CHAPTER 1 - The Major and the Refugee

Ace woke suddenly from a strange dream. He sat up in his bed, his heart pounding and his mouth dry, and looked around. Everything seemed normal; the night was warm and still, Will was in the other bed. He couldn’t see him, it was too dark, but he knew he was there.
“Are you asleep?” he whispered, too softly to wake him if he was.
There was no answer.
Good, thought Ace. He’d think I was bonkers, but I’m going to have to go and check.
He crept out of the house, through the long grasses, and relief throbbed through him as he caught sight of the sycamore, a dark shape against the sky. Ace gazed at it for a moment, then with one jump he was up in its branches, feeling it all around him, beautiful now in early June, just into full leaf. He looked out protectively across Wildside. To his right, the great horse chestnut, with the brook beside it, and the willow beyond. To his left, the roofs of houses. There was the rowan, and the hazel, then the silver birches, and behind them, the railway embankment. All was well. Ace jumped down and went back to the house, pushed the door gently and tripped over a box of scrap metal.
“Ow!” he squawked.
“Ace, what’re you doing?” said Will.
“Well, at the moment I’m hopping round going ‘Ow’…but before that, I was just coming back to bed.”
“Back to bed? Where’ve you been?”
“I just went to see my tree,” said Ace, as if that was a perfectly normal thing to do in the middle of the night.
Will sat up, groped for matches, and lit a candle.
“Are you all right?” he said.
“Yes,” said Ace. “I had a dream, that’s all. It was a bit weird.”
“What, in summer? That is weird. What did you see?”
“You don’t want to know.”
“You mean it was bad? Tell me.”
“Wildside, drowning in mud. And a horrible noise. And no trees, Will. All the trees had gone. All of them.”
For a moment, they just looked at each other, and neither of them was smiling.
“So you just wanted to check... I don’t blame you,” said Will. “But dreams don’t always come true. Cory said so.”
“I know,” said Ace. “But it’s a funny time of year to have a dream.”
He shook his head, hard, as if he was trying to make the bad thoughts go away, and smiled.
“It’s nearly dawn,” he said. “Listen to that blackbird singing its head off. D’you want to go for a swim?”
“Yeah, OK,” said Will. “Is the bud still fast asleep?”
Ace peered into a cradle.
“Yeah, sound. He won’t wake for ages.”
“Great, let’s go to the lake in the park.”

In the daytime, the lake in Abney Park was a cheerful place, where ducks clamoured for bread, and children’s bikes lay sprawled on the grassy banks. But now the lake was silent, the birds were asleep, and only a few ripples broke the surface of the shining black water. For a moment, the elves were as still as the night, poised ready to dive. Then they glanced around.
“All clear,” said Will.
“Go,” said Ace.
They plunged in, and raced across the lake, their bodies as swift and as silver as fish, and their hair streaming out behind them. When they touched the other side, they turned and raced back. Ace was in the lead at the end, and by the time Will reached the bank, he was ready to give him a hand to heave him out.
“Thanks,” panted Will. “Oh, that was good.”
They wrung the water out of their hair, and got dressed. Ace and Will were exactly the same height, nearly eight inches tall, and exactly the same age. Will had pale skin streaked with grey and green, his eyes were velvet black, and his hair was black too, and very long. He could look quite sad until he smiled, but when he did, it lit his face up. Ace’s hair was long too, but his was blond, making a startling contrast to his black streaks. His eyes were dark, usually shining with mischief or amusement, and he was very good-looking.
While Ace combed his hair smooth again, Will was watching the sky. There was a hint of colour in it now, and in the distance he heard a plaintive, crying sound.
“Wild geese,” he said.
“Heading for the water,” said Ace. “Time we weren’t here.”

Beyond the park ran the M60, and even at this hour, cars were racing along it. Ace watched them dreamily as they strolled home.
“What a speed,” he sighed. “There’s nothing like it.”
“Beautiful,” Will agreed. “But trains are faster.”
“They are not, either! They just trundle along.”
“They are, so. And they go straighter too, so they get places faster.”
“Cars are more fun.”
“Trains are more exciting.”
“Well, I bet you I could get to, say, Chester, on a car, faster than you could on a train.”
“You’re on. For a forfeit? What do I have to do if I don’t win?”
“Comb your hair. What do I have to do?”
“Not look in your mirror for a whole day.”
“Very funny. When shall we go? Let’s go now!”
“Yeah, why not? Oh...no, Ace, we can’t. The bud. Remember what Cory said the last time we forgot about him.”
“ ‘You pair of addle-pated nincompoops’,” mimicked Ace in Cory’s creaky old voice. “ ‘When are you going to learn some responsibility?’ ”
“And he tells us off for swearing,” said Will, shaking his head. “I don’t know where he gets such words.”
“Look out!” said Ace suddenly, and pulled Will down low.

