CHAPTER 7 - Windsurfing

Will got clean long before Ace did. He was still fussing over his hair when Phil came over.
“Dan’s not back,” he said. “Hogweed went ages ago. Can I go and see what’s happening?”
“You don’t have to ask, Phil,” Will told him. “He only takes charge in emergencies, and we let him, because he’s good at it.”
“I’ll tell you what, though,” said Ace, frowning at the water and trying to see his reflection, “you could have a word with that toe-rag Nightshade and see if he’s with us on saving Wildside. He might not be, you know. You never know with goblins, which way they’ll jump.”
“I’ll come with you,” said Will. “You want us to wait for you, Ace?”
“No thanks. I’ve seen enough mud for one day.”

“I bet they’ve just kept her working,” said Will, as they approached the goblins’ lair. “You know they’re blackmailing her, and she won’t defy them?”
“No, I didn’t know that! Can’t we put a stop to it, Will?”
“Yes, it’s about time someone told them to stop bullying. Try not to start a fight, though, if you can help it. We want to talk to them, too.”
Will led him through the flap of car tyre that was the goblins’ gateway, down the muddy path through the brambles and across the final patch of mud by the chip-fork causeway. No-one was in sight, so they hammered at the door.
“Isn’t it horrible?” whispered Phil, disgusted.
Hogweed opened the door.
“Oh, hello Will,” he said. “You all right now? Hello, Phil. Have you come for the little ’un?”
“That’s right,” said Will, “and she’s not coming back. We want a word with your boss.”
Hogweed sighed, gloomily.
“Best come in, then. But if it comes to a fight, Will, I’m on their side, you know that, don’t you?”
“No problem.”

Hogweed led them into a barn of a room where Nightshade was lying on a couch, reading what looked like a brand new book.
Wonder where he stole that from, thought Will.
Ragwort was there too, sharpening splinters to stick on the handles of rakes and spades, one of his favourite summer games.
“We’ve come for Dan,” said Will. “Where is she?”
“In the kitchen, grinding snail shells to powder,” said Nightshade, with a malicious smile. “It’s the main ingredient of a favourite drink of mine. Would you like some?”
“No chance,” said Phil abruptly. “We just want Dan.”
Will didn’t say anything. He just waited.
“Fairy!” shouted Nightshade. “Come here!”
Dan walked in, her hands black with shell-dust, and closed her eyes when she saw who was standing there. She felt so ashamed to be found like that.
“This bullying has gone on long enough,” said Will. “We know she’s a fairy - so what? If she chooses to live like an elf, that’s her business. Come on, Dan, defy them. Tell them you’re not coming back, and take your stand by us.”
Dan realised that the respect she had earned from the elves would disappear if she chickened out now. She wiped her filthy hands on the back of Nightshade’s couch and said,
“I won’t be coming again,” and walked firmly over to stand next to Phil.

Lazily, Nightshade stood up. Hogweed and Ragwort moved slowly over to stand by him. This was the moment a fight could have started, and Will took care to keep his face calm and make no threatening gesture. After a moment, Nightshade spoke.
“I’m not concerned, one way or the other. She’s useless, anyway.”
Dan didn’t bat an eyelid, just stood still like the other two.
“There’s something else,” said Will. “Has Hogweed told you about the surveyors and what it means?”
“Oh, I already knew about that,” sneered Nightshade. “Do you really think I care? Your kind will soon be gone from here, and the goblins will have the place to themselves. Really, it’s the best news I heard for a long time.”
“King of a filthy car park? Is that what you want?” said Will. “Isn’t it better to work with us for once, to save Wildside for all of us?”
“No,” said Nightshade. “It is not. More humans means more useful rubbish, more things to help ourselves to, more amusing games to play.”
“You seem very sure we’ll lose,” said Phil. “We might win, you know, have you thought of that?”
Nightshade and Ragwort seemed to find this very amusing.
“Clear off,” said Ragwort. “You’re so stupid it’s boring.”
There didn’t seem to be anything left to say. Dan and the elves turned and left.

That afternoon, in Sally’s kitchen, Dan lay on the table, feeling happier than she ever had in her life. The elves had come for her, just as if she was a real elf, and she wasn’t going back to the goblins ever again. It was wonderful. She gazed around her, happily. Sally was explaining to Will what planning permission meant. Rose and Clover were telling the girls about how Sally had rescued Ace and Will from drowning in the mud, and Ace was drinking all the orange juice. When Rose hissed at him to mind his manners, he just said that nearly drowning always made him thirsty. Tony was showing Phil the kittens.
“Look!” he said. “This is the one that’s always jumping. Watch him go!”

