CHAPTER 17 - Dreams

Will felt as if he was floating on leaves. Soft, green, springtime leaves, they were carrying him somewhere, upwards; dimly he sensed he’d get there in a moment. With a jerk, he opened his eyes, and realised he’d been deep, not just sleeping, but hibernating. He lay quietly, staring at the ceiling, waiting for his body to catch up with his mind.
I wonder how long it’s been? he thought. I don’t even remember getting in bed. And this isn’t our house - where am I?
Slowly it all came back, and he faced up to the hideous memory that was rushing closer every second.
My tree’s dead. It’s very strange, but it doesn’t feel as bad as it did, when it hadn’t happened, but I knew it was going to.
Stiffly, he crawled out of bed and staggered around a bit, to get his legs working, then washed, and dressed, and combed his hair.
Hey, it’s grown like mad. It’s longer than ever. Cool.
Still moving slowly, he climbed down the ladder to the ground. The first thing he saw was a huge fence surrounding the horse chestnut, which the builders had put up to stop themselves damaging the protected tree. The second thing was Aesculus, charging towards him.

“Will! Will wake up! Nice, good!”
He flung his arms around Will’s waist and hugged him, and Will ruffled his hair.
“Hi, Aesculus.”
He looked up, and saw Ace smiling at him across the table. The rest of the sprites were there too, obviously having breakfast.
“About time!” said Ace.
“Last to wake up, pays a forfeit!” said Rose.
“Oh, no,” said Will. “Really? What’ve I got to do? Can’t I have a drink first?”
“No way,” said Ace. “That’d be too easy, then. Who’s got a good idea?”
“Jump the brook blindfolded,” grinned Phil.
“You’re joking! I can hardly move yet!”
“Come on,” said Ace.
They followed him over the fence and down to the bank of the brook. Ace fastened a blindfold around Will’s eyes.
“Go!” he said.
“You rotten lot,” said Will, and jumped.
It was even colder than he expected. He kicked hard, and came up gasping for air, then felt hands taking hold of his arms, as Dan and Madge heaved him onto a stone, so he could jump back to the bank.
“Now can I have a drink?”
“You deserve one,” said Clover. “I’ll go and put the kettle on. Go and get dry while I make another pot of tea."

Soon, Will was sitting at the picnic table, warm and dry, with a mug of Rose’s best blackberry leaf tea in his hand.
“So what’s the date?” he asked.
“11th December,” laughed Clover.
“What! You mean I’ve been asleep nearly a month!”
Ace shook his head. “Pathetic. A ten year old could manage on less than that.”
But Will could see everyone was laughing.
“Yeah, right,” he smiled. “So when did you wake up?”
“Yesterday,” grinned Ace. “Just beat you to it!”
“Typical,” said Will. “Saved yourself a nice swim, didn’t you? Well, sucks to you, anyway, my hair’s longer than yours now.”
“It never is! Let’s have a look!”
Will twisted round so Ace could see his hair was halfway down his back.
“It’s not!” said Ace indignantly.
“Stand side by side and I’ll measure,” said Clover.
They got up and stood shoulder to shoulder, and Clover looked carefully.
“Sorry, Ace, he’s right. Your hair’s thicker, though.”
“Like his head,” said Will.
Dan helped Rose move the cups.

“OK, OK, you win,” said Will. “Stop breaking my arm.”
He dragged himself back to the table. “Hey, where’s my tea gone?”
“Are you going to sit still?” said Rose severely.
“ ’Course he is,” said Ace. “Come here, Aesculus, and listen. Dreams.”
“Oh no,” said Clover. “Now for the most unintelligible conversation of the year.”
“Ah, now you’re talking,” said Phil. “How about this? Light you could touch, handfuls of light to feel.”
“Beautiful,” said Ace. “White flowers in a river, streaming between birches.”
“Clean bark?” said Will, and Ace smiled, remembering. “Shone like the moon.”
“Strong winds,” said Will. “Not gusting, steady and warm. Inside them, flying.”
“Always wanted to fly,” said Phil. “Blue sky, and hope. So much hope, you felt sure.”
“I had that,” said Will. “So sure. All’s safe, somewhere. Leaves everywhere, all kinds, every shape, all green and new.”
“Not alone,” said Ace. “Someone there. Thought it was you, Will, but not so. A sea of ice, like a mirror.”
“Did it break?”
“No, but it would have done if I’d looked down.”
“Shiny, growing!” said Aesculus.
“Very good,” said Ace. “Keep growing, Aesculus.”
“Let’s go and sit in the tree for a bit,” said Madge.

