CHAPTER 7 - Rowan Hall

Lars Huskvarna did have some redeeming features. Even though he terrified his own troops and was widely regarded, especially by the army, as the most evil elf who had ever lived, he had mental resilience and focus like no other. After the disaster at Mladá Boleslav, he didn't waste a second on regrets or frustration or even recrimination. Gran Herdalen might have outwitted him this time, but even as he was running away to safety in the beautiful Czech countryside, he was reassessing, planning and deciding what to do next.
First, he assembled the remnants of his force. Some elves had followed him through a gap and others would have taken advantage of other gaps. Some fairies would have escaped, undoubtedly. No-one was in pursuit. The raggle-taggle army force – there by mistake, by the look of it – were simply trying to help the civilians deal with the prisoners they already had. After half an hour, he chanced a whistle signal, and more stragglers found him. When dusk fell, he sent up a fairy with a light and that brought the rest of them in. He nodded briskly at them all and gave his orders.
“We need to move. We will travel through what remains of the night, then at dawn we will lie low and attempt to message back to the camp. Herdalen's on his way there, for sure.”
“What do we do about that?”
“Can't beat him to it. I think I'll tell them to abandon the prisoners in the forest, fire the place and rendezvous at Passau. Anyone who gets separated can meet up there, too. That'll do for now. Get moving, and make it fast.”

He wasn't totally surprised when he reached Passau and found only Klethra Diolkos and Blanche Hakarp there. He'd had a suspicion that his messages just weren't getting through. But when he heard their report, he was angrier than he'd ever been in his life. His evil smile got broader and broader as the news got worse and worse.
“So every single Brigade sprite was taken prisoner,” Blanche concluded bravely. “But the next day, something happened – they had some bad news of their own, I think – and their attention was distracted. About a dozen of us escaped, but all in different directions. And unfortunately, the fragment of a message that mentioned Passau was known to very few. The only other escapee who would know to head here would be Lieutenant Étretat.”
“Unbelievable incompetence,” whispered Huskvarna. “Half the Brigade now locked up – over half, probably – and the army weaklings no doubt crowing and thinking they've won. Next, they'll be talking about peace, and the Envoys will lap it up – anything, so long as they can feel important – and so will the Hills. Anything for a quiet life, that lot. But I warn you, if we lose, the realm will die. Extinct, finished, wiped out forever, that's what sprites will be. And don't think it can't happen. It can, and it will. We won't be the first species to be wiped out by humans and we won't be the last. Only strong leadership can save us now. Somehow, I have to turn things round. And how am I supposed to do that, with only you lot left to work with?”

It was a rhetorical question. He was so far from expecting an answer that when he got one, he was stunned into silence. And the answer was followed by comments... they were discussing this! General Huskvarna opened his mouth to silence them with a withering remark but then he closed it again as he realised what had happened. These were all sprites who, when the opportunity to escape had presented itself, had reached out and grabbed it. They could think for themselves and they weren't intimidated. Rapidly reassessing, he listened.
“We have to get the Hills to release all their prisoners. Then we'll have numbers again. And the only way to do that is to make them realise that they need us to keep order.”
“But there isn't any disorder,” said Blanche. “Oh, I see... we create some.”
“Not just some,” grinned the fairy who'd come up with the idea. “Lots. Disorder worse than any gang ever caused. And the army will get the blame, because if they've won, they should be in control, shouldn't they?”
“I get it, said an elf. “Something so bad it shocks the whole realm, makes everyone despair of the army and turn back to us.”
“Good thinking,” approved General Huskvarna. “Excellent. And what is the something so bad? Burning colonies... attacking Fjaerland... we've done that. It would have to be even worse. And we would have to be disguised as gangs. There must be no question of the Brigade causing trouble, but only of the Brigade being seen as the only answer to it.”
There was silence then, while they thought. But then a voice rang out from the back of the crowd.
“Attack the schools. And make sure a few babies get killed. That should do the trick.”
General Huskvarna's smile changed. Almost it seemed as if some genuine pleasure might be behind it.
“That is a very good suggestion,” he called. “Come forward, that elf. What is your name and unit?”
“Bépin Étretat,” said the elf. “Re-training Unit. I've only just arrived.”

While Huskvarna and his troops were heading south to rendezvous at Passau, two other elves were heading north. Wayne and Stan had been moving steadily and cautiously away from the Bohemian Forest ever since they had escaped at the end of August. Once they were far enough away that they could stop fearing capture, they even began to enjoy themselves, each of them feeling in a way more free than he ever had before. Wayne, who'd always been a pessimist and a bit of a worrier, had never felt so light-hearted. He'd been sentenced to death and then rescued by his friend, and after an experience like that, ordinary worries couldn't touch you any more. And as well as that, his cover was blown, and the effort he'd been sustaining for over two years now was over. He'd never have to pretend again. Stan felt equally free. All his life, he'd had to do as he was told, to live up to the expectations of others and to suppress any thoughts of his own that he might have had. Now there was no-one to tell him what to do and no-one to tell him what to think. So they wandered along, stopping when they felt like it, sleeping when they felt like it, and talking, always talking.
At first, they managed with German, as they had been doing since the potions stopped working, but soon Wayne began to teach Stan English, and to learn some Polish from him. And when they were feeling like the philosophical souls they truly were, they discussed politics and honour and the nature of true democracy. And when they were just feeling like the elves they also truly were, they sat on the banks of streams and tried to throw acorn cups across to the opposite bank. No-one knew where they were, and although they knew it wasn't true that no-one cared, they felt it didn't really matter. There was nowhere they had to be and nothing they had to do. They swam in lakes and jumped up hills for the fun of it. They bathed in the sun and surfed in the wind and drank pure water and milk fresh from the cow. They didn't know it then, but they were healing battered minds and spirits and building up strength for the even greater tasks that lay ahead of them.
So for a month, they lived for the moment, taking joy from everything they found, and their friendship deepened every day. But then there came a day in late September when the wind blew a little fresher and Stan saw a sort of keen alertness in Wayne's eyes that he hadn't seen before.
“Let's go to Gruski,” said Stan.
“Your home colony? All right. But why, any reason?”
“Oh, yes," said Stan. “We need to give evidence about what we've seen. The founder colonies need to take responsibility for what they started.”
“It's a good thought. They didn't mean to create a monster, but they have. What are they going to do about it?”
“They may not do anything, of course. But how can they know what the problems are if no-one tells them? Let's go and tell them.”
“Stan,” said Wayne, “are the wild bison really as big as people say?”
“No,” said Stan. “They're much, much bigger. But don't worry. They're not dangerous to sprites. They can't turn fast, it's easy to jump out of their way.”
“OK. If you say so,” grinned Wayne. “Then what we need now is a railway station.”

