In Cloud County, where music and Tufa, the otherworldly fae community, intermix, a monster roams the forest, while another kind of evil lurks in the hearts of men.
“Beautifully written, surprisingly moving, and unexpected in the best of ways.” Seanan McGuire, New York Times bestselling author
Young Tufa woman Kera Rogers disappears while hiking in the woods by Needsville. Soon, her half-eaten remains are found, and hunters discover the culprits: a horde of wild hogs led by a massive boar with seemingly supernatural strength.
Kera’s boyfriend Duncan Gowen mourns her death, until he finds evidence she cheated on him with his best friend Adam Procure. When Adam’s body is the next one found, who is to blame: Duncan or the monstrous swine?
As winter descends and determined hunters pursue beasts across the Appalachians, other Tufa seek the truth behind Adam and Kera’s deaths. What answers will unfold come spring?
Enter the captivating world of the fae in Alex Bledsoe's Tufa novels
The Hum and the Shiver
Wisp of a Thing
Long Black Curl
Chapel of Ease
Gather Her Round
About the Author
ALEX BLEDSOE is the critically-acclaimed author of the Tufa novels The Hum and the Shiver, Wisp of a Thing, Long Black Curl, Chapel of Ease, and Gather Her Round as well as the Eddie LaCrosse series: The Sword-Edged Blonde, Dark Jenny, Burn Me Deadly, and He Drank, and Saw the Spider.
Read an Excerpt
Gather Her Round
By Alex Bledsoe
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2017 Alex Bledsoe
All rights reserved.
"Y'all give it up for Magda the Story Spider," the announcer said as the woman strode offstage with a grin and a wave. The crowd beneath the huge tent applauded and whooped its approval. Even though it was nearing midnight, they weren't the least bit ready for things to end, especially knowing who was next on the bill.
The announcer mopped his face with a handkerchief; the old-fashioned gesture felt entirely appropriate in this setting. "Reckon it's hot enough?"
A good-natured chuckle went through the crowd. Although it was October in the Smoky Mountains, the weather was unseasonably warm. Almost everyone clutched a bottle of water and swiped at the bugs drawn in by the lights. Many fanned themselves with their programs. The odors of sweat and citronella mixed in the heavy air. This was the midnight cabaret, a special late-night event at the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tennessee. Here the festival's normally family-friendly fare gave way to more adult tales that touched on some of the darker, but usually no less humorous, aspects of life.
"Well, I suspect it's about to get hotter with our next performer," he continued. "Y'all might know her from her world-famous musical group, the Little Trouble Girls. Or maybe her Oscar-nominated role in that movie Fire from the Heavens. Well, she's back here tonight as one of us, a storyteller, and I don't think you'll be disappointed. Folks, let's give it up for a young lady who grew up right down the road, Janet Harper!"
A slender black-haired woman in a long Roma-style skirt, with a bright blue electric guitar over her shoulder, strode out to center stage, where a barstool and a microphone waited. She carried herself with the certainty of someone used to being watched by a crowd. She paused to give the announcer a perfunctory hug and kiss on the cheek, then settled on the stool, one leg straight to the ground, the other propped on a lower rung to provide support for the guitar. The announcer slipped discreetly away, the applause ended, and the whole crowd leaned forward expectantly in their chairs.
She looked down at her guitar and strummed the instrument once, a minor chord that rippled through the watchers like waves from a stone, quieting and settling them. At last she looked up and said, "It's hotter'n two squirrels fornicatin' in a wool sock, ain't it?"
Laughter broke the tension, but not the spell.
"As y'all can probably tell from the way I talk, I really am from around here. I grew up in Needsville, which is just over that way as the crow flies. One reason I love coming to this festival, besides hearing all the great stories, is that I also get to go home and see my folks and my friends." She strummed again. "But enough about me. I reckon I should tell you a story, then, since that's why you're here, and what I'm here to do."
