So, I know my Christmas present is super late. (SARAH IT’S ALMOST JUNE. … Yes, I said I know…) Writing two books for next year and the Bane Chronicles is so much fun, but it does mean I am short on time. I am so sorry to make you guys wait!
And there is something I have been writing on and off for a while, for fun, for a present, and to promote a short story I have coming out next year in the anthology Monstrous Affections.
And the other day I thought to myself: Self. This has got REALLY LONG, oh my God, WHAT DID YOU DO? So I thought… might be time to give the first part of the gift. Because the gift is TOO BIG to be given all at once. Because I am a human disaster.
This story does have notable literary ancestors I’m reacting to, so I will name ‘em! Thanks go especially to Jill Murphy for The Worst Witch, the first magic school adventure I ever read and which brought me to all the others (honorable mentions to Diana Wynne Jones’s Witch Week, Harry Potter, Neil Gaiman’s The Books of Magic, Eva Ibbotson’s Which Witch? and many more) and to Tamora Pierce, who wrote such amazing fantasyland military adventures that even I, confirmed coward that I am, wanted to go. (Also, she wrote Rikash ‘Babe’ Moonsword. That’ll be important later.)
So far magic school was total rubbish.
Elliot sat on the fence bisecting two fields and brooded tragically over his wrongs.
He had been taken away from geography class, one of his most interesting classes, to take some kind of scholarship test out in the wild. A woman in odd clothing had ‘tested’ him by asking him if he could see a wall standing in the middle of a field. When he told her “Obviously, because it’s a wall. Walls tend to be obvious” she had pointed out other people blithely walking through the wall as if it was not there, and told him that he was one of the chosen few with the sight.
“Are you telling me that I have magical powers?” Elliot had asked, extremely excited for a moment, and then he added: “… because I can’t walk through walls? That doesn’t seem right.”
The woman had told him she was prepared for questions, but she did not seem prepared for that one. She blinked and told him to come away with her to a magical land.
Normally, Elliot would have refused, but there was the wall, and the undeniable fact that other people could not see or touch it, and this was like something out of a book. Elliot did not think he would be able to live with the curiosity if he did not go.
“Okay,” Elliot had said finally, brandishing his phone in the woman’s face. “But I have the number of the police and I will have my finger on the call button at all times, in case you are a child predator.”
She had seemed confused, but she had let him keep the phone with no objections as she led him up a narrow stone stairway built into the wall. They climbed and climbed, and when they had gone so high that they were surrounded by clouds they walked through a shining hole in the wall, and onto soft grass.
Actually, the magical land seemed to be mostly grass.
There were fields, more fields, several more fields, a couple of rough round stone towers which men with weapons were exiting and entering. Elliot had cheered up when he saw a few men and boys with long hair and pointed ears–there were elves—and dwarves—like from fairytales, girls and boys both with beards and carrying elaborately carved hammers.
He looked around for other marvels.
Mostly there were other kids. Some of them quite big and some of them looking no more than Elliot’s age—thirteen. They had all lined up at different tables to be signed in, and now the kids Elliot’s age were all standing together in a cluster waiting to be told what to do.
It was all so unfair. Elliot had not expected a magical land to be all fields—some of the fields had cows in them, and he was pretty sure they weren’t magic cows–and other kids.
Elliot especially did not like the other kids aspect of the matter. Elliot was fine with small groups like a book club, or for a group project, but when the group was big enough to be a class, that was when trouble happened. Elliot had ‘does not interact well with peers’ on all his report cards.
If the teachers had been more precise, what they would have said was ‘does not shut up well around stupid people,’ but that was teachers for you. And there were always kids who were confounded to be crossed, as if they had expected that life would go their way forever.
Elliot had already spotted the two kids who looked as if they thought life was a song. Practically all of the relatively few girls were staring at them.
One of the boringly human pair of boys, the obvious leader, was tall and broad-shouldered with golden hair as if Nature had said ‘No worries, buddy, I gotcha, no nasty tiring thinking will ever be necessary, also have a crown.’ The other had wavy brown hair with sunny glints, and a sunny smile like an empty vessel that could be filled entirely with light.
The blond guy was wandering around from kid to kid, talking kindly to them and taking hold of them by one shoulder with the patronizing air of a kid who thought he was as good and wise as a teacher. He knelt and spoke to one much smaller girl in a My Little Pony T-shirt, then rose to his feet and turned easily away, leaving her staring after him with shining eyes as he obviously forgot all about her: as if he was a king dispensing largesse to the peasants. The other boy was following the blond guy around, nodding easily at everything he said. Both of them looked entirely self-assured about the whole situation. Elliot knew their type. The first looked like he would throw the first punch and the second like he would throw the second and the third, in eager imitation.
Elliot had mentally christened them Blondie and Surfer Dude.
He looked around, peering, to the woods where perhaps there were more elves, and to the skies where he was almost sure he’d seen something that was winged but too big to be a bird.
A cough distracted Elliot from his perusal of the skies. He looked down into blue eyes and saw that it was apparently Elliot’s turn on the condescension rounds.
“You should stop sitting on that fence,” Blondie instructed.
“Oh, I see,” Elliot muttered darkly. “Even this is to be taken from me.”
