The Turn of the Story, Part 3
*peers in around the door* Hello, my sweet blog. I brought you a thing! But first a few other things:
I have made what I truthfully and in all conscience believe may be the least promotional promotional video of all time. 😉 I’m very proud. I hope you’re all proud of me, too.
The salient point, for those not invested in seeing me shame myself, is that if you send me (firstname.lastname@example.org) a photo of yourself with a hardcover or paperback copy of UNTOLD and your address, I will send you a signed bookplate!
A few people have asked me if I would set up a tip jar for Turn of the Story and I am super grateful they asked but always intended it to be a present, so I’m not gonna. However, since I’m talking about the Lynburn Legacy, I did want to say that the US paperback edition of Unspoken is out now. If you’ve been waiting for the paperback, and you think you might like to read Unspoken, I would be very happy if you got it! You do not have to, of course! (I don’t know why I always feel the urge to say this. Y’all know that you can read the story without me appearing before you wearing a hat and waving a revolver going ‘Buy the book or the flowerpot gets it, see?’ ;))
And if you’ve already bought/librarified/borrowed-from-friend Unspoken, sit back and enjoy. Let me fetch you a cool drink. I LOVE YOU AND WANT TO SHOWER YOU WITH GIFTS.
This is not… the whole story of Elliot and Serene and Luke age fourteen. Oh you all know me by now. IT RAN LONG, MORE SOON, I AM A MONSTER!
Elliot had to go home before he could go back to the Border. He spent another week with his father in his chair with his constantly-empty glass, his few friends in this world still on holiday, and his bags already packed.
It wasn’t just because he wanted to go, though he did want to go. His packing was also extremely complex.
It was a long week. Even though the Border camp was a heathen hellhole dedicated to martial law, and even though he was carrying way too much stuff, Elliot felt his shoulders relax under his heavy burdens when he went over the wall and walked until he saw familiar fields, short towers, rough wood cabins and brown and blue tents.
He felt in a good enough mood to wave to some of the students he recognized. Myra and Peter gave him a weird look and a wide berth, but Elliot thought that was more because some of his bags were starting to crackle and pop than that they didn’t like him anymore. His back was starting to feel uncomfortably warm: Elliot hoped it was his muscles being overtaxed, but he twisted his head around to look. Maybe the smoke was rising from a nearby campfire, or something.
He looked back around and then up into Luke’s face.
“Elliot, give me that bag,” said Luke.
“Why are you bothering me, loser?” Elliot demanded imperiously. “Especially when I clearly have everything under control.”
“People can literally see you for miles,” said Luke. “Captain Woodsinger is clearing the area!”
Elliot waved his hand, partially to indicate his airy lack of concern and partially to dissipate the smoke. “I’m not responsible for other people being fussbudgets.”
“You look like a snail that’s about to explode,” Luke said, and made a grab for one of his bags. Elliot gave a pterodactyl screech of protest.
Luke stepped out of range of Elliot’s grab, and studied the bag. It did seem to be melting at the bottom a tiny bit. “What have you got in here?”
“None of your business, loser. You know, you are not the first bully to ever snatch my bag from me, and I think keepaway is a terrible game, so–”
Elliot had noticed that referencing his previous schooldays often made Luke give him his way, but apparently not this time.
“Bet I’m the first bully who snatched your bag that was about to explode,” said Luke, and started to spin the bag by its strap.
“Don’t throw it!” Elliot wailed as Luke whirled it over his head and threw it with all his might.
As soon as the bag hit the ground, it loudly burst into flame.
Elliot winced. “That’d be the microwave. In retrospect, the microwave was a mistake.”
“What’s a microwave?” Luke asked.
“Clearly some kind of volatile explosive weapon,” Serene deduced, strolling up to them and eyeing the small fire in the distance with her usual aplomb. “Elliot, you really must leave handling weapons to the experts.”
After the explosions and everything, it seemed odd to remind Luke that according to the terms of the truce he could now stop hanging around so much. Besides which, sometimes Elliot said stuff when he was annoyed that he later didn’t mean as much as he’d thought he did at the time: Elliot realized the truce was working in his favour. Elliot had no confidence that if Serene had to choose which of them to hang out with, it would definitely be Elliot. And Luke and Serene were both excelling in all their history and geography and mathemetical courses, and if he didn’t watch them they might slip. He supposed he didn’t mind so very much.
Being fourteen wouldn’t be so different from being thirteen, Elliot thought.
It took him less than a week to realise how very wrong he was.
The absolute worst thing about being fourteen was that almost everyone else’s interest in girls had caught fire and caught up with Elliot’s at last, and thus Elliot was no longer the only one actively wooing Serene. Though he did flatter himself that he had got the head start, and made real headway. Plus he was easily the most cunning person in the entire training camp, and had several cunning courtship plans.
He put one of them into action at one of their lunchtimes, when Serene had once more been waylaid by other boys . They were always offering to teach her how to do this or that warlike thing which Serene already did better than them, it made Elliot feel extremely unwell. But Serene was very patient with them. She even seemed to like it.
She was standing near the food buffets with her tray empty and the small discreet elven smile on her face directed toward other men, and Elliot decided he could bear it no longer.
“When Serene gets here,” Elliot informed Luke, “you have to compliment her.”
“What?” asked Luke blankly.
“I’d do it,” said Elliot. “In fact, I’m going to do it, I doubt I can restrain myself, she’s a perfect elven being. But I compliment her all the time, it doesn’t have the same impact coming from me.”
“What?” asked Luke, even more blankly.
“Do you want her to leave us,” Elliot asked. “Is that what you want?”
“What?” said Luke. The blankness was now inscribed, as on a white page with red pen: ‘What horrifying thing are you saying, Elliot, what are you trying to imply?’
“What if she wants to sit at someone else’s lunch table?” Elliot asked. “Some other table where she receives the adulation that is her due. If I am deprived of my only love and have nothing to do but stare at your stupid face, I’ll stop eating and probably go into a decline.”
