CHAPTER 16 - Allies

Next morning, the elves were up very early, because Aesculus had woken them all by jumping on them as they lay asleep in their beds. They all clouted him for that, but not before he’d learned some very interesting words. But once they were up, they went outside. It was a beautiful morning, cold and crisp and sunny.
Phil pulled the picnic table out. “What’s for breakfast? Something hot?”
“It’ll have to be elf tea,” said Ace. “Aesculus hasn’t had that yet, has he?”
“Time he tried it, then,” said Will. “Hope it doesn’t poison him.”
The drink they called elf tea was unstrained brook water, with all the bits of mud and leaf left in to give it a bit of flavour. It went straight from the brook to their kettle, and straight from the kettle to the cups, which was why their kettle always looked so dirty. Ace made some, and brought great steaming mugfuls to the table.
“Come on then, Phil,” he said, sitting down. “Loosen up about this plan, will you?”
“No chance!” said Phil. “Dan’d kill me. It’s something to watch, though. Should be very funny. This afternoon, probably.”
“Fair enough,” said Ace, seeing that was all he was going to get. “Let’s try and get our heads round those forms, then. That’ll probably take all morning.”
He pulled the forms, rather crumpled now, out of his pocket and frowned at them.

“It’s in two parts,” he said. “The human does one part and we do the other. But how? It says here, ‘the application must be supported by the signatures of seven sprites, to include at least three orders and three places’. What does that mean?”
“Orders is easy enough,” said Phil. “It’s only a posh word for what kind of sprite you are. And you’ve only got three orders here, so one of your seven will have to be Hogweed, ’cos you’ve only got one goblin. And the rest must be a mixture of elves and fairies.”
“Oh, I get it,” said Will. “And place is where you come from, the place that gives you your name.”
“Right!” said Ace. “Well, that’s OK, too. We’re all Moseleys, but Madge and Phil aren’t, so that’s three.” He looked at Phil anxiously. “You do know your name, don’t you?”
“ ’Course I do,” grinned Phil. “And,” he added impressively, “I’ve got a pen. Give us the forms.”
He gave them a reckless smile, and wrote neatly on each one, Phillyrea latifolia Royden.
“Royden?” said Will. “That’s nice. Lend Ace your pen, will you? He can be one of the others, he needs the practice.”
Ace jumped up, and pointed at Will.
“Right,” he laughed, “I’m going to sort you.”
“You and whose army?” grinned Will, jumping up too.

In a moment they were laughing and wrestling, trying to trip each other up, and Aesculus was jumping about excitedly, watching. Phil picked the forms up, knowing that soon they’d crash into the table and send the cups flying, and they weren’t all empty. Sure enough, they did, then Will tripped and they were on the ground, rolling around like puppies.
“Oh, morning, Madge,” said Phil. “D’you want a cup of elf tea?”
“I wouldn’t mind.”
Ace and Will helped each other up.
“Hi, Madge,” said Ace. “Can you really drink that stuff?”
“Its other name is army tea,” chuckled Madge. “But whatever you do, don’t tell Rose.”
Phil came back with a mug of tea for Madge.
“Thanks, Phil. Sit down, will you, dear. I need to talk to you.”
“Shall we go?” said Ace, but Phil shook his head.
Madge looked at him, thoughtfully. How much he’d changed since he arrived here. It wasn’t just his hair, so long now, or his clothes. He looked older, and stronger.

“I’ve had a message from Heather,” said Madge. “A question, really. For you. Has your friend Rob ever spoken to a human?”
“Oh yes,” said Phil quietly. “To the old lady who made the garden. Why? He’s not disappeared, has he?”
“Yes, Phil, he has.”
Phil stared across Wildside. His expression was very bleak.
“Rob,” he said. “We used to fight like that. He always won, though. Even taller than you two. Where is he?”
He looked at Ace and Will and his eyes were full of pain.
“You’d know if he was dead,” said Will.
“Exactly,” said Ace. “Say it, Phil. You’ve been hiding from this for too long.”
Phil shuddered. “I know,” he said. “OK - why didn’t he come back for me? He must have known I wasn’t dead. Why did he go without me? Why?”
“I don’t know, Phil,” said Ace. “It doesn’t sound good. However tight the discipline was, however bossy your senior sprite was, there’s no excuse for that.”
“No,” said Phil. “I can’t think of one. And I’ve tried, believe me.”
“What about your other friends?” asked Will. “Did they talk to the old lady too?”
“Not Lily. Too shy, like I was, then. Camellia did. Talk to the lawnmower, that one. The sort of fairy that never stops talking. Oh, Madge, she’s not gone too, has she?”
“I’ll find out, Phil.”

“So has someone got it in for sprites who talk to humans?” said Ace. “Madge, is this why the room for the Register is left behind, forgotten, in the oldest part of Owler Tor? Is that the way it’s going? Lock the doors, keep ourselves to ourselves, protect what we’ve got left?”
“Yes, Ace. That’s the way it’s going. I think Heather’s got the pattern now.”
“Well, stuff that,” said Ace. “Where are those forms, Phil? Madge, would you add your name? It’s not much, but it’s a start.”
Madge looked at Ace with a strange expression in her eyes, a mixture of wonder and concern, before firmly adding her name below Phil’s. He didn’t know it then, but she had just paid him the very highest compliment she could. Ace and Will added their names below Madge’s.
“Three more,” said Ace. “Hogweed and two more fairies.”
“I’ll go,” said Will. “You coming, Madge?”