Nobody Elliot was aware of had made Blondie the boss of the fence, but being tipped over backwards into the mud was not Elliot’s idea of a good time. He slipped off the fence and looked resentfully up at Blondie and, of course, his sunny shadow. He found tall people tiresome.
Elliot scowled. Blondie frowned. Surfer Dude kept smiling.
“Don’t worry, little guy. I know this must all be very confusing for people from the other side of the Border,” said Blondie.
Elliot stared for a long moment. The moment grew uncomfortable. Elliot was glad.
“This is all terribly confusing,” Elliot agreed. Blondie smiled, relieved, and Elliot held up a hand to stop him saying anything. “I was so hoping,” Elliot continued, soulfully, “that somebody would come explain all this to me. Preferably someone who would do it in small words? And you two look like the small words type.”
“Sure, what do you need explained?” asked Surfer Dude.
Elliot rolled his eyes and saw that Blondie’s sweet blue eyes had narrowed. He tilted his head and grinned.
“First off, this,” said Elliot, and produced his phone from his pocket. It looked a little bit melty and was sending off sparks. Surfer Dude took a step back.
“You’d better give me that,” said Blondie. “You could hurt yourself.”
He stepped forward. Elliot took a step to the side, and the group as a whole moved away from Elliot. Everyone else had discarded their technology when it malfunctioned, because they were quitters.
“Nope,” said Elliot. “It’s mine.”
“I think it’s about to go on fire.”
“It’s my thing that’s about to go on fire, and not yours,” Elliot said firmly. “Now, why have all our methods of communication just literally gone up in smoke? Are we kidnapped? Are we going to be ritual sacrifices? Is there some sort of magical spell that destroys our ability to call for help?”
A distressed murmuring spread across the group. Blondie looked around in dismay.
“No,” he said. “Everything’s fine. Your little gadgets from across the Border just don’t work here, that’s all. They never have. You don’t need them here.”
“Of course not,” Elliot murmured. “The Industrial Revolution was a silly business, anyway.”
Everybody looked confused now, not just Surfer Dude.
Elliot raised his voice. “Are you telling me none of us are going to be able to play video games?”
Blondie looked like he had his doubts about answering, but he did anyway. “I’m not sure what a video game is… but I’m pretty sure you can’t play them here.”
One of the other boys, who judging by his clothes was from what Blondie called ‘the other side of the Border’ and Elliot called ‘the real world where stuff made sense and phones did not explode,’ burst into tears. Blondie’s head whipped around.
“Oh no,” Elliot exclaimed, sadly. “Look what you did.”
“He seems awfully upset,” Elliot continued. “You must feel really bad.”
Blondie did not look as if he felt bad at all. He looked, in fact, as if he was going to punch Elliot in the face.
He took a deep breath and did not, which was a pleasant surprise and made Elliot feel quite cheerful.
“Go on, then,” Elliot said brightly, and made an encouraging yet dismissive gesture. “See to the children!”
Blondie turned and moved toward the crying boy, but he glanced back over his shoulder at Elliot, eyes still narrowed.
“Not everyone who can see the Border belongs on the right side,” he observed. “Being trained to protect the Border is a sacred duty. And my father says that some people are too weak and too concerned with their own comfort to fight the good fight.”
“That’s fascinating. Run along.”
“You can choose to go or stay,” said Blondie. “So I don’t think I’ll be seeing you again.”
“Yes, oh my God, I already understood the implication that I wasn’t man enough to tough it out beyond the Border, your attempt at an insult was extremely clear,” Elliot informed him. “You’re just making the whole thing laboured and awkward now.”
He waved Blondie away again, and on his retreat Elliot squinted suspiciously up at Surfer Dude.
“When he said all that stuff about duty, and protection,” he said. “Is this a military operation?”
Surfer Dude looked pleased to be asked. “Yes. They train you up, those who can pass through the Border on either side, to be guards and keep the peace between the peoples in this land and anybody who may come through from the other. You learn how to handle all sorts of weapons, how to form a unit, all this cool stuff.”
“Oh my God,” Elliot said in a hollow voice. “We’re child soldiers?” He considered this and then said: “I need to sit down. I’m going back to the fence.”
“You’re not supposed to—“ Surfer Dude said, echoing his master, but Elliot was already walking away and making another emphatically dismissive gesture.
He did take Surfer Dude’s point, and he did not want to be pushed off the fence, so he meandered along it a little, moving further away from the group, and as he did so he came in sight of someone else who was standing slightly removed from the crowd.
She turned as Elliot approached.
She was tall, slim and strong-looking as a young birch tree, and as she turned her long dark hair spun out in the steadily blowing wind. It formed a trail of darkness, touched by autumn leaves twined around her tresses: her pale face stood out in sharp relief, and so did the pearl-pale curling points of her ears.
This was an elf maiden.
This was, bar none, the coolest person Elliot had ever seen.
Elliot only had to look at her solemn face for one long moment, robbed of breath by both the wind and her beauty, and he knew. This was love: not the passing fancy he’d felt for Miss Tolliver his music teacher (in which he’d become confused by having a good relationship with an authority figure), or Simon Bae (confused by admiration for his skill in their shared art project) or Clare Winters (the guidance counselor had approved and hadn’t said Elliot was confused, but Clare had turned out to only understand a quarter of Elliot’s jokes so she’d been confused all the time).