It took them a week. Prague to Warsaw was easy, but at each end the trains were fewer and slower. When they finally jumped off at Hajnowka, Wayne could see an impressive line of trees in the distance.
“Welcome to Białowieźa Forest,” said Stan.
“Bee-aye-woh-vee-eye-jah?” repeated Wayne. “Polish is so difficult.”
“At least we're on the Polish side,” said Stan. “There's a border runs right through the forest, and on the other side, even the alphabet is different.”
“This is incredible. I feel like I'm in another world.”
“Wait till you get deeper in, I think you'll like it! There are six colonies in the forest, and Gruski is the furthest away, so you'll see plenty of forest on the way. It should take about four days.”
“Four days!” said Wayne faintly. “A forest that takes four days to cross! How huge is that?”
“Oh, that will just take us to the centre,” laughed Stan. “But we do have to do a bit of a detour. I think we ought to avoid Augustów colony.”
“That name rings a bell. Oh, I remember. Colonel in Special Squadron.”
“Exactly. If she happened to be at home, she might try to arrest us. I want our senior sprite on our side before we meet anyone like that.”
“Good plan,” Wayne approved.
They crossed the tree line and entered the forest itself. At once the light changed and became dimmer and greener, and to start with Stan and Wayne moved slowly, breathing in the good scents and feasting their eyes on the beauty. But after a while, without having to talk about it, they picked up the pace, remembering just how far they had to go. They slept in a tree that night, and drank from a stream in the morning. The second day, Wayne saw his first bison. It crashed across a path ahead of them and Wayne just stopped and stared. Like a huge, black cow, only stranger and much wilder, it seemed to him like something out of a story, something that was hard to believe was real even after you'd seen it.
After that, they went on more cautiously in case there were any more around, and Wayne saw how much bigger and more ancient the trees were even than yesterday. Huge trunks soared above them, fallen trunks lay here and there, covered with the thick, green moss of decades, and there were oaks that seemed to have stood for centuries. Even the Bohemian Forest hadn't been like this. It had something of the awesomeness of the Eastern Forest at Fjaerland about it, while being much, much bigger.
“This is amazing,” Wayne whispered. “Never, ever, seen anything to equal it.”
“I believe it's the oldest forest left in Europe now,” said Stan. “They say it's always been forest here, always since the dawn of time.”
“I can believe that,” said Wayne. “And the colonies, they're all ancient too?”
“Oh, yes. But not as cut off as you might expect. I don't mean they've got Allies or technology – nothing like that – but they do have a sense of responsibility, I think. A feeling that, if you're lucky enough to live in a place like this, you have a duty to know what's going on in the outside world.”
“Do any humans live here?”
“Some do. There are a few villages here and there. And guards, who patrol the border strip. Then there are visitors, who come to walk and look around, but they tend to keep to marked paths and the lakesides. The colonies are all far away from humans, deep in the forest where there are only sprite paths.”
“Wonderful,” sighed Wayne. “Can we go up in the canopy for a minute? I'd love to see how far it spreads.”
“Sure, why not?”
They chose a pine that seemed to be even taller than its neighbours and jumped from branch to branch up to the very top, then swayed a little on the topmost perch as they got their balance. Wayne stared around, letting his eyes drink in the amazing sight, letting it sink into his soul. In every direction, as far as the eye could see, there was nothing but the tops of trees. The spikes of pine and larch, the rounded domes of oak and chestnut, fitted into a perfect pattern of texture, while the colours of autumn brightened the millions of greens with scarlet, brown and yellow.
“Bee-aye-woh-vee-eye-jah,” whispered Wayne carefully. “You are the most beautiful thing I have ever seen, and I will remember you till my dying day. Thank you, Stan.”
When they reached the ground again, Wayne knew he had tears in his eyes, but he wasn't worried. Stan did too. They slapped each other on the back and carried on with their journey.

On the third day they saw a lot of hikers, heading for a lake. They stopped too, for a swim, but once they had left the lake behind, Wayne began to feel that they had left the human world behind too. The trees were closer together and the canopy denser, so it grew very much darker. Here and there, a shaft of sunlight came down, its brilliance dazzling and its shimmering column alive with specks of glowing dust and shining insects. The undergrowth was thicker, so they often had to take to the trees to make progress and now and then Stan hesitated to think carefully, to be sure of his way. That night, they saw a wolf sniffing interestedly around the base of the tree they were resting in, but to Wayne's great relief it loped off after more promising scents.
By the afternoon of the fourth day, they began to see signs of sprite life. At first it was just paths, but then they began to see scattered houses. Wayne realised the colony was spread over a wide area. They had infinite space and no reason to huddle together for safety. Later the paths grew wider, they saw fairies high above and Stan said they were nearly there. Footsore and thirsty now, they carried on more slowly. It was starting to go dark. All at once, the main path was illuminated by fairy lights hanging in the lower branches, and that made Wayne smile. It reminded him of the way the street lights came on in London, and he certainly hadn't been expecting to see anything here that reminded him of home. Then there were more sprites about, who called out greetings. Some of them recognised Stan and called out his name. After that, quite a crowd began to follow them, curious, no doubt, to hear the latest news.
“Where are we heading?” asked Wayne. “Straight to see the senior sprite?”
“Yes,” said Stan. “It's only good manners, after being away so long. But I need to get him to see why I've left the Brigade and that might not be so easy. I hope he'll listen.”
Towards the centre of the colony, they moved up into the trees. Wayne saw wide pathways like rope bridges leading from tree to tree, and huge platforms across branches, some with buildings on them, others just moss-lined places to sit or sleep safe from bison and wolves. One had a sheltering roof but no walls, and here half a dozen little ones were having a flute lesson. One most definitely had walls, strong and sturdy, and Wayne was certain he had glimpsed books through a window. A collection of records? Maybe even a library? His mind was reeling. How permanent, how confident would a colony have to be, to have such a thing? Back home, ekeing out an existence in the east end of London, Langdon colony didn't even have a permanent base, let alone buildings. More and more buildings crowded together now, of all shapes and sizes, some ancient, some looking quite new, until it looked like a little town. Stan smiled at him encouragingly then led him across a wide open space that looked just like a market square, only with timber below your feet instead of paving.
“And that,” said Stan, pointing, “is the senior sprite's house. I suppose he moves in when he's chosen, because it's very old. I don't remember. It's pretty good, isn't it?”
“It's brilliant,” said Wayne. “I love that design.”
It looked terrific fun as a place to live. It was all connected to a huge vertical branch, with lots of different rooms and platforms joined by ropes, ladders, poles and slides. It looked more like a cat tree than a house, but of course Wayne didn't say that. Not many of these sprites would know what a cat tree was, or possibly even a cat. At the bottom of the first ladder was a bench, and here Stan sat down and gestured to Wayne to sit beside him.
“I don't know if he's at home or not,” Stan explained. “But either way, this is the procedure. You wait here until he tells you to come on up, or comes down to see you.”
“What if he doesn't want to talk to the person?”
“Oh, then he throws something at you and you go away and come back another day.”
Wayne laughed. “Well, we've picked up quite a crowd here, and they're all hanging around, so they must think he'll put in an appearance soon.”
Just then a fairy walked through the crowd and right up to them. Stan stood up respectfully, so Wayne copied him. She asked Stan a couple of questions in Polish, which he answered, then appeared to be telling him something.
“Dziękuję,” said Stan.
Wayne knew that one – thank you. The fairy nodded at Wayne then went to sit a short distance off, on one of two mossy stones that looked a bit like thrones.
She's the senior fairy, thought Wayne. And she's waiting too, now.
As if Stan had heard his thoughts, he whispered to Wayne.
“Nica,” he said. “Senior Fairy.”
“Very good!” said Stan. “Naparstnica is the flower name. Don't know it in German or English, though. Very, very tall, grows on every wayside, pink flowers like bells, all down the stem.”
“Oh, foxglove,” said Wayne. “What a tall, elegant fairy. She looks very wise.”
“Oh, she is. The senior sprite is always an elf, here – tradition, I suppose – but no-one minds, because the senior fairy is just as important, we don't have any imps, and the goblins come and go. All summer, they roam the forest. I doubt they're even back yet.”
That was true enough, thought Wayne, looking around. The crowd – which was quietly getting bigger as news spread that something was up – was only elves and fairies, though of every possible age, from tiny tots just out of the bud to frail elders with almost transparent skin. At the back, out of sight, some of them started clapping or stamping their feet. Could that be because they'd spotted the elf they were all waiting for? It seemed so, for soon through the crowd came two very tall elves, very alike in age and strength. They both had black hair, and the only difference between them that Wayne could spot was that the one in front had straight hair, and the other's was curly.
“That's him, in front,” whispered Stan. “Jesion – an ash – and behind him his friend Sosna.”
“Scot's Pine?”
“That's right.”
Those were the last words Wayne picked up for quite some time. He tried to follow what was being said, but it was impossible. It was all just too fast. Suddenly he heard his name leap out from a torrent of Polish. He guessed Stan was introducing him so he smiled and bowed his head respectfully, hoping that would be enough. Both the senior sprite and the senior fairy bowed their heads graciously in return, so it must have been all right. He stood up straight and assumed what he hoped was an interested and intelligent expression. Everyone was allowing Stan to tell his story without interruption, but their passive expressions gave Wayne no clues. He didn't know if they approved or disapproved of what they were hearing. When Stan had finished – confidently, but humbly, not defiantly – he just stood still and waited. A murmur of conversation broke out among the crowd, but the senior sprite – Jesion – seemed lost in thought. Nica leaned across and spoke quietly to him and he nodded. To Wayne's worry and surprise, she spoke to him, asking him in slow and clear Polish, how much Polish he knew. Wayne replied as well as he could. He thought he had said I can speak a little Polish but obviously he hadn't pronounced it right because there was an outburst of quiet laughing behind them and Nica politely suppressed a smile. She spoke to Stan, who at once spoke to Wayne in German.
“She is asking me to translate. Just look at her and I will say the words of you both. First she says, 'How much did you understand of what Stan said'?”
“A few words only, ma'am,” said Wayne. “My own name, and the words for elf, Special Brigade, and tea.”
“Good. We have here a fairy who once in her youth travelled to Norway to see the Talende Tree before the army stopped welcoming visitors. I want you to tell her your story in your own language and she will tell me if it matches what Stan has told us.”
Wayne was stunned to hear that they thought the army didn't welcome visitors, but he knew now wasn't the time to worry about that. He squashed it down to think about later – a trick he had learned from Will – and tried to marshal his thoughts. He thought he could tell, by the length of time Stan had spoken, how much detail he'd gone into. Meanwhile, the fairy came to the front of the crowd, and Stan introduced her. Wayne heard the name Vicky but he felt quite sure it wouldn't be spelled like that. She was quite old, but not ancient, and you could see she must have been a real beauty in her youth. Honeysuckle, Wayne thought. There was something about the way her streaks curved into coils. He smiled at her. If she valued the Tree that much, she was probably the closest thing they had to an ally in this place.
“Shall I start, ma'am?” he asked.
“How amazing that the gift still works after all these years,” she murmured. “Start as soon as you like, young elf of England.”