Ace was in no hurry. He sat watching Aesculus playing on the grass, waiting for Phil to speak. When he did, he just said,
“I don’t care, you know.”
“Yeah, right,” said Ace. “It’s just the sun in your eyes, is it?”
“Shut up, Ace, what do you know about it? Will would never let you down.”
“No, that’s true. But suppose he did - or it looked as if he had. And then I heard that he needed me. What should I do then, do you think?”
Phil was silent. Ace carried on, carefully.
“There’s a thing that Will’s always saying to me, whenever I criticise anyone - takes one to know one, he says. You’re a leader, Phil, whether you like it or not. It takes one to know one.”
“That’s stupid, Ace, how can you say that? I’m not brave, or strong, or clever.”
“That’s not what it’s about. It’s about seeing what needs doing, and doing it, without needing to be told. And you do that, I’ve seen you. Now you tell me, Phil - what needs doing?”
“That’s easy enough. Someone needs to go to Delamere, and help Heather. That’s the only way to find out what’s happened to Rob. But they all need help, they need to be told what really matters. Someone needs to stand up to the senior sprite, that creep Dahlia, and say, ignore her, she’s bonkers, let’s go and join the army.”

Phil was smiling now, so Ace relaxed, and said,
“Now who could do that? It’d have to be someone who knows how sprites like them think, someone who cares about them. Who wants to join the army himself, even if he hasn’t actually said so. Someone strong - strong enough, say, to cling onto a train roof for miles with an injured leg. Someone brave - brave enough, say, to tackle a hodgepig single-handed. Someone clever, yes, clever enough to know what to say and when to say it.”
“And when to go. I care about what’s happening here too, you know.”
“I know. I wouldn’t rush off. I mean, your people - the Roydens - won’t be the only sprites in a big forest like that. Could be a complicated situation. You’re going to need all the information Madge can get. And a really cracking plan.”

The forms were finished. Clover signed her full name confidently, Dan shyly, so grateful to know, as Madge had realised she would be, that they all thought she belonged here and could claim the place-name as her own. Hogweed said he’d gladly add his name, if he could spell it, but Rose came to his rescue and spelled it out for him, because it was nearly as bad as Ace’s, Hogweed Heracleum sphondylium Moseley.
Madge said she’d take a form to Sally and tell her all about it, so Ace and Will went to see Cyril, who was amazed and delighted to be asked, and then to see David. David was intrigued.

“You mean a sprite could turn up any time, and pop in for a chat? Cool.”
“Yeah,” said Ace, “or maybe someone on a journey, desperate for help, or anything.”
“It could get quite exciting,” said Will. “There’s a lot of weird stuff going on, you could end up being part of it.”
“I’ll do it,” said David. “It’s an honour. But it feels strange. Like, I already know I’ll never be the same again. Filling this form in will be like saying, I don’t even want to ever be the same again. No turning back from this, is there?”
“It’s a big thing,” said Ace. “Take your time. Why don’t you think about it for a couple of days?”
“No need,” said David. “I’m with you. Whatever you do, whatever I do, we’re on the same side.”
“And the word for that,” said Will, “is Ally.”

Ace expanded the form until it was big enough for David to write on, and a strange thing happened. Some writing appeared, which had looked as if it was only a squiggle when it was sprite-sized.
“ ‘Welcome’, “ David read aloud. “ ‘You are not alone. This is the sign, that you may know and be known’. And then there’s a little picture, look, a star inside a cloud.”
Ace and Will leaned over his arms to have a look.
“That’s not a cloud,” said Ace. “It’s a canopy. The top of a tree. It’s a star in a tree.”
“But what does it mean?”
“I don’t know any more than you do,” said Will, “but my guess is, it’s a secret sign, that if you used it, only another human who was an Ally would understand.”
“I get you,” said David. “Know and be known. Wow.”
With a serious look on his face, David found a pen and filled the form in, flowing smoothly from one question to the next with an ease that Ace thought was very impressive. When he’d finished, Ace shrunk the form again and put it away safely.

“Rose and Clover are going to deliver them to Owler Tor,” he said. “They want to see it for themselves, and Madge said it was about time they tackled a journey on their own.”
“Better have a farewell party then,” said Will, “in case we never see them again.”
David laughed. “You are so rotten to your fairies!”
“It means we like them!” protested Ace. “The more you like and trust someone, the more you insult them. You do it too - you called your brother a greedy toad the other night, but you didn’t say that about Joseph.”
“You might be right there,” said David thoughtfully. “I don’t even know Joseph very well, not as well as Dominic and Tony…hey, that reminds me! What have you done to Barking Mad?”
“Nothing,” said Will. “Why, what’s up with him?”
“He’s gone all good, and well-behaved. I thought you’d done something to him.”
“Oh!” said Ace. “So that’s what they’ve been up to! It wasn’t us, David, but we’ll find out what they did and come and tell you. Come on, Will!”
“See you later!” called Will, and they jumped onto the window ledge, and down onto Wildside.