As he spoke, the little black kitten jumped right over the edge of the box and started tottering across the floor. Its big blue eyes were already open, even though its brothers and sister were still curled up in a corner of the box with their eyes closed.
“Not again!” said Sally, picking it up and putting it back in the box. “This kitten is more trouble than the rest put together. It’s got no sense of danger and it never stops jumping about.”
“P’raps it’s an elf,” said Clover.
“It’s an elfcat!” said Rose.
And Elfcat became its name, from that moment.

“That reminds me,” said Sally, “the other elf you mentioned, Cory; did you ask him how he felt about telling David?”
“Yes, I did,” said Ace. “He wouldn’t hear of it. It was very strange. He seemed to think it would be unkind. I don’t get it, he’s only ninety, yet you’d think he was twice that sometimes, the way he mumbles away about the old days.”
Only ninety?” said Tony. “Wow.”
“Yeah, really, it’s not that old for a sprite,” said Will. “If he was a human he’d be forty-five, that’s nothing.”
The children thought forty-five sounded ancient, but Sally knew what he meant.
“How old do you think Nightshade is?” asked Phil suddenly.
“Probably about the same as Cory,” said Ace. “Why?”
“I was just wondering about him, that’s all. The trouble is, I don’t know much about goblins. These are the first ones I’ve met. Do they ever have streaks? When Nightshade stood up, his sleeves moved, and you could see streaks, very faded, on his arms.”
“No, they don’t,” said Madge firmly. “Blotches, yes. Streaks, no. Are you absolutely sure, Phil?”
“Yes, I am,” Phil told her. “I didn’t know whether to mention it or not. I was afraid of sounding stupid. But if you hadn’t told me he was a goblin, I would have thought he was an elf.”
There was a shocked silence.
“Could an elf go that bad?” asked Rose, horrified.
“Oh yes,” said Madge. “It’s possible. I must see him for myself, but you sound very sure, Phil. What do you two think?”
Ace and Will looked at each other, frowning.
“He could be,” said Will. “I’ve never noticed any streaks, but I have noticed that he’s not very strong. Not as strong as you’d expect.”
“He is!” said Ace. “How stupid can you get? And I never even thought of it at the time!”
“What?” said everyone.
“The day he knifed me! That’s how he did it - he jumped over me, and got me from behind!”
“And that’s only just struck you as odd? Nice one, Ace.”
“But what difference does it make? He won’t work with us, whatever he is, so why does it matter?”
“If you’re right,” said Madge, “it does matter. If he’s a goblin, he won’t lift a finger to help you. If he’s a bad elf, he’ll actually work against you. You’re going to have to fight on two fronts, I think.”
Ace wasn’t at all put out by this. He just looked round at everyone, and smiled, his dark eyes shining.
“With a team like this? No problem.”

The whole team threw itself into the nature survey, and by the time school broke up for the summer, it was finished. David was amazed how brilliantly the younger children had tackled it. He didn’t know the sprites had been helping them. For her part, Madge was extremely pleased to see how much the young sprites had learned about the plants on their land, and how instinctively they’d helped the children. True, it was more usual to help humans secretly, not nattering to them while you were doing it, but Madge was broad-minded. The trouble was, they hadn’t found anything rare.

I’ll show them a bit more, she thought. Surely they can be trusted. They haven’t done anything really silly for ages. You can’t count Will falling off the roof, he just wasn’t looking where he was going when that train went past.
She gathered the young sprites to her at the brook.
“There’s something I feel you ought to know,” she told them. “Yet Cory knows you better than I do, and it’s something which he seems to have tried to keep you from learning, even from knowing such a skill existed. Why should that be, do you think?”
“He doesn’t trust us,” said Will.
“Well, I’m going to trust you. Whether he was right, or I’m right, is up to you.”
Madge saw that one sink in, before she continued.
“How did you learn to transform things? Did Cory not show you at all?”
“Not much,” said Ace. “Trial and error, mostly. We had a lot of catastrophes when we were younger.”
“You thinking of the time you fell out of your tree, by any chance?” said Will airily.
“It had crossed my mind. Time limits,” he grinned. “The first platform I made in my tree disappeared in the middle of the night. Anyway, you can talk. What about the time you flooded Cory’s house?”
“I was only ten!” said Will indignantly. “That was the first winter we woke up from hibernating before it was spring. How was I supposed to know snow was made of water?”
“Yes, water’s funny stuff,” laughed Madge. “It’s the same in human science too.”
“The only substance that can’t be broken or made,” said Will. “That’s why the snow didn’t shrink. It turned back to water, and suddenly there was a flood.”

