Ballad a gathering of f.., p.11

Ballad: A Gathering of Faerie, page 11

 part  #2 of  Books of Faerie Series


Ballad: A Gathering of Faerie

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Page 11


  “I know you’re not just the average kid,” Sullivan said. He frowned, as if that wasn’t really what he had meant to say. “I know there’s more to you than you let on. ” He looked at the iron band on my wrist.

  I tried out various sentences in my head: I have unusual depth or The number of rooms in the house that is my personality is many or It’s about time someone noticed. But none of them seemed right, so I said nothing.

  Sullivan shrugged. “There’s more to us teachers than we let on too. If you need someone to talk to, don’t be afraid to talk to one of us. ”

  I looked him straight in the eye. I was reminded once again, vividly, of the image of him falling to his knees, throwing up blood and flowers. “Talk about what?”

  He laughed, short and humorless. “About my favorite casserole recipes. About whatever’s freaking your roommate out. About why you look like hell right now. One of those. ”

  I kept looking at him, kept seeing that image of him, dying, in his own pupil, and waited for him to look away. He didn’t. “I do want a good recipe for lasagna. That is a casserole, isn’t it?”

  His mouth made a rueful shape that was a cunning impersonation of a smile. “Go to your next class, James. You know where to find me if you need me. ”

  I looked at the broad iron ring on his finger and back up to his face. “What were you when you weren’t an English teacher, Mr. Sullivan?”

  He just nodded, slow, sucking in his lower lip pensively before releasing it. “Good question, James. Good question. ” But he didn’t answer, and I didn’t ask again.


  The hill where I normally practiced was strategically placed: far enough from the dorms and classrooms to keep everyone in school from knowing what reel I was playing, and close enough that if it started to rain or rabid badgers decided to attack, I could hoof it back to the school before I got soaked or eaten.

  It was a gorgeous fall afternoon, the sort companies like to print on glossy paper, and my vantage point on the hill seemed to exacerbate its beauty like one of those convex mirror cameras they have at malls to watch for shoplifters. The afternoon was all scudding clouds and woodsmoke-scented wind and a brilliant blue sky so huge it closed the hill in its own cerulean bubble.

  I felt like I could be anywhere in the world. Anywhere in the universe. This hill was its own planet.

  Playing the pipes is a multidisciplinary activity: equal parts music, physical education, puzzle-solving, and memory training. The pipes are a study in numbers, too. Three drones, one bass, and two tenors. One chanter, eight holes, one reed in the chanter, two flaps on the reed that vibrated against each other to create a pitch. One bag, one mouthpiece to fill it, endless blow-job-joke possibilities. I took my pipes out of the case and squeezed the reed to correct the pitch before I pushed the chanter into the bag and threw them on my shoulder.

  I tuned for a bit and did a few warm-up marches before I started to acquire my usual audience. Eric sitting on the edge of the hill with one of his excruciatingly thick masters thesis books in a foreign language. Megan, novel in hand. Two other students I didnt recognize, sitting at a safe distance, backs to me, homework in hand. Paul, of course, for solidarity as much as anything else. And Sullivan. That was new. He strode up the hill, his long limbs looking like a preying mantis, and stood in front of me. His eyes dropped momentarily to my T-shirt (which read The Voices Are Telling Me Not To Trust You ), and then returned to my face.

  I dropped the mouthpiece of my pipes from my lips and raised an eyebrow.

  Sullivan regarded me with his usual amiable smile. The wind caught the back of his hair and blew it up backwards. With his hair all screwed up and without his Official Teacher Jacket, it wouldnt have been hard to mistake him for one of us students. The CEO his wife left him for mustve been either pretty damn hot or pretty damn rich for her to abandon Sullivan to his own devices.

  "Am I putting you off your game?" Sullivan asked pleasantly.

  If he meant, was I weirded out by him joining my retinue on the hill, yeah. But out loud I said, "You wound me greatly. "

  "Do I?" Sullivan sat down, cross-legged, in a single tidy maneuver. "I wouldnt want to interfere with your practice. "

  "Well, thats a patent untruth. Im quite sure youre here to interfere," I said, and Sullivan grinned. "So what is this, a reconnaissance mission?"

  Sullivan made a big show of wiggling into the grass and making himself at home before pulling out a small tape recorder and setting it on the ground between him and my shoes. "Just want to see what the best piper in Virginia sounds like. You know, to me, pipers always sound like theyre playing the same march over and over again. Whats the famous one? Scotland the Brave? All the tunes sound like that one to me. "

  I awarded him a thin line of teeth, equal parts smile and grimace. "Mr. Sullivan," I said reproachfully. "I thought I was the funny one. "

  He looked back at me, mouth quirked. I stepped away to fill up the bag with air and wondered what it would take to wipe the smirk off his face. Something fast? Something aching? Hed be expecting sheer technical brilliance from my competition stats, so finger-twistingly difficult wasnt the way to go. Something to make him remember the angst of his wifely betrayal, then.

  I checked my tuning and then began to play "Cronan," which is, for the record, possibly the most pathetic and miserable tune ever written for the pipes and even in the hands of a lesser piper would drive Hitler to tears. So really Sullivan didnt stand a chance.