David watched them go, then wandered down to the kitchen and made himself a sandwich and a cup of tea. He took them into the living room, where Adam was watching television.
“Where’s Mum?” he said.
“Assertiveness training workshop,” said Adam, not taking his eyes off the screen.
“Oh, yeah,” said David, and ate his lunch. Then he slipped back upstairs again to his desk, and started drawing. Stars, mostly, and trees.

Ace and Will found the fairies near Rose’s house, and demanded to know what they’d done to Barking Mad. They’d just seen him for themselves. He and Tony were running about together, and the dog was doing everything Tony said.
“All we did to Barking Mad,” said Clover, “was to shrink him.”
“But he’s full-size now,” said Ace. “What difference did that make?”
“Ah, that’s not Barking Mad,” said Dan. “That’s the hodgepig.” She laughed at their astonished faces. “No, this is Barking Mad,” she said, pointing to where Rose was coming out of her house with a tiny dog in her arms.
“What a great idea!” said Will. “Who thought of it?”
“Phil,” said Clover.
Ace smiled. “And how did you get the hodgepig to agree to help?” he asked.
“Bribed it. It’s going to get the goblins’ old lair as a reward. Hogweed’s over there now, checking if it’s weatherproof. Phil and Aesculus went with him. Are they coming back yet, Madge?” said Rose.
Madge flew up to look.
“Yes, just. They’ve all got armfuls of stuff. Must have been clearing out anything useful.”

Once they were all together, the sprites crept forward towards the houses, to a place where they could watch from deep cover.
“Give me the little dog, Rose,” said Madge.
She settled Barking Mad on her knee and spoke to him severely. Madge hadn’t grown up on a country estate for nothing. She was very good with animals.
“Now just you look!” she said. “That hodgepig’s doing your job better than you do! And, let me tell you, it’s enjoying itself. I could leave you both as you are. It would serve you right.”
Barking Mad watched sadly. He’d never made Tony happy like that. But Madge was speaking again.
“You could behave like that if you tried,” she said. “Come, sit, stay…what’s so difficult about any of that? Stop acting silly and be a real dog. Will you try?”
Barking Mad didn’t jump up and lick her, as he would normally have done. He just nodded his head, trying very hard to look keen, alert and intelligent.
“OK then,” said Madge. “Right, Dan, give the hodgepig the signal.”
Dan flew up, whistled, and dived down.
“Neat flying, Dan,” said Madge. “Very good.”
“He’s coming,” said Rose.

As soon as the hodgepigdog hit the long grass, and was out of Tony’s sight for a moment, Madge instantly transformed Barking Mad, who galloped back to Tony and stood proudly at his heel. The hodgepigdog lay hidden, enjoying the last of the chocolate.
“OK,” said Madge, “are you ready? Here goes, then.”
The hodgepig was there again, looking slightly stunned. Madge stroked its pink snout.
“Listen,” she told it, “Tony will love you just as much as a hodgepig. It’s possible that Wildside could look a bit different when you wake up in the spring. Whatever happens, you should be safe enough back there, so far from the main road. If it’s all changed, take my advice. Go and live in Tony’s garden. But before you do, nip over into Abney. There’s another lonely hodgepig lives on the other side of the railway, and I’m sure she’d like you.”
The hodgepig nodded, and trundled away to its comfortable winter quarters.

“Excellent,” said Madge. “Now, how’s Barking Mad getting on?”
They all turned back to watch. Tony was just walking around, talking to his dog, who was trotting at his heel, with his head cocked as if he was listening.
“Look, Tony’s mum and dad are watching,” said Clover.
When Tony saw his parents, he stopped.
“Stay!” he said, in a confident, commanding voice. Then he ran towards his back garden, while Barking Mad stood still as a stone. When Tony reached his mum and dad, he turned and whistled.
“Here, Barking!” he shouted, and like an arrow homing on its target, Barking Mad rushed to Tony’s side.
His mum hugged him.
“You clever boy!” she said. “You’ve got a real gift with animals, our Tony.”
“Fantastic,” said Ace. “What a plan. That was brilliant. You’ve not just made Tony happy, you’ve given him confidence.”
“Exactly,” said Madge. “That was half the problem. Now he sounds as if he actually expects Barking to do as he’s told; it makes a big difference.”

“When I think what a miserable, bad-tempered little boy he used to be,” said Clover, “I can hardly believe how much he’s changed. You’ve done wonders, Madge, you really have.”
“Oh, it wasn’t all me. Not at all! There’s someone else who’s helped Tony an awful lot. Have you been in number eight recently? I have. Full of books from the school library. All about science.”
Everyone looked at Will.
“Really?” he said. “That’s great. But I didn’t do anything, no clever plan, like this. Just talked to him.”
“Like an equal,” said Madge. “But how did you know, Will, that science would interest him so much?”
“When he saw our guitars, he wasn’t interested in the music, like David is. He asked me how we powered them. I knew, then. It’s an attitude of mind.”
“Dead right,” smiled Ace. “Takes one to know one.”
“Very funny,” said Will, and his voice cracked into a huge yawn.
“Oh, not already,” Ace groaned. “What are you like?”
“It’s the middle of November!” protested Will. “I can’t help it! I’m a willow, I need my sleep.”
“He’s right,” said Clover soberly. “It’s nearly winter. How are we going to manage? We can’t all hibernate when we don’t know what’s going to happen to Wildside.”
“Yes, and when do we have to go to Norway?” said Rose.

