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Blackbringer, p.18
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       Blackbringer, p.18

           Laini Taylor
 
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One moment she was plummeting through empty air and the next she was caught in the grip of a massive paw, and she saw the knife edge of a claw twice as long as her entire body arcing toward her from above. She froze as its tip hooked the back of her shift.

  The dragon lifted her with one claw out of the paw it had caught her in and flicked her—ungently—back onto the ledge. She skidded into a billow of nightspink in Bellatrix’s garden and, head spinning, looked up into a tremendous face. Broad charred nostrils emitting a slow fume of sulfur. Orange eyes with vertical pupils drawn tight. A hide like beaten copper, with a dull patina of verdigris and bronze muting its metallic sheen.

  He stared at Magpie and she stared back, speechless.

  “I know you . . . ,” he hissed at her in Old Tongue.

  Bellatrix interposed herself between them, a tiny bold figure before his huge head, but his eyes never wavered from Magpie. As a thin lick of flame issued from his nostrils, Magpie had no illusions that the lady could protect her from him.

  Bellatrix

  “Good even’ to you, Fade,” Bellatrix said mildly.

  “You never told me she was born,” breathed the dragon. It sounded to Magpie like an accusation.

  “She’s still very young. I wasn’t certain.”

  “And now?”

  “Now I am certain. Here she is, Fade.” Bellatrix stepped aside and swept her hand toward Magpie. “Hope.”

  “Hope,” spat the dragon. “This is what all your scheming has wrought, Bellatrix, wearing your voice away year after year with your fancies, for one small sprout?”

  “Aye, one sprout who can do what the Djinn will not. The Tapestry is failing, Fade, and he does nothing!”

  “It is not for you to decide,” said the dragon in a dangerous tone.

  “Nay? Why not? It was his will that made the world so it’s his whim to let it die?”

  Magpie was keenly aware of how helpless she was at this moment, flightless and in the path of dragon nostrils larger than her entire body. And as he stared at where she lay tumbled in the nightspink, she had a feeling that even the intensity of those orange eyes could set her on fire.

  “You meddle in the mysteries of the Djinn!” His voice rose from a rumble to a low roar.

  “Mysteries?” Bellatrix roared back. Like the champion of legend she was, she stood fearless before the dragon. “Aye. Perhaps you’ll shed some light on those mysteries, dragon. I know you know! Why did he forsake us?”

  Fade said nothing.

  “Nay. Faithful Fade. I know you’ll never tell. Secrets! All the years I’ve been in this place, I’ve watched the faeries come, each generation weaker than the last. What’s happened to them? I’ve guided screaming dragons over the bridge! How did that come to pass? How did humans creep into being to slaughter all your kind? Who was watching the affairs of the Djinn then? And now? Devils are roaming free with but this one small sprout against them, and if it weren’t for her, and for your part in this and mine, there would be no hope at all!”

  Magpie watched wide-eyed as the two legends argued about her.

  “Fade,” Bellatrix went on, her eyes flashing in the moonlight, “the Blackbringer is free.”

  A burst of flame shot from Fade’s nostrils, sending twin fireballs straight at Magpie. She had to fling herself aside and roll to a crouch as the flowers sizzled and blackened where she had been. He turned his great head to the canyon and snorted great jets of fire out into it, seeming to cleanse his head of it before risking turning back to the two faeries.

  “The Blackbringer, free?” he hissed.

  “Aye.”

  “Then it’s already too late. What can one sprout hope to do against such a foe?”

  “Without the Magruwen’s help? Perhaps nothing. Fade, he must be persuaded. You could—”

  “I will not defy him.”

  “Not even to save faeries? Imps? Dryads, hobs, finfolk, and every other creature?”

  “Nay, not if it’s his will.”

  Magpie rose from her crouch. “How about to save him, then?” she asked.

  Fade turned back to her. “What did you say?”

  “The Blackbringer already killed one Djinn.”

  Fade stared at Magpie, and she thought his eyes grew brighter, like a stoked fire. “Killed a Djinn?” he repeated.

  “The Vritra,” said Magpie. “And now he’s killing in Dream-dark and sending his spies down the Magruwen’s well!”

  Fade’s head moved closer to Magpie, and the smell of brimstone grew strong. “Spies?” he asked.

  “Aye, he sent a scavenger imp down hunting for something.”

  “Did he get it?” he demanded sharply, his eyes blazing.

  “Get what?” asked Magpie, squinting up at him. Seeing the intensity in Fade’s eyes, she was filled with curiosity as to what Batch had been after. What had he said, a turnip? She thought not.

  But the dragon just blinked his huge, inscrutable eyes and said, “It is not for me to say.”

  “More secrets!” exclaimed Bellatrix. “Fade, something must be done! The devils were his own mistake, and he must unmake them!”

  Fade turned to her with a snarl. “He never made such mistakes! He never made a devil.”

