In previous years, Scholastic asked me to do a short 300 Fox Way holiday piece. This year, I decided I’d do one for Gansey. Like the 300 Fox Way piece, it takes place the December before The Raven Boys begins.
There shouldn’t have been carolers, but there were.
It was not that Henrietta wasn’t the sort of place to produce carolers on Christmas Eve. It was one of those small Virginia towns that expressed holiday spirit by delivering food to the elderly and decorating fire trucks for the under-aged and filling every public venue with seasonal programming. For a month, the downtown was made festive with shaggy old tinsel stars wired onto street signs. “Jingle Bells” wavered over loudspeakers by the drug store. Church groups offered egg nog at every turn. One didn’t have to sign up for any holiday performances. Henrietta was the holiday performance; one was volunteered to participate by virtue of breathing.
Carolers fit perfectly into that general world-view.
But it didn’t seem to Gansey that the carolers should have been here, standing outside in the overgrown parking lot of Monmouth Manufacturing, and it didn’t seem like they should have looked the way that they did. Despite the fact that his old orange Camaro was parked directly below the window he stood beside, the old factory did not appear remotely inhabited. And carolers in Henrietta should have been dressed in holiday sweaters and Santa hats. The van that brought them should have been parked nearby. They should have been singing “O Come All Ye Faithful” or “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.”
This was not that. These carolers played diligently beside the factory’s side door, certain someone was inside to hear them. They wore strange, elaborate headpieces that increased their height by several feet: here an odd pyramid made of straw, here a twisted burlap mask with fibrous antlers above it, here feathers fixed round a yellowing deer skull. Bells tied around their legs shrilled with each step. A fiddle and skin drum sawed a raucous tune.
Gansey stood at the top of the stairs and shoved the window open. The glass was already cracked, and the window popped as the crack deepened. It held, though. The pane would probably last another year; he had time to fix it. Cool air and fuzzy fiddle music seeped into Monmouth, everything scented with the ordinary odors of damp asphalt and the cheap burger place a few blocks away. Then the wind gusted and brought the smell of wood smoke and dead oak leaves and wet moss. This was the smell of the mountains that had drawn him here.
He had half a thought the carolers weren’t real.
The thing was that there always seemed to be carolers.
He’d spend the last seven Christmases in seven different places, and it had become a bit of a private joke. Some years it was more obvious: the carolers knocking on the door of Malory’s home or playing outside the window of a German flat. Some years he heard them and turned just in time to see the edge of a fiddle or a woven horn disappear around the corner of a South American street. Last year they had come to his parents’ D.C. house while he was there, much to their delight. The Ganseys adored anything that could be loosely titled regional flavor.
It was hard to say what region these carolers came from. Not here.
“Oh,” said Noah, standing beside Gansey.
Gansey jumped. “Jesus. I didn’t know you had come back.”
“I was always here,” Noah said.
“Right.” Both boys watched them play. One of the carolers had begun to chant. The sound was not particularly lovely. It was the uncomfortable hybrid of a drinking song and a funeral march. Gansey’s skin crawled agreeably.
“What do you think they want?” Noah asked.
It was a peculiar question, Gansey thought. No one asked what the firemen who decorated their trucks wanted. He shivered; it was colder outside than he’d thought when he first opened the window. Maybe they wanted money. Were you supposed to tip carolers? Or — what was the real name for what they were? He knew it; he’d seen them in Wales. Something mumbly. Mumblers. No. Mummers. He called down to them: “What’s the name of that song?”
The singing did not pause, but the deer skull wheeled up to look at them in the window, feathers fluttering blue and black around the bone.
“Creepy,” Noah said.
“Regional flavor,” Gansey said.
“ ‘The Raven King’,” said the deer skull. Maybe the deer skull. It was hard to tell when they were all wearing masks. Any of them could have said it. All of them could have said it.
Gansey’s heart double-tapped excitement. Months before, he’d come to Henrietta for a clue in his search for Glendower, and slowly, he’d been running out of material to keep him here. It had weeks since he’d had even the slightest suggestion that he was on the right track. If it had been anywhere else, he would have already left, off to pursue some other lead in some other state or country or hemisphere.
But he didn’t want to leave Henrietta.
“Did you say Raven King?” Gansey called out the window. “Hold up — Noah, tell them to hold up, I’m going to get my journal and talk to them. I think—”
A tremendous bang interrupted him: the sound of a sports car’s suspension under duress. A charcoal gray BMW entered the overgrown lot at a great rate of speed by way of the sidewalk. The carolers music tripped to a stop as the car scuffed to a stop beside the Camaro, the driver’s side door flinging open. All other odors were replaced by the smell of brakes and clutch after torment; the BMW had been ridden hard and put up wet.
Ronan got out of the car. Even from the second floor, Gansey could still see the puckered brown scars up and down his forearms.
Gansey was full of the knowledge that he needed to do something about Ronan Lynch before Ronan did something about Ronan Lynch. Christmas was a dangerous time to be a broken thing; the weight of tradition and history could too easily sink a lethargic swimmer.
In the parking lot below, Ronan eyed the carolers. “Take a walk, you freak-sacks. Don’t just stare at me. Do I look like I’m joking?”
There was no way that Gansey was going to make it down to the carolers before Ronan scared them off; not much could withstand Ronan when he was choosing to look malevolent. Gansey satisfied himself by pulling out his phone to snag a photograph of their strange departing forms. He’d show them to Adam later. Coincidence, Adam would say, knowing full well that Gansey didn’t believe in coincidences.
“They freak me out,” Noah said.
“I like them,” Gansey replied. He liked being freaked out. The prickle of hair on his arms, the curl of anticipation in his gut. He liked that sense that magic was coming for him, instead of the other way around. The door down below slammed as Ronan entered the warehouse. “Don’t come up, Lynch. We’re going out.”
“To do what?”
“What do we ever do?” Gansey replied. “To find a king.”