Today is the day that Team Human, the book I wrote with Justine Larbalestier, is out in paperback. For them who like paperbacks, and fun stories.
I also thought that meant it might be a good day to give you the next part of The Present, a story about going to a magical land and being a total git about everything in it, including the lack of indoor plumbing. The first part of the story can be found here.
The Turn of the Story, Part II
It wasn’t that Luke caused all the terrible things at the Border camp to happen. It was mostly just that he was the one who told Elliot about them, and so it seemed like they were all his fault.
Elliot chose to blame Luke anyway.
“What is the point of parents’ day?” he demanded at yet another Bad News Lunchtime.
“Men are naturally attached to their homes,” Serene said sympathetically. “I believe that parents are allowed to visit to ease their hearts and assure them of their familial affection. I have been going on hunting expeditions away from home since I was a squire, of course, so a visit from my parents will not be required. Are your parents not capable of crossing the Border?”
“Nope,” said Elliot, whose father believed he was at military school and who he would never have dreamed of asking anyway.
“My parents are coming,” said Luke.
“So’s my sister Louise.”
“Good for you,” said Elliot.
“Serene’s going to come with us,” Luke said. “We’re going to have a picnic.”
“This is a very boring story, loser,” said Elliot, instead of saying ‘Quit rubbing it in.’ “Did it sound different in your head?”
“You can come if you like,” said Luke. “Since nobody else is going to ask you, and everyone should have something to do on parents’ day.”
“That’s all right,” said Elliot. “I actually can’t imagine anything worse than having to attend an all Sunborns, all the time parade.”
On parents’ day he went to the library, because it was amazing in the library and he loved it there, and today he had promised himself a special treat: he was going to read a contemporary account of the great harpies battle over the Forest of the Suicides.
He had to put on special gloves and turn the pages carefully, under Bright Eyes the librarian’s watchful gaze.
It was a really enjoyable half hour until Luke showed up.
“So sorry,” said Elliot politely to Bright Eyes. “Are you lost?”
Luke was giving the library his usual look of unhappy mistrust. In fact, now Elliot was paying attention, he looked more downcast than usual: it probably could not all be attributed to the library. Possibly someone had made fun of his hair.
“You have to come to the picnic,” he said.
“Why?” Elliot snapped.
“My parents are expecting you,” Luke said reluctantly, as if each word was a tooth that had to be pulled.
“Why?” Elliot repeated, inflexibly.
“I don’t know why, Elliot!” Luke snapped back. “I didn’t tell them you were coming. But they asked where you were, and I said you were in the library, and they said to go fetch you, then.”
“How did you know I was in the library?”
“Oh, come on,” said Luke.
The whole thing seemed very mysterious to Elliot, but he trailed after Luke out to the fields—oh, lovely, Elliot could never get enough of fields. Even if Luke had not known where he was going, it would have been easy to spot the Sunborns: every one of them was tall and the kind of person you looked at, with golden hair that shone in the sun as if a whole host of tiny suns had congregated on a picnic blanket. Serene sat among them looking very dark and pale and solemn indeed, but if you knew her you could tell she was happy to be there.
There was a man who had to be Luke’s father with shoulders basically the size of a mountain range, they should probably have a name, and the girl Serene was sitting beside who Elliot assumed was Louise. She was very grown-up looking—she was eighteen, Luke had said—and her hair was all done up in a coronet of braids, and she was about the most beautiful person Elliot had ever seen. Weird magic land might not have electricity, but he had to admit it was full of hotties.
The other woman stood up, her bright hair flying like a flag, as they approached.
“Well here the boys are at last,” she said, and gave Elliot a hug.
“Oh my God,” said Elliot, somewhat muffled, into Luke’s mother’s bosom. It was not entirely covered, and she was wearing a very large, very ornate golden necklace. Elliot was not sure if he should be worried about being suffocated or having his eyes put out by one of the jewels.
“I’m Rachel Sunborn,” said Luke’s mother. “You must be little Elliot.”
She released him and Elliot reeled back, breathing in deep grateful lungfuls of air.
“I may be slightly below average height at present, but I am the same age as Luke,” said Elliot. “I’m very sorry for being late. I didn’t realize you were expecting me. I think Luke must have confused the issue somehow. His command of the English language is not all it could be. Well, you must have noticed that for yourself.”
“Nice command of the English language you have there, genius,” said Luke. “Very appropriate way to talk when you’re a guest.”
Elliot took a deep breath. Rachel Sunborn laughed.
“You are just like I thought you would be from Luke’s letters,” she said. “Come sit by me, Elliot, and tell me how you got Luke to actually learn facts about ancient history.”
“Mum!” said Luke.
“And he knows his way to the library and everything!” said Rachel Sunborn, rumpling Luke’s sunny hair as he went by her on a quest for consolation and sandwiches. “My little man. It’s a miracle.”