Eventually, the conversation returned to normal.
“Where’s Hogweed?” said Will.
“Oh, he’ll have gone to watch the builders,” Phil told him. “They often light fires, you see. It doesn’t seem to bother him, what they’re doing.”
“I don’t think he looks back, or forward, much,” said Ace. “Just lives in the present. To Hogweed, a good fire’s a good fire, never mind if last month you were fighting it all.”
“How bad is it?” Will asked.
“Beyond belief,” said Ace. “I was glad when they put this fence up. Try to forget what’s happening out there.”
“What’s up? Has something else happened?”
“Not really,” said Ace. “It’s just, well, I got really angry. On that day, Will, when they came…and there were you, nearly dead with grief, and Hogweed carried you to your bed…I just went out there and wrecked every machine they’d got. Madge went ballistic, but I ignored her. And when they brought new ones, I wrecked them too. But then Cyril came. He’d heard the men talking, in the pub. Told me I was being a prat. Knock it off, he said, men had their living to earn. So I gave him a right earful, but he just stood there, calm as anything, and said being an Ally meant not being afraid to tell people they were wrong. And if no-one else would tell me, he would.”
“So what did you say? He didn’t say that in front of everybody, did he?”
“No, no, in private. I just glared at him, and said, point taken. Then he went home, and I went storming away to find Phil and ask him what he thought.”
“And I just said, maybe enough was enough.”
“So from then on, I just ignored them,” said Ace. “We got busy, soon after that. Madge was getting us information from Heather. She’s sure, now - it’s sprites who speak to humans who are disappearing. And Camellia’s one of them. So we got working on a plan, and we made a guitar, as well, for Phil, and then one day I did such a pathetic jump I fell out of the tree.”
“And Madge helped him up,” said Phil, “and told him to stop fighting it and go to bed, or she’d put poppy juice in his tea.”
“So I did,” said Ace.

“Everyone’s had at least a few days, even Madge,” said Phil. “Though she’s been very busy. Doing a lot of messaging.”
“How long did you have, Phil?” Will asked him.
“Only a week, but I’m an evergreen, I don’t need much.”
“I didn’t know evergreens don’t hibernate much,” said Ace. “You’re the first one we’ve met. Oh, it’s awful how much we don’t know. I have this horrible feeling that we’re going to make such fools of ourselves in Norway. We’re just going to get laughed at.”
“Ach, we won’t be the only ones,” said Will. “Just keep your head down for a bit. Suss out all the new stuff before you start.”
“Start what?”
“Oh, you know. Being you. Let’s have a look at your guitar, Phil.”

It was a beautiful guitar, cream and silver, with a bright, bold sound.
“Wow,” said Will, “that’s great, that is. Play something!”
Phil launched into the sparky riff from Phantom of the Opera.
“Dan’s helped me so much,” said Phil. “She’s really good, isn’t she?”
“You both are,” said Ace, impressed. “Oh, I wish you weren’t going. It’d be brilliant with five. With you and Dan on lead, I could just sing, and jump about a lot.”
“I know,” groaned Phil. “Part of me wants to stay. You don’t know how much. But I can’t.”
“When are you going?”
“Tomorrow. First train. The plan’s finished. I was only waiting till you woke up, to say goodbye.”
“We’ll have some music tonight then,” said Ace. “Five piece band, for the first and last time. Can you do The Trooper?”
“You bet.”
“Brilliant,” said Will. “So, what’s your plan?”
“I’m going in disguise,” said Phil. “Madge is going to make me look like a holly. I’m going as a refugee, and pretending to hate humans, to see if anyone lets slip what happens to sprites who don’t.”

When Madge had finished, Ace was stunned to see that Phil now had red hair.
“It’s sinking in now, that you’re really going. How are we going to keep in touch? How does this message stuff work, Madge, and do you learn it straight away?”
“You start learning it straight away. But you won’t get through to England in a hurry, it takes years to manage a distance like that. But don’t worry; once you can do it, Heather or I will be able to get through to you.”
“That’s good. We’ll be dying to hear how it’s going. You take care, now. It’s awful that you’ve got to go on your own.”
“Don’t you worry about me,” said Phil. “I’m not. At least, I’m a bit scared, but I’m not worried. Come and help me pack, will you? Then I must go and say goodbye to everyone.”

Sally was so shocked to see Phil with red hair, she dropped a tray of mince pies on the floor.
“Tomorrow, Phil? Oh, we’ll miss you. But I feel sure you’ll find your friends. Whizz upstairs, will you, Clover, and tell the girls? One of them can run round and call for the others. We must have a drink together, to say goodbye to Phil.”
In a few minutes, the kitchen was buzzing. They hadn’t been all together like this since the awful day the letter came. Sally and Madge were pleased by the cheerful, purposeful mood they heard around them.
“Are those mince pies, Sally?” hinted David.
“Oh, David, they’ve been on the floor! I was going to bin them.”
“What a waste,” said David, and carried them to the table and started eating. He put a bit of mincemeat on the end of his finger, and very bravely, Ace licked it to see what it was like.
“Yeuch! That’s disgusting! How can you eat that?”
“Easy,” said Dominic, leaning over. “Like this!”
Ace stared in disbelief that anyone could actually like that stuff, and filled his cup again, and Phil’s too.
“You’re going to need all the energy you can get,” he told him.
“Why are you going tomorrow, Phil?” Rowan asked him. “Don’t you want to wait till after Christmas?”
“Part of me doesn’t want to go at all. But I mustn’t put it off any longer.”
“Don’t forget to come back and see us, Phil,” said David. “I’m relying on you to help me with Aesculus. Stop pulling my hair!” he said to Aesculus, who was sitting on his shoulder.
“Don’t be afraid to clout him if he’s a pest,” said Will. “We do. Not that he takes any notice.”
“Are we allowed to look after him sometimes, too?” said Dominic. “Could he come and stay in our house?”
“If David says so, fine,” said Ace. “He’s in charge. One thing, though, don’t spoil him with too much nice stuff. When he’s got a bit more sense, let him sleep outside sometimes. Let him drink rainwater, and dew, and brook water.”
“We will,” said David. “Don’t worry, Ace, he’ll grow up so tough you won’t believe it.”
“That’s what worries me,” Ace muttered to Will. “One day he’ll be bigger than us.”
“I know,” said Will. “Sickening, isn’t it? You’ll get no respect from that one.”
“Not a scrap. Makes you think what we must have put Cory through, though, doesn’t it?”
At that, they just started laughing and couldn’t stop.