“Serene’s not going to leave us,” said Luke. “She and I are swordbrothers. Well, you know what I mean. We swore an oath on a blade and shared blood. It’s a warrior thing. You wouldn’t understand.”
Elliot understood enough to feel hurt and left out, so he said: “Please do not discuss swapping bodily fluids with Serene in public, she is a lady! And ladies need to be wooed with soft words.”
Luke made a face. “I’m not randomly complimenting Serene. That’s weird.”
“It isn’t weird, it’s an ingenious scheme in which I thought outside the box and decided that the devilish competition I know and can keep an eye on is better than the devilish competition I don’t. Why are you being so difficult, Luke? I know you like Serene so what is the problem with verbally expressing your appreciation? Why are you upsetting me?”
“Why are you upsetting me?”
“Why would flawless logic upset you, Luke, that makes no sense. If you don’t want to do this simple thing for me, I don’t think I want to eat my extra pudding anymore.”
“Fine,” said Luke. “I don’t want you to keep taking my pudding anyway. I never said you could. I like pudding.”
Elliot was Boy Scout levels of prepared to argue the matter further, but just then Serene arrived with her lunch tray, arrayed with the usual elvegetarian fare of lettuce, various vegetables and flowers, plus her own pudding because Serene had been corrupted by their disgusting human ways.
“Hello, flower in the garden of my heart and nightlight of my soul,” said Elliot.
“Elliot, Luke,” said Serene.
Elliot was pleased: he privately kept track of when Serene said Elliot’s name first. But then Serene chose to sit on Luke’s side of the table, which cancelled out the names and left them at a draw.
“Hi Serene,” said Luke.
Elliot coughed and ostentatiously pushed away Luke’s pudding.
Luke rolled his eyes, and frowned. “Serene. Your, um, dagger work was seriously exceptional today.”
“Why, thank you, Luke,” said Serene, gracing him with a small smile. She and Luke fist-bumped: Elliot supposed it was a swordbrothers thing.
“Really, daggers? Really? You are useless. You are entirely without use,” Elliot announced, but since Serene seemed satisfied with Luke’s pathetic effort and he believed even pathetic efforts should be met with rewards to encourage improvement, he deigned to reach over and draw the pudding back to his side of the table.
Their advanced age meant they were accorded certain privileges, like access to the lake which had been out of bounds for thirteen year olds. Elliot wanted to ask if fourteen year olds were really all that more likely to drown than thirteen year olds, but Luke and Serene had urged him not to do so.
Apparently they liked the lake.
Elliot did not like the lake.
He would have liked a different lake, full of shadows and with leaves hanging above the water and whispering secrets to each other. This lake was crowded with people, and they were barely wearing any clothes and celebrating their discovery of hormones.
The first Saturday they were allowed to go down to the lake, Serene was immediately separated from them and surrounded by a crowd of boys clamoring to get to be the one who taught her how to swim. Apparently the elven way was more about floating and communing with the spirits.
Serene laughed and held court to indulge the forward human boys. Elliot sniffed and skulked off to secure himself a sunbed (sunbeds in this backward land were basically old wooden bedframes, but beggars could not be choosers) in the shade. He had cleverly chosen a large, long and fascinating-looking book about mermaid customs, and planned to be wrapped up in it all day. He had been saving it for just such an occasion.
The way girls did their flirting was different. They seemed to want to gather in groups, not around a lone boy like the boys crowded around Serene (like lions around an antelope that had been cut off from the rest of the herd, Elliot thought bitterly). The herd of girls looked at the boys, selected one, looked at him and discussed him. And the boys didn’t quite dare approach the whole group of girls, so they formed their own group and then the two groups were in a stand-off that involved a lot of casual hair-tossing and muscle-flexing.
Presumably rebels from both sides would break away and unite at some stage. Elliot’s plan was to do his reading.
None of the girls were whispering or staring at him: stupid war training had given most of the other guys a lot more to flex, and even the few other guys in council training did not have the short and ginger and prickly like the unholy offspring of a hedgehog and a cactus stuff to contend with. And Elliot’s heart was pledged to Serene forever, anyway, so he didn’t care. But he still wasn’t taking his shirt off so the girls could actually make flexing comparisons.
Luke, of course, was the clear winner in the who-the-girls-were-staring-at Olympics.
“He’s always lovely to me when we talk, but he never stays. If I could just get him to stick around,” sighed Adara Cornripe, who was golden of skin and hair and considered the prettiest girl in the training camp, though Elliot considered that gave him his fifty-second piece of proof that people were blind, stupid and prejudiced against elves.
Elliot was suddenly struck by another cunning plan.
“I find that telling him to go away helps with that,” Elliot offered. “He is very contrary.”
Adara stared at him. “Who asked you?”
“You were speaking quite loudly, and I’m a yard away,” said Elliot. “If you wanted to keep your conversation a secret, may I suggest whispering about it on some lonely midnight? And if you wanted me to politely pretend about anything, I’m sorry, have you met me? But suit yourself. I’m sure tossing your hair as if you’re a pony being bothered by flies will work eventually.”
Adara made a face at him, but looked thoughtful. Elliot had noted already that she wasn’t stupid, or he wouldn’t have spoken up at all.
When Luke left Dale Wavechaser and the rest of the admiring posse of war training guys (Elliot thought of them as a kind of armed Greek chorus), Adara straightened up on her sun bed, threw her hair back, and called out with sultry daring: “Go away, Luke!”
Luke’s eyebrows hit his forehead, backed up, accelerated and then hit his forehead again. “Ooookay,” he said, and carefully skirted around, giving Adara the widest berth possible and also some serious side eye, until he reached Elliot.
“Aren’t you coming in?”
