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Blackbringer, p.15
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       Blackbringer, p.15

           Laini Taylor
 
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  “Aye, the witch Stain it was, who was not ever seen again, by the by.” Orchidspike nodded. “These Windwitch lasses are not to be meddled with, well you know.”

  The crows squawked their agreement, but Magpie’s eyes were far away. Frowning at her silence, Orchidspike went on, her voice cheery. “Robin saw her fall from the sky and land in the cattails at the edge of Lilyvein Pond. Scratched and bruised and unconscious, a strange lass with her wings torn to ribbons! So he gathered her right into his arms and carried her to me!”

  The lass seemed not to be listening, but just outside the door, someone was. Talon leaned against the wall and heard every word.

  Orchidspike carefully smoothed open the folds and furls of Magpie’s limp wings, trying not to rip the tender membrane along the creases. She went on talking in a casual voice, though her face was somber. “Their first glimpse of each other’s eyes came as he carried her, so close their breath was on each other’s lips. His eyes were blue as the robin’s egg he hatched from, and when she woke again hours later, it was that blue she looked for. He was sitting right there, waiting, and when they saw each other I swear there was a fizz of magic in the air. Even I felt it.”

  Talon recalled the way the air had pulsed when his hands had touched Magpie’s in West Mirth and his face grew hot.

  “They’re still like that!” said one of the crows.

  “I believe it. I never saw two faeries that much in love, and at first glance! She told us her name was Kite, after the little hawk with the forked tail. . . .” The healer winced as Magpie’s left wing tore along a particularly harsh crease. If Magpie felt it, she didn’t flinch. Calypso’s eyes darted anxiously between her damaged wings and her blank face.

  Through a veil of shock, Magpie was dimly aware of a voice. She had a fleeting vision of her father’s eyes, but it faded. Her thoughts sank back into the darkness. Surely she’d left herself there. What sat here in the world looked enough like her to fool the others, she thought, but it was an illusion. A shell echoing with the drone of the endless ocean. She was back in the darkness where she could find Poppy and Maniac and guide them out. She hoped. Because if she wasn’t there with them, they were alone. And if she wasn’t there, where was she? Not here. She knew the feel of her own skin and this wasn’t it, this blurred and fragile shell. It couldn’t be.

  Exchanging a worried look with Calypso, Orchidspike went on in her chatty tone, “Robin asked her all about the world he’d only read of in books, and what a picture she wove of beyond! Flocks of macaws that swoop hundreds-strong through the sultry bowers of rain forests, hollow mountains that cough fire, striped cats as big as cattle, and faeries who ride to war on lizardback with fangs pushed through their earlobes. Shooting stars, hooded snakes, spiny trees, islands of ice cutting through the sea like slow ships! And sure you lot have seen all that with your own eyes, but to Robin? It was like a dream.

  “I had to shoo him out so she could rest, but not feet nor wings would carry him away, and he slept outside her window and she found him there, and this time it was he who woke to the sight of her eyes, and after that there was no question of parting! Do you know they found a frog who would marry them that very night?”

  “That very night?” repeated Pup.

  “Aye! And they drifted off together on a lily pad down Spinney Creek. After a week, when Kite’s wings had healed, Robin brought his bride back to Never Nigh.” Orchidspike’s look of fond remembrance became clouded. “She was not well received.”

  “Lady Kite? Why not?” asked Pup.

  Orchidspike shrugged. “Half the lasses were in love with Robin themselves. How was Kite to make friends among them? Neh, she was never happy here. It was good you birds came along when you did!”

  “And good for us,” added Bertram. “If not for her long-life potions, we’d be dust long since.”

  “And how spry you are! ‘Tis a fine bit of sparkle!”

  “Aye, she tricked it off a witch doctor. Wicked lot, but they have their uses,” answered Calypso.

  In the corridor, Talon’s head was swimming with witches and witch doctors, hooded snakes and love at first glance and long-life potions. Such a world beyond Dreamdark! He could well imagine how Robin must have felt back then—but without the love part, sure. Of course, without that.

  “ ’Tis a bad crush, indeed,” Orchidspike said in a low voice to Calypso, over by the window. “But I can mend it. Don’t frazzle yourself.”

