The Turn of The Story, Part 5
I know, my lovebirds, all I do is shower you in words this week! It is SARAH WORDS WEEK. I hope you will enjoy this and not feel pinned, as if under a giant fallen wardrobe of words. I wanted to finish up Being Fourteen for you while it was still Untold Week. Being fifteen will happen, but not for a little bit.
I hope you enjoy this, and Untold, and all Sarah words.
The feast went on for a long time. Elliot had a place near the centre of the action, which he hadn’t asked for and didn’t want, and so he had to hear all the battle stories, over and over. There were songs and toasts but worst of all were the stories. The one where Serene stood at the top of a cliff and Luke at the bottom, bow and sword at the ready, until their troop stopped their retreat, was the worst. Serene proudly showed a notch in one of her beautiful ears and someone had one of Luke’s old shirts, with a tear and blood on it, which they waved like a flag.
“Aren’t you proud?” asked Dale Wavechaser at one point, and everybody looked at Elliot.
He understood that Luke and Serene were both very good at using weaponry, this had been made very clear to him, but he didn’t really see what there was to be so impressed with about that.
Elliot made a face, and said finally, weakly: “Doesn’t really have anything to do with me.”
Which wasn’t great, but wasn’t ‘No, not proud at all, and also if anyone tells another of these stories I think I might be sick.’
“And then the treaty was signed and all our brave boys and girls could come home!” thundered General Lakelost, distracting people. Elliot was grateful. Captain Woodsinger, now Commander, had to get up and take a bow, and Elliot clapped along with everyone else.
“Did you get a chance to see the treaty?” he asked Serene, leaning over to her under the cover of the noise.
“Oh, well, no…” said Serene. “Not yet.”
“Uh, she’ll get around to it,” Luke said, his eyebrows raised. “She has a bit more important things to think of right now.”
“More important than the terms of the treaty that got the other side to agree to peace?” Elliot asked.
“But of course they would have signed no matter what, after the beating we gave them,” Luke said, casting an approving eye around, and his scattered troop preened at his praise.
“Oh, of course,” said Elliot. “Because the astonishing fact that some people got killed in a battle would definitely have stopped everyone in their tracks.”
“Elliot,” said Serene. “I will of course be most interested to hear about such matters another time, but you have to be aware all of us almost died.”
The hall was much more quiet than Elliot would have liked. Elliot felt like everyone was paying attention, weighing him in the balance, and finding him absurdly unworthy.
“I am,” said Elliot. “Very.”
“Treaties are important, just—”
“Just not as important,” said Elliot, quietly.
The General reached across the table and tugged at Serene’s sleeve. Serene made an apologetic face at Elliot and turned to him. Elliot didn’t even know why he was surprised. Serene had always been a little more inclined to war than council, though brilliant at both: he just hadn’t wanted to see it. Now she had been away at the wars, and knew viscerally that war was a matter of life or death. Now she was closer to Luke than she had ever been before: it was easy to see, even in the way they both reached for their cups in tandem. He didn’t know why he had expected Serene to be on his side.
He got up from the table murmuring about the privy, abstracted a book and Swift’s letter from one of his many book hiding places, and went back to his cabin. Everyone was at the feast so he wouldn’t have to deal with the annoying people he was forced to sleep with, and he could read properly. Swift was an oddly excellent correspondent and Elliot had to figure out where the next war would break out and how to stop it.
Clearly, he had forgotten that his days of occasionally not having to deal with annoying people were over. He’d only just settled down on a pillow on the floor beside his bed, and begun reading Swift’s latest list of common troll phrases when Luke came in the door.
Elliot thought of several things to say, including “I see we need a refresher course in how to knock” and “It was so lovely and peaceful when you were gone,” but he didn’t particularly want to be accused of callous indifference to heroes who had almost died again. He said nothing.
“Are you not coming back?” Luke asked. Elliot made a noncommittal gesture. “I know that parties aren’t much fun,” Luke went on. “But it’s a tribute to bravery and sacrifice.”
Obviously Luke was very proud of all his bravery and sacrifice and enjoying being showered in glory. Elliot failed to see why he had to participate, but he didn’t say so.
“This is just like you,” said Luke. “Are you seriously going off here to sulk over nobody wanting to talk about your dumb treaty? I know you think violence is a stupid last resort but it was our only resort, and we did well. And you might not want to hear about anything we did, but other people do. People died and you should show a little respect. And shut up about how unnecessary and useless war is for one night.”
“I hope you’re enjoying your fight with Imaginary Elliot,” said Elliot. “Because I haven’t said a word since you came in.”
“Well, why are you being so quiet?”
“I can’t believe you just asked me that question. Are you aware that nobody in the history of time has ever asked me that question?” Elliot demanded. “Has it struck you that you are being a little hard to please right now, loser?”
“What,” said Luke, and suddenly looked confused. “Are you trying?”
Elliot had to admit that probably, from the outside, leaving a party early in a huff and then administering the silent treatment did not seem like he was trying especially hard. He considered Luke, whose shining security in the world and his own happiness meant Elliot had always assumed he was pleased enough. He looked a little older than when Elliot had seen him last, and a lot more tired.
“I am a bit,” Elliot said eventually. “I’m glad you’re both not dead and I don’t want to fight.”
“Oh,” said Luke. “Okay.”
That seemed to be that. Luke stopped his righteous looming and came to sit on Elliot’s bed.
“What are you doing, then? Who’s the letter from?”
“Serene’s cousin Swift,” said Elliot. “She’s teaching me troll.”
“You’re penpals with Serene’s cousin?”
