Ballad a gathering of f.., p.32

Ballad: A Gathering of Faerie, page 32

 part  #2 of  Books of Faerie Series


Ballad: A Gathering of Faerie

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Page 32


  A fruity aroma accompanied Sullivan as he returned. “It’s soda,” he said, apologetically. His eyes paused for the briefest second on my fingers resting on Nuala’s skin. “It was the most sugary thing I had on hand. I had honey, too, but that sounded sticky. Prop her up. I hope she’s conscious enough to swallow. I have no idea what the hell I’m doing. ”

  She fit in the crook of my arm. Together, Sullivan and I did the crappy nursemaid thing. I supported her jaw and he tipped a bit of Mountain Dew into her mouth.

  “Careful she doesn’t choke. ”

  I tipped her head back and ran a hand along her throat. I’d seen Dee do it when she was trying to get her dog to swallow pills.

  Nuala swallowed.

  Rinse and repeat. We kept going until she had about a half a glass of soda down, and then she coughed.

  Coughing was good, right?

  “More?” Sullivan asked. I didn’t know who he was asking, because I sure didn’t know.

  Nuala opened her eyes. For a second, I could tell she wasn’t really focused on anything, but then I saw her eyes slide slowly toward me, and then toward Sullivan, and then around the room.

  And the words she said were just classic Nuala. “Oh, shit. ”


  He does not so much bite as nibble, my friend Death

  Wearing me down to the size of a child

  Soon I am small enough to nestle in his hand

  Gone in one swallow, behind his gentle smile.

  —from Golden Tongue: The Poems of Steven Slaughter

  “Feeling any better?” James asked me. For some reason he reminded me of an apple. His face was tanned from all his afternoons spent outside piping, and now that his hair was starting to grow out, it was even redder than before. Everything about him as he stood on the hill next to me, his fingers brushing the seed-tops of the golden grass, reminded me of apples. End-of-the-year fruits that waited for summer to be safely away before they showed themselves.

  I crumpled and uncrumpled a granola bar wrapper in my hands. “Anything’s better than passed out, I guess, right? Why the hell does Sullivan want me on this hill? I’m not like some raccoon you found in your trash. You can’t just put me back out into the wild and expect me to go away. ”

  James smiled a half-smile at me, but I saw that his fingers were rubbing on the worry stone in his hand. “I don’t think he expects you to disappear into the wild, my dear viper. Hopes for it, maybe. But I don’t think he expects it. He said he wanted to talk. ”

  “I can talk anywhere. ”

  “Oh, that I know. But I see his point, don’t you? Your … somewhat less-than-standard-issue appearance might draw some attention on campus. Especially in the boys’ dorm. ”

  The grass snapped behind me as I lay back on it, staring up at the deep blue sky. There wasn’t a cloud in sight, and lying down, I couldn’t see any of the brilliantly colored trees at the bottom of the hill. Still, everything about the day—the crisp bite to the air, the smell of woodsmoke, the swift wind that gusted around us—screamed that Halloween was almost here.

  James towered over me, casting his shadow over my body; it was cold when the sun didn’t touch me. “Are you okay?”

  “Stop asking me that,” I said. “I’m great. I’m rosy. I’m freakin’ wonderful. I couldn’t be happier. How did you find me?”

  “You were lying in the grass four feet away from me. It wasn’t rocket science. ”

  “Lie down so I can smack you,” I told him, and he smiled a thin white smile. “I meant before. How did you find me on the hill after I passed out? It was still night, practically. ”

  Oh my God, he blushed. I didn’t even think James Morgan was capable of blushing. I knew I didn’t imagine it. He looked away, as if that would hide his flushed cheeks, but I could still see his bright red ears. “I—uh—dreamt about you. ”

  “You dreamed about me?” At first, all I could think was all the times he’d dreamt about Dee and not me. Then I realized what the blush might mean. “What sort of dream?”

  James absently bit on the end of his worry stone before crossing his arms. “Ha. You know exactly what sort of dream it was. ”

  I frowned at him for a moment, one eyebrow arched, before I realized that he meant I must be reading his mind. And then I realized I hadn’t been.

  Then I realized I couldn’t.

  I stared at him, trying to find the threads of thought I normally seized and interpreted, but there was nothing. I couldn’t even remember how it was that I used to do it. It was like discovering you’d stopped breathing, and trying to remember how it was you used to inflate your lungs.

  James raised his hands on either side of his face like he was surrendering. “Hey. I have no control over my subconscious. You can’t hold me accountable for somnolent fantasies. I seriously doubt I could even dance like that in real life. ”

  While I was trying to catch his thoughts, it struck me. He wasn’t golden anymore. When had I stopped seeing the music inside him? I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen it. I knew—I knew it wasn’t him that had changed. It was me.

  Lying flat out in the grass, I covered my face with my hands.

  “This isn’t about a dancing dream, is it. ” James didn’t say it like a question. I heard him crush the grass down beside me. “Did something happen to you last night?”

  “I can’t hear your thoughts,” I whispered from behind my hands.