“Don’t bother me now, loser, I have a very serious and important question to ask Adara,” said Elliot. “Now Adara, you said that, and it actually worked. How did you do it? Was it like this: Go away, Luke? Or was it more like this: go away, Luke?”
Adara shot him a look fit to kill.
Luke lowered his voice. “Maybe you shouldn’t talk to her? I have no idea what I did to upset her. She seems a bit touchy.”
Which was Luke speak for ‘she seems weird and mean.’
“Also kind of weird and mean,” Luke continued, speaking even lower and keeping a wary gaze on Adara.
Adara was hiding behind a curtain of golden hair. This was obviously not the way she’d been hoping to get Luke’s attention.
“I just want to know where the stress should lie,” said Elliot. “Like, extra scorn on his name, or extra force behind the ‘go’? I wish only to learn. Teach me your ways, master.”
“Come on,” said Luke, and reached for his arm.
“No!” said Elliot, and batted him away. “We’ve discussed this, Luke. No using your superior physical strength unless it’s an emergency. This dumb lake is not an emergency.”
“Can’t you swim?” Luke asked. “I’ll teach you.”
“Of course I can swim!” Elliot snapped. His father had made sure he had many lessons so he would not be underfoot all the time: Elliot could swim, ballroom dance, speak French and Italian, and play three musical instruments. He was way more accomplished than Luke.
“I can’t swim,” Adara put in. Elliot admired her tenacity.
“See, Luke?” he said. “Your expertise is needed. You go teach Adara to swim. I will sit here and read my book. Everybody’s happy.”
“Everybody?” Luke asked. “Really?”
“You don’t count.”
That came out a little meaner than Elliot had intended it to be, so he looked up and checked on how Luke was taking it. Luke didn’t look upset exactly, but he was frowning, face slightly troubled under his sunny wet hair.
“Why do you look like an unhappy turtle?” he asked.
The problem was that Luke wasn’t stupid either. Elliot didn’t see why Luke couldn’t do him a favour and be distracted by the blonde Elliot had thoughtfully provided.
“Are you dripping on my book deliberately?” Elliot demanded. “That is just like you.”
Elliot hunched protectively further into the neck of his dumb dress-slash-shirt, and looked yearningly over at Serene and her knot of admirers. She laughed, her laugh like the ripple through leaves, and called over to them.
“What do you think, Luke?” Oh pardon Elliot, she wasn’t calling over to them at all, but to her swordbrother. “Would I like swimming?”
“Give it a try,” Luke called back, grinning.
He could have literally any girl he wanted. Adara was right there and Elliot had specially selected her as an excellent option. Why did it have to be Serene? Elliot glanced over at Adara, and she looked like she completely agreed. He felt some fellow feeling for the poor girl. Awful taste in guys, of course, he thought, but the heart wants what it wants.
“I shall,” said Serene, laughing again, and then she stretched like a young thin birch tree swayed by a wind, pulled her tight leather top over her head and tossed it on the ground, leaving her smooth pale skin entirely bare from the waist up.
There was an echoing silence all around the lakeside suddenly, jaws dropped in such perfect unison Elliot thought they made a tiny collective creaking sound.
It was broken by Luke snapping: “You dropped your book.”
He ran from Elliot’s side then and was with Serene in two strides. He knocked two boys away, flat on their backs in the grass, while Serene was still looking mildly puzzled.
Elliot scrambled off his sunbed and got there at the same time as Mal Wavechaser, Dale’s cousin and one of the older boys who was on supervisory duty and who ran to them from the other side of the pool. So when Mal insisted that Serene was going to Commander Rayburn’s, they were both there to insist they were going too.
“You can’t say she was in a scandalous state of undress and punish her for it when she was in the exact same state of undress as more than half the people there,” Elliot shouted.
Commander Rayburn was looking fixedly at the carpet and not at Serene. Captain Woodsinger, who had come upon their procession as they headed for the commander’s cabin, had insisted on accompanying them as the highest ranked woman in the camp. She was looking at Serene, though very deliberately at her face.
“I am mystified by everyone’s behaviour!” Serene exclaimed. “My breasts are not so large as to need supporting garments, so why should I wear anything on my upper half? Don’t worry,” she added. “I’m not self-conscious about the size of my bosom at this time. I am still very young and I will develop further. Besides which, I do not subscribe to the superstition that says the larger a woman’s breasts, the greater her courage on the battlefield and prowess in the bedchamber.”
She saw everyone’s startled looks.
“I beg your pardon,” she said. “Obviously that is an elven superstition, and besides which you are, in the main, men. You do not have any masculine attributes that could be compared to other men’s: it would be ridiculous if you did, since you could have only the most miniscule difference between one man’s attribute and the other.”
“What do you mean by miniscule?” burst out Commander Rayburn, and at Captain Woodsinger’s sharp look he said: “Ahem. No. Sorry, sorry. Totally inappropriate question for a student. But I’ll have you know young lady, those rumours aren’t true.”
“I don’t understand,” said Serene.
“You know, she makes a good point,” Elliot said. “Generally and without specifically thinking of anybody in particular at all.”
“Is there some kind of taboo against seeing a woman’s breasts in human culture?” asked Serene. “But breasts are functional. They feed children. Whereas I know many men cultivate their shoulder and abdominal muscles merely to attract the opposite sex. Their chests are the ones that are more decorative and which it is less modest to display!”
“You know, she’s making another good point,” said Elliot.
“Both of you stop,” Luke urged, his arms now as tight around his chest as Serene’s were about hers. “The commander is just going to think you’re crazy.”
“Sing it, cadet,” Commander Rayburn muttered. “Sing it loud.” Captain Woodsinger coughed and he looked guiltily at her. “Don’t let this happen again,” he said. “Your job is not to question orders but to obey, and we have already permitted Cadet Chaos-of-Battle enormous liberties in her studies.”
“I strongly object on principle,” said Elliot, and Luke elbowed him viciously.
