Ballad a gathering of f.., p.38

Ballad: A Gathering of Faerie, page 38

 part  #2 of  Books of Faerie Series

 

Ballad: A Gathering of Faerie
 



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Page 38

  “I know, dude, seriously,” Paul said. “But you know, I think that it used to be that the fey—whoops, I mean Them”—he corrected himself as some onlookers looked up at us—“I think They used to be afraid of the dead. So in the old days, you know, the ’70s, it was a protection against Them. ”

  There was another shout, across campus, as another bonfire was lit. Nuala narrowed her eyes.

  “This is Patrick Sullivan, one of your friendly teachers and resident advisors!” Sullivan had availed himself of a microphone and was using the massive speakers for a public service announcement. “I’d like to interrupt the music to urge everyone to stay on campus grounds! Halloween is not a good time to wander off for a make-out session in the hills, boys and girls! Remember the horror movies? Something bad always happens to the couple making out! Stay within view of the bonfires and have a nice evening!”

  Paul and I exchanged glances.

  “What I want to know, dude,” Paul said thoughtfully, “is what They’re trying to hide. Don’t you? They’re keeping all the staff and students that know anything about anything running around making sure nobody gets pixy-led by all of Them that are here dancing with us. ”

  “It’s something about the ritual,” Nuala insisted. “Something about linking the dead to Them. ”

  “But you can’t just go out into a bunch of dead spirits with the munchies to try to find out what’s going on,” I said. My stomach twisted, sick with the idea of Nuala burning, sick with the idea of Dee with the faeries, sick with the premonition of loss.

  And then I heard the first strains of Cernunnos’ song.

  Paul winced. “Here he comes. ”

  And he wasn’t alone.

  Nuala

  When the end comes, dark and hungry

  I’ll be alone, love

  When the end comes, black and starving

  I’ll say good-bye, love.

  —from Golden Tongue: The Poems of Steven Slaughter

  I heard the rush of wings first. Flapping and whispering and shimmering overhead, they wheeled away from the light of the bonfire, back into the growing night. I squinted into the darkness. It was moving, shifting, reflecting the moonlight in places.

  James whispered in my ear, “And to think I ever thought you were scary. ”

  I couldn’t say anything back; my words were stuck in my throat. The thorn king’s song cried out grow rise follow and his horrors fled before him and dragged themselves behind him. As terrifying as the unhallowed dead were, faintly visible beyond the light of the bonfire, what was worse was the cold knot of certainty that was growing in my gut. The bonfires were all lit. The dead were walking. My knees were locked to keep my weak legs from trembling. I was running out of time.

  “Paul!” Sullivan shouted from near us. “Paul, I need you to tell me who’s on the list tonight! Has it changed? Come here! Hurry up!”

  Paul, who’d seemed frozen by Cernunnos’ song, jerked to life. He exchanged a look with James and pushed past a group of green-clad dancers (too tall and willowy to be students) to get to Sullivan.

  My legs wanted to buckle so bad; I felt light-headed. I hated to tell James that it was time. Saying it would make it real.

  “Izzy,” James said, and he grabbed me clumsily under my armpits before I even realized I was falling. He lowered me to the ground with a bit more gentleness.

  I’d been an idiot. I should’ve gone sooner. I was just a coward, after all. My eyes felt so heavy; I had to tilt my head back to look at James. “I love that you call me that. ”

  James half-closed his eyes in pain. “Don’t get all sentimental on me now. The only way I’m making it through this right now is because you’re so bad ass. ”

  “Grow a set,” I suggested, and he laughed weakly. “Help me up. ”

  He hauled on my arms, but my legs just gave out again. Nobody seemed to notice us; they were all dazzled and glamored by the faeries dancing in their midst. That was okay. I couldn’t afford to get pulled out of the fire by some well-meaning bystander.

  “You’ll really need those balls,” I said, “because I think you’re going to have to carry me. ”

  I watched his throat move as he swallowed wordlessly and awkwardly picked me up, arms under my knees and looped around my back and armpit. I held on and resisted the temptation to bury my face into his sweater. It would’ve been nice to take his smell, pipes and leather and soap, with me, but he only stank of Cernunnos right now anyway. I was going to have to go it alone.

  James silently carried me around the back of the bonfire. It was huge now, shooting forty or fifty feet into the air with toxic-looking flames from whatever upholstery was currently fueling it. On this side, the farthest away from the buildings, we were alone. Just us and the yawning darkness of the hills beyond the firelight.

  Even twenty feet away from the fire, the heat of it seared my face. James didn’t so much kneel as crumple to the ground with me, and suddenly he hugged me, hard.

  “Nuala,” he said. “I have the most awful feeling about this. ”

  My chest was bursting with the effort of keeping my heart beating. “There’s no other way,” I whispered. “Help me stand. ”

  “You can’t stand. ”

  It was desperately important that I walk into the fire under my own power. I didn’t know if it was a real reason, or just one of principle, but I just felt like I had to do it myself. “Get me close, then help me up. ”

  He carried me a few steps closer to the fire and halted.