“She’s a very nice lady and she says she gets lonely out on patrol, on the long cold nights.” Elliot stopped and frowned. “Actually now I say that out loud it sounds like something I should report to my chaperone. But I don’t have a chaperone and besides I’m really getting a handle on troll vocabulary.”
“So you haven’t changed, then,” said Luke, who was sort of drooping with tiredness like a sad dandelion.
“I’ve been told I’m taller.”
“Still kind of titchy,” observed Luke, which was offensive, and then put his head down on the pillow.
“Get up and go back to your celebration, you lump,” said Elliot.
The one eye Elliot could see rolled. “I thought you were trying to be nice.”
Elliot gave up on being nice. “Ugh, you’re the worst, leave and never come back.”
Luke fell asleep instead. After about six minutes, there came a knock.
“Who is that rapping on my chamber door,” Elliot murmured to himself. “What elf could it be? And when shall I read my letter? Nevermore. Come in, Serene!”
She came in, looking a little abashed to be in a gentleman’s bedchamber.
“Sorry I’m late,” she said, and came to sit on the bed. “I had to stop and have a look at a treaty.”
Elliot almost hated himself for being so pathetic, but knew he was glowing just the same. “Yeah?”
“It’s pretty good,” Serene told him, in her measured way. “I love the bit about the trolls cooperating on farming in the south fields in exchange for help with mining equipment.”
Elliot shrugged modestly instead of saying ‘Oh baby, talk treaties to me.’ “Well.”
“How’d you do it?” asked Serene, lying down next to Luke, who stirred and slid his arm around her, with what even Elliot could tell was the ease of familiarity and long loving habit.
“I poisoned Captain Whiteleaf,” Elliot announced proudly.
Luke opened his one visible eye. “No,” he said. “No poisoning captains. ’M drawing a line.”
“I poisoned him and I got the general super drunk,” Elliot boasted in a rush.
“That was very enterprising,” said beautiful Serene, who always understood him, or at least understood him better than anyone else. She shut her eyes.
“Okay, no, guys, now I’m drawing a line,” said Elliot. “This is my bed. I have boundaries. I have a personal bubble. Get off. Go away. I’m serious.”
They lay curled around each other like two leaves in the forest, and about as responsive to demands. Elliot looked at them, so comfortable and close, and felt a jealous pang that wanted to turn to fury or despair. He’d always known where this situation would wind up, he supposed, if he was honest with himself. He knew how life worked. He could call Luke a loser as often as he wanted, but that didn’t make it true.
Elliot sighed and opened his book. It had a map on it that he wanted to refer to.
After he memorised the map, he looked back at them, legs tangled, their slow breathing in sync. Luke was filthy, Elliot noted disapprovingly, and even Serene looked slightly disarranged. Elves did not seem to get as smudgy as humans. They did not look like heroes but like sleepy, dirty children. Elliot felt like a little kid himself, confused and helpless, not able to deal with the world at all. Their heads were leaning together on his pillow, the gold and the dark, ruffled and mingling. Elliot felt like he should maybe smooth them or something.
There was a noise at the threshold. Elliot snatched his hand back. Rachel Sunborn stood at the door. She was in jewels with her hair neatly braided, and looked as magnificent as she had battle-stained in the rain.
“Hi there,” she said. “I was wondering where you’d all got to.”
“I’m here,” Elliot told her, perhaps unnecessarily. “They stole my bed. They have perfectly good beds of their own.”
Rachel seemed unmoved by her son’s thieving ways. “Little rascals, all tuckered out.” She strolled . “And what are you up to?”
“I’ve decided to put an end to all war,” Elliot announced.
Rachel blinked. “That might take a while.”
“I know, I probably won’t be done by the time we’re out of school,” said Elliot. “That’s why I figured I should get started right away.”
Rachel threw back her head and laughed. “That’s good thinking. Well, me and my man and Lou have to get going. There’s clean-up to be done.” Elliot understood that by ‘clean-up’ she meant more killing, and not cleaning up at all. But she leaned over him in the candlelight, and looked at him so kindly. “Tell my boy to take care of himself. See you this summer, funny face?”
“I don’t know,” Elliot said awkwardly.
Rachel tweaked his nose and departed. “See you there.”
As the door banged shut behind her, Elliot glanced to the others, wondering if the noise had woken them. He saw Luke had his eyes open, watching the door. There was a certain expression on his face which made Elliot remember that he must have watched his mother leave to go somewhere dangerous, hundreds of times.
“You can come if you want,” Luke said. “We’re having a big thing. I mean, whatever.”
“Yeah,” Elliot said. “Okay.”
“Okay,” murmured Luke. He sighed and turned his face into the pillow, covered with Serene’s dark hair. He burrowed against her and she said something indistinct with Luke’s name in it, and they both fell back asleep.
Elliot felt a little Iagoish, but mainly he was so terribly glad they were alive. And the school year was almost over, with so much work left to be done. He turned back to his books.
Elliot was meant to go to Luke’s in late summer, so he could go straight back to camp with the others. That meant a lot of time with his father. He tried to call the kids up the street, Tom and Susan, but they were off backpacking with their friends through the countryside. He left a message saying he’d join them, if they thought that would be fun, but he didn’t expect a call back. He started hanging out a lot at an old music shop called Joe’s, run by Joe himself, a grizzled old guy who talked a lot about his nephew who might come to visit him soon and played Elliot vinyl records. He was clearly as lonely as Elliot was.
Elliot bought a lot of old radios, even ones that played tape decks, which he thought were hilarious and quaint. He went searching the shops and found a cracked camera that filtered out real paper photos with a whirring sound a little while after you’d taken them. He’d noticed it was the most modern stuff that did worst at the Border. His heart cried out for a proper phone, but the situation called for experimentation.
