inside the gate. Then, of course, it had been horribly clear, but Ace hadn't been too worried. He'd known the helicopters were coming, because he'd sent a text to Captain Thurlgrove to give him the go-ahead, and he'd been the first to hear the engines. He'd enjoyed every minute of watching Gran turn things round, and now he was helping Colonel Pesentheim do the mopping-up. The guards weren't putting up too much of a fight. They were stunned, demoralised, and now that the prisoners were all free, they were even more outnumbered.
They needed more rope, but Betch was bringing some from a storeroom. Ace went to help him.
“Are you okay?” he asked quietly. “You must have dreamed of this moment so often.”
“I knew it would come,” said Betch. “But it doesn't seem real! I tried to escape so often. But I never guessed I'd be on the outside, coming back to help.”
“Your victory, Betch. You deserve this more than anyone. Here, let me help you with this prisoner. Put your arms behind your back, please, so it feels comfortable to you, and Betch will tie you up.”
Ace and Betch grinned at each other, but the prisoner, who was Ferkel, lifted his head and twisted it round.
“You! You happy now? You've ruined everything. You don't understand. You never did understand.”
Betch didn't even bother answering. Instead, he spoke to another prisoner nearby.
“Oh, Lieutenant Étretat! Your nose is bleeding. Sorry, I must have punched it too hard.”
“You think you're so clever, escaping and coming back again,” snarled the lieutenant. “At least you'll never see the little traitor again, the Renegade who freed you, what was his name? Langdon. Wayne Langdon.”
“OK, what do you mean?” asked Betch quietly.
“Sentenced to death,” said the lieutenant. “For treason. Like I said, you'll never see him again.”

Ace and Betch walked off, but as soon as they were away from the prisoners they turned to face each other.
“Do you believe him?” asked Ace. He could hear the wobble in his own voice.
“I don't know,” Betch faltered. “It might be spite. But it might be true. He did help us escape. If they found out, yes, they would have killed him.”
“That elf didn't say they did kill him. Only that they sentenced him to death. Maybe he escaped?”
It sounded hollow, it didn't ring true, but it was the best he could think of.
“Maybe,” said Betch. “True, maybe. But there are a lot of Renegades still here. Huskvarna took a lot of people away with him, it seems. Did he take any of them, or leave them all here to guard his prison? If Wayne's alive, where is he?”
“Let's search,” said Ace. “At least we can see for ourselves if he's here or not.”
They started to look for him, but quite soon Betch got called away to help Bjørk supervise a thorough search of all the buildings. Their knowledge of every room and passageway was invaluable, and would make sure no-one was missed, whether locked-up prisoners or hiding guards. Then Ace himself got orders, to make a list of the names of all the captured guards. That just made it worse. It was clear that the senior officers thought they'd got everyone, and Wayne definitely wasn't there. By the time Betch came back, the sun was high in the sky and everyone was outside. Betch was looking a bit brighter.
“The building's clear,” he said with satisfaction. “Every filthy inch of it. We'll never have to go in it again. It's going to be demolished.”
“Good,” said Ace, patting him on the back. “I hope you get to crack the first wall.”
“The Commander did mention something like that,” smiled Betch. “But about Wayne... I thought of something. He had a friend. I know it sounds crazy, but they cared about each other, you could tell. And once or twice, I said things in front of Wayne that only he would get, yet I got the impression that his friend had an idea what I was doing.”
“What was his name?” asked Ace. “I've just made a list for General Herdalen.”
“I only know his first name. It was Stan.”
“Oh,” said Ace sadly. “There was no Stan on the list.”
“No Stan either? But that's a good sign, surely? If Wayne escaped, he probably had help, he and Stan might have run for it together.”
Or died together, Ace thought, but of course he didn't say so. He just tried to look cheerful.
“Let's hope so. Maybe one of our own people knows more, and at least they'd tell us the truth.”

It was all they could do for now. There was work to be done. The prisoners and the members of parliament had to be escorted to the far end of the gardens, where they'd be safe from falling bricks and planks. The whole Eastern army stood to attention to watch as the ex-prisoners encircled the prison camp buildings and brought them down. They shrank the roof until it pulled away from the walls and fell in. A cloud of dust rose and sparkled in the air, and the watching army started clapping. Then came the walls, getting smaller and smaller at a faster and faster rate until they finally fell in on themselves. That brought the internal walls down, and those too were shrunk along with everything inside them. The dust cloud grew larger and larger, then floated down and settled. The army cheered. The ex-prisoners cheered too, but then, to no-one's surprise, hugged each other quietly. Many of them were in tears.
Ace watched with sympathy. In this terrible place, honest sprites had been nearly brain-washed for daring to look at the world differently to a load of bullies. It had been a place of grief and suffering. And yet, and yet... the forest surrounded them on every side, and it was beautiful. The silence stretched for miles. Only in Fjaerland itself, Ace thought, would you be less likely to hear someone yell, “Cover!”

