CHAPTER 14 - The Battle for Fjaerland
That news put heart into everyone around and every injured person who could lift as much as his head turned to look. But their happiness was very short-lived. Like a dark cloud appears to blot out the sun, the joyful sight disappeared. Moving at great speed up from the southern shore of the fjord was another cluster of fairies... Special Squadron, who had never joined up with their elves, had never intended to. Lurking on the bank to ambush the fairies returning from Poland, that had been their plan all along.
Phil wasn't sure how far it was from Wielkopolska, as the fairy flies, but he knew it must be a long way. And the Commander and the others had really pushed themselves. They must be exhausted, but they were trying to fight off attackers who were fresh and who outnumbered them. Phil's heart went out to them. Surely they could send some reinforcements? Yet who else knew what was happening out there?
"General Stalden can't leave, but I can," said Sergeant Svir. "I'll see who else can be spared."
"Go, ma'am, go! We'll take care of each other."
With a brisk nod, the sergeant flew off.
"Someone tell them in Signals!" she called over her shoulder.
"I'll go," said Phil. "I can walk all right."
It was a long way to Signals. Phil felt dizzy as soon as he tried to walk but he kept going. The battle was still going fiercely in a wide line from the main road right across to the Northern Forest. There seemed to be so many of the enemy. The first line of defence hadn't taken out many of them. The fire at their entry point had died down now but smoke was still rising from the charred remains. Phil caught a glimpse of Madge and the Swedish major, Major Jokkmokk, and wondered whether he should tell them the news, but they were in the thick of things and concentrating so fiercely, so he carried on to Signals as he'd been told to.
Behind the line of battle, people were scurrying about, anxiety etched on their faces, but totally focused on what they were doing. Lieutenant Polesie from the hospital stopped him.
“You’re injured, let me help you.”
“I have to go to Signals with a message. But there’s a dozen or so, worse than me, from the fighting at the perimeter, all on the veranda of the police canteen. I’m getting worried about them, they could get cut off.”
“Yes, they could,” said the lieutenant with a frown. “Leave that to me, I’ll get them. When you’ve delivered your message, go to the hospital, that wound is bleeding badly.”
Lieutenant Polesie flew off and Phil looked down at his wrist. The bandage was so soaked that blood was dripping down his fingers. That didn’t look good. He struggled on, fixing his eyes now on Signals and not looking away until he got there. As fast as he could, he got inside and there he saw a queue of people reporting. But it moved fast – very fast – messages were being scrawled down and whizzed away to the right people. In no time, it was his turn – Commander’s been sighted – down the fjord – large squadron with her, but under attack from enemy fairies. Sergeant Svir gathering a force to go to her aid – and if people had been moving fast before, they moved even faster at that.
Phil was glad. The right things would be done now. But the relief that he’d succeeded in getting to Signals was draining his energy away. Clumsily, he moved aside so that others could report, and wondered if he could actually make it to the hospital. He couldn’t see much of the battle now. He could hear it, but the line was out of sight and there were fewer fairies in support. Some of them would have gone to help the Commander by now. Phil staggered dizzily along, thinking of Rob, thinking of his team, hoping they were all right, when he realised that the computer room, beside the bridge over the stream, was even closer than the hospital. Dale! Dale was on his team, had been a friend for a long time now – Dale could stop this dratted bleeding better than a bandage could, and then Phil could get back to the fight.
Dale and Lisette were both there, ready to gather news and pass it on, but they weren’t busy right that second and they both rushed to help Phil as he stumbled into the room.
“What’s happening?” they asked, as they took off the soaking bandage, and while they washed away the blood, Phil told them all he knew. This was quite a lot, and while Dale was concentrating on Phil’s wrist, healing it as best he could, Lisette was already typing up this latest bulletin. She pressed Send and within moments it was being opened and read by Allies all over the realm.
Karl read it in Hella and stepped outside to look across the fjord, wondering if there was anything he ought to do. David, who’d hardly left his desk for hours, read it in Cheadle and then passed it on as a text message, which was picked up in a helicopter that was now nearing the Norwegian coast. In Mosina, Janusz did not read it, because he was at work, but Gran Herdalen did. He’d been there all day, because he could contact Signals perfectly well from Janusz’s room, and sometimes the news was coming through on the Allies’ website faster than from Signals. Like this latest report – absolutely not good that the Commander was under attack, but great that she’d got there. Very good report – that had come from someone who’d seen for himself, someone with sense, not just Dale and Lisette picking up the latest gossip. Gran wondered very much who it had been. Sending a strong and simple signal, he got Dale direct.
Dale, General Herdalen.
Oh hello sir, I can hear you, what can I do for you?
The message about the Commander that David just posted – who brought the information?
Oh, that was Phil, sir. Phil Royden, my team leader. He was so injured, he came in here. Lisette’s just getting him a drink of water.
He’s still there? I could do with talking to him, do you think he’s up to that?
Oh yes, sir. He needs to sit down a bit longer, really, and if he’s talking to you he’ll have to, won’t he?
To Gran, Phil poured out all his concerns about what was happening, until the general began to feel he had a very clear picture now. It did not cheer him up.
Where’s Huskvarna, that’s the thing. You estimate four hundred in their first attack?
Yes sir, and we know that General Huskvarna and Colonel Zsennye led them up from the beach because they were human-sized and because the troops chanted their names. Colonel Zsennye is in the battle that’s being fought on camp right now. He’s transformed back to normal size now, but General Huskvarna isn’t there.
And only half their force is in that battle. Wherever the rest of that force is, Huskvarna is with it, and whatever he’s doing we have to stop him. What are your orders right now?
To report to the hospital, sir, but I don’t really need to, Dale’s patched me up. D’you want me to have a scout round?
Good for you, Phil. They seem very keen to keep everyone busy on the west side of camp. What are they up to in the east?
I’m on my way, sir.