So Wayne spoke of how he had joined Special Brigade as the army placement, but had secretly been a spy. He told how he had met Stan, how Stan had been poisoned by a potion, what they had done about it and how they had been sent to the Bohemian Forest as Renegades. He described the regime at the camp and mentioned Betch, then went on to talk about the harsh new prison and the certainty of death for the prisoners and how he had slipped Betch the knife. He made it clear that Stan knew nothing about all this underhand behaviour. Then he spoke about General Huskvarna, now Lord Protector, who had condemned him to death and how he and Stan had escaped together and made their way here.
The fairy, who had been listening very carefully, nodded and turned to Nica and Jesion.
“The stories match perfectly,” she said. “He has added details Stan omitted and omitted details Stan included and he looks at things from a different perspective – an army perspective – but these differences are what prove they are telling the truth. If they had made this up, their stories would be closer. And yet in the fundamentals they are indeed the same.”
“Thank you, Wici,” said Jesion. “Please tell them both that we believe they are telling the truth. Whether they were right so to act, however, is another matter, and one we will need time to think about. For now, we will carry on with our normal evening activities.”
As soon as that had been translated, to Wayne's amazement, everyone ignored them and moved off to do whatever they were supposed to be doing. Wayne and Stan just drew very deep breaths and relaxed.
“Wow,” said Stan, “I'm glad that's over. Well done, you! I'm sorry you got landed in it, I wasn't expecting that.”
“Me neither,” grinned Wayne. “At least they believed us. But what if they decide we made all the wrong decisions and that we're a pair of half-wits who should have stuck it out?”
“They might arrest us and send us back,” said Stan. “But I don't think so. More likely to tell you to clear off back to the army and me to go with you.”
“Which would be okay, Stan. I mean, you'd be safe. They'd welcome you, I know they would.”
“Thanks,” said Stan. “Yes, I kind of knew that. Huskvarna was always sneering at the army for being sentimental, but really it's just normal kindness and courtesy, isn't it?”
“That's it, exactly,” said Wayne. “He's the one who's not normal. Hey, here's Wici coming back.”
“Stan,” she said, “do you have a house to go to?”
“No, not any more. I didn't like the idea of it rotting so I dismantled it before I left. But Wayne and I can sleep in my tree.”
“If you wish,” said Wici. “Soon there will be the music here in the square, and you are welcome to come, of course. You don't have permission to leave the forest, but you're not under arrest. Why not come with me now to my house? I will make drinks for you, and then do as you choose.”
So that was what they had done, and they both enjoyed the evening very much. They didn't know what was going to happen next, but they were both happy to wait, knowing that they'd got the worst bit over with. Finally, after the music, Stan led the way to his tree and Wayne could tell he was quivering with excitement.
“Oh, you've grown!” he exclaimed when he saw it, his voice full of love.
“Beautiful, just beautiful,” said Wayne. He wasn't just being polite, he really meant it. “Castanea sativa. That's called 'sweet chestnut' in English, Stan.”
“Sweet chestnut... I'll remember that one. In Polish it's słodki kasztan.”
“Swodkee kashstan,” repeated Wayne. “Just don't tell me how it's spelled. It'll only confuse me.”

