There were lights at every downstairs window, some white and tiny, like real fairy lights, others in rich, glowing colours. Christmas cards were strung along the walls, and every picture and shelf was sparkling with tinsel or holly. But in the living room was the most glorious thing of all.
“Look at that!” exclaimed Clover, delighted. “A Norway spruce, all covered in beautiful things! Isn’t it lovely!”
“That’s a Christmas tree,” said Laura.
The tree had lights which twinkled on and off, which intrigued the fairies greatly, great swags of tinsel, delicate glass baubles, and on the top, a shiny golden star.
“But why? What’s it for?” said Rose.
Sally looked at her, wondering how much she could understand.
“Well, it’s a sign,” she said. “Light in the darkness. Hope, when everything seems dead.”
“I see,” said Clover. “Like being glad of spring, even though you can’t see it yet.”
“Yes, and a bit more than that, too…Laura! Shut the door!”
Just in time, Laura slammed the door shut.
“You must remember to keep the door shut,” sighed Sally. “If the Elfcat gets in here, it’ll be wrecked in seconds.”
The fairies froze as they heard a man’s voice outside the door.
“Off you go, Elfcat, into the kitchen.” It was a warm, kind voice.
“That’s your dad?” whispered Rose to Rowan.
“Don’t worry,” said Sally. “Say hello.”
The door opened and Mr. Grey nipped in and closed the door quickly behind him.
“What are you all looking so excited about?” he asked.
“Our guests have arrived,” said Rowan, taking his arm.
“Where? I haven’t seen anyone?”
“There!” said Laura, pointing to the back of an armchair, where Rose and Clover were standing, smiling shyly at him.
“Flipping heck!” said Mr. Grey.

Next door, Gemma hadn’t thought to tell her parents that she’d invited a fairy to stay for Christmas. It was much too good having a secret. Dan had great fun hiding among the decorations while Gemma was having her tea. There were some huge, really colourful ones which Gemma’s grandparents had brought from St. Lucia. Dan thought they were wonderful. After tea, Dan said she didn’t want to watch television, she was going to play in her bedroom, which meant turning up her old cassette player as loud as it would go, and dancing about, singing along. Dan got her guitar out and tried to play along. It was a different style from what she was used to, but she managed quite well.
“You are so cool at the guitar,” sang Gemma, but Dan’s face clouded a little.
Gemma joined her on the floor.
“You’re worrying about Phil, aren’t you? Madge said it could be days before there’s any news! Heather can’t suddenly find him, it would look suspicious.”
“Oh, I know, Gem,” sighed Dan. “I just wish we knew he’d got there all right, that’s all.”
Gemma very carefully stuck out one finger and put it under Dan’s chin.
“Cheer up! What would Phil say? He’d say, ‘Don’t you worry about me!’ “

At number eight, Madge was wishing she’d made some sunglasses. Mr. and Mrs. Connolly were very fond of Christmas lights, and they had flashing reindeers in the garden, flashing snowmen in the window, and multi-coloured strobes on the Christmas tree. There was even a flashing Father Christmas on the roof.
“Blackpool illuminations have got nothing on this,” muttered Madge.
Hogweed thought it was wonderful. He gazed in awe at everything. The whole family was very happy, because Mrs. Connolly had just heard she didn’t have to work on Christmas Day. But they were very noisy. The television was on constantly, so Madge had to be careful where she looked. Barking Mad, so well-behaved now, still barked as loudly as ever, and the boys were so excited, they couldn’t keep still.
Which is all fine, thought Madge, and I’m very glad to see them all so happy. But I can’t wait for eight o’clock.

Madge had booked a patch, which meant that if she got through to signals at exactly the right time, she’d be able to talk directly to Heather. It wasn’t often done, because it made huge demands on the strength of the person in Norway, but Poppy herself had suggested it. When the time came, Madge asked Dominic to open a door and let her out. Poppy waited until they’d both got through to her, then let her own thoughts fade away, while leaving the contact open. Faintly at first, and then more clearly, Madge and Heather heard each other speak.
Oh, that’s good, sighed Madge. Nice to talk to you, my dear. Has Phil found you yet?
Yes, but only a couple of days ago. He didn’t rush it, just grumped around the forest at first, looking as angry and miserable as any refugee. Got a real talent for undercover work, that one has.
There’s more to Phil than meets the eye. What’s your plan?
Well, this place is full of refugees, as you know. When I got here, I latched onto the Roydens, because they were the most recent arrivals. The disappearances started suspiciously soon after that.
Are they really such awful snobs?
Most of them are. Worst I’ve ever seen. But are they behind this? I don’t know. But there’s also a gang of wild youngsters, drawn from every colony in the place, passionate haters of humans. I don’t think they’re the brains behind it, but I do think they’re the muscle. I want Phil to act so badly, he gets invited to join the gang. Dangerous, I know, but now I’ve seen what he can do, I think he can handle it.
This can’t be solved without someone taking a risk like that, said Madge. As you say, Phil can do it. He’s got the motive, he wants to find Rob.
I never met Rob, said Heather. That puzzles me. What was he up to, before he disappeared? I met Camellia, though. Dear little soul, bit of a chatterbox. It makes your blood boil, wondering what happened to her. Everyone professes to be worried and shocked, of course. But someone isn’t. Phil - or rather, Holly - is going to find out who.
Hmm, said Madge, I don’t think I’d better mention round here that Phil’s going to be doing something as dangerous and exciting as that.
Getting cold feet, are they? laughed Heather.
Just a bit.
Well, you could always tell them that unless that old dodderer Lex, at Owler Tor, keeps his wits about him, they’ll have Special Brigade on their tails in no time.
Don’t be daft. They’d take that as a challenge to stand their ground and have a good fight.
I thought you said they were clever?
Oh, they are. But they’re elves, dear - they haven’t got any sense.
So how are you going to cover their tracks?
The local police are haunting the place. They know it’s been destroyed, and they want to keep tabs on this lot, they’re watching to see where they go. All I have to do is frighten them off for a bit.
You be careful!
I will. But I have to do whatever needs doing. That’s my job.
Your definition of what needs doing is very elastic, said Heather tartly.
I know, said Madge. Good, isn’t it?

