Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The Ballad of Maude Clare: Part Nine

ONCE UPON A TIME, SPIRITS lived in the groves, the grottos, the caves. Now, all they have are the Between places -- abandoned buildings, bridges, wells. That is where they are allowed. And most of them, the nomads  and outlaws who live among us, are at war with us.

    Ethan Mongoose knew what they were. He gave her silver jewelry and a Celtic cross. The cross, he said, represented the pact between the kings and queens of their kind and humanity -- two worlds, intersecting.
    "Stay away from Jack Tiamat, Maude. Some of them don't mean to cause harm,but their physical essence -- it messes with our minds, a bad trip. And he's dangerous."
    "I don't believe you. Jack is not a...a spirit pretending to be human." But some small, secret fragment in her brain sent a twist of unease through her.
    Ethan's voice was low, as if he didn't want to be overheard, "My family is old. There've been encounters. They seek out the fragile, the lost."
    She wanted to ask more, but he quietly told her he had to go home. Before he left, he murmured, "They steal people."

    They steal people.
    Maude didn't wear the silver or the cross when she biked to the field as the sun was setting. Jack wouldn't hurt her. He was human. If the Tiamats were Other, he must be their prisoner.
    As she reached the field, she found Jack sitting on the low wall. In a soldier's coat and jeans and a black sweater, he was gazing down at his hands.
    She walked her bike over and stood before him. His sleek looks made her feel small and grubby. As the last of the light caressed his face, she reached out and placed one hand over his heart.
    She felt nothing. Where life should have pulsed, there was only a frightening stillness. She dropped her hand and went as cold as if the blood had drained from her.
    He looked at her, said, "Go home, Maude."
    She twisted her hands together so he wouldn't see them trembling. "Jack."
    "There is nothing you can do for me."
    She saw headlights on the road. Jack looked at her, his eyes black. "Go."
    She stepped back. "What is going to happen to you?"
    At least a dozen cars were pulling up on the dirt road. Doors opened and the beautiful people emerged. Eerily quiet, wearing pretty metal masks and moving with a grace that frightened her, they walked toward the giant yew that roofed the oldest part of the cemetery.
    "Stay here." Jack moved toward the luminous-skinned creatures while Maude remained very still in the wall's shadow.
    A girl in a tulle gown, lilies crowning her dark hair, ran toward Jack, calling his name. He caught her hands, bent his head, murmured in her ear. She twirled as she led him toward the yew. Maude realized that the girl was the dark-haired ballerina from the photograph in the field, the one who had disappeared seven years ago. Her name was Sarah Morgan. She was what Ethan Mongoose had lost.
    They prey on the lost, the fragile.
    Ruby Tiamat was moving toward the yew, her green gown billowing. She didn't wear a mask. In one jeweled hand, she held a golden scythe. Sarah Morgan stood with her back against the yew, her chin lifted, her arms above her head. A masked boy, his red hair in long plaits, twined her wrists with green vines.
    Ruby Tiamat, her face gorgeous as a leopard's, handed the scythe to Jack.
    Maude drew back, pushing a hand against her mouth to silence a cry as Jack accepted the scythe and turned to Sarah Morgan, who gazed at him with an adoration that was terrifying. Maude saw the ghost light silver Jack's eyes.
    The world tilted. She hadn't known him after all.
    Then she was racing across the field, without silver, without defenses, and she was tearing away the greenery that held Sarah Morgan. No one tried to stop her as she grabbed the girl's hand. "Run!"

(Illustration: Arthur Rackham)

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