Untold is out today and I will be making a post about it later–with links and songs and spoilers in the comments. If Untold coming out is news to you and you would like to get it, here is a link!
But first, I wanted to write this for today, and give it unto thee. This is a present, but of course, if you decide to get Untold, it will be much appreciated. 😉
Summer of Fourteen is next chapter. I’m terribly sorry. I don’t know why I do the things I do, but I hope you enjoy them anyway.
They left as soon as they had gathered up a few necessities, rolled-up blankets and dried provisions and one or two books Elliot could not be parted from. It was barely dark when they went, but Elliot hoped it was dark enough that they would not be missed until morning. They left pillows arranged in the shape of bodies under their sheets, which was fairly basic subterfuge but the captains didn’t check the younger ones’ beds as carefully as they did the older ones’, on account of indecency and lewd behaviour.
“I would have thought the girls of the camp would be more careful not to dishonour the boys,” said Serene when Elliot explained this, deeply shocked. “The boys are already fighters, which cannot be pleasing to prospective wives, and if they are ruined on top of it who will marry them?”
There was an embarrassed silence in the hush of the woods as they walked along.
“Kind of works differently for humans, again,” said Luke.
“Is human biology so different to elvish, then?” Serene asked with interest.
“Beg pardon?” said Luke.
“Well, elvish women are driven by powerful lusts that men cannot understand,” Serene said in matter-of-fact tones.
“Let’s just leave it at that, shall we!” Luke implored.
“Please go on, Serene, don’t stop, this is very interesting,” said Elliot.
“Once a woman’s passion is roused it can be very difficult for her to stop until the act of love is completed,” said Serene. “Preferably several times over. How can an innocent man understand such desires? As I understand it, men are completely exhausted when they complete the act of love once.”
“Well, not completely!” said Elliot.
“After the first flush of youth,” Serene said sadly, “men are only able to perform the act once a night.”
“Please talk about something else or maybe kill me,” said Luke. “I don’t want to live in this world any more.”
“Thus necessarily, a man must perform attentions upon a woman when he is no longer aroused, which is why for a man such acts are more about feelings of the heart than of other areas,” said Serene. “Else how can a woman be satisfied with just one man? Of course, the elves in the eastern woods have different arrangements…”
“You know what would be amazing?” Luke said. “If we were kidnapped, bound and gagged—the gagged bit is really important—and put to death by brigands like right now. Right now. Brigands!”
He looked around. The woods at night offered the hoot of an owl, and the rustle of leaves in a breeze, but no brigands.
“We’re sharing differing cultural points of view and information,” Elliot remarked. “No need to be such a prude.”
“Come now. It’s natural for a young pure gentleman to be abashed by such discussions,” said Serene. “Forgive me for being so frank with you and putting you to the blush, Luke.”
“I am not blushing!”
Elliot peered in the gloom. “He’s definitely blushing,” he reported to the night air.
“I’m just going to go wander into the undergrowth all alone,” Luke said in a flat voice. “If I’m lucky a warg might eat me. I hope so. Don’t come looking for me.”
“Okay,” said Elliot. “Can I have your cloak before you go get eaten by a warg? I’m freezing.”
Serene undid the clasp of her cloak and handed it over. Elliot accepted it with profuse thanks. Luke selfishly kept his cloak and did not wander off to be eaten by a warg, but nothing in this life was perfect.
They went to sleep snuggled into the roots of a vast tree. Elliot woke up first in the early morning because his teeth were chattering, despite the fact that Luke had donated his cloak in the night. Stupid magic lands, stupid nature, his stupid body and its learned dependence on central heating. Serene and Luke were still sleeping soundly, holding hands, Serene’s long dark hair caught up with the tree roots.
There was a little bird perched on the lowest branch of the tree. It had bright button black eyes and a yellow beak and had tilted its head in an adorable manner. It looked as if it was definitely thinking about covering Serene and Luke with leaves.
“I’m watching you, little bird,” Elliot said darkly. “Don’t even think about it.” He hugged his knees to his chest and waited for the others to wake up.
When the others did wake it was still early morning, but a little brighter, the sky the colour of peach juice with light shining through it. Elliot was so bitter that he could barely remember what Coke tasted like.
First Luke yawned and stretched and rolled away from Serene, then Serene’s eyes opened. Her eyes were clear and she was alert in an instant, whereas Luke had to spend a whole lot of time looking dopey and rubbing his eyes. Elliot nobly refrained from teasing him, but only because Elliot was actually the worst for lying in when not woken by the cruel chill of nature.
“Are we far enough away, do you think,” Serene asked Luke. Nobody asked Elliot’s opinion, Elliot noticed. Far enough away for what? What were they planning to do?
He found out when Serene rummaged in her bag and brought out a horn, made of bone and delicately carved. She blew on it gently and the sound went rushing through the trees as if there were windchimes hanging from every bough.
And in a few moments, sooner than Elliot would have dreamed possible, came the response. Through the trees in a shining cavalcade and a patter of hooves lighter than falling leaves, wheeling and turning in a perfect circle like birds whose flight patterns were guided by sheer instinct into absolute smoothness, came the elves. In the lead was a woman beautiful as the dawn and calm as a lake nobody had ever even breathed on. Her gray eyes widened as she recognized Serene.
“Hail kinswoman, Swift-Arrows-in-the-Chaos-of-Battle!” called Serene.
“Hail kinswoman, Serene-Heart-in-the-Chaos-of-Battle,” Swift returned, and then a smile split her grave sweet face. “… Out in the woods with a couple of boys?” she asked. “Why, you little rogue!”