Elliot wasn’t confused now, looking into those clear eyes, at once dark and bright like pools in a deep forest.
He tried to collect himself. Now was no time to stare like a hypnotized sheep.
Now was the time to woo.
There had not been any other elven girls he had seen, not in the whole camp. So clearly she was defying conservative elven customs by coming here, brave and alone and the victim of cruel oppression. Elliot’s heart went out to her. She was probably feeling scared and shy.
“Hello,” said the beautiful elven maid. “I was just thinking, and I mean no offence, but—how can any fighting force crowded with the softer sex hope to prevail in battle?”
“Huh?” said Elliot, brilliantly. “The softer what?”
“I refer to men,” said the elf girl. “Naturally I was aware the Border guard admitted men, and I support men in their endeavor to prove they are equal to women, but their natures are not warlike, are they?”
Elliot offered, after a long pause: “I don’t enjoy fighting.”
She favored him with a slow smile, like dawn light spreading on water. “Very natural.”
“In fact,” Elliot confessed, encouraged, “I never fight.”
“You should not have to,” she said. “There should always be a woman ready to protect a man in need. I take it that you are bound for the council course, then?”
“I don’t understand,” said Elliot, and then he shamelessly looked up at her (taller, why was everybody taller) through his eyelashes, and confessed: “I’m from the other side of the Border, and this is all a little overwhelming—” and distressing? Yes, Elliot felt that he was definitely distressed—“and distressing,” he added with conviction. “If you would be so very kind as to explain a few things to me, I would so appreciate it.”
He was going for a combination of shy and winsome. As he had never tried to act like this ever before, he wasn’t sure how well he was succeeding, but the elf maid unbent further. So he couldn’t be doing too badly.
“Certainly,” she said, and offered him her arm. Elliot, a quick study, accepted it with a sweet smile. “The council course is a course in diplomacy, mapping the lands to this side of the Border, learning about other cultures. Elven culture, for instance, is quite different from that of humans.”
“I am beginning to see that.”
“War training is seen as more prestigious, and has far more recruits,” said the elf.
“That is totally unreasonable! These people are idiots, I suspected it all along.”
“You are very forthright for a man,” said the elvish maiden. “But I understand that human men are not reared as delicately as elven gentlemen. I agree with you, moreover: both courses should be considered equally important.”
Elliot had not said that, but he was already unbecomingly forthright, so he fluttered his eyelashes and remained demurely silent.
He did not think the demure silence thing was going to work out, because he was only able to keep it up for a minute.
“What’s your name?”
“Serena?” Elliot asked.
“Serene,” said Serene. “My full name is Serene-Heart-in-the-Chaos-of-Battle.”
Elliot’s mouth fell open. “That is badass.”
Serene’s serious countenance did not change, but Elliot felt a subtle shift of that slim body: he was fairly certain she was preening.
“I’m Elliot Schafer,” he added.
“A strange name,” said Serene, adding gallantly: “But not unpleasing.”
Take that, every jerk at school who had ever laughed at Elliot’s name. No badass elven maidens had ever told them that their names were not unpleasing, had they?
“Are you interested in the cultures of the otherlands?” Serene asked in a courteous tone.
“Super interested,” declared Elliot. “When you said peoples, you mean humans, elves, dwarves and–?”
Please say mermaids, he thought. Please say something cool with wings.
“Mermaids,” said Serene. He could have kissed her. (He would have been really delighted to kiss her.) “Trolls. Harpies. Centaurs. Nymphs, and various other peoples.”
“Badass,” Elliot whispered again.
That was when they both noted that the woman in odd clothes was there again. She turned out to be called Captain Woodsinger, and she was collecting them all for a roll call, which Elliot thought was ridiculous considering they had all just lined up to sign into the Border training camp.
He cheered up when she started reading out names, and Blondie turned out to be called Luke Sunburn.
“Sunborn,” hissed Surfer Dude, once Elliot was done loudly making fun of this. “He’s called Luke Sunborn. Of the Sunborns, you know!”
“I don’t,” said Elliot. “And I don’t want to.”
“You see, we bring in, um, some humans from across the Border, and some volunteers from the, uh, otherlands,” Surfer Dude proceeded, eyeing Serene uneasily, which Elliot thought was an odd way to look at the most beautiful and badass girl in the entire world. “But the backbone of the Border guard are the families who settled on the Border centuries ago, and have protected it ever since, raising their sons and daughters in the tradition.”
He buffed his nails on his leather jerkin. He and Captain Woodsinger and Luke Apparently-Not-Sunburn and many of the other humans were dressed like that, in a lot of leather and straps. It looked pretty ridiculous to Elliot, especially compared to Serene’s form-fitting clothes, soft and green as moss.
“I’m a Wavechaser, you know,” Surfer Dude added proudly. “Dale Wavechaser.”
Dale Wavechaser frowned. “Sorry?”
“Nothing,” said Elliot. Mocking people who didn’t get it was kind of pointless, like throwing sharp weapons into pudding.
Dale returned to his favourite subject.