At number two, it was all very quiet.
“Mum’s gone out, it’s all right,” David explained, as he and Adam led the elves into the kitchen. Aesculus immediately started jumping about and exploring. He hadn’t been in this room before, and it was full of interesting things.
“We have to make our own tea,” said Adam, pulling two pizzas from the freezer. “Catch!”
David caught them and slid them into the microwave with practised ease.
“What would you like to drink?” Adam asked the elves, with his head inside the fridge.
“Anything,” said Ace. “Whatever you’re having.”
The boys ate their pizzas, and they all drank some milk. Adam finished first, and carefully balanced his plate on the heap by the sink.
“One more won’t make any difference,” he said.
David sighed. It did look a bit of a mess. Perhaps he’d better do something about it.

“Aaagh! What’s that?” they heard Adam yell.
The others rushed to see. In the front window was a florist’s tall galvanised bucket, full of long thin twigs sprayed silver, with silver baubles tied to them with blue ribbon.
“Oh,” said David. “That’s our Christmas tree, didn’t you know? Don’t want anything traditional, do we?” he said bitterly.
Will and Ace glanced at each other uneasily. They didn’t know what was wrong, but obviously something was. David flung himself on the couch.
“Where is she tonight, anyway?” he asked his brother.
“Christmas drinks with people off her course.”
“David,” said Will, “where’s your dad?”
David just shrugged his shoulders.
“Which one?” said Adam. “Mine or David’s? It doesn’t matter, anyway, we never see either of them.”
“Excuse me,” said David. “I’ll…I’ll be down in a bit.”

He ran upstairs. Adam looked apologetically at the elves.
“He hates Christmas. You see, it was just before Christmas that my dad walked out. He’d been a dad to David, too. He doesn’t remember his own.”
“So why aren’t you bothered?” asked Ace.
“That was ages ago! What does it matter now?”
“You’re a bit of a goblin, you are,” said Will. “How can we help him? What’s all this about Christmas trees, anyway?”
“Oh, we’ve never had proper decorations since that year. Mum never has time to do much, anyway.”
“But what are proper decorations?” said Ace. “Can’t we make some, whatever they are?”
“Go and look in the other houses,” said Adam. “You’ll see some then. I’ll try and tidy up a bit. This place is a real tip.”
“You go, Ace, I’ll help Adam,” said Will. “Come on, Aesculus, you’ll enjoy this.”

When David came down again, he found Adam washing the pots and Will and Aesculus cleaning the worktops by skidding aound on wet cloths.
“Wow,” said David. “It looks a bit different in here.”
He picked up a tea towel and started drying up.
“Where’s Ace?” he said.
“Gone to look at decorations,” said Adam. “D’you think there’s any old decorations left in the roof?”
“I’ll go and see,” said David.
“Come on Will, let’s go and do the other room.”
“Dusters,” said Will. “Watch this, Aesculus.”
He showed him how to skid on a dry cloth to do the dusting.
“Like this game!” said Aesculus.
Adam hoovered the carpet, and picked up all the rubbish and put it in the bin, and moved the elegant but strange arrangement of silver twigs into the hall. It didn’t look so bad there. He hoovered the hall, too, and as soon as he switched the machine off, he could hear Ace banging on the window.
“Are you all deaf?” he shivered. “This place looks better! I see what you mean, Adam. One bucket of sticks isn’t quite enough, is it?”
David came downstairs with a cardboard carton.
“There’s only rubbish left,” he said. “She must have given all the good stuff away.”
“No, no, this is excellent,” said Ace. “Oh, there’s loads of useful stuff here. Will, take this feeble toy tree and make it six feet tall, will you? And see if you can get a better shade of green.”
Interested, Will had a look, and Ace looked at David.
“Brand new things, for a fresh start. But still in the old pattern. Your mum needs you to help her get back into Christmas.”
With a jolt, David suddenly realised how much his mum must have been hurt too. He’d been too young to realise that at the time, and ever since he’d been too stuck in his own grief to think of it.
“I get you,” said David. “I really do. Come on, let’s get cracking.”

By the time they’d finished, the whole downstairs of the house was glowing with light and colour, in a very traditional way, but there the tradition stopped. Everything was wildly original. Ace muddled up all the things he’d seen in the other houses, so they had a flashing parrot, tinsel swags hanging from the ceiling, glass Father Christmases on the tree and twinkling lights all around the walls. Finally, Adam insisted you had to have a fairy on top of the tree, so Will made one to look just like Madge when she was getting cross with Ace, and she frowned down from the top of the tree with her arms folded.
Feeling very pleased with themselves, they headed back to the fridge.
David got some beer out.
“Can I have some too?” said Adam.
“You can have as much as Will and Ace do,” said David.
“What! About two thimblefuls!”
“You’re only ten,” David reminded him. “You’re lucky I don’t send you to bed.”
It was nearly midnight before David heard a key in the door. Adam and the elves were asleep on the couch. David dragged himself out of his chair and hid the elves from view with a cushion. When his mum walked in, staring in amazement, David went over to her and gave her a hug.
“Happy Christmas, Mum,” he said.

Over the next few days, the sprites and the children were in and out of the houses, and fun and games were going on all day, and long into the night. Aesculus struck up a great alliance with Adam, who would always help him to get away with things that David and the elves didn’t want him to do. No-one noticed that Madge and Hogweed went walking up and down the railway embankment every evening. Madge was consulting Hogweed about the beacon she needed on the evening of Christmas Day, and it didn’t seem strange to Hogweed that anyone should want to talk so much about a fire. To him, it seemed the most natural thing in the world. But the words ‘fire’ and ‘Christmas Day’ did float rather loudly across the frozen grasses.
On the Friday, each family went shopping, and the sprites went too, hiding in bags and pockets, enthralled by the sight of all the busy shops.
On Christmas Eve, it started to rain, but nobody minded. Everyone was snug and warm, indoors. But outside, in the builders’ trench, the rainwater slowly started to seep down through the soil towards the damaged cable.