Phil thought this was very funny. He’d been rather in awe of all the things Ace and Will could do, and realising how many times they must have made mistakes gave him confidence.
“You’ve probably forgotten all about it,” said Madge, “but do you remember the day Will healed Ace’s arm?”
“I haven’t forgotten,” said Will. “No way. You made me promise not to try anything else - which means there’s more to try.”
“I know you can transform people,” said Phil unexpectedly. “I wouldn’t have been allowed to try it for years, though.”
“People?” said Clover. “Us? We can be transformed?”
“Mmm, yes,” said Madge. “What Will spotted so quickly, is that if you can change one living cell, you can change all of them. A plant can be changed into another plant, or an animal into another animal.”
“Which are we?” grinned Ace.
“That, as you know perfectly well, is a question which has puzzled sprites for centuries. The official answer is, you’re both, so you can be transformed into either.”
“Wow! Let’s have a go!”
“Not so fast. To transform another sprite completely is difficult, and it’s dangerous. It’s really just for emergencies. But to change someone’s appearance isn’t too hard, especially if it’s only wings, or hair, for example.”
“Got you,” said Will. “Those aren’t made of living cells to start with.”
“That’s right,” said Madge. “But they do belong to a living person, so it’s harder than just transforming a bit of wood into a table. You have to deal with the whole person, that’s very important.”
“Hair?” said Dan. “You can change people’s hair! Oh, please, someone!”
Everyone laughed, they all knew Dan hated her yellow hair.
“What colour would you like it to be?” said Ace.
“Black, please,” breathed Dan hopefully.

Ace took a deep breath and concentrated hard on Dan’s hair, trying to see right into the cells with his imagination. But nothing happened.
Madge was thinking, hard.
It can’t be that, can it? Surely he’s realised she’s a fairy?
Watching the other elves closely, Madge said slowly,
“Maybe you don’t know Dan well enough?”
She caught it. A very quick, knowing glance, between Will and Phil.
That’s it, she thought. He doesn’t know! Those two do, though.
“Sorry, Dan,” said Ace.
“It doesn’t matter. Thanks for trying.”
“Can I try, Madge?” said Phil.
Dan watched him as he concentrated, then heard the others gasp. She looked down, and smiled to see shiny black hair lying across her shoulders.
“Oh, yes,” she whispered. “Oh, thank you, Phil.”
Will grinned at Ace.
“Well, that’s you sorted if you give me any grief,” he said. “Black hair, zap.”
“You just try it, that’s all,” Ace grinned back. “You’d look a right twit blond.”
“Maybe Cory was right about you two,” said Madge, and they tried to look
“You all ought to know how to do this,” she continued, “you never know when it might come in useful. Start with plants, that’s the easiest. Have a try, Clover. There’s loads of clover growing here. Choose another plant you know really well, and transform a clover into it.”
Clover bit her lip, thinking. What other plant did she know well enough? She decided she could manage a daisy.
“OK, I’m ready.”
“Keep your eyes open,” said Madge. “It’s tempting to shut them, but you must have unbroken eye contact.”

Clover held her hands close to her little namesake, and concentrated hard. As the others watched, they saw the tiny individual flowers of the clover become whiter, and get flatter, and spread themselves into a neat circle, while the trefoil leaves grew thick and formed themselves into a rosette at the base of the stalk. Clover closed her eyes, panting for breath.
“Goodness, it’s tiring,” she said. “I couldn’t do that again in a hurry.”
“You did really well,” said Ace, impressed. “Does it get easier if you practise, Madge?”
“It does. You can all practise, and show me how good you’ve got when I get back.”
“Back? Where from?” asked Clover.
“While Tony’s on holiday, I want to visit Heather. She’s going back on duty soon, and it’s undercover work. She needs a disguise.”
“And you’re her best friend, she needs you to do the transforming?” asked Rose.
“That’s right,” said Madge. “I’ll be back in a few days. Just remember, I’m trusting you all to be sensible.”