“Ah,” said Madge. “Well, I’ll have to tell you sometime, so why not now? It’s like this, Rose; I can’t come with you. That’s the first part of joining the army, you see. You might call it a sort of initiative test. You have to find your own way to get there. So actually, you can leave as soon as you want. But if you want to join next year’s intake, you have to be at the meeting place, the rocky beach on the west shore of Fjaerland Fjord, by dawn on 2nd February.”
The elves were fighting hard not to laugh. Clover was frozen with fright.
“You mean we have to find it on our own?” gasped Dan. “I don’t even know where it is!”
“Oh, that’s awful!” said Rose. “We’ll never do it!”
“Better start thinking about it, then,” said Madge, with a twinkle in her eye. “But I’ll give you a clue. You have to go north. North, where the winds blow down from the Arctic, full of ice and snow, over cold seas with huge waves, to a beautiful strange land, where great waterfalls freeze, and the houses lie deep in snow…”
“What! D’you mean it’s cold in Norway?” moaned Clover.
Phil was in agony from trying not to laugh.
“Er, come and see all this great junk Hogweed’s found,” he spluttered, and the elves and Hogweed cleared off to the shed, where they could let go.
“Why laugh, Ace?” said Aesculus.
“I don’t know,” said Ace, wiping his eyes. “Clover’s face, I suppose. It isn’t funny, really, but when you think of it…telling them a clue was to go north!”
“It’s not a bit funny,” said Will, calming down. “There’ll be no fairies on Wildside at all.”
“I’m going too, Will,” Phil told him.

“Good for you. I thought you would. But it’ll be the end of the band,” he said, looking at Ace searchingly. “The end of everything. It’ll never be the same again.”
Ace returned his look steadily.
“Don’t worry about it,” he said. “I understand. It’s not a problem.”
“I don’t know, Ace. I’m holding you back. Maybe the price is too high, after all. If we all went…the team stays together. They’d get there all right with you to lead them.”
“What would you do, Hogweed?” asked Phil.
“I will do whatever Ace tells me to,” said Hogweed. “That’s the way it is for goblins. That’s the way we like it.”
Ace didn’t take his eyes off Will. He was trying to fathom what Will really felt.
“Don’t look at me like that!” said Will. “How can you tell what I’m thinking when I don’t know myself?”
He turned and ran off towards the brook.
“Where Will gone?” said Aesculus.
“To his tree,” sighed Ace. “Why does everything have to be so hard?”
“Why doesn’t some news come?” said Phil.
Then, on Monday morning, it did.

When Sally saw the letter from the Council finally drop on the mat, she picked it up and held it tightly, thinking. She decided not to open it. No, they’d open it together, everyone who cared. As soon as the children and David got home. She walked across Wildside, looking at it with loving eyes, until she came to the horse chestnut, knowing the sprites would see her and someone would come to speak. It was Clover who saw her first.
“The letter’s come,” said Sally. “I haven’t opened it. My kitchen, four o’clock?”
“Understood,” said Clover. “We’ll be there.”
She flew off at top speed to pass the news around, while Sally walked off towards Hilton Street.
As soon as the younger children heard that the letter had come, they raced off to the bus stop to wait for David, Dominic and Rowan. And as soon as they saw the crowd of eager faces waiting for them, they knew the reason. All of them raced along the road and into Sally’s house. As they tumbled into the kitchen, the sprites arrived at the back door. Cyril was already there, drinking a cup of tea.
“Go on, go on, Mum,” Laura urged her. “Oh, I hope it’s all right!”
“Is everyone here?” said Sally. “Right, let’s go.”
She tore the envelope open, and started to read aloud:

“Dear Mrs. Grey, thank you for your interest in the planning proposal regarding land at Stockport Road, Cheadle. We apologise for the delay in coming to a decision, this was due to gross inaccuracies in the figures submitted by the applicant. However, these have now been resolved. The planning committee wishes to express its thanks to the young people who provided the nature survey and the petition, which have been carefully considered, and to you for drawing attention to the tree now subject to a preservation order, and to the protected species growing on the site, Gentianella campestris.
We are pleased to inform you that the flowers in question will be preserved. The topsoil will be removed prior to construction, and deposited in the nature reserve at Abney Park, where the protected species will be able to flourish without further damage. With that proviso, the application for planning permission has been granted.”

There was an awful silence.
“Dig the topsoil up!” said Sally dazedly. “I never thought of that!”
“So all they cared about was them blue flowers?” said Cyril. “They didn’t belong here, anyway.”
“No,” said Will. “We made them. We thought they’d keep Wildside safe.”
“So it’s over?” said Laura. “We’ve really lost?”
“Yes, Laura,” said Sally.
“We can’t give up!” said David. “There must be something else we can try!”
“But what?” said Dominic. “There’s nothing else to try.”
The girls were crying, and Tony wasn’t far off it.
“Don’t go getting upset,” said Cyril. “I felt like that, when your houses were built. It was the end of the farm, you see. But times change. People need houses. I’m glad you’re all here, now. It’s not the end of the world.”
“Mrs. Kowalska,” sobbed Rowan.
“Exactly,” said Cyril. “Sarah will be crying with happiness.”
“It’s not Wildside so much any more,” said David. “It’s you. Your home.” He looked at Ace. “What will you do?”
“I don’t know,” said Ace. “This has come as a bit of a shock. I knew Mr. Connolly didn’t think we’d win, but I still hoped we would.”
He held his head in his hands for a moment, thinking. He had to say something, to explain what was happening, without putting Will on the spot in such a crowd.

