Ballad a gathering of f.., p.40

Ballad: A Gathering of Faerie, page 40

 part  #2 of  Books of Faerie Series

 

Ballad: A Gathering of Faerie
 



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Page 40

 

  Eleanor looked away, her expression furious. “That was not a price I was willing to pay. ”

  “And this is?” Sullivan asked.

  Eleanor looked back at him.

  And then there was an unremarkable pop.

  I didn’t understand what the pop meant until, behind Sullivan, I saw Delia, Dee’s damn, ever-present evil aunt, step over the two faerie bodies by the door. In her hand was a very small, fake-looking gun.

  Sullivan very carefully laid a hand on his stomach, and then stumbled in slow-motion against one of the folding chairs. I closed my eyes, but I saw what happened anyway. He fell to his hands and knees and threw up, flowers and blood.

  “I can’t believe I’m going to have to be the one with the backbone here,” Delia said. “I’ve been staying in a hotel for two weeks and spending every single evening up to my elbows in dead fey. Cut her heart out before I get pissed off. ”

  Eleanor’s voice was below zero. “My finest horse to whichever faerie in this room brings me that woman’s left eye. ”

  My thoughts exactly.

  “Wait!” snapped Delia, as every hand in the room reached for a knife. “You can cut out my damn eye if you like, but what you should be cutting out is her heart. It’s nearly eleven. What will you do if he’s here and her heart’s not in him?” She gestured to the consort on the stage.

  I crouched down and, seizing Dee’s arm, hauled her to her feet. Eleanor and Delia just looked at me. Delia and a gun were between me and the door. Eleanor and her damn voodoo were between me and everything.

  “Why don’t you save yourself?” I hissed at Dee. This summer, there’d been more faeries, and I’d been mostly dead, and she’d still gotten out of it. Now, Nuala was burning by herself, Sullivan was bleeding on the floor, and Dee wasn’t doing a thing to stop it.

  But Dee turned to Delia instead of to me. “What did I ever do to you, anyway?” Her voice sounded hoarse, like she’d been screaming or singing.

  Delia shook her head and made a face that was like a caricature of disbelief, like she couldn’t believe Dee even thought the question worth asking. “I just want your voice when you’re done with it. ”

  Siobhan said, “My queen—there’s no time. Cut out her heart, put it in him, and make Karre a king. ”

  In my head, I heard the thorn king’s song as he approached. Only, instead of singing grow rise follow, the words were follow feast devour.

  Eleanor looked at Siobhan and nodded shortly.

  It all happened in a blur then. Siobhan leapt toward Dee, one hand stretched as if to seize Dee’s shoulder, the other gripping the knife. Dee frowned at the blade, pointed unerringly at her heart. And I flung out my arm, smashing the back of my arm and my wrist against Siobhan’s face.

  Siobhan squealed—strangely high-pitched—and stumbled backwards, the knife clattering to the floor. Flowers were pouring from her face. Or her face was falling into flowers.

  Eleanor stepped back just as Siobhan, a blanket of petals, flopped to the ground at her feet. She looked pissed.

  I looked at my arm. The sleeve of my sweatshirt had pulled down to reveal the iron bracelet on my wrist; a single yellow petal was still stuck to the edge of it. So the damn thing had turned out to be useful for something.

  I held my wrist out toward Eleanor. “Will this do the same thing to you?”

  She looked really pissed.

  “James,” Sullivan called from the aisle. His voice sounded wet. I tried not to pay attention to that. “Stage left. ”

  Of course. The exit at the back of the stage. I grabbed Dee’s hand and pulled her up the stairs, going sideways so I could keep watching Eleanor. Cernunnos’ song was deafening in my ears. It was time to get out.

  “I wouldn’t do that,” Delia snapped, staring at us. “This thing has a lot of bullets in it. And I’m not above shooting someone at the moment. ”

  Eleanor folded her hands gently before her and said coldly, “Someone else. ” She looked away, at something in the aisle, and said, “Patrick, pull your coat over your head. ”

  I just had time to realize what she was saying when the back door busted open.

  For a moment, there was nothing but silence and sheer, absolute cold, our breaths clouded in front of us.

  And then the dead came pouring in. They ran along the walls, fluttered around the lights like moths, cast crazy shadows on the floor and the chairs. They stank of sulphur and damp earth. With them came noise: shrill screams, gurgling calls, guttural singing. They ricocheted off the faeries as if they were nothing more than stones, but when they saw Delia, their noises changed to something more urgent.

  Delia spun and let off a shot, right before they fell on her. She disappeared under the weight of intangible darkness, and if she made a sound, I couldn’t hear it over the sounds of them screaming over her.

  And then the dead noticed us.

  “Dee,” I said, “Do something. I know you can. ”

  Dee looked at me, her eyes wide. I recognized the look. It was like her system was flashing a little warning sign at me that read overload overload overload. Seeing it now, I realized that she’d been working toward this moment—this moment of utter giving up—for a long time, and I wondered that I hadn’t recognized it until now, when it was too late.