On Christmas morning, while the families were having their breakfasts, the sprites met up at the horse chestnut to get their own presents for their friends.
“Where’s Madge, Hogweed?” said Clover.
“Gone to Abney. Checking something about tonight. You remember, all them fairies are coming.”
“I’d forgotten about that!” Ace exclaimed. “We’ve been having such a good time. But Madge has got it all sorted, has she, Hogweed?”
“Oh aye, she’s been giving it a lot of thought.”
“That’s all right, then…no, of course you can’t ride the bike to number eight, Dan. It’s bright red, and the sun’s shining!”
So very carefully and cautiously they crossed the building site with their presents. They left David’s and Adam’s in their bedrooms for them to find, then left the bikes in number eight’s back garden, with a note saying, ‘From a friend of Cyril’s’. Then, gasping a bit from all the carrying and expanding, they walked along to number sixteen.
“We can all go in at Sally’s,” Clover explained. “We’ve met her husband, he’s called Gary, he’s really nice.”
“Well, you’d expect that,” said Dan. “Sally wouldn’t have married a miserable geek.”
“We made a present for him, too,” said Rose.
“Hurry up then,” said Ace. “We’ve only seen what you made for Gemma. I want to see what else you’ve made.”
Out on Cherrytree Close, the rainwater finally dripped its way down through the soil in the trench, to reach the damaged cable.

Sally saw them coming, and let them in at the kitchen door. She had an apron on, for once, and was doing complicated things with onions, stuffing, and silver foil.
“Happy Christmas!” she said, and the rest of the family came in to see who she was talking to.
“This is incredible,” said Gary. “I need to sit down.”
Laura introduced him to the sprites he hadn’t met, and he hardly knew what to say. It was partly shock, but partly a strange feeling that the world had turned upside down, but that now it was the right way up. Intrigued and full of wonder, he watched and listened.
“We made you some presents!” said Clover.
She and Rose expanded the parcels as the girls touched them. They were long, flat packages. When they opened them, they saw boxes of beech wood, inlaid with silver, and inside them, silver flutes, real human ones.
“Oh, how did you know?” said Rowan. “I’ve been longing to play one of these ever since I heard you playing yours.”
“Thank you!” said Laura. “Oh, it’s so beautiful! How do you blow it?”
“Blow across the little hole,” said Rose. “Not into it. Yes, that’s it!”
“This is for you, Sally!” said Clover, and Sally unwrapped a framed picture. The frame was like the boxes, beechwood inlaid with silver leaves, but the picture Clover had drawn herself, a sketch bursting with life and character, of Rowan and Laura with their heads together.
Sally was overcome.
“It’s perfect,” she whispered.
Very bravely, Dan flew over to Gary.
“This one is for you,” she said. “Happy Christmas from all the sprites.”
Gary’s present was just like Sally’s, except that this time the picture was of Sally.
He smiled at the picture, then at the sprites, and looked across at his wife, surrounded by sprites and her children.
“Sally,” he said, “you’re wonderful.”
“He knows her pretty well, doesn’t he?” whispered Ace.

The sprites stayed in the kitchen, having a drink, while Dan went to get Gemma. When Gemma came bouncing in, the sprites clustered round her and showed her the big, red CD player they’d made for her.
“You made this? For me? Oh, wow. Thank you so much! Oh, Dan, what a noise we can make now!”
“Look at you two with beads in your hair!” laughed Rose. “You’ve done a good job there, Gemma. That’s the first thing Dan’s ever done to make herself look pretty.”
“It’s not pretty!” said Dan indignantly. “It’s strong, and it’s cool!”
“But how?” said Gary. “How on earth can you make things like that?”
“How long have you got?” said Will.
“Oh no you don’t,” said Ace. “No-one wants science lessons on Christmas Day. Like this,” he said to Gary, picking up a piece of onion skin and turning it into a whole onion. “Phew, that stinks!”
“But that’s magic!” gasped Gary.
“No, it isn’t!” shouted everybody. “It’s science!”
“This is the first thing we’ve ever made to work on humans’ electricity,” Ace told him. “We usually use batteries for ourselves. We made an amp too, for David, so he could play his guitar.”
“I think it’s brilliant, your power supply,” said Will. “What a voltage.”
“Sure is,” Gary agreed. “240 volts AC.”
“What did you say?” said Will in a deadly quiet voice. “AC? Oh, no.”
“Don’t just stand there!” said Ace. “We’ve got to warn him not to switch it on!”
Just at that moment, the rainwater in the trench shorted the cable, and blew the main transformer. All the lights went out.
“Too late!” said Clover.
“That wasn’t us!” Will protested. “OK, so we made the amp to work on direct current, which was really stupid, and it’s my fault, but that wouldn’t have knocked out all the power.”
“That’s right,” said Ace. “It would have knocked David out, though.”
“The whole street’s out,” said Gary. “You’re right, you couldn’t have caused that.”
Rowan and Laura, who’d seen what mayhem Ace and Will could cause when they really got going, weren’t convinced. They couldn’t stop laughing. Sally wasn’t convinced either, and she wasn’t laughing at all.
“It’s not funny! On Christmas Day!” She walked towards Ace and Will, waving a wooden spoon. “How am I supposed to cook a turkey without electricity, you half-witted, crackpot elves? Just wait till I get my hands on you!”
“Move!” said Ace, and they did, as fast as a jump could carry them.

They went first to see if David was all right, and found him stunned, but OK.
“Oh, what a fantastic sound it made before it blew! Like a rock concert. What happened?”
“Einstein here made your amp to work on direct current, that’s all,” said Ace. “So when you plugged it in to an AC supply, bang.”
“Nice one, Will,” said David. “It was very exciting. Is that why the whole street’s gone out?”
“It can’t be,” said Will, “though I don’t suppose anyone’s going to believe me.”
“Don’t worry, everything will be OK. The electricity board will be able to fix it.”
“Yes, but when?” said Ace. “Sally’s after us for spoiling Christmas dinner.”
“Ah,” said David. “Oh well, we’ll think of something. Never mind, it was a wonderful present - I never saw such a brilliant guitar. Come and see Aesculus. He’s painted himself green.”
He took them to the bathroom, where Adam was trying to persuade Aesculus to get into the washbasin, which was full of warm, soapy water.
“Hi,” said Adam. “Thank you for my jacket, I love it. Why didn’t it explode, though?”
“Shut up,” laughed Ace. “I have a feeling we’re never going to hear the end of this.” He looked at Aesculus and shook his head. “I told Rose he was too little for paints. Get in that water, Aesculus, and get clean.”
“Not dirty,” said Aesculus.
“Don’t argue,” sighed Ace. “Just do it.”
Aesculus stuck his tongue out, but he did get into the water, and Adam helped him wash the paint off.
David had been to see what was happening.
“Everyone’s out on the street,” he said. “You coming to see what’s going on?”
“No chance,” said Will. “We’d get lynched. You go, and find out.”