“Whatever’s the matter?” said Clover. “Here, have another drink.”
Tony had a question that had been intriguing him, and he decided it was time to do a bit of stirring.
“Is your army anything like ours?” he asked Will, innocently.
“I don’t know,” said Will. “I don’t think ours has guns and stuff. But it is an army. There’s fighting. Why?”
“It’s just that, the first thing they do when you join our army, is, they cut your hair.”
Why he had to say that when Ace had his head back glugging lucozade, no-one knew.
“Honestly, Tony!” scolded Madge. “Don’t frighten people when they’re drinking!”
Will patted Ace on the back until he could breathe again.
“Stop worrying! Madge would have told you!”
“No, she wouldn’t! She wouldn’t tell Rose about army tea, would she? But you’ll have to now, Madge. Give me a straight, truthful answer. Do you have to have your hair cut? Shut up laughing, David.”
“No, you don’t!” said Madge. “They’re not after uniformity, like the humans’ army. But you’ll get a lot of stick. They’ll never have seen anything like you two before.”
“That we can handle,” said Ace. “Come here, Tony, I’m going to kill you.”
“Madge,” said Rose, in a very small voice, “what’s army tea?”
“Army tea?” said Madge, stalling. “Well, it’s…it’s like elf tea, actually. Only not as nice.”

Adam and Joseph were under the table with Hogweed, burping happily and talking about football. Tony dived down to join them, to keep out of Ace’s way for a bit.
“I always liked all that kicking you did,” Hogweed was saying. “But I can’t get my head round twenty-two people doing it at once. That’s an awful big number.”
“There’s a great match on television tomorrow,” said Adam. “Why don’t you come and watch it?”
“Sprites can’t watch television,” said Tony sadly. “It makes them dizzy and ill.”
“It makes elves and fairies dizzy and ill,” said Hogweed indignantly. “Who said it made goblins ill?”
The boys looked at each other.
“Ask Madge,” said Tony.
“Goodness, I don’t know,” said Madge. “I’d never met any sprites who even thought about such a thing until I came here. Will!”
“Why does television make you dizzy?”
“Frequency’s too high. Our brains must work at a different speed or something. Why?”
“Hogweed wants to watch a football match, and we’re trying to work out if it affects goblins too.”
“Well, his brain’s slow enough,” whispered Ace. “Might be OK.”
“Yeah,” said Will. “Give it a try, Hogweed, for ten minutes, then stand up and see if you fall over. If you do, get out quick. If not, you’ll be fine, except we’ll all be so jealous we’ll beat you up.”
“Nice one!” said Adam. “Tomorrow night, then. Our house, seven o’clock.”
The phone rang then, and it was Mrs. Connolly asking Sally to send her boys home for their tea, so reluctantly the party split up.
“Oh, I do wish we could see more of you all before you have to go,” Gemma said to the sprites. “Why don’t you all come and stay in our houses for Christmas?”
The sprites looked at each other. That sounded like good fun.
“When does school finish?” asked Madge.
“A week today,” said Sally. “Why don’t you come then? Gemma’s right, it would be lovely.”
Everyone said goodbye to Phil, and wished him luck. Madge had been afraid the children would be upset, until she realised that to humans, Delamere was no distance. They didn’t feel he was going far.

That evening, they had their best concert ever. There was hardly any audience, only the other fairies, and David, who was leaning on the fence, but the band didn’t mind. They were enjoying themselves too much. David was amazed at the difference. Hogweed’s confidence had grown, and he thrashed the drums with blistering ease. Will was back to his normal self, and made the bass sound like a machine gun. Dan and Phil threw the lead back and forth to each other like children playing ball, effortlessly reading each other, playing as one.
But the biggest difference was to Ace. Freed from trying to play and sing at the same time, he was ecstatic, filling every word, every line with drama, leaping around when he wasn’t singing, and when he was, filling the air with an amazing sound he’d never managed before, now low and musical, now as strident as an air-raid siren.
The fairies were very impressed.
“They’ve never sounded this good before,” said Rose.
“I know,” said Clover. “I didn’t know Ace could sing like that. It’s amazing.”