The ex-prisoners were walking back, and now, for the first time, the two huge groups really merged into one. The mood was lifting, and tears were being wiped away. Some people were settling down on the grass to talk. Some were filling buckets at the fountain and taking water round to share. Others were finding shady spots where they could lie down and sleep. No-one was giving any orders. It seemed that, for now at least, there was no more work to be done. Completely against his will, Ace found his happiness draining away from him. Instead of going to look for his friends, he drew back, unable to understand his own feelings.
He found he had come back as far as the helicopters, where the Elf Squadron were now checking the machines. At least he could greet the team, all of whom he knew well. Captain Thurlgrove spotted him as he drew nearer.
“Hello, Ace! What's going on, do you know?”
“I don't, sir,” said Ace. “General Herdalen pulled off his trick – thanks to your brilliant timing – so the camp is liberated and that was the objective. I've not seen the general lately and I don't know what the next objective is. It feels as though the ex-prisoners are the priority at the moment. Letting them adjust, get their bearings, things like that.”
“Very wise indeed,” approved Captain Thurlgrove. “Pendo! You can do that work on the spare fuel, then. I think we'll be around for a while.”
Captain Thurlgrove went to see that the fuel was being properly expanded. Ace greeted friends he hadn't seen for ages, Pendo and Lance and Rob Royden. Then he realised that Phil was already here – of course, Phil had come straight to find Rob – and while they were talking, Sal and Herbert, who'd been with Ace since Oslo, came over, delighted to see the helicopters again, and their old team-mates.
“Brilliant hovering!” said Herbert. “You were amazing!”
“It was all a stunt,” grinned Lance. “Those knives – big enough to be seen from the ground, but they weren't even sharp. And the parliament people knew it. They could see that our people were in real, terrible danger, and they were in no danger at all. That's got to help, hasn't it?”
“So clever,” said Sal. “General Herdalen, he's amazing! How many clever plans did he have in his head? This is all thanks to him. He laid out all these plans, then pulled them all in, and they worked, every single one of them worked!”

It was true, it was all true, so why didn't he feel happier about it? Once he'd had a talk to everyone he just drifted off again.
“Ace isn't himself,” said Lance. “What's wrong?”
“We've won,” said Sal. “Which means he doesn't have to hold it together any more. But there's nothing we can do about it. He's been away from Will for too long.”
“That's right,” said Phil. “It's been obvious for days what a terrific effort he was making. He's in a bit of a daze, I think. Look where he's going. Walking aimlessly directly north-west, as if he could walk to Essen.”
Everyone knew what he meant. They nodded with sympathy and quietly returned to their work.

Ace walked past the demolished building and through the now-deserted exercise yard where once Bjørk and Betch had made their first escape attempts. Here, too, the perimeter fences had been destroyed, but Ace didn't go past them. He noticed them, and wondered why he'd stopped, and realised that he was still on duty, he couldn't just go wandering off into the forest. Then he wondered why he'd come this way and realised something was tugging him. Then suddenly, it was as if he'd woken up properly after dreaming and he felt the pain. He wasn't sure how long he stood there. But the sweet air of the forest did its own good work. The soft breezes, the creaking of boughs and the rustling of leaves were a better comfort than any words. He realised he could carry on now.
I suppose letting go a bit helps you get a better grip, he thought. I'm not going to feel sorry for myself, but I'm not going to beat myself up either.
He walked back more purposefully towards the area where most people were still gathered, and the first person he saw that he knew was Phil, who'd been looking out for him. Phil squeezed Ace's arm sympathetically, but he was looking excited and words tumbled out of him.
“It's Sergeant Olt!” he said. “Come on, quick, you have to hear this!”
Whatever it was, it sounded like good news, so Ace went willingly. Phil tugged him across the garden, to where a small fire was burning. On the fire was a steaming kettle, and around the fire was gathered a great crowd of army elves.
“Sergeant Olt! Oh, it's wonderful to see you!”
“Hello, Ace! Are you all right?”
“Not too bad, thanks.”
He squatted down on the ground with the others and Peter passed him a mug of tea.
“Thank you,” said Ace. “I am so ready for this.”
“Wait till you hear the sergeant's news,” said Fran. “He thinks Wayne's okay.”
“Oh!” gasped Ace. “Oh Sergeant, how d'you know?”
Smiling and patient, Sergeant Olt repeated his tale.
“It's true that Wayne was sentenced to death,” the sergeant explained. “And it's the dearest wish of my heart that one day I'll get the chance to tell him what I think of his courage in passing a knife to Betch. But it's my opinion that that sentence was never carried out. Wayne had made a friend – Stan Gruski, his name was – and Stan behaved with the courage and resourcefulness of an army-trained elf. He outran the detail that had Wayne under guard and burst into a room that I was in, working with some other prisoners. He asked for a diversion, and we gave him one. He got Wayne outside, and judging by the fuss and trouble later, they both escaped into the forest. I can't swear he's all right, but I'm pretty sure he is.”
“Thank you,” Ace whispered. “That's the best possible news.”
“What a hero,” said Betch. “We'll all meet again one day, I'm sure of it. I wonder where he is – sorry, where they are – now?”

