For Milana, meeting one of the Old Ones was like meeting a tiger in the woods. It was a rare, once-in-a-life-time story that might impress strangers at parties, but only if you survived long enough to repeat it.
For a split second Milana thought about pretending she wasn’t a faerie, that she didn’t know who the Old One was, that Milana was nothing but a tall straw-haired assistant manager who worked twelve hour shifts at the Burger King on Birch and 7th. Her glamour fooled all the humans, and the stench of fryer oil clinging to her clothes and shoes fooled herself sometimes. But the Old Ones had power beyond the greatest mages, and they weren’t known for mercy. Milana, who had exiled herself to the dying lands so that she might never have to bow to anyone again, dropped to her elbows with her hands up by her ears.
“Milana of Clan Holly, I have a task for you.” The Old One had a voice like wind blowing through a forest.
Twigs on the Tree, this was all she needed. Her coworkers warned her not to take a shortcut home through the park. She might have met a mugger. A mugger would only have beat her, taken her hard-earned money. This goddess could destroy her as casually as a human might cut down a tree, and worse, could hurt her clan back home in the Realm of the Faerie. She would rather have been robbed.
She waited for the Old One’s command. Her people obeyed the Old Ones out of fear, not respect, but sometimes even the worst bully let you go when she was done with you.
“You know of my senndil?”
“I know little of you and yours, Old One.” Senndil. Milana racked her brain for sagas about a senndil of the Old Ones. How would she translate that? Priest? Servant? Avatar?
“I have a human senndil. You will befriend her.”
Befriend her? Why? Couldn’t humans find their own friends without the Old One getting involved?
“She can and does,” The Old One answered, as if Milana had spoken aloud. “But she will have need of you someday, many years from now, and it suits my purposes for you to befriend her now.”
Milana licked her lips, tasting loam and fertilizer. She still didn’t look up. She didn’t have to. The Old One radiated power like the sun. “Old One, how will I know your senndil?”
“You will know.” The Old One vanished, leaving Milana to scramble to her feet and run the rest of the way home.
The news she heard when she returned to their apartment almost made the encounter with the Old One flee her mind. Milana let her bag slump to the ground. Inside the bag, a coffee cup clinked dully against a clipboard. “You’re what?”
“Taret and I bonded. He’s my spira now.” Xabe crouched on a milk crate, peering into a small cracked mirror tile on the plywood surface of their table. Milana figured out by his vain expression that he was altering his glamour, even before the ash colored hair shimmered and vanished. Xabe’s face lengthened, then widened, and his head sprouted small trendy dreadlocks. “What do you think, will the human girls like this look?”
“The human girls are going to think you’re gay. They won’t understand you bonding with Taret.”
“Indel are meant to bond with Vargel, and I’m the highest ranking one around,” Xabe said. When they first emigrated, he wouldn’t have pointed out their difference in rank. Living together had eroded their politeness.
“I suppose he’s going to wait on you now, fix your meals, carry messages?” Milana brushed off earth and leaves from her vest, then began to strip, rummaging in her milk crate for familiar Realm clothing: soft white pants (like silk without the oily feel) and a blue on blue damask overtunic, so short it barely came down to her wrists when her arms hung by her side. Blue suited her poorly, but she couldn’t wear any higher ranking color, not while wearing Vargel clothing.
“You’re jealous.” Xabe shook off his glamour with a tiny dissolution spell, causing both his faerie face and his faerie clothing to come into view. It was the best Realm-made outfit he had brought with him when he emigrated, and normally he would never dare wear it on the filthy beige carpet of their rented studio. The fabric was blue and yellow and gold, interwoven and embroidered so intricately that the first impression was that of a deep green. The only time Milana had seen cloth even half so fine here in the dying lands was when an Indian woman had worn a sari into the Burger King where Milana worked.
Milana slipped her tunic over her shoulders. Unskilled at flattery, only moderately attractive, a mediocre mage, and a lousy poet; she could never have climbed the ranks of Clan Holly. She’d never have an Indel want to bond with her, and she certainly wasn’t noble enough to befriend the senndil of an Old One.