“Ma’am, it is not at all what you assume,” said Serene. “They’re decent gentlemen, I assure you. Human ways are different, and besides, this is an emergency.”
“That’s what all the young girls say when it comes to dalliances in the woods with trollops,” said one of the other elves, and Elliot gave an indignant squawk.
“Two of them, as well,” said Swift, who had Serene’s fine bones and translucently pale skin, though her braided hair was chestnut, much lighter than Serene’s, and her expression was mischievous. “Certainly your mother’s daughter. Chip off the old wood block.”
“Ma’am, Luke Sunborn is my swordsister,” Serene said severely. “We swore the holy oath, over a tree trunk by moonlight.”
“What, a boy?” said yet another of the elves, the youngest by all appearances with rippling gold hair, and she let out a rippling laugh to match it. “Who ever heard of such a thing?”
Elliot was even more indignant about this evidence that the ritual had been extremely complicated and meaningful than he had been about being called a trollop.
Luke sidled closer to him, and murmured in his ear: “Can you understand them? I do not like the way they are looking at us!”
“Of course I can understand them. What, you don’t even know elvish?” Elliot asked. “Fine swordsister you are.”
“What?” Luke asked, and Elliot snickered. After an exasperated pause, Luke said: “What are they saying?”
“Are you sure you want to know?”
“Quite, quite sure?”
“Well, if you’re really sure,” Elliot said blandly. “That one with the black braid just said you were a pretty, pretty thing and looked like you’d be a fun afternoon.”
Luke went slow, horrified scarlet. Elliot beamed.
“But the undersized one,” said Swift. “I’m not sure of the appeal. With the wild garish hair—carrots, my dear—and the squinty look.”
The blond elf snickered and said a single word.
“Deh’rit,” Luke whispered, triumphantly. “She looked right at you and she said it! What does that mean?”
Elliot thought about lying and saying that it meant ‘totally awesome, very handsome, in a respectful way,’ but he was hoping Luke would submit to elvish lessons very soon and lying was no way to begin teaching him.
“Uh… the closest translation would be that she called me a bluestocking.”
“What does that mean?”
“Um… like, a nerd,” said Elliot, and sighed. “Something along the lines of, someone who always has their nose buried in a book and who nobody wants to marry.”
“Oh,” said Luke, and grinned. “Well, they’re not wrong on all counts, then.”
Elliot ignored him and concentrated on what the elves were saying. Tragically, Serene was still apparently involved in a conversation about whether Elliot and Luke were her wanton floozies.
Swift continued eyeing Elliot in a way he found upsetting and insulting. “He must have a really great personality,” she said at last.
“You know, I really don’t,” said Elliot, impatiently and in elvish.
Swift looked a little rueful about being caught out, but not as embarrassed as Elliot had expected. She was still looking at him as if, after all, Elliot should accept that of course he’d hear comments like that about himself.
The blond elf snickered and said: “Told you he was a bluestocking.” Luke perked up at the one elvish word he now knew. Elliot scowled at everybody.
“Smile, sweetheart,” called the elf with the black braid.
“Uh, I’m a total stranger and my whole family could’ve just died in a unicorn stampede,” said Elliot. “You don’t know. I don’t feel like smiling. What right do you have to tell me to?”
Black braid rolled her eyes and sent her horse turning in a playful little circle. “Might want to get your boy to loosen up, Serene, or how is he ever going to be any—”
At this point, Serene lost her temper and strung her bow. She held an arrow poised to fly at Swift’s face, her hands and her gaze steady.
“They are my comrades,” she said. “I hold their honour as my own. One word more said to defame it, and I will consider that word a challenge.”
The elvish troop stopped grinning and snickering. Elliot was briefly furious that it was Serene’s anger that got them to stop, but then he recalled how Luke could quell the boys at camp when it came to Serene, in a way Serene herself could not. It was an uncomfortable thought and he did not like it, so he reached for the roll of parchment in his bag instead.
“We actually come on a question of honour,” he said. “Unless you’d rather sit around and laugh at young boys all day long.”
Swift’s face hardened. She jumped off her horse in one smooth motion, and came striding through the grass toward them.
Serene did not put her bow down. “First you apologise to my friends.”
Elliot had the sudden crushing realisation that the adults were not going to be adults about this. Human adults had already messed things up by being greedy liars, and now elvish adults were going to be stubborn, and Serene was too good a friend to back down, and Luke did not understand what was going on and would be too direly embarrassed to be helpful if he did.
Being obnoxious was not going to work.
Elliot got out the treaty, and waved it until Swift’s eyes went to it and her attention was on him.
“I’m sorry if I was short with you,” he said, as if the elves hadn’t started it all. “It’s just that I’m so worried about this, and I thought that if we found you, you would know what to do!”
Swift visibly wavered, to Elliot’s secret amazement.
“I only want to do the right thing,” Elliot proceeded, and fixed Swift with a limpid gaze.
“Of course,” said Swift, almost reluctantly. “Poor dear.”
Elliot nodded with conviction, and felt his stupid hair wave about all over the place. “Honour’s so important,” he said wistfully. “I wish I understood this paper better. But I am such a silly thing! I need guidance.”
“What is Elliot saying,” Luke whispered to Serene, “and why does he look so weirdly upset?”
Serene, clever girl and mistress of Elliot’s heart as she was, shushed him.
“Oh,” said Swift. “I suppose we were a bit rough with you. Lot on our minds, you know? Womanly things. I’m sorry about that, little gentleman.”
“Apology accepted,” said Elliot, and tried to smile in a winsome fashion. Serene put away her bow.