“Thank you all for caring so much,” he said. “I want you all to know how much it’s meant to us, all your help and everything. We couldn’t have done a half, not even a quarter of it without you. D’you remember, right at the beginning, when some of you came to Midsummer’s Eve? Thanks to Sally Cain? It was because Sally was on the Register of Trustworthy Humans that we were allowed to speak to you at all. Well, now you all are. In your own rights. Dominic Connolly. Tony Connolly. Joseph Connolly. Gemma Johnson. Rowan Grey. Laura Grey. Adam Chambers. And that’s only because none of you are fourteen. If you were, we’d have made you Allies, too, like Sally, Cyril and David. That’s how much we think of you all.”
Adam looked with awe at his brother, standing tall and calm, and for the first time began to wish he was more like David.
“Lots of us are leaving Wildside soon,” Ace continued. “Phil’s needed elsewhere; so will Madge be. The fairies are off to join the army. But that doesn’t make it any easier. If you leave your home, you want to know it’s still there to come back to. What else we might try, I don’t know. We’ll have to go away and have a think.”
Ace was struggling now. As he thought back over the whole campaign, all he could see was his tree, it was all flooding back with terrible force, he had to get away before he started crying. Sally could see he’d had enough.
“It’s getting dark,” she said. “It may be things will look different in the morning. Away to your homes, everyone, and try not to grieve too much. We’ve all still got each other.”
Tony opened the back door, and the sprites left quietly. In the darkness, Madge flew to Ace’s side.
“You were brilliant,” she said, hugging him. “Hang on in there. Sally’s right. It’s always darkest before the dawn.”

Later that evening, Hogweed lit a brazier under the horse chestnut, and all the sprites, even Aesculus, gathered round it. Though it was cold and windy, everyone felt they wanted to stay out on Wildside. They thought, and talked, but it was more of good times they’d had than any new plans. Madge had been very quiet, listening to them all, but finally she said,
“Wildsides don’t last forever. That’s why they’re wildsides. Sooner or later, they get built on. But before they do, they have something, for a while, that no other land has, total freedom. This Wildside’s time is over. But somewhere, some abandoned building has just caved in, and the first nettles and brambles have started to grow, and another wildside has been born. And you, my dear young sprites, the dearest bunch I’ve ever worked with, have had your freedom too, in this beautiful, wild place. But you’re grown up now. There’s work for all of you, out in the world. Total freedom is a luxury you can’t afford any more. And I don’t think it would feel the same. It’s over. Face it, with courage, and step out towards the next thing.”
There was a long silence, as it sank slowly into everyone’s hearts that she was right. But for Ace, there was just a bit more to it than that.

“The day I can’t think of another plan to try will be the day you can wrap my body in a leaf,” he said. “There’s still things we could do. It’s up to you, Will. If you say we fight on, we fight on.”
Will didn’t get a medal for what he did next, but he deserved one. He looked at Ace, and smiled.
“You would as well, wouldn’t you? But how can I deprive the army of you? You’ll probably end up a general. No. The price is too high. Let it go.”
What it cost him to say that cheerfully, even Ace couldn’t guess, but when he’d said it, Will felt grief hit him with a shock like sudden pain. He struggled to his feet, and wandered blindly out of the circle of firelight and friendship, into the wind and the dark, alone.
He fought his way along the bank to his tree, the willow with its thick roots solid in the damp ground, and its branches swaying in the wind. He jumped up to his favourite perch, hardly needing to look where he was going. His hands clasped the deep-fissured bark, he rested his head against an upright bough. This couldn’t be happening, yet it was. Men with machines would come, and bite into its trunk and kill it, would shred it into tiny pieces and carry it away. His face was contorted with grief as he saw it happening in his mind. They wouldn’t care. They would laugh, and talk, and walk away. And his tree would be gone. Gone forever. His mind fought against the terrible reality of death, the utter hopelessness, the terror of empty nothingness. Tears ran down his face, he was shouting, ‘No, no!’, but his voice was drowned by the wind, that was shaking the tree with great shudders like the drums in a requiem.

He jumped from branch to branch, touching them, feeling his tree all around him, in a frenzy of pain. All night he stayed there, now wild and fighting it, now sad and thinking, seeing it in the bare bones of winter, its spring beauty and its summer shade. And all night long the cold wind shook the tree, and sent the clouds scudding across the sky. Late, very late, the waning moon set, and the world grew even darker. Will was lying exhausted on a branch, feeling it close to him, when he heard his tree speak to him, aloud, for the last time.
“Dig deep, Willow.” That was all, but Will understood. Everything the tree had tried to be, everything it wanted Will to be, was held in those few words.
“Goodbye,” whispered Will. The pain was more than he could bear. But then he heard another voice, one he’d never heard before. Deep and strong, yet far away. This voice also spoke only three words.
“Come to me.” Will raised his head, trying to see where the sound was coming from, but it stopped so soon. All he saw was the sky beginning to lighten, as the first paleness of dawn crept up from the east. And with the rising sun came the wild geese, catching the first pink light on their wings, and tipping it onto Will for healing and peace.
Cold and tired, stiff, dirty and streaked with dried tears, Will stumbled to the ground, to find Ace leaning on a stone, waiting for him.
Will opened his mouth, but no words came.
“Come on,” said Ace quietly. “I know.”
Will realised he didn’t have to explain a thing. He could go straight to the point.
“Who is it?” he said.
“I don’t know, Will. But we’ll find out when we get to Norway.”
Their eyes met with perfect understanding.
“Oh, Ace,” said Will, “I’m so tired.”