“Hey, Milana!” Taret peered in the window. “Can you open the door for me?” He lifted his hands to show a dozen plastic sacks dangling from his fingers. Taret set the bags down and shut the door with his foot. The shoulder of his tee shirt had a fresh tear in it.
Torn shoulder. A symbolic rip, on human clothing. It didn’t feel right.
She opened the door for him, and flicked the loose threads with a fingernail. “Congratulations.”
Taret beamed. He reminded Milana of her pregnant, sixteen-year-old co-worker: so happy at the prospect of motherhood, so oblivious to the concept of forever.
She helped Taret take out the groceries he had bought and put them into the cardboard boxes near the electric burner. She wanted to talk to Taret and Xabe about meeting the Old One, but couldn’t bring it up, not in the face of this.
Xabe, of course, was milking his new status as Taret’s karla, holding out his hand for Taret to bring him a glass of water. Leaves and Ashes. How long had they been planning this? “Whatever happened to ‘Let’s live together and pretend to be human’?”
“I thought you’d be happy for us.” Taret set a fourth bag of marshmallows on the counter, along with a can of tuna. The addition of a can of tiny oranges meant he was going to make his favorite dish. More celebration.
“My name is on the lease,” Milana said. She felt jealous, but sad too. They’d come through the portal together, by the Tree. She’d have to move out, but how were they going to survive without her rent money? How was she going to survive with only humans to talk to?
“You’re going to have to find a job, Xabe.”
“But why?” Taret poured oil in the pan and began melting the marshmallows. He added a dollop of catsup and stirred. “You’re an assistant manager now, don’t you make enough money to support us all?”
Xabe peered at his mirror again, and when he looked up he wore the same human face that Milana wore.
“I don’t make squat, and that’s not the point. If Xabe’s going to be your karla, he has to start acting like it.” And she wasn’t going to live in a house with a bonded pair. That was worse than living with lovers. Two trees hang a hammock, but the third gets in the way. “And don’t you dare wear my face! I have a driver’s license with that face now.”
“Fine.” Xabe realigned his features into something darker and more masculine.
Taret added the tuna to his skillet. Steam filled the tiny studio. The smell of scorched marshmallow and fish drove home how different her day and night lives were. Like the Realm and the dying lands. By day she had responsibilities, she had a name tag that read ‘assistant manager’ and people obeyed her. Her! A blue-clad Vargel!
But she wasn’t human, no matter how she pretended. If she were human, she might have had enough courage to tell the Old One “no.” If Xabe and Taret were human, they wouldn’t have done this.
She flicked her glance between them. Vargel and Indel went together like horse and cart. Karla and spira, master and servant. Bonding to a Vargel was what made him an Indel, and when one was adrift in an alien ocean, one clung to the biggest piece of flotsam. Higher ranking flotsam. The studio and her friends were an island of home in a sea of humans, an island where she would never forget her lowly rank.
“Let’s eat while it’s still warm.” Taret served up his food, and the three of them ate in silence.
Milana got up several hours early the next morning and took the long way to work so she’d have time to walk off the unease that had filled their apartment. Back in the Realm, one of her mother’s friends had created a small spelled stone that sucked in bad emotions. An hour with the stone would leave one happy and relaxed. Milana had to make do with muttering her frustrations into a tape recorder she had found in an alley. What would they think of her, these humans, to see a tall blonde woman, in a Burger King uniform, nattering angrily into a tape recorder as she strode down the sidewalk?
She spat in her jealousy, her frustration and her isolation, until the tape clicked end, at which point Milana stopped, ejected it with an angry thumb and flipped it over. It wasn’t enough, but by that time she had arrived at work and had to call the police to get rid of the junkie camped out on the drive-thru stoop. It wasn’t until she had gotten the urine cleaned up, the napkin holders refilled, the no-show fired, and half the payroll done that she had enough thoughts left to wonder who the Old One’s senndil was, and how she’d recognize her. But Milana only had a short time to ponder it, because she had to work the counter to cover for the no-show girl, and an eight hour shift at the counter had a way of numbing her brain.