Swift glanced from Serene to Elliot, and back again. For a moment Elliot thought it was all over, but Swift grinned a rueful grin, as if Elliot being manipulative was only to be expected and a little charming.
She slung her arms around Elliot’s shoulders. “Don’t you worry your pretty head about a thing,” she said, consolingly. “The women are here to take care of you. How about you sit down with me and explain this piece of paper?”
Elliot sat down on the bank with a beautiful elven warrior in the heat of the afternoon sun, and he explained the treaty as clearly and with as much detail as he could. He reminded himself to bat his eyelashes a couple of times.
The rest of the elves set up camp around them, and the blond elf, Silent-Arrow-in-a-Clash-of-Swords, after asking if Luke fancied making the meal and receiving a polite stare of incomprehension, began to prepare some food.
At one point Elliot forgot himself and told Swift that she was an idiot with no grasp of politics, but Swift rumpled his hair and told him he was a little spitfire.
“I am a rough and simple soldier,” she said eventually. “I follow my clan leader and do not become involved in such intrigues. But I can see well enough that you three have done us a signal service. My thanks to you, Serene-Heart-in-the-Chaos-of-Battle.”
“Oh wow, thanks,” Elliot muttered.
Swift smiled at him. “And to your charming companions as well. Redheads,” she murmured. “I get it now, Serene. He’s a taking little thing, in an odd way. Grows on you.”
“That was maybe my first ever compliment from a lady,” Elliot said. “Thank you for making it absolutely awful. Oh my God.”
Luke and the black-braided elf, whose name turned out to be Rushing-Waters-Bear-Away-our-Enemies, Rush for short, even had a brief spar with short swords. Luke beat her, and for a moment Elliot thought that Luke would now be honorary member of the elf-warriors-club and Elliot was going to be gently condescended to by everyone all evening.
But then Rush winked at Luke and said: “I like a boy with spirit,” and Elliot felt torn between amusement and annoyance that there was apparently nothing you could do that would make you good enough to enter the club.
The most annoying thing, perhaps, was that the elven troop were obviously good people and were kind to them, and yet Elliot felt subtly wrong-footed at every turn. He wondered if this was how Serene felt all the time and he promised himself to bear it as well as she did.
He sat by the campfire, warm in its flickering orange glow, even the dark trees seeming to form a sheltering shell around him. Swift had placed him protectively at her side because she said that some of the younger elves hadn’t seen a boy in weeks and their hands might wander.
Rush and Silent immediately started canoodling with each other, so their hands were wandering but not anywhere near Elliot.
“They’re swordsisters,” said Serene discreetly. “Their warrior bond is very beautiful. Some think that no bond could ever be as strong, no love ever as true, as that between two women who fight side by side.”
“Swordsisters,” was all Elliot managed to get out, in a voice strangled by jealousy. He hadn’t realized that meant—that meant Luke and Serene already—
He looked over at Luke for some confirmation of this on his stupid smug face, but Luke was busy looking away from Rush and Silence with his ears gone red.
“The bond is different for every pair,” said Serene casually.
“You definitely did not mention anything like that to me when we agreed to do it,” said Luke.
Ha! Elliot thought, and rejoiced in Luke’s disappointment.
“There are also simply some women, warriors and not, who can never be tempted by the shining hair and alluring chests of men,” said Serene.
“Sure,” said Elliot. “Guys too. I mean, by women.”
Serene frowned. “Are you sure?”
“Yeah, a guidance counselor gave me a ton of pamphlets over this guy called Simon,” said Elliot. “I’ll show you some.”
“It just seems so unlikely, given that men cannot truly feel the pulse of desi—”
“It’s true,” Luke said, abruptly, “and if you two start talking like you did last night in front of strangers I will put my head in the fire.”
“The pretty blond one may dress like a harlot but I think he is truly a modest gentleman,” remarked Silent, whose name Elliot thought was ironic. “Look at his sweet blushes.”
She shut up about Luke’s blushes when Rush tickled her. Elliot felt pleased by the success of their mission and in charity with everyone, amused by all the stories the elves had about the wild escapades of Serene’s childhood.
“She would’ve gotten away with it too if she hadn’t boasted about it to a pretty little boy who went running to tell his papa,” Rush finished.
“Golden-Hair-Scented-Like-Summer is a judgemental boring goody-two-shoes,” said Serene, flushing.
“I heard Serene tried to kiss him and he slapped her,” said Swift, and burst out laughing.
“THAT DID NOT HAPPEN,” yelped Serene, like any kid teased by her big cousin, and Elliot found himself liking the elves after all. It wasn’t just Swift. They all treated Serene like family. He wanted her to have a home where she was loved and safe and warm.
“Oh you come by it honestly,” said Swift. “Before he met your father, your mother—Sure-Aim-in-the-Chaos-of-Battle,” she added, nodding to Elliot. “She was a devil with the gentlemen. Ruined two gentlemen in the west woods. I heard one of them was married off to a goblin! Of course Sure is settled now. The love of a good man will steady you one day too, you firebrand. Running off and joining the Border camp, of all the mad things to do! Your mother was raving about it for days. But proud too, you could see it. Of course she’d have the wildest daughter in the woods. All the careful fathers had best seal their virtuous sons in the nearest tree!”
Serene crossed her arms over her chest. “I am nothing like my mother.”
“Whoa, you have like, daddy issues about your controlling parent whose fame and exploits inflame your desire to be like him but whose reform and new steady reputation makes you even more rebellious,” Elliot crowed in English. “And all the elven beauties are warned to stay away from you because you’re mad, bad and dangerous to know. You’re a bad boy! Right, and Luke’s the good boy—golden boy, boring, you know the drill. This is such an enlightening night.”
