Wed 1 Apr 2015
by Ginger Weil
‘It’s a very strange matter, fair maiden,’ said he,
‘I canna blaw my horn but ye call on me.
‘But will ye go to yon greenwood side?
If ye canna gang, I will cause you to ride.’
-Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight
My parents subscribed me to Out Magazine for my thirteenth birthday, but boycotted my eighth grade graduation because town rumor said the speaker was a magician. She was an economist with a perfectly respectable doctorate in fairy-human trade history.
They knew I liked girls, but they didn’t know I’d kissed my sister Rachael’s best friend. No one knew that, not even Rachael. And when it came to me and magic, my parents pretended not to know. They pretended so hard I ended up almost invisible.
Rachael felt bad I’d missed my own graduation. She invited me to a party she and her friends were having. One of those “don’t-tell-anyone” things that everyone knows about, a bonfire up in the woods, past the start of the Lye Brook access trail.
We hiked up before dark. My sister and her friends hoisted coolers of cheap beer over the rocks and tree roots. I carried the cardinal flints, the iron filings, and the canister of sea salt. People did still camp in the woods. But you made sure to set up camp before sundown.
The sun was low when we stopped. Slanting light painted the birches with honeyed streaks.
“Lay the circle, ‘Rene? You do it best.” Rachael was always casual. Not quite admitting I could do magic, not quite hiding from it. Besides, it gave me something to do while her friends talked about boys.
I didn’t want to talk about boys. “Shouldn’t we wait for Lucie?”
Rachael made a face. “You know how she is.”
Leaves crinkled behind me. The breeze carried the herbs and honey of Lucie’s body wash.
“I’m late again, aren’t I?” Lucie stepped past me as I laid a flint at cardinal west, steering so wide around me she hit a tree.
I mixed the iron filings and sea salt in my cupped palm. Where they touched my skin, the iron filings glowed. No one noticed.
Salt and iron blended to gray against the leafmold. I licked my thumb and spat to set the circle, then brushed my hands off over the fire.
Lucie leaned against Rachael, laughing. When Lucie turned away, Rachael threw me an apologetic look and a beer.
I couldn’t bear it. I knew I shouldn’t leave the circle. It’s one of those things mothers tell you, even mothers who hate magic as much as mine. Don’t take candy from strangers. Look both ways before crossing the street. Never listen when voices call your name from the dark, and never go in the woods alone at night.
Will o’ the wisps hung between the trees, thick as fireflies. Voices whispering in the dark didn’t fool me, but I couldn’t stay and listen to Lucie laughing. I crept behind a tree where Rachael couldn’t see, then stepped over the circle.
One of the things calling from outside the circle had Lucie’s voice. She hadn’t spoken to me in three weeks, and I missed that clear deep alto. I knew it wasn’t her, but I followed the voice anyway.
Our trees aren’t old. A hundred years ago this was pasture. Old fieldstone walls march beneath tree roots and down into streams. The darkness beneath was older than the branches that cast it. I’d only gone a few steps before shadows wove around me. I looked back and couldn’t see the firelight.
Nervous sparks jumped from my fingertips. I leaned against the scratchy bark of a pine, trying to fake calm. I popped the tab on my can because it seemed like the thing to do. Foam poured over my knuckles.
“ ‘Rene,” the voice called again. It didn’t sound so much like Lucie now, tenor more than alto. I came to my senses enough to know this was a mistake. I’d gone in to the woods alone. Maybe I wouldn’t come back, or I’d come back changed. I might go missing for seven years.
My knees locked. Not that running around will o’ the wisps was a good plan unless I wanted to wake up, at best, at the bottom of a ravine with a broken leg.
The dark pressed against me. It was almost a relief to be frightened of something beside the ache in my heart. I pulled an old silver necklace from my pocket. The metal links gleamed between my fingers.
In the dim light of old silver I could make out a shadow leaning against a tree a few feet from mine. Dark clothes shaded into dull gray bark. I heard the click of a lighter, flame and then ember lighting the edges of a face.
“You’re very young,” he said, “but then, you all look young to me now.”
I recognized him from locker room talk, something the other girls on the track team talked about while I half-listened and tried to look as if it were easy not to watch them changing. Not all Elfin Knights had started out human, but this one had. His name was Roland. He was supposed to be irresistible. Maybe it was the dim light, but he just looked shaggy and rumpled and a little sad to me.
“Lucie didn’t think I was too young.”
He stepped toward me, moldered leaves whispering beneath his feet. I flinched. He smelled like leather, cigarettes, and crumbling bark. He took the beer can from my hand, drained it, and grimaced. If I was going to want a boy, this should be the moment.
“How do you know?”
“How do you know this Lucie doesn’t think you’re too young?” he asked again.
“She kissed me.” But she hadn’t talked to me since.
His face shifted. “She.” It was a reaction I’d gotten used to, but not one I hoped for. But then his face stilled.
