Ballad a gathering of f.., p.13

Ballad: A Gathering of Faerie, page 13

 part  #2 of  Books of Faerie Series


Ballad: A Gathering of Faerie

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Page 13


  “Is it free?”

  I hissed at him, teeth clenched.

  He yawned and made a hand gesture to indicate that he didn’t care either way what I did with myself.

  “Once upon a time, sixteen years ago, a faerie appeared in Virginia. Fully developed and fully aware, but with shit-for-brains. She couldn’t remember anything about how she got there except for something about fire. She went on her merry way, met other faeries, and figured out pretty fast that, like other faeries, she was vaguely eternal. And that unlike other faeries, every sixteen years on Halloween, she somehow gets the crap burnt out of her and then she oh-so-magically reappears again, no memories, brand new, for another sixteen years, rinse and repeat. The fricking end. ”

  I turned my face away from him. I hadn’t meant to say so much.

  James was silent a long moment, and then he said, “You called them ‘faeries. ’”

  I don’t know what I’d expected, but that wasn’t it. “So?”

  “So I thought They—you—hated to be called that. ” James sat up. “I thought we were supposed to refer to you by delightful euphemisms like ‘the good folk’ and ‘he who must not be named. ’ Shit. I think I’m getting my folklore mixed up. ”

  I jumped up and stormed restlessly around the small dorm room, looking for something heavy or pointy to hurl at his head. “Well, I’m not exactly one of Them, am I? Whatever. Whatever. I don’t know why I told you. You’re too totally self-involved to give a rat’s smelly ass about anything except yourself. ”

  “Nuala. ” James didn’t raise his voice, but the intensity of it changed in such a way that he might as well have shouted. “Let me tell you a charming bedtime story. It’s been barely two months since I got out of the hospital. I spent my summer getting my head nailed back together and my lungs stitched up. ” My eyes went to the scar above his ear, new and barely disguised in his hair, and my mind thought of the meaningless scar on my hipbone—not meaningless to James, or it wouldn’t be there.

  James continued. “They crushed my car, my amazing car that I spent every summer of my teenage life fixing until it was perfect. They ruined my best friend’s life, they damn near killed me, and we’ve got nothing to show for it but scars and you sitting next to my bed. ”

  I stared at him.

  He stood up, looked me straight in the eye, and crossed his arms. He was so tragically brave; the gold sparks inside him were so bright that I almost stumbled with wanting. “So yeah. Tell me, Nuala, why I should give ‘a rat’s smelly ass’ about anything other than myself right now?”

  I didn’t have an answer.

  He turned around and grabbed a brown hoodie from the end of his bed, a dismissive gesture.

  I blurted out, “Because I can see Them and you can’t. ”

  James stopped moving. Just like that. He didn’t jerk or react in anyway: he just stopped. A long, long pause. By the time he turned around to face me, tugging the hoodie over his head, he was himself again. “One of your many talents. I think I’ve seen enough of y’all to last a lifetime. No offense to you and your”—he gestured toward me—“developments. ”

  My lip curled. “I’d argue the opposite. Where is it you’re running to so fast?”

  James jammed on his sneakers, his face rueful. We both knew he was running out to see the thorn king.

  “I don’t know what you want from me. ” James brushed past me as if I was nothing. Like I was just one of the other people in his life. He didn’t care about any of them but stupid Dee, who didn’t give a crap about him. “I’m never going to say yes. ”

  He opened the door and pulled it shut behind him. Softly. I would’ve slammed it. I wanted to slam it now. For several long minutes I stood in his room, imagining him following his nightly routine of sneaking out through one of the first floor windows so that he didn’t have to pass by Sullivan’s room.

  I could give up. I could find some other boy who glowed with golden promise and steal life from him, but what good would it do? I only had until Halloween anyway. Even if I didn’t find another boy, I probably wouldn’t die before then; it hadn’t been that long since the last one, right? The fact was, I had absolutely nothing to lose. The fact was, I wanted him.

  I whirled out the window into the dark blue sky, floated along on the abstract thoughts of humans, and found James, a small warm glow crouching in the dry golden grass of the hills. He must’ve felt me as I knelt quietly beside him, but he didn’t say anything as I slowly became visible, the cold evening air biting at my skin as I did.

  Angrily, I ripped up a big handful of grass and began to tear the blades into small pieces. I had once watched a faerie pull a human apart, back when I was younger. Or newer, anyway. The human had drained a marsh behind his house and inadvertently killed the faeries who lived in the water. The faerie who lived in his well had come out long enough to drag the human to the old marsh and tear him apart. I’d asked what his crime was, if he hadn’t known the faeries were in the marshes? Ignorance is no defense for a crime, the faerie had hissed at me, all gills and hair. That was when I first realized that I was different from other faeries.

  Mercy, that was what they called it, what I had and other faeries didn’t. It was the beginning of a long list.

  I threw down the rest of the grass. “Can I even ask why you bother coming out here every night? Don’t you have some sort of, you know, self-shrine you can be building in this time instead?”