“Of course, the Wavechasers aren’t anything compared to the Sunborns,” he said. “They were the first family. They held the Border on their own for a generation. There are songs about them: the shining ones, the golden guard, the laughing warriors. The Sunborn family is an army unto itself. Whenever there is a Sunborn acting as Commander of the Border guard, we cannot lose. Luke is the great Trigon champion Eleanor Sunborn’s nephew, you know. He was taken to his father Michael Sunborn’s last post with him and trained by him personally for three years. They say he’s shaping up to be the best Sunborn of his generation. I was so excited to meet him today!”
Elliot raised his eyebrows. “Congratulations. I’m sure you will be very happy together.”
So Blondie was basically the scary warrior equivalent of a trust fund kid, the kind who had their pictures in the paper on the regular. One of life’s born winners, with golden luck to go with the hair. No wonder he was glaring over at Elliot, looking betrayed and unhappy as a wet cat, as if nothing like being laughed at had ever happened to him before.
“The elven clans do not pay much heed to the brief fame and even briefer lives of men,” remarked Serene.
She was a stone cold elven fox.
“Tell me about your clan,” Elliot invited her.
Serene launched into a long tale of bloodshed, kidnapping gentlemen, highwaywomen and foresworn oaths. The Chaos clan were apparently kind of rogues. Elliot was so into it. Dale Wavechaser wandered off at some point early on, which was his loss.
Serene was actually laughing at one of Elliot’s jokes, her pale face bright as sun on snow and her dark hair swinging into her face, when Captain Woodsinger approached them and said, her voice very dry: “Schafer. Chaos-of-Battle. Have you made any decisions about whether you are staying or going?”
Elliot looked around the clearing, which was largely empty. Most of the kids in jeans and hoodies like him were long gone. He vaguely recalled seeing the kid who had cried over video games leading the way.
“It is a very different world to the one you are accustomed to,” Captain Woodsinger observed. Elliot thought she was talking to him until she added, “We have never had a female elf wish to join the Border camp, though of course we have heard of your legendary prowess in battle. You may be surprised and dismayed by the reactions of those around you, which you will consider unnatural. And your lady mother has expressed serious reservations about your behaviour in joining up.”
Serene tossed her dark hair. “My mother was the wildest elf in the woods until she met my father,” she said. “I can have an adventure of my own. Anyone who thinks I am not equal and more than equal to any human challenge will soon realize their mistake.”
Elliot regarded her with his chin propped on his fist and sighed dreamily.
“And you, Schafer?”
Phones exploded here and there was way more nature than Elliot was comfortable with, but there were mermaids and harpies and also true love.
Besides, it wasn’t like there was that much to go back to.
“I’m in,” said Elliot.
He began to regret his decision as soon as he was separated from Serene and sent off to his sleeping quarters.
His sleeping quarters were a large bare wooden cabin, with several bunk beds and chests full of clothes and—oh good—weapons. There were already other boys there, and two of them were conducting a fight with daggers. Elliot saw no evidence anywhere of plumbing, and it was freezing cold in magic land. Elliot had never given much thought to the importance of plumbing and indoor heating, and he had never wanted to long passionately for double-glazing.
Magic lands in the books had always seemed closer to nature, but in a nice way, without all the unpleasant details.
A dagger landed in the wall, far too close to him.
“Oh no,” Elliot moaned, and sat down heavily on his bunk bed. “This is magic Sparta.”
Forget fancy luxuries like telephones and toilets. The Border camp did not even have writing implements.
In his first class Elliot was presented with a quill, which he promptly broke in two and threw against a wall. He’d brought a pencil with him in his pocket: he clung to it as his only hope, and insisted on writing on the parchment with it as he took notes.
It was geography class again, though they called it mapping, but the maps were of a world Elliot had never seen before. He stared, fascinated, at the lines and circles that formed strange mountains and lakes: at the alien names that he would learn, and the places he was suddenly determined to go.
He still would have been happier with a pen.
He would also have been happier if he’d been able to keep his hoodie and jeans, but this morning he had woken to find his clothes stolen and had thus been forced into the uniform of those in council training. The others called his clothes a tunic and breeches: Elliot called them a dress and leggings, and it looked pretty terrible combined with the fact Elliot’s wild curly hair needed cutting and there was no hairdresser apparent in this magic land. If anyone from his old school had seen him, Elliot would have been destroyed on sight.
What would have made Elliot happiest of all was if he could see Serene, but she was nowhere to be found. He looked for her in every class, and saw her in none. He had no idea how to find her, so at the end of the day he stuffed all his new books (they were awesome) and his parchment (it was stupid, and nobody had listened to his impassioned speech on the topic of notebooks) into his bag, and went in quest of her.
The Border camp was all cabins, tents, a few stumpy towers like a couple of broken gray teeth in an otherwise toothless mouth, and endless fields. It was very difficult to navigate.
Elliot was fairly certain that he had gone around the same cabin twice, so in order to prevent the same thing happening for a third time he took out his house keys and made a small notch in the wood round the back.
“Hey!” said a voice behind him. “You can’t vandalize the camp!”
“I do what I want,” said Elliot.
He turned and beheld the most horrible sight imaginable: Luke Sunborn and his beautiful Serene. Actually walking together, and obviously getting along, their arms brushing, their gold and dark heads bowed together. They were both wearing the uniform of the cadets, and Elliot had to admit the leather and straps actually looked good on Serene. They looked like a natural pair, a matched set. They looked like a couple from a storybook.
