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Blackbringer, p.14
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       Blackbringer, p.14

           Laini Taylor
 
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  “The darkness will rush in like a tide and sweep everything back into the endless ocean,” the Magruwen had said.

  Magpie saw the endless ocean. More than seeing it, she was plunged into it and felt it begin to devour her. There was no breathing here, and no seeing. In the darkness of the end there was no sensation except a desperate fading, the feeling of being a small shadow subsumed by the immensity of night.

  Dimming and ebbing and melting.

  More than death, and less.

  Unmaking.

  As the edges of her self began to blur, she saw—she thought she saw—lights throughout the darkness, dull as strewn embers, dim as stars in fog.

  Then she was through it, tumbling to the ground. Her brow met rock and an explosion of pain left her limp.

  Vision swimming. The horrible squall of birds. Magpie struggled to revive, felt blood hot on her face, stinging her eyes. She was stunned, couldn’t feel her arms and legs, and for a moment she had the strangest feeling that she’d fallen outside of her own body. Then, vaguely, she sensed tangled limbs. Poppy! Poppy was in her arms.

  But where was the Blackbringer?

  “Magpie?” whispered Poppy, her voice weak.

  “It’s okay—” Magpie started to say.

  Then Poppy screamed and her body lurched in Magpie’s arms. Panicked, Magpie held on and was dragged along with her. The Blackbringer loomed. The long tongue was coiled around Poppy’s ankle and he was reeling her back inside him.

  With one arm still wrapped around Poppy, Magpie groped for a handhold with the other. She found one and held tight, straining. Through the haze of blood obscuring her vision, she could see Poppy’s white face, and their eyes met and held. “I’ve got you!” Magpie said. Her feet were braced against a broken statue and one hand clung to a coiled tree root, but she could feel herself begin to tremble. She was weak, but more than that, she felt . . . insubstantial, like she might dissolve into the air.

  And the Blackbringer kept coming. A tide of darkness swallowed Poppy’s feet and then her legs. Her eyes pleaded. Magpie tried with all her strength to haul her away but the tongue, withdrawn back into the dark now, held fast. And Magpie could only watch and hold her as Poppy began to dim.

  “Poppy!” she screamed.

  But Poppy no longer saw her. Though still half in the world, she was already lost in the dark. She faded. The color drained from her flesh and, with horror, Magpie realized she could see through her to the ground beneath. Then she couldn’t hold her anymore. There was nothing to hold. With a final shimmer the faint ghost-image of Poppy opened her mouth to scream but no sound came out and she disappeared, leaving only her shadow behind where she had lain.

  Magpie lay bleeding on the stone with her arm curled round Poppy’s shadow. Then even that was wrenched from her as the Blackbringer dragged it too into the darkness.

  There would be no diving in this time to pull Poppy out. She wasn’t there. She wasn’t anywhere. She had been unmade. She had ceased to be.

  The sound inside Magpie’s head was terrible. It was the Blackbringer’s whisper. “Aye, the old wine,” it said. “How wonderful . . .”

  And it seemed as if the clot of darkness grew.

  TWENTY-ONE

  Across the mouth of the Deeps and up the slope of Dream-dark Crag, the Rathersting warriors on the castle walls heard the chaos of birds and took flight. The pale moon glittered on their cool knives and bared teeth as they raced toward Issrin Ev, whooping their bloodcurdling battle cries.

  Talon was not with them.

  Nor was he back at the castle, cursing his wings and his weakness. If he had been, the sun would have risen the next morning on a doomed world. Because if he hadn’t already been out stalking vultures, his own two blades wicked in his fists and his eyes ferocious in the gloom, Magpie would not have survived.

  And without Magpie Windwitch, neither would the world, for long.

  In that dreadful instant when Magpie realized she’d been clinging to a shadow and that Poppy was gone, she leapt away from the Blackbringer and flicked open her wings to flee. But as she struggled skyward, the tongue was suddenly on her, cold and clammy. It whipped round her wings and jerked her back, helpless as a bug.

