Ballad a gathering of f.., p.30

Ballad: A Gathering of Faerie, page 30

 part  #2 of  Books of Faerie Series


Ballad: A Gathering of Faerie

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  Without any discussion, we climbed into one of the big plush chairs and curled up together, the pounding of his heart slow and comforting under my ear.

  I heard his thoughts. He was thinking about asking me what are we doing? And he was thinking about Halloween, so close. And then he was remembering that I could hear his thoughts and was feeling guilty because he hadn’t meant to remind me of how few days I had left.

  Like I could forget.

  “You were wicked at the rehearsal,” James whispered, to keep from thinking about the end of the month.

  “I know. ”

  His words were muffled in my hair. “I know it wasn’t directing the big screen or anything … ”

  “Shut up. ” I didn’t know why, but I didn’t want to talk about being really happy anymore than I wanted to talk about Halloween.

  His feelings were hurt. His thoughts drifted over the worry stone and how he’d wanted Ballad to be a gift for me, but he didn’t say anything. James would never let on that something hurt him.

  “Shut up,” I said again, even though he hadn’t said anything out loud. I had to work hard to make my voice seem normal. For some reason, my throat felt all gloppy and hard to talk past when I thought of what I was going to say. “You know I loved it. You just want me to buff your ego a little more. ”

  James seized on that. “That’s exactly it. I just wanted to hear you tell me how wonderful I was. You’re so intuitive, it’s like you’re reading my mind. ”

  I pinched him. “You are such a jerk. ”

  James made a little mmm-mmm noise like he was flattered.

  He didn’t say anything else, and neither did I, so we were just a knot together, eyes closed, listening to our breathing slowing down. Beauty and the Beast. Well, more like Beast and the Beast.

  I didn’t mean to fall asleep. I mean, except for that one other time, I had never slept in my life. I had known what words like fatigued and bored meant, but never sleepy or tired or aching with exhaustion. Not until now. Not until Halloween was just days away and I hadn’t made any deals for months and my body wanted to give up on me. I’d meant to keep my word to James and find out tonight what the faeries were doing here. Or more specifically, what the students had to do with it.

  But I slept. For three hours and twenty seven minutes.

  It scared me to be tired. It made me think that I could close my eyes one of these nights and not open them again. And then—nothing. That’s what they always said—faeries didn’t have souls.

  While I was sleeping, James had curled himself up tightly away from me, his hands fisted for his savage battle with sleep. His posture now let me slip slowly away without waking him, out of the chair and out of my body. In the moment I became invisible, I saw crisp, dry leaves scuttle across the floor and goose bumps shiver across James’ skin.

  I used to love seeing the swirl of leaves that accompanied my change of forms. Freedom. Floating on thoughts. Used to be, when I changed, that there were flowers and green summer leaves. Then the flowers were replaced with berries and seed pods and the leaves were yellow, then red. Now dry, old, dead leaves. No flowers. No seed pods.

  I flew out of the dorm, over the hills, looking for the things I’d always avoided: other faeries.

  I yawned. I was tired again already.


  We dance, we dance

  You hold the thread of my soul

  You spin, you spin

  And you unravel the part from the whole

  We laugh, we laugh

  I’m so far from where I began

  I fall, I fall And I forget that I am.

  —from Golden Tongue: The Poems of Steven Slaughter

  For the second time, I sought out the faerie dance behind Thornking-Ash. The moment I stepped into the faerie ring, the sharp chill of the October night disappeared, replaced by the heat of dancing bodies and faerie lights. The driving music swept up my tired body at once, pulling me this way and that, wiping away every thought except this: dance.

  As always, I moved toward the musicians, watching the patterns their bodies followed as they coaxed the melody out of fiddles, flutes, harps. I stood by them and swayed, letting the pounding drum give its beat to my heart, and turned to look out over the numberless faeries on the hill. It had seemed like such a good idea to come here, as dances loosened lips and encouraged bragging, but now that I was actually here, I was frozen by the sheer number of dancers and the enormity of the task.

  A hand in my hand jerked me away from the musicians. I turned, stumbling, and found one of the daoine sidhe, face and hair brilliantly pale like the underside of a leaf. I tried to jerk out of his grip, my stomach tightening.

  “Hold,” he said, and a daoine sidhe girl appeared at his shoulder, wearing a ball gown that was torn at the bottom to reveal chain-covered cargo pants. The faerie holding my hand said, “I only wanted to see that it really was you. I thought you were dead. ”

  I wrenched at his fingers with my free hand. “And why would that be?”

  He leaned closer. “I thought you might have been killed too. Because of your dealings with humans. ”

  The girl behind him drew a finger across her neck in case I hadn’t gotten the meaning of “killed. ”

  I stopped trying to pull away. “Who are you?”

  The girl said, “Una. And he’s Brendan. ” And then she laughed, as if it was somehow funny.

  I narrowed my eyes. “And what again is your interest in me?”

  Brendan glanced toward the other faeries.