David thought of all the maths he had to do, and went home. The band packed up, slowly. Will laid his bass lovingly in its case, and wandered off towards the fence, into the shadows. It had been a good day; they’d had a lot of fun. It was good to be awake, good to be alive. But just now, he wanted some peace.
Ace saw him go, and wondered whether to join him. He wanted to; but maybe Will wanted to be on his own. Will saw him hesitating, and walked over to him.
“I want to go for a walk,” he said. “Just down the brook. Just where it was, you know? Will you come with me?"
“ ’Course I will.”
They jumped the fence together, and strolled off into the dark.
“Don’t you ever do that again,” said Will.
“Do what?”
“Stand there wondering if I want you or not. I always want you, Ace.”
For a moment, Ace was too stunned to answer. That wasn’t the sort of remark he was used to hearing from Will. Then something fell into place.
“You’ve grown,” he said.
“Grown?” said Will. “Is that what it is? Well, if I have, it’s only catching up with you. I’ve had that many shocks this year, things I never expected. So much has happened.”
“Hey, come on,” said Ace quietly, and put his arm round Will’s shoulder.
They were nearly there. A gash in the bank, where the roots had held the earth firm, before they were torn away. Will stood looking for a while, thoughtful but not distressed. Finally, he said,
“It was worse for you. Wildside was still there - with a cruel gap in it. But now…everything’s gone, all at once. It almost doesn’t seem real.”
“You seem…so calm,” said Ace. “You still dreaming, Will?”
“Maybe,” Will smiled. “Maybe that’s it. Can’t usually talk like this, that’s for sure. So let me say this, while I can, because I might never manage it again.”
He crinkled his eyes up, trying to find the words he wanted.
“It’s just…you’re the senior sprite. You had every right to tell me what to do. But you didn’t. You wanted to go, to get away from all this grief and do something new and exciting, but you were ready to give all that up, for me. You put me first, just like Cory always told us to. I had to match that, I wanted to match that.”
“And so you said, ‘Let it go’.”
“And now, it doesn’t hurt?”
“No. I loved my tree, Ace, of course I did. But I couldn’t have a joy in my life that you’d had taken from yours. And…I wanted to show you…show you, because I couldn’t tell you…that it means more than anything to me, being a twin. Being your twin. I wanted you to be sure.”
Ace was overwhelmed by that, his whole mind flooded with a happiness and certainty he’d never known.
“Oh, Will,” he said. “Come here.”
They held each other tight, then, laughing a little, wiped away each other’s tears.

“How can something so good come out of something so bad?” asked Ace, in wonder, as they started walking back.
“It’s like a pattern, isn’t it?” said Will. “It’s very strange. But very encouraging. Goodness knows what we’ll be in for when we get to Norway, but I feel as if we can handle it.”
“Definitely,” said Ace. “Together, we’re unbeatable. They don’t know what they’re in for…the brainiest elf in the world, and the most beautiful.”
“D’you think they’ll know which is which?”
“Shut up while I work out if that’s an insult or a compliment…oh, I see, it’s both…very clever. What d’you fancy doing now?”
“Don’t mind, really…why?”
“I feel like doing something really silly.”
“What, totally irresponsible and childish?”
“Sounds good to me…how about, getting some holly to put in Phil’s bed?”
“Brilliant,” said Ace. “Where’s the nearest holly?”
“Across the road, in the little park.”
“Come on, let’s go!”

It was still dark when the sprites gathered on the railway embankment to see Phil off. He hugged them all, nervous at the thought of coping on his own.
“Will we ever meet again?” he said to Ace.
“ ’Course we will! Next year, you said. In Norway. We’ll be waiting for you, you and your team.”
The ground was beginning to shake.
“Time to go, Phil,” Will told him. “Don’t look back.”
Phil met his eyes, and smiled.
“See you!” he called, and jumped onto the sleepers, then soared into the air, landed on the roof of the train, and was swept away round the curve.

As the young sprites wandered sadly home across the building site, Madge slipped across into Abney Park, and sighed with relief when she heard Poppy’s voice. You never knew who you’d get, out of all the people on duty. It was so much easier when it was a trusted friend.
I hope you’ve got plenty of time, Poppy remarked. There’s a message here from Heather that’s about six pages long, and most of the first page seems to be telling you you’re a raving idiot.
Take the insults as read, said Madge resignedly. I told her some news yesterday. Had to use code, I wasn’t sure who I was talking to. Obviously I did it accurately enough, she’s got the gist of what I was saying. What does she say?
Variations on, ‘Have you completely taken leave of your senses?’ followed by a lot of questions: ‘Who signed with you? Not those youngsters? Does Gran know? Has anyone found out yet? What on earth are you up to?’ Madge, said Poppy, I wouldn’t dream of commenting on a message, you know that, but what on earth are you up to?
Made new Allies, said Madge. OK, OK, I know. But sometimes you just have to follow your feelings. Answer Heather yourself, will you, next time she gets you? Don’t write anything down. Tell her, yes, I signed with five of the young Moseleys and Phil Royden, the one who’s coming to join her in Delamere. No, Gran doesn’t know, I want him to hear it from Ace and Will themselves. And of course no-one’s found out yet, and they’re not going to, at least not until this lot are safely on camp. My work here’s nearly finished, Poppy. Just one thing left to do - make sure the police don’t find out where they’ve gone.
How are you going to manage that?
Not sure yet. But as they say round here, I’m working on it. Is there anything else for me?
Yes, a note from General Stalden.
Crumbs, what does she want? Let’s have it.
Poppy cleared her mind, and thought the message formally, in officially-approved signals style. General Stalden to Major Arley - message reads, ‘Large scale troop transfers taking place soon. Detachments of Fighter Squadron from Scotland and Yorkshire will rendezvous at your location en route for Spain, approx. 2100 hours, 25th December. Arrange for guidance beacon and refreshments.’ Message ends.
Thanks, Poppy, said Madge thoughtfully. You’ve just given me an idea.