If you see anything, tell General Arley first. And the Commander, if she has arrived. But if you have time to get back to me too, that would be great.
Being so small was usually annoying, but today Phil was glad of it. With the lush growth of early June around him, even the grass blades were tall enough to give him cover. At the perimeter fence on the far eastern side of camp, first years were still keeping watch. Some of them were staring intently out into the forest, others were looking back towards camp, uneasy at the sound of battle.
“Phil, what’s happening?”
He was inundated with questions as soon as they saw him.
“Half the parliament force have advanced across camp as far as the football pitch, and they're taking a lot of prisoners. The other half, under General Huskvarna, is nowhere in sight and we don’t know what he’s up to. The Commander and First Squadron are over the fjord and under attack from Special Squadron.”
“That’s not good!”
Just a single voice spoke; the rest seemed too stunned.
“No, it’s not. I’m spying now, trying to spot Huskvarna. Have you heard or seen anything, anything at all?”
“Nothing, Phil. Shall we come and help you look for him?”
“Better not. Hold your position until he’s located at least. Has anyone been up in the canopy?”
No-one had, so Phil thought it was worth a try. The trees weren’t so thick in this section, he’d be able to see further. He jumped up as quickly as he could, then moved from tree to tree trying to find the best view. He found a point where he could see a fair stretch of ground and there he stopped to think. Would General Huskvarna have come this way? As far as he could remember, all the elves who had come up the path from the beach had turned north at the gate. If any of them had tried to sneak off to the south, they’d have been seen as they passed the police HQ. It was cliff there, it was the place you could see down to the beach, they wouldn’t have been able to keep out of sight by going deeper into the forest.
Besides, if their plan was to attack from behind, from the east – and it was hard to see what else it could be – then taking the Southern Forest would only have made their journey longer and more difficult. They had to be this side, they had to be… but where were they?
More smoke was rising over camp; something else had been set on fire. Phil felt anger start burning too, anger inside him for all the grief Special Brigade were causing, and he felt fear too. Fear that Special Brigade were going to win… not because they had greater numbers, or because they were more cunning, but because they were more ruthless. They would stick at nothing and the army wasn’t like that, and that was where the danger lay.
Then, suddenly, he stopped thinking and listened, just listened. He could have sworn he’d heard something then. A small, sharp sound and not far away at all. Phil kept perfectly still and tried to channel everything into his sense of hearing. Yes… there it was again. Just a small clinking sound, metal against metal. And hadn’t it been a bit closer that time? Then, to Phil’s horror, a dreadful sight came into view. The one human invention no decent elf ever wanted to see, especially an elf who’d lost his tree, who’d seen one in action. A chainsaw. A chainsaw in the human-sized hands of a very human-sized General Huskvarna. The only thing that looked more evil than his weapon was his delighted grin.
The Tree! thought Phil desperately. He’s going to cut the Tree down!
For an instant he panicked, fear building up in his throat until he could taste it. But then calm resolve returned, and burning determination.
Over my dead body.
Through the trees he almost flew, to find General Arley.
Madge’s eyes were streaming from the smoke of the burning First Regiment HQ and her throat was hoarse from the constant giving and taking of messages. Inside, she was very angry, very afraid, but to everyone who saw her she still looked undaunted, long skirts bristling, as always, at her ankles, and hands firmly planted on hips.
Even so, she had never felt less sure what to do. Major Jokkmokk was directing the battle line, and as far as Madge could see, was doing it well, yet for all that, they were slowly but surely being edged back. Should she intervene? Was it time yet to use the reserves, or weren’t things desperate enough for that yet? And what about the Commander? Was she winning, or did she need more help?
It would make her a target, she knew, but she had to have information. She soared up and looked down the fjord. Heavy stones hit her, one on her side and another in the stomach, but she ignored them. They would only leave bruises, and she saw a glad sight. Flyers speeding home, and no-one in pursuit. The only sobering part was that there were so few of them. It looked like about half the number that had set off from Poland. Madge landed and saw an elf waiting to speak to her. It took her a moment to recognise him. Phil Royden had never looked so grim, nor so grey from loss of blood.
“General Huskvarna and about four hundred elves approaching the Great Tree through the Northern Forest,” he blurted out. “The general is still human-sized and is armed with a chainsaw.”
For a second, their eyes met in fear, just sprite to sprite. Then Madge grabbed hold hard of her senses.
“Thank you, Phil. Has anyone told this to Signals?”
“On my way, ma’am,” said Phil, and tore off.
Could he possibly get through to General Herdalen too? He knew that every single person would be needed now and he mustn’t waste time. He doubted he could calm his mind enough to reach Poland, at least not quickly. So, leaving Signals in an uproar behind him at his news, he dashed to the computer room again. Dale would get it to David, and then the general could read it on the website. It might even be quicker that way.
“Don’t you worry, Dale, we’ll beat them yet,” said Phil encouragingly.
He hugged Dale, and Lisette too, then dashed back to the front line to find his team.
There was no-one else to hear Gran Herdalen’s howl of outrage and dismay at the latest news, but the other sprites in Elf 2 were not so lucky when David’s text came through to Ace’s phone.
Everyone was clamouring at once to hear, but when Ace told them, there was utter silence. No-one could believe that even Special Brigade could think of doing a thing like that.
“Does that mean we’ve lost?” asked a quavering voice.
“Not yet,” said Colonel Harpsden staunchly. “But ask Will, Ace, if we can possibly go any faster.”
Ace dived for the radio. They were over Sognfjord now and there was still a long way to go, but they’d stopped in Bergen to buy fuel and they had no more worries on that score. It might be possible. For once, Ace had no complaints about Will’s language when he heard the news. He thought it was comparatively mild, under the circumstances.
“OK,” said Will, “one hour to go, we can take the risk and halve that. Everyone increase speed to fifty, at least until the engines start getting hot. Keep an eye on your temperature gauges and tell me if they start getting near to red.”