Elliot understood why, even: the threat that they could take back last year’s leniency and force Serene to choose between war and council training was fairly obvious. But these people were meant to guide them and teach them, were meant to be fair and not show obvious double standards because it was easier to do that than to question what they were thinking and change how they behaved.
“If you do not obey, there will be consequences. There should be consequences for your behaviour today, but—” Commander Raeburn again caught Captain Woodsinger’s eye. “—I’m prepared to be lenient this once,” he finished feebly.
“I will obey,” said Serene, pale and determined.
“Yeah,” said Luke, just as determined. “We’ll obey. None of us will go down to the lake again, and none of us will appear in a—in a scandalous state of undress again.”
“That’s right!” Elliot exclaimed. “We’ll have a lake boycott.”
They did not seem to care about the lake boycott. They sent them out, and once they were out Serene stopped abruptly in the dark outside Commander Raeburn’s cabin, and sat down on a dank grassy hillock. Elliot sat down beside her, and Luke sat on her other side. Luke put his arm around her, and Elliot rested his cheek against her naked back.
“The way,” Serene said, after a pause, her voice fierce so it would not shake, “they looked at me. As if my skin was sin, and theirs never could be, and I should have known.”
“They’re jerks,” said Luke.
“I’m sorry,” Elliot whispered.
He meant more than sorry for the others: he meant sorry for himself as well. He’d looked, too. Stared, for an instant forgetting who she was and what she meant to him. He’d been a jerk as well, and Serene was so unhappy.
“Told you the lake sucked,” Elliot muttered, and Serene laughed a small broken laugh.
“It’s the eppy tomb of suck,” Luke said.
There was a pause. “The what?” Elliot asked.
“The eppy tomb,” said Luke. “I read it in a book. It means, like the very definition of—”
“I know what it means,” said Elliot. “And it’s pronounced epitome.”
“Leave it out,” Serene said. “I know you men must squabble, but not right now, okay?”
“Yeah,” Elliot sighed, oddly comfortable even though he was sitting out on the grass at night, already chilly, and still angry. “Okay.”
They all sat together in the cool darkness of the night, silent for a little while. Serene’s hair blew into Elliot’s eyes, black ribbons against a black sky.
“I realize this is hypocritical and I do apologise. I have been struggling against it and trying to keep my composure as a lady should,” Serene said at last. “But I am in an emotional state and I must admit I do find myself somewhat uncomfortable in such close proximity to an unclothed gentleman.”
“Yeah, Luke, you shameless hussy,” said Elliot, and cackled.
They did not go down to the lake again. Instead on their days off they spent near the fields by the camp. Sometimes Luke and Serene wanted to do weapons practise or a sport, and Elliot sat in the grass and read a book. Sometimes Luke made Elliot do exercise, which was simply bullying and he should be reported. Sometimes Elliot told stories or read aloud or sang to them, and sometimes they lay in the long grass and got into vicious arguments about the shape of clouds. Nobody ever took their shirt off, by silent mutual agreement. The others would come back from the lake wet and flushed and happy. Elliot wasn’t the least bit jealous, but he wondered if Serene and Luke were.
Fourteen wasn’t horrible, but it was more complicated, and sometimes that felt like the same thing.
Naturally the authorities, in their infinite wisdom, had decided that now they were all tiny pressure cookers of hormones it meant they were ‘ready to become men.’ Or in Serene’s and Adara’s and Delia Winterchild’s and the other girls’ case, women.
The way to do that was apparently more military manuevers and weapons training, with a view to taking the second years on their ‘first skirmish’ soon. You know, Elliot said loudly and often, just a mini battle. So all the fourteen year olds could be just a tiny bit killed.
The first step was a foray to mining land which the Border humans hoped to find gold, and which the Border guard thus had to claim as human territory. A troop of those in warrior training was sent, but since Serene was going Elliot petitioned to be allowed to go as well. Elliot presumed he was permitted to go because he had made such a powerful and inarguable case for himself, though he also heard Commander Rayburn mutter ‘the brat will just stow away again or do something other awful thing, why not just let him go and shut him up. Can nobody shut him up!’
So the trip started off pretty well and went dramatically downhill, or rather uphill, from there. The first day, they climbed a mountain. The plan was to then go down a mountain and go up another mountain, and then repeat the process. On the second day when Elliot was on watch, he left Luke sleeping as a hilarious prank to enliven the mountainous monotony, and laughed and laughed when they saw Luke’s furious face peering over at them from the mountain path miles above them.
Then Luke narrowed his eyes against the sunlight, and jumped. The moment in which he was outlined against the blue sky, making an impossible leap, burned itself into Elliot’s vision even when he shut his eyes in horror.
He opened his eyes to see Luke landed, safe and sound and with Dale Wavechaser clapping him on the back.
“Oh my God,” said Elliot, and sat down abruptly on a rock with his head in his hands. “Oh my God, your whole life just flashed before my eyes. Blond annoying smugness, weapons, weapons, annoying smugness, little kiddy weapons, right back until you were a fat smug baby. Oh my God.”
Luke cleared his throat and gave Elliot a brief pat between the shoulderblades. “I’m okay.”
“I don’t care!” said Elliot. “I care about gravity and how it doesn’t work that way! Does nobody else care about gravity? Why isn’t your leg broken? Why aren’t both your legs broken?”
“Sorry to disappoint you,” Luke said dryly.
“I’ve seen Luke jump from many similar heights before,” said Serene. Elliot thought he might actually have a heart attack. “Is that an abnormal ability for humans?”
“Yes, you heedless elven wretch!” Elliot exclaimed. “No, Serene. Forgive me, Serene, I didn’t mean that, I’m overwrought. But seriously are none of the rest of you the least bit concerned? Do you think people can defy gravity through, like, being awesome? Do you not know that’s ridiculous?”
