Ballad a gathering of f.., p.34

Ballad: A Gathering of Faerie, page 34

 part  #2 of  Books of Faerie Series


Ballad: A Gathering of Faerie

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Page 34


  “I can’t become human,” Nuala said. Her voice was fierce, either with anger or despair.

  Sullivan held up a defensive hand. “I didn’t say that. But you have a dual nature anyway. Maybe you’re just swaying toward one or the other. James. ”

  I blinked, realizing he was addressing me. “What?”

  “Paul already told us he hears Cernunnos every evening. You remained tactfully silent on the subject but I had my suspicions. ”

  I put my sandwich down. “You totally can’t give me grief for this one. I haven’t made any deals or talked to Cernunnos or anything that you can possibly construe as detrimental to my health or anyone else’s. ”

  “Easy, easy. I just thought that if you heard or saw him, you could point your new friend here in his direction. I don’t know what his nature is, but maybe he knows more about her situation. ” Sullivan glanced at the cars going by. “Eleanor hinted at a connection between Cernunnos and the leanan sidhe sisters. ”

  “What if the connection is like the one between me and this sandwich?” I asked. “I don’t really feel like sending Nuala out to meet the king of the dead if she’s losing all her bad-ass supernatural capabilities for one reason or another. It’s not like she can just kick him in the nuts if things start to go badly. ”

  Sullivan shrugged. “It’s my best suggestion. What else is there? You said it was her sixteenth year, didn’t you? So … for all we know she’ll revert back to normal after she burns. ”

  “If I burn,” Nuala said. She looked down at her plate.

  “What?” I demanded.

  “Maybe I don’t want to,” she said.

  There was silence at the table. Sullivan broke it, gently. “Nuala. ” It was the first time he’d actually said her name. “I saw your sister burn, while I was in Faerie. She had to. I know you don’t want to—it’s horrible that you have to—but you’ll die otherwise. ”

  Nuala didn’t look up from her plate. “Maybe I’d rather that than come back the way I was before. ” She balled her napkin up and put it on the table. “I think I have to go the bathroom. ” She flashed a fake smile at me. “First time for everything, right?”

  She pushed away from the table and disappeared into the deli.

  Sullivan sighed and pushed on one of his eyes with two fingers. “This is a bit of bad work, James. Her sister is nowhere near as human as her. She didn’t even seem to feel it when she was burning. Nuala—” He did the same eyes-half-shut gesture he’d done before, the almost cringe. “It’ll be like burning a human alive. ”

  I got out my worry stone and worried the hell out of it with my fingers. I concentrated on the shape of the circle my thumb made as it swiped the stone.

  “You were right, okay? That’s what I’m trying to say,” Sullivan said. “She isn’t like the others. You were still a complete idiot for not running like hell from her, but she is different. ”

  “I’m going with her to see Cernunnos,” I said. Sullivan opened his mouth. “You know you can’t stop me. I know it’s what you would do. Tell me how to make it safer. If there’s anything. ”

  “Jesus Christ,” he said. “As your teacher and dorm resident advisor, I’m supposed to be keeping you out of trouble, not getting you into it. ”

  “It was your idea. Some little part of you must’ve wanted me to go, or you wouldn’t have said it in front of me. ”

  “Don’t try reverse psychology on me,” Sullivan said. He smashed his fingers into the wrinkle between his eyes. “I would go with you, but I don’t hear him this year. You don’t go to him unless he calls you. That would be … insane. Shit, James. I don’t know. Wear red. Put salt in your pockets. That’s always good advice. ”

  “I can’t believe I’m hearing this from a teacher,” I said.

  “I can’t believe I’m a teacher telling you this. ”

  I wrote red and salt on my hand just as Nuala came out of the deli. Whatever emotion she’d felt before she went in was gone, replaced by a certain fierceness in her eyes.

  “Ready to go?” I asked.


  If Nuala had still been able to read my thoughts, she would’ve killed me. Because I thought, as we waded through the long grass together, that she looked very human, despite her insistence that she couldn’t become one. While we were in town, I’d bought her a sweater and some jeans (both of which she hated since they covered most of her skin—which was the idea) so that she wouldn’t freeze to death while we were traversing the hills this evening.

  And it wasn’t like it was a bad thing that she looked human. It made the fact that I was holding her hand and going out to meet the king of the dead a little less scary. And it made the idea that maybe, just maybe, she’d remember me after Halloween and we might have a future beyond making out in the dorm lobby just a little more plausible.

  “It’s cold as hell out here,” Nuala snapped.

  “It’s almost like I knew what I was talking about when I said you were going to need a sweater,” I told her.

  “Shut up,” she said. She was a dull brown silhouette against the staggering pink sky. Some of the trees at the base of the hills had already lost their leaves, and their bare black branches made it look like it was already winter. “You’re scaring away the dead people. Do you hear the thorn king yet, or what?”