They'd been sleeping in trees and living outdoors for so long that sleeping in the broad branches of Stan's tree, sheltered by its thick fingers of leaves was no hardship at all. They didn't realise it, but they were both tougher, hardier and happier than they'd ever been before, and it showed. If they couldn't see it themselves, others could. They had drawn many impressed and admiring glances when they had stood to speak and their story had won them much sympathy. Through the evening, and again next morning, as the colony sprites chatted to each other, the overwhelming feeling was that Stan and Wayne were brave elves who had done the right thing at great personal risk, and that Stan had brought credit, not shame, on his colony.
Stan and Wayne themselves had stayed out of the way all morning, knowing people would want to talk it all over, but they thought they'd get sent for at some point, so they stayed near Stan's tree where they'd be easy to find. It was about midday when the summons came, from a very tiny, very polite fairy, so they made their way back to the square as instructed. Jesion had been consulting the senior members of the colony. Sosna and Nica were there, but also Wici and half a dozen other elders. Jesion waved them over as soon as they came in sight.
“Good, good,” he said. At once, Wici began translating for Wayne. “I want you to know right away that we have no intention of sending you back to Special Brigade, which has obviously been taken over by a maniac. But we don't want to send you to the army either and you're far too useful to be kicking your heels here or in Langdon, which I have no doubt is the most beautiful place in the famous city of London.”
Wayne kept his face absolutely still, which was not easy at all, but he had had plenty of practice when he was a spy.
“In fact,” continued Jesion, “we have a plan, and we would like your help.”
Stan held out his hands in gratitude, and glanced at Wayne, who smiled and nodded.
“We are here to serve the realm,” said Stan, “in whatever way you think best.”
“Excellent,” said Jesion. “We are Gruski, and we are one of the twelve founder colonies. We began something which has gone very wrong. I am not saying that I think the army is right, because I don't, but they are not my responsibility. Parliament is, and we must put our own house in order. Nica, I leave you in charge of the colony, and here is my stone as your token of authority. Sosna, dear friend, I need you to stay here and support Nica in every way you can. Wici and I will leave tomorrow to travel to the other founders. Together, we will take action. Stan and Wayne, I would like you to travel with us as our escort, and be ready to give your testimony. What do you say?”
“Tak,” said both of them together. “Ja. Yes.”

When Gia Biagioni had heard the names of the deserters, she had never for an instant suspected any of them of malicious intent. She was rather stunned, and shocked at herself that she hadn't seen it coming, but whatever Gran was up to, if he felt that strongly, it had been a clever way to go about it. She was surprised at some of the names. Some she hadn't even heard of, and Gran Starheim, for instance, she wouldn't have thought close enough to anyone to join in, but she heartily agreed with Madge that the general had not been greedy. But it wasn't until she talked to Madge on Buchel Arnsberg's phone that she began to understand why. When Madge mentioned Huskvarna, and hinted at a personal vendetta, it began to make sense.
She'd long suspected that Gran's hatred for Huskvarna had a personal basis, and she guessed he'd never told her that because he didn't want sympathy or special consideration from his commander. So up to a point she trusted him, and even wished him well, but there was no way she was going to say so, even to Madge. Gia knew just as much history as Karl Hagen and Gary Grey. It was easy, far too easy, at a time like this for unity to fracture and discipline to follow it into chaos. That was not going to happen to this army. There was far too much at stake, nothing less, in the long term, than the continued existence of the sprite race. So she denounced the deserters in the strongest possible terms and carried on as if she didn't miss them in the slightest.

That wasn't really true, but she did have plenty of other able and intelligent sprites to help her organise the peace conference, among them the fairy from parliament's central cabinet, Strelitzia Rabot. Strelitzia was cold-hearted and Gia was warm-hearted, but they quickly respected each other, recognising in each other an intensely practical attitude that likes to get things done. Clearly, some kind of peace talks would be necessary to end the war, so the sooner they were organised the better. It helped that Gia didn't actually hate parliament, as some of her generals did. She loved the army, but felt that parliament could have been a force for good, if it had been set up properly in the first place. Strelitzia, likewise, didn't hate the army. She loved parliament and strongly approved of tight controls and firm leadership, but she'd always thought the army could have been useful if it hadn't been so irritatingly independent. Between them those two knew everyone to invite. They needed a good cross section, representatives of every order and every place and every shade of opinion, but not so many that it was impractical. They thought about two hundred would be the right number. Together with Strelitzia's colleagues and the other senior army officers in the Bohemian Forest, they put together a list of points for discussion, and agreed on the wording of an invitation.

The invitations went out to the senior sprites of the twelve founder colonies, from Gruski in the east to Pentreath in the west and to twelve colonies equally prominent in supporting the army, from Knightwood to Olt. They chose one Hill from each country, and invited its Judge or representative. Mladá Boleslav was there, and Franchard and Kamieniece, all fervent for parliament, and Owler Tor, Vingen and Monte Amiata in Italy, from the other extreme, but also Osning in Germany and Oneia in Greece which had mixed feelings or divided loyalties. As well as these, they invited representatives from the huge imp colonies of Spain, and the goblin colonies of Norway and Czechia, and to bring in plenty of age and experience, some retired army sprites and some long-serving envoys.
Next they included themselves, senior army officers and high-ranking members of parliament. They included Major Mecsek, as the senior Special Brigade officer available and Dziki Czosnek, to represent the culture of the sprites for whom gangs were the only way of life they knew.
Then they had to decide how to deliver the invitations. They decided against using the helicopters, which might be off-putting to sprites who weren't used to human inventions. Instead, they sent fliers who knew where they were going out to the Hills east of the Rhine, fliers from both sides who could be trusted to persuade people to listen and to use their local networks to get invitations out far and wide. For the places west of the Rhine, they sent all the information to Madge, for her to organise it from Essen before coming herself to join them.

While all this had been going on, the other sprites there in the forest had not been idle. There were still a lot of volunteers around, and they even had a new one. Bodenmais colony had kept aloof from Special Brigade when they had been running the place, but now they permitted their only young sprite, an elf called Erle, to assist the army. They were all having the time of their lives and showed no wish to go home. Sergeant Olt organised some classes for them and that only made them keener. At the same time, Captain Thurlgrove organised a supply chain to buy fuel, and offered the opportunity to learn to fly and navigate the helicopters. The volunteers for that were almost more than he could cope with. And everyone, with an eye on the shortening days and falling temperatures, lent a hand with putting up some simple buildings.
When Major Mecsek saw all this going on, she came to the Commander with an offer. In exchange for the freedom to move around the camp and join in the building work, she would enforce a truce on her people and guarantee that no-one would try to escape until the peace conference was over. The Commander welcomed the suggestion and gave orders accordingly. She knew well enough by now that the prisoners were all sprites who had been treated shabbily by their commanders and might well be in a frame of mind to look around them and see that the army was not as bad as they had been told.
The only real problem was communication, but even that provided cause for amusement. Everyone here had, at the least, either a little English or a little German, so the day-to-day language of the camp came to be a curious mixture of both. Kiefer Schwarzee, who was Austrian and spoke perfect German, called it Germish and delighted in mixing in English words wherever he could. In vain did the senior officers insist that either German or English was fine, but not both at once. The younger element loved it and used it whenever they could get away with it.