Elliot’s despair was put on pause when Serene’s mouth turned up slightly at the corners, and she said: “Oh good, Elliot. There you are.”
Elliot beamed. “Here I am.”
“You,” said Luke Sunborn. “Why are you still here?”
“I’m sorry,” said Elliot, and paused. “Who are you?” he asked. “Have we met before? What’s your name?”
Luke opened his mouth and no sound came out.
Elliot grinned. “Sorry. I guess you’re just not very memorable.”
“This is Luke Sunborn,” Serene informed him efficiently. “Luke, Elliot Schafer. Did I say that right?”
“Perfectly,” Elliot assured her.
“I know his name, they said it at roll call,” said Luke. “How do you know this guy, Serene?”
“He’s a new friend of mine, like you,” Serene answered, and Elliot was torn between delight and disgust as she continued: “I was hoping that you would both accompany me to Commander Rayburn’s rooms and support me as I make my petition.”
Elliot had several questions, like: who is Commander Rayburn, how are we supposed to find these rooms, how are we supposed to find anything, what is your petition?
He did not voice any of them. He went to Serene’s other side, taking her offered arm, and privately vowing that he would be amazingly supportive. Way more supportive than Luke.
“I wish to be enrolled in both the war training and council training courses,” said Serene. “I cannot be content with simply taking one. There is no such thing as too much learning and both have too much of value to offer me.”
“Absolutely not, get out of here,” said Commander Rayburn.
“With respect, sir,” Serene began.
“No,” said Commander Rayburn, a big burly guy in the standard excessive leather. He had an actual candle burning much too close to a stack of parchment on his desk. “The war training course demands total dedication and extreme discipline. It leaves no time for anything else, certainly not another course. The council training course also, I have no doubt, takes up considerable time. You would not be capable of studying both.”
“With respect, sir,” said Serene. “And meaning no offence to you or my fellow cadets, but while it might certainly be too much for the delicate, I am a woman, and scientifically we have more endurance than men—”
Commander Rayburn’s face grew darker. Elliot tried to gesture to Serene to cease with this line of reasoning.
Which turned out to be a terrible mistake, because the commander’s eye lit upon him. “Do you have something to say, cadet?”
“No,” said Elliot prudently, and then his actual personality reasserted itself and he said: “Well, actually yes. Okay, I’ve only been in the otherlands for a day and so far it’s all horrible and confusing, but this much I understand. Serene is the first female elf to join the Border camp, and the women of her kind are more highly valued socially than the men. She’s also of a very high rank. If you send her home saying that you doubt her capabilities, you will be insulting the elves, and they are one of the few nonhumans the humans actually have an alliance with. Why insult the elves when you do not have to? Moreover, she is extremely intelligent and by all accounts really good at stabbing stuff and whatever. You should want to have gifted students who may excel in both courses, and you should be encouraging students when they show interest in their studies. Do you not want warriors who are brilliant, and diplomats who are brave? The war training course is also obviously the command track course. Do you want the next generation of commanders and captains to be idiots like Luke? If the coursework proves too much for Serene—which I do not anticipate—she can always make a choice between the courses, and at that stage it will be a choice made with more information than she has now, and with mutual goodwill.” He took a deep breath. “Also, that candle so close to your papers is a fire hazard. I thought you should know.”
Commander Rayburn’s lip curled. “You’d be in the council training course, I assume.”
“Yeah, you can tell by my pretty dress,” Elliot snapped.
“Well, your deluge of slippery words and Chaos-of-Battle’s burgeoning insubordination fail to convince me, for some reason,” Rayburn said drily.
“My mother always said men’s minds were unsuited to the rigors of command,” Serene murmured. “With respect, sir.”
“What did you say?” Commander Rayburn thundered.
“I agree with them,” Luke said loudly.
He had not spoken before, only saluted and stood to attention, hands clasped behind his back and listening seriously to what his commander was saying. He stepped forward now.
“I beg your pardon, Sunborn?”
“I agree with everything Serene and Elliot are saying,” Luke said. “Except the stuff about guys, obviously, remember the cultural differences.”
Serene inclined her head. “My apologies.”
“And the fact that Elliot insulted me, which was completely rude and uncalled for.”
“Aside from that, sir,” said Luke. “It does no harm to let her try. She’s amazing with a bow. You should see her in the ring. If she was asked to choose between courses, she might not choose war training, and she would be a real loss to the camp.”
Elliot did not miss his implication, as clear as the commander’s, that council training was useless.
“She has a brain, you know,” Elliot said. “She’d be right not to choose war training.”
“I speak for myself,” Serene announced, her arms crossed. “And I am brilliant with both a bow and my brain. But if you do not know how to value a daughter of Chaos, that is your loss.”
She walked over to a chair, which she flung herself into, in a rebellious slouch. Elliot looked at her with love and joined her in sitting down, though he didn’t think he had quite Serene’s elan. Luke remained standing, but he moved to the other side of Serene’s chair.
It was Serene’s absolute refusal to be cowed or to submit that changed the commander’s mind, Elliot thought. But the support of a Sunborn and Elliot’s statement of some shatteringly obvious facts about diplomacy didn’t hurt.