  James was silent. I didn’t know if it was because he didn’t know what to say or if it was because he realized immediately just how big of a deal it was for me. I took my hands from my face, because I had to see his face if I couldn’t hear him. He was staring off into the distance, his eyes faraway. His thoughts totally out of my reach, as if they didn’t even exist.

  “Say something,” I said miserably. “It’s so quiet. Tell me what you’re thinking. ”

  “Welcome to my life,” James said. “I have to guess what’s going on in people’s heads. ” He looked at my face and something he saw there made his voice soften. He shrugged. “I was wondering if this was just part of it. Part of getting closer to Halloween. I saw Eleanor. She said that your body was wearing out and that you had to burn to keep from dying. Maybe this is just you, wearing out. ”

  “I don’t feel worn out. I feel—” I was afraid to say it.

  James ran his fingers over the back of one of my hands, looking at it as if it was enormously important. “I know. Look—Nuala. ” He hesitated. “Eleanor said something else. She said, if you wanted to keep your memories, there was a way. ”

  My stomach lurched, like with nerves. “Why would she care?”

  “I don’t know. Can she lie?”

  I shook my head; the grass rustled under my head. I thought about what Brendan and Una had told me. “No. But she can leave things out. ”

  James made a face. “Yeah. Yeah, that’s what I thought too. She said if I said your name seven times while you were burning, you’d keep your memories. ”

  “My real name?” But what I was thinking was, my memories?

  James nodded.

  “Do you even know what that means?”

  He said, “I have a vague idea that it’s a really bad idea for your name to get out, right? Like people could use it to make you rob convenience stores, perform illicit sex acts, watch Steven Seagal movies, and otherwise do things that you wouldn’t ever do. ”

  “Which is why I’d never tell anyone,” I said.

  He looked down at his hand again, his eyelashes hiding his eyes. “Yeah, I know. ”

  “Except you. ” I sat up so that my eyes were level with his. “But you have to promise me. ”

  James’ eyes were wide, either innocent or bewildered. I had never seen his face wear either expression. “Promise what?”

  “Promise you won’t make me … do those things. ”

  “Nuala,” James said, solemnly, “I would never make you watch Steven Seagal
movies. ”

  He didn’t know. How big of a deal this was. Nobody told a human their real name. Nobody. “Promise me you … promise me that … ” I couldn’t think of what to make him promise. As if the promise of a human meant anything anyway. They could lie with impunity.

  James leaned in and I thought for a moment he was going to kiss me. Instead, he just wrapped his arms around me and lay the side of his face against my face. I could feel his heartbeat, slow and steady and warm, going at half the speed of mine, and his breath, uneven and short on my cheek. A kiss could never mean the same thing as this. “Nuala,” he said, and his voice was low and funny—hoarse. “Don’t be afraid of me. You don’t have to tell me. But I—

  I would do this for you, if you wanted. I know there has to be some sort of catch, but I’d try. ”

  I closed my eyes. It was too much. The possibility of keeping my memories, the faeries’ words at the dance last night, the danger of telling my name, the shape of his words in my ear. I had never meant it to go this far.

  I squeezed my eyes shut so hard I saw flickering grayish lights behind my eyelids. “Amhrán-Liath-na-Méine. ”

  I felt light-headed right after I said it. I’d really said it out loud. I’d really done it.

  James squeezed me tighter as if it would stop me from shaking. He whispered, “Thank goodness. I thought you were going to say Izzy Leopard and then I would start laughing and then you would kill me. ”

  “You are such a jerk,” I said, but I was relieved. Scared totally out of my mind, but relieved.

  James let me go. I hurriedly made sure I had full control of my facial expression before he did. He leaned back and repositioned his legs. “My butt’s falling asleep. Do you think it would be really bad if I pronounced it wrong? I mean, it’s not exactly an easy name like ‘Jane Doe,’ is it?”

  “This is serious!” I sounded fiercer than I meant to. I shouldn’t snap. I knew he cracked jokes even when he was serious, but it was hard to remember that when I didn’t have his thoughts to back me up.

  “I know it’s serious, killer,” he said. “Maybe the most serious thing I’ve ever done. ”

  We both jerked when his phone rang, in his pocket. James pulled out it and frowned at the screen. “It’s Sullivan. ”

  He flipped it open and leaned close to me so that the phone was sandwiched between his ear and mine. “Yeah?”


  “Why does everyone ask that?” demanded James. “Yes, it’s me. ”

  Sullivan’s voice sounded far away. “Your voice sounds different on the phone. Is she still there?”

  “Of course she is. ”

  “Look. I’m sorry I’m taking so long to get up there. There’s—damn. Hold on. ” A pause. “Sorry. Look, can you drive her into town? To the deli there? Get a table outside. One of the iron ones. Can she take that?”

  “Yeah. ”

  “Okay. Okay. I’ll see you there in, like, fifteen minutes. ” Sullivan hesitated again. “James—” Another pause, and then a sigh. “James, don’t tell any of the other students. Have you seen Deirdre Monaghan lately?”

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