That led to a more general discussion of exactly where they were, and what places, routes, rivers and railway lines were accessible from the forest. Ace found he could sit quietly and listen, cheered by this great news and by the company of his friends. He didn't have much to contribute, as it was days since he'd known exactly where he was, but he was glad to learn more. It was Captain Thurlgrove and the helicopter team who knew the most, and that made sense. There was nothing like an aerial view to give you a good feeling for the landscape. More and more elves joined them, attracted by the interesting conversation, and Ace got up several times to hug and greet new arrivals, but quietly, without interrupting the talking.
He heard how the helicopters had flown by stages from near Essen. He heard Captain Vidilica, of whom he'd heard so much, but never met before, describing how his team had captured the Chief Administrator in Prešov. He heard Major Jokkmokk telling about the rendezvous at Opole, and joined in the cheering for Kasztan, who had been such a massive help. Then he himself was called upon to say what had happened at Mladá Boleslav. He felt it was Bjørk Kinnekulle's right to tell that story, and looked around, but Bjørk wasn't there, so he did his best.
The people who were listening cheered in all the right places, and laughed too, because Ace always emphasised any funny things that had happened, but they were most interested in the reaction of Judge Kokořinsko.
“That's astounding,” said Sergeant Olt. “And very encouraging. If colonies like that are realising that we are not the enemy, then the war may nearly be over.”
“Colonel Kinnekulle said that he saw grounds for hope,” said Ace.
Then Captain Thurlgrove mentioned some news he'd heard from General Arley, about a similar success her fairies had had in Paris.
“The Hill for Paris isn't actually in Paris,” he said. “It's at Franchard in the forest of Fontainebleau. But they had believed what they had been told, that the war was over and that parliament had won. And they were worried because they heard nothing about parliament, only about the Lord Protector. So when a party of army fairies turned up saying it wasn't true, they were welcomed with open arms. But the thing is, Franchard was a parliament Hill, always was.”

The speculation grew louder and more cheerful and Ace wondered why he didn't feel happier about it. There was no logical reason for it. It did sound encouraging on the face of it, so why this niggling worm of doubt? He couldn't pin it down, so he left it. He was too tired to think straight anyway. He hadn't slept at all last night, and they'd been talking so long it was now early evening. He got up and stretched, and went to fill the kettle at the fountain. He was ready for another drink, and other people would be too. As he walked across the lawns, he noticed all the members of parliament sitting on chairs under a tree. They were deep in discussion with the Commander, General Herdalen, Colonel Kinnekulle, Colonel Arnsberg and Colonel Pesentheim. Ace noticed at once that though the Commander looked animated, Gran and Bjørk didn't. But their meeting, whatever it was about, didn't go on much longer. By the time the elves had fed their fire and got everyone another drink, Bjørk came over and asked Ace and Captain Vidilica to organise drinks and blankets for all the captured guards.
Ace noticed Blanche was there now too, but he couldn't be bothered to speak to her. He just got on with his job, making sure everyone was secure and comfortable. There seemed to be a lot of activity now, everyone moving around. Then some fairies flew by, calling out in a variety of languages that the Commander wanted to speak to everyone. This took a while to organise, as there was a huge number of people to assemble, and they needed translators in position too. Ace waited patiently in the large crowd. The mood around him was excited, full of eager anticipation.
“She'll have made some plans by now, for sure,” said Sergeant Olt.
“Hope we get some more action!” someone called.
Ace smiled. That had sounded very like Droz Zlatni.
“We might not,” said Gazania in a worried voice. “We might all get sent home. I hope not.”
Somehow that quiet remark set Ace worrying again himself, but the Commander was ready to begin now so he just listened carefully.

At first, she just said the things you might expect, and said them very well. She thanked the Eastern army for liberating the camp, she praised General Herdalen's planning and encouraged the cheering that went on and on. General Herdalen stepped forward to acknowledge the applause, but Ace noticed at once that though his face was smiling, he looked worried. Next the Commander praised the teams that had brought the members of parliament, and also praised the members for their patience and forbearance. She praised the new volunteers, the Elf Squadron and all the prisoners, she didn't miss anyone out. Last of all, her voice breaking with emotion, she asked the prisoners who had escaped to come forward. Everyone knew by now what defiance had led to them being taken away, and how they had had to suffer. The Commander hardly had to speak. Everyone cheered them until they were hoarse, and Sizzle, overwhelmed, was nearly in tears.
Finally, they were allowed to slip back into the crowd, and the Commander continued.
“Great efforts have been made by everyone, and now we see the fruits of success. Now it is Special Brigade who are broken and on the run. The majority of them are prisoners at Mladá Boleslav. Even now, our flyers are spreading the good news to Hill and colony. There remains a great deal to do. The war is not over yet. But between us, the army, and the representatives of parliament, hostility can now cease. Many differences remain, but now it is time to talk about them, not fight about them. I hereby call a truce for negotiations. We shall need to summon many sprites to give their opinions, and this is as good a place as any. Tomorrow, we shall make camp and begin a plan to organise a peace conference. Civil War is a terrible, ugly thing. The sooner it is over, the better, and now we have hope. Hope that the end may be in sight.”