With care, the little fleet increased its speed, until it was zipping through the air over Sognfjord as fast as it could go. But there was no more chatter. Everyone was staring forward as if they could will the machines to go on faster and faster. They didn’t know how many others might even now be desperately still trying to reach Fjaerland in time, but they did know that Special Brigade had a huge force and that there were only ninety of them. If things were not going their way, they weren’t enough to make a difference. They knew they’d be injured, maybe even killed or captured. But every single one of them, elves and fairies, was desperate to arrive.
Then another piece of news came through, and again Ace passed it round at once. And once again Colonel Harpsden spoke cheeringly, comfortingly, to his troops.
“Don’t you worry,” he said. “Now that the Commander has arrived on camp, things will change. It will be the greatest possible boost to the defenders.”
Well, maybe not as much as the arrival of Gran Herdalen and all the crack troops kicking their heels in Poland, thought Ace. Everything happened for a reason, but sometimes it was very hard to see what the reason could possibly be. The thought of how Gran must be suffering now tore at his heart. But he had no fault to find with Colonel Harpsden's optimism. Who would have thought the old hippy would turn out to be such a good leader? Optimism was crucial now. It was about all they had left.
Lars Huskvarna and Mento Zsennye had most of Special Brigade with them. Some they’d left on guard duty, and they didn't have the elite Wielkopolska unit, who were all now prisoners of the army. General Huskvarna had had to sacrifice them, because they would never have agreed to leaving Wielkopolska undefended, and that had been an important part of the plan. But practically everyone else was there in Norway... an impressive force, possibly the largest ever assembled. He must remember to tell the army that at some point. They liked history, here.
Over a thousand troops, nine hundred elves and two hundred fairies... splitting such a large force hadn't even been risky, until now. When a moment of danger arrived, it was spotted not by General Huskvarna, who was deep in the forest, but by Colonel Zsennye.
Fighting this rag-bag of youngsters and has-beens had been easy. Anyone who broke the line was swiftly snatched away. One by one, the tally of prisoners was rising. As for the main battle line, Special Brigade was driving it back, and already about a quarter of this camp was in their hands. That was good; their fairies would need space to deal with all the prisoners once they’d sorted out the army squadron. But fairies were coming now, and they weren't Special Squadron. Some of the army must have escaped. And they were coming in fast and they were well-armed and they were angry. All along the line his elves were faltering as stones hit them. These fairies didn't miss and they could throw hard. Suddenly he had dozens of injuries to deal with, and they weren't just cuts and bruises, they were broken bones.
"Cover the injured!" he shouted. "Fall back in good order."
His troops started a slow and careful retreat, and as he had gambled, the army, exhausted and injured themselves, did not harry them. They were too glad of the respite.
First Squadron saw Special Brigade on their way with a final contemptuous volley then landed in a swirl. Three of them promptly collapsed, legs buckling under them. They'd flown straight into a big air battle after a nineteen hour flight and even for First Squadron that was asking a lot. But Arda Svir and others were not so weary, they could help. As soon as the Commander saw they were all right, she hurried over to Madge. They hugged each other in greeting and relief, letting their arms say what their voices didn't have time for, and started exchanging the most urgent news.
"They're taking prisoners," said the Commander. "We've lost so many. They've got boats down there, they're shrinking people as soon as they get them. What's the position here?"
"The worst danger now is in the Eastern Forest. Huskvarna is human-sized and armed with a chainsaw and heading for the Tree. Do we now use our only reserves?"
"Incredible!" cried the Commander. "Has Huskvarna gone completely insane? Yes, Madge, pour in your reserves to defend the Tree. Even though I suspect he can and will defend himself, that is the least we can do."
"Colonel Arnsberg please," ordered Madge, and a fairy whizzed off. The German colonel arrived so fast he nearly knocked Madge over as he landed his last jump.
"Don't worry about it," said Madge. "We need to use the reserves, all of them."
"It's true, then? They're really daring to attack the Tree?"
"And they have a chainsaw," said the Commander. "There aren't many of you and it may only be a gesture, but if so it is a gesture we must make."
"On my way, ma'am... but what's that noise, have they started in already with the chainsaw?"
"It's coming from the west," said the Commander, whirling round.
Something noisy, that was flying... something mechanical yet sprite-sized was coming into view.
"What new devilry is this?" muttered Madge.
"Investigate please," ordered the Commander. "Arda, take some of your people up there, but keep your distance."
In a flash, a dozen fairies took off and rapidly gained the height of the machines, without getting too near. As the machines flew closer to the crowd below, so did the fairies, who suddenly started hovering and waving.
"What?" said Madge. "It's not the enemy?"
Sergeant Svir whistled and waved a message to the Commander.
"England 3?" gasped the Commander. "It can't be, can it? In helicopters? Colonel Harpsden? But how?"
"Ah," said Madge. "How is easy enough - Ace and Will Moseley."
"Oh, of course - but even for them, that is extraordinary. What a blessing - some very welcome help, just when we need it."
The news passed around like the wind through the grass and everyone cheered as the helicopters clattered overhead, losing height now as they prepared to land. Somehow the sight lifted the weary defenders and gave them fresh hope.
Ace's relief at arriving at last was sharply tempered by the awful scenes he saw below him. He had seen boats full of prisoners, fires and damage, and parliament troops at the forest edge preparing for their next attack. Above all he had seen the weariness and despair on the faces turned up to look at the helicopters. It stunned him into silence, and as he ran across with the others behind Colonel Harpsden he was just taking in every detail that he could, wondering what they could do to turn the tide.
The Commander was shaking hands with Colonel Harpsden.
"What an entrance!" she exclaimed, almost managing a smile. "And perfect timing too. A new threat is upon us. Could you and your team join your colleagues from Germany 3? They are just about to head for the Eastern Forest. Colonel Arnsberg will fill you in as you go."