All the grown-ups had gone to see Mr. Connolly, to ask him if there was anything he could do, and David heard him telling people that the main transformer must have gone, and that it was probably something to do with the building site.
“I’ve phoned the board,” he said, “and they said they’ll get to us if they can. But they didn’t sound very hopeful.”
Everyone looked very fed up. Laura and Gemma edged round to David.
“So it wasn’t your amp, after all?” whispered Gemma.
“Doesn’t sound like it.”
David heard a chuckle behind him, and turned round. There was Cyril, obviously spending the day with Mrs. Kowalska.
“Home-made, was it?” he asked.
“You could say that,” smiled David.

The whole street was out of power, but not every family was at home. Some had gone out already, to spend the day with relations. From the sixteen houses, there were ten families wanting Christmas dinner, and none of them cooked on gas.
“Barbecues,” said Sally. “That’s the answer. Forget the sprouts and stuff. We can do baked potatoes, and barbecued turkey.”
“Like a street party!” said Gemma’s mum. “Good idea, Sal.”
“Christmas dinner outside!” said Rowan. “Oh, this is going to be the funniest Christmas ever!”
David spoke quietly to Laura.
“I’m going to have to work hard here, I can see. There’ll be a lot to carry. Will you take a message to Ace and Will?”
“Mmm, sure.”
“Tell them they’re in the clear, and ask them to send Adam to get their old brazier, so we can borrow it.”
Laura raced off, and David made himself useful, carrying out tables and chairs, as people brought barbecues out of their garden sheds and tried to light them. Lots of beer and wine were coming out too, and there was a lot of laughing going on. Then David saw Adam struggling to carry the brazier, and went to help him put it near Cyril and Mrs. Kowalska, to keep them warm.

When Madge got back from Abney, the rest of the sprites were hiding in a beech hedge, with plenty of cover, to watch the fun.
“I heard from my colonel,” Madge remarked, as she joined them.
“Oh! Did you get leave?” asked Clover.
“Yes! I’m so pleased. Now I can go and help Heather - and Holly. Why is everyone cooking outside?”
“Power cut,” said Will resignedly.
“Is this your fault?” frowned Madge.
“I don’t honestly believe it is, Madge,” said Will. “Though it’s true that David’s amp did, sort of, blow up. But Mr. Connolly thinks it’s something the builders have done.”
“Oh, well he should know. How long will it be before it’s mended?”
“Could be tomorrow,” said Rose.
“What! You are joking?”
“What’s up?” said Ace.
“Troop transfers, Ace! Why d’you think they pick Christmas Day, of all days? Because all the humans are in their houses! And we’ve got a whole streetful of them outside, just where the Fighter Squadron are coming in to land!”
“Whoops,” said Ace. “Don’t worry, Madge. This is my job…I’ll think of something.”
Will seemed to have gone into a bit of a trance.
“Arcing,” he muttered. “Expose the wires, yes…but you’d need a conductor..water conducts!”
Everyone stared at him.
“If you wait,” Ace explained, “he’ll tell us what he’s on about in a minute. What’s up? Have you sussed it?”
“That digger, Ace, that sliced the cable. It didn’t blow then, there wasn’t a conductor. But once the rainwater hit it…”
“Strewth, you’re right!”
“What are you saying?” Madge demanded. “That you know what the matter is?”
The elves nodded, grinning.
“Well, what are you waiting for? Go and mend it!”

Dominic, Joseph and Tony were racing up and down the road on their new bikes. All the grown-ups were chatting happily as the smell of burning charcoal started to drift through the air. Ace and Will slipped off to the building site, and tried to remember exactly where they’d seen the damage.
“Somewhere round here,” said Will. “Can’t place it exactly. Let’s dig down to the cable, and I’ll burrow along it till I find the place. You stay on top; when I stop, you’ll know exactly where the right place is, and you can dig down and let some light in.”
“Got you,” said Ace, and they started digging.

David had been chatting to Cyril, but after a while he wandered over to the hedge to check the sprites were OK.
“Where are Ace and Will?” he said, and Madge told him.
“What!” said David. “That’s incredibly dangerous! They could get frazzled! You should have stopped them!”
“I didn’t realise,” Madge admitted. “But David, you know elves better than that by now. If you want to stop them doing something, telling them it’s dangerous is not the way to go about it.”
“I suppose not,” smiled David. “But let’s get over there and see how they’re getting on.”
Quietly, David got Rowan and the others to give the sprites some cover, and they all reached the trench unseen. Ace was standing at the bottom of a hole, beside the cable, and Will was kneeling down, looking carefully at the burnt and exposed wires. They were both caked in soil from head to toe. Ace looked up as he heard them arrive, and held his finger to his lips. Will didn’t even notice. He gave a little shake of his head, then stared hard, working as fast as he could so the insulation sealed as soon as the wires did. Then he sat back, smiling with relief.
“Oh, well done,” sighed Ace. “Have the lights come back on?” he called up to David.
“No, not yet.”
“No, they won’t,” said Will. “This is just the start. We have to find the main transformer now, wherever they keep that.”
“What are you up to on here?” came a man’s voice.
“Freeze!” hissed David. “Oh, hello, Mr. Connolly, we just saw this hole and wondered if it had anything to do with the power cut.”

Mr. Connolly peered into the hole. Ace and Will kept as still as they could. Everyone was very tense, wondering if he’d spot them.
“That’s very strange!” muttered Mr. Connolly. He looked at them all with bewilderment in his eyes. ”Just look at that!”
Oh, no, thought David.
“This cable’s been damaged, and repaired. Very neatly, too. I hope none of you have been messing about with dangerous cabling like this.”
“We haven’t, honest,” said David, with relief. “None of us has touched it.”
“Here’s the board’s van!” said Mr. Connolly. “I think I’d better show them this. I’ve never seen anything so weird…but this is a weird place, it always has been. It might not be too long before we’re sorted, after all! Come away from that hole now, though, all of you.”
As soon as his back was turned, Ace and Will jumped out of the hole.
“That was close!” said Ace.
“You’re not kidding!” said Will. “Good job we were so dirty.”
The other sprites wriggled out from where they’d been hiding.
“Dirty,” said Aesculus. “Get in water, get clean.”
“You bet I am,” said Ace. “Straight in the brook.”
“Oh no you’re not,” said David. “You come with me, and see what you think of hot water, and soap, and warm towels. I have a feeling you’ll like it.”