She began to pick on the guitar, idly and softly, pretending to think as she went through her carefully rehearsed routine. She let her voice shift into a drawl, a much heavier Southern accent than her normal one. "I think on a night like this, a love story is the right thing to tell. The lady taking this stage after me, Sheila Kay Adams, likes to say, 'It might be about murder, suicide, dismemberment, or coming back from the dead, but if it's got a man and a woman in it, it's a love song.' Well, the same thing's true about love stories.
"This story I'm about to tell you happened back when I was growing up over in Needsville. It didn't exactly happen to me, but I was involved just the same, and most of it is stuff I saw for myself. But it ain't a once-upon-a-time kind of story. It's the kind of thing that's probably going on between and among some of you good people right now. But I ain't judging, understand: it's just a story about some of them fundamental things that make us human. Of course, like Sheila Kay says, it can leave a trail of murder, suicide, and dismemberment behind it, which is why it's powerful and why we tell stories about it."
Her guitar noodling segued into a melody that most of the audience felt like they'd heard before, even if they never had. It was called "Handsome Mary, the Lily of the West." After she'd gone through the music a couple of times, she leaned close to the microphone and began to sing in a high, pure voice.
When first I came to Louisville, some pleasure there to find, A damsel fair from Lexington was pleasing to my mind. Her cherry cheeks and ruby lips, like arrows pierced my breast. They called her Handsome Mary, the Lily of the West.
No one watching would have guessed that another song, with a completely different melody and lyric, ran through her head at the same time, fighting to be heard. But that song was not for this crowd, or anyone else. It had been played once, sung once, and would never be heard again. Its curse was that it also could never be forgotten.
By now the only motion in the crowd was the flutter of fans and programs trying to move the still air. Every face glowed with both sweat and concentration. Given that this audience came from all over the world, it was doubtful many of them had heard the stories of the Tufa, the allegedly strange and mysterious people who claimed Janet as one of their own. But not knowing about the magic didn't keep it from working.
She continued to pick the melody as she said, "This story begins with a girl. She ain't named Mary, her hair ain't brown, and her eyes ain't either. She's a shapely girl with jet-black hair that you might think came down from some Native American ancestor, kinda like mine. But just so you know, she ain't me; my part comes along later. As the story starts, she's walking alone in the woods. It's a beautiful late-summer morning, the birds are singing, the wind is blowing, and she ain't got a care in the world."
She stopped playing. "Well, that's not strictly true. She does have a care. It's the boy she's been dating. Or I should say, one of the boys she's been dating." She began to play again. "This girl likes boys, but no particular boy. She's young, been out of high school for a couple of years, and she's just starting to learn about herself and what her being a woman can make happen in the world. And you know what? There ain't nothing wrong with that, despite what the tight-asses try to tell you."
Some pockets of laughter came from the rapt audience, although a few faces pinched tight with disapproval.
"So this girl's been practicing for a honeymoon she ain't planning yet, with two different boys," Janet continued. "But only one of them two boys knew about the other one. And on this day, that other boy, the one who thought he was the only dipstick checking this young lady's oil, was the one on her mind. Should she tell him? Should she break up with him? Or should she just smile and keep going 'cause it's so much fun to hop back and forth between the two of them?"
She wasn't going to use the real names as she told the story, but of course, the actual people now moved through her memory: Kera, Duncan, Renny, Adam, Mandalay, Bliss, Popcorn ... they coalesced in her mind, looking just as they had over a decade earlier, and waiting to take part in the reenactment she was about to describe.
"That's what was going through her mind that morning as she strode through the woods. And she might've made her choice that day, one that changed the direction of her whole life, if she hadn't run into the monster...."CHAPTER 2
Kera Rogers sniffed the morning air. There was something new in it, something she hadn't encountered before. It was a pungent, organic smell, like manure but with a musky tang. She'd walked this trail her whole life, and knew it like the proverbial back of her hand, but never before had she smelled something like this. She looked around, but saw nothing.
Her dog, Quigley, a mass of entwined canine genes so thick, hardly any aspect of a specific breed could be identified, stopped suddenly. Kera didn't notice, and kept walking.