It wasn't what most people were expecting to hear, but it still won great applause. Ace clapped too until he heard a text arrive on his phone. He checked it at once; it was from Gran.
If I touched your shoulder, he read, would you follow me?
His eyes met Gran's across the crowd and he nodded slowly. Another text came.
And there are those who would do as much for you.

Then Ace's doubts and worries disappeared and he knew exactly what he had to do. When everyone had finished cheering the Commander, he helped gather wood, he sat listening to the discussions around the bright blazes. But he also looked to see who else looked worried and who did not. And he made sure he knew where all his friends had lain down to sleep. Finally, without a care in the world, he lay down and closed his eyes. When he was awoken by a touch on his shoulder, he wasn't a bit alarmed or surprised. He just smiled at Gran, got silently to his feet and touched the shoulders of other sprites in his turn. No-one seemed surprised at the summons.
The stars were bright overhead but there was no moonlight and it was nowhere near dawn. Like shadows the woken sprites moved towards the forest then followed General Herdalen through the trees. He led them north, away from the railway station, away from the paths they had used before. All through the dark of the night he led them, until finally dawn did break and they could see each other's faces. They were now far from the camp, but not beyond any point of no return.
“My friends,” said Gran, “and I call you all friends, even though I don't even know all your names, I will not disobey the Commander. But today she would have given me orders that I believe to be mistaken. So before she could give me those orders, I left. I am willing to sacrifice my honour to win this war, and I believe we will not, cannot, win until Huskvarna is dealt with. My mission is to track him down and eliminate his poison from the realm. I should be very, very glad of the help of all of you. But if anyone, having heard this, would rather return to camp, then please do so, with my blessing and my very good will. For make no mistake, any who go forward will be named deserter by the end of the day.”
No-one moved.

Four fairies stood on the grass in the Green Room at Technical HQ in Essen, staring at a fifth, who in turn was staring at her mobile phone. Madge Arley was quite proficient now at using her phone, but she still wasn't what anyone would call fast.
“Wait a moment... yes, here it is... confirmation. Confirmation from the Commander herself. I don't believe this! After all the joyful news yesterday, this has to happen! The Commander says 'Previous message confirmed as accurate. I am sorry, Madge, but it's true. Gia'.”
“Desertions?” said Sergeant Svir. “Twenty-one desertions, and it's true?”
“That's what her first message said. And now she's confirmed it. What's happening to us? The humans have an expression for this. Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, they call it.”
“Twenty-one's not too bad,” said General Széchenyi, trying to be optimistic. “After a big victory like that, there may have been volunteers who thought, Enough's enough, and decided to clear off home.”
Madge couldn't find the words. She looked at her fellow-general with despair in her eyes.
“There's more, isn't there?” asked Poppy Rhaeadr. “What haven't you told us yet?”
“You need to hear the whole of the first message,” said Madge, her voice cracking a bit.
“I'll read it,” said her friend Heather. “Give me your phone. Which one... oh yes, I see... from Gia Biagioni, etc, etc, I am sad to announce that during the night, twenty-one sprites have deserted the army. The fact that their motives may be good is irrelevant. Their ranks are suspended and they will be arrested on sight. Three imps: Sizzle Speicher, Gazania de la Pommeraye and Suzette Rabot...”
“Sizzle!” interrupted General Széchenyi. “Impossible. A finer imp never breathed!”
“It gets worse,” said Madge.
“Five fairies,” continued Heather. “Dan Moseley, Carda Rysy, Maag Haagse, Campanilla Eume and Lisette Lavall.”
“This isn't making any sense,” said Arda Svir. “Did they all leave together? What unites them?”
“Loyalty, I suspect,” said Madge. “Probably misguided.”
“Thirteen elves: Gran Herdalen... what! This can't be true! It can't!”
“That's what I said,” Madge sighed. “I asked for confirmation. Confirmation arrived.”
“Bjørk Kinnekulle, Betch, Dale, Fran and Peter Knightwood, Gran Starheim, Ace Moseley, Collen Dolfawr, Hagtorn Maridalen, Ross Rangsdorfer, and Dub and Lupa Berounka. Hmm.”
“Hmm, what?” demanded Madge.
“Well, Gran,” said Heather. “This isn't going-over-to-the-enemy desertion, is it? This is Gran with a plan, taking a small team to help him. And he's not been greedy. There are half a dozen big names there, but no more. I'm sure he could have taken a lot more than that if he'd wanted to.”
“You're defending him?” said Madge. “This is elf nonsense! This is elves spoiling everything with half-baked crazy schemes!”
“Maybe,” said General Széchenyi. “But without Gran, there wouldn't be a victory to spoil, would there? Even the Commander acknowledges the motives may be good.”
“Elves!” muttered Madge. “You can't leave them alone for five minutes. How is the Commander going to have a successful peace conference with a rogue unit doing goodness knows what behind the lines?”
“That's the big question, isn't it?” said Poppy. “What is he planning to do?”
“Wait till I get my hands on him!” fumed Madge. “Just you wait.”
“We have to let everyone know,” said General Széchenyi. “That's why the Commander sent the message. We have to forward it to everyone with a phone and I suppose we will have to send it to all the Allies.”
“Then let's go and tell our people here first,” said Poppy. “They'll be just as stunned as we are. It's going to take some time.”
“I'll go and break it to Will in private,” said Arda Svir.
“Good idea, Arda, thank you,” said General Széchenyi. “Come on, Madge. Elves will be elves and we'll cope. We always do, you know.”