  Bellatrix and Magpie fell silent and looked at each other. Everyone knew the devils were the Djinns’ mistakes. Where else could they have come from? Where else would anything have come from?

  Still snarling, Fade went on, “Creatures with no dreams of their own can do naught but destroy the dreams of others. So it has been since the beginning. So were the devil armies forged, by one who did not dream.”

  Bellatrix said irritably, “Dragon! This is no time for riddles. Please speak plain. If the Djinn didn’t make the devils, where did they come from?”

  Indeed. If not from the Djinn, then where? Magpie was silent. A thought was skimming the surface of her mind, and she felt as if she were looking up at it from underwater. Then, suddenly, she realized what it was: eight. The eight sacred columns of the temples. Why eight and not seven? Traceries of light spun in Magpie’s sight and she saw painted there the symbol for infinity that graced all the temples. It twisted then and she saw it, too, suddenly, as an eight. Why eight . . . ?

  “Fade,” she said in a rush. “Was there another once? An eighth Djinn?”

  He snorted. “There have only ever been seven Djinn!”

  Magpie chewed her lip, ashamed to have voiced such blither. The idea had seemed to simply spin into her mind on a curl of light.

  Fade spoke again, more quietly. He said, “The eighth was not a Djinn.”

  And Magpie and Bellatrix stared at him, dumbstruck.

  “In the time before time there were seven sparks . . . and one wind.”

  “A wind . . . ,” breathed Magpie.

  “The Astaroth, the world-shaping wind. He was the bellows to the Djinns’ fire, tirelessly feeding their flames so they could burn bright as suns and pour their dreams forth in unbroken threads. He was their ally and equal. Pure power, an unfathomable force, and without him the Tapestry could not have been woven.

  “He had no dreams of his own, but he shared theirs. When the time came to shape the Tapestry into a sphere and bind closed its seams, he chose to remain and witness the burgeoning of the world he had helped forge. This was the mistake that has shaped everything.”

  “How?” Magpie asked, her head spinning.

  “He was a creature of infinite space. He had never yet known boundary. The Tapestry had seemed vast laid open in the emptiness, but once sewn closed, it was . . . small. The work of world-making went on, the Djinn gathered dreaming, the Astaroth fed them, and the world bloomed, but a time came when he was no longer needed, and it became a cage to him.”

  “The Djinn couldn’t . . . let him out?” asked Bellatrix, as confounded as Magpie.

  “Not without letting the nothingness in and obliterating everything. He had made his choice, but he couldn’t live with it. The confines of the world warped him. He tried to free
himself, even at the expense of all else. He gathered his full force and tried to blast his way through the Tapestry to freedom, but it was strong—he’d helped make it so—and he couldn’t breach it. Again and again he tried, hurling himself against it, but all he succeeded in doing was mangling it, twisting its perfect threads. Making devils.”

  “Ah . . . ,” Magpie whispered, understanding at last.

  “Abominations,” continued the dragon. “What the Djinn dreamed pure, he turned monstrous. And when he saw what he had done he went to work at it even harder, believing he was at last creating something of his own. Hundreds upon hundreds of creatures were thus warped. The Djinn knew something had to be done. He’d been their ally, but they had to choose between the Astaroth and the world. . . .”

  “What did they do?” the faeries both asked, breathless.

  “They chose the world,” said Fade simply, and heaved a deep sulfurous sigh. “It was a terrible choice, and it diminished them. They erased all memory of him—”

  “But for the eighth column in all the temples,” said Magpie.

  He looked at her closely. “Aye, faerie. Those they left as symbols of their shame. They never again burned so bright as they had in the harmony of eight, with the Astaroth’s strength on their side. Faeries never knew the Djinns’ full glory. By the time you came to be, that was all memory.”

  “This all happened before the days of faeries?” Bellatrix asked.

  “Aye,” said Fade, with the grim ghost of a smile on his reptilian face. “Of course. The Djinn had to create a race to rid the world of devils. That race was faeries.”

  Magpie stood very still. She felt a sickness in the pit of her stomach. She saw the same feelings written on Bellatrix’s face. They just looked at each other and felt the force of the dragon’s words. Faeries had been dreamed into being to rid the world of devils. Faeries, who had always believed themselves to be the light and color and soul of the world, they were just the solution to a wretched problem, like vultures who had been dreamed to devour the dead.

  “Now you know,” said Fade.

  Magpie blinked, and the stunned look on her face was replaced slowly by ferocity. “Well, then,” she said, “if he dreamed us up as hunters he’d best let us do our job, neh? This Blackbringer. What the skive is he, dragon?”

  “The Astaroth’s final plague,” said Fade. “And his worst.”

  TWENTY-NINE

  Again came a soft touch like the flutter of wings as Magpie visioned the glyphs Snoshti taught her, holding Rathersting Castle clear in her mind. When she opened her eyes she found herself in Nettle’s room and released her held breath with relief.