  I didn’t. I had spent so many nights pretending that I didn’t that I wondered if I still could. It seemed like it was late enough that he should be out here, doing his antlered thing, but the hills were silent. Except for us crashing through the tall grass. During the day, the sound of the grass had seemed minimal, masked by the gusts of wind, but now, with the wind reduced to a silent, icy breeze, our crashing progress sounded like a bunch of elephants. “Big fat nothing so far. Let’s go out further, though, to where I saw him before. ”

  “Walk more quietly,” Nuala hissed.

  “There isn’t a way to walk more quietly. Anyway, you’re talking—that’s louder than us just walking. ”

  She jerked at my hand. “Nothing in the world can be louder than you walking right now. ”

  “Except for your strident voice, dear,” I countered. “Like a harpy, its shr–oof. ”

  I stopped walking so fast that Nuala’s hand twisted out of mine and she stumbled.

  “What?” Nuala rubbed the skin on her hand and returned to my side.

  “Sorry,” I said, without feeling. I looked down. “I ran into something. ”

  At my feet was a pile of something. A pile of someone. It was sprawled in a sort of strung-out way that I didn’t think a living someone could manage. For one-fourth of a breath, my brain thought: Dee. But then I realized it was a guy. In a tunic jacket, leggings, and leather bootie-things. Either a very lost reenactor or someone who’d been messing around with fairies.

  Nuala gave the shoulder an experimental shove with her foot, and the body slumped wetly onto its back.

  “Oh, vomit,” I said, to keep from actually throwing up.

  Nuala gave a little sigh. “Eleanor’s consort. He was at the dance last night. ”

  “Who do you think killed him?”

  She touched the hilt still sticking out of his heart with her toe. “This is a bone dagger. It was Them. I’ve seen Eleanor carry these around all the time. He told me he was going to be a king when I first met him. King of corpses, maybe. ”

  I was sort of shocked-horrified-fascinated. I’d never seen a really properly dead body before, aside from on TV, and this was a pretty gruesome example for my first time. I wondered if we ought to report it to the police or something. I mean, it seemed pretty careless of the faeries, to just stab someone and leave them lying around.

  “What did you do to get yourself killed, human?” Nuala asked the body.

  I looked at her. It seemed like an awfully compassionate thing for her to say. And then I realized that the thorn king’s song was in my head and I had no idea how long it had been there.

  “Nuala, the song. He’s—”

  She grabbed my arm and jerked me round. “There!”

  And there he was, massive antlers echoing the shape of the naked branches behind him. He was striding past us, several yards away already. Somehow I’d never thought that I’d have to chase him. I’d thought something that terrifying would be the sort of thing you ran from.

  Nuala and I both started after him, but we weren’t getting any closer. In fact, the gap between us was growing, an immense sea of red-gold grass. And then I realized he had begun to run, the slow, graceful lope of a massive animal. The antlers rocked to and fro with each loping stride.

  I broke into a run too, and I heard Nuala’s footfalls land faster and harder. The antlered king left a beaten path in the grass that sprang back up almost before we could get to it. The cold air tore the hell out of my throat and I was about to give it up when I saw that a long, black cloak fluttered out behind him.

  I threw myself into the pursuit like my life depended on it. I stretched out as far as I could, and my fingers caught the fabric, coarse and cold as death in my grip. With my other hand, I reached out for Nuala. I felt her fingers seize mine a second before the thorn king began to drag us.

  I didn’t know if I was running or flying. The grass was flattening faster and faster below us, and the sun vanished below the hills behind us. The air froze solid in my mouth and nose, escaping only in frosted gusts in the darkness. Above us, the stars came out, millions and millions, more stars than I’d ever seen before, and I heard Nuala gasp with delight or fear. Maybe both.

  And still we ran. Comets raced above us and the wind buffeted below us and the hills went on forever. The night grew deeper and darker, and suddenly, between the hills, there was a huge black river. And we were going straight for it.

  My brain screamed let go.

  Or maybe it was Nuala.

  I don’t know why I hung onto the shroud that flowed from the king’s shoulders. Death glittered below me, black and filled with stars like the sky above us. Something I’d never seen before. Maybe glimpsed around the edges, a dark promise of the end. But never plunged into face-first, eyes open.

  Someone was laughing, right as our bodies met the surface of the river.


  Never so sad as seeing your smile

  Never so false as you being true

  Never so dead as seeing you alive

  Never so alone as when I’m with you.

  —from Golden Tongue: The Poems of Steven Slaughter

  It was dark.

  No, it wasn’t dark. It was nothing. James’ hand was supposed to be in my hand, but I couldn’t feel anything. I couldn’t feel the sweater hanging on my shoulders or the breath coming from my mouth. Or my mouth.

  I reached my hand up for my lips, to prove to myself that they were there, and there wasn’t anything. No lips. No hand. Just swallowing darkness—because of course, I had no body, so I had no eyes to see anything.

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