By the time Ace and Will came out again, the food was ready. David’s Mum and Mrs. Connolly were spreading tablecloths on a row of tables, and other people were setting out a mixture of everyone’s best plates, with rows of crackers, candles, and bits of holly.
“They’re ready to sit down!” Clover told Ace and Will. “Everyone who knows us is going to sit at this end. Sally’s brought our cups out, we’re going to sit in their laps and join in!”
So thirty-four people and eight sprites sat down to Christmas dinner, with Barking Mad, Smokey and the Elfcat prowling around for scraps. They pulled crackers, and filled everyone’s glasses. They feasted on turkey and baked potato, salads and cold meats, slices of Christmas pudding baked in the embers, trifles, mince pies, and cream. David was halfway down the table right next to his mum, so Ace and Will sat with Gary and had a nice chat about amplifiers.
“If we’d known you were a sound engineer, we’d have asked you,” said Will. “I can’t believe none of your family mentioned an interesting thing like that.”
Gary laughed. “I’m not sure they think it’s that interesting. Have some more beer.” He filled their cups for them, which David wouldn’t have done. He knew by now exactly how much they could handle, and they’d gone past that ages ago. Then the electricians came over to the table, and everyone urged them to have some refreshments.
“Well, you’re all fixed now,” said one of them, biting happily into a large turkey sandwich. “Look, the lights have come back on!”
They hadn’t even noticed, they’d been having such a good time. Everyone clapped and cheered.
“Yes, it was that cable on the building site. Don’t know who fixed it. It must have been magic! But it would have been really hard to find. Once that was sorted, the rest of it didn’t take long.”
Ace and Will cheered so loudly that one or two heads turned, looking puzzled.
“I’m sorry I ever thought it was anything else,” said Sally loudly, so they’d hear her, and to cover up any other indiscreet things they were about to say.
“Put them on the ground, will you?” she whispered to Gary. “Before they do anything daft. They’re drunk, aren’t they?”

Ace lay on the pavement under the table, with his hands behind his head, looking as comfortable as he ever had on Wildside.
“Well, I think you did really well,” he said to Will. “A major cock-up like that, and getting blamed for something you didn’t do, and you didn’t lose it at all.”
Will thought about that. Extraordinary how hard it was to think when you’d been drinking beer.
“There’s too many things to know. I don’t expect to know everything anymore. But it was quite exciting really. Something to think about, to take your mind off other things.”
“I know,” groaned Ace. “It’s just getting far too close.”

Dinner was over. The fairies fluttered down to the ground, out of sight beneath the tablecloths. Madge noticed the Elfcat, and landed by his side. He was lying with his paws stretched out around the sleeping elves, guarding them.
“Hello, Elfcat,” she said. “You’re doing a good job there.”
She looked down at Ace and Will with a smile of love and compassion that she’d never have let them see when they were awake.
“Is it that bad?” she said. “It’ll be worth it, my dears. It’ll be worth all of it.”
“They’ll be moving all these tables soon, and going indoors out of the cold,” said Dan.
“Yes,” said Clover. “We’d better ask David to carry Ace and Will into his house.”
“Did I hear my name?” asked David, ducking under the table.
“Oh, for goodness’ sake,” he said. “What are they like? I knew this would happen when I saw them sitting with Gary. I think they did it on purpose.”
He carried them into his house and laid them gently on his pillow.
“Sleep well, you daft pair,” he said affectionately, and went back to help move tables.

The street party was being rapidly cleared away.
“I could have cried when the power went off,” said Mrs. Connolly to her husband. “But I don’t know when I’ve had so much fun on Christmas Day since I was a little girl.”
“I know, it was great,” he agreed. “Smashing day. But where did the boys get those bikes from?”
“I couldn’t quite make it out, but I think it was a friend of Cyril’s, who was impressed by how they’d tried to save the field.”
“Nice thought. Must be richer than old Cyril, whoever he is. They’re good lads. Glad they had some reward for all their efforts, anyhow. Come on, love, let’s get in. Nearly time for The Great Escape.”

As darkness fell, four sprites came to a halt on the railway embankment, and looked down onto the building site. Three of them were goblins, Gromwell and his two heavies, and the fourth was the fairy, Montbretia.
“They’re not out yet,” said Gromwell. “Good. We need to get into position now, so we’re ready when the time comes. Find good hiding places near the building. As soon as they start the fire, we pounce. And then I’ll have him, that cocky, long-haired so-called senior sprite of theirs. He’s used up all his warnings. It’s prison this time.”
“On a really juicy charge too,” said Montbretia. “Arson. But what if they put up a fight?”
“We’ll win. They’ve only got one goblin, and one of the elves seems to have cleared off, recently. He was only a refugee, anyway.”
“Didn’t you say they had two refugees here?” said Montbretia.
“The other one’s only an old fairy,” said Gromwell. “She won’t do anything. No, it’s in the bag. I’ll get promotion for this.”

Ace opened his eyes cautiously as David shook his shoulder, then closed them again quickly. The light hurt.
“Urgh,” he groaned. “Leave me alone.”
“Ace, you’ve been asleep for hours,” said David. “If you don’t wake up, you’ll miss all the fun.”
“I can handle that.”
“Just you get up, d’you hear me? Your team are waiting for you!”
“What for?”
“To get ready for the Fighter Squadron arriving, of course!”
“No, that’s tonight.”
“It is tonight, you daft sprite! It’s eight o’clock!”
“What!” said Ace. “Why didn’t you say so?”
“What d’you think I’ve been trying to tell you? Where’s Will?”
“Not far away… on the floor, I should think. I ’spect he rolled off the bed.”
“A great impression you two are going to make. Why did you have to get so drunk? Still, never mind that now. Let’s see if some black coffee will help.”