  Her fierce crow brother Maniac descended like a fury and seized the stretched tongue with his talons. It released Magpie at once and snapped back into the darkness so quickly . . . so quickly Maniac didn’t have time to release it. His feathers riffled and there was a sound like an intake of breath as he was sucked backward and engulfed in the darkness.

  Magpie plummeted fast. It wasn’t one of her sharp landings, but a graceless thudding skid down the slope until a headless statue of Bellatrix finally halted her slide. Woozy, she shook her head and tried to lift her wings. Her wings. They didn’t respond to the flexion of her shoulders but hung limp.

  They had been crushed.

  It had all happened so quickly Maniac was gone before she even hit the ground. Her arms and legs were scraped but unbroken, but Magpie crouched motionless, as if she had no notion how to move without flying. Her breath came shallow and quick and she had the odd sensation she was just a shadow stretched over the stones. She looked up. The wheeling birds were erratic black shapes against a black sky. And Maniac was gone.

  Dizziness overcame her. Time careened off balance, speeding and slowing as the shrieking of birds warbled from deafening to dull. Blood flowed fast from a gash at her temple. Her head felt hollow. Her vision dimmed. She struggled against it, knowing if she closed her eyes now she would never open them again.

  “Lass!” a voice rang out. Dazed, Magpie looked around. “Pie!” It came again, and to her surprise she spotted the tattooed Rathersting lad. He was perched atop a freestanding pillar in the old courtyard, poised to spring. The clarity of his eyes seemed to sear a path through her confusion, and the world stopped spinning. She wiped the blood away from her eyes and got shakily to her feet. No sooner had she risen than the lad cried out, “Stay down!”

  But it was too late. The Blackbringer had seen her.

  Magpie saw the wretched tongue shoot toward her, and the sick certainty of her own doom gathered within her like held breath. She couldn’t move, but only watch, mesmerized, as it came for her.

  The lad sprang from his perch.

  Magpie saw him leap—powerfully—and dive and stretch and reach. And his knife pierced the shooting tongue at its tip, intercepting it and pulling it along with him in his smooth trajectory. Away from her.

  The momentum of his dive carried him along and the tongue, skewered on his blade, went too. When it had swung to the end of its arc, the lad still clinging to the end of it, it began to swerve back in the direction of the Blackbringer. Magpie breathed again to gasp, seeing the lad careening toward the beast. But a tree loomed in the way, and the lad hung on tight to his knife as his momentum whipped him around it, again and again, around and around until the ghoulish tongue was spooled around the tree trunk like twine. Then Talon reared back, paused, gathered all his strength, and drove his second knife into the liver-colored flesh like a nail, pinning it to the wood beneath.

  It twitched, and held.

  Knifeless now, he looked at Magpie. “Go!” he screamed.

  The tongue struggled and the Blackbringer, the deep black core of him, swept toward the tree to free it. The sky remained a battleground of birds and Magpie saw Calypso and Bertram side by side, beating back a giant vulture that was trying to reach its master, perchance to free him.

  “I can’t!” Magpie screamed back to Talon. “I can’t fly!”

  He leapt, somersaulting in the air and landing at her feet. “Neither can I,” he said impatiently.

  Magpie noticed his wings and her mouth formed an O of surprise. He’d been wearing the skin when she met him in West Mirth, so she hadn’t seen before . . . his wings, even fully extended, barely reached past his shoulders. They were clearly far too small to support him in flight. Magpie’s eyes darted from Talon’s wings back to his fa
ce. A scamperer!

  Urgently he growled, “So we run!” Then he grabbed her hand and dragged her after him, across the temple floor in long strides and down the crumbling stair into the Deeps.

  TWENTY-TWO

  Almost as soon as the Deeps swallowed them, Talon felt the lass struggle, pulling at his hand, slowing him. He looked back and saw her face was ghostly pale beneath the blood that drenched it, and her luminous eyes were growing dim. With tremendous effort she brought her weary eyes into focus and said, “The crows!” and tried to turn back.

  “Wait!” Talon said. He caught her under one arm just as she collapsed.

  “I won’t leave them!” she gasped. “They’re my clan!”

  Uncertain what to do, he carried her into a tree with him to see what was happening back at the temple. He scampered easily up it with one arm, supporting her with the other. They reached the top of the tree just as the Rathersting war party hove into view, whooping, and began to swoop past.