Elliot kept demanding answers until the entire troop, apparently all finding the subject of Luke defying the actual laws of nature very dull, demanded he switch conversational topics.
“The dwarves say that this area is both barren for mining purposes and get this, structurally unstable,” said Elliot obligingly. “Isn’t that amazing? I’m so glad we’re going on this life-threatening field trip.”
“Nobody asked you to come,” muttered Darius Winterchild, Delia’s twin.
“Nobody asked you to breathe out IQ-lowering air in my vicinity,” said Elliot, and glared at him until he went away.
“Yeah,” Luke said, ignoring this byplay. “But come on, you can’t always trust dwarves.”
Elliot gave him a look of withering scorn. Luke, used to it at this point, did not seem unduly affected.
“You’re from the human world and maybe you don’t know,” he said. “But they’re—I mean, some of them are nice, obviously, I’ve met some very nice dwarves, but there’s a tendency to be a bit cunning? My dad says so.”
“It’s true,” said Captain Briarwind, who was really young for a captain, a bit spotty, and had a distressing tendency to look heroworshipfully at Luke. “They’re a low and cunning folk.” He did not seem to be making a pun. “They’d lie, cheat and steal for gold.”
One of Elliot’s friends from the council training course, Myra, had dwarf blood.
“Don’t either of you talk to me,” said Elliot, and stormed off.
Serene went with him. “The dwarves were our allies once before humans were,” she remarked. “And perchance will be so again. Moreover, I have observed that humans speak of elves in a similar fashion.”
“Perchance they’re total idiots,” said Elliot. “Well, at least this is a fool’s mission.”
“Not necessarily,” said Serene. “Trolls often occupy the territories dwarves have deserted. They eat sediment, you see.” She reached back and gave her bow a slow, disturbing caress. “I think there is an excellent chance of a good fight.”
“I’m sure trolls are also lovely and misunderstood,” said Elliot, and started violently when the rushes to the non-cliff-edge side of the mountain path rustled. “Luke!”
The rushes parted to reveal that their opponent was very small, but definitely not a dwarf.
“Oh dear, a child,” said Serene, moving backward with more alacrity than elven grace. “Could someone fetch a man to see to it?”
The group stared at her, as one.
“In elven society caring for the children is considered a task for the menfolk,” said Elliot, sighing and wondering why nobody else ever bothered to read a book.
“Of course it is,” said Serene. “The woman goes through the physically taxing and bloody experience of childbirth. A woman’s experience of blood and pain is, naturally, what makes womenkind particularly suited for the battlefield. Whereas men are the softer sex, squeamish about blood in the main. I know it’s the same for human men, Luke was extremely disinclined to discuss my first experience of menarche.”
Luke stared ferociously into the middle distance, obviously trying to visualise himself somewhere else, having an entirely different conversation. Serene patted him on the back.
“Perfectly all right, I should have had more respect for your delicate masculine sensibilities.”
“… Thank you,” said Luke, sounding very far away.
“What, you people expect women to tear apart their bodies and then go to all the bother of raising the children? That takes years, you know,” Serene remarked sternly. “The women’s labour is brief and agonising, and the man’s is long and arduous. This seems only just. What on earth are men contributing to their children’s lives in the human world? Why would any human woman agree to have a child?”
“The more she talks the more sense it all makes,” said Elliot. “Has anyone else discovered that?”
“No,” said several of the cadets in unison.
Elliot wanted to please Serene, so he looked to the child. Her hair was sticking up in tufts, and her face was stained with the juice of berries. She seemed altogether a sticky proposition. Elliot was not accustomed to the company of any children younger than himself, but he’d read that you were supposed to praise them and pat them on the head.
“Well done for not eating any poisonous berries,” he said, gingerly patting. “Unless they were slow-acting poison, of course.”
The child opened her mouth and gave an earsplitting howl. Elliot snatched his hand back and jumped away.
“Elliot,” said Luke. “You’re not supposed to pat children on the face and ear.”
“I refuse to obey your cruelly restrictive rules of behaviour!”
Luke knelt down and whispered in the child’s ear, then smoothed her hair back from her sticky face and did something where he pretended to produce a dandelion from her ear. She beamed at him and he smoothed her hair again.
“There,” he said. “You’re safe now. I’m Luke. You’re safe with us. Let’s go find your people.”
Serene looked significantly from Luke to the the others. “You see,” she mouthed.
Elliot turned away with a loud sound of irritation. He was feeling exceedingly uncomfortable. This realization had come to him a time or three before, but the sight of Luke comforting a lost lonely child made it hard to push away: that Luke actually was good and noble and kind and honest and true, that he was obviously a better and wiser choice for Serene, and that he would never bully anyone.
He should probably say something nice to Luke once in a while. And right, absolutely, he would. The very next thing he said would be something nice. He could say something nice any time he liked.
“You may take the child in charge for now, as long as it isn’t for too long. If we still have her by nightfall we will have to make different arrangements. A Sunborn is a bit too valuable to waste on babysitting, ha ha,” said Captain Briarwind.
“Cadet Chaos-of-Battle and Cadet Schafer will help me, sir,” said Luke.
“Ahahaha, wait just a minute,” said Serene.
“Speak for yourself, you big traitor,” Elliot hissed.
“May I say, it’s an honour to have Michael Sunborn’s son in my troop,” Captain Briarwind continued.
To one side, Elliot could see Dale Wavechaser nodding earnestly.
Luke ducked his head and said, “Thanks.”
No, Elliot decided, on the other hand it was probably good for Luke to see how the other ninety-nine non-worshipped percentage of the population lived. Besides, he had other things on his mind as they resumed the march.
“A moment, I wish to speak to Luke in private,” Elliot said hastily to Serene, and fell back to the end of the procession, where Luke was walking with the child’s hand in his.
Elliot automatically came to the child’s other side, as he and Luke always walked with Serene in the centre. She lifted up her other hand for Elliot to take, which Elliot supposed was forbearing of her considering the patting incident. Elliot accepted her hand. It was, as he had feared, very sticky.