“Maybe you could stop defining us by, like, literary tropez,” said Luke. “Bluestocking.”
“Tropes, oh my God, loser, of course you can’t speak elvish, you can barely speak English. It’s pronounced like tropes, not like St Tropez.”
Luke looked a little frayed around the edges, but Swift provided a distraction by asking Elliot what gods he kept calling on, and Elliot had to try and explain being Jewish but not practising to an elf. He wasn’t sure if Swift understood but while they were talking about cultural differences he asked her if she knew anyone who spoke troll, and she promised to send him a troll-elvish dictionary. All in all, it was a successful day.
Later that night Luke grumpily rolled his blanket over to Elliot’s, and said: “Fine then. Teach me a few words of elvish.”
Elliot grinned triumphantly in the dark. He’d thought the swordsister guilt trip would work.
An alliance with the dwarves and elves followed the surprise discovery of the treaty, extremely cordial on the elves’s side since the dwarves were graciously forgiving their territory faux pas. The only thing to do was for the Border guard to form an alliance with the dwarves themselves.
All the people who had been talking about the low cunning of dwarves were shut up. And Serene managed to be attending her kinswomen at a conference and mentioned that since she, an elf, was training with the Border guard, dwarves should certainly be allowed—or rather, should she say, welcomed there.
After being away for a few weeks on a family trip, Myra came back. She was no longer hiding behind her hair.
“Oh, hey,” said Elliot, stopping and standing by her table at lunch. “You look great.”
He smiled. She didn’t have the beard of the dwarves, but she had a mustache, dark, shining and clearly carefully shaped, and her painted-pink mouth curled beneath it as she smiled back.
He knew a compliment wouldn’t mean as much to girls coming from him.
“Luke!” Elliot commanded. “Tell her she looks great.”
Luke looked at Myra as if he’d never seen her before, and at Elliot as if he wanted answers. Elliot made an impatient gesture.
“Yes…?” said Luke, questing.
Myra beamed and looked so happy that Elliot permitted Luke to seize him by the arm and drag him away without reminding him of the rules about physical force.
“Who was that?” Luke hissed in his ear.
“What do you mean, who was that?” Elliot asked, offended on Myra’s behalf. “That was my friend Myra. She’s in council training with me. She doesn’t look that different!”
“You have a friend called Myra in council training?” Luke said, as if it was news to him. “Since when?”
“For the whole two years I have been in this godforsaken place, Luke!”
Luke looked unconvinced, but at least he was only being self-centred instead of prejudiced against dwarves.
“I wish I could grow a moustache like that,” Elliot said wistfully.
“Probably a bad idea,” said Luke. “You can’t control the hair you’ve got.”
“Besides,” said Serene, joining them, “I know it’s natural and everything, but don’t you think it looks weird if a man has hair anywhere but on his head? I mean, can they not be bothered to put in the time and effort to look good?”
The only problem came when they were all summoned to the commander’s office, and General Lakelost was there, and they were asked how exactly one of them had happened upon the treaty in the first place.
“I found it,” said Luke, and the whole room went silent, either in surprise or in total shock at hearing Luke lie. “In my library at home. The Sunborns have a very extensive library. Then Cadet Schafer and Cadet Chaos-of-Battle realised its full significance.”
The story was extremely plausible, especially since nobody was going to say where the treaty had actually been. And nobody was going to expel a Sunborn.
Commander Rayburn looked beseechingly at the general.
“The Sunborns do have a big library,” the general rumbled out at last, as if weighing the words for believability. “But… why on earth would you be in there reading, lad?”
“Improve my vocabulary, sir,” said Luke.
From the corner of the room where Captain Woodsinger had placed herself, she coughed. “He does read a lot,” she contributed. “In the space allowed him around performing his duties. I have often seen him with his head in a book.”
Elliot stared at Captain Woodsinger. She gazed back, her face impassive.
“Oh, oh, very good,” responded General Lakelost. “Er… commendable.” He lowered his voice to what was essentially still a dull roar, and said: “Is the boy not any good at fighting?”
“He’s excellent, sir,” put in Captain Woodsinger in her quiet voice. “One of our finest.”
“I don’t understand it,” the general announced. He squinted at Elliot. “That child can’t be old enough to be in the camp. He looks about ten.”
“Fourteen, sir,” said Captain Woodsinger. “Undersized, sir.”
Elliot scowled but refrained from comment, since it was for the best to have everyone distracted from issues like ‘technical treason.’
“Besides, it doesn’t really matter, does it?” asked Luke. “We all want peace. Don’t we? Sir?”
They couldn’t say they did not. Not one of them could actually say that.
General Lakelost did stop Luke at the door, put a fatherly hand on his shoulder and say: “Maybe ease up on the reading, lad, all right?”
“All right, sir. I know a lot of long words by now, anyway.”
This was too much. Elliot broke.
“Oh really, you do? Like what? I want you to be somewhat acquainted with the definition of this word,” Elliot demanded.
Luke cast him a sidelong glance. “Provoking,” he said. “And I am pretty well acquainted with the definition of the word.”
Elliot beamed. “Aw.”
Elliot thought it was all settled, that they’d done the thing, and there would be no more talk of skirmishes and battles.
Until the trolls and the harpies, alarmed by all these alliances, made an alliance of their own. The harpies encroached on dwarf territory, and the dwarves called on their new allies.
And it was happening again, as if all they had struggled to accomplish had just been to give themselves an escape route that led around in a circle, right back to where they had been before. Right back to the looming nightmare of war.
