Ballad a gathering of f.., p.5

Ballad: A Gathering of Faerie, page 5

 part  #2 of  Books of Faerie Series


Ballad: A Gathering of Faerie

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Page 5


  Dee and James walked to the edge of the satyr fountain and stood directly over the top of me, close to each other but not touching, separated by some invisible barrier they had constructed before I’d arrived on the scene. James cracked jokes the whole time, one meaningless, funny line after another, making her laugh again and again so that they didn’t have to talk. His agony would’ve made a gorgeous song. I had to find a way to make him take my deal.

  Dee and James stared at the satyr, who grinned back at them, permanently dancing upon a tiny oak leaf in the middle of the water. “I’ve heard you practicing,” Dee said.

  “Stunned by my magnificence?”

  “Actually, I do think you’ve gotten better since the last time I heard you. Is that possible?”

  “Entirely possible. The world is a wonderful and strange place. ” He hesitated. Lying in the water, I could read his thoughts more easily. I saw his brain form the question, how are you holding up here? But instead he said, “It’s getting colder at night. ”

  “Friggin’ freezing in our room sometimes!” Dee’s voice was too enthusiastic, glad of an easy conversation. “When do they turn on the heat, anyway?”

  “It’s probably a good thing they haven’t. If they turned on the heat now, it’d be hot enough to toast marshmallows in the rooms during the day. ”

  “That’s true. It’s still really warm in the afternoon, isn’t it? I guess it’s the mountains. ”

  I saw James struggle with his words before he said them, the first deeply sincere statement he’d made since finding her underneath the streetlight. “The mountains are gorgeous, aren’t they? They kind of make me sad for some reason, looking at them. ”

  Dee didn’t reply or react. It was like if he wasn’t saying something funny, he wasn’t speaking at all.

  She moved away from him, around the edge of the fountain. He didn’t follow. Dipping her hand in the water, close to my feet, she said, “This fountain’s really weird. Why is he smiling like that?”

  James reached over and patted the satyr’s butt. “Because he’s naked. ”

  “I’m just glad he’s in front of your dorm instead of the girls’. I think he’s a nasty little piece of work. ”

  “I’ll deface him for you, if you like,” James offered.

  She laughed. I could almost imagine her singing when she laughed. “That’s okay. But I’d better get inside. Don’t want to be caught by that crazy teacher again, after curfew. ”

  He reached a hand toward her like he was going to take her hand, or her backpack, or touch her arm. He said, “I’ll walk you back. ”

  “It’s okay. I’m going to run,” Dee said. “I’ll see you tomorrow?”

  The line of his shoulders seemed tired all of a sudden and his hand went into his pocket. “Indubitably. ”

  Dee flashed a smile at him and pelted back toward the girls’ dorm, backpack flapping against her body as she ran. James stayed by the fountain long after she’d disappeared, motionless as the satyr, his close-cut hair turning redder in the sunset light and his eyes half shut. I lay in the water and waited.

  Long minutes passed, the sun slowly burning down toward the trees, and I kept looking at that gold glow that flickered inside him, the promise of creative greatness. Why hadn’t he said yes? Was it only because he’d turned me down that I now wanted him so badly? I could make him incredible. He could make me warm, alive, awake.

  I’d give him a dream. That’s what I’d do. I’d show him just a little of what I could do, and next time he saw me, he wouldn’t be able to say no.

  Above me, James started. He had his head cocked, listening like when he’d sensed me before, only now he heard something else.

  The thorn king. I heard the melody begin to ripple across the hills as he began his journey across them. My ears had barely registered the sound, but when I blinked, James was gone. I hurriedly pushed myself out of the water—the surface moved in slow concentric waves around me—and I saw James, a dim figure in the darkness, running flat out like his life depended on it. Running toward the antlered king and his slow song for the dead. Who ran to meet death?

  Long after James had traded the hills behind Thornking-Ash for his dorm room, I made my own way to the hills. I wasn’t interested in the antlered king’s music, though. It was faerie music that drew me now—it sounded like a dance, as improbable as that was.

  I had never liked the dances. If there was one thing in the history of the world that had been invented to make me feel like a complete outsider, it was the dances the faeries held inside faerie rings. And this dance, on the biggest hill behind Thornking-Ash School, was no different—but it was ten times bigger than any dance I had ever seen. And no faerie, with the exception of myself, of course, could touch iron; mere proximity to it drove most faeries far under the hills and into isolated stretches of countryside. So no matter how tempting the music of the Thornking-Ash School might be to my kind, the invisible iron that reinforced it and the shimmering cars in the parking lots should’ve rendered it a faerie no-fly zone.

  But there were hundreds of faeries of every size and shape, from the tall, lovely court fey, who I expected to see, to the short, ugly hobmen, who I didn’t—they rarely ventured out from their holes and their drudgery to come to the dances. They all danced in twos and threes, touching each other’s hair, moving their bodies as one, all beautiful while dancing.