He came home late from the record shop one day, and almost collided with his father going to bed. His father looked at him. He seemed very mildly startled, as if at a near-stranger whose existence he had forgotten, encountered unexpectedly in the street.
“Getting quite tall, aren’t you,” he said, with a faint note of accusation.
Elliot was used to seeing his father in his chair, but it was true he hadn’t been able to see how fluffy and thin his father’s hair was getting from this vantage point before. He held onto his tape deck and tried to smile.
“I suppose,” he said. His father slipped softly and silently by him, like a ghost whose haunting of this house had been only briefly disturbed.
He was so glad when the time came to go. He left a note on the table for his father rather than say goodbye to him, and he climbed the steps to the wall lightly, even though he was somewhat laden down.
The sun was shining on the other side of the wall. Only one of Elliot’s bags went on fire, and he disposed of it behind a tree because it seemed bad guest behaviour to bring a lovely fire for the whole family to share. There was a distressing smell of melting plastic, but Elliot elected to ignore it.
The wood was like a green net of light, leaves capturing the sunshine and leaving it to blanket the grass. One of Luke’s dogs, Culaine, came racing through the sunny dust toward him.
Elliot knelt down and fondled his ears. “Hey,” he said. “Do you remember me?”
Culaine tried to lick his face, which seemed very familiar and indicated to Elliot that he did.
“I think you must be unusually intelligent for a canine,” Elliot observed. “Who’s unusually intelligent for a canine? Is it you? Yes you are!”
He patted his head a final time and stood up, looking around a bit warily to see if anyone had seen him being silly with a dumb animal. But there was nobody there, and Culaine danced at his heels all the way to the Sunborn tower.
He pushed open the door to the hall, then wandered into the kitchen, and almost tripped over Rachel Sunborn lying prone on the floor.
“Oh my God!” said Elliot.
Rachel opened her eyes a slit. “Aw, welcome,” she said. “I was just catching a quick nap on the floor. There’s so much work on with the whole trial.”
“Trial?” asked Elliot.
“Luke didn’t tell you?”
“He said there was a—” Elliot made a gesture with the tape deck, which was excitingly and totally intact. “Big thing. It wasn’t illuminating.”
“Strong silent type, my lad,” said Rachel. “Well, don’t worry about it, you don’t have to participate. I just have to set up some obstacle courses and hang some bunting and so on.”
“Have you been doing it all morning?” Elliot asked, appalled.
“Well, no, to tell you the truth I had breakfast and then got a bit overcome by the thought of all the work to be done and had a kip in the sun instead,” Rachel said. “If I went outside Michael might find me and make me do something. Put down your things, kiddo, and give me a kiss.”
Elliot put down some of his bags on the big tabletop and knelt down, then gave her a quick kiss on the cheek, near her pink-painted mouth. She smelled like grass and perfume. He hesitated as he did it—he’d never kissed a mother-type person before, and he wasn’t certain that she wasn’t making a joke, that she didn’t really mean him to—but she didn’t seem to be joking. She patted his hair with her heavily ringed hand, and he hoped she had not felt him tremble.
“What have you got there, lad?”
“Oh,” Elliot said, scrambling to his feet. “You’ll like it, I promise. It’s a tape deck. I brought tapes for it. I brought some Beatles and Joe says the Sex Pistols are really good too.”
Rachel laughed. “Love the name.”
Elliot selected a tape at random and put it in the tape recorder. “I super apologise if there is a fire,” he said, and pressed play.
Tinny and small, the music began to play, singing an urge to dance. Rachel sat up on the floor, hugging her knees to her chest. “Oh, look at that, it’s a minstrel in a box.”
“Yes, exactly!” Elliot said enthusiastically, and then looked up at a sound in the hall to see Cavall bounding in, Serene and Luke clattering in after him, looking rumpled and sun-warm. Elliot beamed and beckoned to them. “Guys,” he called. “Come see.”
They came in, both grinning, though Serene looked slightly worried.
“Why is the box telling us to dance?” she asked, and came over to give him a hug. Elliot was stunned to find he was actually slightly taller than she was. “Is it a command we must obey, or a geas?”
“Yes,” Elliot decided, and grabbed her hands. A certain amount of scuffling followed. “Why are you trying to lead?”
Serene stared at him. “Why are you?”
“Fair enough,” Elliot decided, and let Serene take charge, her steps guiding his.
Serene frowned, her face very close to his and sweetly concerned. “Do you want a turn?”
Elliot rubbed his nose against hers. “I don’t mind, as long as I’m dancing with you.”
“I admit I’m rather an expert, my name can be found on every boy’s dance card back home,” said Serene, and instantly Elliot knocked into Luke, who was hovering. Luke tried to save them both and ended up tripping over his mother, and then everyone was on the floor but Serene, who leaned somewhat smugly against the wooden counter. “Elves have a certain natural grace,” she added.
Elliot glanced at Luke, who nodded, and Elliot held up three fingers, then folded them quickly down one by one, counting down until the moment each of them grabbed one of her legs and brought her crashing to the ground.
Everyone was laughing by then.
“Do you hear it,” said Elliot. “Isn’t it great? I am bringing technology to the Border. Next step, the Industrial Revolution.”
“I wish you would not start a revolution,” Luke contributed.
“Don’t tell me what to do, loser, I’m going to and it’s going to be awesome,” said Elliot firmly.
“When the revolution comes,” Luke said, “I am still not going to wear the funny clothes from the weird world.”
They all looked at Elliot’s clothes.
Elliot glanced down at his Pink Floyd T-shirt and jeans. “I am wearing totally normal clothes. Plus my t-shirt is cool and retro.”