Arda walked quietly from the Green Room to the workshops. Her mind went back many years, to when Gran Herdalen had first arrived as a recruit at Fjaerland. Raw and hurting, bitter and angry with himself and everyone else, it had been touch and go whether he would ever accept discipline and settle down. But his brilliance, his potential, had been plain to see, and people had been patient with him. Arda smiled, remembering how she had defended him, tried to protect him from himself and finally won his trust and his confidence. He might be all grown up now and head of land forces but her feelings hadn't changed a bit.
She found Will quietly sorting components, not actively involved in communications work, but ready to help if needed.
“Will, good morning! Can I have a word in private?”
“Oh, morning, Sergeant... er, sure, where?”
She led the way back to the Green Room which was now deserted.
“I'll come to the point quickly,” she said. “Not many people know that General Herdalen was a twin. But to my knowledge, only six know that Ket Herdalen died of pneumonia. I do, and so does Madge. Bjørk Kinnekulle does, and so do you and Ace. Do you know who the sixth is?”
“No, I've never thought,” said Will. “Maybe the Commander?”
“No, she doesn't know. It's actually Lars Huskvarna.”
“Him! Why?”
“Because he was there. He could have saved Ket's life, but he didn't. He watched him die.”
“He really is evil, isn't he?” groaned Will. “That's terrible beyond anything! Good grief, that is so awful for General Herdalen. No wonder he hates Huskvarna. But why are you telling me this now?”
“Because after yesterday's happy news, something not so good happened. On hearing that the Commander has called a truce and is organising a peace conference, General Herdalen deserted, taking a group of other sprites with him.”
“And one of them's Ace.”
Arda knew she didn't have to say anything else. All she had to do was give Will a moment to think.
“He thinks she's wrong, that there can't be peace while Huskvarna's still around. So he left before she could tell him not to.”
“Exactly. And he may very well be right. And for all we know, the Commander may be glad of it, though not saying so, obviously, to the parliament people. But on the other hand, Gran may go too far. He may let it get too personal, he may not know when to stop. With peace a real possibility, the general's actions could tip the balance either way.”
“And Ace and Bjørk, though they know about Ket, don't know about Huskvarna's involvement?”
“No, I don't think they do.”
“I have to go and join them.”
“Yes, I think so,” said Arda. “At least no-one will wonder at it. They'll just think you wanted to join Ace.”
“Well, that's true too,” said Will. “Thank you for trusting me with this information. I understand why you have, and what I have to do. If it comes to that. And if I can.”
“If you can't, no-one else can,” said Arda. “Pack what you need and slip away quietly.”
“Thanks, Sergeant. Please say goodbye to Colonel Dünnwald for me.”
“I'll do that.” The sergeant hugged him. “Goodbye, Will, and good luck.”

All morning, the news was going out from Essen. The Technical Section was more stunned by the loss of Will than by anything else. There was a loss of confidence juddering through the team, but Colonel Dünnwald steadied them, saying firstly that they had been lucky to have Will as long as they had, and that secondly he had every confidence that his splendid scientists and scavengers would be able to cope perfectly well now. Everywhere else, reaction was mixed. Senior fairies might roll their eyes and make scathing remarks about elves, but General Herdalen was just as highly thought of as the Commander, and there was a general feeling that they must both have had good reasons for the decisions they had made, and a tentative hopefulness that everything would work out somehow.
When the news reached the Allies, David monitored messages for a long time, just looking what people were saying. He was surprised to notice that the older Allies were more inclined to think it was a good sign. He himself felt more concerned about the sprites he knew, and how they were feeling. Will had already texted that he was going to join Ace, so that was all right, but what would Rose and Clover do? How torn were they feeling? It wasn't just the Moseleys either, it was all the old team from Fjaerland. Gran Herdalen now had six of them. Of the remaining six, two happened, he knew, to be working with Rose and Clover. Stella and Bella, their names were, and they would be feeling torn too, and quite possibly baffled, or hurt or even angry. They were the ones he was thinking of as he walked across to Moseley Lodge with the latest news.