Ace helped him home. When he came out of the house, a while later, Phil was waiting for him.
“He’s asleep,” said Ace.
“Did he say anything?”
“Not much. But it spoke to him, all right. I could see it in his eyes. Help me, Phil, I can’t think. What do I need to do first?”
“Speak to Hogweed, I should think.”
Ace gripped Phil’s shoulder appreciatively.
“Thanks. Where is he, d’you know?”
“By the brook, looking after Aesculus.”
“Come on, then.”
Aesculus jumped up when he saw them coming, but stood quietly when he saw their faces.
“Sad,” he said. “Why sad, Ace?”
Ace looked at him. “How much can you understand? I don’t know. I’m sad because Will’s sad, Aesculus. And Will’s sad because they’re going to cut his tree down.”
Aesculus stared back, puzzled and frightened.
“Stay with Phil, will you? I’m going to talk to Hogweed.”

Ace sat down beside Hogweed on the bank of the brook, and looked up at the goblin, who towered over him.
“Will and I are going to Norway, Hogweed,” he said. “I’d like you to come.”
“I’ll be glad to,” said Hogweed. “I always fancied joining the army. Couldn’t tell Nightshade and Ragwort, though. They’d have laughed their heads off. It’ll be great.”
“I think it will,” said Ace. “But it’ll be a while yet before we can go. And we’ve got a lot to do today. Come on.”
As they joined Phil and Aesculus, the fairies spotted them, and flew down from the top of the horse chestnut, where they’d been looking out sadly over Wildside.
“How’s Will?” said Clover. “And is there anything we can do?”
“He’s asleep,” said Ace. “He’s had a bad night, as you might expect. Be kind, but don’t say too much. Oh, and try not to look too pleased, at least to start with.”
“What’s there to be pleased about?” demanded Dan. “Everything’s horrible.”
“I think,” said Madge, “Ace means you won’t have to find Norway on your own, after all.”
“Now I understand,” said Clover. “Oh, that’s brilliant. I can’t tell you how glad I am. Hogweed too? But not you, Phil?”
“I can’t,” said Phil. “At least, not now. But if all goes well, there’ll be another team joining the army next year. The Moseleys will have to look out when the Roydens arrive!”
“Oh, that’s wonderful!” said Rose.
“Yes, it is,” said Ace. “But it’s going to be a long time before it seems wonderful to Will. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” said Dan. “Don’t worry, Ace, no-one’s going to be grinning about it. But what are we going to do with Aesculus?”
“I know, it’s a big worry. In fact, it’s the biggest problem we’ve got. But it’s not the most urgent. I want everyone moved off Wildside and into the horse chestnut before dark. They’ll be here in the morning.”

“How do you know?” said Madge.
“Because that Pearce is going to get such a blast tonight, he’ll be crazy to get started. Well, let him. But we’ll attack first, even though we know we’ll lose. Do or die, and die with our boots on.”
“Oh, I get you,” said Dan.
“Right,” said Ace. “You and Phil get all the band stuff out of the shed and under the tree. Except the big battery, Will had better do that. Madge, will you go and see Sally? I haven’t got time. Tell her we accept defeat, and explain as much as you think she’ll understand.”
“Of course I will,” said Madge. “What about David? Are you going to see him yourself?”
“Yes,” said Ace, “as soon as I can. Clover. Your house is safe. See if you can make it any bigger, will you? Madge, Dan, Rose, pack what you want, shrink what you can and bring it over here. Help them, will you, Hogweed? They’ll have a lot to carry.”
Rose was looking stricken, but she quickly pulled herself together.
“I know, Rose,” said Ace. “Your beautiful house. But it’s got to be done.”
“No problem,” said Rose bravely. “But Ace, when did you last have anything to drink?”
Ace thought about that. “Yesterday evening, I think.”
“That won’t do. You can just come with me, and have a cup of tea in my kitchen, for the last time.”
“Thanks, Rose,” said Ace. “That’d be great.”

When Will woke up, Ace asked him to start clearing the shed, remembering how much the hard work of making the gentians had helped him in his grief.
“Pack a bit of everything, and chuck the rest,” he told him. “I’ll come and help you in a bit, we’ll have to do the house as well. But I’ve got to go and see David first.”
“Right,” said Will. “See you.”