“Luke’s right, it is a little provocative,” said Serene. “Not that I wish to question or shame you. You should wear whatever clothing you feel most comfortable in. Being comfortable in yourself is the best way to be attractive to others.”
“Firstly: thank you, you’re as wise as you are totally gorgeous. Secondly: I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: I will not be lectured on my fashion choices by a pair of fetish gear enthusiasts.” Elliot added to the severity of this proclamation by pulling Luke’s hair. Luke batted his hand gently away.
“You’re in a good mood,” he said, smiling.
“I love revolution,” said Elliot, instead of saying embarrassing like that he was happy to be there.
Then Elliot grabbed the kitchen counter and levered himself upright so he could fiddle with the tape deck and start the song again.
He put out a hand to help Serene up, saw Luke and Serene both reach for the hand, reconsidered and reached past them to lift Rachel to her feet. Rachel grabbed his hand, laughing, and dipped Elliot with a look over at Serene as if to check she was doing it the elven way. Elliot laughed and laughed, and spun her when she let him up, and then they both shimmied at each other, circling each other with their palms up before they linked hands again. Sunshine painted them all in warm strokes, the song told them that fantasy could never be so giving, and Elliot sang along. Luke and Serene were leaning and tapping time against the kitchen counters.
Culaine barked once, a quick warning, and Elliot looked over to see Adam and Neal Sunborn at the door, watching them. He stopped dead, letting Rachel’s hand slip from his.
“Oh hey, boys,” said Rachel casually, and beckoned them in.
“Hi Aunt Rachel,” said Neal, coming over to kiss her while all the time undressing Serene busily with the corners of his eyes, sly as a vicar feeling up a choir mistress in church. “Wow Serene, you look amazing.”
Simple fact. Neal could mention it if he felt he must. Elliot knew that Serene was used to the admiration of men and it would not affect her feelings. Besides which, he was slightly distracted by Adam Sunborn. Adam was still standing in the doorway, looking at Elliot. Elliot made a face at him: he was not going to put up being teased about his Pink Floyd t-shirt by awful Adam.
“Hey,” said Adam, and grinned. “You’re never little Elliot.”
“Have you tipped too many kids out of trees to be able to remember them all properly?” Elliot inquired, and withdrew to the counter as Adam advanced.
“What’s that?” said Rachel, her head turning sharply.
Elliot glanced at Luke. Elliot loved tattling on people. He thought it was amazing fun, and if people were dumb enough to put Elliot in a position where he could get them into trouble by opening his mouth, they deserved what they got. The code of not telling tales was the usual stuff where stronger people tried to impose their rules on weaker people so they could get away with everything. But Luke really believed in it, and this was his house, his mother, his cousins. Elliot had promised himself that he was going to be nice to Luke now Luke was his friend.
“Haha,” said Elliot, unconvincingly. “Just a boyish lark, or whatever.”
“Yeah, I didn’t mean anything by it, and no harm done, right?” Adam asked. He had crept up on Elliot somehow: Elliot hated all people with warrior training. “Wow, you’ve changed.”
“I haven’t,” Elliot said flatly. “Just taller. Still extremely annoying.”
Adam laughed as if Elliot was making a joke, as if Elliot wanted to joke around with awful Adam. “I like your shirt.”
“Oh, that’s mature and intelligent,” said Elliot.
Mocking someone’s clothes in front of a mother. Well, it was about what Elliot expected of those two.
Fortunately Luke’s dad came in, and Adam and Neal had to follow him around like terriers yapping for a bigger dog’s approval, while Michael’s actual son gave him a nod which Michael returned because they seemed to have a silent understanding. Elliot had possibly heard them exchange two words ever, but he was pretty confident that Michael would drop Adam and Neal in vats of boiling oil rather than let anyone harm a hair of Luke’s head, so he figured Michael’s priorities were in order. Louise came in with her dad and said “Little Red, you got so big!” and Elliot had to attend to the important business of showing her the tape deck.
After dinner Elliot sat in a window seat away from the main gathering on the cushioned chairs in the parlor. Louise and her dad were telling a war story, while Neal whispered sweet nothings to Serene and she looked amused by how terribly forward he was being.
Adam offered to fetch Elliot a drink, as if Elliot had not got wise to the whole spitting in a drink and handing it to someone when he was five. Elliot called in reinforcements and beckoned Luke over.
“Come sit,” he ordered. “Protect me from your cousin.”
“He’s not exactly fearsome,” said Luke, but he sat willingly enough, and kicked up his legs, boots propped against the other side of the frame, so his whole body formed a barrier between Elliot and possible Sunborn cousin incursions.
“Why are they here again?” Elliot asked.
“They have to be here, for the thing,” said Luke.
“Strangely, your wildly unspecific words convey no information to me.”
“Oh, it’s like a trial?” said Luke. “For Sunborns? It’s a family thing. We have obstacle courses and tourneys, and there’s banners, and afterwards there’s a big celebration.”
“Ugh,” said Elliot.
“I know, parties,” Luke commiserated.
“I more meant all the physical exertion,” said Elliot. “But your mum says I don’t have to participate.”
“No, you can’t,” said Luke. “It’s for Sunborns. Also, no offence, you’d be killed.”
“No offence taken, I don’t want to participate in your horrible sounding family rituals. I also think it’s creepy that your family has private bonding rituals with bunting.”
“Calling my family rituals creepy is a bit offensive.”
Elliot waved a hand dismissively. “Well, I’m sad your cousins are here. Your cousins are the worst.”
“They’re not the best,” said Luke, which Elliot decided meant he agreed and he hated them too. “What are you reading?”
“A troll history written by one of their pre-eminent scholars. Did you know that trolls are naturally a very peaceful people?”