“You can take both courses,” he said eventually. “On trial. For a year. If you do not perform satisfactorily in both, you will be asked to choose at the end of a year, whether you wish to or not.”
“Thank you,” said Serene.
“And I hope I don’t regret this.”
“I intend you will not,” Serene informed him. “I intend to excel.”
They left the tent with Serene striding in the centre, and both of them flanking her.
“Well, Serene, you were amazing,” Elliot told her. “Now, you’ll want to learn what you missed in council training today. Come with me to the library and we will go over the lessons. Goodbye, Luke.”
“Right,” said Luke. “See you in archery at dawn, Serene?”
“Indeed,” said Serene.
Elliot was calling that one a draw. For him and Luke, that was: obviously Serene had triumphed in her altercation with the commander, because she was wonderful.
Serene was obviously in way over her head.
It was not her fault. She was brilliant and amazing and perfect, and if anyone in the world could have done it she could have, but there simply were not enough hours in the day. Those in council training were meant to burn the midnight oil (literally, God grant Elliot patience but he would rather have electricity) and those in war training were meant to rise at dawn.
She was not getting enough sleep.
Elliot came forcibly to this realization when he was reading to her aloud in the library about the adventures of a dwarf prince and the elven commander of his armies. It was also an interspecies romance, because Elliot’s courtship was both intellectual and sneaky.
Their burly elven librarian, Bright-Eyes-Gladden-the-Hearts-of-Women,
Elliot ceased doing the voice for the dwarf prince. “Am I talking too loudly—” he began, and then saw that Serene was asleep, her dark head cradled in her arms. “…Oh.”
He shut up the book, slipped off his chair and went into the stacks where he could give himself furiously to think. He had only been brooding there for a few minutes when he was interrupted by Luke.
“What are you doing here?” Elliot demanded.
“I’m worried about Serene,” said Luke.
“No, I didn’t mean why did you come here,” Elliot explained. “How did you even know how to find this place? Did you get somebody to show you the way? Do you know what these objects on the shelves with all the words in them are called?”
Luke did look somewhat out of place in the library and mildly uncomfortable about it, but in response he stopped looking uncomfortable and started looking annoyed.
“We were having an archery competition this morning.”
“How is that different from having archery practise every other morning?” Elliot asked. “Wait, don’t tell me, I just remembered I’m not interested. So?”
“She missed every bull’s eye,” said Luke. “She could barely focus on the target. She still did better than a lot of the other cadets, mind you,” he added with notable pride: it almost made Elliot have a positive feeling about Luke.
“Who won the archery competition, then?”
“Me, of course,” said Luke. Ah, there went all positive feelings. Status quo restored.
“Okay, loser, quit bragging,” Elliot commanded. “We have a real problem here. This has been made deliberately impossible for Serene. They won’t go any easier on her. We have to coordinate our efforts.”
“I don’t understand,” said Luke.
“I don’t know how to express the depths of my surprise,” Elliot told him. “How would it be if Serene skipped the earliest classes, and you remembered the lessons and trained her? And while you train her, I could read to her and try to catch her up in our lessons so she won’t have to study late. She’ll have to multi-task, but she won’t be too exhausted to do it.”
Luke thought this over, and then nodded. “All right. So we’ll work together on this. Truce?”
“For the year,” said Elliot hastily. “We’re not friends.”
“I’m not confused on that issue,” said Luke. He spat in his hand and held it out. “Deal?”
Elliot backed away. “Ugh, no, I’m not touching your spit. That’s disgusting.”
Luke flushed and wiped his hand off on his trousers. “It’s a totally normal—”
“Save the performative manly exchange of bodily fluids for the people in your military training, loser!”
“Why are you helping her?” Luke asked abruptly, and loud enough so that Bright Eyes the librarian elf gave them a sharp warning look. Of course Luke had no idea of appropriate manners in the library.
“Why are you helping her?” he shot back.
“She’s my comrade in arms,” said Luke. “And this isn’t fair. But you hardly have a code of honour, so why are you helping her?”
So Luke was saying that he was helping Serene out of the goodness of his heart, but naturally he assumed Elliot had no goodness to speak of. Because if Elliot’s code of honour wasn’t the same as Luke’s, it might as well not exist at all.
Elliot did note that Luke had not mentioned any romantic interest in Serene, so he chose this time to stake a prior romantic claim.
“If you must know, she is the one soul destined for my own and we are going to be together forever,” he declared loftily.
“That’s weird,” Luke told him. “We’re thirteen.”
“I don’t care what you think!”
“Elliot, don’t yell, we’ll get thrown out,” Serene grumbled, appearing rumpled in the stacks. “Merciful goddess, Luke, what are you doing in the library?”
Luke looked betrayed.
That was how the study-slash-stabbing lessons got started. Luke would sign them up for one of the good practise rooms in the towers, because the kids in the council course didn’t get to sign up for practise rooms and people had been known to scribble out the elf girl’s name but nobody was going to scribble out a Sunborn.
There were a few benches at the back of the practise room. Elliot sat on those and perfected his lesson plan. It all had to be sharp, short bursts of information: all purely aural and oral learning, striking enough so that Serene would remember what she needed to.