“How is he?” said David.
“Like you’d expect,” said Ace. “He’s gone quiet. His tree said goodbye to him last night, David. That’s a terrible thing to bear.”
“And how much is all this hurting you?”
Ace looked at him. “I can handle it. I think. I’ve got to. Look, David, there’s something I want to say to you. It’s true that we’ve got to go. But I don’t want you to think we’re going to forget you, like Cory and Mal did to Cyril. We’ll be back.”
“Thanks, Ace. But I’m really going to miss you, all the same.”
“I used to think the law about not talking to humans was to protect us, but now I’m not so sure. But that’s past wishing for, now. I’ve got a suggestion, though. I haven’t told anyone else yet, I wanted to hear what you thought first.”
“Go on,” said David.
“It’s Aesculus. He’s too young to join the army, obviously. He can’t go to Delamere with Phil, it’s too dangerous. He can’t stay here alone, and yet he ought to be with his tree. There may be other solutions, that Madge can think of, but to me the best solution is, you look after him. Let him stay near his tree, and you bring him up to be a good elf. What do you think?”
David gasped. “I’d love to, of course. But how can I? I don’t know half the stuff he’d need to learn!”
“You do, you know. He’ll only be two when we get back. That’s nothing in sprite years. If we were staying, all he’d learn in that time is to talk, and a bit of reading and writing. Make a few toys. Keep out of the way of magpies and squirrels. And Phil won’t be far away. He’d come and see you, and tell you anything you needed to know. I bet Mal would too, and he’s only round the corner.”
“That’s true,” said David. “Wow, I wonder if I could. It’d be fantastic. And you’d really trust me to do that?”
“I would,” said Ace, “but I’d have to check with Madge.”
“Right. In case it’s illegal!”
“That’s it,” Ace agreed. “Look, I’ll have to go now, and help. Everyone’s moving to the tree. Then I’ll put it to them. And last thing, very late, you might hear some music if you listen carefully. See you tomorrow!”

Ace jumped back across Wildside. Already it was getting gloomy. Under the tree were heaps and bundles everywhere. Clover was obviously worn out, and Rose had been crying. Ace was everywhere, quietly praising, encouraging, organising.
“Almost there,” he said. “You’ve done wonders, Clover. Can you fit everyone in?”
“Yes, and we got the beds in without having to shrink them, thanks to Hogweed. And I’ve copied the house like a mirror image, see, on this side of the trunk, for you elves to sleep in.”
“Kind and thoughful, Clover. You remind me of Madge sometimes. Thanks a lot. Has Will finished in the shed yet?”
“Not quite,” said Dan. “He wasn’t getting on very fast, so Phil went to help him. He’s done the battery, though.”
“Great. I’d better get over there. See you in a bit.”
The shed was almost bare. Ace helped them carry out the last things, and they stared at it, sadly.
“We’ve had some fun in there,” said Will. “Shame to see it go.”
“I know,” said Ace. “Doesn’t seem long since we made it, does it? When we first made the drums.”
“Has Hogweed cleared his nest out?” asked Phil.
“I think so,” said Will. “I heard him in there, earlier.”
“Better check,” said Ace.
He jumped to the back of the shed, and it was all empty.
“All clear,” he said. “Are you ready? Demolish it.”
The shed clattered to pieces, a little heap of scraps of wood.
“We’ll have to do the house now, Will,” said Ace gently.
“Right,” said Will, struggling hard to be normal.
Phil helped them, and the house was soon cleared. Hogweed came and took their beds for them. Ace had his photograph under his arm.
“What are you going to do with that?” said Phil. “You can’t take that to Norway, it’s seriously illegal.”
“That’s a point. Leave it with David, I suppose. I’ll have a think about it.”
Phil nudged him, and jerked his head towards Will. Will had his hand across his eyes, and was biting his lip.
“He’s had enough,” said Phil. “Take him away. Hogweed and I can take the house down.”
Ace put his arm round Will’s shoulders, and steered him away.

When they got back to the horse chestnut, everything had been cleared away, except the instruments. The picnic table was standing on the bare earth between the two houses, and the brazier was glowing nearby, with Rose’s big kettle on it. Ace had a look round, and brought out some stools that had been in the shed, so there was somewhere for everyone to sit.
“It’ll be nice living so close together,” he said cheerfully.
“Ace, Aesculus is asleep,” said Dan. “Can you help me carry him to bed?”
Between them, they carried him up a step-ladder to his new bedroom, and tucked him in.
“Hey, that smells good,” said Ace, as they came down. “What’ve you got?”
“It’s called coffee,” said Madge. “Sally gave me some. It’s even better than tea, if you’re upset.”
Ace tasted it, and sighed with satisfaction.
“It’s bucking Will up, too,” he thought. “He nearly smiled, then.”
He looked round at them all.
“We’ll have to have a think now, about Aesculus, what’s best for him. I’ve got an idea, but…”
“…it’s probably illegal,” Clover finished for him.
“How did you know I was going to say that?” Ace demanded.
“Just a lucky guess.”
“Hmm. Well, I’d like to hear what everyone thinks. Madge?”
“Send him to school. There’s a school for homeless young sprites somewhere in the Lake District. It’s nice up there, and he’d get a good education.”
“And how much freedom would he get in a place like that?”
“Ah…absolutely none. That’s the snag.”
“Take him with us. I don’t believe anyone would mind. He’s too little to be alone, he needs to be with people who care about him.”
“I agree with that,” said Rose.
“I don’t,” said Phil. “He needs his tree more than he needs us. He ought to stay here, even if it means one of us giving up our own plans to stay with him.”
“Hogweed? Any ideas? No? Fair enough. What do you think, Dan?”
“Couldn’t he go and live with Mal and Cyril?” she suggested. “They’d look after him, and he wouldn’t be far from his tree.”
“He won’t have much fun there. He needs to be with someone young, who’ll run wild with him and do exciting things.”
“David,” said Will.
“Yeah, that was my idea too,” said Ace, smiling at him. “What about it, Madge? Is it illegal?”
“Not yet. But it probably will be, once you’ve done it.”
“It’s good,” said Phil. “I’ll come back when I can, and see how they’re getting on. Have you asked David about it, Ace?”
“Yes, he was really pleased at the idea. The thing is, we’ve got responsibilities here. We’ve made friends with all these humans, and you’ve got to face it, they love us. We can’t just disappear from their lives. If we leave them Aesculus, he’ll be well looked after. He’ll still have his tree. And it’ll be a sort of pledge, that we’ll be back, that we care about them too, and haven’t forgotten them.”
“Well done, Ace,” said Madge. “There is a reason for some of these laws, especially the older ones.”
“I’m beginning to realise that,” Ace admitted. “Good. That’s settled, then, before…before anything happens. It’s no use pretending it’s going to be easy. It isn’t. It’s going to be horrendous. But we’re staying here as long as we possibly can, for Aesculus. We don’t want him forgetting us.”

