Authors: R. J. Anderson
338 Euston Road, London NW1 3BH
Orchard Books Australia
Level 17/207 Kent Street, Sydney, NSW 2000
First published in the UK in 2011 by Orchard Books
This ebook edition first published in 2011
ISBN 978 1 40831 370 1
Text © R J Anderson 2011
The right of R J Anderson to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by her in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988.
A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.
Orchard Books is a division of Hachette Children’s Books, an Hachette UK company
To my husband,
A man of peace and integrity
‘Faeries of the Oak,’ said Rob, ‘we are at war.’
The young rebel leader paced the dais, torchlight glinting in his dark eyes and turning his fox-coloured hair to flame. Above him soared the high ceiling of the Queen’s Hall, braced by the roots of the living Oak, while below and before him the great chamber was crowded with faeries.
There must have been two hundred of Rob’s followers standing or leaning or even sitting at the back of the room, looking almost human in their modern clothes. After them came the upright but markedly smaller group of the Children of Rhys – Garan and his men from the magical Green Isles of Wales – who could have been extras from a Robin Hood film. But at the front of the crowd stood forty or so females dressed in simple, homespun clothing of a style that had not been popular since Jane Austen. It was to this last group that Rob was speaking, and judging by the tense lines of their bodies and the slight quiver of their wings, the Oakenfolk were listening. Standing in the shadows along the wall, Timothy Sinclair – the lone human in the room – silently marvelled. After nearly two centuries of isolation, he hadn’t thought the Oakenfolk would respond well to being addressed by a stranger, but they’d all come to attention the moment Rob opened his mouth.
‘About a hundred and fifty years ago,’ Rob continued, ‘a faery calling herself the Empress rose to power in the world beyond this Oak. With cunning and dark magic, she enticed our forebears into giving her one drop each of their blood. By tasting that blood, the Empress learned all their true names…and so bound them, and their children, and their children’s children, to obey her every command, forever.’
As Rob spoke that last sentence, Timothy watched for the faeries’ reaction. The rebels who had followed Rob here from London looked resigned; they had grown up under the Empress’s rule, after all. Garan and the other Children of Rhys wore expressions of grave pity. But the Oakenfolk, who had never heard this story before, were wide-eyed and trembling with horror.
‘The Empress’s ambition,’ Rob told them, ‘is to control every faery in Great Britain, and ensure that they do only what she believes is best for them. And so, when she learned of the Oak’s existence and found that your people had escaped her power, she swore that she would either conquer you…or stamp you out.’
That last part was a little oversimplified, but Timothy could understand why. If Rob explained the whole truth about the Empress’s origins and her connection to the Oak, the Oakenfolk would be more frightened than ever. And if they knew that what she wanted most was to stop faeries from being friendly with human beings, some of them might even be tempted to side with her. There were more than a few Oakenfolk who disliked humans, even now.
‘But you are not alone,’ Rob told the Oakenfolk. ‘Like your new allies from the Green Isles, who have sacrificed so much to join with you and help you in your struggles—’ he nodded to Garan and his men— ‘we rebels believe in this Wyld’s right to remain free, and are ready to support you in any way we can.’ He straightened his shoulders, resolute. ‘We may be strangers to you, but make no mistake about our loyalties. Every one of us is prepared to fight to the death, rather than allow this Oak to fall.’
In the hush that followed, Timothy had to resist the urge to applaud. Beside him Linden, the brown-haired girl who was his closest friend among the Oakenfolk, gazed at Rob with shining eyes and lips parted in admiration; and even Thorn, a stocky female who was the most sarcastic faery Timothy had ever met, looked grudgingly impressed. Had Rob succeeded in winning the Oakenfolk over? Timothy hoped so, but he knew better than to count on anything yet.
‘It’s easy for you to talk of fighting,’ spoke up a harsh voice, and the faeries in the front row scuttled aside as Mallow – a broad, tough-looking faery who was the Oak’s Chief Cook and troublemaker – pushed her way towards the dais. ‘But some of us have better things to do than waste time waving swords about. What makes you think we want to get involved in this war of yours?’
‘You are already involved,’ said Rob, ‘whether you wish it or not. Soon the Empress is going to attack the Oak, and when she does you will either have to fight, or become her slave.’
‘And whose fault is that?’ Mallow demanded. ‘None of us Oakenfolk would be in danger at all if those two—’ she jabbed a finger at Linden and Timothy— ‘hadn’t been fool enough to go haring off into the Empress’s territory and make a spectacle of themselves.’ She folded her arms dismissively. ‘So let
fight with her. Leave the rest of us out of it.’
Timothy had meant to stay out of the discussion, but that was too outrageous to let pass. ‘So you’d rather Linden had stayed in the Oak and let you all die,’ he said, ‘instead of risking her life to find other faeries and get you back your magic?’
‘What business is it of yours, human boy?’ retorted Mallow. ‘You don’t know what it’s like to be a faery, with magic or without. Who brought you in here anyway?’
‘I did.’ Queen Valerian rose from her throne at the back of the dais, regal despite her plain robes and mild appearance. ‘I gave Timothy a charm that would make him small enough to visit us. And I asked him to be present at this meeting, so that he might report the outcome to the rest of our human allies.’
Which made it sound as though there were a whole horde of humans ready to defend the Oak, so it was no wonder the newcomers in the audience looked impressed. But the truth was, all they had was Timothy, his cousin Paul, and Paul’s wife Peri, also known as Knife – who had once been a faery herself.
‘Is that so?’ said Mallow. ‘Well, if Knife’s so interested in what we’re up to, why isn’t she here? I think we all know where her loyalties really lie.’