Luke and Serene were posted to Lieutenant Louise Sunborn’s troop, the 15th, Luke’s sister’s first command. They were given their marching orders and collected their weapons and bedroll, all the standard military equipment.
Elliot meant to sit and sulk over the pointless waste of it all in his cabin until the very last moment. There was a knock on the door at one point, but he wasn’t done sulking and he ignored it.
He did not make it to the very last moment. When he emerged from the cabin, it was to see the dust of the troops leaving: it was to find Serene and Luke already gone.
Then the reports started to come in: that the trolls had come in far greater force than anyone expected. That the Border guards were hopelessly outnumbered, and the tide of war was turning against them.
Elliot went to pay a call on Captain Whiteleaf, the most senior officer left in charge of the camp.
“Cadet Schafer, what do you need me for?” Captain Whiteleaf said nervously. “I mean, I don’t want a repeat of the—burning incident last year, and the commander has, has warned, I mean prepared me, for all your tricks. Just don’t… just don’t do anything. Go back to class.”
“Why, captain, you wrong me,” said Elliot with the sweet smile he’d used on the elves. It seemed to make Captain Whiteleaf nervous, which would work just as well as charmed. “I thought, as most of the trainees whose duty it is to wait on the officers are off at war, that I would volunteer my services to assist in bringing cool water and snacks to our valiant leaders.”
“Let you in the council rooms?”
“People need drinks and snacks, captain,” Elliot said dulcetly. “It’s a totally normal reason for me to be there. I mean, if you don’t want me to go there…”
“I don’t want you to go there!”
“—for that reason,” Elliot continued. “I can certainly find a different reason to go. I’m very resourceful.” He smiled again, this time less sweetly but very wide. “You’ll see.”
Elliot was allowed bring water and snacks to the officers. He only snatched a dispatch from the general one time.
When he wasn’t in council, he was writing long ardent love letters to Serene, and trying to work his way out of feeling so truly horrible.
He’d thought he might enjoy spending more time with Peter and Myra, but he was in a slightly ruffled condition and during one lunch made Peter go off somewhere, he suspected to cry, and reduced Myra to staring at him with wide stunned eyes.
“Sorry,” he told her, banishing himself from the lunch room for being an unacceptable human being. “I’m in a filthy mood. Sorry.”
He hadn’t even said anything so very bad. Luke would not have been reduced to tears. Everybody needed to work on not being so thin-skinned all the time, he told himself, and went off to deliberately pick a fight with the remains of the trigon team.
He didn’t even realise that was what he was doing, until he spat out another mouthful of malice at Richard Plantgrown.
“Look,” snapped Richard, “you can be as much of a little snot as you want, Luke Sunborn told us if we laid a finger on you while he was gone he’d have our heads.”
“Luke Sunborn needs to learn to mind his own business,” snapped Elliot, and at least the others looked like they agreed with him there. “Besides, who’s going to tell him? Or are you all just such cowards the mere idea of Luke has you quaking in your–”
Richard did hit Elliot in the face then. Very hard. Elliot hit the wall and hot pain and blood bloomed, his own flesh breaking open against his teeth. He spat and this time it was not malice aimed at someone else, but blood hitting the stone. It was still awful.
“Wow, it’s been a while, hello old friend being hit in the face,” Elliot said, putting his tongue out and tasting the blood, feeling his the split and swell of his lip gingerly. “Yep, turns out I still hate pain and think violence is pointless. Sorry, I think I was attempting emotional cathartis, but this is dumb and you people are all stupid.”
“You’re not going to hit me back?”
Elliot blinked. “And prolong this special encounter? No thank you. Oh, but don’t hit me again, I don’t want you to, and besides, how do you know I’m not going to tell Luke? I wouldn’t trust me. I’m a shifty character.”
He took advantage of either their pause for thought or their pause for confusion, and slipped away.
Elliot went to the hallway outside the commander’s office, since the commander was gone with everyone else. Nobody stopped him: it was as if their camp was a ghost town. He went and sat in the dark hall, leaned his hot face against a stone wall and shut his eyes.
The whole world was stupid and now he was stupid, too. He didn’t understand how this could be happening, how they might be dying. He’d fixed everything. He’d done everything right.
Whenever the dispatches came or the next lot of invalids were carted in, Elliot went shoving through to the forefront of the crowd—he had very pointy elbows, which was a natural gift he felt called to utilise to his advantage—and asking if anyone had any word of a supremely beautiful elf in a human troop under Lieutenant Louise Sunborn. Once he was about to make his inquiries, but he heard the name before it passed his own lips.
“Sunborn?” Elliot repeated, a chill going through him. “Luke?”
“No,” said Captain Whiteleaf. “Louise Sunborn, the sister. She’s one of the wounded, being carried into the tent now.”
Elliot turned and ran. He made it to the largest of the brown tents, and stood for a minute just inside the flap plotting a subterfuge to make his way inside.
A grumpy voice, with that Sunborn ring of expecting absolutely to be listened to, rang out. “Will someone bring me Little Red?”
Or the direct approach might work.
“Hi,” said Elliot, darting in and around some medic trying to interfere with him. “You mean me, right? You wanted to see me?”
Louise stared up at him from her little cot, her blond hair tangled and filthy. There was a bandage covering half her face: under the white stretch of cotton Elliot could see an open and darkly gleaming wound.
Louise saw him looking. “Yeah, kid, I’m going to have a big scar. You think nobody’ll marry me now?”
“I don’t think any of them are going to mind,” said Elliot, matter-of-factly. “Mal Wavechaser says that you have the most rocking bod in the Borderland.”
Louise let out a peal of laughter, then put her fingers to her jaw and winced.