The old re-training camp had been planned and designed as a whole, it had been built with skill and care, and it had served its purpose very well. But it had never looked in the least bit interesting or inspiring. Functional – no more and no less – was all you could have said of it. The building that was going on now in the Bohemian Forest couldn't have been more different. For a start, everyone used his or her own ideas, so there were styles appearing that gave hints of every place in Europe. And they were proper sprite houses, not barracks, so they were well camouflaged. All around the forest fringes, between roots, in hollow trees, between mossy rocks, hundreds of houses were made, as the sprites doing the work felt that the important ones coming to the conference might appreciate a bit of comfort and peace at the end of the day. The Commander, busy with the invitations, left them to it, but when she looked at what they had done, she was astounded and very impressed and said so firmly. She suggested they moved into some of those houses themselves, and to let the Special Brigade sprites on parole move in alongside them.
“Don't huddle in little groups,” she said. “Mix yourselves up. That's my only order.”
The Commander knew she had done all she could for now, and she was feeling cautiously optimistic when some news arrived that tore across the good mood like a knife across a painting. One morning in early October, the imp who had flown to the Romanian Hill called Virful came in, tired from flying all night, her face streaked with tears. It was Lieutenant Retezat from 1st Squadron, who was herself Romanian. She came straight to the Commander.
“The Judge will send his deputy as soon as he can,” she said, “and he promised to send out the messages to other people. But he implored me to fly back here with all speed to bring news. A dreadful thing has happened.”
When the Commander heard it, she was too shocked and appalled to think straight. Instinct took over. She brought water for the exhausted imp and begged her to sit down and rest. Then she called to the first sprite who walked past to call everyone together. It didn't take long for a big crowd to come together. They were in the centre of what had once been buildings but was now a rather muddy circle, littered with bits and pieces that no-one had found a use for. The Commander found a box to stand on. Her voice cracked with emotion as she spoke.
“Thank you for coming so quickly. There is news. Bad news. I would like you to listen now to Lieutenant Retezat, who has just flown in from Virful Hill.”
She stepped down from the box and gave the lieutenant a hand to steady herself as she stepped up in turn. Then the lieutenant took a deep, shuddering breath and began.
“The school at Amutria has been attacked and four have been killed. Two little elves, aged six and seven. Their names were Carpen and Cires. They thought they could help fight off the intruders. A goblin of only eight who was too slow to obey their orders. His name was Achille. They hit him across the head so hard he died of it. And a baby fairy, named Silene only a few weeks ago when she came out of her chrysalis. She couldn't even fly yet. They threw her down from a roof. The Judge sends out this news because he says it is an outrage that will never be forgotten, and that the gang responsible must be brought to justice, or the names of every member of the generation now living will be stained with blood forever.”
No-one who heard her disagreed. Shame and anger, grief and bewilderment filled the hearts of everyone listening. It began to rain, and the rain brought down the autumn leaves, as if the sky and the forest were also weeping for the murdered little ones. The Commander, broken-hearted, tried to stay focused.
“I can hardly think straight,” she said, her voice wobbling. “Who would do such a thing? Why would anyone? It seems beyond belief. Tell me your thoughts. Does anyone have any ideas at all? Lieutenant, have you any more information at all, or any ideas?”
“I saw the fairy who brought the news to the Hill – one of the teachers of the older fairies – and she said, 'A gang, without a doubt. Not one we'd seen before, but nastier than any we had ever seen before'.”
Once that had been translated, there was an uproar. It took Gia a few moments to realise the noise was coming from ex-prisoners who'd all been members of gangs. These were not sprites who set a lot of store by courtesy, or speaking quietly or waiting your turn. They were shouting across each other, while others were yelling translations, with indignant questions and answers coming from every direction. Gia tried to make sense of it, listening carefully to what she could understand and feeling the sense of what she could not. It seemed pretty clear that every gang member there was furious that anyone could think a gang would stoop to this. Their initial fury let loose, they became more specific and mostly switched to English or German.
“This was at Amutria in Romania. Who operates in that area?”
“No, she went north last year with her people to avoid the round-up. She's in Russia now.”
“What about Kyril?”
“He'd never do a thing like this! In any case, he's well known. That fairy the lieutenant mentioned, she'd have recognised him.”
“Well, it wasn't Poles,” said Dziki. “What Polish gangs are left that aren't here?”
“No, they all joined forces and went into Greece.”
“Why would any gang do this? What would they have to gain? All right, so sometimes we help ourselves to nice stuff, but all we've ever done was claim our right to team up with anyone we like and roam around.”
“Colonies that were burned would not agree,” said Gia.
Things quietened down a bit when the Commander spoke. Then Dziki spoke up.
“Gia Biagioni,” she said, “it's true that gangs did Special Brigade's dirty work for them, even to the point of fires. It saved a lot of arrests. But murdering babies? No way. I'm the oldest leader of one of the oldest gangs. And I'd stake my life that none of us would do such a thing.”
“I believe you, Dziki,” said Gia. “Major Mecsek!” she called out. “Would you stake your life that Lars Huskvarna was not involved in this?”
The major looked around thoughtfully before answering.
“No, I would not,” she said. “But I wouldn't jump to conclusions, either. Why would he do this? The Lord Protector is not what anyone would call a good elf, but everything he does is for a reason.”
Sergeant Olt spoke up, sounding grimmer than anyone had ever heard him.
“That's the question, isn't it? Why? Whoever did this surely did it for a reason. Testing – probing – provoking – something like that. This wasn't an end in itself, it was done to produce a result. But what result was wanted, I don't know.”
“I think you're right, Luke,” said Colonel Arnsberg. “So it's probably important not to jump into action without thinking. We do have to take action; for one thing, the army is responsible for the schools, and there are three other schools to consider. But it has to be the right action.”
“Warnings, and reinforcements, must go to all the other schools,” said Gia. “I will give thought to the fastest way to achieve that, and have messages on the way within the hour. I bitterly regret that the schools were not already heavily guarded.”
“The Judge did not blame the army, ma'am,” said Lieutenant Retezat, “nor the teachers, nor the Hill. He said that no-one could possibly have foreseen such a need, no-one could have dreamed that a school could be attacked.”
Then the Senior Envoy spoke out. He was a very old sprite indeed, whose name was Hársfa Héfiz. He was a lime from Hungary who had been an envoy longer than most of the sprites there had been alive. His voice quavered a little, but his mind was sharp and logical.
“Justice,” he said. “That is what I am sure we all want to see, whichever side the perpetrators come from. That is what the realm will want to see. And justice is obtained through the law, and the law requires evidence. I don't know if there is any other action that can also be taken, but someone must go and collect evidence from the eye-witnesses. Numbers, descriptions, dates, times – everything we can get.”
“I'll go,” volunteered Sergeant Olt. “I'm Romanian too, I speak the language, I know where the school is. Send me, ma'am.”
“Thank you, Luke. Thank you, Senior Envoy Héfiz. I think that is a good plan. Does everyone agree that evidence should be collected, and that Luke Olt is the right person for the job?”
Through a murmur of agreement, a young voice rang out, speaking a language very few of them knew. But Sergeant Olt recognised it and smiled, and so did Lieutenant Retezat. They both turned, trying to see where the voice was coming from.
“Another fellow-Romanian is here,” said the sergeant, “and is offering to come with me, so that a member of Special Brigade can also bear witness to any evidence we gather.”
Gia glanced at Major Mecsek and nodded, as if to say, over to you. The major came across, and beckoned the speaker forward. She didn't recognise him, though Wayne and Stan would have done, and would have thanked him heartily for not giving them away on the day they escaped.
“Ah yes, you are in the Renegades, aren't you? What's your name?”
“Cor Dniester, ma'am.”
“Report to the army sergeant then, and do credit to the Brigade on your journey.”
“Thank you,” said Gia. “That's a start. And we must send this awful news to Essen, so they can spread it to the rest of the army. What else we might do, will require more thought. If this was meant as a trap, we will not go blundering into it.”

For a few days, Gia was too busy to grieve. Messaging was getting more reliable now more of her people had phones and knew how to use them, but there were so many messages to send and receive and it all took a long time. When she had some respite, she made herself walk all around the huge muddy space in the middle for some exercise, and noted sadly how low and muted the atmosphere had become. She understood, but she worried too. Listless and unhappy sprites could become bored and quarrelsome and then a bad situation could become even worse. She thought for a while, then gathered everyone together again. First, she shared every bit of news she had. There wasn't much, but it helped a bit. Then she suggested something which she thought might help a lot.

