Ballad a gathering of f.., p.41

Ballad: A Gathering of Faerie, page 41

 part  #2 of  Books of Faerie Series

 

Ballad: A Gathering of Faerie
 



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Page 41

 

  Cernunnos shook his head. “No, cloverhand. The piper spoke the truth of you. ”

  “Then take me,” Sullivan said. I spun to see him shuffle slowly into the circle, hand still pressed on his side and covered with blood.

  “The number in the circle cannot change,” Cernunnos said.

  “Not until a successor is chosen,” Sullivan said. I stepped hurriedly over the consort to offer Sullivan my shoulder. I expected him to refuse it, but he leaned on me, heavy. The movement made more blood run between his fingers, over his iron ring. “You’ve chosen, and I’m here. And there’s nothing to say that once you choose a successor, you can’t change your mind. So change it. Take me. ”

  The red-rimmed eyes took in both of us. “Why would I change my mind, Paladin?”

  “Because I am everything that James is, but I’m dying. ”

  “Is there any amongst the dead to vouch for you?”

  Sullivan paused a long moment, and then he nodded. Outside of the circle, a form slowly rose, a dark, bent shape still crackling with fury. On the other side of the consort, Dee winced.

  “I will vouch for him,” snarled Delia. “He stole my ward. I died by his hand. ”

  Sullivan reached into his pocket with a shaky hand and withdrew three twigs tied with red ribbon, identical to the one he’d given me. He turned it back and forth before Cernunnos, as if to prove that it really was Delia’s.

  I didn’t really know if I wanted Cernunnos to change his mind. I didn’t want Sullivan to die, but I didn’t want this for him either. I wanted this to be over and for him to go back to a normal life despite being touched by faeries. I wanted him to prove it could be done.

  Beside me, Sullivan jerked, staggering, leaning on me. I struggled to stay upright and turned my face to the thorn king. “Cernunnos. Please. Do something. ”

  “Paladin,” Cernunnos said, addressing Sullivan. “You are my successor. I name you king of the dead. You keep the dead and the dead keep you. You—”

  As Cernunnos spoke, Dee dragged me backwards, away from Sullivan. I had to jump to keep from stepping on Karre.

  “Let go,” I said, furious, but then I saw why she was pulling me. Sullivan was darkening, sucking light into himself. He stretched his arms out on either side of himself, his dark coat swirling and spreading. He bowed his head. I heard Cernunnos’ song wailing sickly in my head, and my stomach turned over. I didn’t want to see thorny antlers grow out of Sullivan’s hair.

  But they didn’t. We all kept backing away from him, even Cernunnos, giving him more room, watching him stand there with his arms spread out and his head down. Then, between the blink of one eye and the next, massive dark wings spread behind him. He lifted his head and opened his eyes.

  They were still his eyes.

  I let out a breath that I didn’t realize I’d been holding.

  On the other side of Sullivan, Cernunnos broke the circle with a scuff of his foot through the ashes. The second the ashes scattered, the dead rushed at us. Every dark form in the room crawled or flew or scrambled toward the gap in the circle. Delia first of all.

  Sullivan said, very quietly, “Stop. ”

  And they did.

  He turned toward me. I tried not to stare at the wings. Freaking hell. “James,” he said, and his voice was strange and gravelly. “Take Deirdre and go back to the bonfires. No one will touch you. ”

  He looked at Eleanor when he said this last part. Her mouth was making a small, upside-down “U,” her lips pressed together. “As you say. ”

  Behind Sullivan, Cernunnos climbed down the stairs and began to walk down the aisle toward the door. He had laid his burden down, I guess, and that was it for him. Who knew where he was going. Or where he’d come from. Maybe he’d been just a guy, like me or Sullivan.

  “Sullivan—” I said, looking from the wings to his face.

  “Hurry up,” he snapped, and he sounded more like the Sullivan I knew. “It’s Halloween and I’m king of the dead. I don’t want to kill you. Go. ”

  “Thanks,” I said, and this time, it didn’t feel so weird to say it.

  I took Dee’s hand and we ran.

  James

  When we emerged from the building, I saw that time had slid away from us again. The promise of dawn glowed faintly at the horizon over the parking lots, though the rest of the sky was still dark. The night of the dead only had a few more hours to go. My eyes turned immediately toward Seward, toward the bonfire that Nuala had stood in.

  Her bonfire scarred the sky. I couldn’t see the base, but I could see the golden streaks from the top of it, reaching so high up into the air that they reflected on the clouds. And the fire was singing.

  If just for a moment to belong

  The golden light shooting above the roofs of the dorms was like neon, burning the pattern of its dancing into my eyes.

  Beautiful cacophony, sugar upon lips,

  dancing to exhaustion

  Words flew into the air like sparks. I didn’t know if everyone could hear them, or just me. I didn’t understand what they meant; they were all tangled up in the music.

  Tearing my body asunder

  The music was a thousand tunes at once, all beautifully sad, transcendent, as golden as the streaks in the sky.

  This is how I want everything

  I dropped Dee’s hand. I heard our song—the song Nuala and I had written together in the movie theater. And then I heard her song. The one I’d played for her at the piano.