Luke found this difficult to believe, and had some purely anecdotal story of a troll trying to pull his head off and seemed to believe that proved something. Elliot disagreed vehemently.
“You are wrong and stupid and wrong about everything,” Elliot said. “Someone save me from this conversation.”
“Hi,” said Adam.
“Do you mind?” said Luke.
“Get lost,” Elliot told him.
“Oh, hey, reading again?” asked Adam, as if a) he knew Elliot at all, b) it was a funny hobby like compulsively making papier-mache rabbits and c) Adam was being indulgent about it. “What’s the book?”
Elliot smiled at him charmingly. “Oh, it’s a great book, it’s called ‘None Of Your Business’ by ‘I’m Not Going To Tell You.’”
“This is a private conversation,” Luke added.
Elliot tapped Luke approvingly on the knee with his ballpoint pen. (Elliot refused to use quills like everyone else because he found them inefficient and personally upsetting.) “What,” he said, as Adam finally backed off, “is wrong with that guy?”
Adam was a real problem. Neal was also dreadful, but at least didn’t bother Elliot directly. He seemed to be invested in staring at Serene with his mouth open. Because Serene was sadly susceptible to flattery from pretty boys and did not wish to be discourteous or hurt fragile male hearts, she permitted him to waylay her and ply her with compliments all the time. Adam, in contrast, was constantly underfoot. Elliot supposed Adam was lonely but did not see why that had to be his problem.
His attempts to make Adam Luke’s problem instead were only partially successful, on account of Luke was a monster.
“Take him away,” Elliot said when Adam invited himself along to an outing with Luke, Elliot and the dogs. “Play a sport with him!”
“Play a sport?” Luke repeated.
“Yes!” said Elliot. “You know you love a sport.”
“Why are you sending me away? How is that fair?” Luke demanded.
Elliot stared at him. “Send you away from what? You big baby,” he said severely. “What’s so great about this grove? Let me tell you, you can get trees and grass literally anywhere. Take him to another grove, it will be just as good.”
Serene had the kindest and sweetest heart in the world, so she offered a solution.
“I have noticed that when I wear shirts that bare more skin, human boys become quite obviously distracted.”
Elliot would never have asked her to do such a thing, but he was deeply touched when she did. Unfortunately for his plan of sneaking away from the Adam menace, Adam did not seem particularly distracted. Neal walked right into a door, though, and that brightened everybody’s day. Adam had to tend to him, as well, and so that did take him away for a while.
Elliot raised his arms in victory, king of all the grove he surveyed and not bothered by the annoying and unwelcome. “Concussions are hilarious! Concussions are the best!”
Serene and Luke, lying in the grass with the dogs, mumbled protests, but Elliot knew they agreed really. They spent the day using Elliot’s camera to take pictures. Serene looked beautiful in every single one, and Luke managed to accidentally take an up-the-nostril shot of himself, and Elliot decided to save every single one.
In spite of Adam, the summer was nice. Until more and more Sunborns started arriving, and talking about the trials, and a joust, and lances, and bows and arrows and riding and who had broken bones last time and then mentioned poor Harry Sunborn, dead before his time, but it was the way he would’ve wanted to go. That was when the full horror of the situation burst upon Elliot.
“Are you telling me this is a huge dumb competition to pick the best Sunborn?” he demanded.
“Our champion,” said Luke, frowning.
“And people die because of a pissing contest?” Elliot further demanded. “Are you kidding me? Is this a joke?”
Luke frowned. “Well, the contest doesn’t have anything to do with—”
“Don’t be nervous,” said Adam, slinging an arm around Elliot’s shoulders.
“Don’t be handsy,” Elliot snapped, and elbowed him. He did not enjoy Adam’s touchy bro ways. They were not bros.
“Hardly anybody is ever killed,” Adam continued loftily. “And they’re only held every decade, so very few Sunborns are lost to the world. Besides which, Ellie Sunborn has had long enough as champion, time for the young blood to have a turn. The Sunborns want to have a hero and a new hope for every generation, and I think I’ve got a pretty good chance. Did I tell you what my arms commander said to—”
“Did I mention I don’t care,” said Elliot.
Adam was always telling them about his exploits or someone saying that he was good at some awful thing to do with weapons or him winning something and making everyone else look a fool. He was so vain.
“I agree the contest is terrible,” said Serene, and Elliot brightened until Serene continued: “I can’t believe only Sunborns can participate.”
The day of the trials was, despite all Elliot’s hopes, sunny and dry, as if the sky too wanted to wave one of the Sunborn flags of gold and blue. Sunborns were camped through the woods, their tents peeking out amongst the leaves. There was nowhere to hide: there was a family living in the library. Elliot saw a Sunborn baby sucking on the edge of a tome and had to go sit down. He did not get up again until Adam appeared and Elliot had to give him the slip, claiming that he wanted to wish Luke good luck.
Elliot was sure Luke was lurking somewhere in the equipment room, being very conscientous about his gear or something. Luke was good at dealing with people, but he was also truly excellent at receding from them. Sometimes Elliot thought about Rachel calling Luke her shy boy.
Luke did not look particularly shy, though, when Elliot looked around the door of the equipment room. Elliot might’ve got a bit taller, but Luke was really tall for his age, and strong. He didn’t look afraid about facing down grownups. He had, Elliot supposed, done it before.
“Hey,” he said, looking over at Elliot with a small smile, and continuing to strap weapons on.
“You know I hate violence in all its forms,” Elliot announced. “And if you wanted to sit out this stupid contest, I would be supportive.”
Luke tilted his head inquiringly. “What would you being supportive even look like? I’ll pass. It would be too much of a shock to my system.”
“Okay, that token protest made,” said Elliot. “You’re better than Adam at everything, right?”