She patted the place beside her. Elliot cautiously went over to it, and sat beside her. She ruffled his hair, too, and pulled him in occasionally for another suffocating hug. She asked him to tell her the story about the throwing knives in his own words and laughed when he did.
Elliot got the impression, due to all the laughter, that she didn’t take him particularly seriously. But she was a very lovely lady, he decided after a while. It must be nice, to have a mother like that.
“And you don’t have to worry about your safety if the camp is attacked,” Louise Sunborn added, with a lazy stretch like a lioness. “We’ll all protect you. None of us have ever missed a target with a knife. Except Luke.”
“I was six!” said Luke.
Louise laughed and they had a casual wrestling match, there on the picnic blanket, which was only interrupted by Michael Sunborn asking about Luke’s Trigon games. Elliot bore nobly with this boring subject and was relieved when it turned to the fact that Luke and Serene were going to be sent on their first mission, accompanying a new captain and a band of the third and fourth years to witness the signing of peace treaties between a small village and the nymphs who lived in a wood near them.
“You’re going into the forest?” Elliot asked. “To talk to nymphs? I want to go!”
“Right, Elliot, but you can’t,” Luke explained. “Because only those in war training go on missions, since they are the ones who can protect themselves. Those in council training stay where it’s safe in camp, and go over the papers.”
“All we want is your safety,” Serene contributed.
“Do you hear what I’m saying, Elliot?” asked Luke. He sounded anxious. Elliot thought that was very wise.
“I do, Luke,” he said, so earnestly that it made Rachel Sunborn laugh again. “I do hear what you’re saying.”
He didn’t know why Serene and Luke had to act so surprised when they uncovered the supplies wagon on their mission and found that he had stowed away in it. He understood everyone else wandering around saying that they couldn’t believe his behaviour, but he’d hoped they were coming to know him better than that.
He forgot that disappointment, and stopped paying attention to the lecture Captain Whiteleaf—who seemed a dull and unimaginative man—was giving him, when he looked around at the woods.
This far from the Border, there were harpies in the skies, like lion-sized eagles pinwheeling in the sky. He could hear water trickling somewhere, and if he followed the sound he might find mermaids. There was light brimming around and wind rushing through the leaves of the trees, and as the leaves rustled together Elliot heard a few words in the wind, and knew it was not his imagination. He knew it was nymphs.
Elliot forgot about the wonder of the woods when they bullied him into helping with the tents, despite his protests that he’d left Boy Scouts at their first meeting, within the first five minutes, when they had told him that he had to make his bed every day.
Elliot spent a good deal of his time on the mission explaining that these living conditions were too horrible to be borne, and speculating on who would die of a chill first because nobody had proper medical care available in the otherlands.
Eventually they gave him the treaties between the nymphs of the Aegle Wood and the nearby village to shut him up, with the air of people offering a toy to a child. ‘See, council course people like papers,’ the captain might as well have said. ‘Lovely papers!’
Then Captain Whiteleaf went off to hunt rabbits with the rest of the mission. Serene always brought home more than the captain or any of the others did: the older boys, Elliot noted, had grown more and more polite the more they saw her use her bow.
Elliot was huddled by the fire when he saw them coming back, reading the papers over and over.
“Something’s very wrong,” he announced as Serene and Luke sat down.
“You’re not going to die of a chill,” said Luke. “I will give you my cloak if you promise to shut up.”
“I may well die of a chill, I refuse to shut up, and I’ll take your cloak,” said Elliot. “But this isn’t about that. Look at these papers.”
Serene drew close to him and began to read them with some interest. Luke stared blankly.
“They’re the treaties for the nymphs and villagers to sign,” he said. “There’s one treaty, and there’s the other. What’s your point?”
“Sometimes people like to do this cool thing with words called ‘reading them,’” Elliot explained. “These treaties say different things.”
He looked toward Serene, who he had faith would understand, and saw the pin-scratch line of a frown between her dark eyebrows. “Considerably different,” she observed.
“There are all sorts of restrictions in the nymphs’ contracts,” said Elliot. “Conditions for this peace, ceding territory to the villagers, agreeing to stay off the villagers’ paths while the villagers can go into their woods and chop down their trees.”
“Well,” said Luke. “Naturally they’re going to be a bit different. The villagers are human, and the nymphs aren’t. I mean—it’s not like the elves, who are practically human—”
“Speak for yourself,” muttered Serene.
“The nymphs are our allies, of course,” Luke said hastily. “And they’re not like—like the beast kind, like mermaids and harpies, they’re good mostly, but they’re a bit… well, different, you know?”
“They’d better be really different,” said Elliot. “If someone gave me this treaty to sign, I wouldn’t do it. I’d be insulted.”
“You are insulted by people saying ‘good morning,’” Luke pointed out.
Elliot paid no attention to this slander, thought for a few more minutes, and climbed to his feet. “I’m going to talk to the captain.”
Serene got up silently to join him, and Luke said: “Oh no, no you are not.”