“What is it?”
“Police. On the railway line.”
“Got you. It’s that sergeant again. Gromwell. But why are we hiding? We haven’t done anything illegal.”
“Well, not tonight, maybe,” said Ace. “But he may be thinking of other times... or why is he standing just there, blocking our way home?”
“True... but we can jump faster than he can run.”
“Yes... we’ll get a bit closer, then split up. I’ll throw a stone on the track, so he turns round to look what the noise was, and you jump across while his back’s turned. Then do the same for me once you’re over.”
“Right,” said Will, and they started moving stealthily through the long grass, until they reached the steep side of the railway embankment. But as soon as Ace raised his arm to throw, he heard a fierce growl of rage, and saw a massive goblin thundering down the slope towards him.
“Jump!” he yelled to Will, but the goblin was on him before he could take off himself. He was knocked to the ground, then dragged to his feet, and pushed along with one arm twisted up behind his back, towards the goblin on the track.
At least Will got clear, thought Ace, but then he saw he hadn’t. There’d been another goblin on the other side. They gave each other very rueful smiles.
“Got you,” said the sergeant with satisfaction. “About time.”
“Reinforcements, Gromwell,” said Ace. “I’m very impressed.”
“Shut up. You’re under arrest.”
“What for! You’ve not seen us doing anything illegal.”
“You’re off your colony’s land after dawn without good reason.”
“That’s not against the law!” said Ace, astonished.
“Oh, yes it is.”
“Since when!”
“Since last week. Parliament passed a new law.”
“Oh, and we were supposed to know that, were we?” said Will. “That’s a stupid law, anyway. I never heard such rubbish.”
“That’s enough lip from you two. Official warnings, both of you.”
He put his face right up to theirs, sneering.
“Three warnings, then it’s prison. And it’s not very nice in prison. It’s cold, and damp, and dark. You won’t look so pretty when you come out of there.”
He nodded at his companions, and they pushed Ace and Will to the ground and started kicking them viciously with their heavy boots. When they tried to get up, Gromwell hit them down again with a big stick.
“All right, that’s enough,” he said, when they’d stopped struggling. “I’m not stupid. That was for all the things you thought you’d got away with. Now get back to your scruffy home and stay there.”
He pushed them down the embankment, and the goblins marched away.

Ace and Will sat up, painfully.
“You OK?” said Ace.
“Just about,” said Will, rubbing his face. There was a livid weal across his cheek. “How about you?”
“Just bruises, I think.”
Slowly, they dragged themselves to their feet, and put their arms round each other.
“Let’s go home,” said Will.

They limped across Wildside, and their spirits began to rise as the sun began to flood the place with light. Other people might think it was scruffy, but it was their home and they loved every inch of it. All the land between the railway embankment and the main road, and from the back gardens of the houses across to the brook, it was looking its best now, with thick new growth hiding the worst of the litter. In this far corner, their own goblins lived, and they passed by as quietly as they could. The last thing they wanted at the moment was a fight. They saw their friend Dan heading towards the goblins’ lair, and Ace managed a cheerful wave.
“What is he up to?” muttered Will.
“Who, Dan? Oh, nothing. Just a taste for low company, I reckon,” said Ace. “Look at the sun on those birches.”
“Want a rest?” grinned Will, understanding, and they stopped.
Ace leaned his hand on the white bark, with a smile of pure pleasure on his face.
“You should have been a birch, you,” smiled Will.
“I wouldn’t swap,” said Ace seriously. “I like being a sycamore. But what d’you think a silver birch would look like, Will? D’you think he’d have white hair?”
“You never know. It’d be nice to find out. We never meet any other elves.”
“Except Dan.”
“Hmm,” said Will. “Are you ready?”
“Yes... better try not to limp too much, in case anyone else is about.”

The magnificent horse chestnut tree was over eighty feet tall, and nearly two hundred years old. It towered over Wildside, and its curtain of branches swept the ground. The children from the houses thought it was their base, but the sprites knew better. It was theirs. Ace and Will didn’t go there straight away, they went to their house first. Will moved a dish of quartz crystals he’d left on the stove, poked the fire and put a kettle on to boil. Ace went over to the cradle.
“Hello, pest!” he said, and lifted out the bud.
He had pale green skin, and bright blue eyes, like all sprite babies, and he was gurgling with happiness at the sight of Ace. Ace sat him on his shoulder, and the bud immediately started pulling his hair.
“You go and get the table out,” said Will. “I’ll bring the drinks.”
“OK,” said Ace, and still carrying the bud, he went to the edge of the long grass, and pulled a picnic table out of its hiding place, and sank down onto its bench. He was still aching a bit.
No fairies about yet, he thought. Nice and peaceful.
But he was wrong there. There was a fairy about, one he’d never seen in his life. She was sitting in the horse chestnut, and she was watching him very closely.