“What we need now,” she said, “is somewhere for the conference to take place. Bigger than the conference room at Fjaerland, but not as intimidating as the one at Wielkopolska. Make me something special, that will befit the important work that will be done here. Who's the best designer, do you think?”
“Gus!” shouted dozens of voices, and Captain Thurlgrove stepped forward modestly.
“Goodness, it's not just me,” he said. “It's England 3. Everything we know about design we learned from our dear departed colonel, Rowan Harpsden.”
At the mention of his name, all the army sprites, even the newest volunteers who'd never met him, bowed their heads in respect. The Commander sensed the mood clearly.
“Then we shall call the building Rowan Hall, in his honour and memory. But that is very much an army thing. What can we add that will make Special Brigade and Envoys feel equally respected and at home?”
She looked at Major Mecsek, but she shook her head, at a loss. Then, of all people, Droz Zlatni spoke up.
“I have something in my backpack,” he said. “Something I brought from Wielkopolska. May I go and get it, ma'am?”
“Please do, Droz,” said the Commander.

The package he brought back was well wrapped. He looked rather sheepish as he unfastened it.
“I know,” he said. “No-one moaned about parliament more than I did. No-one hated them more. And I joined in the destruction of Wielkopolska with a good will. But when it came to these, I couldn't do it. A sprite made these, with such skill and care that I had to save them. I didn't know why, but I do now. Here they are, ma'am.”
He held up the famous carved pillars from the cabinet room. Even shrunk as they were, the fine grain of the beautiful wood and the exquisite craftsmanship were plain to be seen. After a moment of stunned silence, everyone cheered and the Commander nodded, well-pleased.
“Well done, Droz. Very well done indeed. That's perfect. Captain Thurlgrove, will you be able to incorporate these splendid pillars in your design?”
“It's already taking shape in my mind, ma'am,” grinned the captain.

It takes sprites longer to travel than it does for them to make beautiful buildings. Before the sprites who'd been invited to the peace conference began to arrive, Rowan Hall was nearly finished. It was tall and airy, but sturdy enough to withstand winter storms. The roof was steeply pitched, to suit the climate, and tiled with scallops of thick bark, and it had inner and outer walls made of pine logs, beautifully carved. The doors were a work of art too, combining the plants of every sprite who had worked on the building. Inside the doors was an entrance hall with a good stone floor where you could stamp the snow off your boots and with comfortable chairs where you could get your breath back after a journey. In the centre was a refreshing fountain, not simple like the ones at Fjaerland, nor pompous like the one at Wielkopolska, but dignified and gracious in smooth granite.
When you entered the hall itself, there were no huge and daunting views. The first thing you saw was a carved staircase, curling and jolly, that led up to a gallery, that ran all the way around the hall, intended as a place where people could sit and listen to what was going on. They could come and go as they pleased without disturbing anyone. This was revolutionary. Neither parliament nor the army had had such a thing before, but England 3 just followed their hearts and came up with ideas that made their fellow-builders think, why did we never think of that before?
Beyond the staircase you entered the debating chamber, and this had been designed to be as practical as possible, but also friendly and welcoming. To the left and to the right, the famous carved pillars from Wielkopolska stood strong and tall, supporting the gallery. In this setting, they didn't look at all intimidating, just impressive. There was a raised area opposite the entrance where speakers could stand to be seen and heard by all, but it wasn't rectangular or boring. Its floor and its backdrop had curved edges, like the cloud shape of the Allies. The steps up to it were all the seven colours of the rainbow, and at the back four flags had been hung, brightening things up even more. They were the flag of the army – the star in the tree – the flag of parliament – the clasped wrists – and the red, white and blue flag of Czechia and the black, red and gold of Germany, because the Bohemian Forest spread across the border of both.
Yet another original feature was the seating for the delegates. It would be impossible to sit in divided groups or sections, or to split into two. Every single seat was different. There were sturdy wooden seats and soft, comfortable chairs in every possible size and shape and colour. There were sofas and stools and bean bags and benches. And more unusual even than that, the floor wasn't flat. It gently undulated from front to back and from side to side. Everyone could see, and yet no-one looked down on anyone else.

The building team sprites were having a wonderful time. As Captain Thurlgrove himself said, he couldn't sleep at night for excitement and wishing to get back to the work. When the central hall was finished, they turned their attention outwards. All around the hall, in between the inner and outer walls, they created an oval walkway, with more seating, and spaces for canteens or noticeboards or anything else that was required. There were extra doors too, so you didn't have to go in and out by the main entrance. But of all the clever things, the cleverest of all were the windows. These had been designed by England 3's glass expert, Herbert. Every log in the walls, every row of tiles in the roof, had a long, thin window between it and the next. Each window was made from tiny pieces of green glass. Light poured in through the roof, and from the outside into the walkway, and from the walkway into the hall. And the light was green, and it sparkled.
From outside, the hall seemed to shimmer in the light. Sometimes it looked like a stand of saplings, sometimes you could walk past and not even see it was there. It went down in history as the most well-camouflaged building there had ever been. The sprites who had built it didn't know that yet, but they were very pleased with their work.
The sprites who were not working on the building, but working on organization, like the Commander and Strelitzia and Major Mecsek, watched its progress with growing amazement. At first they were just stunned. When it was finished they were moved to tears or to jaw-dropped silence. And thanks to Erle Bodenmais, they had an elf tree to use whenever they wanted. The friendly young alder had announced that his tree was now the official phone tree. News of the wonders of Rowan Hall began to spread far and wide across the realm.

Slowly at first, then a little more steadily after a week or two, the delegates began to arrive. Depending on who they were and why they'd come, they arrived in different frames of mind. Some were angry, others optimistic. Some burned with grievances, others with questions. All, though, were rather impressed by the efforts that had been made to welcome them. The Commander encouraged everyone to talk. She wanted each arrival to have ample opportunity to talk at length about everything that was on his or her mind. That way, a lot of venting and fuming would be out of the way before the conference started. But everyone had heard about the atrocity at Amutria School and that softened even the most bitter complaints. No-one wanted to sound petty in the light of a tragedy like that, so it had the effect of making people just that bit more patient and tolerant with each other.