“I’ve kissed a lot of girls.” He didn’t say it like he was bragging. I thought most boys would have. It was easy to forget he wasn’t exactly a boy, someone else who’d crept foolishly away from the campfire. “Some of them were definitely too young.”
Lucie was my sister’s age. Three years and eight months older than me. It hadn’t mattered to me. We’d been talking, leaning against the brick gymnasium wall behind the high school where I’d be a freshman next year. The sun was warm on my face, the brick warm against my back, and her body warm beside me. We leaned closer and closer.
Then she’d pulled away, started climbing up the brick wall, strong rock-climbing fingers gripping the ledges easily.
“She ran away, after.”
Roland lit another cigarette. “Sometimes they do that, after. I don’t know why. It doesn’t help.”
She’d dared me to follow her. Heights scared me but her laughter scared me more. And she smelled like honey, milk, and thyme. Marble cornerstones zipped the edges of the building together for the first few feet from the ground. After those first feet, smooth marble blocks gave way to thin rough lines of brick.
“I couldn’t climb up after her. I tried.”
Her hair fell in my face as she leaned over the edge. She grabbed my wrists and tugged me up. Her thumbs pressed between the bones, a sharp ache that made me want more. The skin around her eyes softened and her mouth leaned into mine.
Her lips were dry, scratchy. Her breath was hot against my teeth. I forgot I was halfway up a wall and stepped back.
“So it was a good kiss?”
I had a moment to decide if I would fall. I could have pushed back against the ground, held myself up. I could feel the magic waiting. If I’d used it, I could have kissed her again. But then she’d have known. And what if she didn’t want to kiss me, after she knew? So I let myself fall six feet to the ground. I used enough magic to keep it from hurting, that was all.
“It knocked the breath out of me.”
“Really good, or really bad, then.”
“And now she screens my calls, ignores my messages.”
She’d kissed me first. I knew about kissing. But I didn’t know what to do after. Roland couldn’t help me with that. Unless what came after was me walking with Lucie out into the middle of Bourne Brook and one of us drowning the other in the rust-clear water. Maybe we’d both drown. For a moment I wanted that. Our bodies would slide over the rocks and float face down to Benson’s Hole.
“Could be you’re too young.” Roland lit another cigarette off the end of the last one. I coughed, trying not to breathe in the reek of menthol and burning tar. “The last girl liked it better when I smoked. Then I got in the habit.”
“I’m not one of your girls.”
“That’s not up to me any more than it’s up to the mermaids. Cry seven salt tears into the ocean, get a mermaid. Be a not-even-barely legal girl alone and wanting in the woods at night, get an elfin knight.”
“I don’t want anything. I want it all to go away.” The silver chain blazed in my hand. Steam rose around my feet.
“What makes you think any of us get what we want? How old are you again?” He leaned toward me, blew smoke into my face. “I swear you get younger every year.”
Roland looked older than me. Everyone did, even Dave, and he was four months younger than me. “Fourteen. Almost.”
He ground the cigarette out beneath his heel. “Fourteen looks younger than it used to.” He reached for me. I should have run. Better to deal with the will o’ the wisps.
“Don’t run,” he said. “Please. If you run, I’ll have to chase you.” He grabbed my empty hand. “Can I help it if they always choose to run?”
Long fingers wrapped around my hand, turned my palm up. He didn’t kiss my hand. He sucked my fingers one by one, licked the little webs of skin between the fingers.
I stood there awkwardly and concentrated on not running away.
He put my hand down. “That’s really awful beer.”
“Yeah, well, that was a really gross kiss.” It might have been better if it were Lucie. Without the cigarettes or the cheap beer.
I pushed at his chest with the other hand, the one wrapped in spelled silver. “Back off.”
He stepped back. “Are you sure you don’t want me?” He looked happy. I’d always heard boys looked disappointed.
“It would be easier.”
“But no.” He took the chain out of my hand. It stopped glowing. He tucked it into my pocket, waiting for some reaction I didn’t give him. “I’ll walk you back to your fire,” he said. “There’s things in this wood that, if they chased you, it wouldn’t be your choice.”
He looped his arm through mine. After a few steps I could see the firelight again. In the moving shadows cast by maple branches and firelight, his face looked old, and lonely.
Sometimes they can cross salt lines, if they’re powerful enough. He stopped outside the circle.
He lit another cigarette. “You could come back some time,” he said. “It would be your choice.”
I stepped over the salt circle. When I turned around, I couldn’t see him. I sat down on a sawed off tree stump by the fire.
“I thought you’d wandered off,” my sister said. “If you hadn’t made it back, Mom and Dad wouldn’t have forgiven me.”
I laughed, though it wasn’t funny. “Mom and Dad would forgive you anything.”
Lucie didn’t even look at me.
‘My curse on those wha learn d thee;
This night I weend ye’d gane wi me.’