Before anyone could get too depressed about losing Phil, Ace got them all thinking what they could make as Christmas presents for all their friends. Rose and Clover said they’d do Sally and the girls, and Dan said she’d help the elves do David and the boys.
“Well, David’s easy enough,” said Ace. “He needs an electric guitar, he’s only got the acoustic. But can we make an amp that’ll connect to their electricity supply?”
“I think so,” said Will, “if we can get Tony to ask his dad what the voltage of the supply to a house is. We’ll have to try, that’d be brilliant for David. What can we do for Tony?”
“Has he got a bike?” asked Dan.
“Don’t think so,” said Will. “Dominic has, but I’ve never seen Tony on one.”
“Dominic’s is ancient, and it’s too small for him,” said Ace. “I don’t think there’s much money to spare in that family. Suppose we make bikes for all three of them, as nice as Adam’s got?”
“I like that,” said Hogweed. “Bikes I can understand.”

They were soon so absorbed they forgot to keep an eye on Aesculus. Suddenly, they heard a scream, and Ace was in the tree, looking for him, before anyone else had realised what it was.
“Where are you?” he called.
Then he spotted him, sitting on a branch, sobbing.
“Squirrel bite me!” he said.
“Let’s have a look,” said Ace. “Oh, good grief. Can you jump? No? Sit still a minute.”
He swung himself round the branch, and called down.
“Will! Get up here, fast!”
“What’s up?” said Will, landing beside him.
“Squirrel’s bitten the end of his finger off. Help me get him down.”
Together they helped Aesculus down to the ground. There was blood over all of them by the time they’d managed it.
“Can we do it?” said Ace desperately. “We must be fast, he’ll bleed to death!”
“Calm down,” said Will. “Close the blood vessels, then you’ve got time to think.”
“Right - here goes.” He took a deep breath, and saw the tiny veins close, and the bleeding stop.
“Sit down,” said Clover. “Rose has gone for water.”
They bathed all the blood away, and told Aesculus how brave he was, but he was looking very pale.
“He’ll need some milk,” said Dan. “I’ll go and beg some from Sally.”
“Good thinking,” said Will.
“OK,” said Ace. “Listen, Aesculus, I’m going to make your finger better. But I need to look at your other hand. Hold your hands out, side by side, and keep very still.”

Will sat close to Aesculus, and helped him keep still, while Ace imagined the finger growing whole, flesh and bone, nerve and muscle, brown skin and pink nail. He shuddered with the effort, looking a bit pale himself.
“You’ll be all right now,” he smiled. “Go with Dan, and drink some milk. Then have a little sleep.”
They watched him tottering off with Dan.
“You got in a bit of a flap then, didn’t you?” said Will. “That’s not like you.”
Ace looked a bit shamefaced.
“Well…I don’t like blood, that’s all.”
“Really? I never knew that!”
“Well, we went in more for broken bones, didn’t we, and near-drownings. Not sticking our fingers in squirrels’ mouths. I feel sick.”
“I think you ought to warn David,” said Will, “if he’s going to go in for injuries like that. He’ll get a terrible shock when he sees green blood.”
“What d’you mean? He’s got blood, hasn’t he? You mean it’s a different…ugh, what colour is it?”
“Move,” said Ace. “I really am going to be sick.”

When Madge got back from Abney, and heard what had happened, she went to Aesculus’ bedroom to see how he was, and found Ace brooding over him.
“I think it’s all right,” said Ace. “He moved his hand in his sleep, and the finger seemed to be working.”
“I can’t see which one it was, so you must have done a good job,” Madge told him. “I suppose you’re worrying if it’s safe to leave him now, aren’t you?”
“Well, how could David have coped with that?”
“Ask him,” said Madge. “Then you’ll know. But Aesculus won’t mess with squirrels again. He won’t listen, but he’ll learn the hard way.”

Will had taken the chance to slip off by himself for a while. He didn’t want to admit it, even to himself, but Hogweed wasn’t the only one who was interested in watching the builders. The trouble was, they’d started to lay cables, to bring the electricity supply onto the building site, and he couldn’t resist having a look, even though it made him feel guilty. The builders had dug a massive trench, and drilled through the pavement on Cherrytree Close. Then electricians had come, to join new cables to the ones that were already there. He’d never seen such huge cables, they were awesome. He could hardly begin to imagine what sort of current they would carry. No-one said anything when he got back, though he’d been gone for ages. They were all being kind and tactful, assuming he’d just got miserable and had to go away. It made him feel even worse.
“What am I doing?” he asked himself. “These men are the same team as those murderers. I won’t go again, I won’t.”