It helped a bit. David carried them as far as his garden, then set them down and gave them a push.
“Off you go!”
“Aren’t you coming?” said Will.
“Not yet. I’m going to Sally’s first. Officially, she’s having a party, but really it’s just so all the kids can get out to see the fairies. Madge said to wait till they’d all arrived, and she’d had a chance to warn them, then we can all come and join in.”
“Oh, right,” said Ace. “Thanks, David. What would we do without you?”
Something in his voice, something in his eyes, seemed so sad. That wasn’t like Ace, David thought. He began to have an idea what was wrong, and just why they’d let themselves get so drunk.
They don’t want to go, he thought. Yet they know they have to. That’s hard, that’s very hard. I’ll have to think of a way to help them.

Walking very carefully, Ace and Will crossed the building site to join the other sprites.
“Here you are at last!” said Clover. “Come and help us make cups for our canteen, will you?”
“Oh, sure,” said Ace. “I think we can manage that. You’ve got lots of nice things for them to drink.”
“Laura and Gemma got the drinks ready. They begged Madge to let them do it, they’re so excited about seeing so many fairies.”
“They’re not the only ones,” smiled Rose. “Dan’s beside herself. She kept spilling things, so we packed her off to help Hogweed. If she drops the firewood, it won’t matter.”
“Where’s he lighting the beacon?” said Will, staring at a scrap of glass.
“Inside the shell of the new building,” said Clover. “It’s a very clever position. Wide open to the sky, so they’ll see it as they fly over, but the humans on the ground won’t see a thing.”
“That is clever,” Ace agreed. “Let’s go and see them light it.”

They flew and jumped into the dark shell, where Dan and Hogweed were filling a huge iron bowl with firewood. Madge was watching the sky, but turned and smiled as she heard them coming.
“Feeling better? That’s good. Off you go then, Hogweed! Light the fire!”
Very proudly, Hogweed struck a match, and skilfully coaxed the flame into a taper of twisted dried grass, which he plunged into the bowl of wood. Soon the fire was blazing brightly, and the sprites went to see how it looked from outside.
“You can’t see a thing from human eye-level!” said Rose, delighted. “But from down here on the ground, it looks like the whole building’s on fire!”
“Doesn’t it?” snarled Gromwell, bursting from cover. “Caught in the act. Guilty - of the very serious crime of arson.”
He gave a signal to his goblins, and they lunged forward and grabbed Ace by his arms.
“You’ve had it this time,” said Gromwell spitefully. “I warned you. This time, it’s prison.”
“Huh?” said Ace. “Arson? What’re you on about, Gromwell, you jerk?”
All the answer he got was a kick on the shins.
“Aren’t we going to put the fire out?” said Montbretia.
“Oh, no,” said Gromwell. “I don’t actually care if it burns down or not. So long as I get this one in custody.”
“You’re making a big mistake, Gromwell,” said Will. “Just go and look at that fire, will you? It’s not arson, it’s a beacon!”
“Nice try,” sneered Gromwell. “Up to your usual tricks. Putting me off with something, so you can escape. Well, it won’t work this time. Take him away!”
Ace struggled furiously, but he couldn’t break free from two goblins. Then, just before Will, Hogweed and Dan could pile in to the attack, Madge stepped out from the shadows.
“Just one moment, Sergeant,” she said crisply. “Let me remind you of the consequences of making a wrongful arrest.”
“Oh, yes? And who are you to be telling me that?”
“A senior officer,” said Madge. “Major Arley, Guidance Squadron. Release your prisoner at once, Sergeant, before you make an even greater fool of yourself.”
“You’re the fools, to think I’d fall for that!”
“Just a minute,” said Montbretia. “Look at that!”

High above them, there was a shimmering in the air, as thirty fairies slowed down in mid-flight, and swooped in unison to the ground. They smiled and relaxed as they landed, because they were tired and thirsty, but you could tell at a glance these were no ordinary fairies. Every one of them was dressed plainly in black camouflage, and had a knife hanging at her side. Their faces were hard-edged and keen, and they moved with the lithe grace of the superbly fit and strong. Their captain spotted Madge and headed straight towards her.
“Major Arley! It’s you! Good to see you, ma’am. Great beacon, we had no trouble spotting that.”
“Thank you, Captain,” said Madge. “Clover, show the captain and her team where your canteen is, please.”
“Yes, Madge,” said Clover, overawed, though she was dying to see what happened with Gromwell. But Rose would tell her, later.
“Let him go,” said Gromwell despondently. “Come on, we’re leaving.”
“Not so fast,” said Madge. “You have made a totally unjustified arrest, and insulted a senior sprite in front of his team. Ace could make a complaint about you, which I would strongly advise him to do. Also, you have shown great dereliction of duty. You thought you had detected arson, which is rightly illegal, so that humans’ work is not wantonly destroyed. Your business was to prevent that happening, which you refused to do, even at your corporal’s suggestion. I have every intention of reporting this to your major.”
“Don’t do that, ma’am,” said Gromwell. “It was only a misunderstanding. You wouldn’t do that, would you, Ace? Not after all the good fights we’ve had?”

Ace didn’t say a word. He kept his face perfectly expressionless. He wasn’t sure what was going on, but he knew a plan when he saw one. Madge had a plan going here, he could see, and he wasn’t going to do or say anything to spoil it.
“We’re a bit sick of your bullying, round here,” said Madge. “I’ll do a deal with you. We don’t want to see you in these parts for at least a month. If we don’t see you, we won’t remember that we were going to report you. But if we do see you, we will most certainly remember. Is that clear?”
“Perfectly, ma’am. Shall we go now?”
“The sooner the better.”
She, Ace and Will watched them go.
“You set him up,” said Ace. “Why? What was all that about?”
“It’s a long story, Ace,” she sighed. “And I can’t tell it all to you now. But the main thing is, by the time he dares show his face around here again, you’ll be long gone. And he won’t have a clue when you went, or where. And now, I really must speak to the captain.”
She hurried off, and Ace turned to Will.
“So she’s trying to cover our tracks? She doesn’t want anyone to know that we’ve gone to join the army?”
“Looks like it,” said Will. “Interesting…very interesting.”