The Elfin Knight
Rachael wanted me to be happy. If I was happy she could enjoy college and not feel guilty leaving me behind. But magic haunted my bones, and I didn’t know what happy should look like. Drinking quieted the swirling pulse beneath my eyes, beneath my skin. If I was an angry drunk sometimes, at least plates and televisions didn’t tilt and sway when I was angry.
First day of winter break, Rachael hugged me and wrinkled her nose at the alcohol in my sweat.
“Does Mom know?”
Mom hadn’t hugged me since third grade, when I boiled a pot of water by touching it.
Lucie texted me from college, breaking nineteen months, one week, and three days of silence. “I hope U fnd some1.” I had to believe a stranger chose those words, awkward text speak an excuse for that abbreviated “fnd” that could be “found” or “find.”
Second day of winter break, Rachael stole the liquor bottles from my closet and poured them down the bathroom sink. I went to Dave’s, hoping he’d give me a drink and not make a pass. We’d been good friends in middle school. It still hurt to wonder where that had gone.
If I drank enough, sometimes the magic and I forgot each other for a little while. It didn’t always work, and it took a little more alcohol every time. Rachael wasn’t telling me anything new, tipping vodka down the sink. If I didn’t want to commit death by stupid, I’d have to figure out some other way of dealing with it. This was just till I figured out something else.
We tucked ourselves away in the old sugaring shack behind his dad’s house, playing remember when instead of truth or dare. I remembered why I liked Dave when we were both snot nosed kids who read comic books together because fantasy novels hit too close to home.
The fifth shot of raspberry vodka shut off his brain. He tried to wrap himself around me. Just holding might’ve been ok. I wanted to be held too. But his breath was hot against my neck in the cold room.
“You smell good.”
“You smell drunk,” I said, and pushed my arm between us. He slumped against me like he thought I’d change my mind if he just looked soft enough. He pissed me off, not trusting me to tell the truth.
I pushed him the way I’d pushed against the ground the day I fell off the gymnasium wall. If drinking still worked, nothing would’ve happened.
He slid away from me and smacked into the barnboard wall.
“You could have just said no thanks.” He rubbed his head.
“I said no thanks last summer. When I told you I liked Lucie.”
“You could like me too.”
My hands pressed into the rough boards as I did my best not to shake sense into him. I knew it wouldn’t work, but it was tempting.
“What is this about, Dave? I mean, really? Girls chase you.” I’d watched them do it for years, wondered on lonely nights if it was a trick I could learn. “So why chase me? Because I don’t say yes?”
“Look at you. You’re phenomenal. Who wouldn’t want you?”
Mom hadn’t hugged me in a decade. Lucie saw me maybe use magic and didn’t talk to me for a year and a half. And here was Dave, wanting everything they didn’t, and I didn’t want him.
He dragged himself up the wall, breath hissing through his teeth as he straightened. That was my fault, for thinking I was too drunk to hurt him.
Maybe I didn’t know. It felt rock solid inside me, but I’d thought I couldn’t hurt Dave too. Roland’s kiss in the woods made my skin crawl, but he was what he was: blood-stained fairy creature, not a boy at all.
“Maybe I don’t know,” I said, even though I did. And I pressed my lips to his.
Roland told me to find someone to share my secrets with. This wasn’t sharing anything. Dave’s body gave off its own heat in the small room, but I felt cold.
Dave pulled back. His hand touched my face. His fingers trembled, but unlike mine they didn’t spark.
He kissed me again. My lips sat quiet beneath his. He pulled away. “I’d rather have just kept hoping.”
“You asked.” I clenched my fists and tried not to cry.
Dave kicked over the bottle as he backed away from me. Artificial raspberry filled the air.
“Maybe you should,” he waved at the door. Tears edged his eyes.
“I guess so.” The door slammed loud behind me.
After that I didn’t drink with Dave anymore. The fun had gone out of stealing, but it wasn’t as if I could buy my own drinks. So I just took old things out of the back of Mom’s liquor cabinet.
I could try drinking more, but I’d gotten close to where drinking enough to kill the magic would kill me. I tried not sleeping. That was worse than drinking. Being tired made me angry all the time, or made it harder to ignore how angry I was. And it didn’t squash the magic at all – just took away my focus and left the magic to do what it wanted.
Christmas Eve dinner, Mom toasted Rachael’s first semester of college.
“To Rachael,” Mom and Dad chorused. They said it with so much excitement, as if they thought this was it, I’d never make it to college. Maybe they figured magic made me stupid. Never mind that I’d tutored Rachael through her last two years of history class.
I squeezed the stem of my sparkling cider glass and chorused “To Rachael” with the rest, because I was happy for her. I was, but it hurt.
Jealousy prickled under my skin, worse than lust or magic. I went cold with envy, hot with shame. And I hadn’t slept in a week. Ice coated the glass under my hand, the cider inside heated from cold fizz to rolling boil, and the bulb of the glass exploded, sending shards across the table.