  “Nettle!” Talon hollered, seeing his sister. She did a double take and swerved, quickly commanding the others. They swung round and circled Talon and Magpie, hanging in the air like wasps.

  “Talon!” Nettle said, staring. “Who is that lass?”

  “I don’t know,” he answered. “Listen well. The beast that got Papa and the others, it’s in Issrin.”

  “Let’s get the creeper, then!” his uncle Orion snarled. “To war!”

  The three younger faeries began to answer with shouts but Talon halted them with a sharp, “Neh!” and commanded, “You’ll stay well clear of it!”

  His uncle, the chief’s own battle-scarred brother, regarded him with astonishment.

  “I’ve just seen what it can do. Stay well above the treetops. It has a wicked long tongue. Don’t get in range of it. Your only plan”—he glanced at the lass, who was struggling valiantly to stay conscious—“is to stay alive and save the crows. Do you hear me? Save the crows. Now! To battle!”

  Talon—“Prince Scuttle”—who was usually just the wistful shape growing small on the ramparts behind them as the war parties whooped away, spoke with such kingly command that his cousins and uncle, and even his sister, stared at him for a moment in blank surprise.

  Nettle rallied first. “To save the crows!” she cried, raising her knife.

  The others echoed her.

  “I’m taking her to Orchidspike,” Talon told Nettle quickly. “Bring the crows there.”

  Nettle nodded and whirled away. Talon didn’t linger to watch the battle. He glanced at the lass just as her eyes flickered shut and didn’t reopen. He gathered her against him with one arm, scampered down from the tree, and ran.

  Orchidspike met him at her cottage door and gasped to see the bloodied lass in his arms. “Bring her in, lad.”

  He eased past her into the cottage and carried the lass straight to the little room where Orchidspike kept a cot for patients. He laid her on it and looked at her anxiously. She hadn’t once regained consciousness during the journey through the Deeps. She was white as a bone against the black-dried blood that painted her face.

  Orchidspike came with cloths and hot water and started to fuss over her, cleaning the blood from her face and, Talon knew, visioning powerful healing glyphs that would wrap the lass like invisible bandages of magic.

  “I think her name is something like Pie . . . ,” ventured Talon after a while.

  The old healer looked up at him. “Pie? Not Magpie!” she exclaimed. “Eyes like aquamarines?” she asked him, to which he blushed and nodded gruffly.

  “Little Magpie Windwitch!” said the healer. “I’ve been wondering when she’d come home.”

  “Home?”

  “Aye. Well, she was born in Dreamdark but left as a tiny thing. Her father was a Never Nigh lad.”

  “What clan?”

  “Robin? None. He was a foundling, raised by Widow Candlenight in the bookshop in Never Nigh. Sure you heard the story. The babe who hatched from a robin’s egg in the widow’s maple?”

  “Don’t tell me that story’s true!”

  “The widow still has the eggshell. How he came there is a mystery. Such a lovely lad!” She leaned close over Magpie and began to ply a fine needle through the flesh of her brow, closing the wound so artfully it would leave no scar. “Her mother, now,” she went on, “she’s not a mystery so much as a marvel. Daughter of the West Wind himself!”

  “An elemental! She said her grandfather wore a skin.”

  “Aye. He was even known to come to dances in it from time to time in Never Nigh, looking just like a blustery old codger and playing a fine whisker fiddle when called upon.” She finished her stitching and tied a final knot in the nearly invisible thread at Magpie’s brow.

  “Will she be okay?” Talon asked.

  “I hope. What happened to her, lad?”

  “It was the devil that got my folk.”

  Alarmed, Orchidspike asked, “Devil? Is it captured?”

  “Neh. We barely escaped it! Never seen such a thing, like it was the dark come to life.”

  Orchidspike shivered and laid her hand on Magpie’s brow, conjuring stronger glyphs of healing over her.

  “Lady, are we safe here?” Talon asked. “Perhaps we should remove to the castle while this thing roams.”

  “Aye, perhaps we should.”