“I am simply going to reason with him,” said Elliot, extremely reasonably.
“You chose to come on this mission, so you’re a soldier. You cannot disobey your commanding officer on a mission.”
“I’m not a soldier,” said Elliot. “Not ever.”
He looked around the woods, listened to the snap and crackle of the fire and the rustle of leaves that were nymphs talking just beyond the cusp of human hearing. He let the magic calm him, and then he spoke again.
“I’m just going to talk to him and point out a few things that may have escaped his notice,” he said. “There’s no harm in that.”
“Fine,” said Luke. “Then I’m going with you two, to make sure that’s all you do. This is no time for your stupid games. I mean it.”
Elliot started to wonder whether they were brainwashing everyone in the war training course to think alike when Captain Whiteleaf listened to Elliot’s description of what was wrong with the two treaties and said: “Why do you think this is a good time for your stupid games?”
Elliot stood in the centre of the captain’s tent, which he had set up to look like a miniature version of Commander Rayburn’s office complete with desk and candle, and stared.
“We want peace between these two peoples,” he said. “A peace achieved like this won’t hold.”
“And how would you know?” the captain asked. “You’re a child.”
“I know because it’s… really obvious?” said Elliot, and Luke gave the cough which was a signal for ‘Too insubordinate! Back up!’ “Look, one person chops down the wrong tree, and they’re at war again,” Elliot tried.
“Then they will break a peace negotiated by the Border guard,” said Captain Whiteleaf. “And the guard will march back to deal with them.”
“Right, okay,” said Elliot. “But then people will die.”
Captain Whiteleaf said: “So?”
Elliot stared some more. The captain was talking about how the guard kept the peace through their willingness to defend it with blades, and about how battle was a regrettable but necessary consequence of disobedience. Luke was coughing as if he actually had caught a chill. A beautiful peace was descending on Elliot: he knew precisely what he had to do.
He looked back at Serene, who was standing at the mouth of the tent. She met his eyes with her own tranquil gaze, drew her bow, and fitted an arrow to it.
“What are you doing?” Captain Whiteleaf snapped.
“If you call for someone to help stop him,” Serene explained apologetically, “I will shoot them. In the leg, of course. I do not wish to murder any of my comrades.”
“Stop what?” the captain demanded.
Elliot stepped forward and shoved the two treaties into the candle flame. The fire caught the parchment, curling it up with a rich thick crackle, and the flame leaped to show the sudden fury in the captain’s eyes.
“You little brat,” the captain breathed, raising his fist, and Elliot lifted his chin.
Luke drew his sword. The sharp edge glittered in the light of the burning papers, pointed across the desk at the captain. “Don’t touch him.”
Elliot took a deep shaky breath, relieved not to be hit and annoyed at how relieved he was.
“You pack of stupid, traitorous children—” Captain Whiteleaf began, and then he cut himself off and just glared at them, as if he was memorizing their faces and thinking of punishments to visit upon them.
Elliot knew what he saw. Serene at the tent with moonlight in her dark hair and her bow steady in her hands, Luke and his sword glinting in the candlelight, and Elliot. Elliot held firm. The treaties were ashes in his hands by now.
“Listen to me,” said Elliot. “You don’t bring councillors on your missions. So you don’t have anyone who can write up a new treaty. Either you go back, admit you’ve failed in your mission, disappoint the people who are expecting you to come bring them peace, or you let me and Serene write up new treaties. We can do it.”
“Elves remember everything that they read, down to the framework of the sentences to insure that treaties are binding,” Serene observed. “Elliot tells me that is a helpful skill.”
Captain Whiteleaf stared at the ashes, and then at Serene, and at Elliot.
Matters might have gone very differently, but this was the captain’s first mission. He let them write out the treaties. The villagers signed theirs, and seemed to think the restrictions about not cutting down certain trees perfectly fair.
The nymphs were beautiful, green-gleaming wraiths of women who leaned out of their trees like gorgeous women leaning casually out of windows. Elliot could not stop staring at them, or the way their leader smiled when she read the words he had written. She had not been smiling before: it was like sunlight dissolving mist when she did.
“We expected something quite different,” she said. “I would be happy to sign this.”
“You’re still a pack of impossible brats,” said Captain Whiteleaf, on the ride home. “But I suppose you meant it for the best. This once, I will not report your wild behaviour to the commander.”
He spurred his horse and rode to the front of the company.
“ ‘Oh, thank you for saving my first mission,’ “ said Elliot. “ ‘No, no, Captain Whiteleaf, it was my pleasure, please do not mention it, all this fulsome gratitude is so embarrassing!’ “
“Shut up. That was really good of him,” said Luke. “And the mission would have been fine if you hadn’t destroyed the treaties like a maniac.”
“Oh, would it?”
“I’m not saying—” said Luke. “You did the best you know how. You did a good thing. But they’re just bits of paper, in the end. The Border guard enforcing peace is what will keep people safe. Either way, the mission would have been successful.”