No one was hurt, but dinner was ruined. Glass shards sparked like deadly garnish on the ham and potatoes. Dad let me walk away. Making me stay and clean up the mess would have meant talking about magic.
Dad turned on the oven for frozen pizza. I walked through the kitchen to my bedroom and lay facedown on my bed in the dark. Not sleeping hadn’t worked out for me. I passed out fully dressed on my bed and woke to Rachael shaking me.
The nap gave me back enough control that I didn’t throw her across the room by accident. Small mercies.
“Brown has a magic studies program now.” My shoulder pressed against her leg. She rubbed her knee, as if she wanted to rub my shoulder and didn’t quite dare. Maybe worried magic was catching, I thought, and felt guilty. Rachael wasn’t like that.
“Unh.” I wanted to lean in to her hand, but then she’d pull away and I’d feel worse. I knuckled my eyes.
“And there’s gossip on campus about teachers all over… y’know, a couple of Harvard Law Professors, a math prof at Beloit, a handful of foreign lit profs at Vassar who specialize in really foreign languages.”
She was trying to give me hope, I guess. “Mom and Dad can’t afford to send me to any of those schools. I’m not scholarship material.” Would she make me spell it out to her? My tall, thin, pretty, clear-skinned sister was a genius in the lab. The “my science fair project paid my way to college” kind of genius. Schools had bidding wars over her.
“Fine then. Not that I agree, but there’s at least one mage teaching at the community college down in Bennington.”
My jaw dropped. Mage was a dirty word in our house.
“He’s an alchemist, not a natural like you,” Rachael said.
In high school, Rachael was a keep your head down, just-get-by kind of girl. Except in the lab. She was there for me, but conflict was not her thing. One semester of college and she defied Mom’s years of silence.
Rachael brushed my hair back. “You should visit me on campus. Maybe not this semester. Between the drinking and the exploding, you’ve dug yourself in kind of deep there.”
She turned away from whatever she saw in my face. “Dad’s worried about you,” she said to the wall.
“Mom’s… high school isn’t forever, ‘Rene.”
“Easy for you to say now you’ve graduated.”
“It’s not easy.” She cut herself off. “Go back to sleep, ok? I’ll talk to Dad about you visiting.” She kissed my forehead.
Rachael’s vacation ended too soon. She hugged me goodbye outside the Albany airport security checkpoint. Mom and Dad both had to work, so Dave drove us down even though he only had a permit. We hadn’t talked since the shed, and I wasn’t looking forward to the drive back.
Rachael passed me a piece of paper. “Drinking isn’t going to work,” she said. “This guy at school gave me an herbalist’s address.” She said it too casually, so I knew the guy meant something to her.
“If I could get out of state that easy, I’d just come visit you.”
She smiled like I’d given her a present.
“Erik’s from around here. He knew someone local.” I glanced at the paper, saw an 802 number, stuffed it in my pocket.
“I gotta go,” I said, “Dave’s waiting,” but when she hugged me I didn’t pull away.
Outside, Dave leaned against his third-hand Honda, smoking a cigarette. “That’s not going to make girls want you,” I said.
“You don’t get a vote,” Dave said, and stubbed out the cigarette.
So we were talking, but it was awkward. No more nights drinking in his dad’s shed for us, staring at the ceiling and talking in soft voices about poetry, about the future.
I fingered the paper in my pocket. Dave cursed through the snarl of highway between the airport and Troy.
“Rachael thinks I should see an herbalist,” I said, once we were safely up the hill on to Route 7.
“If it means – did you see that jerk? Nice signal – if you won’t throw me into walls anymore then I’m all for it.”
“That was one time.”
“One time is all it takes, Irene. Worth trying.”
It would be gray market, of course. Herbs from over the border got sold legally and illegally. Legal you bought at the official markets, and paid three times the base cost in taxes and transfer fees. Illegal you took your chances that what you bought wasn’t fake, or swopped for something else that was real enough, but didn’t do anything you’d ever want. In between were small time dealers and alchemists, who sold some things on the books and others under the table.
Erik’s friend sold me long threads of rank-smelling herbs that steeped purple and tasted worse than burdock tea. They made my skin feel thick and spongy, like a padded envelope. Somehow, the padding held the magic in. On the downside, I ran a constant fever and couldn’t bear to touch anything. Even my fingertips were puffy. I wore soft sweatsuits to school; jeans chafed my swollen flesh raw.
Six months later the guy fell in love with some girl from Boston who called herself Lily. He sold me the rest of his supply cheap and packed himself out of state. Smuggling over the fairy line was harder in Massachusetts, more people per square foot, so I hoped he knew what he was doing. He laughed when I said something about it. “Love, y’know? Things will work out.”
‘Cast off, cast off, my May Colven,
All and your silken gown,
For it’s oer good and oer costly
To rot in the salt sea foam.’
-Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight
By July my stash was running out. The last of the drug seeped out of my pores and ate away at my skin, covering my arms in oozing raw-meat blisters. School was out, and Mom didn’t care. Folks stared at the post office though. As long as I kept the sores thickly coated with calamine, they pretended to believe me when I said I’d gotten in a bad patch of poison oak.
I fell asleep one afternoon, hoping a nap would keep me from scratching my burning skin, and woke up in a bed rimed with ice. It felt cool against my skin. The fever I’d been ignoring for six months had disappeared. Frost coated every piece of glass in the room: the inside of my window, my Tiffany knock-off bedside lamp, the row of unicorn statues my grandmother gave me when I was little. The ice gave their eyes a hard glitter, much more like real unicorns than their usual soft pink stares.
The drugs were gone. Drinking didn’t work. I started to cry. I tried to keep it quiet, but I guess I didn’t succeed. Mom opened the door. Her fingertips melted through the white lace of frost on the doorknob. The look in her eyes frightened me more than the icicles in my hair.
“Don’t you knock?” I tried to look tough while rubbing trails of mucus off my nose.
“We should upgrade the whole house to the cast iron window frames,” she said, “I’ve never heard of frost fairies doing anything like this.”
She’d broken her own rule about never mentioning magic things. But everyone knew frost fairies didn’t come out around here till after August. September, maybe, but not July.
Rachael was right: hiding was stupid. “This isn’t frost fairies, Mom.” I stood up. Ice cracked and fell from my clothes.
She stepped back. I wondered how long she’d been afraid of me. I could see it in her face, so plain it would have been rude to say more.
I grabbed a cold bottle of wine from the fridge, staring at her the whole time. She didn’t say anything to stop me. I’d left my backpack and iron screwdriver in the bedroom, so I stuck a fistful of nails from the jar by the door in my pocket.
“I’m going to the woods,” I said.
“Be back by morning,” Mom said. Mothers who cared wanted their daughters to be back by dark. But she knew what I was.
Nightfall found me leaning against the metal fence that separated scrubby woods from the interstate. Woods one way, water another, and the occasional passing headlight to reflect off the green glass of my wine bottle. Cold steel mesh guarded my back.
Mom was scared of me. I was scared to go any deeper in to the woods. I heard horns as soon as I crossed the bridge. I told myself horns were all I heard, not the baying of hounds, not the high-pitched screams of a girl out of breath and out of time. The quiet after was worse. I listened to the water and the rush of tires and tried not to think.
A cigarette lighter clicked. Most humans weren’t stupid enough to go for a smoke this close to the bubble-thin edge of fairy. Not many elfin things smoked tobacco. The toasted brown smell mixed with the yellow of settling pollen and the raw green of cut weeds. Town road crews with sickles and weed whackers cut the growth back from the highway edge every week. Fairy bramble grew fast.
“Hey,” I tried not to feel relieved.
“I told you the woods weren’t safe for you.”
A semi rigged in lights blared past, highlighting wet patches on Roland’s face and hands. He licked his mouth. He didn’t mean me to notice.
My sweating hands clenched on to the rusting fence post as I stood. Aluminum wouldn’t rust, but aluminum was only good for keeping out deer, and this fence was meant to keep out other things.
The post was almost rusted through. The town should put new ones in. But bridge and highway workers out here got hazard pay for fear of trolls and gnomes. The town put off maintenance as long as it could.
My veins itched as magic washed away the last of whatever that foul purple stuff had been. My bones burned inside my skin, like X-rays gone wrong. The mesh fence around my fingers glowed sparkler-red. Grass leaning against the fence sizzled and died. They could save money and just send me out to deal with the weeds. No one would worry if trolls ate me.
I leaned against the fence and didn’t burn.
“I’m not safe outside the woods either,” I said.
Magecraft wasn’t exactly illegal. Alchemists, sorcerers, charm workers and witches could open up legal businesses, even if zoning codes kept them off main streets and away from schools. People liked their magic with rules that could be studied, results that could be measured and tested.
Naturals were born magic, and their magic had its own variable and internal rules. For people like my mom and Lucie, that made naturals not quite human. Like changelings, or werekin.
Roland had been human once. Cold iron was no barrier to him. He wrapped his blood-streaked hands around mine. The hair on his knuckles burned where it touched the fence.
“So did you come out here because you’re ready to help me? We could claim such a territory together. A white horse for you, and a black stallion for me, and we’d ride green roads up the spine of the Green Mountains till the oak trees trembled and the women fell at our feet.”
“You want me to be a monster.”
“Call it what you want. There are worse things than either of us in these woods.” He brushed a tear off my face. I could feel the sticky track his fingers left behind.
I felt safe. Not because he wouldn’t hurt me, but because I didn’t have to worry about hurting him. Throwing him across a room, freezing his skin, sending a shard of accidental glass through his eyes. He peeled my fingers free from the fence and led me down to a rock a few feet above Benson’s Hole.