  Hanging back a few dozen feet, up to my waist in the dry field grass, I brushed my palms over the seed tops and sighed. I wasn’t thrilled to see any of them. I had been hoping to have Thornking-Ash to myself.

  But their music called to me, pulling at my body, irresistible. The longer I stayed there, listening to its pulsing rhythm, the more I knew that I had to go and feel it for myself.

  The dancers didn’t interest me, with the impossible shapes they made of their bodies and the sensuality of skin touching skin. It was the musicians I headed toward. A lithe, beautiful boy faerie was all wrapped around a skin drum on his lap and it was he who gave the dance its hypnotic, primal heartbeat. There was a haunting fiddler who scratched and wailed on his fiddle, another faerie who shook a tambourine in perfect counterpoint to the booming drum, and a flutist who called us to dance with frightening, frantic urgency. But that drummer—the one who could make his drum sound like water dropping into a bucket or like the footfalls of a giant or like rain scattering on a roof—he was the one to watch. He was the one who could make you forget yourself.

  “Dance, lovely?” a big-footed trow with a face like a shovel caught my hand. No sooner had he touched my fingers than he released them.

  I sneered at him. “Yeah, I didn’t think you wanted any of that. ”

  The trow leaned toward another near him and said in his slow trow way, “It’s a leanan sidhe. ”

  And just like that, I had been announced. As insidious as the fast, primitive beat, the words were passed from dancer to dancer, and I felt eyes on me as I moved through the crowd. I was not just any solitary fey, I was the leanan sidhe. Lowest of the low. Nearly human.

  “I didn’t know dancing was one of your talents,” called a faerie as she whirled by me. She and her friends were no taller than my hip, and their laughter stung like bees. I watched them spin for a moment, their feet falling unerringly with the driving drumbeat, until I saw her tail peek from under her gauzy green dress.

  My smile was a snarl. “I didn’t realize talking was one of your talents. I didn’t think monkeys could speak. ”

  She jerked her dress down with a scowl in my direction and tugged the others away from me. I grimaced after them and kept making my way through the crowd. I didn’t know exactly what I was looking for—maybe just someplace where the music would finally pull me into its spell and make me forget the rest of this.

  Someone grabbed my butt as I walked; by the time I spun, however, there was nothing but a row of grinning faces looking at me. It wasn’t that I couldn’t pick out the one who
didn’t look innocent. More that I couldn’t find one who didn’t look guilty.

  “Go screw yourselves,” I told them, and they all laughed.

  “We’d like to, slut,” said one of them, and made a rude gesture. “Will you help?”

  No point getting into a fight tonight. I just spit in their general direction and whirled away, putting as much distance between me and the butt-grabbers as I could.

  The drum begged my feet to dance, but I didn’t. The music was gorgeous, and any other night I would’ve given into it. But tonight, all I could think about was what James and his pipes could do with the tune the musicians played now. I wasn’t sure why I’d bothered to come. I was a motionless island in the middle of a swirling sea of dancers. They didn’t bother to hide their stares as they rippled, spun, swayed with the music and with each other. There was laughter all around me.

  “Are you lost, cailín?”

  I’ll admit I was shocked shitless by both the kindness in the voice and the innocuous title—simply “girl” in Irish. I turned and found a man smiling down at me, dressed in court finery, his tunic buttoned with shell-shaped buttons all the way up his neck.

  A human. He glowed vaguely golden, enough to make me hungry but not enough to really tempt me. Besides, though he was handsome enough, with his laugh-lined eyes and crooked nose, he was neither beautiful enough nor fair enough to be a changeling, stolen away by the faeries as a child. Between that and his court clothing, I would have bet my curls he was the queen’s new human consort. Even I, on the fringe as I was, had heard whispers of him.

  I eyed him, wary, and said loftily, “Do I look lost, human?”

  His eyes took in my jean skirt with the ripped bottom, my low-cut peasant top, and my impossibly tall cork heels. His mouth made a shape as if he had tried a lemon and found it sort of appealing. “It’s hard to imagine you anywhere you didn’t intend to be,” he admitted.

  I curled my mouth into a smile.

  “You have an extremely wicked smile,” he said.

  “That’s because I am extremely wicked. Haven’t you heard?”

  The consort’s eyes returned to my face and his already smile-thin eyes narrowed more. His voice was light, playful. “Should I have, human?”

  I laughed out loud at his mistake. At least I knew now why he’d approached me—he thought I was one of his kind. Did I look that bad? “Far be it from me to disillusion you,” I replied. “You’ll find out soon enough. For now I’m enjoying your ignorance, to tell you the truth. ”

  “The truth is all anyone can speak around here,” the consort countered.

  My mouth curled into a smile.

  “I see conversing with you takes me only in circles,” he said, and he held out a hand. “Would you dance, instead? Just one dance?”

  I didn’t like to dance with faeries, but he wasn’t one. My teeth were a thin white line. “There is no such thing as one dance inside this circle. ”

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