Will arrived, and set down two steaming mugs and a bottle of water. When the bud saw that, he crawled across the table and grabbed the bottle, and tipped his head back, glugging happily. Ace wrapped his hands round his mug.
“I’m ready for this,” he sighed. “What a night!”
“Are you going to tell Cory?”
“What, that we got official warnings? Not unless he asks me, straight out. I wouldn’t lie to him, but I wouldn’t actually mention it.”
“Good. No point worrying him.”
The bud threw his empty bottle aside, and crawled to the edge of the table, rocking backwards and forwards as if he was thinking about trying to jump. Ace smiled and set him on the ground. He felt in his pocket and found a bit of soft plastic. He looked at it carefully, and imagined a ball. The tiny scrap grew and shaped itself into a perfect sphere, and Ace rolled it across the ground for the bud to play with.
Suddenly, something shot up into the air from the middle of a patch of bramble, straight up, then looped the loop and dived downwards, where it landed on the topmost spray of a dog-rose bush without even setting it moving.
“Hi, Rose,” said the elves.

Rose was small even for a fairy, and she was very pretty, with golden hair and blue eyes, and her pale pink skin was streaked with deeper pink and white. She flew across to join them.
“D’you want some elf tea?” asked Will.
“That’s very sweet of you,” said Rose, looking into his cup with something like horror, “but I’ll make some real tea when I’ve woken Clover up, thanks.”
Ace and Will put their fingers in their ears, as Rose put hers in her mouth and let out a screeching whistle. A tiny window in what appeared to be part of the chestnut’s trunk was thrown open, and a fairy looked out, running sensitive, cream-coloured fingers through tousled brown hair.
“Ugh,” she groaned. “Morning already. You can’t get enough sleep round here. Barking mad dogs and barking mad elves, that’s what.”
“We weren’t making a scrap of noise, Clover!” said Ace indignantly.
“That’s even more worrying. The only time you two are quiet is when you’re up to something you shouldn’t be.”
She closed the window, and a few moments later she shot out of a door as if she’d just come down a slide. She frowned at the elves suspiciously.
“Have you been fighting?”
“No,” said Will. “No, really, it’s true. Fighting is when you get a chance to fight back. This is called, getting beaten up.”
“Who?” asked Clover.
“Police,” said Ace, with disgust. “They reckon it’s illegal now to be off your colony after dawn.”
“Which it wasn’t, anyway, not quite,” said Will. “And who’s to say it’s true? I reckon they make it all up.”
“Well, whether it’s true or not,” Ace began, then turned his head sharply as he caught a slight rustling sound. “Cat! Where’s the bud?”
The bud had crawled off, and they jumped to their feet in horror as they saw that the cat had spotted him. Its legs were tense, its back low to the ground as it prepared to pounce. They moved fast, but someone was even faster. There was a swooping noise above them, and a blur of wings, as a fairy came down out of the tree and snatched the bud from the cat’s path.
“Come on!” shouted Ace, and he and Will leaped onto the cat’s back. It started squirming, trying to throw them off, then they jumped down and headed off across Wildside, making the cat chase them, leading it away. Side by side they ran, laughing, jumping together over bricks and bushes, until the cat lost interest and wandered off towards number four, where it lived.

The elves rushed back to see what was going on. They didn’t often have visitors. She was certainly the oldest fairy they’d ever seen. Her hair, once golden, was a little faded, and so were her blue streaks, but she looked pretty fit and strong. She was wearing old-fashioned clothes, a long green dress and sensible shoes, and over her arm she was carrying a large basket. She also wore a wristband just like Gromwell did, though hers was a different colour. She smiled at the elves as they came nearer.
“That was very brave. Did you lose it?”
“Yeah, no problem,” said Ace. “Bone idle, that cat. Gives up in no time. Thank you for saving the bud.” Then he frowned, and asked curiously, “Are you police?”
“No,” she answered thoughtfully. “I am in the army, though. Major Madge Arley.”
Ace was dying to laugh, but he didn’t.
“Army? What army?”
“The sprite army, of course. You don’t suppose they’d have me in the SAS, do you?”
“Are you serious?” said Will. “Are you saying there really is a sprite army? Cory said that was a load of rubbish, just an old story.”
“Did he, now,” said Madge quietly. “Well, I haven’t had the pleasure of meeting Cory yet, and I don’t want to start arguing with someone before I’ve met him, but I assure you there is a sprite army, because I’m in it.”
The young sprites were staring at her, bewildered. It seemed to Rose that this was all getting far too complicated.
“Would you like a cup of tea?” she said.
Madge beamed.
“My favourite words.”