He could have pushed me in, right then. I wouldn’t have fought. The water rushed clean and swift over the reddish rocks. Instead he folded himself down to sit beside me, graceful as always. “If you ride with me, it should be honestly,” he said. “I’ve drowned five maidens in that stream.” The water was shallow, but you didn’t need a lot of water to drown someone. And Benson’s Hole was deep. I knew he’d killed girls; how could I not know? But hearing him say it was different from knowing, different even from seeing the bloodstains on his hands, his teeth. He put an arm around me and I should have pulled away but I didn’t. July nights shouldn’t be so cold.
If Rachael had been home, I wouldn’t have said it. “My Mom… the way she looked at me. I wish I never had to go home.” There are things that wait and listen for wishes in the woods. Something listened to me.
“You heard her, knight,” the thing said, and I flinched. It spoke with my voice. The accent was wrong, distorted as if it came through a microphone suspended in a well. But it was my voice.
Roland shook me. “You little fool. If you didn’t have more power than–” He turned to the thing. “She didn’t know what she said.”
“She didn’t know, didn’t know. As if that mattered.” The thing rocked toward me. With every movement side to side its arms and legs lengthened and stretched. When it stopped in front of me it took up the same space I did.
My armpits prickled with sweat.
“It’s afraid,” the thing said with my voice.
“Fetch,” I said, and shivered. It started to shiver too. Its movements matched mine.
“Changeling fetch,” Roland agreed. “A spare. The spares go a little mad if they’re not used soon enough. Like plucked fruit rotting.”
“Have I gone mad?” my voice asked. “Maybe I’m a monster. Maybe I’m not human. Maybe my mother will never know what sleeps in her bed.” The thing swayed closer and closer. It wanted a kiss. Kisses sealed so many kinds of magic. I stuck cold hands in my pockets.
My finger scratched against the rusty edges of an old nail head.
It kissed me with my own cold lips. I stabbed it with a fistful of nails, then set the nails on fire. The fetch burned like dried bramble heaped on a bonfire.
Roland stalked off. I sat there shivering. “Oh good,” I thought, “I’ve driven him away too.”
Then I didn’t think anything for a while.
Roland came back with a sweater and wrapped it around me. We sat there till false dawn. Roland smoked cigarette after cigarette and collected the butts in a pile at his feet. I stared at the water and tried to let it wash my thoughts away.
Dawn came and I snuck home. I washed the blood and ashes out of my hair in the bathroom. The sweater was expensive cashmere, with a department store label and tasteful gold-knot buttons. I’d seen it before. I tried to tell myself someone had forgotten it in the woods.
Next day’s Bennington Banner confirmed my memory. Trinity Vendeur had disappeared earlier that week. The picture in the paper showed her wearing the same sweater. I buried the sweater in the back of my closet. Maybe I would have showed it to someone, but Trinity’s body turned up the next day, down near where Bourne Brook met the Battenkill, across from the post office. I left the sweater in my closet and kept out of the woods for the rest of the summer.
When he had told her these fair tales,
To love him she began,
Because he was in human shape,
Much like unto a man.
-The Daemon Lover
I kept my head so far down, I actually started studying. Not just doing my homework, but studying after the homework was done. Halfway through senior year, the idea that I might go to college wasn’t impossible.
I sat alone in a lunchroom corner, staring at one of those “real students tell all” college guidebooks. I’d rather have sat outside, but the January thaw was over. A foot of snow covered the picnic tables.
My cocoa went cold while I read about Williams College. Not that I could afford to go to Williams. I should be looking for a college in the desert. Somewhere far from woods, trees, rivers. I looked around, then used a guilty edge of magic to reheat my cocoa. I hid my face in the steam and ignored the cell phone buzzing in my pocket. My sister kept texting to nag me about my college applications. I’d applied to three schools, but hadn’t told her. I didn’t want to get her hopes up.
I wanted coffee, but the stuff the dining hall called coffee wasn’t drinkable. Instant cocoa was safer. I stashed the college book and dragged out my history homework. The school hired a new AP History teacher over the summer, and she insisted on teaching an elective on the ethics and politics of magic. I signed up because the teacher was gorgeous and because it made me angry how many parents tried to get her fired when news about the elective leaked. The class was actually interesting.
The girl crossing the cafeteria toward me was more than interesting. Her back was straight and her hair wasn’t perfect but it looked like it would catch my fingers.
She dropped her tray on the table in front of me with a clatter of plastic cups and cheap aluminum tableware.
I stared at her spoon to try and keep from sneaking looks at her cleavage. There was this movement a couple years back to “arm” school students by giving us all iron and silver tableware, but that foundered when the school accountants started to price out four hundred silver table knives and the school lunchroom pointed out that iron forks would have to be washed by hand and oiled. Then the school attorney pointed out it was illegal to discriminate against werekin and changelings. Not that our school officially has either enrolled, since that info doesn’t get to be public record until you turn eighteen.