The Old One was right, as goddesses often are. Milana recognized the senndil right away. She was a human woman, somewhere near twenty five, with ordinary features, an above-ordinary aura of confidence and purpose, and enough strangeness to set Milana’s dormant mage-ablities tingling.
“Pisjolo ansa.” The woman shook her head, then repeated her order in English, handing Milana a credit card.
Milana nodded and placed the order, trying to pretend she hadn’t just heard a human speak in the Vargel language. She glanced up at the senndil. The woman wore a navy suit, well fitting but too warm for the spring weather, and kept glancing at her watch. She held a leather folder under one arm, and cradled it as if a touch of catsup or burger grease against the enclosed documents might cause the building to explode.
“Can I see your ID please?” Milana rummaged for paper and pen. It was a thin branch to crawl on, but maybe the senndils driver’s license address was actually correct. She could write down the address, and visit the senndil later when she had time. Twigs on the Tree, she could get fired for this.
The senndil stared at her, knowing and unamused. Her eyes called Milana a thief, a liar, a low-born good-for-nothing, blue-clad Vargel. “Nevermind, I’ll pay in cash.”
Milana forced herself to smile. “I’m Milana Holly. Nice to meet you.”
The senndil‘s expression was somewhere between cordiality and loathing. She didn’t touch Milana’s fingers as she took her change back. “You know, I think I’d like that order to go.”
Milana sighed in frustration as the senndil left. If subterfuge was out, that left only spellwork.
Milana got up before dawn, when Taret and Xabe’s arguments drove her from sleep, and walked in a spiral around her work until she picked up the thin scent of magic, like a waft of baking cinnamon, following it until she found the house where the senndil lived. She stared at the closed blinds, felt the pulsing wards, and walked to the door. Gentle morning noises, the hiss of a coffee percolator and the laughter of a morning talk show let her know someone was up and getting ready for work. Milana tapped on the door and waited with her hands in her pockets.
“So, you found out where I live? Great, just great.” The senndil sounded irritated beyond ordinary pre-coffee crankiness. “Listen, Vargel. I don’t like your people, I don’t like your clan, and I don’t like your attitude. I don’t give a shit that you’re lowering yourself to talk to me. I don’t give a shit what your problems are. Stay away from me.”
She shouldn’t have been submissive, shouldn’t have been staring at the ground like that, but when you didn’t have rank, you remembered that slaps and pain-spells weren’t worth the momentary pride of looking a superior in the eye. “I, I wanted to meet you, to see if maybe…”
“I want nothing to do with you.” The door closed.
Milana’s eye twitched. She pivoted on her heels, pulled her tape recorder out of her purse, and began to complain. She complained about Xabe and Taret’s exclusive partnership, she complained about having to work too many hours, she complained about the ugly clothes she had to wear, about not having a lover, about the irony of finally being higher rank than someone only to find that the employees she was in charge of respected her less than faeries did.
And she complained about the Old One giving her an impossible task. How was she supposed to befriend a woman she didn’t even know? A woman who hated her?
Milana used up an entire tape on the way to work, which meant that she felt relaxed enough to deal with the spilled bag of frozen French fries that covered the floor of the kitchen, and she was calm enough to rebuff Mike’s lewd and anatomically impossible suggestions.
Becky showed up too drunk to work, and Milana found herself working back to back shifts, sixteen hours of hungry people ordering food, of lazy employees shirking work, of tensions rising as the hot greasy kitchen rubbed their tempers raw. Finally they all left, one by one, with a muttered goodbye, leaving Milana to close.
It was late when Taret tapped on the front door with a Tupperware container. He stood with his head slightly bowed, pale gray hair covering his features, outlined by the streetlamp behind him.
Milana opened the door for him, then locked it again once he’d slid inside.
“Brought you some salad. Lettuce and mushrooms. I saw a recipe for it on television.” Taret had a pained smile, and held himself as though he wanted an inch of space between his skin and his sweatsuit.