The night got colder. Stars burned in the clear, dark sky, and the frost began to settle. Ace withdrew his gaze from the depths of the fire, and stretched.
“Let’s wire up,” he said. “You ready, Phil?”
“No, not tonight. Let Hogweed play. He’s lived here all his life, like you. He knows all the songs now, and it’s his right.”
“Thanks, Phil!” said Hogweed, getting to his feet. His eyes were gleaming with pride, and he set up the drumkit with loving care.
When the music began, it might have been any other night when they were just playing for the joy of it. But as the songs grew darker, the fairies drew away a little, out of the line of their gaze. They were singing and playing for vengeance now, and their faces were hard and stern. Phil too; he wasn’t watching the band, he was standing alongside them, staring into the night with fierce concentration. Together, the power of their imaginations brought terrors and nightmares alive as they launched their attack.
“Elves are a bit scary when they go like that,” said Rose.
“I know,” said Clover. “Ace looks as if he could kill someone.”
They were drawing to the end of Ace’s song. Will had his head down over the bass, but he suddenly flung his head back, his hair flying. Clover shuddered as she saw his face, twisted with strength and anger. She’d never seen him look like that before. The final chords died away, and Dan put her guitar down carefully. Her hands were trembling, she was dripping with sweat despite the cold.
“Thanks, Dan,” said Ace. “You hung on really well. That can’t have been easy.”
“Glad to help,” said Dan, but she quickly slipped away to join the other fairies. That had been awful.

“Great work,” said Phil grimly. “He’ll feel that, all right. Give me your guitar a minute, will you, Ace?”
He sat down and tried the strings.
“Nice,” he said. “I think I’ll make one of these.”
“Really?” said Ace. “I’ll help you. You fed up of the drums, then?”
“I am a bit. And you’ve got a cracking new drummer in Hogweed. D’you think I’d be able to learn the guitar?”
“You’ll do anything you set your mind to. Put your fingers closer behind the frets. You get a clearer sound.”

It was past midnight. Hogweed piled the instruments away and curled up in his new nest. Madge slipped away to bed, and the other fairies looked at each other. They wanted to say something that would help, but they didn’t know what. Clover walked over to Will. He hadn’t said a word since they finished playing. She hoped he looked like himself again. She touched his arm, but he carried on staring out into the night. Then suddenly he turned, hugged her fiercely, and turned back. She went back to Rose and Dan, and they went to their beds, but none of them slept. Outside, the elves watched in silence for the dawn.

As soon as it was light, the counter-attack was launched, and the earth-moving vehicles rolled onto Wildside. They cut through the nettles and brambles, they sliced out great swathes of grasses and gentians, which were loaded on lorries and driven away. The children saw the desolation begin, and went to school in tears. David didn’t go. He knew there was nothing he could do, but he knew he had to be there. The rowan went first. Richard and Darren, the tree surgeons, sliced through its slender trunk with insolent ease, then moved on to the silver birches. Ace couldn’t stifle a groan as they fell. He loved their white bark so much.
Not all the sprites were watching. The destruction was so fast, so effortless, it was too much to take. Wildside was turning into a wasteland of bare mud, crossed with wheel tracks. The hawthorns went, and the hazel, and still Will watched in silence, his dark eyes the only thing alive in his still face. Alive only with grief and pain. Then they started clearing along the banks of the brook.
At least it’ll soon be over, thought Ace. Knowing it’s coming is the worst bit of all.
He was close by Will; not too close, leaving him alone with his thoughts, but close enough. The blades of the chainsaws were getting nearer. They sheared away all the bushes and undergrowth that had always hidden the willow from view, then suddenly there it was, its full shape and grace revealed. Then Will finally cracked, and turned to Ace.
“Help me,” he said, as his eyes overflowed with tears.
Ace held his hands out, and pulled Will’s head onto his shoulder, and held it tight.