“He doesn’t come out much,” Clover was telling Madge, as they all sat around the table, drinking Rose’s best blackberry leaf tea out of elegant cups. “He likes to sit and read. I found him a new book yesterday. It was called Julius Caesar. David threw it out of the bedroom window at number two, so I reckoned he’d finished with it.”
“Clover’s good at shrinking books,” said Rose. “I’m not. I always make the writing go all wobbly.”
“You’re very good at making tea, though,” said Madge. “Is Cory your senior sprite?”
“Yes,” said Ace. “But he can’t walk very well any more. He’s about a million years old.”
“If you want a good way to wind him up,” said Will, getting a firmer grasp on the bud, “tell him you don’t think hazels are real trees, ’cos he’s a hazel, you see.”
“I think I might have guessed from the name,” smiled Madge.
“He’s not,” said Rose.
“Not what? Not a hazel? ’Course he is.”
“No, not a million years old. He’s not even a hundred, yet.”
Will shook his head despairingly.
“He’s ninety, actually, if you wanted to know,” said Clover. “Do you want to come and meet him?”
“Yes, I ought to say hello,” said Madge.
“Right,” said Clover, getting up and stretching. “Are you coming, elves?”
“No chance,” said Ace. “He’s still mad at us for burning that stack of newspapers someone dumped.”
“That wasn’t just you, it was Hogweed too.”
“We still got the blame,” said Will. “Cory doesn’t feel responsible for goblins.”
“Never mind,” said Clover. “You do get away with an awful lot that he never finds out about.”
That reminded Ace of what he’d been thinking before he spotted the cat.
“Will you mind the bud?” he asked. “Only there’s something we’ve got to do.”
“What do we get out of it?” Clover demanded.
“We’ll fill your water tank for you,” Will offered.
“Fair swap,” said Rose. “Give him to me.”
The bud was squealing with delight as the fairies spread their wings and took off. He loved being taken for a fly.

“Well, what d’you make of that?” said Ace.
“Interesting,” said Will. “Either she’s crackers, or Cory’s a liar.”
“Nasty logical mind you’ve got. I hadn’t thought of it like that, but you’re right. But what does she want? Why’s she coming to stay here?”
“You reckon she’s staying?”
“Yes, I do. That basket was full of clothes and stuff. I still think she’s something to do with the police. But we can’t let that stop us doing things.”
“No way. Someone ought to show them what we think of this stupid new law.”
Ace’s eyes were shining with excitement.
“Ready for this race to Chester, then?”
“Dead right,” said Will.

Madge thought Cory looked a lot more than ninety. She was shocked to see how frail and old the elf looked, as if some nasty illness had aged him before his time. He struggled to his feet to welcome her, though, as Clover led her into his home beneath the hazel tree.
“Welcome to Wildside,” he said, looking her straight in the eye. “What name did you say, Clover? Madge? Marjoram, of course. Lovely plant. I haven’t seen any for years, though, not since the farm finished.”
He shook his head, smiling.
“I remember the herb patch, how good it smelled on a hot day.”
“Oh, that takes me back,” said Madge. “I’m very lucky, mine’s still there, though I haven’t seen it for years.”
“So why have you come to a place like this?” Cory enquired.
“I was sent here. Army mission.”
“So is there a sprite army, Cory?” asked Clover brightly. “You said not, but Madge says there is, who’s right?”
Let’s see how you get out of that one, thought Madge.
“I said it was an old story,” said Cory. “Meaning it had as much relevance to you as an old story. Something you didn’t need to worry about.”
Clever answer, thought Madge. He’s not stupid. But why tell them that? There’s more to this than meets the eye.
Madge wasn’t going to start asking questions like that, though, in front of Rose and Clover. Tactfully, she changed the subject.
“Did you say this place used to be a farm? When was that? Sprites have lived here a long time, judging by the age of the stone you’re wearing.”
Cory smiled as he touched the stone he wore on a leather thong around his neck, just a small piece of granite with a hole in it, very smooth from being worn by generations of senior sprites. As his quiet voice told Madge all the local history, Rose and Clover wandered outside. They’d heard all this before. When he’d finished, Madge said,
“I want to talk to you.”
“I rather thought you might,” Cory replied mildly. “Come when they start playing music. You’ll be glad to get away, then.”
Madge nodded, and went to join Rose and Clover outside. Cory watched them go, then sat down at his table, and buried his head in his hands.