“Luke, Luke,” Elliot said urgently. “Will you look after mine and Serene’s children? I’m starting to have some real worries about Jasper and Smooth-Skin-Like-Finest-Porcelain’s wellbeing.”
“You’ve named your children,” said Luke, with extreme and offensive skepticism.
“Yes, one elven name and one human name, I wish to be fair.”
“You’ve named them Smooth Jazz?”
“Look, apparently I’ll be raising them, let me have my fun,” Elliot snapped. He had known about men’s place in the home in elven culture, but it had not really sunk in until this moment and he was feeling agitated. He was pleased, however, to see that his many lectures on the subject of human music had been attended to. “I’m sure I will get the hang of it, but for the first while I might need some assistance. Will you do it or won’t you?”
“I might if they’re like Serene,” said Luke. “Not if they’re like you.” He grinned. “I’m not dealing with five-year-old you. You’re a brat.”
“I’m a delight,” said Elliot, and when Serene hove into view he appealed to her. “Serene!” said Elliot. “Do you think I’m a brat?”
“You’re a bit of a minx,” said Serene. “But in an insouciantly charming way, I think.”
Elliot was so pleased by this tribute he did not realize when Serene summoned Luke to see about some instability or other that meant Elliot was, so to speak, left holding the baby.
Elliot swore and then said, “No I didn’t mean that. Don’t tell Luke I said that.”
The child eyed him. He felt she had a mistrusting gaze, the gaze of someone who would definitely rat him out to Luke at the first possible opportunity.
“Couldn’t we establish a bond in some way?” Elliot asked. “Can I bribe you?”
“Back, Schafer!” snapped Dale, and hearing that tone from normally good-natured Dale, Elliot’s eyes snapped to the front of the line. The cadets had their weapons out: someone had seen some sign of a troll, then.
Elliot stepped back and felt the child’s hand slip out of his. He looked for her and saw she was edging away, further and further, as if his alarm had been communicated to her through their linked hands. Except she was now at the very edge of the path, and Elliot saw pieces of earth falling away at her heels.
“Careful!” Elliot said, and realized he had spoken far too sharply. The child stumbled back another step, and Elliot saw the ground beneath her crumbling.
Elliot looked toward the others for Serene, for Luke, for help, but they were marching on and no-one else was close enough to get here, and so Elliot swore again and dived for the child.
He meant to knock her away, knock her back to somewhere safe, but he couldn’t even manage that. Instead as the ground fell sickeningly out from under them, Elliot curled around her, trying to protect her head, as rocks and earth and both of them went flying. Elliot heard someone shouting his name, and was briefly annoyed—how was that going to help?—before everything went dark.
He woke up to a small finger poking him in the forehead. He moved, and a shooting pain went up his arm.
“Ow, I think my arm’s broken,” said Elliot. “Ow ow ow, the pain is excruciating, I hate stupid military camp, ow.” He remembered what Serene or Luke would have thought of first, and said belatedly: “Are you damaged, small child?”
“I’m not hurted,” said the child.
“Oh great, you can talk, that’s excellent!”
“Of course I can talk,” she sniffed. “I’m almost six!”
“Is that a normal age for people to talk at?” Elliot said. “I didn’t know. I think I was talking at that age, but to be honest with you, I’m extremely advanced, and I got on the talking train fast because I was in a hurry to reach cutting repartee station.”
The child was silent.
“Um,” Elliot added. “Don’t—don’t worry. The other people in our group are highly trained experts in tracking and using pointed objects, and they will find and protect us.”
“Will the pretty one come?” asked the child.
“Undoubtedly!” said Elliot. “I’m glad you noticed her. She’s called Serene and she is the most beautiful creature I ever beheld. She has ebony hair and porcelain skin, as I’m sure you observed. She is also an elf and they have excellent eyesight and can track people by a single blade of crushed grass, and she is the best with a bow in the whole camp, including the teachers.”
“The boy,” the child said, after a pause.
“Oh,” said Elliot. “Luke. Well, he’s okay too, I guess.”
He didn’t want to crush a child’s dreams.
“He looks like a prince,” she continued, wistfully.
“I guess,” said Elliot. “The monarchy are historically inbred.”
The child was silent again. Elliot was sure he was getting this very wrong.
“Luke will come,” he assured her, after a moment. “I know he will. He always comes and he always protects people. He won’t stop until you’re safe.”
There was a little content hum in answer, and Elliot felt slightly better. He sat up, in the darkness and the sliding shale, and was relieved to find that he could sit up. He stood up, swaying with the pain of his arm and the necessity of keeping hold of the child, and found he could do that, too.
“According to my memory of the maps of the mines, we should emerge somewhere if we keep heading south,” he said. “Don’t worry, small child. I am extensively acquainted with the geography of this area. Can you walk with me?”
He had hold of her sleeve. She tugged it away and after a moment, he felt her hand creep into his.
“How did your hand get even stickier in a rock fall?” Elliot asked. “Never mind, I don’t mean to criticise, it’s just a habit of mine.”
They walked, for what seemed like a long while, through the dark holes. Elliot kept being afraid more rocks would fall, or they would be met with a rock face or a space so small they would not be able to continue. He kept talking, despite his fears about oxygen, and tried not to show the fear that was choking him.
Instead of narrowing, the tunnel opened, light shining and rays reaching out to them, as if the sun was fixed directly onto the mountain like a badge. Elliot and the child stumbled out into it. The light still seemed bright, even when they were out of the mines. The green world below the mountain wavered in Elliot’s vision like a dream.
“Awesome,” said Elliot. “See, we didn’t need anyone at all. We’re safe as houses.”
That was when he saw the party of trolls coming up the mountain track toward them. They were big, seven feet tall, bigger than even Luke’s dad, and their skin was gray. Elliot saw the leader’s head jerk up, and he knew they had spotted him.