Elliot looked to Serene for help, but her expression did not betray anything. Least of all who she really agreed with, when it came right down to it.
“I’m glad we’re not expelled,” she said.
Elliot did not have long to brood about how misunderstood and undervalued he was. As soon as they were back at the camp, everyone was panicking about exams, even Serene and Luke who should really have known better. Elliot had to forcibly shepherd them to the library and make piles of what he’d decided was the assigned reading.
“Now, loser, let’s start with the basics,” Elliot added kindly once he was done telling them the list. “This is a book. You open it like this, see? Not along the spine. That’s very important.”
They all did extremely well in their exams, and Elliot was happy until he heard Serene making plans to come stay at Luke’s over the summer holiday.
“You can come too, if you want,” said Luke. “My mum will probably be expecting you. I don’t know why.”
“I guess if Serene’s going to be there,” said Elliot. “And since the year’s not up yet, the truce isn’t quite over.”
First, though, he had to go home. Captain Woodsinger escorted Elliot and the very few other kids from the human world who had stayed back through the hole in the wall. She left them to walk down the steps on their own, down and down, until they reached the real world.
Elliot lifted his eyes to a line of tall buildings standing against the sky, all metal and glass. He realized he had become rather used to the endless fields.
At home every day was the same, just as it had always been. His dad would come home late, when the day was already getting dark and cold, and put his briefcase down neatly on the table in the hall. They would sit at either ends of the polished rectangular table, and eat dinner. Conversations would stop and start, escaping from Elliot’s hands like a balloon in the wind. That was what conversations with his father made him feel like: as if he was a little kid, surprised every time at the loss and later seeing the empty shreds of a balloon in a ditch or hanging from a tree, all that had been bright and buoyant lost.
Elliot had become all kinds of dumb and unguarded at the Border camp, though, because one day when his father went and poured himself his first glass Elliot did not go away to his room and read a book.
It wasn’t that his father ever got angry, or ever hit him. It was just that it was like sitting in a room where all the air was escaping, to stay in a room with a man who was grimly, methodically drinking: to know that he had once been happy, and never would be again.
“What was Mum like?” asked Elliot, who had truly grown stupid at the camp if he was asking that.
His father looked out the window, where gray shadows were snatching away the very last of the light.
“She was the first thing I saw when I walked into a room,” he said at last. “And once I saw her, I never wanted to look anywhere else. She would speak, and whatever she said was brilliant and startling. She was like that, a constant bright surprise. She was always talking, always laughing, always dancing, and she was never what I expected. I was even surprised when she left.” He looked over at Elliot, who was sitting with his hands clenched tight around his knees. “You’re not like her,” he added. “You’re like me. Nobody will ever love you enough to stay.”
His father was very thin. Even his hair was thin, gray strands so fine that it seemed as if it had been worn away, as the grooves in his face seemed to have been worn in. Elliot wasn’t sure, sometimes, if he was like his father: the patient, desperate ghost who had waited until all hope was worn out. He couldn’t imagine his father going to school and antagonizing everyone in sight, being too short, too smart, too awkward, too unguarded, too wildly unused to company, until it was easier eventually to antagonize people on purpose.
His mother had stayed with his dad for ages. She’d left pretty soon after Elliot had arrived. Elliot could do the maths.
He supposed it didn’t matter if someone left because you weren’t good enough or left because you actually drove them away. The result was the same.
He left the room quietly, went and sat on the stairs, pressed his hot face against the cool banister. He could see through the staircase at this angle, could see the front door, flanked by windows that shone with gray light. He sat and looked at the door as if someone was coming home.
Nothing changed, not permanently. Elliot had known that even when the miracle happened, and he was taken away to somewhere fantastical: every bit of reality in the fantasy reminded him that miracles were not for him.
Even if you found yourself in a magical story, there were no guarantees that you were the hero, or that you would get of the things you dreamed of. Elliot knew no way, being who he was, to deserve that.
No questions were raised about him going to the Sunborns’ house, and Elliot found directions for how to get there on a rolled up parchment that was wedged between the hinges of his door. Magic’s postal system was sneaky.
In the midst of gardens and woodland was a tower, in the same brief, round style as the towers at the Border camp, looking like nothing so much as the rooks in the chess set his father had gathering dust in a cabinet. There was ivy climbing up it, in cascading green profusion over places where the stone was jagged and worn. Elliot climbed the broad, flat steps.
From within the Sunborns’ tower came the loud sound of swearing. Elliot ran.
The swearing was coming from a cavernous kitchen, where Rachel Sunborn was wrestling a stewpot. Half the stew was already on the wall.
“Um, let me help you with that,” said Elliot, and grabbed the other handle. The pot tipped dangerously down to Elliot’s level, but they got it on the ground.
“Thank you, Elliot,” said Rachel. “I bloody hate cooking, but Michael’s on campaign, and what are you going to do? Welcome, by the way.”