The last team had arrived, and the children came rushing out to join in, as soon as Madge had explained that they were all on the Register. Laura and Gemma were having a wonderful time, serving drinks and chatting to as many fairies as they could. Everyone was inside the building, keeping warm near the fire. The boys were fascinated, but felt a bit shy. They stayed with Hogweed and helped him tend the fire. David and Rowan went to join a group who were clustered round Madge. She was talking to the captain again.
“Where’s your next stop?” she asked.
“Roscoff. We have to cross the Channel by dawn. Then down into Spain tomorrow.”
“What’s the trouble in Spain? Something new?”
“No - still trying to keep the lid on these gangs. It’s been very nasty in Spain, they don’t just attack humans, they attack any colony that doesn’t join in with them. Half our squadron have been there most of the year. We’re just relieving them.”
“Good luck to the work,” said Madge. “Though to be honest, I think it’ll get worse before it gets better.”
“No problem,” grinned the captain. “The worse it gets, the more fighting there is to do.”
Ace nudged Will, and he saw what Ace was looking at, Dan’s rapt face.
“What, you think she’d like to join this lot?” Will whispered. “A gentle little soul like Dan?”
“Well, it’s possible,” said Ace, trying to keep his face straight. “It’s just possible.”
“You can fly 150 miles in one night?” asked David, very impressed.
“As a group we can, sir,” said the captain respectfully. “It’s much faster than flying on your own.”
“Oh, right,” said David, stunned at being called ‘sir’ by a heavily-armed fairy.
Ace and Will tried hard not to laugh. It was difficult, they were still fuddled with beer, and edgy with nerves to the point of hysteria.
Then one of the fairies looked at David, and whispered rather too loudly to another.
“He’s gorgeous, isn’t he? Hope we stop here again.”
That was more than they could stand. The elves snorted a bit, then disappeared before they burst. Madge smiled, though. Rowan wasn’t looking to see where Ace had gone. She was just looking at David.

Laura and Gemma were in a bit of a dream. They’d spoken to so many fairies, from all over Europe, heard so many beautiful names, all names of flowers, and some of flowers they’d never even heard of. It was getting late, and the whole day had been so exciting, they weren’t sure if they were asleep or awake. They stood together, hand in hand, to watch as the squadron formed up for flight. The captain thanked Madge and Ace for their hospitality, then flew to the front of the formation and gave her orders.
“Soar eighty, steep curve west, climb and head south at 200.”
“Two hundred?” breathed Dan. “Oh, wow.”
“I think I’m going to faint,” said Clover.
As one, the squadron took off, and soared into the air, a phalanx of glittering wings, then swooped around and down over their heads in salute, before disappearing towards the south like a rocket’s tail.
“Oh,” said Laura. “Oh, Gemma.”
“I know,” said Gemma. “Oh, that was brilliant. You know what, Laura, I’m going to join the army.”
“How can you? You’re not a sprite.”
“Not the sprite army, silly, the human one.”
“Are you?” said Laura, amazed.
“Yes,” said Gemma firmly. “Or the Air Force.”

When David woke next morning, Ace and Will weren’t there, asleep on the rug by his bed. He found them sitting on the window sill, soberly gazing out across the building site.
“What’s the matter?” he said. He already knew the answer, but he thought it might help if he made them say it.
“I don’t want to go,” said Ace. “I don’t want to leave you, I don’t want to leave Aesculus. Now it comes to it, I just can’t face it.”
Will didn’t say anything, just looked at Ace with great compassion and understanding, and David realised that Will was all right. In the depths of his own thoughts, he’d come to terms with his fears, on his own. But Ace hadn’t.
“Come with me,” said David quietly. “There’s something I want to show you.”

He led them along a footpath, past Moseley Old Hall, past a huge office block where another wildside had once been, and down another footpath, that ran between houses and came out at the roundabout where the motorway ended.
“Come up onto the footbridge,” he said, “and have a look.”
They looked down on the motorway, coming in from the north. On their left, and on their right, were trees, huge, old trees, beeches and pines.
“I’ve known these trees were here all my life,” said David, “but I only found out yesterday what they are. Cyril told me. You thought the horse chestnut was the last of Moseley Wood, didn’t you? So did I. But it’s not. These trees are. It stretched this far. But this part wasn’t cut down for farming, it became part of Abney Park. True, there’s a dirty great motorway running through it now, but there’s quite a bit left. Make a wonderful home, this would. Not a wildside, or the remains of a farm, but Moseley Wood itself. This is your real home.”
“And no-one’s forcing us out,” said Ace. “I see. We don’t have to go. We have to choose to go. Wait for us a minute, will you, David? Let’s go in the canopy and see if it feels right.”
“Good idea,” said Will. “Jump!”
They soared into the tallest of the beech trees, and stood swaying on thin branches, then climbed even higher, until they could see all of Abney spread out before them.
“It’s good,” said Ace. “Definitely feels right.”
“Must have spread over a mile once,” said Will. “How long ago?”
“Hundreds of years ago that sprites first came here,” said Ace. “Cory told me.”
He closed his eyes, trying to understand.
“What do you really want, Will?” he said.
“Well, I want to go. Ever since I heard that voice. And I want to know what’s going on. I just wasn’t looking forward to actually leaving. But I’m not going anywhere without you, Ace, obviously.”
Ace smiled. “That’s what I’ve been saying for weeks. And now - I just don’t know. But why? Up till now I’ve been looking forward to it.”
“This is just so not like you,” said Will. “And the last time you went like that, it wasn’t really you, it was a nightmare. Something, or someone, wants us to go - whoever it was who called us. I reckon something else wants to stop us. Something’s getting at you, trying to scare you off. Something that knows how good you’d be, and wants to stop it.”
Ace looked unconvinced.
“Who’d do that? I’m not that important. Anyway, stuff like that only works if you let it.”
Then he clapped his hands to his face.
“What is it? What’ve you thought of? Oh…oh, you haven’t, have you? Not again? Talk about bearing grudges!”
“OK, OK, I’ve learned my lesson this time, I really have.”
“The night I went to see Rowan.”
“I remember. And were you OK up till then?”
Ace thought about that, then said,
“Yeah, I was. Bit nervous, maybe, but nothing more. That’s what’s done it, you’re right.”
“Do you need to talk it out?”
“I think I already have,” said Ace, smiling again. His eyes were shining with excitement. “D’you really think I’ll be a general?”
“Probably,” said Will. “If you don’t get court-martialled first. Come on, let’s get back to David.”
They leaped down to join him.
“Well?” he said. “What does it feel like?”
“It feels great,” said Ace. “Make a good base, this will. You know, when we come home on leave, stuff like that.”
David smiled. “Let’s get home. It’s freezing out here.”
“Yeah, we’ve got a lot to do,” said Ace. “You’d better get on the internet, Will, and find out some train times.”
“Already done it,” grinned Will. “I knew you wouldn’t let me down.”