By evening, the presents were taking shape nicely. The elves needed more steel and aluminium, so they decided they’d raid the building site in the morning, and went off with Hogweed. Adam already had the television on, and Joseph was there too, with his brothers. Dominic and Tony weren’t that interested in football, but they were very interested in seeing whether goblins could watch television or not. Hogweed settled happily on the couch between the boys.
“That’s the teams coming out now,” said Joseph. “The ones with red shirts are Man. United, and the blue shirts are Chelsea.”
“Ah,” said Hogweed. “That helps. Different coloured shirts.”
Will and Ace were behind the couch, laughing quietly.
“That’s the kick-off,” said Adam. “United are playing that way, see, trying to get the ball in the net at that end, look, they nearly did! Wow, what a save. Look, that’s a replay, they’re going to show you again.”
“He saved it again!” cried Hogweed. “Oh, that was clever!”
The boys looked at each other, and decided not to bother. It was going to be hard enough explaining the game, without starting on modern video-editing techniques.

It sounded an exciting game. Ace and Will were getting nearer and nearer to the end of the couch, where they’d be able to see the screen. Ten minutes passed, and there was a corner. It was very tense, so they came out and started to look, but felt something cover their heads. Instantly, they both spun round, ready to fight whatever was attacking them, then realised it was David.
“Caught you just in time!” he smiled. “Hogweed? Are you OK?”
Hogweed stood up and waved happily.
“Sickening,” said Ace. “The lucky thing.”
“Enjoy the match, Hogweed,” said Will gloomily.
“Cheer up,” said David. “Come on, Maiden’s on upstairs, and I’ve got a really stinking algebra problem I can’t get my head round. Come and have a look.”
“Algebra?” said Will. “Beautiful.”
“Oh, great,” said Ace. “That really makes up for not being able to watch television, that does.”

Will was sitting on David’s desk, rapidly reducing the problem to an equation, and balancing and simplifying until the answer floated to the surface like a bubble in a simmering pot.
“Well, that’s the answer. Let’s have a look at your working.”
“It’s a bit messy,” said David.
“Oh, I see. Look, that’s where you went wrong. Why did you put that on the wrong side of the equation?”
“Well, it’s supposed to balance, isn’t it? The other side was getting too big.”
“It’s supposed to balance mathematically, not artistically! It doesn’t matter what it looks like! You have to feel the pattern of the numbers, and draw the answer out of them, it’s beautiful.”
“Yeah, I can see it’s beautiful,” grinned David. “I just can’t do it. Let me copy your working in my book.”

They sat around for a bit, just listening to the music, but when the last track was over, Ace said,
“David, I’m worried that we’re expecting too much of you with Aesculus. D’you know what he did today? Lost half a finger in a squirrel’s mouth!”
“Is he OK?”
“He is now,” said Will. “Ace patched him up.”
“He’s unbelievable,” said David. “I mean, you’ve warned him about squirrels, but does he clear off? No. Pokes it, probably. But I still want the job. True, I can’t grow him a new finger, but Mal could. He wants to help, you know.”
“Have you seen him? At Cyril’s?”
“Yes, a few times. Haven’t you?”
“Not since we took the form round. I don’t really want to. It’s too soon. Too hard to forget all the trouble he caused. But if you’re going to be seeing him, that’s not too bad. But suppose Aesculus did something like that again? How would you stop the bleeding long enough to get him round there?”
“It’s only first aid, isn’t it? You just apply pressure to the wound, and keep it closed.”
“Can you do that?”
“Ace, you’re not thinking straight. Just look at the size of my hands, will you? If he split the biggest artery in his body, I could keep it closed for a week.”
“You’re right,” said Ace. “So long as you know what he’s like. But while we’re on the subject of bleeding, there’s something else you ought to know…”

When the match was over, Hogweed and the elves walked home across the frosty building site.
“He took it quite well,” said Will. “But you could see it was a shock. Strange, really.”
“It’s only strange to you. When normal people find books with words like chlorophyll and haemoglobin in them, they don’t start reading them, they go away and do something interesting.”
“Give over. David was interested, when I pricked my finger to show him.”
“Shut up. That was gross. How did you like the match, Hogweed?”
“Wonderful. United won, 4 - 2. And I found out what Adam would like for a present, Ace. I heard him say he wished he had a leather jacket, like David.”
“Great, no problem!”
“No problem? Without Phil?”
“Ah,” said Ace. “That’s a point.”

They decided to finish the things they understood first, and worry about clothes later.
“I don’t really want to ask for help,” said Ace, as they jumped over the fence early next morning. “I don’t want Clover laughing at us. But you never know, Dan might be better than us with fabric.”
“She could hardly be worse,” said Will. “But I’m not very hopeful. I mean, she’s not exactly fussed about clothes, is she?”
“True. Even scruffier than you, and that’s saying something.”
“Shut up, you poser, and get looking for some steel.”
There were plenty of scraps lying around on the ground, steel and aluminium, and dozens of other tempting and useful materials. Their pockets were crammed with good stuff, and they were just about to leave, when some vans arrived. Not just electricity, but telephones too.
“I can’t stand this,” muttered Will, clenching his fists and closing his eyes.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” said Ace. “I keep forgetting how recent it must seem to you, when you’ve only been awake three days. I should have come on my own.”
“It’s not that! I wish it was!”
“Huh? What’s up?”
“Me, that’s what’s up. A sick traitor, that’s what. I want to go and see what they’re doing. Again. Again, d’you hear me?”
“Whoa! Calm down! OK, I understand now. You’ve got to think goblin on this one. What are they doing, anyway?”
“Laying cables. Bringing the power on. And by the look of those vans, telephone lines, too.”
“Telephones? Hey, that’s interesting. That’s something we could really do with knowing about.”
“Is it?”
“You bet it is. They have telephones in Norway, don’t they? Come on, let’s have a look.”