“If Mr Sunborn is gone, aren’t we going to be a lot of trouble?” Elliot asked apprehensively.
“Oh no,” said Rachel. “We all go on campaigns, and the one on leave gets the kids. We always have Louise’s friends over, and this summer we have my sister’s boys Adam and Neal staying too. You guys can all distract each other. And frankly, it’s my turn for a houseful of kids: Michael had Luke at the Northmark fortress from when he was nine to when he got sent off to camp, I was on an expedition to traverse the entire otherlands. It was meant to be a two-year mission but it ran long.”
“The Dewitt mission,” said Elliot. “The one that improved all the maps! How was finding an entire lagoon full of mermaids? I wish I could meet a mermaid.”
“Kid, they drown people.”
Elliot waved this off. “Is it true that the river mermaids have a common tongue but the mermaids who live in lakes have all entirely separate languages, though they can usually speak the language of the people who live near the lakes, and the salt-water mermaids seem to only speak the languages most common to sailors? Do you think the sea mermaids do have their own language but only use it in the deep? Because that’s what I think.”
Rachel threw back her head and laughed. “How would I know, funnyface? But I can harpoon a mermaid at a hundred paces from a moving boat. Not bad for an old lady, eh?”
“How old are Adam and Neal?” asked Elliot.
Rachel frowned in thought. The expression was not made for her face: it slid off the golden surface like water. “Close to your age,” she said. “A year and two years older, about.” Elliot must have made a face without meaning to—he’d been hoping for as old as Louise, which was old enough to not bother with Elliot much—because Rachel laughed at it. “Don’t worry, you’ll like them!” she said. “They’re just like Luke.”
“Oh,” said Elliot, in a hollow voice. “That’s fantastic.”
“Bit more outgoing than my shy boy, but that’s all to the good,” said Rachel. “I think it’s nice for Luke to have his own friends here. You’re all going to have fun! Don’t let anyone dare you to jump off a tower, though.”
“Don’t worry,” said Elliot. “… Luke’s not shy. Everyone likes Luke.” ‘Except me,’ he would have added, but it seemed rude when he was a guest.
Rachel frowned again, this time more deeply, a woman even less used to explaining herself than frowning. “Maybe that was the wrong word,” she said. “But you know how he is. My point is, Neal and Adam are lovely lads. I’m sure you’ll all get on. And Serene, when she gets here. Luke’s crazy about Serene.”
“Serene’s not here?” Elliot asked. “Where’s Serene?!”
“Oh, her mother took her on a hunting party for a magical stag that ran long, or somesuch.”
This was a complete disaster. Elliot wondered if he could claim that he’d left the oven on at home and make his escape.
This fragile, beautiful hope was crushed when Luke barreled into the house, calling for his mother and attended by vicious animals.
“Mum!” said Luke. “When do you think he’ll get—oh. Hi.”
“Hi,” said Elliot. He should probably, as a guest, not insult Luke in front of Luke’s mother.
“Why are you wearing those clothes?” Luke asked. “They’re weird. The Border camp gave you proper clothes.”
“Because, A: these are my clothes,” Elliot said. “B: the Border camp gave me ridiculous clothes and C: I cannot believe that you, a loser who I have literally never seen wear anything but leather, are setting yourself up to be some sort of fashion expert and critiquing jeans and a hoodie. Worst host ever!” He glanced over at Rachel. “Not you, you’re a very charming hostess,” he added hastily.
“Thank you, Elliot,” Rachel told him.
The two wild beasts Luke had brought in with him—into the house, in fact into the area of the house were food was prepared–wandered over to Elliot. Their long, plumy tails waved cautiously: their long, sharp teeth were bared.
“I haven’t had my rabies shot,” said Elliot, circling. The dogs circled after him in what he considered was a menacing fashion.
“How can you be scared of the puppies?” Rachel asked.
“I am not scared of them,” Elliot replied with dignity. “I am just not accustomed to them, so I do not trust them.”
He had to admit that the dogs did not seem currently interested in devouring him whole. However, this might change at any moment.
“Cavall, Culaine,” said Luke, and the dogs backed off a little. “You like mermaids and centaurs and stuff, though.”
“They’re not animals,” said Elliot. “I can talk with them, so they’re people. I enjoy intelligent conversation. You know, the polysyllabic kind. I realize you’re still at monosyllables, but I have faith you’ll get there one day.”
“Uh-huh,” said Luke, not doing anything to justify said faith.
Elliot regarded the dogs with suspicion, and then glanced up at Luke, who was looking at him. It was a shared moment of mutual embarrassment: they were not used to being without Serene, and yet they should obviously pretend to be friends, or Luke’s mother would wonder why Elliot was here.
“The thing is,” Elliot announced. “I think I left the oven on in—”
“Mum,” said Luke, rudely interrupting. “Can we have the key to the library?”
“The library?” Elliot asked, diverted from his purpose.