One method was to quiz her at the same time as Luke and Serene were fighting with quarterstaffs: using the clash of wood on wood as a rhythm for belting out questions, like a song.
“Name the lake where mermaids have historically murdered the most sailors.”
“Lake Atar,” said Serene, whirling and striking her staff against Luke’s.
“Correct! You’re the greatest.”
“The place where the largest host of the harpies resides.”
“The Forest of the Suicides,” she said, whirling away as Luke struck back, her plait flying.
“One thousand per cent correct, you’re amazing. The richest dwarf mines?”
“The Edda mines,” Luke chimed in, circling Serene.
“No, no, shut your face, these questions are not for you,” Elliot said sternly. “But actually that is the correct answer, thank goodness, because if you had confused Serene with another wrong answer there would have been consequences.”
Torchlight caught Luke’s grin before he lunged forward and met Serene’s defence.
There were a few dark weeks in there, in which Elliot was very glad that a bunch of the guys were distracted playing some dumb magic-land game with a glass ball, he was tired enough to snap at a couple of people who couldn’t take it and make them cry, and he passed out in his cold uncomfortable bunkbed every night without noticing the cold or the discomfort until morning when he woke aching all over.
It was worth it, because they were both getting rather good, Elliot thought. He would’ve thought about being a teacher when he grew up, but he was afraid that he’d just reduce any slow students to tears and possibly permanent emotional trauma. Elliot knew himself, and he knew that the impressionable and tender-hearted should be protected from him.
When Luke and Serene both got merits in the two classes the council and war courses shared, and Serene merits in all the others, Elliot felt like he could finally relax.
Until, naturally, Luke ruined everything.
“We could help you, you know,” he said over lunch one day.
Elliot looked to Serene for translation, but she was nodding, so it was one of those military things they both understood and felt he should too.
“I don’t need or want your help, loser,” he said, rather than betray any uncertainty. “But I will take your pudding.”
He took the pudding. Luke let him. To reward Luke for this, and also because Elliot did not trust green food, he pushed across his apple.
“Because basic self-defence training is going to start up soon,” he said. “Even the people in the council training courses have to do it. You signed up to fight when you signed up to guard the Border. You don’t have a choice. I mean, what if the camp was under attack?”
“I hope you and Serene would have the decency to protect me!”
“Yes, of course,” said Serene, and Elliot smiled gratefully at her.
“I’m not saying this to upset you. I’m trying to tell you what you absolutely have to do. What if we were both dead?” asked Luke.
Elliot looked at his pudding and was very sad about his life and his choices. How had he wound up here, in a place where all he had was pudding—Elliot would have sold his soul for a chocolate bar—and people who at the age of thirteen asked questions like ‘What if we were both dead?’
“Amazing choice of mealtime conversation, loser,” he said. “Now I’m not even hungry.”
“Give back my pudding, then.”
“No,” said Elliot, on general principles.
“Your gentle nature is unsuited to war,” Serene told him. “It’s all right to be frightened. I think you have a valiant spirit and you will rise to the occasion.”
Elliot glanced up into the steady light of Serene’s eyes. She might sympathetically express her opinion of men’s weakness at every turn, but she had this belief in Elliot, despite the fact that she was the best cadet warrior in the Border camp and based on what Elliot did not know.
She had misunderstood the situation, but her faith in him meant a lot.
“I’m not frightened,” said Elliot. “And I know just what to do.”
He finished his pudding.
Elliot had been to the practise grounds before, for when Serene and Luke wanted to do their fun pretend murder outside. The other kids from the council training course had not, and they were all looking at the cleared dirt with what seemed to be nervousness and excitement. Elliot sat with Peter or Myra when Serene was not there to sit with, and he had hoped for better from them.
“Don’t worry, you guys,” said Dale Wavechaser, coming up with a giant box of throwing knives. “All of the war training class are going to come and help you learn, since it’s your first time.”
Dale was exactly the type a teacher would trust with equipment: he could lift any heavy things, and he was reliable.
Elliot smiled at him winningly. “Hello.”
“Oh, hello,” said Dale. “Elliot, right? I bet Luke will teach you.”
“How thrilling for me,” said Elliot. “Actually, I know how to throw knives.”
“Really?” Dale asked. “That’s great.”
“So great,” Elliot agreed cheerfully. “So can I have them?”
He looked around, and from the cluster of cabins, coming across the grass, was Captain Woodsinger and other students from the war training course. Including Serene and Luke. Now was the time to act, or never.
Dale blinked. “Have them?”
“I like to pick my own,” said Elliot, and seized the box.
Dale did not actually resist his grab, which was excellent as the box was horribly heavy and Elliot almost tipped over and right into the big container of knives. He dropped it into the dirt instead and clung possessively to the side.
He smiled reassuringly at Dale, and across the field he saw Luke break into a run. He picked up the first knife that came to hand.
“Watch this,” he said, and threw the knife at Dale.
Dale stumbled backwards, and Elliot grabbed up several more knives and hurled them in random directions. The council track class let out screams and scattered.
Elliot grabbed more knives.
“Forcing groups of teenagers to learn how to use deadly force is really weird and disturbing!” he announced, throwing another knife, and another, and then one over his shoulder. “Everyone has a choice, if they choose to make one, and I choose not to do this. The value of people does not rest on their ability to hurt others.”