For the rest of the week, everyone was busy making things. The fairies were working on a CD player to give to Gemma. They did very well, because they could go and look at Rowan’s whenever they wanted to, so they had something to copy. The casing, switches and turntable were all superb, but the laser beam defeated them. They just couldn’t see how it was supposed to work.
“We’ll have to ask for help,” said Clover. “But I don’t want them laughing at us. Have they started on the leather jacket yet?”
“Let’s go and see,” said Rose.
They saw that Ace and Will were sitting at the picnic table, frowning.
“Go away, Clover,” said Ace.
Clover grinned at Rose, and did a thumbs-up.
“Give them half an hour,” she said.
So in half an hour, Clover sneaked back to where they were working, to see how they were getting on, and Ace spotted her.
“Oh, don’t laugh,” he moaned. “We could really use some help, here.”
Clover turned round, and waved at Rose.
“So could we. Swop?”
Rose brought the CD player to the table, and Ace smiled.
“This is great. For Gemma, of course? We’ll finish it off for you.”
Clover sat down beside him.
“Budge up,” she said, “and give me Adam’s jacket.”
“Oh, you can tell what it’s meant to be?” said Ace, pleased.
Only because Rose told me, thought Clover, but she didn’t say it. It had taken her a long time, but she was getting the hang of being tactful.

When the presents were finished, all but the amp for David’s electric guitar, they started thinking of what Aesculus might need. They made him a bigger bed, in case he grew fast, and plenty of clothes. They made a first-aid box, full of tiny bandages, they made cups and blankets, pens and pencils and toys. David came over in the evening, after the builders had gone, and carried everything to his bedroom, where he made a special corner for Aesculus. He pinned his drawings of the sprites on the wall there.
“So he won’t forget you,” he told the elves. “I’ll talk to him about you every day.”
“You couldn’t do one of him, for us, could you?” said Will.
“Sure,” said David. “Can’t you hold faces in your memory, Will?”
“Not very easily.”
David sat at his desk and pulled his sketch pad towards him, and another sketch slid out, that he tried to hide.
“What’s up?” said Ace. “Show us. That’s Rowan, isn’t it?”
“Yeah,” admitted David. “Go on, then.”
Sheepishly, he uncovered the sketch, and they saw Rowan as she so often sat at Sally’s table, her chin cupped in her hands, her soft hair rippling over her shoulders, and her beautiful eyes gazing at something, or someone.
“You know what she’s looking at, don’t you?” said David.
“Yes,” said Ace quietly. “I know. But…she’ll get over it. I mean, she’ll have to. It’s impossible. She’ll realise that soon, you’ll see.”
David rapidly started sketching Aesculus, and Ace started shredding a bit of paper into very tiny pieces. Will slipped away. He wanted to talk to Tony, anyway, and this wasn’t any of his business.

Ace was quiet for a long time. He was squirming with embarrassment, but he knew he had to say something helpful.
“I haven’t been flirting, you know. I wouldn’t do that.”
“Oh, I know,” said David. “It’s not your fault. But, well, it’s no wonder she was bowled over, when she saw you like that, six feet tall and all rippling muscles. I can’t compete with that.”
“Get real,” grinned Ace with relief. If that was the only problem…
“In a couple of years, you’ll look like that. For good. And I’ll still be eight inches tall. I don’t think there’ll be much contest, do you? Listen, I’m just going to slip round and see her. I’ve got a plan.”

Ace’s plan was very simple. When he was sure she was alone, he tapped on her window, and Rowan drew the curtain back, smiling, expecting to see Clover or Rose. When she saw it was Ace, her lip trembled and her hand shook as she unfastened the window.
“Come in,” she said shakily.
“Don’t be shy,” said Ace. “I’ve come to ask you a favour.”
“Yes, what?” said Rowan.
Ace perched on the back of a chair, and looked lovingly at his photograph. The most beautiful tree there’d ever been.
“It’s this photo your mum took,” he said. “I treasure it more than anything, but I can’t take it to Norway. There’d be nowhere safe to keep it, you see. It’s very illegal to be photographed. Would you keep it safe for me?”
“Yes…yes, of course,” said Rowan.
“Why are you crying?”
“Because you’re going. Because you’re trusting me with your precious photo. Because I love you. You’re so beautiful.”
“Well, of course I am,” said Ace, trying to keep it light. “So are you. So’s Rose, and so’s David. Hogweed’s not too hot, I admit, but you can’t have everything.”
Rowan giggled, and wiped her eyes.
“I don’t know how you feel, Rowan, and I’d be daft to pretend I could even guess. But I know one thing. One day you’ll look back on how you feel now, and laugh. Yes, you will,” he smiled, as Rowan shook her head.
“Look at you in your tree,” she said. “I fell in love with you that day.”
“Ach, I was the size of a man then,” said Ace. “But I’m not a man. I’m an elf, I’ll always be an elf. And you’ll grow up into a very wise and very beautiful woman. The day will come, Rowan, when you won’t need that photo any more. I know you’d still take care of it for me. But when that day comes, I want you to pass it on to David. Understood?”
“Yes,” said Rowan, trying to smile.
“That’s better,” said Ace. “Let me have a last look…oh help, this is awful,” he said, wiping his eyes. “I’ll have to go now. Keep it safe. See you soon.”