We still have aluminum cutlery and I stopped worrying about whether anyone would notice if I brought my own forks to school. I’m not allergic to iron or silver, but I didn’t need to be known as the girl with the glowing soup spoons.
“I heard you’re the person to ask for help with history,” she said.
I stabbed at a grape on my tray and watched it skittle away across the table like the Graeae’s lost eyeball. Late nights when I was trying not to drink, I watched a lot of old Ray Harryhausen animation.
“Heard from who?” I raised both eyebrows because I couldn’t raise just one.
She grinned. “I asked Mrs. S. She told me your essays were, what was it? Several standard deviations above the norm?”
Mrs. S. taught history but loved statistics.
“And she said.”
“She said to tell you that if you wrote my essays for me the way you wrote that last one of your sister’s, she’d flunk us both.”
“What’s your name?” I asked, and she knew I’d given in.
“Amy, and you can never ask what it’s short for.”
“Noted.” She pulled out her books and we leaned over them together.
For a week, I looked forward to going to school. The feeling lasted till I showed up early one morning for a pre-class study session and saw Dave dropping Amy off by the back steps. She leaned across the seat to kiss him goodbye.
I know it shouldn’t have changed anything. Amy was smart and funny and charming, and Dave was my friend. It shouldn’t have changed anything, but it did.
Our town is too small to have a bus system or a full time truant officer. I turned around and started walking away from the school. If I stayed there, something would explode, or something would burn. I’d hurt someone. I didn’t think I wanted that. It had felt clearer when I was younger. Now I was caught between what I wanted and what I knew I should be ok with.
I remembered how easily the fetch caught fire, the feel of Trinity’s blood smeared across my face. The three miles from the school back to my house weren’t enough to cool my temper, even in the snow. Maybe that was why I turned up the Lye Brook trail.
Fat snowflakes drifted between the tree branches. The sun shone pale silver behind a thin scrim of cloud.
Branches lined in white stood out as sharp as runes written in marble. Off the path, a foot of new snow drifted over a crackling crust of old snow. Walking through it was hard enough work that I started to sweat. I took off my hat and unzipped my coat.
The snow must have hidden an old circle. People like to believe you have to see the circle, that you have to cross voluntarily. It’s pure myth. One step and those were just spaces between the snowflakes, glints of soft light reflecting off ice crystals that shook in the branches as birds took off at my approach. The next step and those spaces were the folds of white lace dresses, those glints the jewels woven crystal bright through long shadowed locks of hair.
Their feet barely dented the snow. My boots sank down to their drawstring tops. Their eyes were cold blue beneath long colorless lashes. If these were the ice fairies my mother worried about, I should have left the window open and prayed they would come in.
My cheeks flushed, breath puffing out in clouds. Their hands were long, clear skin over the blue rush of veins. I wanted to feel those cold hands beneath my scarf, against the hot beat of my heart.
The strings of their music wailed high and tight with cold. Brittle drums beat like soft feet skidding across the surface of a frozen pool.
A branch cracked behind me, loud discordant note in the music.
Roland stood behind me, with one foot in the circle. He reached out and I pulled away. I didn’t want to sit next to him in the snow, sexless and too young. I wanted to dance with those cold women till everything else fell away.
His smell changed first. The familiar reek of smoke and leather layered with something that made my pulse beat faster. I hadn’t realized my pulse had slowed to match the icy drumbeat of the dancers until it sped up. My fingers tingled with cold.
His hand closed around my wrist. His fingers felt different. Narrower knuckles, smoother skin, the same strong scarred palm against my wrist.
The dancers stole my breath, their bodies pale and perfect beneath snow-lace dresses.
Roland pulled me back and I sobbed, tears freezing on my face. There wasn’t anything I wanted more than I wanted to dance in that circle of ice and snow. Whatever made girls call out from their bedrooms, follow him into the woods, strip off their clothes and kiss him as they drowned, I’d never felt it. There were nights I wouldn’t have cared if I drowned, but it was never because I wanted him.
But Roland pulled me against his chest, soft beneath his leather jacket, and I wanted him. I peered up his neck at the planes of his face. Four years had made those shadowed edges familiar, but the jaw line above my face was smoothly strange.
The flat plane of his hips widened where he pressed behind me, and my whole body flushed. Roland’s hair had always been a long dark mess, but the locks that crossed my face carried a scent they’d never had before.
Breasts pressed against my back. Roland’s body burned warm behind me. I pushed away, longing mixed together in me for the dancers, for the body pressed against mine. Roland cursed and spun me around. The arms around me were still strong, corded with muscle. But I’d leaned against Roland on a dozen drunken nights, and this wasn’t the body I knew: rib cage too narrow, hips too wide, chest too soft, neck and chin too smooth, scent of skin and hair meltingly perfect.