  “But Lady, it en’t just the wings. I don’t like the look in her eyes. It’s like she en’t inside herself.”

  “She’s in there, dear. She’s just gone deep. She’s in shock.”

  “But what if . . .” Calypso hesitated. “What if it did something to her, right? That devil.”

  Orchidspike considered this. “Do you know what it was?”

  “It’s being called . . . Blackbringer.”

  Orchidspike raised her eyebrows. “Blackbringer?”

  “Aye, Lady. D’ye know of it?”

  Her bright eyes drifted into memories, back and back through the centuries. She said, “He was just a fireside story, something to frighten bad sprouts. A bogeyman, like old Rawhead.”

  “Ye’re saying he weren’t real?”

  “Neh, I don’t know. If he ever was real, it was long before my time. Understand, bird, no devil has troubled Dream-dark all my long life, and much longer still. Not since the Dawn Days.”

  “Ye think anyone could remember that far? Remember the old stories?”

  “I can’t think who.” Orchidspike shook her head wistfully.

  “We could ask the trees?” suggested Calypso.

  “Ah,” Orchidspike answered sadly. “Bless us, we lost that language long ago.”

  Calypso cocked his head. “Truly? Flummox me, I had no notion how rare she was.”

  “Who, bird?”

  “Poppy Manygreen, Lady. Magpie’s friend. She could speak with ’em.”

  “What?” the healer asked abruptly, startling Calypso. “A Manygreen? A faerie with that gift? Here, in Dreamdark?”

  Calypso nodded.

  “A lass?”

  Again he nodded.

  “But . . . where is she now?”

  “Lady?” Calypso scratched his head with his foot. “She’s the one the devil got last night. She’s gone.”

  Orchidspike was silent, and Calypso watched, alarmed, as her expression went slack with tragedy. She lifted trembling hands and laid her face in them. A shudder went through her, and Calypso heard her whisper, “I’d stopped looking.”

  Western Dreamdark lay quiet under a heavy sky. No smoke curled from the chimney of the healer’s cottage, and the hamlets on the Sills were all deserted. In Pickle’s Gander and East Mirth laundry snapped forgotten on the lines as a wind gathered and shutters began to slam. The faeries had flown.

  They were tucked safe into the Great Hall of Rathersting Castle where the fireplace alone was bigger than most cottages. The sprouts were whooping round the high eaves like warriors, but the older folk clustered together, tense and whispering. A summer storm was weighing down heavy as an iron lid upon Dreamdark. And out there in the blustering trees, they knew, something lurked. It had swallowed their neighbors in the night and snatched the warrior chief from the sky.

  The lady of the castle and the young prince and princess had been to speak with them. Nettle had held Lyric in her arms while the lass wept over the dark fate of her betrothed. Talon had painted blackberry juice tattoos on the sprouts’ faces and given them warrior names like “Spike” and “Slash.” But there was nothing they could say that would ease the faeries’ worries. Indeed, their own faces were pale under their ink and they seemed weary, and troubled, and grim.

  In Nettle’s bed, Magpie hugged her feather skirt, which contained the last remnant of Maniac, and stared at the ceiling. Whether or not she had truly left herself behind in the dark, her thoughts, at least, were trapped there and wandering blind.

  In the adjacent parlor Orchid
spike was slumped in a rocking chair, but she wasn’t rocking. One of her precious djinncraft knitting needles had rolled off her lap and she hadn’t noticed, so lost was she in her regret. She was dreaming of an apprentice, bright with curiosity and power, to whom she could at last pass her secrets. Her remorse was like an ache that rode her heartbeat out through her entire body. She’d given up too soon. She’d stopped looking, and missed her.

  Messages had been dispatched to all corners of Dream-dark and Never Nigh too, but with Magpie still silent no one had thought to tell of poor Poppy Manygreen’s sad end. Out in the gathering wind a search party of her kin was combing the woods and calling out for her, anxiety turning to anguish in their voices as the day bore on.

  The worst-injured of the crows, Bertram, Pigeon, and Swig, were seeing the others off from the ramparts. Calypso looked up at the iron-grey sky just as the first raindrops fell, heavy as berries. “Fine flying weather,” he said, his grim voice at odds with his cracked grin.

  “Hurry back, blackguards, ye hear?” said Swig, who sported a new eye patch as a result of a vulture’s talon gouge. “No stopping at the tavern without me.”