"This way, Rowan!" called Buchel Arnsberg. "It's half an hour since they were spotted, they might be there by now."
Gia watched them go, then whirled around. That was all she could do to defend the Tree. Madge and Nella were welcoming the newly-arrived fairies, showing them where they could be the most help, and pulling back a few people from the front lines who really ought to be at the hospital. A few, but not many... they were too desperate for that. Any moment now, the enemy would regroup and launch a fresh attack. Gia had a few precious minutes. She used them to contact Gran.
Gia! What's happening?
Attack heavy and relentless. They're not trying to capture our HQ but to capture us. One by one, taking every prisoner and shrinking them. We need to drive them back but we are taking a lot of injuries. They are threatening the Tree so we are fighting on two fronts, using all our reserves. Some reinforcements have arrived but we are still greatly outnumbered.
Do you want us to come?
No, Gran. Absolutely not. If we fail here, you are all we have left. But if you were here, what would you do?
I would leave the main line of battle to the elves and goblins, and use all flyers to attack the ones doing the shrinking. Go for their supply of potions. If you destroy that, they won't be able to replace it in a hurry, and they won't find it so easy to deal with large numbers of captives then.
That's a good idea. Thank you, Gran. If I am captured, you're in charge. Good luck, old friend.
Gia, don't say that...
But it was too late. Gia had gone. Not for the first time, Gran banged his head on Janusz's desk and nearly wept with frustration. The situation sounded dire and if they lost the Tree, the realm would wither and die. There would be nothing left to fight for.
"Come on," said Ace. "We have to get to the front so we can hear what's going on."
"I'm with you," said Will.
As everyone else was trying to do the same thing, there was a lot of jostling and stumbling, but once they'd all got the picture, they just concentrated on jumping through the trees, their sense of purpose giving them all the unison they needed. As they drew nearer to the Tree, the brilliance of the afternoon light seemed to fade, dimmed by the Tree's light, and unbelievably, the sense of peace still filled the forest all around. Yet standing beneath his branches was an elf the size of a human with a chainsaw in his hands. His spidery streaks and jubilant smile told all of them who he was, if they didn't already know.
"Oh, good!" exclaimed General Huskvarna. "I do love an audience. This is quite a pretty tree, I grant you that. But it's still just a tree. And what happens when you cut a tree down? It dies."
With that, he tugged on a cord and the chainsaw roared into life. Ace felt sick to hear that menacing noise, but his knife was ready in his hand.
"Attack!" yelled Colonel Harpsden.
All of Third Regiment threw themselves forward, but General Huskvarna was well surrounded. Before anyone could get to him, he held the champing blades to the Tree’s trunk. As the first splinters of bark flew through the air, the light in the glade began to change. Its gentle green and gold grew whiter and more brilliant until nearly everyone had the hand that wasn’t holding his knife up and shielding his eyes. Then the ground rippled, as if something was happening in the roots, and the other trees nearby seemed to sway in response.
He’s doing something, thought Ace. “Will, do something to help!”
“What? Help the Tree? Me? How?”
“We have to give him time! He’s doing something, but he’s a tree, isn’t he? Trees can’t do anything quickly, you know that! Nngh!”
Talking while fighting had been dangerous. He’d been cut now, a slash to the neck that would have killed him if he hadn’t leaned back out of the way just in time. Focusing then on his fighting, he took out two of Special Brigade who were left kneeling on the grass in agony. But so were some of their own people. Special Brigade weren’t trying to take prisoners here. All they were trying to do was protect General Huskvarna.
“No, no!” yelled Ace.
The gash in the Tree was through the bark now. Then Ace saw that Will was just standing there, not attacking and not defending himself. He was concentrating on something else – the chainsaw, Ace hoped – doing something to make it stop working. Ace jumped to Will’s side and fought off one and then two elves who were going for him, because Will was still concentrating. Then, liquid of some kind spilled over General Huskvarna’s feet and the chainsaw started to splutter. After a few more jerking movements it juddered to a halt. And just at that moment, the ground shook, throwing everyone over. And with a noise like the wind, the Tree swayed and seemed to start withdrawing into himself. The branches drew in like the arms of a man who is cold; the height, if you blinked, suddenly seemed less. Normal bright afternoon sunlight filled the wide spaces of the glade, and then the Tree was indistinguishable from all the other mighty forest trees growing in that place. The feeling of peace was as strong as ever, but whether Special Brigade could sense that or not, Ace didn’t know.
“Oh, you beautiful tree!” sighed Colonel Harpsden with happiness. “He can defend himself!”
“How do you hide a tree?” nodded Colonel Arnsberg wisely. “In a forest. You don’t know which one he is now, do you?” he added to General Huskvarna. “Because look.” Every tree in the glade now bore exactly the same scar, as if in sympathy. “Not that your foul machine works anymore, anyway.”
“So he’s still alive,” said General Huskvarna. “But he’s dying. Not really a tree of power anymore, is he? And none of you will get out of this glade to talk about it.”
“I wouldn’t be too sure of that,” said Will, stepping forward. “If you don’t all, instantly, leave this forest, I’ll strike this match and throw it on that spilled petrol. The first thing that will happen is that you, General, will turn into a torch. And die instantly, in horrible pain. Which is about what you deserve for attempted murder.”
General Huskvarna gave a curious smile that few people had seen, though Gran Herdalen would have recognised it.
“Who are you?”
“Third Regiment,” said Will. “That’s all you need to know.” He stepped even closer and held the match in its striking position. “Are you going?”
The general flung out an arm to indicate to his troops that they should move, and they did. They moved quickly and quietly, with the efficiency of really well-trained elves. They all wore the same badge, though, Ace noticed, a Stone Pine. Maybe an Italian unit, with a badge like that. Then he saw something to confirm that, an Italian elf he knew. Pioppo, whose life-long friendship with Lauro had been broken by the war. Their eyes met.