Will was on the railway line, standing on the sleepers, ready to jump onto the next train. He had a long wait, but he knew it would be worth it. He felt the train through the track before he heard or saw it, and then the yellow front came in sight, getting bigger every second.
Just wait, he told himself. Wait till it’s just a bit nearer...
Breathing hard, he dug his feet in and soared into the air, over the top of the cab, fighting to keep his course straight in the conflicting air currents, then down, with a smack that knocked the wind out of him, onto the roof of the first carriage. Fighting for breath, he gripped hard onto the ribbed surface, with a fierce joy as he felt the force and speed of the train.
He rode through leafy cuttings, out into the fields of Cheshire, and past the great forest at Delamere. When the train arrived at Chester, he knew Ace wasn’t there yet. He lay back on the roof for a while, resting his aching arms, then jumped down to walk under the train, smelling the heat and the oil, looking at the huge wheels.
“This is mind-blowing,” he sighed. “The power of this thing compared to a car, no contest.”
He wandered along in a happy dream, until he saw, across the tracks, a dripping tap. It was in a very quiet spot. He was so thirsty he decided to chance it. He moved fast, and soon had his head back under the drip. Then a voice spoke right next to him, making him jump and nearly choke. It was an elf’s voice.

“Where did you come from?”
Will couldn’t answer, he was coughing too much. The strange elf patted his back, saying,
“I say, I’m most awfully sorry, I shouldn’t have startled you.”
“That’s OK,” gasped Will.
“You came on the 7.51 from Manchester?”
Will gawped at him, torn between the shame of admitting that he didn’t know what the other elf was on about, and the excitement of learning more.
“What d’you mean, 7.51? What do the numbers mean?”
“It’s the time it left Manchester. You know what time is, don’t you?”
“Just run it by me again,” said Will.
They sat on the roof of the platform shelter, where they could see a big clock. Will soon got the hang of it.
“I’m going to teach everyone at home to tell the time, it’ll be very useful. It shouldn’t take Rose more than a year.”
“You haven’t got to go back yet, have you? It’s brilliant having someone to talk to.”
“I can stay all day, if you want. Probably have to. Ace is still miles away.”
He explained about the race, and the other elf looked so impressed, Will was embarrassed.
“You mean you jumped on while it was moving!”
“Well, yes,” said Will. “But tell me about yourself - how come you live in a station, where there’s hardly any plants? Have you been here long?”
“About three months, I think. I was with a big group... the garden where we lived had been sold for building on, we had to leave. So we left the Wirral, and were travelling to Delamere Forest, to go and live there instead, but as we were crossing this station, I got injured, look.”
He rolled back his ragged trouser leg and showed Will a hideous wound, gaping and sore.
“I timed a jump wrong and a train caught me,” he explained. “It ripped my leg open and I fell on the track. I only just managed to crawl away before another train came. I’ve been here ever since, waiting for this wound to heal. But it doesn’t heal. It just keeps getting sorer.”
Will was full of pity. He must be in terrific pain, yet he’d made no sign of it. And the worst of it was what he hadn’t said. Obviously none of his group had come back to look for him. They’d just left him for dead, and gone without him. It made Will’s blood boil. He had to find the right thing to say.

“Come to Wildside,” he said. “It’s a bit rough, and there’s loads of humans, but there’s plenty of company. And there’s this old fairy just come, I bet she’d know how to make your leg better. Come and stay for a bit, at least until you’re well, then you can go and find Delamere Forest, or whatever. Stay for good if you want, you’d be welcome.”
“Thanks, I’d like that. D’you know, I’m not awfully keen on the idea of Delamere any more. I think I’d like to come to Wildside.”
“Well, great,” said Will. “Anyway, what’s your name?”
“I was afraid you’d ask that. Phillyrea latifolia.”
Will stared. “Never heard of it!”
“I’m not surprised. Not many of them in England.” He smiled, wryly. “That garden was full of so-called superior stuff. I wonder how they’re getting on in Delamere?”
“Not as well as you will on Wildside, Phil,” smiled Will.

Rose and Clover were delighted that Madge had come to stay. It was all right for Ace and Will, they had Cory to tell them things. They didn’t have anyone, so they were excited to meet an older fairy who seemed so kind. They showed her round, and she was very interested in everything. She seemed keen to hear about the human neighbours too, so they took her to the horse chestnut just before the children came home.
“The boys from number eight will come straight over,” Clover told her. “They like to mess about here after school.”
She sighed as she noticed that the elves had left their table out again. She shoved it out of sight, and joined Rose and Madge in the tree. Madge couldn’t help noticing that her flying was a bit slow and untidy, but she didn’t say anything.
“The boys tied the rope to that branch, to swing across the brook,” said Rose. “That was clever, how they did that.”
“They broke that branch, though, going for conkers,” grumbled Clover.
“No, they didn’t. That was David, when he was younger. The Connolly brothers broke that one over there.”