  “Aye, Cyclops, sure,” piped Pup. “Calm yer pepper.”

  “Cyclops?”

  “Hush and no bickering,” said Calypso sharply. “Keep ’Pie company, ye ken?” His voice softened. “Try to get her to talk about it, if ye can.”

  “Shivers me to see her like this,” said Bertram, his voice weak since being throttled by a stinking vulture foot.

  “And me.”

  “Ye going to bring that bossy little beetleherd back here?” asked Pigeon, whose left wing was crisscrossed with neat stitches.

  “Bring her? Neh. She won’t fly, that one. She has her own ways of getting place to place,” said Calypso. “But I’ll get her to come.”

  “Hurry,” said Swig again.

  “We’ll try.”

  The three tired birds heaved into the driving rain. After an hour’s wet slog across the vastness of the forest, rain sheeting from their feathers with every wing beat, Calypso, Pup, and Mingus landed at last on the little green above Snoshti’s underground village. One glance at their caravans had them squawking and cursing. “We been ransacked! We been looted!” hollered Pup.

  Mingus went to gather up the costumes that spilled out the open doors into the rain and hung them up carefully inside to dry. As an afterthought, he fetched Magpie’s book from her bunk and tucked it under his wing to keep it dry. Then they all hopped to the door of the hedge imps’ warren, rapping fast at it with their beaks.

  “Get ye gone!” a snarly voice cried from inside. “She en’t here, I tell ye! And if she was, I’d have yer eyes out before I let ye to her!”

  “Open up!” Calypso squawked.

  “Crow?”

  “Aye!”

  The door swung open and Snoshti stood there, small and fearsome with her paws on her hips. “It’s about time, birds,” she said. “What’s happened?”

  “I might ask ye! What happened to our caravans? And who were ye flappin at? Someone looking for ’Pie?”

  “Anyone not looking for her, I’d like to know?”

  “Eh?”

  “Birds, haven’t ye heard? The Windwitch daughter is back, they say, sneaking about with imps and crows and perhaps a pet devil with a taste for faeries?”

  “What? They think ’Pie—? They think we—?” Calypso stuttered, stunned.

  “It must be so, neh? Ye lot show up and—spit spot!—faeries start to vanish? That queen’s behind it, telling the whole city how Magpie was with Poppy Manygreen last anyone saw of her and how they were talking devils with some crusty scavenger imp.”

  “Er,” said Calypso. “Mistress, so far that’s so.”

  “And where are the lasses now?”

  “Well, ’Pie, she’s at Rathersting Castle, with the old healer.”

  “Healer?” Snoshti growled. “Is she—?”

  “Her wings . . . they’ll take some mending. Lady Orchidspike says she can do it. But that’s not the worst. She’s . . . lost, like. Been a bad blow to her, losing Poppy . . .”

  “Losing Poppy?”

  “Aye,” Calypso said. “ ’Twas terrible. We . . . we lost a crow, too. There’s a bad devil come, we never seen its like. It got the better of us, and good. Mistress . . .” He looked hard at Snoshti. “It’s time. We got nothing left but our secrets, neh? It’s time ye told ’Pie the truth and let her be who she’s going to be. Ready or not.”

  Snoshti returned his hard look and, at length, she nodded. “Perhaps ye’re right, old feather. Time can rush up to meet ye before ye’re ready. But what are ye to do? Ask it to wait?” She shook her head. “Neh. I’ll come to the castle, and we’ll see.”

  Calypso nodded solemnly. “After all these years,” he said, “it shivers me a little to think what’s next. It’s like turning a page, neh? And starting up at the top of a new one?”

  “That’s thinking small, crow. It could be a whole new book.”

  TWENTY-FOUR

  Magpie was lying on the bed with her eyes closed when Talon peered in. The room had cleared out considerably. One bespectacled crow sat reading at her bedside, a bandage wrapped round his neck, and he looked up when Talon hesitated in the doorway. “Come in then, laddie,” he croaked.

  Talon entered. “Is she . . . ?”

  “Asleep, I reckon, or pretending. She don’t much feel like talking.”

  “Ah, well, then I’ll just . . . ” He backed away.