  “Now say my name back to me,” I whispered. “So I know you won’t screw it up and I won’t forget you. ”

  James said it into my ear. Perfectly. Then he lowered me to my feet, and I stood.

  There was no time for anything else. No time to stretch my hand up to the white flames to get used to the idea. No time to worry about whether or not he would stay here with me or leave to find Dee. No time to wonder if saying my name would really work. No time to think that if it didn’t, it really would be like I was dying. Because the girl that got a new body from the flames wouldn’t be me. Not anymore.

  I should’ve told James I loved him before I went. But there wasn’t time for that either.

  I stumbled into the fire.

  James

  This was hell.

  Hell was waiting for her to scream. Hell was watching her fists ball, her hair singe, her mouth make the shape of tears even though the heat stole the drops before they could run down her face.

  She fell to her knees.

  I couldn’t move. I just stood there, my hands clenched at my sides, the fire searing my cheeks. I couldn’t stop shaking.

  Hell was seeing that it was going to take a long time to burn Nuala to nothing.

  Nuala

  Human.

  Human.

  Human.

  Please, please, human.

  James

  It took me too long to find my voice, and for a horrible second I thought I’d forgotten how to say her name, even though I’d just said it to her. However long ago that was. Seconds? Minutes? Hours?

  “Amhrán-Liath-na-Méine,” I said. Softly. In case anyone was listening.

  Nuala screamed.

  Shit.

  The scream trailed off, thin and wet-sounding, but I couldn’t stop hearing it. Worse, I couldn’t stop seeing the shape of her face when she did it. My brain just kept playing it over and over again, imposing it over her dark form in the flames, twisting and shaking.

  I folded my arms over my chest, my fists white-knuckled against my body, and I said, “Amhrán-Liath-na-Méine. ”

  She screamed again.

  Goose bumps burst along my skin. Maybe Eleanor could lie. Maybe she could bend the truth. I didn’t know what my words were doing to Nuala, but I was scared shitless to say her name a third time.

  “Piper!”

  I jerked at the sound of the voice. At first I couldn’t tell where it was coming from, and then I
realized it was coming from behind me. How far behind, I couldn’t tell. Somewhere out in that hungry darkness.

  “Piper! James Morgan!”

  I squinted into the blackness, relieved for the second’s rest from watching Nuala burn.

  “Piper, if you love the cloverhand, you will come here. ”

  My stomach flipped over, unpleasantly, as I turned and saw a faerie crouched in the darkness, about forty feet from the bonfire. His skin was tinged greenish, making him look like a corpse in the moving firelight. “What do you want?”

  “Didn’t the leanan sidhe tell you? To watch the cloverhand tonight?” The faerie stood up, a long, elegant gesture that somehow seemed inhuman. “They’re going to kill her, and make a new king of the dead from her heart, piper. He’ll control us and the dead, with the cloverhand’s powers. For us, it will be ignoble. For you and every other human, it will be hell. ”

  I looked over my shoulder at the bonfire. I could still see Nuala, a dark form in the voracious flames, and on the other side, the figures of dancing students.

  “Why should I trust you?” I asked him, but really, what I wanted to know was why I should leave Nuala in those flames by herself when I promised her I would watch her and say her name. And now I had to start all over again —seven times uninterrupted, Eleanor had said, and watch her burn from beginning to end.

  The faerie smiled a thin smile, white teeth in the darkness. “We saved your life once, don’t you remember, piper? When she asked us, we saved your life. She traded Luke Dillon’s life for yours. ”

  My heart stopped beating. I couldn’t breathe.

  “I don’t think you understand, human. They’re taking her cloverhand powers. They’ll be able to go anywhere, do anything. And they’re killing her for it. I thought you loved her. ”

  Now I heard another scream, this time from beyond where the faerie stood, and I knew that voice too. It was too like her singing voice to be anyone else’s. The faerie didn’t flinch. “Piper, I would not be here talking to you if you were not what was needed. ”

  “I need—I need a second,” I demanded. I turned back to the bonfire. Nuala was on her knees, hands covering her face, her hair and fingertips black, her shoulders shaking. It wasn’t fair. Wasn’t she supposed to pass out—get some sort of mercy?

  “Amhrán-Liath-na-Méine,” I said. Nuala shuddered, hard enough for me to see it. “Amhrán-Liath-na-Méine. ” She balled up her broken fingers against her face. “Amhrán-Liath-na-Méine. ” I whispered her name four more times, and each time, Nuala wailed, agonized and awful.

  If only I could do both. How could it take so long for her to burn?

  And behind me, another scream sounded, and this one echoed Nuala’s, full of pain. Dee’s voice. I had to decide.

  In my head, I knew I had to try to save Dee. She was the more important. Even if she hadn’t been Dee, she was powerful and she could make the fey powerful. There wasn’t any question—this was why Eleanor had told me how to keep Nuala’s memories. Because she was betting that I would stay by Nuala’s side to watch her burn from beginning to end instead of interfering with whatever they were doing.

 
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