“Ace,” said Pioppo, and nodded to him as he passed.
General Huskvarna heard that, because he turned his head sharply and his nostrils flared.
“Ha,” said Ace to Will. “He’s just realised who you are. Probably wishes he’d handled that differently now. So close to getting the terrible twins!”
“He’s not off the mountain yet,” said Will. “Best keep out of his way if we can.”
“Agreed,” said Ace. “Unless we get a good chance to kill him.”
“They’ve gone,” said Colonel Harpsden. “Well done, Will, what quick thinking!”
“Not so bothered about human technology when it suits them, are they?” said Captain Thurlgrove drily. “But how about the Tree? Is he all right, and how can we tell?”
“Peace,” said the colonel. “He’s all right. You can feel the peace. He’s pulled in his power, so we’ve probably lost Signals, but if he needs to do that to mend himself, then that is better for all of us in the end.”
Wisest of elves, lay your hand upon the ground.
Startled, Colonel Harpsden realised the Tree was speaking to him. He crouched down and laid his hand flat on the earth and everyone else followed his example.
I am weak, but your love will keep me alive. Love, not hatred, will bring your enemies back to my side. Go north now to her, for she is waiting for you.
For a moment everyone was utterly still, as anyone was when the Tree had spoken to him. Then they leaped to their feet.
“To the Commander!” called Colonel Harpsden.
Ace and Will ran swiftly along with the team as it poured out of the forest and back into camp. But both of them were troubled with the same thought.
“Do you think he meant the Commander?” said Will.
“No, I don’t,” said Ace. “I think he meant Marta.”
Huskvarna’s second in command whirled round.
“Did it work?”
“No. It’s not down. It’s dying, though. How many prisoners have we got?”
“Not sure exactly, but three boats are full so at least 300.”
“That’s not bad.”
“No, but they’re getting desperate. We’re taking more and more injuries and we don’t want deaths.”
“Well, not from our side, no. Tell you what, then. We’ll drive them into a panic now and seize another hundred or so while they’re distracted.”
“Time to torch the place, then?”
“Yes, it’s time. But just the buildings around the edge to start with. I don’t want people running away into the forests, I want them running into the centre, where we can get hold of them.”
“Take the Italian Unit with you. They can fight now while you pull others off to start fires.”
“But first, a bit of re-sizing, I think.”
General Huskvarna jumped up onto the roof of a building. It was the HQ of Second Squadron, not that he knew or cared. To his left, on a field that had once been the goblins’ football pitch, the captives were being forcibly dosed. It wasn’t a pretty sight, but it was for their own good. Knocked unconscious, shrunk, packed into a box and thrown from hand to hand down to the boats… it was rough, but the ones that survived the journey would wake up to a new life in the Bavarian Forest, and never look back.
A new world… a new realm, better than it had ever been before, and this was a big step on the way. True, he still had Herdalen to finish off, but he was looking forward to that. Relishing it. He could skulk in Wielkopolska as long as he liked. That place was finished, and if any envoys were daft enough to go back there, the army was welcome to them. He had a lot of plans for the future, but the envoys had no part in them.
He called down to one of the chain of box-throwers, who was within shouting distance.
“Hey, Lirio, how’s my pet rat?”
The elf grinned up at him and stuck up a thumb.
“Safe in his little cage, sir, on the other shore!”
“Excellent,” sighed General Huskvarna.
He looked out across the army’s camp. Pathetic place, really. You’d think with all the fuss they made about technology, they’d have had something better than this by now. Already, fires were starting round the perimeter. Mento was doing well. And he was keeping a wide path clear so Special Brigade could get down to and up from the beach. For the army it would not be so easy. Fire or capture would be their only choices. No-one could save them now. It was then that he remembered the twins. He needed to make sure that they were among the captured and he knew what they looked like now. He jumped down from the roof and went to tell his captains to be sure to capture any elf who had long hair.
As Colonel Harpsden and Captain Thurlgrove ran to get fresh orders, Colonel Arnsberg checked everyone for injuries. There were many, but nothing they couldn’t handle between them. Will soon had Ace’s neck better, and had to help a few other people too, quietly moving from one need to the next. When Will had finished, the colonel spoke to him.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
“Will Moseley, sir.”
“Really? Oh, it’s good to meet you. Colonel Dünnwald is a great friend of mine, he speaks very highly of you. But I had no idea you were in this regiment!”
“It’s a long story, sir,” said Will. “Oh no, look! They’ve started more fires.”
“Workshops, isn’t it? And team huts… just wanton destruction.”
“It’s the same over there,” said Will. “Look, there’s more smoke at the northern perimeter.”
“Trying to drive us all to the centre? Why, so they can capture all of us? There goes another flame – generals’ houses.”
“What?” said Will. “Their houses… of course… oh, no. Sir, permission to go to General Herdalen’s house and rescue his most treasured possession?”
“Er… all right, Will, if you’re quick. But take someone with you and don’t take any silly chances. The general wouldn’t want that.”
“Thanks, sir. Ace! Ace, over here, move it!”
“Where are we going?”
“Gran’s house. Before the flames get there.”
“What for? Maps?”
“Actually, maps would be good too. But no, his tinderbox.”
“Oh, of course! Come on, we can go faster than this.”
In unison, they moved across camp as fast as they could, dodging fires and wreckage and knots of enemy troops. But their efforts, unending for days now, were taking their toll, and they weren’t going quite as fast as they thought they were. They were spotted by elves who’d just received the order to capture any elves with long hair.
They weren’t seen by the fire-starters, who were round the back, so they got in at the front. To retrieve the maps and Gran’s precious tinderbox, the only thing he had to remind him of his dead twin, was the work of a few seconds. But when they got to the front door again, they found their way barred by six elves, knives in hand.
“OK,” said Ace, “we can handle this. Back to back, anticlockwise.”