He crossed the bridge over the motorway and, when no-one was looking, slipped into the far side of Moseley Wood by swinging aside a plank that was fixed at only one end. He always wore dark clothes, and he had learned how to move silently, so he was just as unnoticeable as a sprite as he moved deeper into the wood, even though he had a large plastic bag under his arm. He saw Val and Viola first, flying in and out of branches just for the fun of it. He waved and they flew lower, settling beside him as he sat down in his usual place on a sturdy stump near the house. Aesculus came rushing out, with a screwdriver in his hand, followed by Primrose, smiling in welcome.
“Hello, David! Isn't it a lovely day? Is everyone all right? What's the latest?”
When he'd told them, Aesculus, predictably, came down firmly on General Herdalen's side. The general was one of his greatest heroes and could do no wrong in his eyes.
“And if Ace and Will and Betch have gone with him, that proves he must be right,” he stated cheerfully.
“Well, being sure you're doing the right thing, and it actually being the right thing, aren't always the same,” Val suggested gently. “But if he's gone after General Huskvarna, who really does sound a monster, it's hard to find fault with that.”
“He's the one who hurt the Tree, isn't he?” said Primrose. “Will you tell Rowan, David, that we've found another diseased ash in Abney Park? We're trying to heal it, of course, but she'll want to mark it on her map.”
“Of course,” said David. “Which one... oh, goodness, not the giant one?”
“No, no, that one's okay. It's the one beside the path near the pond.”
“I'm going round there later, I won't forget to tell her. She found another one in Tatton last week, herself.”
“David,” said Viola, who'd been sitting thinking quietly, “what will Rose and Clover do?”
“I don't know,” said David. “What would you do, if it was you?”
“I think I would worry in case the elves had made a bad decision. I would hope they were all right. And I would wonder if I ought to go and help them. But in the end, I think I would just carry on with my job.”
“Yes,” said David thoughtfully. “Yes, I can just hear them saying that too. You know what, Viola, I think you're right.”
He smiled at her, hoping she wouldn't worry too much, then opened his bag and pulled out a stack of used magazines.
“Brought these for you... fashion for Viola, home interiors for Primrose, wildlife for Val and electronics for Aesculus. Enjoy your reading!”
He got up to go, smiling at their delighted faces. To think there was peace and safety here for these four in particular, made him very happy.
“Thank you, David! Bye, see you soon!”
When he went to Rowan's house, he talked it all over with her and Laura. When Sally and Gary got in from work, they went over it all again. Sally invited him to stay for a meal, and round the table they carried on discussing it.
“It's not knowing where General Gran's lot are that worries me,” said Laura. “And I bet they won't tell us, either.”
“No,” said Sally. “They will save us from having to take sides. If they don't tell us, then if anyone – Madge, say – asks us if we know where they are, we can truthfully say we don't know.”
“They'll keep in touch,” said David. “Ace will, won't he? He can let us know they're all right without going into details. But why did Karl and Leif seem to think it wasn't a bad thing? Don't they want peace? Or do they think the parliament people are tricking the Commander, or something like that?”
“I don't think it's that kind of thing,” said Gary. “I have a feeling they see it as part of a pattern, a stage that civil wars – all civil wars – go through. And so that means it's a stage nearer its end, and so they're glad for that reason.”
“I don't understand,” said Rowan. “What d'you mean, Dad? D'you mean this is a normal thing to happen?”
“Yes, in a way. If people are forced to pick one side or another, they don't all choose for the same reason. And they might put smaller disagreements to one side, to concentrate on one big issue. So for the sprites, it's been about freedom against control. And the parliament side seems to have split already, between the ones who want parliament in control, and the ones who want Special Brigade. And now the army side has split a little, about how to bring the war to an end. It's not really a split about fundamentals, but that could still happen. A lot of them want a queen. But the people from gangs who've been liberated from that prison, you can bet they don't want a queen. They want complete freedom.”
“Oh, I see,” said David. “So it's when you've nearly won, or think you have, that arguments start.”
“That's it,” said Gary. “But it does open up chances for negotiation. If you have to bring two sides back together, these splits are where you find your room to manoeuvre.”
“It's extraordinary,” said Sally. “They're practically half plant, yet they behave so much like humans.”
“I just wish the war was over,” said Laura. “I can't imagine meeting a sprite I didn't like, and I hate it that they have to fight each other. And Marta says the same.”
She looked so unhappy, Sally changed the subject slightly to ask what else Marta had said, and if she had any news. David and Rowan got up to clear the table. In the kitchen, David remembered the message from Primrose and told Rowan about the ash tree in the park. Rowan suddenly looked very worried.
“I found three new infected trees myself in Tatton,” she said. “Since I started my project, the infection rate has doubled in a month. And in studies that other people have done, studies from last year, it's nowhere near as bad.”
“You think it's since the Tree was damaged?”
“I do,” said Rowan. “But I can't tell anyone. And even if I could, what could they do? What can any of us do?”
“I don't know,” said David. “But I wonder. We can't heal the Tree. Even the sprites can't heal the Tree. But we can help them heal the realm.”
“I hope we can,” said Rowan. “Somehow I think that would help more than anything.”