“Safe as houses that are currently on fire,” he amended to the child. “Run!”
He ran, and she ran with him, but the trolls picked up speed in response and Elliot knew they would catch up with him, soon, and did not know what to do. He forced the child, sobbing and stumbling, out in front of him so at least his body would be between her and them.
He glanced over his shoulder to see if they were gaining, and saw the first one fall.
He had an arrow in his throat.
Elliot stared and saw, so far ahead on the curving path that it was on another mountain entirely, a black fleck that must be Serene. He saw it moving toward him, faster than humans could move, and saw another troll fall. He knew she was running and firing arrows and never missing, all at the same time, all from so far away.
She shot every troll but one, and that troll thundered toward them, his shadow falling on them, and Elliot knew the creature was so close to them Serene might be afraid to shoot.
That one troll might as well have been all five of them. He could crush them just as easily. Elliot pressed the child against the crag, pressed himself against her so hard he heard her cry out in protest. He reached up a hand, and he said: “Stop, we’re no threat, she’s a local child,” and saw the troll frown, an expression of incomprehension on that unfamiliar face, and Elliot thought, if he could just figure out some way to talk to him—
But then the troll raised his club, big as a tree, and the next moment Luke jumped, made one of his impossible leaps from an impossible point high above them, and landed crouched before the troll with his sword already drawn. The blade blazed in the sunlight, and so did his hair, and the child behind Elliot gave a glad cry as if recognizing a prince come to save her.
Luke caught the troll by surprise. He rushed at him, and ran him through. Through the belly, and then when the troll fell to his knees he wrenched the blade out of his belly and drove the point home to his heart. The troll crumpled forward, a dead weight, and tumbled into the dust.
Luke pulled his sword free, leaned his face and his free arm against the rock, and was suddenly sick.
Elliot realised, after a stunned instant, that though Luke was past master at any number of instruments of death… he didn’t think that Luke had ever actually killed anyone before.
That was how all Luke could do, all he was celebrated and adored for, ended up: these dead bodies in the dry path before them.
Elliot grabbed the child’s hand, tightly as Luke was gripping the hilt of his sword, and went over to where Luke stood braced against the wall. He leaned against Luke, rested his cheek against Luke’s arm. He could feel Luke shaking.
“You saved her,” he said. “You did it. The child’s safe. They didn’t hurt her, because of you.” It probably didn’t matter much in comparison, but he figured it couldn’t hurt to add: “I’m safe too. You did everything you could.”
Luke took a deep shuddering breath. “Yeah?”
Elliot took a step back, and nodded nervously and so vigorously his hair tumbled in his face, a blinding red tangle, and he had to shake it out. By the time he had Luke was smiling faintly—Luke thought Elliot’s total inability to deal with his hair was really funny, which Elliot resented usually but was grateful for this once—and swiped a hand over his eyes. Elliot decided they would have a manly understanding that he’d never seen the tears gleaming in Luke’s eyes and would thus never have to discuss them.
“C’mon,” said Elliot. “Let’s go find Serene.”
Half of the troop had gone looking for Elliot and the child, and the other had found the nearest neighbouring village that would supply healing and shelter. Serene sat with him while the village medic bound up Elliot’s arm.
“Luke’s outside,” Serene said in a low voice. “Might you want to go out and say something to him? He’s a bit torn up.” She looked off into the distance. “Your first one’s the worst. It gets easier after that.”
Does it get easier, Elliot thought, looking at her still pale face, or is it just that you shut doors in your own heart, and never open them again for fear of what is behind them?
Serene had killed for him, too. Serene was a child soldier, created in the same way Luke had been. The only difference was that Serene had killed before she ever met Elliot, had been damaged like that before he ever saw her. He remembered thinking that the grave, older air she had was beautiful, was something elvish and wonderful, and felt sick of himself. He wanted nothing more than to lift the sadness forever and see her smile, uncomplicated and happy, the child she should still be.
“Was someone with you for your first?” he asked.
Serene nodded. “My mother. She said—she said she was proud of me, and that I was brave.”
“Hey, you are brave,” said Elliot, at last. “And I’m proud of you, too. Always. Thanks for saving me.”
“Any time,” said Serene. He thought she might have liked to smile, but found herself not able to do so. “Always.”
Elliot wanted to ask Serene to go out there, she’d obviously be better at comforting Luke and be the one he wanted to see, but he understood that he was the least hurt of the three of them, even if he did have a broken arm. He stood up, and stood looking for a moment at her profile like that of a marble bust, all set perfect lines, and her gray eyes fixed on a private vision. He swept her dark hair off her face with his good hand, kissed her brow, and walked away. It wasn’t how he’d wanted their first kiss to go, but it had weirdly seemed like the right thing to do.
He walked outside, and found Luke sitting on a low wall outside the tent, his bright head bowed. He looked up at Elliot’s approach, and a faint ray of light touched his face.
“Hey, it’s you,” he said. “Are you—doing all right?”
“Fine,” said Elliot. “They say I’ll play the piano again. Well, they didn’t, they didn’t know what a piano was, but I’m going to be fine anyway.”
“That’s good,” said Luke.
“How about you?” asked Elliot.
“Oh, you know me,” said Luke. “Great. Always great. Why wouldn’t I be?”
“Sure,” said Elliot. “Absolutely, you should be. I’m certain it seemed like there was nothing else to do at the time.”
Luke’s face changed. “Seemed like?”
“Well, ideally we would have been able to reason with the trolls, and there would have been no bloodshed,” said Elliot, sinkingly conscious that he was saying the exact wrong thing but not sure what else to say, now they were talking about this.
“Oh, yeah?” Luke demanded. “You think you’re so smart. Did it seem to you that those, those creatures were going to listen to reason?”
“Well, I mean, maybe,” said Elliot. “We’re never going to know now, are we?”