“Go for it,” said Will.
Their opponents weren’t ready for such a devastating display of skill. Ace and Will whirled around, never losing pace with each other and slashing out, up and down, as they moved. They broke through the barrier like that leaving four bleeding on the ground. The remaining two went for them one on one, and they were harder to defeat, but determination gave them the edge and they got those two down as well.
“What was all that about?” panted Will.
“I think they recognised us,” said Ace. “You probably get extra points for capturing a Moseley.”
“I hope Rose and Clover are okay,” said Will. “I wonder where they are?”
When Ace and Will had gone with Third Regiment into the Eastern Forest, the Commander had pulled together a strong force of flyers. She removed air support from the main battle line, she gathered together everyone with any strength left from the air battle over the fjord, and she told the assortment of fairies, Rose and Clover among them, who’d just arrived in helicopters, that she was very pleased to see them.
“Special Brigade’s priority is taking prisoners and shrinking them,” said the Commander. “We can’t do anything about those already on boats. If we sink the boats, they could drown. We must stop their fairies transferring prisoners to boats, and above all we must stop the shrinking by destroying their supply of potion. They have planned this well and they are being deadly efficient. We must be the same.”
The Commander outlined her plan and requested precision flying. Everyone took up position by flying a complex pattern designed to confuse and impress. To Clover, hovering for a moment over the goblins’ old goal post, the whole thing seemed surreal. How could this be happening? Special Brigade all over camp, dosing people with poisonous potions on the football pitch? And she, Clover, about to go into battle, and wanting to? It was all far too strange, so she thrust such thoughts away and concentrated on her dive. Flyer after flyer was diving in from different heights and different angles, and all but one were trying to snatch up the little wooden cages that the prisoners were in. Even if they only got one each, that would still be a couple of dozen freed, though Clover wasn’t sure if anyone knew how to unshrink them. But one other fairy would dive and dive again and again, unnoticed in the fight for the prisoners, only looking for the potion store. And when she had located it, she would attack it with a hammer until every drop had spilled onto the ground. That honour had gone to Maig Aberchalder, still burning with grief for the goblin, Thistle.
At first, all went well. As far as Clover could see, once you’d got a cage, you could fly away with it. The fairies on the ground didn’t dare take off in pursuit, for fear of losing more. Clover managed to grab a cage without having to fight for it, and took off again at once. She peered inside the cage as she flew. There was a fairy in there, Clover could see her wings. Her face was hidden and she was very still, though she was breathing. Mercifully unconscious, by the look of it. Gently Clover deposited her cage on the ground, safely behind their own lines, and did a speedy corkscrew turn to get high again.
She saw a tussle on the ground below her – the Commander was down there, it looked as if they were trying to free people who hadn’t been shrunk yet. The fight was drawing enemy fairies away from guarding cages… ambitiously, she grabbed one in each hand, and then instantly wished she hadn’t. This was like flying though fog, or flying with sap on your wings. She wasn’t Dan, this was no skill of hers. Just as she was seriously beginning to worry that she might drop one of the cages, there came a sudden noise behind her, a host of fairies whistling so menacingly that fear gave her the spurt she needed to make safe delivery.
Whirling round again, she saw who’d made the noise. Enemy fairies, reserves, coming out of the trees, and they weren’t interested in defending the prisoners. All they wanted was to take more. The Commander and those on the ground were being set upon, they were now heavily outnumbered. Above her, Clover heard a whistle she knew well. It was Rose and she was alerting all their flyers to the new danger. Clover looked up, signalling ‘Dive’, to see Rose signalling the same thing to her. Without hesitation, they dived together towards the fight.
Not all the fairies were armed, on either side. The Commander was, of course, and she was fighting strongly, but she was surrounded. Clover had no knife, but in a tight-packed fight like this, she didn’t think that was much disadvantage. She could kick and punch as well as any other fairy, and if the enemy were trying to capture the Commander, well, she could twist fingers and stamp on toes. She could watch out for her friends, too.
“Rose, behind you!” she yelled, as a knife flashed in the sun. Rose lunged forward and lost only a bit of wing instead of taking a cut to the neck. But something was happening on the other side of the fray, something that was making people shout and struggle even harder. The Commander dealt a frantic blow that Clover wouldn’t have believed any fairy, even Dan, could achieve, and her opponent fell bleeding to the grass. Through the sudden gap, Clover could see one of First Squadron being held down by four fairies. Two were keeping her still. One was pouring potion down her throat, and the other was concentrating hard. Before their eyes, she withered and shrank, passing out with the shock of it, until she hung limply from a single enemy hand. She was now no larger than a butterfly.
Someone retched, and nearly everyone screamed out in anger, but with grim expressions they set to it to redouble their efforts. At that point, several of the enemy took off, and army flyers took off in pursuit, and Clover was one of them. Once she was in the air, she could see the reason for their urgent flight. Maig had found the potion supply – a wooden cart beneath a camouflage blanket – and she was attacking it ferociously. Already, the sticky, yellow-brown substance was trickling over broken glass onto the ground, where the grass blades curled up and shrank as they would in a ground frost.
“Defend Maig!” shouted the Commander, and at once every flyer who possibly could tried to ring her. Maig herself seemed oblivious to the numbers of enemies around her. She was so focused on what she was doing, it was almost as if she couldn’t hear or see them. When one of them grabbed her arm, she simply smashed a bottle into that fairy’s face. The glass was strong and the bottle didn’t break, but that just showed how hard she had been hitting, to have broken any at all. But she was alerted now to her danger, and she simply ignored it. It was as if she knew they would get her, but she was going to smash bottles until the last possible second. But by now the whole fight had shifted to this point. Every enemy in the melee was trying to stop Maig and finally she was swamped. None of her friends could even see her at first, and when they did, she had paid a terrible price for her courage. She too had been shrunk.