  I’m so far from where I began

  I fall, I fall

  And I forget that I am

  Everything that made Nuala herself was shooting up into the sky, a towering, gorgeous cacophony of color and words and music. It was flying up, faster and faster, brighter and brighter, and I was running as fast as I could, leaving Dee by the first bonfire. I didn’t know what I was going to do. All I could think was that I had to get there in time to save something of what remained of her.

  I pushed through students—just students after all, not faeries, nothing magical—and shoved past the fountain. I couldn’t see the sky above the bonfire now; it was blocked by the looming dorm. I ran around the edge of the dorm, my sides splitting, breath short, and stopped short.

  I don’t know what I expected. Nuala. Or a body. Or something. Not … nothing.

  The coals of the very center of the bonfire behind Seward still smoldered, but most of what had been flames before was dry gray ash. There was no sign of the massive golden explosion I’d seen from Brigid Hall.

  Where Nuala had stood was just charred silt.

  The wind picked up the topmost layer and whirled it into the air, throwing it into my face and drawing patterns in the grains.

  There was nothing. There was absolutely nothing.

  All I could see was her face when she saw me leaving. She must’ve thought I had chosen Dee over her. She must’ve—

  I slowly sank down in the ash, onto my knees, watching the way it stuck to the legs of my jeans and feeling my toes sink into it behind me.

  On the other side of the bonfire, wavy from the heat still rising from the smoldering coals, I saw Paul. He stood by the columns behind Seward, watching me. Dee joined him, her eyes on me, and they exchanged some words. Neither looked away from me.

  I knew they were talking about me. I didn’t care. I knew they were watching me, but I didn’t care about that either.

  I pressed my hands over my face.

  I stayed there for a long time.

  Then I heard footsteps, and someone crouched down in front of me.

  “James,” Paul said. “Do you want to know what Cernunnos told me?”

  I didn’t open my eyes; I just sighed.

  “He told me that Nuala was going to have to burn in this fire. ”

  I took my hands away from my face. Morning light illuminated Paul’s features. “He told you that? Did he mention how I was going to screw it up?”


  Paul smiled ruefully. “Yeah. He said you would leave, no matter how much you wanted to stay, that you’d make the choice that hurt. And then he told me that no matter what happened, when she walked into that fire, I had to stay here. And watch it. So I stood there on the patio and, dude, there was all kinds of crap going down, but I stayed there the whole time. And I watched her. ”

  I licked my dry lips; they tasted like ash. “And?”

  “Beginning to end,” Paul said.

  I stared at him. I had to force my words to sound even. “But there’s nothing. ”

  Paul looked at his feet. “He told me to dig. ”

  Dee said, “I’ll help. ”

  I hadn’t even realized she’d been standing there behind Paul. I looked at her eyes and nodded, because I couldn’t say anything.

  We started to dig. We scraped away the topmost layer of white ash, which was dry and cold and dead, and burned our fingers on the still-hot coals buried deeper. We dug until Dee gave up because of the heat. And then we dug until Paul gave up too. And I kept digging into the still-hot core of the bonfire beneath all the ashes. My skin stung and blistered as I moved crumbling, smoking pieces of ash and wood aside.

  I felt fingertips. And fingers, long and graceful, and then her hand was gripping my hand. Paul grabbed my arm, pulling me, and Dee pulled him, and together, we pulled her up.

  And it was Nuala.

  “Holy crap,” said Paul, and then turned around, because she was smeared with ash and naked.

  She just looked at me. I didn’t want to say “Nuala,” because if she didn’t respond, then I’d know for sure she’d forgotten me. It was better to hang in this moment of not-knowing than to know for sure.

  I tugged my sweatshirt over my head and offered it to her. “It’s cold,” I said.

  “How heroic of you,” said Nuala, sarcastically. But she took it and pulled it on. On her, it came down to the middle of her thighs. I saw goose bumps on the rest of her legs.

  I realized she was looking at Dee, who stood beside Paul, watching us. When Dee saw me look at her, she turned around and put her back to us like Paul had, as if for privacy.

  Nuala whispered, “I thought you’d left me behind. ”

  “I’m so sorry,” I said. I rubbed my eye to fight the sudden urge to cry and felt stupid for it. I muttered, “I’ve got some damn ash in my eye. ”

  “Me too,” said Nuala, and we wrapped our arms around each other.

  Behind us, I heard Dee’s voice—and then I heard Paul, hesitant, reply, “It’s a long road, but it’s the only one we’ve got, right?”

  He was right.

  James

  Welcome, ladies and gentlemen. I’m Ian Everett Johan Campbell, the third and the last. I hope I can hold your attention. I must tell you that what you see tonight is completely real. It might not be amazing, it might not be shocking, it might not be scandalizing, but I can tell you beyond a shadow of a doubt: it is real. For that—I am deeply sorry.

  Brigid Hall was full. It was more than full. Each chair had a butt in it. Some laps had people sitting on them. There was a row of people by the back door, standing. The red door was open so that a few people could lean in and watch. It wasn’t too long to lean—it was only a half-hour play.

  And this time, it felt more real than usual, because clouds had made the night come early. So the audience sat in pitch blackness. The stage was the only solid ground in the world, and we were the only people in it. Life out there was the metaphor, and we were the real ones.

 
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