“Sorry, sorry!” Elliot said. “I don’t know the force of my own wit.”
“You’re a trip, kid,” Louise informed him. Something about the way she looked at him just then reminded him of her mother Rachel, and he loved her for that alone. “My little brother asked me specially to look in on you. He seemed to think you might be getting into trouble.”
“Me getting into trouble?” Elliot asked. “That is so unfair. I’m the only one not on a battlefield getting pointy weapons of death jabbed at me.”
“Well, he seemed to think you could manage anyway,” Louise said. “Are you being a good boy?”
“Yes,” said Elliot positively. “I have nearly got these treaties worked out. Captain Whiteleaf almost completely messed up a codicil the other day, but I set him right.”
Louise’s eyes were half-lidded, he suspected not with sleepiness but with pain. “Whatever keeps you amused.”
Elliot hesitated. “Are…”
“They’re both okay,” said Louise. She must have seen the mute appeal on his face, because she continued: “The first battle’s never easy, and this is the first battle and the first campaign all rolled into one. But they’re tough kids, and they’ve got each other.” She smiled a tiny bit. “They like your letters. You should write them more.”
“Luke’s been reading my letters?!” Elliot exclaimed.
“Well, we all do,” Louise said. “I mean, they read them out at the campfire.”
“What,” said Elliot.
“No, they’re great,” said Louise. “They really give everyone a boost. They’re hilarious.”
“They are not hilarious. They are touching and private love letters for the eyes of my lady alone,” Elliot told her severely. “They are addressed to Serene! They begin with a greeting to Serene! They are extremely personal!”
“Ah, you’re so much fun,” said Louise. “Write Luke a letter tonight, okay? He’s nervous about taking over command.”
“Ahahaha,” said Elliot. “Now you are the one who is being hilarious, because you did not leave a fourteen year old in command of armed forces.”
Louise hesitated. “You have to understand. They’re doing better than okay. Better than all the grown men I have under my command. I couldn’t have left my men with anyone else. They wouldn’t have followed anyone else, when there was a Sunborn to lead them.”
“Obviously you’re delirious from some sort of medication?” said Elliot. “Or maybe I’m delirious, because you talk and all I can hear is la la la suicide mission la la la your fourteen year old brother!”
“Serene’s there to help him,” said Louise. “I left the command to both of them, really.”
“Serene is, what’s the word I’m searching for here, oh yes, ALSO FOURTEEN.”
“What about you, Little Red?” asked Louise. “Getting tired of fiddling with those treaties? Going to leave it all to the grown-ups?”
Elliot opened his mouth to argue. He knew that Luke and Serene were exceptional, he had been told that and had seen that over and over again. But shouldn’t the adults, if they loved them, if they were responsible for them and cared for them more than for anything else, the way adults were supposed to… shouldn’t they try to stop them saving the day, even if they could do it? Unless Elliot’s father was only the most honest of the adults, and all adults were willing to betray children if offered an incentive.
Surely there had been other soldiers, not as good as Luke but grown, with strength a kid could not have and experience a kid could not have. For a fourteen year old to come to the fore as the obvious leader, others must have made the choice, conscious or not, to step back. Elliot did not know how they could live with letting this happen, letting someone this young be the leader and the sacrifice.
But this was Luke’s sister, Rachel’s daughter. She had led while she could stand. She was a grown-up, but lying there tired with her face bandaged, she did not look so very old. She looked tired, and hurt.
Elliot leaned his chin sulkily on his fist. “I’ll write.”
“That’s a boy,” Louise murmured. “He’ll like that.”
“Do you want me to stay with you? Can I fetch you anything?”
Elliot was thinking of grapes or something, but one of Louise’s eyes popped all the way open. Luke’s eyes, kingfisher blue, but with a wicked expression.
“Yes you can,” she said. “This Mal Wavechaser you mentioned.”
“Uh… what about him?”
“How old is he? And, don’t lie to me Little Red, is he good-looking?”
“Well—yes, one of the best-looking guys at school. And he’s a fifth year, he only stayed behind to be Captain Whiteleaf’s aide de camp,” said Elliot. “So seventeen, I guess?”
“Close enough,” said Louise. “Send him to me. Tell him that a lieutenant with a rocking bod needs her… pillow smoothed.”
Elliot’s mouth fell open.
“Go on!” said Louise. She leaned over to the next cot and stole one of the pillows, ignoring the patient in that cot’s feeble protest, and fired it at Elliot’s head. “I’m an invalid and I need to be cosseted. Besides, Sunborns, we’re a family with great enthusiasm for living, if you know what I’m saying.”
“I don’t,” Elliot lied firmly, and backed away.
“We’re like lions on the prowl,” Louise shouted after him.
“Don’t speak to me like that, I’m an impressionable child!” yelled Elliot.
“Would both of you please stop shouting, this is a place of healing,” said the medic.
“Why, Little Red, when I was fourteen–” Louise shouted, and Elliot did not hear the rest because he had wisely departed, which was to say fled. He admired Louise Sunborn’s style, but she was a grownup and Luke’s sister, and it was too weird.
Mal Wavechaser hunted him down at dinnertime and protested his eternal gratitude, which was extremely embarrassing.
Elliot was already embarrassed about the letters he had written to Serene, which he had not meant to be as hilarious as everyone had apparently found them. He wanted to tell Serene off for reading them aloud and at the same time he was too embarrassed to show he cared, since she hadn’t thought it was important.
And he didn’t want to write something that would make them feel worse. He didn’t want anger to be the last thing he ever wrote to them, and he had no guarantees. Any letter could be the last.