On the same day that the Gruski party left on their mission, 1st October, Gran Herdalen's Rogue Unit was spread out carefully through the Prague to Hamburg express. All Gran had told them so far was that they needed to go to Sweden. Dub and Lupa had got them to Prague, through tiny local stations where all the notices were in Czech. Then Ross had pointed out that they could get all the way to Hamburg without having to change, and from there it would be easy to catch a ferry to Sweden. Not from Hamburg itself, which would be watched, but from Travemunde, which wasn't far away at all. And then, best of all from Ace Moseley's point of view, Will was on the move. When he'd casually announced that, Gran had smiled and said to tell him to meet them at Hamburg.
Ace couldn't wait. They were past Berlin now and he thought that Will had stopped moving, so he was probably there already, his journey from Essen being so much shorter. Ace was with Betch, Dale, Gazania and Suzette, in the space behind a rubbish bin, where seats, back to back, met above them. It was dark and a bit dirty, but they were safe from being spotted and there was room to stretch your legs. Ace squinted at his watch yet again.
“Only an hour to go now,” he said.
“Think about something else,” laughed Betch. “The time will pass more quickly. Have you been to Hamburg station before?”
“I think so,” said Ace. “I wasn't really looking. Phil was working out where to go and I was just making sure everyone kept together and we didn't lose anyone. But I think we changed there on our way south from Oslofjord, didn't we, Gazania?”
“I can't remember,” said Gazania. “I went on more trains that day than I'd ever been on before in my whole life. It's just a blur.”
“I remember how big it was,” said Dale. “So huge, so noisy. It was the last change before we got to Essen. And Tivo mentioned you, Betch. He said he wouldn't be surprised if that's where you'd been taken.”
“So he did,” said Ace. “I remember that.”
“Yes,” said Betch thoughtfully. “He's probably right. The River Elbe... yes, from what I've learned since, the fairy that delivered me must have been following the Elbe into the city. Not that I saw much of it. One quick glance of a German flag and that was it.” He sighed, remembering the horrible journey that had taken him into captivity, but then he smiled. “Oh well, this time I'll see a lot more of the place.”

It was a chance to catch up, to hear more about Betch's experiences and tell him about what they'd been doing themselves, some of it months ago now. It kept them going until the human passengers began to stir. There came the shuffling of feet and the rasp of cases being moved and the soft swoosh of the internal doors. The elves and imps got to their feet and wriggled their backpacks on. There wasn't much headroom. Betch and Dale had to stoop. Cautiously, they emerged from behind the bin and darted from cover to cover, behind people's feet, under the seats and along the heating grilles. Each of them chose a position to jump or fly from when the doors were opened.
Choosing the best moment to move was never easy. It depended on how busy the train was, how many people were waiting to get on, if there were bikes or pushchairs or wheelchairs to consider – so many things you had to think about. But it grew easier with experience, and all of them knew that the vital thing was not to hesitate. Once you'd moved, keep moving at top speed, no matter what. Even if a human caught a glimpse of you, they just frowned and seemed to be wondering if they had just seen something out of the corner of their eye. As Sergeant Olt always told his recruits:
“The only ones who'll spot you are very little girls. And for some reason – humans are unfathomable – when little girls are being taken on or off crowded trains in busy railway stations, and suddenly say, 'Oh look, a fairy!' or whatever, no-one ever, ever takes a blind bit of notice.”

Ace was on his own now. This was a crowded train at a terminus, so the danger was not being spotted as much as being trampled on. But the train wouldn't be moving on, so there was plenty of time. He picked his spot, waited until nearly everyone had gone, and used the suitcase of a slow-moving old lady as cover. He leaped out of the door, touched down lightly on the platform and immediately soared into the rafters, in less than two seconds from grubby train floor to even grubbier cast iron beam. Another couple of seconds and he'd checked that the other four were safely off and then he couldn't, didn't want, to think about anything else but the joy that was coming closer every second. He turned, and at the far end of the beam he saw Will, who stopped, smiled and waved. Then they both jumped and landed at the same moment one millimetre apart.
Betch and Dale, watching from the next beam, looked at each other open-mouthed. Then Betch smiled.
“There's a lot wrong,” he said. “The war's not going that well if we can't even agree on how to win it. But somehow, when those two are back together again, it feels like something in the world is going right.”

The standard rendezvous point for army sprites in railway stations was above the Departures board. Here, as in so many modern stations, there were adverts hung up even higher, in great illuminated boxes that were easily wide enough for sprites to sit on out of sight. Ace waited happily by Will's side for the others to join them, and it made him even happier to see how delighted everyone was to see Will. He was hugged by everyone who knew him, and Ace was careful to introduce him to the one he didn't, Suzette. She looked a bit overwhelmed, actually, to be meeting such a legend. Betch, however, slapped him on the back and said that maybe Ace would calm down a bit now.
Finally, once he'd finished counting everyone, Gran came over and Will stood up. Ace could see at once that Gran was delighted to see Will but his face was still strained and there was a haunted look in his eyes that Ace didn't understand. Okay, they were technically deserters and for a general that wasn't a good thing, but Gran was no stickler for rules and procedures. Whatever was biting him, it had to be more than that.
“Reporting for duty, sir,” said Will with a smile.
Gran returned the smile warmly, even if it didn't quite reach his eyes.
“Wonderful to see you again,” he said. “Welcome to the Rogue Unit. Who knows – knows for certain, I mean – that you've come to join us?”
“Only Sergeant Svir from Essen,” said Will. “She told me to come.”
“I see,” said Gran. “And was that the only thing she told you?”
“No, sir. Not the only thing at all.”
Will's eyes held Gran's for a second. Ace knew that look. He'd seen it himself often enough. Will would be completely honest with you, whether you liked it or not, but he managed to convey a feeling that, whatever it was, it didn't make any difference to him and he wasn't judging you.
“We'll have a chat later on,” said Gran. “But for now, you all need a rest after that epic journey. Ross, you know Hamburg – can you lead us to a decent park?”
“No problem, sir, there's a great one on the opposite bank. We just need to get down to the river and cross over under the bridge.”
“Excellent. Lead on.”

The park was busy, even though the day was cold, so the sprites just found thick bushes where they could curl up to sleep for a few hours out of the wind. When it went dark and they had the place to themselves, they headed for the water. There was a stream which fell into a pond by means of an artificial waterfall, and here they filled their water bottles, and took the chance to swim and play. Ace could see that Gran wanted a word in private with Will, so he made sure they got that chance by starting a noisy and entertaining diving game.
Gran and Will walked off together, still in sight of the others but well out of earshot.
“I know what Arda Svir told you,” said Gran, “and I can tell you that she doesn't know the half of it. I could never speak of it and I still can't. But I know where Huskvarna will go and I know why. And when he gets there, we'll be waiting for him. Tell Ace what Arda told you. When you're on your own. Then don't... you know... don't...”
“Yes sir, I do know,” said Will. “Don't talk about it, to you or anyone else. Just be aware, so we can help when the time comes.”
“I'm not myself,” said Gran. “I know that. I'm trying to be normal but I can't quite manage it. But with you and Ace here I can hold it together.”
From his pocket, Will took Ket Herdalen's tinderbox, carefully wrapped, and gave it to Gran.
“We managed to rescue it before your house burned down,” he explained, as Gran unwrapped it and gasped.
“Thank you,” he breathed.
“We love you, Gran,” said Will softly. “We'll never leave you.”

Even Gran relaxed that night in the beautiful place and enjoyed the swimming as much as anyone else. Betch and Dale were making everyone laugh. When Suzette said she was cold, Bjørk said he didn't see why they shouldn't have a small fire, and that made everything even more cheerful. Then Maag and Campanilla, when they'd dried their hair, started making blackberry tea for everyone. Finally, they wrapped up warmly and rested again until dawn.