The fairies heard three boys charging across Wildside, followed by a very noisy dog, and Madge looked carefully. The tallest, who was a slim, thoughtful-looking boy, with glasses and fair hair, came first under the curtain of branches and actually glanced up, as if he had noticed how beautiful the sunlight looked, shining through the fresh leaves. The fairies dived out of sight as he started to climb the tree.
“That’s Dominic,” whispered Rose. “And the one just behind him is Joseph.”
Joseph was nearly as tall as Dominic, who was two years older. His hair was fair, too, but he wore it very short indeed, almost shaven. He was wearing a red football shirt , and he made straight for the rope swing. The youngest brother was the last to arrive. Dark-haired, small and stocky, his face was scarlet with the effort of trying to keep up with his brothers. Joseph started laughing at him.
“Beat you to it, Tony! You’ll have to run faster than that if you want a swing!”
Tony just looked at him, then tried to climb up to join Dominic. But though Dominic reached a hand down to help him, he couldn’t do it. With a sigh, Tony wandered off and called to his dog.
“Barking! Barking Mad! Here, boy!”
Barking Mad wuffed joyfully, and headed off in the opposite direction. Joseph laughed, and Tony picked up a stone and threw it at him. It missed Joseph, soared across the brook and over a wall, where its landing was followed by the sound of breaking glass. Tony’s brothers both glared at him.
“We’ll have to leg it now,” said Dominic.
“Come on, you pest,” said Joseph, and the boys ran off before anyone came to investigate.
“And that’s Tony,” said Rose sadly. “He’s very naughty.”
“Poor little soul,” said Madge.

Still Ace hadn’t arrived. Phil had never seen a motorway, but it sounded very frightening and dangerous. He thought Will might be worrying, and tried to take his mind off it.
“So who else lives on Wildside?” he asked.
“Two, no, three fairies,” said Will. “Rose and Clover, who are about our age, and Madge, who’s just arrived. She’s the old fairy I was telling you about. Three foul goblins, an old elf called Cory, and the bud.”
“You’ve got a bud?” said Phil, pleased. “I like buds.”
“He’s a pest. Oh, and there’s Dan,” added Will, darkly.
“Who’s Dan?”
“I’m not sure,” said Will. “But I’ll tell you one thing, Phil; he’s not an elf.”
He turned his head, grinning, and a moment later Ace joined them on the roof.
“About time! What happened?”
“Stayed in the fast lane too long, as usual. Missed the exit, and had to go to the end of the M56 and come back again. Great fun, though.”
“It’s not fair really, you had to go miles further. We’ll call it a draw. This is Phil, he’s coming back with us. He needs a home.”
“Hello,” said Ace. “Has he been boring you to death about trains?”
“Trains aren’t boring!” said Phil.
“Oh, not another one,” groaned Ace. “Is there anything to drink in this place?”
“Yeah, people leave cups of tea behind when their trains arrive,” said Will. “Have a rest, I’ll find you one. Then we’ll jump on the 14.55 home.”
“On the what?”
“New project, Ace. We have absolutely got to make a clock.”

Utterly bewildered and blissfully happy, Phil sat against the great chestnut’s trunk, with a huge mug of cold, creamy milk in his hand. He’d been fussed over by three of the kindest fairies he’d ever met, had his leg bathed and bandaged so well it had almost stopped hurting, and been treated by everyone as though they’d known him all their lives. After the loneliness of the station and the cool formality of his garden, it warmed his heart. With a sigh of deep content, he listened to the conversations going on around him.
“What on earth d’you want that great box for?”
This was Madge.
“It’s a radio,” said Ace. “For some music. It was working the other day.”
“Music?” said Madge. “Where are your drums, your flutes, your bells?”
Ace and Will looked up from the radio, stared at Madge, stared at each other, and shook their heads. A hideous crackle burst out of the radio, followed by a few words about China, then silence.
“Loose connection,” said Will. “Look, you loony, you haven’t fixed that wire in at all!”
“Where?” said Ace. “Oh yeah, I see.”
Dan was there too, dressed exactly like the other elves in jeans and a leather jacket, and with long, bright yellow hair crammed into a baseball cap.
“Kill the cat?” Rose was saying. “Why should anyone want to kill the cat?”
“Because it’s a malicious, murdering thug?” murmured Clover.
“It’s not as bad as the hodgepig,” said Rose.
“No, but hodgepigs don’t eat goblins,” Dan pointed out. “Cats do. That’s why they want us to help them kill it.”
“We can’t do that,” said Will, over his shoulder. “OK, if you had to, in self-defence, but to gang up on it and kill it, no way.”
“I don’t want to,” said Dan. “I said I’d tell you, that’s all. But the goblins will think we’re scared, you know that, don’t you?”
“Who cares what they think?” said Ace, amazed. “And who trusts them, anyway. I’m not having murdering going on. They start anything like that, I’ll stop them.”
Then he smiled as the radio came alive.
“Find some music like David plays out of his bedroom window,” said Clover.
“You’ll be lucky,” Ace told her. “There’s never anything that good on the radio. We’ll have to make do with whatever’s on Radio One.”