Over the next few days, a large number of deformed and strangely-coloured plants appeared all over Wildside. Will and Ace had changed each other’s hair so often that no-one could be sure which one they were looking at until they got quite close. When they got bored with that, they changed each other’s streaks, and that nearly caused an argument. Will hadn’t much eye for colour, and Ace insisted he’d changed them back into the wrong shade. Will argued that black was black, and what was he fussing about, but Rose came to look, agreed with Ace, and put them right herself.

They all helped each other. Clover and Rose found petals in fifteen different shades of blue, and made Will put them in order, from lightest to darkest. Will spent hours with Rose, drawing sepals and calyxes until she understood plant structure better. Phil lacked confidence, so Ace and Dan kept praising his efforts and telling him how good he was.

On the day Tony was due back from Anglesey, Clover suddenly realised why Madge had decided to trust them with this new skill. Excited, she found Rose and started explaining her idea. Rose was very impressed, and said it was the most brilliant idea she’d ever heard. They were just about to go and see Sally, to borrow a book they needed, when they noticed something strange going on.
“Look at the elves,” said Rose. “What are they up to, do you think?”
The elves were jumping across Wildside from tree to tree, and under each one Phil was talking earnestly and waving his arms around, while the other two listened intently. They all had their hair tied back.
“Wind’s getting up,” Clover pointed out.
“Oh!” said Rose. “Not that mad game of Phil’s? Do you think that’s what they’re going to do?”
“I’m sure of it.”
“Are we going to stand by to catch them if they miss?”
“I think we better had. I know they’re insane but I’d miss them if they were dead. Have they chosen a tree yet, can you see?”
“Mmm. Madge’s rowan.”
“Come on.”

The conditions were perfect, Phil had said. The rowan was lashing around beautifully. The three elves stood on the ground beneath it, grinning at each other. They looked up, then jumped, landing precariously on thin branches very high up. These were swaying ferociously, but that was nothing compared to the thin sprays of new growth higher still. Up here, the noise of the wind was deafening, they couldn’t hear each other, but they knew what to do. Each started to climb out to the tip of a whippy spray. The last few inches they had to do hand over hand, while being tossed from side to side.

Suddenly, without warning, the sprays dipped alarmingly and then swooped up high. Startled, Will and Ace clung on, but Phil knew this was the moment to let go, and they saw him flying, with a great yell, over to the other side of the tree. They knew what to do now, and were getting used to the constant motion. When the next downward swoop came, they were ready. At the right moment, they let go, and soared through the air. The force and speed were terrifying, but they loved it.

Rose and Clover didn’t want to encourage them by looking interested, so they were hiding, but near enough to help if they were needed. Not that the elves knew anyone was watching. They were oblivious to everything except the wind and the tree. After a few swoops they were wild, breathless, excited and ready for anything. As Ace landed from one glorious curve, he saw Phil waving at him from a thicker branch lower down. Will was perched beside him, licking some blood off the back of his hand. He jumped down to join them.
“D’you want to try getting to another tree?” shouted Phil, and they both nodded, wild with enthusiasm.
“Aim for the lilac at the bottom of number four’s garden. If you overshoot, you’ll land on the shed roof, and that will break your fall.”
“What if we undershoot?” grinned Ace.
“Your fall will break you!”
They didn’t care. It was too exciting to worry about the danger. But when Clover realised why they’d gone to another part of the tree, she hustled Rose over so they could be underneath the flight-path.
“Look, the idiots are aiming for that lilac. Be ready, they could get flung in a totally different direction.”

But they didn’t. All three flew over in perfect arcs and landed safely. It was coming back that caused problems. The lilac wasn’t nearly as tall as the rowan, so they instinctively realised they’d need a much bigger gust to get back. But Ace was too fired up to wait, and when he let go he could feel straight away he wasn’t going to make it. He was flying well, head straight, arms outstretched behind him, but the curve was wrong, he was coming down too soon, there was nothing to aim for, not even a bush.