  The dead rushed over the chairs, crawled up the windows, sank claws into the edge of the stage. Delia was a rustling, kicking pile on the floor. I gripped Dee’s shoulders and looked right in her eyes. “Dee. Do this for me. You owe me. You know you owe me. ”

  Dee’s eyes were locked right on mine, and I could almost see her processing my words. I waited for her to do something—blast the dead to the back of the room, call down heaven’s wrath, anything.

  But all she did was take my hands and step backwards.

  Just as the dead broached the stage, I looked down and realized that, with that one step, we now stood inside the dark circle with Eleanor’s consort. The dead swirled around the circle, rushing past us, making strange shapes that I didn’t think I’d ever seen before. Dee tugged my hands to make me step forward a little, farther away from the circle’s dusty edge.

  Below us, Eleanor’s consort lay still. His eyes were open and glassy. I thought he’d died, but then he blinked. Very slowly.

  There was nothing in the world but this dusky circle. Population: three. Three people broken in three totally different ways.

  Our world was silent.

  The dead swirled around our circle, not getting any closer, but not getting any farther away. They were dark as a storm cloud.

  Cernunnos stepped out from amongst them.

  James

  “Eleanor-of-the-skies, you did not speak truth to me. ” Cernunnos paced around the edge of our circle. Like the dead, he was getting no closer, but no further away either. He was somehow even scarier in this context—standing on the stage where I’d read my lines, pacing past the piano bench where Nuala and I had sat. He didn’t belong here. Cernunnos turned his antlered head toward the circle, and with a shock, I saw his eyes for the first time. Hollow black irises ringed with a smoldering red line, all future and past and present mixed up in them. It was like drowning, looking at them. Like falling. Like looking in a mirror. I closed my eyes for a second.

  “I only speak truth,” Eleanor said. She sounded a little testy. “It is all I can speak. ”

  “You promised me a successor. ” Cernunnos looked into the circle. It felt like he was only looking at me. “Not three. ”

  Eleanor held up the consort’s heart. “Well, things got a bit out of hand. ” She looked at me and pursed her lips. “I don’t suppose you’d let us have a moment to put things right?”

  “Things are as they are,” Cernunnos said. “The circle’s drawn. I am here. There are three inside and nothing shall change until a successor is chosen. ”

  Eleanor closed her eyes and then opened them. “So be it. ”

  Cernunn
os called, “I am the king of the dead. I keep the dead, and they keep me. I have earned my place here. I swelled the ranks of the dead before I joined them. Are these three worthy? Who amongst the dead can vouch for them?”

  The dead stirred, swirled, arranged themselves.

  A dark smudge grew in front of us, like a smear in our vision, and a voice came from it. Siobhan’s. “I died by the piper’s hand. ”

  A winged thing crab-walked over the chairs, its eyes luminous red lamps in its dark skull. “I died by the Consort’s hand. ”

  Dee closed her eyes and pressed her forehead against my shoulder.

  The noxious cloud that was Linnet floated forward. “The cloverhand murdered me. ”

  I seriously thought it had to be a lie. But it seemed like a dumb idea, even for someone who was already dead, to lie to Cernunnos. I whispered to Dee, “Is it true?”

  She shook her head against me. “They tricked me. They knew I had to kill someone for this to work. All They wanted was my heart for him. ”

  I looked at Karre, at the bright beads of sweat on his forehead, and I realized what Eleanor had meant to accomplish. I imagined a consort who was at once a cloverhand and the king of the dead—the faeries would be allies with that ravenous force that had destroyed Delia; they would be able to go anywhere they wanted to. Suddenly I saw what force had driven the faerie to come to the bonfire where I was.

  “So all of you are worthy,” Cernunnos said. “But there can be only one. ” His eyes lingered on Dee and a chill seeped through me.

  I said, suddenly, “Why do you need a successor?”

  The antlered head turned slowly toward me. “I am tired, piper. I would lay this down. It has been centuries since I stood in that same circle. ”

  “And this is how you choose who follows you?” I demanded. “Whoever is pushed or falls into this circle is powerful enough to control them?” I pointed out at the seething forms.

  “My successor will learn,” Cernunnos replied, and his voice was no angrier nor more passionate than before I spoke out. “As I did. And there will be many lifetimes for my successor to discover what I have. ”

  “So you think any of us can do what you do?” I pointed down at Karre. “Him? How smart can he be, that he arrives in the circle already dead ? And Dee?” I stood back from her, looked at her. “She can’t even stand the idea that she’s killed someone. ”

  “And you?” Cernunnos said.

  “Me?” I showed him my hands, covered with words. “I can’t even keep myself together, much less a legion of dead people. And I’m a cocky little shit who doesn’t care about anybody but myself. Ask anybody. They’ll tell you. ”

  Cernunnos inclined his thorny head toward me. “That is not truth, piper. I know what is in your heart. And that is why I choose you as my successor. ”

  There was silence. Nothing.

  I lowered my hands to my sides. His song was humming in my head. I could feel the deadness of him, the strangeness of him, the old and dark and bitterness of him, flowing around me.

  “No,” Dee whispered. “Not you, James. You’ve done enough for me. ” She looked at Cernunnos. “Take me instead. ”

 
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