Dan sat down to talk to Phil.
“You’ve had quite a day, haven’t you? Were you born in the railway station?”
“No, in a garden,” said Phil. “A huge, beautiful garden, full of wonderful flowers from all over the world. My tree stood in its own lawn. But the old lady who made the garden died. The land was sold. It’s all gone now.”
“I’m sorry,” said Dan. “That must have been awful. I didn’t mean to remind you of it. But I do know what you mean. I had to leave a garden, too. It’s heartbreaking.”
“You weren’t born here then, like the others?”
“No, I’ve only lived here for a year. But they made me so welcome, and I’ll help them do the same for you.”
“Thanks, Dan,” said Phil.
Will came over with the milk, and poured some more for Phil.
“D’you want some, Dan?”
“I wouldn’t mind. I’ll go and get a mug.”
“What d’you reckon?” asked Will, when Dan had gone.
“Dandelion,” Phil answered. “I’ve seen it happen before. The other fairies don’t like them. Drive them out. ‘Harsh but necessary’, they say. ‘Can’t have weeds in the garden’.”
Will gasped. “What an awful thing to do! I never thought of that! Poor old Dan!”
“That’s why she’s pretending to be an elf,” said Phil. “Probably scared it’ll happen again.”
“Rose and Clover would never do that,” said Will. “I mean, after all, you wouldn’t find their plants in a garden, would you?”
Phil shook his head.
“There may be more to it than that. She looks unhappy. Keep your eyes open, Will.”
“I’ll do that. But one thing - don’t tell Ace. I just want to know how long it takes him to notice.”

Madge slipped off to Cory’s house. He had been expecting her, and welcomed her in, offering her a seat at the table, where a little oil lamp was burning cheerfully.
“I see what you mean about the music,” said Madge. “What an awful racket.”
“You should hear the sort they actually like,” said Cory. “Gets played in one of the new houses. That’s even worse.”
He looked at her.
“So what do you want to know?”
“Well, for a start, why didn’t you register that sprites had been born here? The nearest Hollow Hill is at Owler Tor, it’s only thirty miles.”
“There wasn’t anyone to send!”
“Hmm,” said Madge. “How old are they?”
“Oh, you don’t understand how difficult it’s been,” sighed Cory. “Imagine trying to look after four buds at once! Clover was no trouble, she hardly ever woke up, but the others! One always trying to get on the road, one always trying to get on the railway line, and the other one so tiny I was always losing it!”
In spite of herself, Madge laughed.
“Well, OK, I can see that must have been difficult. But once they were fully-grown, what did you actually teach them? Do they know the ring-dances, the history, the laws?”
“Do they know the plants that grow on their land, do they care for them?”
“Not so’s you’d notice.”
“Can any of them play a musical instrument?”
“Oh, yes. Rose and Clover play flutes.”
“Splendid. And what do the elves play?”
“Electric guitars.”
“I know, I know. But what could I do? They taught themselves.”
Madge just looked at him.
“Are you saying you haven’t taught them anything? Just let them teach themselves anything they wanted?”
“They’d never sit still! The only time they’d listen was when I taught them to read. They’re good at reading!”
“That’s because reading’s what you care about,” said Madge shrewdly. “Surely you taught them how to make things?”
“They didn’t need much help. They enjoyed working out how to do it.”
“Extraordinary,” said Madge. Then she frowned. “What about transforming living things?”
“Are you crazy? Would you trust them with stuff like that? Can you imagine what they’d be up to if they knew they could transform each other?”
Madge sighed. “Did they ever see you helping humans?”
Cory shook his head, dispiritedly. He could see where this question was leading.
“Well, how d’you expect young sprites to learn to help humans if you never do it yourself? I have a feeling this lot would have enjoyed that.”
“Oh yes, they probably would,” said Cory sarcastically. “Gone into their houses while they were out and turned the televisions into goldfish bowls, probably. The question is, would the humans have enjoyed it?”
“They’re not as silly as all that,” said Madge.
“There’s no point learning things like that any more,” said Cory. “You and I know the world’s changed since we were born. Farms gone, fields and hedgerows gone, sprites lost in their thousands. My only concern was to keep them safe.”
“They won’t be very safe in prison,” said Madge. “And that’s where Will and Ace are going to end up if they’re not careful.”