He threw the knives down viciously, as if they were grenades. Puffs of dust rose when they hit the ground.
“I am not winning any arguments because I know how to hurt someone. How does that prove that you’re right? How does that prove anything, being stronger or more vicious, except that all this talk about honour is stupid? Where’s the honour in being better at hurting somebody? Telling me I have to do this is insulting, as if I can’t win any other way. As if I can’t win in a better way.”
Luke and Serene got there just before the captain did. Elliot threw the last knife at their feet.
“He said he knew how to throw knives,” Dale Wavechaser said, faint and traumatised, somewhere in the distance.
“I do know how to throw knives,” Elliot said. “I can already do all it is that I want to do with knives, which is throw them away.”
Luke and Serene were both pale, breathing hard, looking around and looking visibly pleased that nobody had been accidentally knifed. They were also wearing looks of deep apprehension…about Elliot’s fate, Elliot assumed, since the knife box was empty.
“Yes, your point was extremely clear,” said Luke. “You’re just making the whole thing laboured and awkward now.”
Elliot rolled his eyes as he was dragged off to the commander’s rooms, where Commander Rayburn walked in and said, “Oh, the elf’s little ginger boyfriend,” in a despairing and, Elliot considered, unprofessional manner. “What have you been doing now?”
“Staged a pacifist protest,” said Elliot. “Also Serene and I have not defined the parameters of our relationship yet, though I have high hopes.”
“He staged a pacifist protest by throwing knives all over everywhere,” reported Captain Woodsinger from her place at the door, throwing the commander a snappy salute. Elliot suspected she had never forgiven him for the child predator remark.
“Unusual,” said Commander Rayburn. He sounded very, very tired.
Elliot shrugged. “I’ve been called worse.”
He got dishwashing duty for the next three weeks and was sent away, possibly so Commander Rayburn could have a soothing nap. Serene and Luke were waiting outside, and once they had established that Elliot was not expelled they told him very firmly that he should have been expelled.
“Your behaviour was very rash,” Serene said. “And you called enormous amounts of attention to yourself, which is not the way my mother taught me gentlemen should behave.” She was wearing that tiny smile, designed to be missed, except that Elliot never missed it. He smiled at her, and she told him: “If the camp is attacked, I swear to protect you.”
“And if we’re both dead, the odds are pretty good you’ll annoy people until they chop off their own heads in sheer frustration,” said Luke.
Elliot was pleased by this tribute. Luke and Serene stopped leaning their overly tall leather-clad selves against one of the endless fences surrounding the endless fields, and they walked away from the commander’s tower back toward their cabins as Elliot told them about his actual punishment.
“Oh, what?” Luke said. “You’re going to miss my first Trigon game.”
“Is that the stupid game with the glass ball and the weird hills that some of the war training guys keep playing?” Elliot asked. “Oh no, do you play that? The others have been playing it for ages.”
“It’s a good game,” said Luke. “But I didn’t really have time to play until we got into the swing of helping Serene. She’s more important.”
Serene shoved Luke’s shoulder with her own in a rough affectionate gesture. Everything had gone downhill so fast.
“So, what, they just kept a place for you on the team?”
Luke blinked. “Sure. They were upset I couldn’t play, of course: they know they won’t win against the other years without me.”
“But with you they will?” Elliot inquired sweetly.
“Well,” Luke said. “Yeah.”
“He displays great prowess in every physical activity,” Serene said in her measured way, and Luke buffeted her in the shoulder in the same way she had just done to him.
“I have no idea why you would think I might want to go and watch your ridiculous game, loser,” Elliot said. “The truce doesn’t extend that far. I have no interest in it or you, and I already see your face far more often than I would prefer.”
“Suit yourself,” Luke snapped. “Have fun washing dishes while I’m winning and everybody else is cheering for me.”
Washing dishes, or literally anything else in the world, sounded better than that. But when the day came, Serene appeared and announced that she had got Elliot off early.
“That’s so great, Serene,” said Elliot. “Except I don’t want to go.”
“I want to go,” said Serene. “You have both made a sterling effort to support me, as my true and trusted comrades, and I wish to show support for you in my turn. And if I appear at an event without a gentleman by my side, people will assume that I couldn’t get one.”
Trigon was just as stupid a game as Elliot had imagined it was. It involved a lot of jumping—someone was going to sprain an ankle, if not break a leg—and grabbing at a giant glass ball. Someone was going to get hit in the head and get glass shards embedded in their skulls.
At least nobody was actively trying to hurt each other, and Luke was quite good at jumping, if you considered that something to brag about. For about five minutes, Elliot almost wanted him to win.
But then Luke looked over at Serene a few too many times and the crowd leaped up and cheered for him a lot too many times, and Elliot retreated to his book and sulking because Serene did not understand his Tigger jokes.
Luke won. His team carried him around on their shoulders, his hair shining in the sun, their glad shouting rising up into the sky. He came over to them later.
“So?” he asked, grinning with what Elliot found to be offensive bashfulness. “What did you think?”
“I do not see the point of this game, but you were excellent,” said Serene.
Elliot looked up from his book. “Is it over?” he asked. “Who won?”
Hope you enjoyed, my dearest dears! More soon.
… More is now here.