He leaped out of the window and disappeared into the dark. He travelled miles, raging with grief for his tree, and furious that David and Rowan should suffer any pain on his account. No-one saw him till morning, though Will knew where he’d gone, and could guess why. To Ace, there was no doubt where the blame lay. Mr. Pearce had a terrible night.

Will was finishing the amp, lovingly wiring up the final circuits.
“240,” he muttered. “Lucky things. Just think what you could do with that.”
“Do with what?” said Ace, looking over his shoulder.
“With 240 volts coming into your house, any time you want it, no messing about with batteries.”
“Is that what they get? Wow, you’re right.”
Will twisted round. “Are you OK? Have you seen David?”
“Mmm. First thing. Told him what I’d done…I think he understood. If he doesn’t now, he will in a year or two. I keep forgetting how young they are. Tell you later,” he added, as Aesculus came jumping over.
“Look at this, Aesculus,” said Ace, pulling David’s sketch out of his pocket. “Who’s that?”
“That me!” he squawked delightedly. “David draw me! Go David house today?”
“Yep,” said Ace. “School finishes today, and we’ve got work to do.”
He stretched, and yawned. Will smiled sympathetically.
“Come and have a brew,” he said. “Rose has got something fancy in the teapot, but there’s elf tea in our old kettle. Could be the last chance for quite a while.”

The fairies had insisted that they ought to be ready to leave for Norway as soon as Christmas was over. Ace had agreed, simply to avoid talking about it. What had seemed so exciting to him, so important, seemed less attractive as the time to leave drew nearer. This morning, he could hardly bear to think about it. He had to go, he knew that. His team were relying on him, he couldn’t let them down. So he buried his feelings, and threw himself into the work.
They made backpacks for everyone. They held a lot, when things were shrunk, but even so, they couldn’t take everything, they had to choose. Clover’s was full of warm clothes, and a nice pillow, with her flute squashed in along the side. Rose had her flute too, and some clothes, but also lots of packets of tea, and a piece of tin in case she needed to make a kettle.
Hogweed insisted on taking the full drumkit, and when it was shrunk it didn’t take up that much room, but it rattled a lot, so the others persuaded him to have some warm clothes as well, to soften the noise. Dan had her guitar, and some clothes, with a few useful scraps tucked in, and so did Ace, but Will started with the useful stuff, and only spared room for clothes when he was sure he’d got his bass and his favourite screwdriver, copper wire, sulphuric acid, three-core cable and other important things you couldn’t just find lying around. With great care, the elves transformed their clock into a watch for Will to wear, because he’d be in charge of reading timetables.

Madge was packing too, and thinking what she might do to smooth their paths. It wasn’t going to be easy for any of them.
I mustn’t say too much, she thought. One piece of advice for each of them, that’s the thing. Apart from that, they’ll do better just taking things as they find them. I wonder, though…yes, I think I could go so far.
She pretended to discover a piece of silk in her basket.
“Oh, I don’t need this,” she exclaimed. “Nice and soft, though. Here, you have it to wrap up your medals in.”
“Our medals?” said Ace. “Hmm, where on earth did we put them?”
“Thought so,” chuckled Madge to herself, as the elves rushed off to search.

Even so, Ace and Will finished long before the fairies did, and Clover was beginning to get irritated by their sarcastic remarks about warm clothes. Madge knew the elves were only being so boisterous because they were edgy, nervous about facing such a change, so she packed them off to watch the builders again, to give everyone a bit of peace.
They could see at once that the builders were wrapping things up. They were finishing for their long mid-winter break today, and they were going round locking tools away, and leaving everything safe. There seemed to be more going on over on Cherrytree Close itself, so Ace and Will cautiously made their way across there. They got a look inside a telephone junction box while it was open, and even got a close look at a pneumatic drill. They watched a digger filling in a trench with cables in it, to leave it safe, and winced when its blade sliced into one of the cables. They were expecting an explosion. Nothing happened, it wasn’t sliced through. But then, at that moment, it wasn’t actually raining.
As soon as all the workmen had gone, blowing on their cold hands, David and the children came out to welcome their guests into their homes for Christmas. The elves went with David, Madge and Hogweed went with Tony. Dan flew straight into Gemma’s arms, and Rose and Clover fluttered onto Rowan and Laura’s shoulders, and were carried into a shining wonderland.