“My Great-Uncle Theodore was wounded in the wars and couldn’t fight again, so he spent his whole life collecting books,” Rachel said. “Poor old boy. Don’t let the dogs in with you, Luke.”
She took a ring, heavy with keys, off the wide belt slung around her hips, and tossed it to Luke, who caught it easily, and Elliot followed him as he went out of the kitchen and round and round and round the stairs to the very top of the tower, where they stopped at a large oak door.
The library was as big as the one at school, but quieter, with the air of long disuse. Sun streamed through half-closed curtains, and the air was thick with sunlight and silence, with gold and dust. Books rose to the ceiling, which rose to a point, with ladders that leaned against the walls.
“Is it OK to touch the books without gloves?”
“Why would you need gloves to touch a book?” Luke asked, looking mildly alarmed. Elliot decided that meant yes.
He climbed one of the ladders to get to one glinting embossed spine, to see if it could possibly be what he hoped it was going to be. It was.
He climbed down the ladder to display his prize to Luke.
“One Thousand Leagues Across A Sea of Blood,” Luke said. “That’s a good title.”
The subtitle was ‘Seamonsters Demanding Sacrifice, Fanged Octopi & Murderous Mermaids I Have Known.’
“It’s the account of a famous exploring party told by Maximilian Wavechaser. This voyage is how his family got their name,” Elliot explained, going over to the window and pulling the curtains open. He climbed onto the broad wooden windowseat built into the window, which was many-paned and rose to a point like a window in church. Luke climbed up to sit on the other side, and Elliot turned the pages until he found some of the drawings of the great naval battle four hundred years ago, made out in cerulean and gold, which he thought Luke would like.
In return Luke said that he did think it was possible that the mermaids of the deep sea communicated through hand gestures rather than speech, and asked Elliot to read the awful bit about battle tactics again. It was a long and fascinating book, and Elliot was surprised when Luke said that he had to set the table for dinner.
“Have you boys been in the library all day?” Rachel asked, amazed. She ruffled Luke’s hair as he went by with the cutlery. “Who are you?”
“Elliot found a good book,” Luke said, shrugging.
“I didn’t miraculously find the only book in there that was good,” Elliot argued.
Luke gave a tiny shrug. “I don’t know that. I’ve looked at other books in that library and they’re boring.”
“You don’t know anything,” Elliot told him severely. “Statistically, you have to see that book being the only good one is not at all likely. The problem is you don’t get books. You tend to be an auditory or kinesthetic learner.”
“Hey!” said Luke.
Elliot was going to tell him that it wasn’t an insult, but then he decided it would be more hilarious not to. “I wish I had a radio,” he said. “They do readings of the classics on Sunday afternoons.”
“What’s a radio?” asked Rachel, while Luke sulked about being called a kinesthetic learner.
Elliot gave some thought about how to describe it. “It’s a magic box that says stuff and plays songs.”
“A music box?” Luke asked, scornfully. “We have music boxes.”
“No!” said Elliot. “It plays quite different songs.” He thought about the classic hits he listened to at home, filling his whole empty house with song, something that a mother might like, and sang a few lines of ‘When I’m Sixty-Four.’ Rachel beat time on the lid of her pot.
“You have a nice voice, kid,” she said. “You could be a minstrel.”
“Oh, thank God, there are other jobs for people besides being a weird conscripted soldier on the Border camp,” Elliot said. “Logically there had to be, someone has to make the food, the world would be stupid and make no sense otherwise. But I was terrified it was all dumb killing people in the face.”
“Excuse you?” said a voice from the door. “Being a soldier is the noblest profession in the world.”
“Killing people in the face is a downside,” Elliot said. “You have to admit that. I’m Elliot Schafer, by the way.”
“Adam Sunborn,” said the boy, marching in. “And this is my brother Neal.”
The two boys clattered in, big and walking as if they owned the room and possibly the world. They were Sunborns, clear as day and about as bright: big and blond and blue-eyed. They looked like rough sketches of Luke, before the artist had got him quite right. They spent all of dinnertime talking about how they hadn’t gone to the Border camp because they had been born and raised to fight, and Luke shouldn’t have either but should have come to serve in one of the lesser fortresses with them and learned through action.
“He could have been our comrade in arms,” said Neal.
“I’ve got one,” said Luke. “Her name’s Serene.”
“A girl?” Adam sneered.
“I think you should meet her,” said Luke, deceptively mild.
“I don’t think you need any more of this delicious stew, Adam,” said Rachel.
“I deplore violence in all its forms,” said Elliot. “But she’d kick your ass.”
“Why wait until Serene’s here?” inquired Louise, coming in late and mussed with her dark-haired friend, who would have been very pretty standing beside anyone but Louise. “I’ll kick both the brats off the tower as soon as dinner’s over.”
Louise spoke with friendly menace, and Rachel hit Adam’s hand when he reached for more food with a spoon. Neal and Adam didn’t pursue an argument, but Elliot saw their darkling look at him when he spoke, and knew they did not like him.