So after dinner, he went and wrote a letter for both of them, full of all the news he could think of. It began: ‘Luke, you miscreant, since apparently you’ve been READING SERENE’S LETTERS…’
In the morning, the dispatches said that Commander Rayburn was dead.
Word after that trickled in agonisingly slowly: word of what had happened, and who had died. Word of Captain Woodsinger seizing the flag before it fell and leading the army: a woman! said General Lakelost, and yet did not dare send orders that she be removed from command in case those orders were not obeyed.
Louise Sunborn’s troop, now Luke’s, had been in the thick of the battle.
Elliot did not sleep for two nights, not until the list of survivors arrived. He was experiencing shooting pains in his legs, which was super fun and so conveniently timed, and he was staying up reading and thinking until he could neither reaad or think any more. Until his mind, the only thing that had never failed him, failed him and he was left lying in his bunk having nightmares with his eyes open.
Of course Elliot was scared sick for Serene, but lonely in the night, at the coldest quietest hour, he had to make certain admissions. He had to admit that he was desperately worried about both of them: he had to admit that Luke was Elliot’s friend.
It was so embarrassing. Luke could never know. Elliot decided that he was just going to be Luke’s friend very sneakily.
So he tried to be terribly nice to Louise. He visited her every day and stayed with her a long time telling her stories about how annoying other people were, despite the shushing the medics did, and he bothered the medics about her care.
“Have you no ways to make her better faster?” Elliot asked. “This is a magical fantasy land. Have you no mystical unguents?”
The medic gave him a flat look. “What.”
“Be straight with me here,” said Elliot. “Do we have aspirin?”
He tried to touch the bottles in the medic’s box and read the labels. “What does that do?”
“Kills you,” she said. “And that one makes you vomit for twelve hours straight.”
“Cool,” said Elliot.
“Not cool, young man,” she said. “No touching.”
“You’re a healer, you should be filled with ineffable goodwill and radiate an aura of peace.”
“Get out of my infirmary,” she said. Elliot decided he liked her, and bestowed a smile on her as he ambled over to Louise.
Louise took the opportunity to thank again Elliot for recommending Mal Wavechaser, and said that Elliot had excellent taste. Elliot had dark visions of being sent to Captain Whiteleaf’s office and scolded for being the world’s youngest procurer.
Louise had fever one night, and Elliot sat with her and held her hand. She called out for her mother, but only once. Rachel Sunborn was such a nice mother: Elliot supposed it made sense to still want her, even if you were grown up.
Elliot also came to Louise in order to vent his frustrations when his fury was clearly scaring Myra and Peter: when the offer for a truce came that made the dwarves happy but which gave nothing to the humans and the elves, and the plan was to summarily reject it as an insult.
Elliot sat with Louise that night still furious, thinking: just say yes, just bring them home. Later when he could not sleep and he was thinking about it as if it was a war in an old book, long fought and which he could regard as a game, he realized that if the elves and the humans were both unhappy the peace would not work. He would not have them given back to him only to be inevitably snatched away.
“It’s a question of the size of the territory!” said Captain Whiteleaf the next day, raging imbecile that he was. “And the honour shown us!”
“Oh, well I don’t think that’s true, is it?” Elliot asked in his sweetest, least argumentative, talking-to-the-elves voice. He poured General Lakelost his water. “Trolls want rock so if they’re ceded something we think of as a barren wasteland, like for instance here—” he gestured pretend-carelessly at a map—“And elves want the woods. So here. Humans want farmland and gold, and if the trolls switch us this little space here where there’s meant to be gold in exchange for the barren wasteland…”
“What about honour?” snapped Captain Whiteleaf.
Elliot gazed, wide-eyed. “I’m sure that’s important too.”
“Indeed, indeed, but forget about it for a second,” said General Lakelost. “What were you saying about gold, lad?”
“My friend Myra’s part of the Diamond clan,” said Elliot. “She seems pretty sure. I mean, I’m not saying she has insider information… Oh dear the jug is empty and you fine officers need to be refreshed. Gotta go refresh!”
He raced away.
The next day Captain Whiteleaf was too ill to come out of his room and take part in the negotiations.
“You did this,” he croaked to Elliot when Elliot went to check this was in fact the case.
“Don’t know what you mean, sir,” Elliot said. “But I’m sure you’ll be better in oh, twelve hours.”
He shut the door and went to bring the general more juice.
“I don’t know what it is, lad,” said Lakelost, ruffling Elliot’s hair—Elliot was pretty sure the general still thought he was ten—“but I think much more clearly you bringing me apple juice.”
“Important to keep refreshed so your mind is at peak performance, sir,” said Elliot, and pushed a treaty he’d selected as a good new model into the general’s hand.
He wasn’t poisoning or drugging General Lakelost. Brandy was medicinal.
In the time it took for the new treaty to be delivered, there came word of another big battle: at the pass in Tharnapyr, trapped between the harpies’ Forest of the Suicides and the trolls’ Roaring Cliffs. Where the 15th were stationed, and no other troop close enough to reach them. When Elliot heard about it, he was sitting with Louise. She had to be strapped down to her bed to stop her from rising, commandeering a horse and riding off to a fight that was already over.
Word came, not slowly as before, but in shouts piling on shouts from every messenger and passerby, like the sound of victory bells. They heard of how the 15th had held the pass, their young leaders never faltering, and how Michael and Rachel Sunborn had led an army of their own people from across country and crushed the trolls’ force from behind.
The name was repeated so often it began to seem like a thousand candles lit one by one and illuminating the night, it began to seem like a hosanna: Sunborn, Sunborn, Sunborn.