Someone else immediately grabbed the hammer, but then, as far as Clover could see, some of their elves arrived and started lashing out hard, not even being that careful whom they were hitting, their object only to rescue the potion, what there was left of it. More fairies seemed to have arrived too, and the army fairies found themselves surrounded. It looked very ugly. They could go for them one at a time, until they had all been shrunk, and the Commander must have thought so too, because she called off the action, ordering everyone to soar. Jeering and shrieking, the enemy let them go.
“How many did we rescue?” she demanded as they landed and someone ran to count the cages.
“That is good – well done, everyone, great flying and brave fighting – but our friends here are in no fit state to fight. We have rescued only two who can still fight, and lost four. A costly action. We must be cleverer than that next time.”
“Did Maig get the potion?” someone asked.
“Not all of it,” said the Commander. “A good amount – a very useful amount – and my heart goes out to such courage. But they still have enough left to do us more damage, so we must still be wary.”
Just then, a flyer came with a message for her, and she bent her head to listen. What dreadful news it was, Clover had no idea, but she saw the Commander’s face when she lifted it again, and she looked haggard and heart-broken. But she didn’t swerve for a moment from the task in hand.
"Everyone who is still fit come with me now back to the main battle line.”
The line now spread from the stage beside the Concourse all the way to the officers’ canteen, a snaggling, bumpy line that swayed backwards and forwards in different places and at different times. On the army’s side it was elves and goblins, and on Special Brigade’s it was all elves, but for all that, the army was slowly being edged back. They were trying to push forward, they were trying very hard, wanting nothing more than to push the lot of them back into the fjord, but every time anyone incautiously pushed a little too far forward, he was grabbed and pulled away. Only tight unison would keep them safe from capture, but they lacked the numbers to give momentum to such steady movements.
“Everyone who can possibly use a knife, join me on the ground,” said the Commander. “They need every bit of weight they can get in that line. The rest of you, ammunition, and aim hard – aim very hard!”
Rose and Clover nodded fiercely at each other and went for ammunition. It was rather disconcerting to be handed what they needed by terrified first years.
“Here you are, ma’am,” said a tiny snowdrop to Clover.
“Thank you,” said Clover gently. Good gracious. Two years ago, that would have been me. And now look at me. If I can crack a skull or two, I will – just watch me.
She wasn’t doing as well as Rose, who was a crack shot as well as being a superb flyer, but she had soon scored a few good hits and had the satisfaction of seeing the army line in that section creep a little forward. But then the fires started. From their high vantage point, the fairies could see clearly what Special Brigade were doing.
“Commander!” shouted Clover. “You need to see this, ma’am.”
“Drat them,” said the Commander when she saw the fires. “But can you believe this, they are not even checking if anyone is inside!”
“And they’ll reach the computer room next,” said Clover. “And we know there are people in there.”
“You and Rose are fast – get over there and get them out, then fly round and evacuate all buildings on the perimeter. Send everyone to the centre, be as quick as you can. And pass the news round – they have hurt the Tree, and we have lost Signals.”
“Yes, ma’am,” whispered Clover, too horrified for more. “Come on, Rose!”
As Clover had half expected, Dale didn’t want to leave his post.
“Dale, you have seconds, literally seconds, before they set this building on fire,” she said.
“Just let me finish this message… I have to let people know about Signals.”
Clover couldn’t argue with that.
“Well, try to hurry,” she pleaded.
"What was that noise?" said Lisette.
"A burning turf landing on the roof," said Clover. "Come on!"
"Almost there, " said Dale. "You go, don't wait for me."
"As if," sniffed Lisette.
Already, the roof was alight and the room was filling with smoke.
"Can we save the computer?" said Lisette.
Rose looked at Clover and they nodded at each other. Clover grabbed Dale the second his hands left the keyboard. Rose grabbed Lisette and they started pushing and pulling them towards the door. Only just in time... a piece of roof fell in and fire seemed to flood in through the hole. It caught Lisette's wings, which burned instantly. It didn't hurt her, but she was upset and unbalanced and of course she couldn't fly.
Dale picked her up and carried her, while Rose and Clover flew on, crossing the stream to check no-one was in the Weapons Shed. It seemed unlikely, but you never knew where an injured person might have taken refuge. When they got round near the generals' houses, they saw a fight going on and quickly realised who was fighting. They were cheering Ace and Will for their victory as they landed, just as Will was wondering where they were.
"Wow, awesome, I thought of you and you appeared!" shouted Will.
"We're evacuating the perimeter, everyone's got to go to the centre," said Rose. "Anyone else in there?"
"No, just us. What shall we do with this lot?" said Will, pointing to their groaning opponents.
"Leave them for their friends. What were you doing in there?" said Clover, her curiosity getting the better of her.
"Rescuing a treasure for Gran. D'you need any help?" said Ace.
"No, the battle line needs you more than we do," said Clover.
"She's right," said Ace. "Come on!"
They found their unit just in time, for Special Brigade had just started another big push. They piled in, and for half an hour just fought on instinct, while they observed and analysed what was happening. At the next slight lull, when Special Brigade hustled their latest prisoners away, they stopped to gasp for breath.
"So many of them!" panted Will. "Can't we get their numbers down by taking prisoners ourselves?"
Ace shook his head. "That's a luxury we can't afford. We'd end up losing even more ourselves if we weaken our line. We have to push them back. All the way to the beach."
Third Regiment were now in the centre of the army line, and England 3 were all together, Ace and Will, Holly Knightwood, Rowan Harpsden, Gus Thurlgrove and all the rest of them. There was desperation in the air. You could almost taste it. They had to make a big impact and they had to make it now. They'd lost so many... if they lost many more, they wouldn't have enough to fight back. England 3 moved forward together, shoulder to shoulder, and because they were not as weary as those around them, and because they were so determined, they found themselves right at the front.