The news about Gran Herdalen's desertion spread even faster than the news about the liberation of the camp. By the end of the day, nearly every sprite with even a passing interest in current affairs had heard. But there was a team of fairies, one of the teams that had gone out from Essen, who hadn't heard at all. They only had one phone – Lieutenant Clover Moseley had it – but it had run out of charge and the team had been travelling all day, with no time to fiddle around with batteries. It was getting dark when they stopped for the night. They'd hitched a lift on top of a lorry for eighty miles and they were stiff and tired. As they approached the city of Magdeburg, Clover signalled to her team to fly off when the lorry slowed down to leave the autobahn. They had to find the Hill for the state of Saxony-Anhalt, which wasn't a hill at all – there weren't any round here – but an island called Rotehorninsel. So they would have to cross the city and then follow the banks of the Elbe, and Clover thought dawn would be much better than dusk for tackling that. Meanwhile, stopping in the suburbs would give them a good chance of finding a decent place to stop for the night. Clover flew high to see the lie of the land and quickly down again.
“There's a park,” she told the others gratefully. “Only a couple of blocks away.”
“Oh, good,” sighed Rose. “I hope it's got some water. I feel as if I'm covered in grit from head to foot.”
The park was easy to find and so was the water. It was only a small duck pond, but the water was reasonably clean and the ducks weren't interested in them, so that was all right. Stella and Bella bathed while Clover and Rose collected wood and kept watch. Then they bathed while Stella and Bella lit a fire and brewed tea.
“Oh, that's better,” said Rose. “Dirty clothes I can put up with if I have to, but not dirty skin and hair.”
“It was a bit of an effort,” Clover admitted. “Part of me would rather have gone to sleep. But I do feel better for it.” She took a sip of tea then opened her backpack. “Now let's get some life into this battery so we can see the latest.”
“I doubt there's much,” said Bella. “After all that excitement at the camp yesterday, they'll be resting and sorting things out.”
“True,” said Rose. “Look out, Clover, don't spill the acid on your sleeve.”
“Ach, bother! Too late,” said Clover. “Never mind, that's done, let's charge the phone.”
She found the wire to connect it, then lay back to look at the stars. It was getting chilly now at nights, they'd need their blankets later. Her mind was drifting happily into sleepy byways when suddenly Bella hissed.
“What was that noise?”
Clover sat up, startled, and all four fairies listened intently. Then quietly, with their hands held out before them in a peaceful and unthreatening way, came five elves. The one in front was smiling and Clover thought she had never seen a more elegant and sophisticated-looking elf. He said something none of them understood. The fairies looked at each other.
“Guten Abend,” said Clover carefully. “I am sorry, but none of us can speak much German.”
“Oh, you are English!” said the elegant elf. “That is good. We are Polish, but English we can speak better than German. My name is Debin Wilanów, a captain of the Wielkopolska Unit.”
“Oh,” said Clover. She held up her arm to show her wristband. “We're army.”
“We are not your enemies,” said Captain Wilanów. “Permit me to introduce my companions. This great silver fir, my lieutenant, Jakub. This snowy-haired handsome one, a white poplar called Tomasz. Mighty Sosna is a pine and the little alder here, is our youngest, Olcha.”
Clover, impressed in spite of herself by his beautiful manners, introduced herself and her team.
“Would you like some tea?” said Rose.
“Rose!” said Bella. “They're the enemy!”
“I don't think they are,” said Rose. “And even if they were, do you seriously think we can beat five big elves when you're the only one of us who's any good at fighting?”
“We would love some tea, Miss Rose,” said the captain. “Thank you. We had come to the pond to drink water when we caught the fragrant scent.”
“Come and sit down,” said Stella. “There's plenty of room around the fire.”
Clover waited until Rose had finished serving out tea, then spoke up thoughtfully.
“What did you mean, Captain, when you said you were not our enemies? You're part of Special Brigade, aren't you?”
“It's complicated,” said the captain. “We were, but we are not any more. The head of Special Brigade – as he was then, now calling himself Lord Protector – abandoned us, betrayed us into the hands of the army. We didn't realise it at the time. But our ancient and honourable unit would never have put up with his plan, and he knew this.”
“We know this is true!” said Bella to Clover. “It's exactly what Madge said happened, when she was telling us about what happened to Wayne.”
“Wayne? Wayne Langdon?” said the captain. “He is a brave elf, and one that I admire. Have you news of him, do he and Stan still live?”
Clover responded cautiously. She didn't know for sure whose side this elf was on, or Wayne either for that matter.
“We all knew him at Fjaerland,” she said. “We heard he had done something wrong, and been sent to a punishment unit that was on guard duty somewhere.”
“Ah, that makes sense!” exclaimed the lieutenant, Jakub. “That will be the Renegades, surely?”
“You are right,” said the captain. “That is good news, then, both that Wayne lives and that you believe me. For the next part of my story is harder to believe. We were at Wielkopolska when it was in army hands, and there was a dispute with local sprites over what to do with us. A fight broke out, and it was won by the General Gran Herdalen, whom I am sure you must know. And he let us go. He spoke of our history and our role in defending the members of parliament from harm. Where was the Premier? That was what he wanted to know. He said that when the Premier was found, many things would become clear. And we, he said, had a better chance of finding him, so he set us free to do that. So we split ourselves up into small groups to search, and we have been searching ever since.”
“So you haven't found him yet, then,” said Bella. “What if he's dead?”
“I have to admit, the possibility sometimes crosses my mind. If he is, I suspect he never left Wielkopolska. We crossed paths with another team at Prešov, and they had spoken there to a member of central cabinet. He remembered that on the day the envoys evacuated, the Premier had remained, saying he would be the last to leave.”
“And who else would still have been around?” said Tomasz. “General Huskvarna, for sure. But if he killed the Premier, he is not going to say so.”
“No. Not at all.” Captain Wilanów turned to speak to the fairies again. “Communications are very poor. Our teams have started leaving messages with people they can trust at the parliament Hills. In that way, we heard from one team who had been all the way to Sardinia, to the Premier's colony, to see if he had simply gone home. But he had not. But at that same Hill, we finally picked up a clue. Have you heard of the Enlightener?”
“Vaguely,” said Clover. “I know he is a tree of power that grows in Greece, no more than that.”
“He has an interpreter, a fairy who sends out his power into the realm. All knew that Calla Babele had been called from central cabinet to fill this role. But what we did not know until last week was that Calla Babele is - or was - the Premier's closest friend. So now our plan is to travel to Greece ourselves and speak to Calla. If anyone can discern what has happened to the Premier, it will be she.”
“But that is a terrible journey,” said Jakub. “Well over a thousand miles. Even if we make it, it will take weeks. But it will have to be done.”
“It's a shame you don't have any fairies,” remarked Bella. “They could have done the journey faster, at least.”
“It is a great weakness,” said the captain. “We will have to go ourselves, for it will take all our combined knowledge and training even to find the Enlightener. But if I had fairies – or even if I knew any courageous and wise fairies – I would implore them to help us, by travelling with us to Greece.”
“Indeed,” said Tomasz. “Even a mixed team travels so much faster than elves alone.”
All this gave Clover a very strange feeling, and she frowned.
“I wish we could go,” said Bella. “It sounds more important than travelling from Hill to Hill with news that will get there anyway, at some point.”
“I wonder if we could?” said Stella. “General Herdalen obviously thinks it's important. If he were here, mightn't he tell us to go?”
“Possibly,” said Clover. “I do see what you mean. But we don't know what else is going on. For all we know, he's already sent some crack team to find this Calla.”
“I'm not sure he could,” said the captain. “From the army, even the area to start searching would have been kept a close secret. But if you will trust me enough to come on this mission, I will trust you with the location.”