Later that day, the sprites and all their friends gathered in Sally’s kitchen for the last time.
“OK, here’s the plan,” said Ace. “The fairies are going to fly to Newcastle, and meet us at the station there in a week’s time. Then we make our way across the city to the docks, and hitch a lift on a ship to Bergen. Then we’re in Norway, and there’s still a long way to go. But we’ll make it.”
“How are you and Hogweed getting to Newcastle?” asked Tony.
“Walk to Stockport, train to Manchester, then another to Newcastle, changing at York,” said Will. “Hogweed can’t jump on a moving train, we need to use stations.”
“It’s a massive journey,” said David. “But sprites have obviously done it before, and if anyone can do it, you can.”
“We’ve got you some useful presents,” said Laura. “You’ll have to shrink them, but you can do that all right.”
Hogweed got a football, and Dan a hairbrush. Rose got a box of teabags, and for Clover, there was an alarm clock.
“This is for you, Madge,” said David, and gave her a picture he’d drawn himself, of the horse chestnut.
“To remind you of Wildside.”
“I’ll never forget it,” said Madge. “Thank you.”
Ace was stunned when David gave him a mobile phone.
“To save you trying to hack into Norwegian phone lines. Goodness knows if it’ll work, in all those mountains. But it’s worth a try. For you, Will, we got a decent map of Norway. But there’s something else with it…it’s not new, it’s from my own collection. But I couldn’t resist it.”
“One of your t-shirts?” said Will. “That’s nice. But why?”
“Have a closer look,” said David.
Like all David’s t-shirts, it had a metal band on it. When Will saw which band it was, he laughed and hid his face.
“I should have seen that one coming,” he groaned. “AC/DC. Of course.”

The sprites were all delighted with their presents, but they didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
“Oh, please don’t anyone cry,” said Ace, “or you’ll start me off, and I’m not going off to join the army in tears!”
That made everyone laugh, and Sally tried hard to keep them cheerful, though she was feeling just as bad inside.
“You’ve got a beautiful night to start your journey,” she smiled.
“Are you sure you’ve got enough clothes on, Clover?” said Dominic. “You look like an eskimo, and you’re still in England!”
“Better safe than sorry!” retorted Clover. “Have you any idea how cold it is at three hundred feet?”
The last daylight faded, and it was time to say goodbye. Everyone was trying to be brave, but it wasn’t easy.
Gemma and Dan just hugged each other, they didn’t trust themselves to speak.
“Goodbye, Clover,” said Laura. “I hope you like the army.”
“I hope the army likes me. Goodbye, Laura, darling.”
“Goodbye, Sally,” said Madge. “I’ll be back to visit the instant there’s any news.”
“I’ll be looking out for you,” said Sally. “Give our love to Phil.”
“See you, Hogweed,” said Adam. “Hope you get on the football team.”
“Do they have one?”
“Sure to,” said Joseph. “Armies always have football teams.”
“Goodbye, Madge,” said Tony. “Thank you for being my fairy godmother.”
Ace didn’t speak to Rowan, he was terrified of making her cry, but he gave her an encouraging smile and a wink.
David gently cupped his hands round Ace and Will.
“Take care of each other,” he got out.
“We will,” they whispered. “Goodbye, David.”

“Right,” said Ace, with a bit of a shudder in his voice, “where is he?”
“Under the table” said Dominic. “Teasing the Elfcat.”
“Here goes. Jump up here, Aesculus.”
Aesculus came to him, beaming. He didn’t really understand what was going on.
“Listen now,” said Ace. “Be a good elf for David. Keep growing. Look after your tree. And we’ll be back. We won’t forget you.”
He was smiling, but his eyes were very bright.
“Goodbye, Aesculus,” he said, hugging him, and with a last smile for David, he went out quickly, waving, and the others kissed Aesculus, and hugged him, and left quickly too. On the fence at the bottom of the garden, they all turned and waved, then disappeared into the dark.
Sally shut the door.
“Hang on in there, Laura,” she said, in a wobbly voice. “We mustn’t cry, and upset Aesculus.”
“I’m trying, Mum,” said Laura, with a choke. “But it’s not easy.”
“Hey, look at that!” said Tony.
They all looked where Tony was pointing, and saw the Elfcat coming out from under the table, with Aesculus riding on his back.
“Jump, Elfcat,” said Aesculus, and the Elfcat jumped, almost vertically, straight onto David’s head.
“Ow!” shrieked David. “Get your claws out of my head!”
He lifted them off, and held one of them in each hand, glaring at them both.
“I don’t know what Ace and Will were like when they were little,” he said. “Completely crackers, I should think. But I bet they weren’t half as bad as you are!”

On the railway embankment, the sprites said goodbye to Madge.
“Oh, Madge,” said Clover. “Thank you for helping us so much. I’m going to miss you!”
“I’m going to miss all of you too,” sighed Madge. “Don’t know when I’ve ever had a better job. It’s been great. But cheer up, we’ll all meet again. Have a good journey, and enjoy your training. It’ll be hard sometimes, but you’ll have great fun.”
She hugged them all, and they stood watching as she flew off towards the west.

“Well, we’re on our own now,” said Ace. He turned and looked towards the horse chestnut. “Goodbye, Wildside,” he said, then quietly unfastened the stone from round his neck and slipped it into his pocket. “Off you go then, airforce. See you at Newcastle.”
“One week from today, on the station roof. Yes, Ace,” said Clover. “Come on, then. Ready, up, fly!”
As one, the fairies shot into the air, looped the loop and headed off south.
Hogweed and the elves watched them, open-mouthed.
“They’ve gone the wrong way!” said Will.
“I don’t believe this!” said Ace. “I thought Dan had more sense than that, if the others didn’t! Now what are we going to do?”
But then they heard the swoop of wings, and the fairies flew over their heads, and Rose shot a paper dart down to land at Ace’s feet.
He picked it up and unfolded it.
“Only joking!” it said.
He screwed it up, and threw it back at them, as their laughter headed off in the right direction.
“What a team!” he said.