Roland kissed me, rough lips against mine and her long fingers in my hair, my own hands tangled in those dark locks. Her breasts pressed against mine. She dragged me backward step by step. The muscles in her legs shifted as they moved between mine.
I’d been stupid and smug. Coming out in the woods, drinking with an elfin knight. Because his kiss left me cold, I thought I was safe. They had to seduce you before they drowned you. That was the rule. Roland had been mortal once, with mortal limitations. That was a long time ago.
I didn’t feel safe anymore. I kissed Roland back, her mouth hot against mine, my skin flushed. My cold hand wrapped around the warm skin of her neck.
Her chest flattened. Ribs rippled and pushed beneath her skin. The madness gripping me faded a little.
“I’d forgotten how much this hurts,” Roland gasped, and her voice cracked on every word.
Everything I’d known I shouldn’t feel when I watched Dave kiss Amy, that was nothing to the betrayal I felt staring down into Roland’s ridiculous lashes.
Her bones cracked again. I told myself I didn’t care. Heat poured out of me, melting the snow into a steaming puddle of leaf mold and sodden black twigs.
“Magic. Power. I was honest about that.” Roland’s voice cracked and dropped again as his ribcage reformed. “Together we’d have a queen’s territory. I spent years guarding you. I wouldn’t let you die now. But you’d already crossed the circle. Nothing else would call you back. You little fool.”
“I thought we were friends.”
“Weren’t we friends? I killed for you. I protected you. I listened to you. Again and again I saved your life.” His fingers were hot against mine, but the heat didn’t mean anything. For the other Roland, I’d strip off my clothes and wade at midnight into the deep water, and I’d be happy to do it.
“You lied to me.” I wanted to scream.
“You never asked.” He lay there, bones still again, his leather coat soaking with melted snow.
“You said you were not the most dangerous thing in these woods.”
“I don’t chase what doesn’t want me.”
I leaned my forehead against a tree. “I know. You were honest about that. For what it’s worth, I’m sorry.”
“Sorry I didn’t chase you?”
I leaned down and kissed him. He tasted of cigarettes, liquor, and blood. Nothing else. “Sorry I won’t be coming back.”
Sooner or later, he’d shift again. And I wanted her. And she would chase me, because that was what she did. Sooner or later.
Walking out of the woods was easier than walking in. The snow melted in a wide circle around me as I walked. I crossed over the bridge. I needed a dry change of clothes, and then I’d have to ask Dad to give me a ride back to school before he left for work.
College – Freshman year
‘O whare are ye gaun?’ quo the false knight,
And false, false was his rede:
‘I’m gaun to the scule,’ says the pretty little boy,
And still, still he stude.
-The Fause Knight on the Road
For graduation, my sister Rachael gave me ten rings of twined iron and silver. I gave her a packet that held copies of all my college application letters. The SUNY system had just opened a new campus, one with a whole academic program in magic studies. I’d gone to apply in person. My presentation had been better than my essays, I figured, since that was the only school to offer me a scholarship.
My dorm room looked out over the woods. The residential advisor had been apologetic about it. “Some students aren’t comfortable with the exposure. We’ve put in charmed window frames. And you can always call for an escort after dark. Your roommate said she’d be checking in late.”
I’d have a roommate. I don’t know why I hadn’t thought through that part. I’d gotten the form and everything. I sat nervously on my mattress and waited for her to come in the door.
My roommate let herself in without knocking. She was the only one in the hallway, no parents hovering behind her.
She braided her hair with feathers. That took the whole “make yourself over in college” thing a bit far for the first day. She walked up to me, stood in front of the window with her hands on her hips.
The feathers weren’t braided in.
“I’m werekin. And kind of nocturnal. If that’s going to be a problem, tell me now. The RA said he could reassign me.”
That explained why she’d gotten here so late. It was probably early morning to her.
“Are you loud at night?”
She turned her head to stare at me with one sharp eye. Her nose had a great hook, and I tried not to think things that would only lead to trouble.
“Look, is this going to be a problem?”
Rachael had been right. This was college. I could set my own rules. “I’m a mage. And gay. Is that going to be a problem?”
“Do you blow stuff up?”
“Blow my laptop up and it’s a problem. Mages are hell on electronics. Do you want to bunk the beds? I like sleeping high up.”
I stood up and started dragging my bed frame across the room.
After that it was easy. We walked across campus to the dining hall. The rest of the floor huddled behind the resident advisor like ducklings as we walked under spreading old oak trees. The setting sun sparked on the leaves and picked out purple highlights in my roommates feathered hair. There were faces in the oak trees; there were voices in the brooks. I’d been in the woods before. I’d be fine.
Copyright 2015 Ginger Weil
Ginger Weil grew up in Vermont at the edge of the woods. She spends her spare time in libraries, can usually be tempted by caffeine, and often commits experimental baking. Her fiction has also appeared in Apex Magazine. She is on twitter as @gingerweil.