  “Neh, lad, stay. Here, sit with her. I’m starved for a smoke.”

  The bird got up and Talon saw he was the one with the peg leg. He thunked heavily out of the room and down the corridor. Talon sat on the edge of the chair and looked at Magpie. Even though her eyes were closed he felt awkward staring, so he looked away.

  Magpie wasn’t asleep. Her weariness kept trying to pull her down into darkness, but each time she felt herself slipping away she struggled against it. The oblivion and numbness of sleep felt too much like that sea of nothing. The terrible scenes of Issrin Ev were playing over and over in her mind, and there was no safe escape in sleep.

  When Talon looked back over at her, her eyes were open and gave him a start. “Hello,” he said.

  She didn’t respond.

  “I thought you’d want to know, the vultures are gone,” he told her. “After the crows ran ’em off they seemed keen to get out of Dreamdark, back to wherever they came from. It seems the devil’s cleared out of Issrin too. We don’t know where he’s gone. And that scavenger imp? The crows told us about him. We found him looting East Mirth. He’s in the dungeon now.”

  Magpie’s face seemed vacant and Talon didn’t know what else to say, so he pulled out something he’d tucked into his belt. “I found this at Issrin Ev. I recognized it from the other day in West Mirth, when you near killed me with it.” He laid Skuldraig on the bed beside her.

  She stared at it for a long moment, then blinked. She looked up at him. Some expression flickered in her dulled eyes. “You . . . you touched it?” she asked.

  “Eh? Aye,” he answered. “Just to bring it to you.”

  “You shouldn’t have. Never touch it! Never again.”

  He stared at her, incredulity turning to anger. “What?” He stood up. “Sure that knock on the head is why you’ve forgotten the words thank you, so, you’re welcome. And while I’m saying it, you’re also welcome for your life. But by all means, I won’t touch your knife again.” He spun to leave.

  Magpie sat up and opened her mouth to call after him, but dizziness overcame her and she clenched her eyes shut and clutched at the knife.

  “I’d try to keep that close if I were ye, pet,” said a little growly voice, seemingly from nowhere.

  “Snoshti?” said Magpie, looking around, and the imp marm pushed open the carved door of Nettle’s armoire and stepped down out of it, a cascade of Nettle’s clothes spilling after her.

  “Who—?” began Talon. “What are
you doing in there?”

  Snoshti pushed past him.

  “How did you get past the castle guard?” Talon demanded.

  Hearing raised voices, Orchidspike, Bertram, Pigeon, and Swig peeked into the room. “Ach! Where’d she come from?” croaked Swig.

  “Good-imp,” the healer greeted Snoshti, a bit perplexed.

  “Lady Orchidspike,” she replied with a nod.

  “Did ye come all this way in the storm?” inquired Pigeon warily. “Ye en’t even wet.” Gesturing to the imp’s shepherd’s crook, he added, “And yer beetles. I hope ye didn’t lose ’em in the forest.”

  “Don’t fret, friend crow. My beetles are safe in my mistress’s garden.”

  “Your mistress?” Magpie repeated, puzzled. “Who—?”

  Snoshti smiled, and her black eyes glinted. “She’d like to meet ye, in fact. She’s waiting now, so we’d best hurry.”

  “But—” said Magpie.

  “Now, hold on—” began Bertram.

  “It’s out of the question,” protested Orchidspike as Snoshti came forward and took Magpie’s hands in her little paws. “She can’t . . .” There was a soft sparkle in the room, and Orchidspike found herself speaking to an afterimage even as she finished her thought. “. . . leave.”

  For a moment an impression of the lass and the imp hung in the air, but within seconds it had glimmered out, leaving no trace of them at all. Orchidspike, Talon, Bertram, Pigeon, and Swig stared at the empty place where they had been, and the only sound was the lick of the hearth fire and a click as Swig found his beak hanging open and snapped it shut.

  The sensation was not unpleasant. Like a swirl of moths, the brief curious touch of many soft wings, then it was over and Magpie was standing beside a river, her hands still clasped in Snoshti’s paws. “What the skiffle?” she murmured, fighting her dizziness and looking around. The castle was nowhere to be seen. What manner of magic had carried her all the way to the Wendling? The river swept quietly by, shining in the day-bright radiance of a preposterous moon.

 
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