Thanks to Ross' local knowledge, they knew to take a bus to Travemunde, because that would take them straight to the ships, which a train would not. They couldn't all take the same bus, so Gran split them into four groups, making sure each group had a German speaker and someone who was used to traffic, and told them where to rendezvous. It took most of the day to do that, but they were aiming for a night time ferry crossing, so they still had plenty of time. They needed it; the distance was short but there was hardly any cover. The flyers got a system going to signal to the elves when it was safe to move, and eventually they got everyone on board, just before the human passengers started to arrive.
Gran spoke to them all on top of a ledge opposite the bow doors.
“Well done, all of you,” he said. “That was really excellent teamwork, I was impressed. Now, the ferry doesn't sail until 2.30 am, then it gets into Malmö at 11.15 am. Consider yourselves off duty now, and enjoy yourselves in your own way. Rendezvous back here at 10.30 am. Once we get to Sweden, Colonel Kinnekulle will take command. He will get us to our final destination, Jönköping.”
If anyone was surprised to hear that, no-one commented. Most of them assumed that it was because Colonel Kinnekulle was Swedish, and would know the routes so well. This was true, and masked the real reason, that he was taking on some of the burden while Gran was suffering. Only he and Gran knew that for certain, though Ace and Will could guess, and so could Betch, who never missed a thing. But no-one was worrying about that too much at the moment, with the prospect of a whole night to themselves. Some of them wanted to explore, and some to get on deck to look at the sea. Some just wanted a cosy spot to catch some more sleep. Ace and Will were more interested in a quiet spot where they could talk, and they found that in the children's play area, deserted at this hour. Lying back side by side, as they had in countless other places, they could finally catch up on each other's news after weeks apart.
When Will began to tell Ace what Sergeant Svir had said, they both sat up, knowing this was extremely serious.
“And he said she doesn't know the half of it?” said Ace. “So whatever happened, it was worse than we or anyone imagined. Yet Sergeant Svir wants you to stop Gran going too far?”
“She said you, but I think she meant you, plural,” said Will. “We have to work together on this. Her fear is that he will let it get too personal, and do something that's not great for the army.”
“Could we? Would we stop him? When vengeance is finally within his grasp, would we step in front of him and say no?”
“Maybe,” said Will. “It's possible, but only for his own good. If we felt he was about to do something that later he'd regret.”
“OK,” said Ace. “I buy that. But what if he wouldn't regret it? What if he's certain he's right, and so are we, but it's not what the army needs?”
“I know. That's when it really gets difficult. We would have to decide – together, and probably very quickly – exactly where our duty lies.”
“And how likely is it that we'd come up with the same answer?” said Ace bleakly. “It's not certain. If we're trying to help him, then to split our unity at a time like that could actually be dangerous.”
“Yes, it could,” said Will. “So here and now, while it's quiet, we have to make a decision. We have three choices. We agree to back him up, no matter what. We agree to do what the army needs, regardless of Gran's feelings. Or we agree to risk everything by waiting till the time comes.”
Will's quiet, logical analysis didn't fool Ace into mistaking the depths of his feelings. For a moment, Ace felt overwhelmed, shaken by the enormity of such a risk. But then he smiled.
“No,” he said. “I trust you. I trust us. We've been given a connection that no other living twins have. I say we take the risk, because we can do this, I know we can.”
Then Will smiled too.
“You beautiful sycamore,” he said. “Agreed. Come on, let's play in the ball pool.”

Nearly all the younger sprites ended up in the ball pool that night, and they had a wonderful time, but they remembered their responsibilities and made sure they did get a bit of sleep before they headed to the rendezvous point. After that, it was back to the relentless concentration of travelling in a big group. Always watching... watching for humans, watching for enemy sprites, and just as much for army sprites now, or local sprites who could give them away by accident. Watching each other, watching for signals, watching for it to be your turn. It was tiring, hour after hour of it, even without the effort of all the jumping and flying, usually at top speed. And they had miles of this to go yet, Jönköping was in the centre of Sweden, hundreds of miles north of here.

By mid afternoon they had made it from Malmö ferry port to the railway station, and it was starting to go dark. This fascinated Suzette, who'd never heard of latitude before. Ace was listening fondly to Will explaining it to her, while looking out for Carda and Dan, who hadn't arrived yet. This station had a timber ceiling, and the sprites were high up in the rafters and might not be easy to spot. Just then, Collen Dolfawr let out a noise as if he was in pain. Everyone turned to look at him, Ace included. He was just staring at his phone, his face frozen in horror.
“What is it?” asked Gran at once. “Collen, what's happened?”
“The school,” he whispered, then tried to pull himself together. “The school in Romania has been attacked. There are four dead. All under the age of ten.”
They missed their train. Pointless for the leaders even to try to get people moving, they were just as devastated themselves. When Carda and Dan arrived, it was to a scene of total grief. Maag and Campanilla were crying, and Ross, who knew the place, had gone white with shock. Some of them were beside themselves with anger and wanted to rush off and do something about it, and knowing that they couldn't just made it worse.
Gran was visibly trying to control himself and think, and so was Will.
“I know where the English school is,” said Will. “Does anyone know where the other two are?”
“Poland and Italy,” answered Major Maridalen. “North and south. England and Romania being east and west. Good thinking, Will. They may be in danger.”
“Did the news come from Essen, Collen?” asked General Herdalen. “Will the Commander have it too?”
“Yes sir,” said Captain Dolfawr. “No question. The news came to Essen from the Bohemian Forest in the first place. This text has come from General Arley's phone – sent to every army number at once, I think – can she do that?”
“Yes,” said Will. “I set it up for her. But I never showed her how to delete anyone from the list.”
“So we're all still on it.” Gran almost smiled. “Well, so long as the Commander knows, that's the main thing. She will respond, and whatever she does will be sensible and effective. There's nothing we can do.”
“Except maybe work out who, and why, and what they hoped to achieve by it,” muttered Bjørk. “We can't talk in here, it's too noisy and there's a long wait now for the next train. Let's go out on the roof and get a breath of fresh air. There's a decent gap at the edge of that canopy there. Flyers, you go first and we'll follow you up.”

The flyers moved off like flickers of light, following Sizzle. Sizzle had no higher rank than anyone else, yet all the other flyers treated her as their leader, which Gran had noted. It was Betch who noticed first that something was wrong, He heard something that didn't sound right. He looked up, frowning, and Bjørk noticed at once. Then he heard it too – scuffling feet and muttering voices.
“Follow me,” he said. “One at a time, but as fast as you can!”

When Ace got through the gap he saw a big fight going on, and he groaned inside. They'd blundered into a gang. It wasn't going to be hard to beat them - Bjørk had laid out a couple already – but so much for staying undercover. He looked round fast. No way was he going to insult Dan by helping her, but Campanilla, who wasn't even armed, was having trouble dodging a small but hefty goblin with a large fist. Ace tripped him up so he fell flat on his front, and held a knife to the back of his neck with one hand while patting Campanilla on the back with the other. It wasn't long before everyone else had finished fighting, and Bjørk addressed the gang in angry Swedish.
“What is all this? We're only passing through! So you were on the roof first, big deal! What's the idea of attacking people for no reason?”
“This is our patch!” said one of them furiously. Fran had him in an armlock and he couldn't break free. “How were we to know you were a special gang?”
“Well, you know now,” said Gran, trying to sound like gang member and not a general. “We beat you, so push off. We'll be gone in an hour and then you can have it all to yourselves again.”
As the army sprites released their grips, some of the gang started shoving and pushing again, but then they suddenly made a dash for it and disappeared across the neighbouring rooftops.
“Damn,” said Bjørk. “If they talk, someone could figure out where we are.”
“What is a special gang?” said Gran. “One that commits atrocities? I wish I hadn't said that now. But don't worry, Bjørk. No-one will guess we're heading north. Not at this time of year.”