Ballad: A Gathering of Faerie, page 35part #2 of Books of Faerie Series
There was no time.
Nothing stretched out in front of me and behind me, without beginning or end.
I had stopped existing.
I started to scream, but without any mouth or vocal chords or anyone to hear, did it matter?
Then I had an arm, because someone was grabbing it. And ears, because I heard James say, “Nuala! Why can’t she hear me?”
Something gritty was being rubbed on my skin, pressed into my hand, traced on my mouth. Salt, like the potato chips.
“Welcome to your death,” said another voice, and this one was low, earthy, organic, thundering from under our feet or inside me.
My eyes flew open. I was suddenly aware of the ordinary magic of them; the way the lids fit over my eyeballs, the curve of the upper and lower lashes touching as I blinked, the effortless way my gaze slid over to James beside me. There was still nothingness around us, but James was here in it with me, his red sweatshirt glowing like a sunset.
I gripped onto the hand he offered me, gritty salt pressed between our palms. What I could glimpse of his arms was covered with goose bumps.
“You see your death,” the voice continued, and I realized it was the massive antlered king, appearing in the nothingness before me. “And she sees hers. What do you see, James Antioch Morgan?”
Beside me, James turned his head this way and that, as if there were more to see than nothingness. “It’s a garden. All the flowers are white and green. Everything’s white and green. There’s music. I think—I think it’s coming from the ground. Or maybe from the flowers. ”
“What do you see, Amhrán-Liath-na-Méine?” Cernunnos asked me, voice even deeper than before.
I flinched. “How do you know my name?”
“I know the names of all creatures that come through my realm,” the thorn king said. “But yours I know because I gave it to you, daughter. ”
James’ hand gripped mine tighter, or maybe I gripped his tighter. I snapped, “I am no one’s daughter. ” But maybe I was. I would’ve said I was no one’s sister, earlier.
“What do you see, Amhrán-Liath-na-Méine?” the thorn king asked again.
“Trees,” I lied. “Big trees. ”
Cernunnos stepped closer to us, a dark mass in dark nothing, visible because he was something and the nothing was not.
“What do you see, Amhrán-Liath-na-Méine?” he asked, a third time.
I couldn’t see his face. He was too tall for me to see it, and that scared me almost as much as my answer. “Nothing,” I whispered. And I knew that was what I would get when I died, because I had no soul.
The void swallowed my word until I doubted whether I’d said it.
“Nothing has its pleasures,” Cernunnos said finally. His antlers stretched above him into the blackness. Blackness so black that I longed for stars. “You have no consequences. You have life eternal. You have unbridled hedonism at your feet, if it sings to you. Nothing is a small price to pay for such a life, when you lay your head down on the cold ground at the end. ”
James’ fingers tightened and released around mine. He was trying to tell me something. Cernunnos inclined his head toward me. He, too, was trying to tell me something, to get me to say something, but I didn’t understand what. I wasn’t used to words being so important.
“Yes,” I said finally. “And I have a host of faeries to mock me. And a pile of bodies behind me, all used up to give me life. And what do I do with it? Use my life to suck life out of more bodies. Until I wear out, and I burn, and I do it all over again. ” I sounded ungrateful. But I felt ungrateful.
Cernunnos folded his hands, which were not beast-like at all, in front of him. They were lined and sturdy and ghostly white. “It is I that has given you this existence, daughter. It is my poisoned blood in yours that drives you to the bonfire every ten and six years. My blood that means you have but half a life, and must pilfer the rest from those with souls, trading their breath for your inspiration. I thought only that you would find pleasure in years of self-indulgence, dancing, and adoration. I did not mean this life to cause you pain, though I see that it has. ”
“My sister,” I said, and bitterness sharpened my voice despite myself. “Does she find pleasure in such a life?”
“She did,” Cernunnos said. “She is dead, now. ” He made an odd gesture toward James, holding his palm up toward him, and James jerked as if he saw something displayed in the lines of the thorn king’s hand.
“The girl in my dream,” James said. “The one who was stabbed with the iron. I thought it was Nuala—I thought it was her future. ”
“Like me, you see future and past both. ” The antlered king turned his head, looking into nothing as if something was calling to him. “She was not meant to die this year. I will have my revenge, even from where I stand. ”
He was fearsome when he said it; I heard nothing but the undeniable truth of his words and felt a shard of pity for whoever had killed my sister.
In the silence between our voices, the nothing pulled at me, threatening to rob me of my body again. I shivered, thinking of the sister I’d never known. She was nothing now—like she’d never existed. Which meant everyone who’d given her life had died for nothing. I realized suddenly, in this darkness, that even if I felt human now, I wasn’t. I knew, with a sudden, urgent clarity, that I was still a faerie, just slowly stripped of my powers by eating human food. This was still how it would end for me, this staggering emptiness.