“I’d guess the television recipe didn’t call for marshmallows.” Milana thanked him and grabbed a plastic fork to eat his offering. “Did you just get off work?”
“A few hours ago. I have to go to work early tomorrow, so Xabe says I might as well stay awake all night.”
“That’s not a good idea. You need sleep.” Sleep and food: the two largest surprises the dying lands had to offer. Like most things in the dying lands, they were both a blessing and a curse. Milana’s shoe stuck to the floor behind the counter. She peeled her shoe off the soda residue and glared. Yet another task. “Don’t let him boss you around too much, Taret.”
“I got a second job now, did I tell you? No, I didn’t. I haven’t seen you in a few days.”
Milana scrubbed the sticky off her shoe, then straightened at Taret’s tone. He was right. They hadn’t seen much of one another, even though they still shared the tiny studio. “Something’s changed?”
“He’s … we’ve been working things out.”
“You don’t have to do this. We’re in the dying lands now. You don’t have to—”
“I hoped for no hard feelings, you know, that I didn’t ask you.”
“I never expected it. We’re living as humans now. Human lives, human jobs, human friends.” Milana paused, considering. “If we’re living as humans, do we still have to obey the Old Ones?”
“What? You met one?” After he’d heard her explanation of the events, Taret shook his head. “They’re a force of nature, Milana. I’ve read enough sagas to know that bad things happen to anyone who angers them. They can kill, or worse.”
“But this woman hates me,” Milana said. “How do I befriend someone who hates me?”
“Try,” he said. “That’s all you can do.”
She opened her mouth to say something, began searching for the words, but then Taret winced and placed his hand on his ribs. She reached forward to touch him. “Are you okay? Did someone…?”
“Xabe is kind of traditional.”
“Leaves and Ashes, Taret, he doesn’t have the right to–”
Taret held up a hand. “Shhh. It’s okay. It doesn’t hurt much. It was my fault anyway. I made a mistake. He was just correcting me. It’s what a karla should do.”
“No, a karla ought to get a job so you don’t have to work so hard. A karla ought to care for you.” She gestured with the plastic fork, pointing it at him in between bites of lettuce and marshmallow. “If you were my spira, I wouldn’t treat you like that.”
“But I’m not your spira.” Taret took the Tupperware back. He sealed the lid on it. Airtight. Closed. “Bye, Mil. I’ll see you around.”
Milana put a new tape in her recorder on the way back to the studio. She took the long way home so she could walk past the senndil‘s house again, and so she’d have enough time to get her anger out. What did you do when your friends shut you out of their lives? What did you do when they started to hurt each other? What did you do when you weren’t faerie enough for the life in the Realm but weren’t human enough to fit in here in the dying lands?
And what would happen to a faerie who failed an Old One’s task? Milana knocked on the senndil‘s door again. She waited with a smile, the smile of a happy servant, the smile of a submissive dog who doesn’t want its throat ripped out.
The senndil answered the door, smelling of food which probably didn’t contain marshmallows. Her face fell. “I told you to leave me alone.”
“I’m not asking for much.”
The senndil gripped the doorframe with one hand, the other hand clenched into a fist at her side. Her voice took on the frightening nutshell dryness of deep rage. “A Vargel tortured my brother. A Vargel raped my sister. I can barely even look at you, knowing what you are, without wanting to kill you for what your kind have done. And if that weren’t bad enough, you’re of Clan Holly. Clan Holly is synonymous with treachery.”
When the door slammed, Milana left, already searching for a new tape like an addict looking for a hit.
The only thing worse than waking up two hours too early was waking up to the sound of a friend crying. The studio was dark except for the sulfur yellow light that never stopped trying to find a way in past the shirt hung over the window. Milana shifted in her sleeping bag, trying to make sense of what she was hearing: low voices, Xabe criticizing, Taret pleading.
“Xabe? What’s going on?”
“None of your business.” Xabe responded. “Go back to sleep.”
“What are you doing to him?”
“I’m fine, Mil.” Taret begged, “Please. Don’t interfere.”