Ace tried to twist in the air, so he could land on his feet, at least. He knew he couldn’t land properly because he wasn’t jumping, he hadn’t taken off from a solid base, but dimly he felt anything was better than landing head first. Suddenly he felt his arms being grabbed from each side, as Rose and Clover flew up to help him. Then all three of them started to plummet straight down as Ace’s weight unbalanced them. Beating downwards as hard as they could, the fairies managed to slow the descent enough for them all to land with no more than a bump, into a crumpled heap.
“Wow, thanks, you two, great timing,” panted Ace.
Phil and Will came rushing over to make sure everyone was all right.
“Apart from feeling my arms have been pulled out of their sockets, I am,” said Clover. “Why are you so heavy? You’re not that much taller than we are.”
“We haven’t got hollow bones like you,” said Will. “Didn’t you know? Do me a favour, Clover, and learn some anatomy before you transform anyone.”
“Gladly,” said Clover. “You can teach me some now. Come out of this dratted wind and stop dicing with death. We’ll go in Rose’s kitchen and put the kettle on. And you can tell me all about bones.”

Laura and Gemma went up the garden path of number eight, and knocked on the back door.
“Tony? I’ll give him a shout,” said Mrs. Connolly, who was frowning over a huge pile of washing.
“You’re going out to play with girls?” said Joseph in disbelief, as their mum called through.
“That’s right,” said Tony sturdily as he put his shoes on. “You got a problem with that?”
“I’m glad you came,” he told Laura and Gemma, as they ran across Wildside to the horse chestnut. “There’s some news. Wait till the sprites come, and I’ll tell you all together.”
The children stood under the tree, waiting, and the sprites in Rose’s kitchen heard them and went to round up the others. Everyone could see that Tony was bursting with news, so they let him get on with it.

“When we got back, there was a message on my dad’s answering machine. The surveyors are coming back, and the architect’s coming with them, and they’re coming on Tuesday. We haven’t got much time!”
Everyone started talking and asking things at once.
“One at a time, for goodness’ sake,” pleaded Madge. “What were you saying, Clover?”
“I was saying I know architects design buildings - but what do they do first? What will an architect actually do on Wildside? Do you know, Phil?”
“They take photographs. They draw in a sketch-book too, and wander about having a think. That’s it, really.”
“It won’t be easy fooling the surveyors again in the same way, with another human wandering about,” said Ace. “You don’t know what your brother and his friends will do yet, do you, Tony?”
“Dominic’s going to see them, he said. He’s got an idea, though. Something about stopping people who are walking past and getting them to come onto Wildside and sign a petition.”
“That’ll mean even more people. We’ll have to think of a new plan, that means less jumping about,” frowned Ace.

“What about our plan?” whispered Rose to Clover.
“That won’t help with the surveyors,” Clover whispered back. “That’s for later - if it gets that far.”

“We can’t go on for ever tricking surveyors anyway,” said Dan. “Can’t we think of something that’ll stop them coming back?”
“The only thing that stops them is when they’ve got what they want,” said Phil mournfully.
“What they want is accurate measurements,” said Will. “Suppose we let them - and then alter their figures in some way? Then they’d go away happy and not come back.”
“Oh, that’s good,” said Madge. “Sally told me that one thing the Council will be looking for when they see the plans, is if the building is the right size for the site. It mustn’t be too big, you see.”
“Right!” said Ace excitedly. “So we let them go away with figures that make Wildside look much bigger than it really is, and the architect will design a building that’s too big. Then, when the Council look at their own maps, and see the size of the building they want to put up…”
“…into the dustbin with it!” cheered Clover.
“Brilliant,” sighed Laura. “But can we do it? How can we do it?”
“We’d have to measure it ourselves first,” said Will, “then calculate what we want their figures to say. They’d have to be wrong, but not too wrong. It’d have to look believable.”
“We’ll need a diversion,” said Madge. “As soon as they’ve finished collecting the real figures, something that’ll make them drop everything, so we can nip in and alter the figures.”
“Won’t they notice all the crossings-out?” asked Tony.
“There wouldn’t be any,” Rose explained. “We’ll just imagine the ink into a different shape.”
“Wow,” said Gemma. “That’s cool.”
“It’s clever,” said Ace. “Let’s try it. Can you do all this measuring and calculating by Tuesday?”
“If I had the right stuff,” said Will. “I’ll need a tape measure and a protractor.”
“Leave that to me,” said Tony. “I’ll get them for you, Will.”
“Thanks.” He turned to Ace, grinning.
“And do you think you can organise a diversion?”
“Can a bird fly?” said Ace.