Kera was twenty-one years old, wide-shouldered and broad-hipped, with an earthy femininity that meant she'd never lacked for male attention since she hit puberty. She had the jet-black hair, dusky skin, and perfect teeth of Cloud County's mysterious Tufa people, but her Tufa blood wasn't terribly strong, and she never thought of herself as that different from the people in Unicorn or other nearby towns. She was sweet but aimless, content to still live at home, work part-time at Doyle Collins's garage, and indulge her one true Tufa vice: music.
She was in one of the low gullies at the far east end of Cloud County, ten miles from Needsville and an hour's slow walk from her family's farm. She had her pennywhistle in the back pocket of her cutoffs and sought a comfortable and acoustically suitable spot to play. She knew there was a particular outcropping of rock ahead that crudely mimicked the shape of a recliner, nestled in a grove that gave her playing the extra spark that she imagined the great god Pan had enjoyed in the forests of Greece.
At last she noticed that Quigley remained stock-still in the middle of the trail behind her. "What is it?" she asked impatiently.
The dog stared straight ahead, his ears flattened. He was a notorious coward, having once been treed by a squirrel while the whole family watched. But even for him, this was unusual.
"Oh, go on home, you big baby," Kera said. "Git!"
Quigley didn't need a second command. He turned and trotted back toward the house.
Kera shook her head. Quigley was old, and it wasn't fair to expect him to change his ways now. She'd had him since he was a pup, and whatever his failings as a guard dog, he was still her baby. She continued on to Recliner Rock, enjoying the silence without pondering its source.
She recalled the shallow stream that ran beside Recliner Rock, trickling down from a spring somewhere in Half Pea Hollow and cutting through Dunwoody Mountain on its way to, eventually, join the Tennessee River. It had no official name, but was generally referred to as Half Pea Creek, after its origin. Sometimes she stripped naked and sat in the water, imagining herself one of those rural Greek girls, about to be ravaged by their goat-footed god drawn to her piping. Although, as a Tufa, she and Pan were more like equals than anyone might suspect.
There were two groups of Tufa in Cloud County. Kera's family had, as long as anyone could remember, been under the guidance of Rockhouse Hicks, a bastard by any definition of the word. But his death the previous year had resulted in Junior Damo, a man with no experience in any sort of leadership, taking over.
Kera hadn't had many dealings with Rockhouse before his demise. Mostly she saw him at the old moonshiner's cave, where her family and the rest of his people met to play, drink, and hang out, or at the Pair-A-Dice roadhouse, where they mingled with the other group. The old man had, of course, commented on her physical attributes, saying she was "building herself a career" when she hit twelve and her ass went from flat to shapely, and snickering that she "must've left the air-conditioning on" if her nipples were visible through her bra and blouse. But he did that to every woman and girl, so she neither thought much about it nor took it personally.
And as for Junior, she barely knew what he looked like. Her parents bitched about him, but he didn't impinge on her life any more than Rockhouse had.
Neither of them were on her mind that morning as she hiked the familiar trail and pondered the unfamiliar smell. She couldn't wait to settle in and hear the notes of "The Old McMaynus Goose" twining through the trees from her pennywhistle.
But another song ran through her head right now, and she sang it softly, to herself, smiling at the irony.
Somebody's tall and handsome, Somebody's brave and true, Somebody's hair is dark as night, And somebody's eyes are blue....
The irony was that the song could apply to either of two young men in her life. Or for that matter, to almost any Tufa boy.
On impulse, she texted Duncan Gowen. Duncan was twenty-one, a Cloud County Tufa even though his family's blood, like hers, wasn't terrible true. But this was no Romeo-and-Juliet romance, or even a Hatfield-and-McCoy one; the Gowens, just like the Rogerses, were part of Junior Damo's group of Tufa families.
In some ways, Duncan was more Tufa than her, because he took his Dobro-playing very seriously, and had even — or so he said — once been able, however briefly, to manifest Tufa wings and ride the night winds.