He hadn’t expected them to.
The next day Elliot figured that Luke would probably like to do one of the awful things he enjoyed, something outside involving weaponry, and so like an excellent and considerate guest he decided to entertain himself.
Since he was pretty sure Luke would expect him to be in the library, Elliot acquired a book and cunningly hid out of doors. He wandered around the woods for a little while until he found a tree that he thought looked appropriate and comfortable, then carefully stowed his chosen book into his hoodie and climbed up into it.
He was reading peacefully for an hour or so in the green-glowing quiet, until he heard the sound of twigs snapping underfoot and bodies shoving through the undergrowth. He looked down and saw the glint of two blond heads, and Adam Sunborn looking up at him.
“Well, well,” he said. “Look, Neal. There’s a snotty little bird up in a tree.”
“That’s not a terribly good insult,” said Elliot. “The mixed metaphors, with the bird and the snotty thing, it doesn’t work. Maybe if you’d just called me obnoxious. Wait, I’m sorry, should I define obnoxious for you?”
He was not terribly surprised when Adam grabbed one of the lower-hanging branches. He expected him to climb up, but instead Adam shook it violently, Elliot clutched his book protectively, and Elliot fell out of the tree.
Falling out of the tree was extremely unpleasant. A branch bashed him on the face on his way down, he hit his head, and his whole body felt jarred by the stupid ground. Elliot levered himself up on one elbow.
“Wow,” he said, tasting blood in his mouth. “That was a witty retort. I certainly have learned the error of my ways, and that I should hold you in far higher regard!”
Adam strode towards him, and Elliot was just considering whether he was going to get punched or kicked when Luke emerged from the trees and knocked Adam off course.
“Where have you been?” Elliot demanded.
“Looking for you!” Luke snapped back. “How was I supposed to know you were off hiding in trees, you lunatic?”
“Don’t be rude to me when you’re rescuing me, loser,” Elliot told him. “That’s terrible manners. You’re the worst.”
Luke made an incoherent sound of rage, which for some reason seemed to encourage Adam Sunborn, who moved toward Elliot. Luke held up a hand.
“You’re not doing it!” said Luke. “Where’s the honour in hurting someone who’s not as strong as you? What does that prove?”
“It might stop him being such a brat,” Adam suggested.
“Doesn’t,” Elliot contributed. “This is not the first time somebody’s ever wanted to punch me in the face.”
Luke frowned for some reason, but supported him by saying: “That is obviously true. He’s extremely annoying.”
“See, you two are not original souls. Kids at my old school used to hit me all the time, I have collected the data on this subject, and I am in the perfect position to tell you that it has no useful results whatsoever. It just means I’m bleeding as well as annoying.”
“Also, the value of someone does not rely on their ability to hurt others,” said Luke. “You guys aren’t proving you’re better than him if you knock him out of a tree.”
Neal’s lip curled as he looked down at the ground where Elliot was still lying. It didn’t seem a great idea to get up, when the two Sunborn cousins were obviously dying to knock him down again, plus his head and his face hurt. Elliot touched his mouth, and his fingers came away red.
Neal said: “What value does he have, exactly?”
Luke had to give it some thought, which Elliot found offensive. Eventually, he said: “He’s clever about some things. And he makes up songs.”
“No I don’t,” said Elliot, even more vastly offended.
“Yes you do,” said Luke. “You sang the song to me and Mum.”
“That was not my song,” said Elliot. “That song belongs to the Beatles.”
Luke rolled his eyes. “Elliot, beetles do not write songs.”
“Uh, do you guys mind?” Adam demanded.
“Oh, I’m sorry, are we not paying enough attention to you loathsome weasel bullies?” Elliot inquired. “Do you feel your dignity as someone who pushes little kids out of trees is somehow being slighted?”
“You’re not a little kid, Elliot,” said Luke.
“I’m considerably below average height!” Elliot snapped.
“Oh my God, what a little snot,” exclaimed Adam, and surged forward. Luke was suddenly in his way, pushing him back with a small shove that obviously made Adam more mad.
Violence was like that, Elliot had noticed. One move toward it and all at once everything was allowed: anyone could be hurt, out of a mix of pride and anger and stupid disregard for the fact that you could be hurt just as easily as someone else.
“You think you can take both of us?” Adam asked.
A corner of Luke’s mouth kicked up. “Yeah,” he admitted. “I really think I can.”
Neal started forward, and then stopped abruptly because the end of a whip had sailed out from among the trees, and curled itself around his wrist.
“I do not like to hit a gentleman,” Serene said, emerging from behind a screen of leaves, “but since you are responsible for shedding the blood of the defenceless, I am prepared to make an exception.”
“Serene!” Elliot exclaimed. “You’re here! And you’re my hero!”
“You’re the elf girl, then?” asked Neal Sunborn.