‘How dare you?’ Linden rounded on her, small fists clenched. ‘Knife’s done more for our people than anyone. For years she’s protected us, hunted food for us, brought us knowledge and ideas from the outside world. Without her, we’d have died out a long time ago.’ Her voice quavered with emotion. ‘She’s given up so much to help us – and it makes me
that nobody seems to care!’
Linden was one of the shortest faeries in the Oak, and at fifteen she was certainly the youngest. But at that moment she looked as fierce as Knife herself, and everyone around her took a hasty step back, even Mallow.
‘Knife’s loyalties are not in question,’ said Queen Valerian. ‘She has her own plans for how to protect the Oakenwyld against attack, and has already begun training her fellow humans to fight with her. Is that not so, Timothy?’
Timothy nodded gingerly. He still had a pulled muscle in his neck from sparring with Peri that morning.
‘Mallow, you have every right to ask questions. But if you cannot be civil, then you will be asked to leave.’ Valerian turned to Rob. ‘Please continue. How can we Oakenfolk, few as we are, defend ourselves against such a powerful enemy?’
‘My people are skilled in magical combat and the use of weapons,’ said Rob. ‘We are willing to train anyone who wishes to fight.’
A hand crept up from the midst of the crowd, and everyone turned to look at the tiny red-haired faery who had raised it. ‘But what if some of us aren’t good at fighting? Or just…can’t bear to hurt anyone?’
‘Coward,’ muttered a male voice behind Timothy, and Timothy had to resist the urge to whip around and punch the rebel flat. Wink – short for Periwinkle – might be fluttery and timid-seeming at times, but no one who knew her would ever accuse her of cowardice.
‘It takes more than swords to win a battle,’ said Rob. ‘We will need faeries to set protective wards about the Oakenwyld, to craft arrows and supply provisions, and to treat the injured. Even the least warlike among you can make a difference, if you are willing.’ He inclined his head to Wink, and she beamed back.
‘That’s nice,’ Mallow said dryly. ‘But if this Empress controls all the other faeries, then she’s got us far outnumbered already. There’s no way we can win.’
‘If I believed that,’ Rob replied, ‘I would never have brought my people here. This Oak is an excellent stronghold, with room for twice as many faeries as we have with us today. I believe that once the news of our stand against the Empress begins to spread, it will not be long before this Wyld is full of our allies.’
‘Full of fools wishing for a quick death, you mean,’ said Mallow. ‘Who’d get involved in a war unless they have to? And how are your so-called allies – or even you and your rebels, for that matter – supposed to stand up against the Empress, when she could call your names and tell you to go stick your heads in the privy at any minute?’
‘I can think of someone’s head
like to stick in the privy,’ muttered Thorn, and Timothy had to pretend he was coughing to hide a laugh. Trust Thorn to be unimpressed by Mallow, even when the rest of the Oakenfolk were intimidated.
‘The Empress may call all she likes,’ said Rob, ‘but we will no longer answer. The Stone of Naming, which Linden and Timothy brought back with them from the Green Isles, gives a new name to any faery who holds it – a name which the Empress does not know.’
He gestured to Garan, who held up the ordinary-looking white pebble for the Oakenfolk to see. ‘My followers and I have already touched the Stone, and can vouch for its power. And I am confident that once the faeries in the surrounding Wylds learn of the Stone’s existence, they will be eager to join us, if only we can set them free.’
Mallow looked sceptical, but made no further protest. The faeries in the audience began to whisper to each other, and the buzz in the chamber grew until Queen Valerian motioned them all to silence.
‘I have set three faeries in charge of defending the Oak,’ she said. ‘Rob will lead the rebels, and Garan the Children of Rhys; and as for the Oakenfolk, your commander will be Thorn.’
There was a general murmur at this, most of it approving. The Queen went on: ‘At all times my three generals will work together, along with myself and my council and also with the humans in the House, to ensure that the Oakenwyld is protected.’
She spread out her hands to the crowd, taking them all in with a single gesture. ‘The Empress could come upon us at any moment. We must be prepared, but above all we must be united, if we are to survive. And so I ask you all to set aside your prejudices and fears, and trust each other. For if we do not have that trust, then even the Stone of Naming will not be enough to keep us from falling into the Empress’s power.’
All the faeries were silent. At last Queen Valerian said, ‘You may go,’ and they scattered like blown feathers, out the double doors and into the corridor beyond.
A few minutes later, Timothy sat at the table in Queen Valerian’s study with Linden on one side and Campion on the other, feeling slightly ridiculous. What sort of wisdom did he have to contribute to a faery council of war? Only a few weeks ago he’d been just another teenage boy at boarding school, with no idea that faeries even existed. When he’d come to stay at his cousin Paul’s house in the Kentish countryside, he’d known that the huge old oak at the bottom of the garden was hollow, but never guessed that there was a colony of six-inch-tall magical people living inside. And when Linden had popped up out of his rucksack and dragged him into the wildest and most dangerous adventure of his life, he’d had no clever strategy to save her, or the Oakenfolk, or even himself. All they could do was keep running until they found help, and hope the Empress didn’t catch them first.
But Knife – more and more Timothy found himself thinking of her by that name, even though he’d grown up calling her Peri – was counting on him to give her a full report of this meeting when he came back to the house. So here he was, shrunk down to a tenth of his usual size, trying not to make a face as Wink poured them all cups of hot chicory. Sitting uncomfortably in his low-backed chair, because unlike the female faeries for whom all the furniture had been built, he didn’t have wings. And telling himself to stop thinking about the e-mail he’d got from Miriam that morning, because finding out that a girl he’d liked only thought of him as a brother was really not that important. Not compared to what was happening here.
‘…except for Mallow poking the bees’ nest,’ said Thorn, and Timothy realised he’d missed part of the conversation. He took a sip of chicory to punish himself, and resolved to listen more carefully.