Kera wasn't sure she believed him, but she also didn't discount it. The Tufa as a whole — a few dozen families clustered around Needsville, Tennessee, at the center of tiny Cloud County — had a history that most people considered myth at best, mere tall tales at worst. That didn't mean it wasn't true that they were descended from an exiled band of Gaelic faery folk, just that they could keep that secret, like so many others, right out in plain sight. After all, who in the twenty-first century believed in faeries?
Duncan was also as close to a boyfriend as she had these days. A Tufa woman, at least one who chose to take her amorous partners from within the community, was not bound by the outside world's morality. She was free to fuck anyone who wanted to fuck her, as often as both of them agreed to do it, without judgment from the other Tufa. And she'd sampled what Cloud County offered. But only Duncan seemed to know her rhythms without being taught, and could match her with every moan, gasp, and cry. They always managed to climax simultaneously, and that was a gift she appreciated. She wasn't in love with him, certainly; but she wasn't done with him, either.
Not that there was anything actively wrong with Duncan. It was just that outside the bedroom, he lacked the spark she sought in a partner. He was good-looking enough, talented enough when he sang and played his Dobro, and certainly skilled enough when they were intimate. Yet she couldn't shake the sense that something more waited for her. And that made her touch the old buffalo nickel hanging on a chain around her sweaty neck, an heirloom from her grandfather. She smiled at a thought that had nothing to do with Duncan, but with the other boy.
Her phone buzzed with Duncan's reply. MORNING. WHERE ARE YOU?
She replied, GOING OUT TO RECLINER ROCK TO PLAY MY TIN WHISTLE.
He shot back, I KNOW A TIN WHISTLE YOU CAN PLAY.
She rolled her eyes and giggled. ARE YOU IN SEVENTH GRADE?
I PROMISE, I'M A FULL-GROWN MAN. YOU SHOULD KNOW THAT BY NOW. WANT TO GO TO THE PAIR-A-DICE TONIGHT?
WELL, I'M PROLLY GOING 2B LATE GETTING BACK.
I CAN WAIT.
YOUR RIGHT HAND KEEPING YOU COMPANY?
IF THAT'S WHAT YOU LIKE. YOU WATCH ME, I'LL WATCH YOU.
She laughed out loud. This was what kept her around him: his outlandishness, which popped up when she least expected it and sent irresistible little intimate tingles through her. She knew she'd have to tell him the truth soon, and that he'd take it badly. But ultimately that was his problem, not hers.
She glanced down past her phone at the ground and saw something even more outlandish, something that made her stop dead. In the dirt beside her tennis shoe was a huge three-toed animal track, like some dinosaur had passed this way. It was easily six inches across.
She instantly recognized it: the track of an emu, one of the huge Australian birds released by her uncle Sim when his attempt to farm them failed. After getting one last warning from the bank about his delinquent loans, he'd simply walked to the pen, opened the gate, and shooed the immense birds into the woods. He expected them to die during the first winter, but they survived, or at least enough of them did. Now they were breeding, and making these foreign hills their new home. They mostly avoided people and minded their own business, a stance the Tufa could respect.
She recalled her last visit with Uncle Sim. Since his stroke, he'd become convinced that the emus he occasionally saw in the woods were the ghosts of the ones he'd released. No one could persuade him otherwise. He worried that they were plotting revenge, like the haints of murdered wives or husbands.
Ahead she saw the rock, already in comfortable shade. Beside it, the little creek emerged from the ravine before disappearing downhill into the woods. She texted Duncan, I'M JUST NOW GETTING STARTED. WHY DON'T I — The odor she'd caught earlier suddenly washed over her like a noxious wave. She scowled, turned, and screamed.
The enormous wild hog, nine feet from snout to tail, snorted in surprise as he caught her scent. He stepped out of the woods onto the trail, between her and the way home.
Excerpted from Gather Her Round by Alex Bledsoe. Copyright © 2017 Alex Bledsoe. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This is a farite series, well written and supernatural but believable!