“I’m better than Adam at some things,” said Luke. “Though I don’t feel the need to boast about it all the time.”
“I know, we hate him,” said Elliot, delighted. “Also when you say some things, can you name anything that Adam is better at?”
Luke was modestly silent.
“Great!” Elliot declared. “Can you beat him in this stupid contest so that we don’t have to hear about it for the rest of time? By an embarrassing margin, if you can manage it. Please and thank you.”
“Yeah,” said Luke, still smiling. “I think I can do that.”
“Cool,” Elliot told him, and ducked back out. He and Serene had a date to watch the Sunborn trials together, and she had saved him a seat on the stands.
“Hey, are you Elliot?” asked a woman on the stands with them, in a Border guard uniform. Elliot thought she was Rafe Sunborn’s girlfriend. Serene looked at her with recognition: they reached across Elliot and shook hands, but the woman was still looking at him and smiling. “I was in Louise Sunborn’s troop. I loved your letters,” she told him. “They were hilarious.”
“Oh were they, hey, that’s great, kill me,” Elliot added urgently to Serene. She patted him on the back.
She did a lot of patting him on the back that day, as the heat haze rose from the ground and the Sunborns went into the ring. Dust rose, choking in his throat and stinging his eyes. Rachel was in that ring. Louise was in that ring. And Luke.
He opened a book and leaned against Serene. He’d thought he might be able to watch, but he wasn’t able to at all. When Neal Sunborn, who Elliot actually disliked, broke his leg and the snap cut through the air, Elliot shuddered against Serene and knew she felt it, was helpless to do anything else. He refused to even look up when Luke was in the ring. He only knew he was because of the ripple of sound that was his name, the hum of approval that Rachel and Michael’s son was doing so well. He hated literally everyone around him. Except Serene, of course.
“Hit her again, Luke!” Serene yelled.
Occasionally also Serene.
Rachel Sunborn got struck out with a lucky blow to her helmet—she told him afterwards, Elliot obviously did not see for himself—and Elliot hurried off to the kitchen, where they had set up a makeshift infirmary.
“Oh, honey, go back, you don’t want to miss all the fun,” said Rachel, but Elliot refused, held her hand, and tried not to wince at the clash of swords, the twang of bow strings, or the thump of bodies on the ground filtering through. Neal was moaning in pain. Adam, for once, didn’t bother Elliot but rushed to his brother when he came into the kitchen, and Elliot supposed that meant Adam had been knocked out of the contest.
Elliot waited for Luke and Serene to come into the infirmary, either to find him or because—if Luke was hurt, but they did not come. Eventually there came a great roar from outside, Elliot knocked something over and Rachel got up despite the fact that her head was bandaged and she’d told Elliot he was holding up seventeen fingers. Elliot went with her, letting her lean on him, and for the second time in a handful of months, he saw Luke being carried away on people’s shoulders. He heard the chants of ‘Sunborn!’
They were all so pleased with themselves. They had set this up like a game, they acted like it was all a game, like honour or glory was an acceptable exchange for a life.
The Sunborns thought battle was a game, and choosing a champion was reason for a party. They lit a bonfire and roasted a pig, set the minstrels playing and . Elliot made himself busy carrying stuff and setting up places for the wounded, and it was not until the sunlight was nothing but a slice of orange between dark hills and darker sky that Luke found him.
“Hey,” said Luke. “Did you see—”
“No, wasn’t watching, don’t tell me about it, don’t want to know,” Elliot said hastily. “Oh, but—good job.”
“Right,” said Luke.
“Hi, Luke,” said a blond girl who looked Sunbornish. Elliot hoped she wasn’t a very close relative, given the way she was twirling her hair around her finger. “You were fantastic today.”
“Oh, thank you,” said Luke.
“Do you want to dance?”
“Oh, uh, no,” said Luke. “I don’t really dance.”
“I like to dance,” Elliot offered, helpfully.
“Um…” said the girl, looking both disappointed and disgruntled. Elliot could not quite work out how to withdraw his offer. “Okay.”
The girl was a bit taller than Elliot, despite his recent strides in that area, and her hands in his felt like unenthused dead fish.
“Have you known Luke long?” she asked, as Elliot spun her and the sparks from the fire flew upward.
“That must be amazing,” said the girl.
“Every day a gift,” said Elliot.
“He’s so brave and strong. And so good and kind.”
“Also his hair,” Elliot commented. “Very shiny.”
The girl glared. “Are you making fun of me?”
“Can you blame me?” said Elliot. Apparently she could: she pulled her hand away and stomped off to her friends.
Elliot looked around hopefully for Serene, but she was sitting across the fire letting Neal Sunborn pity-hold her hand. Stupid lucky people with broken legs.
“Hey,” said Adam.
“You,” said Elliot flatly. “Fantastic.”
He looked around for Luke, but Luke was hidden by a crowd of admirers. Elliot eyeballed the sky wildly for answers. He couldn’t see where Rachel was, and Louise was sitting in some boy’s lap. There was no help anywhere.
“Want to dance?” asked Adam.
Elliot stared at him. He couldn’t quite work out the joke. “Um,” he said, and felt a touch on his hand. He looked down and saw Culaine. “I think I’m going to take the dog for a walk.”
“I’ll come with you,” Adam said promptly.
“Uh, wow. I guess I… walked right into that.”
It was stupid to walk Culaine, since he lived in a world composed largely of fields and woods where he could roam freely. It seemed Elliot was doing it anyway. Stumbling in the dark, almost falling down a hill, walking a dog that didn’t need to be walked with Adam Sunborn. What an adventure. Maybe he’d break his neck and wouldn’t have to suffer the company any longer.