  Magpie slept for more than a day without so much as stirring. Even the jostling trip to Rathersting Castle didn’t wake her. Many a curious tattooed face turned to stare as the strange lass was carried unconscious to Princess Nettle’s chamber. As for the half-dozen wounded and battle-scarred crows fussing after her, tracking blood and feathers up the winding stair, they were known to the warriors already. The war party had arrived, whooping, just in time to see the huge stinking vultures fleeing scared while the crows, one-tenth their size at most, even puffed with the fury of battle, chased after.

  The vultures had been routed and the crows’ reputations preceded them to Rathersting Castle. Warriors saluted the bedraggled flock in the corridors and they nodded back, distracted, all their focus on Magpie.

  Orchidspike assured them all she would awaken.

  Fretting like biddies, they waited. Nettle’s little room was so crowded with crows that every time Talon contrived to pass by the door and check on Magpie, some ragged crow part would be tufting out of it, a tail or a wing, as if all six crows could not quite fit in at once, but couldn’t be persuaded to wait outside. Orchidspike just shrugged, forbade smoking, and made hearty use of her elbows when she needed to reach the bedside.

  Talon slouched around the castle, restless and a wee bit peeved his home had been overrun by birds. He wouldn’t consider that he might be jealous of the warrior’s welcome they’d received, or because the lass whom he had saved belonged to them, and that while they cradled her and crooned to her, he couldn’t so much as get a glimpse of her through all those feathers.

  They’d thanked him, sure, with gusto and smothering wing hugs and jarring brotherly smacks on the back. And Nettle gave him a great proud grin. He was proud of himself too—he’d saved her, and Orchidspike said she’d be okay. But still he was anxious. He lurked in his room next door where he’d be able to hear the crows’ voices and know when she woke, but the hours passed and he ran out of reasons for lurking, and at last he had to go see to his own folk.

  When she did wake, the first thing Magpie did was count crows. It was the middle of the night and the weary birds had finally fallen asleep, slumped against walls and snoring softly. “Six,” she whispered, and Calypso heard her and opened his eyes.

  “Maniac,” he murmured.

  “I know. Saving me.”

  “I didn’t see, ’Pie.”

  “Poppy too.”

  “Aye. That I saw.”

  Magpie’s quiet sobbing woke the other crows. They touched her lightly with their feathertips, mourning too and shaken to see their lass cry.

  “Darlin’,” said Bertram. “Maniac wouldn’t like to see you li
ke this.”

  “He’s been so mad at me,” she said, her voice smaller than the crows had ever heard it. “I . . . I made him be Bellatrix . . . and then there was the porcupine . . . and it’s been ever so long since I’ve told him I—” She looked stricken and didn’t finish her thought.

  “He knew, Mags,” said Mingus in his low, gruff voice. “He might puff up and act mad but he’d do anything for ye. Even die. We all would.”

  “Die?” repeated Magpie. A shadow of anger crossed her face. “That’s not death,” she whispered, thinking of the leeching, sucking darkness.

  “Then what . . . ?” ventured Calypso cautiously.

  Magpie shook her head. “I don’t know.” She remembered the look on Poppy’s face as she disappeared, her pleading eyes, her final silent scream. “Not death,” she said, “not proper death,” and a look of desolation swept over her features, erasing the spark of anger and leaving her blank. The crows didn’t know what to do. The blankness was worse than the uncertain sleep or the crying, because her eyes were open but she was lost somewhere inside, and they didn’t know what to say to make it right.

  TWENTY-THREE

  “It seems Windwitch lasses only come to me broken,” said Orchidspike in her matter-of-fact way. “You know it’s how I met your parents too?” she asked as she eased open Magpie’s crumpled wings to examine them. “Ach,” she muttered when she saw the extent of the damage. “Wadded up like a bad poem.” She smoothed them carefully, humming.

  Slumped at the edge of the bed with her back to the healer, Magpie said nothing.

  “Your father wrote poems, you know,” Orchidspike went on. “There was such a litter of them around him while he waited for your mother to wake up. We didn’t even know her name yet, then. She’d just fallen from the sky!”

  “Probably scrapping with a witch, knowing Lady Kite,” said Calypso.

 
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