Clover felt stunned. How had things come so suddenly to this, that she was being landed with such a difficult decision to make? Her mind was telling her to stick to her task and not be distracted. But the trouble was, her heart wasn't. Some deep instinct was telling her not to miss this priceless opportunity.
“I don't know what to think,” she said honestly. “Give me a little time here. My phone has finished charging. I need to check on the latest news, and I really have to focus to do that.”
She wandered off a little, appreciating the way no-one tried to follow her or talk to her. She read some messages, and gasped out loud when she got to the important one. Everyone looked at her, and all the faces were asking the same question: what's happened?
Clover thought quickly. She did trust these elves, but they weren't army, and she wasn't going to say anything about army sprites that might sound critical.
“After what happened yesterday, the Commander is calling a peace conference. But in the meantime, on his own initiative, General Herdalen has left to pursue a different plan, and taken a small group with him. Five of them from our old team.”
Clover's tact was wasted with Bella around.
“Without permission, you mean?” she demanded. “Wow, that's not good, is it?”
“There's a text from Will too. Going to join Ace – no more, no less.”
“So apart from Hogweed and Wayne – and us four – our whole team has disappeared with the general?”
“Yes,” said Clover. Then suddenly, it was as if a cloud shifted and the sun came out. “So we could, too. If we don't turn up at Rotehorninsel, absolutely no-one, not even Madge, is going to worry. We can go to Greece, because everyone will just assume we've gone to join the others.”
“Oh,” said Stella. “This is meant to be.”
“You have to follow instincts,” said Rose. “It feels right.”
“Definitely,” said Bella. “Eventually, Ace will hear, and he would worry, of course, but with a bit of luck we'll be there and back before that happens.”
“I did not know there were fairies with such spirit,” said the captain. “I believe you will do it, Miss Bella!”
“Debin,” said Clover firmly, “you can stop calling us 'Miss'. Honestly. We are allies now, we've been brought together for one specific purpose, so there's no need to be formal. Tell us what you know about Greece.”