“I don’t want to be nothing,” I pleaded, suddenly. I wasn’t sure if I was talking to James or Cernunnos.
“What do you want then, Amhrán-Liath-na-Méine?” And when Cernunnos asked it this time, I saw what he had been waiting for me to say before. The words were right there in my mouth, waiting to be said. But before I said them, memories flashed in my head. Lying in water, utterly invisible, completely safe. Flying through the air on the thoughts of humans, light and free. The wave of a hand toward a movie screen, calling up any movie I wanted to watch. The devastating sweetness of the melody I’d inspired in James. The safety of eternal youth. All of the faerie pleasures that were mine.
“I want to be human,” I said.
Cernunnos held his arms out on either side of him, and light trickled down from his fingers, green and white, bleeding into the nothing. The color grew and rose around us until we stood in a twilight garden, the half-light tinted green as it filtered down between massive leaves the size of my body. Heavy white blossoms shaped like trumpets hung on the plants closest to us, and pale white lilies tipped their throats up toward the sky beyond them. They looked hungry to me.
“You can choose,” Cernunnos said. “When you burn, you can choose to be born human. I made such an offer to your sister, but she scoffed. I looked into the future, and I saw that you would do the same. ”
“I wouldn’t,” I demanded. “What you saw was wrong. ”
The antlered king walked slowly toward James. James’ chin was lifted, unafraid. I was terrified of the fascination in James’ expression. There was an unspoken choice James could make too. “This was before the piper. Piper, know that humans who wish to leave my realm do not. ”
James didn’t flinch. He held up his left hand, the one I wasn’t holding, so that Cernunnos could see the writing on it; a bit that hadn’t been washed off or newly added. It said bonfire. “But I will. Won’t I?”
He sounded a little disappointed.
Cernunnos looked at James, and I didn’t like the nature of the expression; appraising and hungry.
James continued, “You and I know it. Because I will be there on Halloween with her. I know you don’t feel like I do, like a human, but I know you care for Nuala. You can’t want her to be there alone. ”
The antlers turned slightly. “You don’t fear me, piper. And you do not care whether you leave this place. And that is why you will. ”
James turned his face away from both of us. With both his thoughts and e
Cernunnos came close to me then, the tips of his antlers brushing away fragile-looking green tendrils of leaves overhead, and I felt young and powerless in his shadow. “Daughter, do you understand what I am telling you?”
I nodded, just barely.
“Wear black, daughter, to your bonfire. You and the piper both. Cover your bodies with black garments so that my hungry dead will not see you. ” Cernunnos took James’ shoulder in one of his ordinary-looking hands, and James jerked as if he’d forgotten we were there.
“James Antioch Morgan,” the king of the dead said, and when he sang out James’ name, it sounded like music. “You will be called to make a choice. Make the right one. ”
James’ eyes glittered in the darkness. “Which is the right one?”
“The one that hurts,” Cernunnos said.
Death smells like birthday cake. That was the conclusion I came to, anyway, because Nuala and I reeked the morning after we met Cernunnos. Not really like birthday cake, but like candles, I guess. Like the smell after you blow them out. We stank of it, our clothing and hair.
“James Morgan, I’m not losing my job because of you. Wake up. ”
The first thing I saw after being dead was Sullivan, his face a silhouette in front of a light, cloud-streaked sky. The first thing I felt was the side of my face, hot and ringing.
“Did you just slap me?” I demanded.
“Did you just die?” Sullivan shot back. “I’ve been trying to wake you up for the past five minutes. The slap was me losing my patience. ”
“Nuala,” I said, and sat up, hurriedly.
“She’s fine,” Sullivan said, his voice accusing, just as I saw her sitting a few feet away. “She wasn’t the one who found death appealing. ”
I ignored that part. “Why are we all sitting on the fountain?”
I looked past the satyr’s butt and saw Paul sitting on the other side of the fountain, eating a donut.
“Now do you want to tell me where you’ve been for the past two days?” Sullivan demanded. “Paul, you want to go first, since you’re eating my breakfast?”
Nuala and I exchanged looks. I said, “Paul went to see him too? Wait, it was two days ago?”
“It’s Halloween!” Sullivan said. “October thirty-first, seven forty-one am. ” When we all stared at him, he added, “I’d give you more specifics, but my watch doesn’t do picoseconds. ”
I waited for Nuala’s expression to change when she heard “Halloween,” but it didn’t.
Instead, she just said, “Will there be bonfires on campus?”
Sullivan nodded. “The staff lights them as soon as it’s dark. There will be several. ” His eyes narrowed. “What did he say? Cernunnos?”
I waited for Paul or Nuala to say something, but they were all looking at me like I was the ringleader. So I went over what had happened while Sullivan ran his tongue back and forth over his teeth.
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