She sat up, fists clenching with anger, with indecision. Don’t interfere with a karla and his spira. Don’t let friends get hurt. “Twigs on the Tree, why are you doing this? We left the Realm to get away from fear, from furtive beatings, from having to bow and obey! Why did you bring it with you? Why?”
“You may be turning to human ways, but I’m still a Vargel, and I know how to treat my spira.” Xabe gave her a look of rage colored by despair, the look of a man who cuts himself just to see if he can still feel.
She wanted to attack him, shake him, make him see his insanity, but Xabe was a better mage than her. He could enchant her into passivity, and as much as she feared for Taret, she didn’t want to fall into his hole along with him. She pleaded. “Xabe, don’t do this.”
Xabe shut down his face.
She left, disgusted by her helplessness, but unable to stay. Milana needed one tape to stop shaking, and a second one to cry through, but even two tapes of pouring out her angst weren’t enough, because no one but her listened to them.
She fished a paper napkin out of her purse and gathered up all the tapes in it, tying the corners as securely as paper would allow. Stopping by the senndil‘s house to stuff the tapes in the mailbox made Milana nearly an hour late. She knew there’d be a price, but wasn’t sure how much it would be. Wasn’t sure she cared.
She entered the restaurant to find chaos. Someone had vomited in a booth, and the large fryer wasn’t working properly. Ahmed had a cold, and sneezed onto the prep table. The box of gloves was empty, and the knives weren’t on their magnet.
“This is beyond ordinary chaos,” she said.
“Hey, Mil. You’re late.” The manager tapped on a clipboard with his gnawed ballpoint. “Julio’s sick again, and Becky isn’t answering her phones, so I need you to work till close tonight, and open tomorrow.”
Beyond ordinary chaos. Milana reached for her tape player, only to realize she’d given it away. “Xabe cursed me! He cursed my work to keep him out of his life!”
“What? Mil, you’re speaking gibberish. Now I need you to clean the bathrooms before you start, so—”
“Fuck you,” Milana said, glad to finally use a human swear word. “I reject your authority. I didn’t come through the portal for this, I came here to escape it.”
She threw her cap on the floor, spat upon it, and ground the glob in with her foot.
The manager swore and smashed his clipboard on the table as Milana walked out the door.
She spent the rest of the morning gathering her few belongings from the studio: a single gown from the Realm of the Faerie, a plastic sack of human clothes, a fresh box of tapes, and a bag of marshmallows.
She sat down on the stoop and tore the thin plastic of the marshmallow bag, tossing confections into her mouth. They didn’t taste like much, but they were soft and went down easy. Maybe that’s why Taret made the choice he had. Sometimes putting up with what life handed you was as easy as a marshmallow, and just as bad for you in the long run.
The senndil arrived invisibly. She stood in front of Milana looking down, with her hands in her pockets.
Milana stared straight ahead, neither submissive nor friendly.
“She sent me a blue-clad Vargel of Clan Holly? You are the absolute last person I would choose to befriend.”
Milana ate another marshmallow instead of answering.
“I listened to your tapes.” The senndil sat down on the stoop next to Milana and handed her paper napkin bundle. “I didn’t realize the Old One made you do it.”
Milana found herself caught between worlds again. A blue-clad Vargel would have to bow and flatter. A human woman would be pissed off. Milana was feeling rather human.
“The Old One wants us to be friends,” the human said. “I don’t have a choice in the matter.”
“Even the Old Ones can’t force people to be friends,” Milana ate another marshmallow, chewing it slowly.
The senndil folded her arms over her knees and rested her cheek against her elbow, watching Milana. “I borrowed a truck to help you move.”
“I wasn’t going to ask you for help.” She peered in the bag. There was one marshmallow left.
“Yeah, but it’s what friends do.” The senndil dangled her car keys from her fingers, jingling them. “I have to at least meet you halfway.”
Meet her halfway. Friendship was like that; no matter how much you cared, you could only go halfway.
Milana shook the bag, offering the last marshmallow.
The senndil took the marshmallow and smiled, a friendly smile, like one human woman might give to another.