  “Dance with us,” Una said, taking one of Brendan’s hands and offering her other hand to me.

  “You’re holding my hand too tightly,” Brendan snarled at her, but he released my wrist and flipped his hand over, so that it was an offering. When I hesitated, he added, “It’s about the piper. ”

  I took his hand.

  And we spun off into the dance, the three of us a circle within a circle, and Una let go of my hand just long enough to twirl a finger over the top of us. For a moment I saw a visible glowing circle in the air above us, like a light spiderweb, and it fell around us just as Una caught my hand again.

  There was a curious sensation, like the sound of the music was squeezed out of my ears, becoming only a faint hum in the background.

  “Wouldn’t want anyone listening in,” Una said. “Keep in step with everyone else, or they’ll notice. Admire my cunning, leanan sidhe. ”

  “It’s awesome,” I told her. “Now what about the piper?”

  “It is not really about the piper,” Brendan said. “She just said that to get you to come. It is really more about the dead. ”

  “Which has something to do with the piper, because he will be dead,” Una added, with a bright smile. “And so will you. So really, it is about you too. ”

  “First, you have to tell us where your allegiance is,” Brendan said. “Is it with your faerie side or your human side?”

  “And don’t be tricksy,” Una told me.

  Their hands felt tight in mine as we kept spinning and dancing; I felt trapped. I couldn’t lie, but I couldn’t tell the truth either. What would these faeries do if they knew how I felt? My silence felt damning.

  Brendan watched my face with a certain satisfaction. “Good. I was hoping that you were in love with the piper. The daoine sidhe have no small fondness for humans, but we need them in this case. You are as close to human as a faerie can get, and your ties to him only make me more certain we can trust you to take their side. ”

  My voice was harsh. “What is it you want from me? I’m already dying. I don’t care to run errands. ”

  “Our new queen”—there was considerable vitriol in Brendan’s voice when he said it—“is restless with following the human cloverhand wherever the cloverhand cares to go. There are rumors that she means to ally with the dead to break the cloverhand’s power, although I don’t know what foul magic she intends to use to accomplis
h such a feat. ”

  “But you can be sure it will involve blood,” Una said. “Lots of it!”

  “Yes,” Brendan agreed. “Human blood. Human losses. Not daoine sidhe. ”

  “Then what is your interest in this? If you have no small fondness for humans?” I demanded.

  “It is one thing to be free,” Brendan said. “And it is another thing entirely to trade one master for another. So, are we to trade the cloverhand for the antlered king, and lose our affiliation with humans, only to become no better than the lost souls and the dark fey that are already beneath him? It is hard enough indeed to follow Eleanor without following her into that dark place. ”

  I couldn’t disagree. “And what do you want from me?”

  “Watch the cloverhand,” Brendan said. “Keep her safe on Halloween. ”

  That was definitely what I wanted to do on my last day alive: babysit Dee.

  “I’ll be a little distracted,” I snapped. “I’ll be burning, remember?”

  “That’s what the piper’s for,” Brendan replied. “Tell him. He loves her. ”

  I stumbled. Una pulled me back up. Around us, the dancers seemed to have sped up, the music feverish and insistent. As we spun, I caught a glimpse of Eleanor and her consort stepping into the circle, the air shivering with her beauty. Her consort glanced at Eleanor while she wasn’t looking, and in that split second, he looked afraid.

  I stumbled again.

  “She’s done dancing,” Una told Brendan.

  “I decide when I’ve had enough,” I snapped. “No one knows me but me. ”

  But they let go of my hands, and the sound of the music surged back into my ears, louder than before.

  I spun away, lighter without them anyway. The dancers parted for me as I danced by myself. The beat pulsed through me, relentless, driving, the same beat as my heart. I let myself imagine, for a second, that James was here in the circle, and that he would dance with me. Once I had the thought, I couldn’t let it go, and the idea of him, his summer-brown arms draped around my waist, his body confident and hot against me, his cheek bristly against my smooth one, filled me with such a fiery need that I could barely breathe.

  It was like a waking dream. The drum thumped, promising endless dancing and eternal life, and I closed my eyes, giving into the daydream. James’ fingers, pressed against the bare skin at the small of my back as we spun, setting me on fire. The leather-and-soap smell of him, his forehead against my forehead, his hips against my hips, our bodies moving like one seamless instrument, grinding, dropping, spinning. The music driving us, urgently, dance dance dance, and my body screaming at me, savagely, more more more.

  I couldn’t tell if the world was spinning or if I was.

  I wanted it. I wanted him here, dancing with me, so badly, that I could almost hear his voice.


  Nuala. Open your eyes.

  The hill was getting dark; night was winning against the orbs of faerie light. The music was fading. I could only hear the drum, thumping like my heartbeat.

  Damn it, Nuala.

  I could see stars above me, and I could actually smell him, his pipes and his breath and his skin.

  Nuala, just tell me what to do. I don’t know what to do. Tell me how to help you.

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