“I am Serene-Heart-in-the-Chaos-of-Battle. Keep a civil tongue in your head or lose it.”
Neal and Adam stared at her.
“Are you going to make your name known to me, knaves?” Serene asked dangerously.
“Neal Sunborn,” said Neal, getting a look that Elliot had seen before on the faces of boys in the war training course about to be soundly beaten by Serene: both hunted and smitten. “This is my brother Adam.”
“I’ve been meaning to ask,” Elliot said conversationally to Luke. “If they’re your mum’s sister’s kids, how are they Sunborns too?”
Serene frowned. “It makes perfect sense. Of course the children bear their mother’s name. The woman is the strong one, who bears the child and begins the family. You can’t be sure who any child’s father is.”
Elliot considered. “That’s a good point, actually. It’s why the Egyptians married their sisters.”
“I don’t know that family,” Serene said, “But that does not seem to me like a good solution.”
Adam and Neal looked defeated by the whole situation—having to fight a girl who was looking pityingly down on them, and the way people kept having conversations without including them. When Luke began to explain that while actually a lot of men took the Sunborn name when they married Sunborn women—having met Rachel and Louise, Elliot thought he understood—his mother and father were both born Sunborns, from different branches of the family, because the Sunborns were a vast clan and long might their glory shine so on et cetera. Which made Serene start talking about the house of Chaos. At which point Adam and Neal gave up and simply slunk away.
The rest of the stay at Luke’s house, graced with Serene’s shining presence, was rather nice. There was sunlight and the woods and Rachel Sunborn and the dogs proved to be all right after all—Culaine was Elliot’s favorite. Sometimes everybody would get together and play terrible games, like throwing knives at trees who had done nobody any wrong. Elliot would fetch a book at those times, but he was obscurely gratified to see that either Luke or Serene always won.
The only real problem came at the end of the holiday, when Rachel and Louise Sunborn had to ride away with a border patrol in order to deal with a gang of brigands who were waylaying people on the northern roads.
She and her men were gone all day, and still gone when it was time for bed.
Elliot finished his book in bed and pondered going to get another one. He only had so much time left, and he had so many books to get through. He slipped out of bed, and as he was making his way to the library he stopped to investigate the fact that a candle was still burning in Luke’s room.
“What are you doing here,” said Luke in a flat voice, who was staring at the ceiling. Elliot didn’t see why he needed a candle to look at the ceiling. It wasn’t going anywhere.
Elliot came to a decision. “I’ve come to bother you.”
“Isn’t it enough to bother me every day, all day? Do you have to bother me through the night as well?”
“Yes. You shouldn’t sleep with animals, I’m sure it’s unsanitary. Come here, Culaine,” said Elliot, and when both dogs shuffled over across the bedclothes to be patted Elliot pushed Cavall gently away. “Not you. Culaine’s my favorite.”
Luke sat up. His blond hair was sticking straight up: he looked like an offended dandelion. “They’re both good dogs. You can’t have a favorite.”
“Of course I can, loser,” said Elliot. “I’m very judgemental.”
The door creaked open and Serene stood it it, looking severe and beautiful in her sensible black pajamas. “Oh good, you’re here,” she said to Elliot. “You can administer manly sympathies and sweet comfort.”
“I could,” said Elliot haughtily, “but I have no intention of doing so.”
“I was worried that you would be fretting, Luke,” Serene continued. “I know how boys do.”
“Get out of my room, both of you,” said Luke, and put a pillow over his own face.
Serene climbed up on the bed as well, and entered into an argument with Elliot about which was the finer dog. Serene thought Cavall was the best at hunting: Elliot was firm in his conviction that he did not care.
When the riders came home from battle it was so late the darkness was turning to light again, as if the moon had dissolved in the sky and flooded it with pale radiance. They rode home victorious, and Serene and Luke ran downstairs with the rest of the household.
Elliot stood at Luke’s window and saw the torchlight falling on triumphant, desperate and grieving faces alike, saw Luke, Neal and Adam in a cluster of children relieved their parents were safe. He saw Rachel Sunborn with her gold-ringed fist raised in triumph, and saw the empty saddles of those who had not come home.
He said, aloud into the night wind and with no-one to hear: “I find war very annoying.”
Everyone else seemed to think that the whole situation was perfectly all right, just because the Sunborns had prevailed. It put Elliot into a terrible mood.
When it was time to go back home, Rachel talked cheerfully about how much she was sure they would enjoy the second year of camp at the Border: more swordplay, larger bows. Piles of weapons, which was about as enticing a prospect to Elliot as piles of cat poop.
“And are you looking forward to it?” Rachel asked Elliot, beaming but vague. Elliot suspected she had no idea what went on in the council training course at all.
“Sure,” said Elliot, and when Rachel was no longer paying attention but Luke still was, he added: “Truce is over then. I’ll finally have peace and quiet.”
Hope you enjoyed! In the next part… this is very exciting… everybody gets to be FOURTEEN!