  And I threw everything I had into it too. I had plenty of angst to make the song real. Dee, who shouldve been on this hill but wasnt; my beautiful car, which shouldve been in the parking lot instead of smashed up over the summer, leaving me with my brothers car; and the fact that I was a friggin island in the middle of a thousand people and that sometimes the weight of being the last of an endangered species crushed the breath out of my lungs.

  I stopped.

  The students clapped. Paul pretended to wipe a tear from his face and drop it on the grass. Sullivan pressed record on his machine.

  "You werent recording before now?" I asked him.

  "Didnt know if Id have to. "

  I frowned at him, and he frowned back and then I realized that my arm hair was prickling its warning.

  "Dont say anything. " I heard Nualas voice a second before I saw her, walking past Eric and Paul and Sullivan to stand next to me. "Youre the only one who can see me right now, so if you talk to me, youre going to look like you were retained in the birth canal without oxygen or something. "

  I wanted to say something like "thanks for the hot tip," but its damn difficult to be snarky when you cant say anything. Plus, even though I thought she was the scariest thing around, hell, she was hot today. All sun-drenched streaks in her hair and freckled sharp nose and sarcastic mouth. Tight black T-shirt with just the word grudge on it and jeans riding low enough on her hips for me to see a shiny scar across one of her hip bones, right where her shirt met her jeans.

  I mustve been ogling or she mustve been reading my mind, because Nuala said, "Ill admit, for once, I actually like what I look like. Normally, you tragically talented musicians prefer me to look all wishy-washy and delicate. " She knelt next to my pipe case and looked inside without touching anything. "But you want me to look kick-ass, and I like it. "

  I knelt and pretended to twiddle with my pipe reed, turning my back to my audience. I still couldnt say anything without them hearing, but I could at least not look like an idiot staring off into space.

  Nuala sat back on her haunches, knees poking through her jeans, and grinned at me. "Dont tell me you dont like the way I look. "

  She looked good enough to eat, but that was totally besides the point. It was vaguely creepy that she was dressing just to turn me on.

  "Not just dressing," Nuala said. I realized, with an unpleasant jolt, that she didnt cast a shadow. "My face. I only look like this because its what you want me to look like. Som
eone like you—when I get close to you, I change, to become more appealing to you. I cant do anything about it. And believe me, sometimes its really awful what musicians fantasize about. For once, though, I actually feel like I look on the outside like I look on the inside. "

  But I didnt want her to look like anything. I just wanted her to get the hell off my hill.

  "You really want me here, or I wouldnt keep coming back. " Nualas smile looked like a snarl.

  "Nerves, James?" Sullivan called.

  "Dont flatter yourself!" I called back. I shoved my chanter back into my pipes and stood up, turning my back on Nuala. I was afraid that she was right—that I was so obsessed with my music that I would eventually break down and beg for her help.

  I shouldered my pipes and played a strathspey difficult enough to take my mind off Nuala. My E doublings were crap today; at the end of the tune I strung a bunch of them together until they sounded crisper.

  "They sound fine. Youre obsessing. Youre friggin brilliant, like you are every other day," Nuala said. She was right by my ear; I held very still as she blew her flowery breath across my face while she spoke. "Heres a free tip for you, asshole. Ask Eric to go get his guitar. Thats not cheating, is it? Just a little suggestion. Take it or leave it. "

  I hesitated. I watched the white clouds race over the top of the hill, massive, towering secret countries made of white and pale blue, and with my eyes I followed the shadows they cast on the endless hills. It wasnt cheating. It wasnt saying yes.

  "Eric," I said, and Nualas mouth made a shape like pleasure. "Why dont you get your guitar?"

  Eric looked up from his book, and the pleasure on his face was a much simpler and more innocent brand than Nualas. "Yeah, man. Hold on!"

  He jumped up and headed back to the school, and while he was gone I struck into a set of jigs so happy and neverending that Nuala couldnt say anything else, just glower at me for silencing her.

  Then I saw Eric slowly climbing the hill, guitar case in hand, and beside him, a girl carrying an amp. The grin threatening to spread across my face forced me to stop playing. Nuala was wrong. If she really looked like what I wanted, shed look just like the girl who was climbing the hill with Eric.

  Dee, cheeks red from sun and the climb, grinned at me and said, a little out of breath, "Think you could maybe practice a little closer to the school next time?"

  That evening, when I ran out onto the hills in search of the antlered figures song, I got closer than I ever had been before. I got close enough that I could see each individual thorn on his antlers silhouetted against a violently red sunset. Close enough to see the dark material of his cape flattening the grass behind him. Close enough to hear the melody of the song better than ever, in all its agonizing beauty.

  I could hear every word he sang, too, though I still couldnt understand what it meant.

  I just knew I wanted it.

  It took me a long time to go back to the dorms after hed gone. In the ordinary night hed left behind, I sat on the hill, the wind whispering through the long grass that surrounded me. I stared at the stars and wanted more than what I was and more than what the world was and just—wanted.

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