“So, it’s been cool to get to know you better this summer,” said Adam.
“But imagine how fun it would be to do something new and different,” suggested Elliot. “Next summer, we could not see each other at all.”
Adam laughed. He did not ever seem to understand that Elliot’s jokes were not for him. “I know I had you all wrong last summer, when I thought you were just a snotty brat,” he said. “Like, I didn’t realise until the kitchen, with the dancing, that you liked to have fun. That you were fun.”
“Sure,” said Elliot. “Barrel of laughs, that’s me. A joy forever. Anyway…”
Elliot was still trying to work out what exactly Adam was doing when Adam grabbed him by the arm. Elliot tried to jerk it away, but Adam held on fast. Elliot was pulled in and pressed against him, and then Elliot was being kissed.
“Wait, are you trying to express romantic feelings for me?” Elliot demanded, pulling back. “God, what a terrible day.”
Something about Adam’s face told Elliot that he had been less than tactful.
“Sorry, um. It’s not you, it’s me,” Elliot said. “… and the fact I don’t like you.”
Elliot was beginning to suspect he was not smooth in these situations. He truly did not like Adam, but it was flattering, he supposed: he couldn’t quite get his head around the idea that it might be possible for him to hurt somebody, but if it was he didn’t want to.
“The thing is that I’m in love with Serene,” he announced.
There. Surely liking someone else was an acceptable and not too insulting excuse.
“What?” said Adam. “Not seriously? You don’t have a chance with her.”
“Wow, keep wooing me with your sweet words, lover,” Elliot snapped.
Adam laughed and used his hold on Elliot to pull him closer. “Come on, I know you like me.”
Elliot tried to twist his hand away again. “I have a serious question to ask you. During today’s trials, did anyone hit you on the head really hard? Did you have a fall? Are you feeling all lost and confused?”
“Stop messing around,” said Adam, his face darkening, and Elliot recognized the expression on his face: that of a spoiled child not used to being crossed or denied anything he wanted.
That expression had always spelled trouble for him in the past. It seemed worse now, in this unfamiliar and confusing situation: Elliot pushed Adam away again, to very little effect, and tried to yank his arm away, only succeeding in wrenching it. This felt like a fight. “Let go.”
Culaine, who clearly thought this was a game, went yapping and winding around their legs and Elliot shoved as Culaine wound, and Adam tripped backward over the dog and ended up flat on his back. Elliot looked down into his angry face.
“You are still the same snotty brat,” Adam snarled.
“Finally you get it,” said Elliot, and ran.
By the time Elliot reached the fire and the festival, Luke had sneaked away somewhere, but Elliot was pretty sure he’d know where to find him, so he made his way to the house.
“Luke,” Elliot called. “Luke, I have something really funny to tell y—ohhhh.”
Luke was not in the equipment room. Rachel Sunborn was, wrapped in the arms of a man who was not Michael Sunborn: who was not Luke’s father.
“Oh I’m so sorry,” said Elliot, and shut the door fast.
Then he leaned against the wall and tried to focus all his energies on not having a heart attack at fourteen.
“Elliot,” said Rachel, emerging from the room a moment later. “It’s not what you think.”
“Okay,” Elliot said numbly.
“Michael knows all about it,” Rachel said. “We have an understanding. On a festival occasion, like this, or when we’re apart on patrol, it’s all right for us to have—other friends. Lovers. It’s grownup stuff, so you might not be able to understand completely—”
“You have an open relationship,” said Elliot, deeply relieved. “I read a lot.”
“Something like that,” Rachel said. “But the thing is…. It’s not that Luke doesn’t know. I’m pretty sure he does. But he’s kind of bashful—I don’t understand it, he didn’t get it from my side of the family, and if you said anything to him he might be unhappy or embarrassed. So if you didn’t…” Rachel raked her fingers through her tumbled golden hair. “I sound like one of those women who sneak around and make excuses. I’m sorry. Never mind. You can talk to whoever you like.”
“No,” Elliot said slowly. “I trust you.”
Rachel gave him a small, worried smile. “Sorry if I upset you, kid. I don’t know how they do things in your world. Probably all a bit more civilised there.”
“No,” said Elliot. “I’m okay. I don’t mind. I… like it here. I like you.”
“You’re always welcome, kid,” said Rachel, and ruffled his hair. “Except obviously right now is grownup time. Off you go. I think Luke is practising archery.”
Luke was indeed in the archery ring, stringing a bow as Elliot approached. The target glimmered like a tiny moon, far off in the distance. After doing awful sports and violence all day, Elliot did not see how Luke could wish to do more, but he supposed that if the other Sunborns were being lions on the prowl Luke probably wanted to be discreetly elsewhere.
“Hey, I was looking for you all over,” Elliot said.
“Yeah?” Luke smiled. “Here I am.”
“Why are you doing the archery again?” Elliot asked. “I heard you beat everyone.”
“I wouldn’t have if Serene had been allowed to compete.”
Elliot was pleased by this tribute to Serene until it occurred to him that she would probably be able to participate in the trials when she and Luke were married. Luke lifted the bow, arms steady and able to master it in a way he hadn’t quite been two years ago, and hit the bull’s eye. He aimed and fired again, three times in a row, and every time the arrow he fired hit the arrow before it and split it, so every one landed in the bull’s eye.
“So I came to tell you something hilarious,” said Elliot, sitting on one of the low wooden benches surrounding the ring and bored by all the martial prowess. Culaine came to his arms with a soft whine, butting against Elliot’s chest for praise and petting. “And also, Culaine is a hero!”
“My dog is a hero?” Luke looked confused but amused.