Rachel Sunborn did not stay at the pass long. She got a fresh horse and rode for the Border camp and her daughter. She came in laughing and sweaty, dirty and bloodstained, and stood framed in the entryway of the tent. Rain glittered in her golden hair like diamonds.
“Alive?” snapped Elliot and Louise as one, the sound instinctive as crying out when hit.
“The whole family,” said Rachel. “By which of course I also mean that gorgeous elf girl. She stood on the cliffs and fired until we had no arrows left, and every arrow hit a mark. Her kill count is in the hundreds. I’m kidnapping her and adopting her.”
“Only daughter right here,” said Louise.
Rachel strode over to Louise’s bed and began to undo the straps. Louise let Elliot’s hand go.
“I thought you might be pleased to know the new treaty’s getting signed today, little funnyface,” Rachel said over her shoulder. “You like all that kind of thing, don’t you?”
“It was a pretty good treaty,” Elliot said.
He was not heard, but he did not mind. Rachel was sweeping Louise’s hair off her forehead, looking at the stark wound on her face, and Elliot liked watching her until he heard what she was saying and the cold that had been freezing him all night long trickled back into his blood.
“Never mind that you missed out on the last bit of the fun, baby,” Rachel murmured. “There’s always another war.”
Now the treaty was signed and Rachel was with Louise, there was nothing to be done but go to class, so Elliot went because learning was imperative and he worshipped at the temple of knowledge.
“Could you stop looking out the windows, Cadet Schafer, and listen to the question.”
“The Wavechasers discovered the island a hundred and twenty-four years ago,” Elliot snapped. “I read extra materials. And looking upon greenery makes the mind relax and absorb information better. That’s science. Brain science.”
Well, he would worship at the temple of knowledge if the rest of the class would catch up with him and stop being so boring.
The lesson Elliot already knew droned on. The trees shook fistfuls of leaves in the wind like impatient customers waving sheaves of crumpled bills, and the wind whooshed and rustled and carried no other sound.
Until it did. Until Elliot heard, faint and faraway, the sound of an elven horn.
He’d thought he imagined such sounds before, but he saw Myra’s head jerk up. She’d heard it too.
Elliot’s desk and chair went crashing onto the floor, the desk before him and the chair behind.
“Sit back down, Cadet Schafer!”
Elliot considered this, said: “No,” and raced out the door. There was nobody in sight yet, no sign of armies in the fields or over the hills. Elliot went for the woods, which would screen sight, climbing over the rise of a hill as he went around the last few clusters of trees.
He wanted to see them, expected to see them, and was yet not quite prepared for the sight of them, the small band of faraway figures, little more than black dots in the green. Elliot squinted, hand over his eyes to block out the glare of the sun, to make sure it was them: he saw Luke’s hair shining like a helm, and then knew that the figure standing further off from the troop but closer to Luke than anyone else must be Serene.
In another moment he was sure of it, and sure she had seen him. She began to run, faster than any human could, racing elven-fleet across the grass. Elliot ran down the hill toward her, stumbling as he went, lent speed by the slope and not caring if he fell.
He fell into Serene’s arms. She flew at him and he stumbled into her, and her hands held onto the back of his shirt, clutched handfuls of it as if he was trying to get away. He wasn’t. He clung to her, felt her slim and strong and safe against him. He buried his face in the crook of her neck and the sheltering dark veil of her hair. And he heard the sound of Luke’s panting and running footfalls, indrawn hesitant breath and hovering warmth. He grabbed hold of his jerkin and drew him in. Luke’s hand caught Elliot’s arm, and his free arm went around Serene’s waist, and Elliot could hear them all breathing, could almost hear their heartbeats, had proof they were both alive and returned and whole.
Elliot lifted his head and looked into Serene’s eyes. Serene drew in a shaky breath, Elliot knew so as not to cry and be unwomanly, and said: “You’re taller.”
“Am I?” Elliot asked. “I missed you.”
Someone was going to cry, he was fairly sure, but then the war training classes arrived on the scene, every boy and girl who had not been sent to war, all of the younger ones, and they rushed them. Elliot stepped out of the way basically in order to avoid getting trampled down as by wild horses. People were already chanting, the same refrain: “Sunborn, Sunborn!”
“No,” Luke said loudly, and the boys paused in the very act of pulling him onto their shoulders. He offered Serene a hand, courtly as if he was helping her into a carriage. “Serene was with me every step of the way. I did nothing she did not do as well, and better. Serene too.”
Serene took his hand. Boys swarmed around her, too, lifted them both up high into the air. Their shouts seemed to echo off the sky.
Elliot was left to trail behind. As he did, he thought about Luke talking about literary tropes—the fearless hero, the valiant heroine, and where did it all leave him? Sidekick: horrible indignity, Elliot refused to accept it. And the other idea was some sort of lurking, jealous figure: an Iago, a pathetic pseudo-villain waiting in the wings to plot and bring the hero down. He wasn’t going to plot against Luke, who had dumb daffodil hair and said ‘tropez,’ for God’s sake.
Delia Winterchild was trailing with him. Her twin Darius had not come home from war. Elliot looked at her, and was almost ashamed that he was so glad his people had come home safe.
“I’m really sorry,” he said.
“He was a brave soldier,” said Delia, squaring her shoulders as if that gave her some comfort. “And he’s lying in the ground while everyone cheers for the untouchable Sunborns.”
Elliot reached for her hand. She looked surprised, but after a moment she let him. Her hand was chilly in his. They walked back to the camp together.
Elliot didn’t know why he was bothering to think about roles and stories. Any of their stories could end, any of them could stop being a hero and be put in the cold ground at the very next battle. And Rachel Sunborn had said there would always be another one.