  James grunted. Very distantly, I heard the first few notes of the song begin. He closed his eyes as if the sound itself caused him physical pain. His voice was barely above a whisper and was deeply sarcastic. “I find the daring of sneaking out every night physically thrilling. I am seriously titillated right now. Feel my nipples. Hard as rocks. ”

  I winced. “As long as it’s good for you. ”

  “Oh baby. ” His eyes were on the horizon, waiting for the antlered head to appear.

  “You do know this isn’t safe, right?” I asked. “You remember when I said there was worse than me about? This is one of the worse things I was talking about. Are you dumber than a dog pile?”

  James didn’t answer, but I knew the danger was part of the appeal.

  I saw the massive dark spread of thorns a second before James did, and I grabbed him, pulling him down farther into the grass until both of us were huddled, concealed. We were curled into small balls beside each other, knees tucked up to chin, my arm against his arm, my head against his head. I felt him shivering again and again with my strangeness, his strange seer’s body warning him of my presence, but he didn’t move.

  I whispered in his ear, my mouth right against it, “Cernunnos. Gwyn ap Nudd. Hades. Hermes. King of the dead. ”

  The song was loud, now, wailing, keening, and I felt James fighting against the pull of it. He whispered to me, not even audible, maybe realizing finally that I read his thoughts as much as his words, “What is he singing?”

  I translated—voice quiet, for his ears only:

  I keep the dead and the dead keep me.

  We are cold and dark, we are one and we are many,

  we wait and we wait, so sing the dead.

  So sing I: grow, rise, follow.

  So sing I: those not of heaven, those not of hell,

  grow, rise, follow.

  Unbaptized and unblessed, come to me from where you flutter in the branches of the oaks.

  Wretched half-demons who lay curled in the dirt,

  trapped by my power, rise up and follow.

  Your day is coming.

  Hear my voice. Prepare to feast.

  James shivered, hard, drawing his head down, covering it with his hands. He stayed that way, knuckles white on the back of his head, until the thorn king’s song had died and the sun had disappeared, leaving us in blackness. He slowly sat up, and the way he looked at me made me realize that something had changed between us, but for once, I didn’t know what.

  “Do yo
u ever get the feeling something awful might happen?” James asked me, but it wasn’t really a question.

  I sat up. “I’m the awful thing that happens. ”

  James pulled up his hood and stood up. Then—small miracles—he held out his hand to help me up, as if I was a human. His voice was rough. “Like you said. Something worse than you. ”


  Washington, D. C. was one thousand miles away from Thornking-Ash. Okay, not really. But it felt that way. It felt as if the bus that we’d rode in to get to the Marion Theater was a spaceship that had taken us from a remote planet covered in fall leaves to a concrete-covered moon punctuated by purposeful decorative trees and populated entirely by aliens in business suits.

  Paul sat in the seat beside me, by the window so he wouldn’t puke, while I took pens apart and balanced the pieces on a notebook on my lap. Somewhere, in the front of the bus, was Deirdre. Most of my brain was up there with her.

  Outside the window, afternoon light slanted between the tall buildings of D. C. , snaking a stripe of sun in here and there where it could manage. Where it kissed the tops of the buildings, it glowed blood-red. There were hundreds of people on the sidewalk—tourists, businessmen, poor people whose eyes seemed to look into the bus with hunger or resentment or exhaustion. They all looked lonely to me. All alone in a sea of people.

  Beside me, Paul said heavily, “I need to get drunk. ” He said lots of things in that ponderous, heavy way, but this was a change from his usual repertoire. Usually when you pulled the string on Paul’s back, he said something like, “I do not get what he’s trying to say here,” while staring at an open book or stack of notes. Or, “I’m tired of no one noticing the nuances of the oboe, man. ” Very few people notice the nuances of the bagpipes either, and I would’ve had a sympathetic conversation with him about it if the oboe didn’t suck so bad as an instrument.

  I looked away from the people outside to the pens on my notebook, parallel parked bits of pen. They jiggled a little when the bus pulled away from a light. “Drunk sounds so crass. ‘Soused’ or ‘blitzed’ is a bit more romantic. ”

  “Man, if I don’t get drunk soon, I might never get the chance. ” Paul eyed my lap. He handed me his pen from his backpack and I took it apart as well, adding its innards to the collection. “When will I have this sort of opportunity again? No parents? A mostly unsupervised dorm?”

  “Uhh, I don’t know, maybe that little event they call college. I’m told it comes after high school for highly privileged white kids like ourselves. ” I began to screw the pens back together, mixing the pieces up to create three Frankenpens.

  “I could die before then. Then what, I’m dead and I never got drunk? So, what, I’d arrive at the pearly gates a sober virgin?”

  That struck a chord with me. I used one of the pens to write sainted on the back of my hand. “I think a lot of people would argue that’s the only way to get to the pearly gates. Why the sudden push for getting sloshed?”

  Paul shrugged and looked out the window. “I dunno. ”

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