“Blind people have, like, seeing eye dogs,” Elliot continued. “I think Culaine could have a real future as a sexual harassment preventing dog.”
“Wait,” Luke said. “What? Who was… getting sexually harassed?”
“Me!” said Elliot.
“What,” said Luke.
“I know!” said Elliot. “I was surprised too! It was Adam! Can you believe it! That was what all his hanging around annoying me was about, apparently. He is such a smug blond idiot. He kissed me, and I could barely manage to stop myself from laughing in his face.”
“Yeah,” said Luke. “I’m amazed that you had that much restraint myself.”
Elliot looked up from Culaine, startled, at the flat sound of Luke’s voice. He wasn’t frowning and laughing at the same time anymore, in the way where he felt he should disapprove but secretly was on Elliot’s side. His face was like thunder.
Elliot suspected he had gone wrong somewhere, but he wasn’t sure where. He knew Luke could be kind of prudish about these sort of things, and wondered if he was being judged as a floozy, which seemed massively unfair.
“I never liked him,” Elliot said uncertainly. “I always made that very clear.”
“Oh, you always do,” Luke said. His voice was savage.
“What,” Elliot asked. “I should have taken it as a compliment?”
He got up and walked away, back to the house. He didn’t have to deal with Sunborns and their monstrous egos for a moment longer.
Luke probably thought it had been a compliment. Just because Adam was a Sunborn, and at the last, when their loyalties were tested, Sunborns were loyal to each other. Sunborns thought they were all so much better than everybody else, and their attention must be an honour.
“Yeah!” Luke said, coming after him, shouting the word at his back. “Maybe! It would’ve been better than acting the way you always do!”
“Wow, sorry that everything I ever do offends you.”
The Sunborns were so stupid, and Elliot was done with it. They were so stupid they thought having a champion just turned fifteen was a glorious thing, instead of a target painted on Luke’s back. Now he was the Sunborn, instead of just a Sunborn, he was going to be someone people looked for in a war: his death would now be someone else’s trophy. Luke and all the other Sunborns seemed to stupid to realise that or too stupid to care. Luke’s own mother had cheered for something that was likely to get Luke killed.
“Do you hear yourself,” snapped Luke. “Do you actually hear yourself saying these stupid things? No, I guess you never do.”
“Everything I ever do and everything I ever say, apparently,” Elliot snapped, storming into the house. “You didn’t have to invite me here if you think I’m so unbearable.”
“I barely did,” Luke shouted back, slamming the door. “I had to, to be polite! And you didn’t have to come running because of an invitation I didn’t mean, all because of Serene and your stupid idea of a stupid truce.”
“Stop calling me stupid!” Elliot yelled.
“You are stupid!” Luke yelled back. “You don’t understand anything!”
“… Luke?” said Rachel from above, sounding stunned.
She was standing on the balcony that overlooked the hall, wrapped around with a bedsheet. Elliot looked up and saw the shadow of a man at her bare shoulder, and had a sudden moment of fear on top of distress: he wondered how he could possibly get Luke away without Luke seeing.
But it was Michael. Luke glanced up at his parents, threw up his hands, and walked away, making a disgusted sound in the back of his throat.
“Teenagers yell sometimes,” Rachel said, as if she was testing out the words. “… Even Luke. This is normal.”
“Haha,” Elliot said. “Yep. Normal stuff. People are always yelling at me. It’s fine. I’m vexing. Go about your business. I will try to keep the vex down.”
“Okay,” said Rachel.
“That kid is a weirdo,” Elliot heard Michael mutter as Luke’s parents both walked away from the balcony and back toward their bedroom.
“I know, I’m crazy about him,” Rachel returned.
It pleased Elliot in a distant way to hear it, but it didn’t matter, not really. He kept his head high in case Rachel looked back, and he walked away, outside the Sunborn tower in the opposite direction to the one Luke had gone. He couldn’t come be Rachel’s friend. Rachel might like him, but she loved Luke. Nobody had ever loved Elliot, but he was really smart. He was smart enough to know the difference.
It was dark. The stars were out, smudges of brightness in a dark sky that seemed to be running, like streaks of white paint on a black background. Culaine whined and tried to lick the tears off Elliot’s face, but Elliot shoved him away. Goodbye to the stupid dog, goodbye to the tower and the nice, grumbling, easy, warm ways of a family. He couldn’t come back. He had been stupid, he supposed: just because he’d decided he was Luke’s friend didn’t mean that Luke was his.
“Elliot?” said Serene’s voice, behind him. Elliot jumped and scrubbed at his face with both hands, but it was a futile gesture.
Serene looked very uncomfortable, which made two of them. “What are you doing here?” Elliot snapped.
“I came looking for you,” Serene said slowly, approaching and sitting down by his side. “It was rather sad for me to be left without male company.”
It was good of her to come and sit, even awkwardly. She edged closer, and her warmth seeped through Elliot. She liked him better than anybody else did, or probably ever would, and Elliot loved her best of all.
“Uh, you do have Neal,” said Elliot. “Can’t shake him, last I checked. And plenty of other Sunborn suitors, I’m sure.”
“Ah,” Serene said. “But not the male company I prefer.”
Luke, Elliot supposed, and glanced bitterly over at her. Serene was looking at him, her face pale in the moonlight, her eyes grave. She looked remote as the moon, but she was very close.
She leaned in. His breath left him in a shocked rush, replaced by a feeling of light-headed disbelief, and the brief sweet warmth of her lips meeting his.
Serene leaned away, eyes still serious, still meeting Elliot’s without fear or wavering. She did not speak. She stood after a moment, and left his side without saying another word.
Elliot sat and stared after her slim retreating form until she disappeared into the night, then up at the stars. They were suddenly brilliant and clear.