Cory was genuinely horrified, Madge could see it in his eyes. She went on, more quietly,
“The world’s changed even more than you think. If you really care about these young sprites, and want them to be safe, they’ve got to be equipped to cope. Do you really think they’ll sit around on Wildside being good for the rest of their lives?”
“Prison! I had no idea. What on earth have they been up to, anyway?”
“The worst thing was changing the colours of the cars on the motorway. Got into a human newspaper, that did.”
“Have they been playing on the motorway?” gasped Cory. “That’s very dangerous!”
“They practically live there. You want to wake up a bit, you do. What they really need, of course, is to join the army. That’d use up their energy for them.”
“Oh, now that’s just silly!” said Cory. “They’re all weeds! Scrubland trees and wasteland flowers! They’d be laughed out of Norway.”
“I don’t deny there’s something in what you say,” Madge admitted. “But from what I’ve seen of them, they’ve got enough character to rise above other people’s snobbery. After all, I’m nothing. Just an ordinary kitchen herb. The army’s not as snobbish as some people think. It wasn’t any use your telling them it didn’t exist. They were bound to find out sooner or later.”
“I only wanted to protect them.”
“Well honestly, they’d be safer in the army than jumping on moving trains. Did you know they got back safely?”
“Yes, Clover stuck her head round the door to tell me. She said they’d brought someone back with them, is that right?”
“Yes,” said Madge, amused. “Only a Phillyrea.”
“What! To a place like this!”
“That’s right. And treating him just like one of themselves. Not that he minds. There’s not an ounce of snobbery in that one.”
“That makes sense. Your real snobs are sprites who think they’re something special when they’re not.”
“Spot on,” said Madge. “You’re right there. Real class doesn’t need to swank.”
Cory’s face drooped a little. He was getting tired.
“And what about you?” he asked quietly. “What exactly have you come here to do?”
I hardly know where to start, thought Madge. She looked at Cory with great compassion, and said,
“I just get sent to a place. No instructions. My job is to find out what needs doing, and do it. But... I don’t wish to alarm you, but I have to ask... you see, most of our work these days is helping colonies who are in danger. Do you understand me? Places where the colony itself is under threat. Have you been given any warnings? Any news, any dreams that worried you?”
Cory looked astonished.
“No, not a thing. The farm was ruined years ago, when they built the new houses. This bit was left over, no-one bothered with it, and they never will.”
“I understand,” said Madge, thoughtfully. “But you’re tired. I’ll go now.”

It was well past midnight when Madge returned to the horse chestnut, but no-one had gone to bed. She sat down quietly on a stone, and watched them all. Clover was lying on her back, watching the stars and listening to the elves talking about clocks. Rose was dancing, gently and quietly, without any music but the music inside her own head. Then suddenly she stopped. She’d heard something moving. She looked carefully, and saw prickles, long, sharp and dangerous.
“Hodgepig!” she screamed.
Ace leaped to his feet and gave his orders.
“Madge, can you help Phil into the tree? Everyone else, you know what to do. Rose, you’re the bait.”
“Why do I have to be the bait? I’m always the bait!”
“No-one else is light enough, don’t argue!”
While he was speaking, he had imagined a twig into a solid, round log, and was dragging it into position; Will had made a long, wide plank which he and Clover quickly placed on the log. Then Clover and Dan armed themselves with sticks and crept round to get behind the hodgepig. The elves moved out of sight, and Rose stood on the end of the plank that was touching the ground. The two in the tree watched closely, holding their breath. Rose looked so tiny and vulnerable standing there alone.

The grasses parted, and the hodgepig came into view. Its pink snout quivered. It had been following the smell of milk, but now it could smell fairy. Its tiny black eyes gleamed with greed, its prickles bristled menacingly. It opened its jaws, dripping slather and showing shreds of slug still sticking to its teeth. Its foul breath washed over Rose, but she stood still, unflinching. Rose could see Clover behind the hodgepig, smiling at her encouragingly. Very gently, Rose moved backwards up the plank. It didn’t move at all. The hodgepig grinned to itself - he’d have her, this time - and put its forepaws on the plank. Rose edged back further. She was nearly at the middle, over the round log. The hodgepig lumbered on, its hind paws were on the plank, its teeth bared ready to bite. Suddenly, with great yells, Ace and Will leaped from hiding, onto the other end of the plank. Rose was thrown into the air, she did a graceful loop and landed safely, but the hodgepig, of course, couldn’t fly. It soared through the air, crashed through the leaves of the chestnut, squealing horribly, and disappeared out of sight. Then they heard a splash.
“Got it in the brook that time! Yes!” shouted Ace, slapping Will’s hand. “Well done, Rose, you were brilliant! Where are Clover and Dan? Good rearguard, very close, and it never heard you!”
Phil jumped down to congratulate them, stuttering with delight.
“That was fantastic! I’ve never seen anything like it!”
“Laughed out of Norway?” murmured Madge to herself. “I don’t think so.”