Luke was white under his tan. “Are you serious? I know what you think of me,” he said. “You’re always very clear on the subject. But is this really the time to have a go at me?”
“That came out wrong,” said Elliot. “Obviously, there were extenuating circumstances, there was the child—”
“You know what, Elliot?” Luke demanded. “Could you shut up for once in your life, and leave me alone?”
He pushed himself off the wall, and shoved past Elliot, fairly hard, on his injured side. Elliot went and leaned against the wall until the jolted pain in his arm subsided, and by then Luke was long gone.
The village, which the child belonged to—her name turned out to be Aysha, and then everyone asked silly questions like ‘you were trapped with her in a rockslide and never even found out her name?’—had a party, to celebrate Luke saving one of their daughters. People made speeches and clapped, and the popularity of the Border guard received a significant boost.
Elliot mainly sat in the corner and sulked over his broken arm. Eventually Serene and Luke came to sit with him, and they were all pretty quiet together.
The incident with the trolls was, they were told, not a skirmish but an encounter. However, the Border camp leaders assured them that there would soon be a real skirmish. It was discovered by the Border camp, interesting itself in all affairs of justice, that the dwarves were occupying several mines on land that was rightfully the property of the elves. The elves, a territorial people, were outraged once informed and shown the documentation proving their ownership. The skirmish was on. The guards and the cadets from warrior training were set to ride out in the space of three sundowns.
Elliot supposed you could tell the difference between a skirmish and an encounter by counting the number of corpses. Apparently nobody but him thought it was at all suspicious that as soon as the abandoned mines proved to be useless, this conflict between the elves and the dwarves had arisen. He bet some of the land would be granted to the Border humans by the elves, as thanks for their aid in battle.
This meant the official neutrality and private distrust had now become open enmity. Myra took to wearing her hair loose, hiding behind it like a veil, and slinking around the classrooms as if expecting to be hit.
Elliot might at this point have slightly broken into Commander Rayburn’s office and found a large file of deeds and treaties that he confiscated and took with him to the library, where he sat studying them and trying to project an air of innocence, which worked until Serene came to drag him out to Luke’s next Trigon game.
“I have no time to bother with Luke’s stupid game,” said Elliot.
“Sure, all right, we’re going anyway,” said Serene, who was the most wonderful girl in the world but sometimes did not listen. She went over to grab Elliot’s arm, and as she did her eye fell on the papers. “Elliot,” she asked after a moment’s pause, her voice heavy with foreboding. “What are these, and where did you get them?”
“Ahhh…” said Elliot, reluctant to incriminate himself, and then stuffed the document he had been staring at for ten minutes in her hands.
The treaty which sealed the alliance between the elves and the dwarves, in which the dwarves pledged treasure and the elves pledged land. The very land which the elves were now claiming was theirs.
Everybody had seen the deed that proved the elves had originally owned the land. Nobody had seen this treaty.
“My people believe the land rightfully belongs to them,” said Serene. “They would go to war for nothing less. We live longer than humans: a word given hundreds of years ago was often given by an elf still living. We will not break any word, once given. This war would bring us dishonour.”
“Yeah I kind of figured,” said Elliot.
“Perhaps this treaty was overlooked by mischance.”
“Yeeeeeeah,” Elliot said. “Perchance. Would you bet your honour on it?”
“I would not,” Serene replied at last. “Would you go fetch Luke?”
“Why can’t you go fetch Luke?”
“I’d rather someone found me with the documents than you,” said Serene, and smiled a wolfish smile. “They can’t take them from me. Well, they’d be welcome to try. You get Luke.”
“Okay,” said Elliot. He got up and dashed for the trigon pitch, hoping against hope that Luke had been knocked out early.
Of course Elliot could never be that lucky. The trigon game was in full swing, the stands full, and Luke still playing. Elliot had to dodge several interfering people in order to make his way onto the pitch.
“Uh, you’re not meant to be here…” said Dale Wavechaser. “Uh, maybe you could wish Luke luck after the game, or something…?”
Elliot waved him away.
“Only we’re really close to winning…” Dale said, and his voice was faintly pleading. “Against the fifth years.”
“That’s nice for you,” Elliot remarked. “Also disappointing for you in a minute, I suppose.” He whistled. “Oi, Luke!”
Luke looked around, smiled to show his appreciation for the support and gestured for Elliot to get off the pitch. Elliot shook his head vehemently to indicate that he was not supporting at all, and beckoned. Luke looked upset and shook his head. Elliot nodded insistently, beckoned again, and walked off.
He heard the chorus of groans and booing as he left the pitch, suspected he was going to be even less popular from now on, and was not terribly surprised when Luke caught up with him outside the pitch, breathing hard and disgustingly sweaty.
Elliot wrinkled his nose and pushed at Luke’s shoulder. “Please stand further away from me.”
“This had better be important,” said Luke. “Do you have any idea how embarrassing it is to let down the whole team, in front of everybody, because you whistled and beckoned? I’m not your dog.”
Elliot suspected the whole camp would blame him and still love Luke, so he didn’t see what Luke’s problem was.
“And yet you came,” he said. “Come on, Serene’s waiting in the library. It actually is important.”
“The library,” said Luke, and sighed. “Wonderful.”
He stopped complaining when they got to the library and Serene showed him the treaty.
Luke did not even suggest that the commander might have missed seeing the treaty, and they should point it out to him and trust the matter would be settled. Maybe the commander had missed it, but they couldn’t be sure.
They had to go to someone who had something to lose.
Luckily, Serene had a plan.
“I’ve been thinking since you were gone. We need to get quickly to someone who will believe us. One of my kinswomen is in a troop to the far north of this wood.”
Elliot met her calm gaze, glanced at Luke, saw them glance at each other, and they all reached an accord.
“Then it’s settled,” said Elliot. “We go to the elves.”