Then Ace saw for himself just why they'd lost so many. Special Brigade just weren't interested in fighting them at all, only in capturing them. As soon as the army line came close, they fell back in little knots and clusters. What had happened earlier in the day was that the army line had broken in response, and one or two would have darted forward into the gap. Once that had happened, Special Brigade had grabbed them and dragged them away.
They tried the same tactic now, but the army wasn't falling for it this time.
"Keep together! Keep the line steady!"
The order rang up and down the line. Special Brigade allowed themselves to be pushed back for quite a way, hoping that the army wouldn't be able to keep it together. When they saw that that wasn't going to work either this time, then they were happy enough to fight. It even seemed as if some of them, bored with their pragmatic orders, were relishing the chance to fight properly.
A tiny part of Ace was registering to himself that he was in a proper battle, against total strangers and real enemies. But most of him was focused on what he was doing, fighting with total concentration. So much to think about... watch your feet, so you didn't trip, focus on the one you were fighting, watch his eyes. Be cunning, be ruthless and strike hard. But not too hard. To kill in battle was a bad thing. There had been one death here already today, Ace had heard. It had not been the army that had caused it.
But perhaps they had been too cautious. Too timid, too afraid of causing serious harm? They couldn't afford to be making that mistake now. Knowing that people watched him and copied him and followed his example, Ace struck out very hard indeed. What he lacked in height and reach he more than made up for in skill and speed and strength. He struck fast and he struck hard before the enemy knew what had hit him. Elves were going down before him and once they were down, he jumped over them, so that the injured elf was then behind the army line. Maybe they could get a few captives themselves that way. But he wasn't breaking their own line because the others around him were keeping pace with him. The tall beeches of England 3 were unstoppable, on fire to make a real difference, and full of sober joy to be here, to be needed. Will was at his side, of course, and while he wasn't quite as fast or quite as strong as Ace he was doing just as well because of his accuracy. When Will struck, the knife went in exactly where it would cause the right sort of damage. A simple cut could put you out of the battle for a while, but it was easily repaired. Will would slit tendons instead. Not life-threatening, but crippling until you got into the hands of a really good healer.
Slowly, the army line began to edge forward. They all knew their task was almost impossible, but even that slight gain gave them fresh hope. They couldn't see, as Madge could, that the centre, where Third Regiment was, was moving faster than the wings. She was hastening to reinforce the wings with anyone she could so that Special Brigade couldn't pull out to the sides and try to surround them. Ace was aware of the dangers of being outflanked but he knew that worrying about that wasn't his job right now. His job was to fight, and fight and fight again, and he did. He was blazing now, a terrifying sight, though he didn't know it. Dried blood, none of it his own, had stiffened his hair into spikes, his beautiful smile was hidden under a mask of grim determination and his knife was constantly moving, like a light that the whole line could follow. For a few minutes they were coming at him two at a time, but he didn't care. He just moved even faster, forgetting anything else that might be going on and using all his speed of thought only to concentrate on each blow, so that no movement was wasted, everything bit somewhere.
He felt unstoppable, yet somewhere deep in his mind was the wisdom that had come from his long and careful training. The fact that he didn't get carried away, didn't get too far ahead, wasn't due at all to his own nature, but to Sergeant Olt.
He knocked down one with a simple jab to his face, with his right elbow. That elf went down clutching his nose, which was broken, and Ace hadn't even been looking. His eyes were on the elf to his left whose knife was clashing with his own. Bad mistake on the enemy's part - Ace's knife seemed to be cemented to his hand. Anyone from his year could have told you that though you might occasionally get a sneaky cut in, you could never make Ace drop his knife.
The enemy's knife blade slid along Ace's own, twisting hard, steel grating on steel. Ace knew what to do, and reversed the twist. Not easy... he was strong, this one. Some kind of pine... not too tall but very sturdy and rock steady on his feet. Ace felt as if the bones in his wrist were cracking but he succeeded in reversing the twist and the enemy let go of his knife. That very moment, he went down with a yell of pain and surprise. It didn't surprise Ace. Will had got him behind the knee and he wouldn't be walking anywhere else today.
The curious thing was, the tip of his knife had wedged itself into the hilt of Ace's knife. Ace had to duck from a blow coming at him from his right while he wrenched the knives apart. But then he had a knife in each hand and that struck him as a very good idea indeed. He didn't know why he hadn't thought of it before. He blazed forward again and this time a path seemed to clear before him. People were dodging out of his way, this was great! Then he saw someone moving up from the back line towards him, someone who was grinning. A faltering shudder ran through the army line, though no-one made any movement backwards. This elf was someone special, or he thought he was someone special. It took Ace a moment to recognise him now that he was elf-sized again.
Oh great, this is Huskvarna himself.
He felt Will’s shoulder brush his own.
Wonderful. Pool it too. When you’re ready, count us in.
General Huskvarna’s blade flickered between their faces almost too fast for them to see.
“Well, well, well, Gran Herdalen’s little pets! Fancy meeting you again.”
It seemed as if the whole line had gone into slow motion, as people watched to see what would happen.
Ace and Will didn’t reply. They didn’t move a muscle in their faces.
One, two, three…
They moved as one, spinning like a top. A top with three knives. Five seconds later, the general was on the ground with one cut across his eye, another across his neck and a gash behind his knee.
A roar went up from Special Brigade and those closest stopped fighting and tore across to drag him away before the army could. At the same time, a roar of triumph went up from the army and they broke out into pushing and shoving, really moving Special Brigade’s line back now. The movement was getting faster and the army elves and goblins were getting excited, when a whistle came from the rear of the enemy lines… pull back.
Before the battle could be lost or won, Special Brigade moved backwards in ordered, covered retreat.
“They’re running away!”
Cheers and laughter broke out all along the army line.
“We’ve done it,” sobbed Ace. “We’ve won… haven’t we?”
“For now, yes,” said Will. “But they’ll be back.”