  It was quiet under the drum of rain. Bertram was asleep in the rocking chair with his peg leg propped up on the bed. She thought at first he was the only one in the room, but then she saw the Rathersting lad in the window. He was sitting looking out and hadn’t heard her arrive. She remembered their last meeting, how she hadn’t had time to explain to him about Skuldraig, and a flush of shame rose on her cheeks. How ungrateful he must think her! She held still, knowing as soon as she was noticed the questions would begin, and she couldn’t begin to imagine how she would answer them.

  Then Snoshti glimmered in beside her and silence was no longer an issue. “Well done, pet!” cried the imp. Instantly Bertram leapt awake and Talon swung round in the window. His eyes were full of suspicion.

  “What happened?” he demanded. “Where did you go?”

  Calypso hopped in. “My ‘Pie!” he cried, sweeping her up in his wings. “Heard ye had a bit of a vanish!” He held her face with his feathertips and looked into her eyes. “How are ye, pet?”

  Though his voice was jovial, Magpie knew what he was asking. “I’m fine now, feather,” she said, meeting his searching stare.

  “Does me good to see a gleam in yer eye. But ye look awful tired.”

  “Aye, exhausted, since you mention it. Feel like I haven’t slept in ten years.”

  “Bet ye’re hungry too, Mags,” said Pup from the doorway as the rest of the crows crowded in.

  She put her hands over her belly and realized she was. “About to start gawping like a baby bird!”

  “There’s biscuits and pumpkin soup left from lunch, full of ginger to bring your strength up,” offered Orchidspike, elbowing her way through the throng of black feathers. “Back in bed and rest, lass, from . . . wherever you’ve been. I’ll fetch you some.”

  “Neh, Lady,” said Talon. “Let me.” As he passed Magpie, his hard eyes seemed to ask, Who are you?

  Magpie allowed herself to be fussed back into bed. Orchidspike bent to examine her wings and Magpie’s elaborate braid caught her eye. “Whose handiwork is this, now?” she asked.

  “Er,” said Magpie, “Snoshti did it, neh, Snosh?”

  But Snoshti seemed to have vanished. The crows set to clamoring about it. “Another sneaking imp vanishes!” groused Swig.

  “Another?” asked Magpie.

  “Aye, that scavenger was in the dungeon, but he disappeared from his locked cell.”

  “They left him alone?” Magpie cried. “Jacksmoke! I need to talk to him! I need to know what”—she glanced furtively at Orchidspike—“what his master sent him down the well for really.”

  But Orchidspike wasn’t listening to Magpie. The scent of the nightspink in her braid had caught the healer’s notice, and as the crows complained of imps, she quietly removed a blossom and held it to her nose. A curious look came into her old eyes. She sniffed it again, then tucked it into her apron. She stood. “It’s time we get on with the healing, lass. ’Twill be no quick job of work. I’ll see how Talon’s coming on with that food.” She bustled out.

  In the corridor she took the silver-white flower out of her pocket and held it to her nose again.

  “What’s that?” Talon asked, coming back with a tray.

  “’Twas braided into the lass’s hair,” she said in a peculiar voice and held it out to him.

  He sniffed it. “Sure I never smelled that before,” he said.

  “Nor I,” Orchidspike replied, and Talon frowned. Orchidspike was the finest herbalist in Dreamdark. She knew everything that grew, and where, and what it could be used for. There simply wasn’t a flower in the forest she hadn’t smelled. “Wherever it was she went with that imp, it wasn’t in Dreamdark, that I know. Nor anywhere near.”

  “Then where—?”

  “I don’t know, my lad, but I’d like to. Come. We’ll begin soon.”

  As Magpie ate, Orchidspike and Talon made ready for the healing. A wheel was set up by the fire and loaded with a wide bobbin of spidersilk, while a balm of angelica, hyssop, and clove was set out to simmer in a copper basin.

  “The silk is a binding for the spells,” Orchidspike explained as she purified her knitting needles in the balm. “I vision a glyph into every stitch and the silk knits them together into a whole. It takes a few days for the glyphs to bond and transmute to living tissue, then the silk threads melt away, leaving behind only wings, real as they ever were.”

  “Does that mean I won’t be able to fly for a few days?”

  “Maybe longer, lass. This is quite severe.”

  Magpie frowned and grumbled. Then Orchidspike’s knitting needles caught her eye. “Those must be djinncraft,” she said.

  “Aye, my foremother Grayling chose them long ago from among the Magruwen’s treasures.”

  “Did your apprentice use them to make that skin of his?”

  “My what?” asked Orchidspike, startled, for the word apprentice had been much on her mind. “Ah, Talon? Neh, lass, the prince isn’t my apprentice.”

  “Prince?” Magpie repeated.

  “Aye, Talon will be chief one day, after his father . . .” Her voice wavered. “Indeed, that day may be at hand.”

  “Would the Rathersting have a clan chief who’s a scamperer?” she asked, and at that moment Talon came back into the room. He stiffened. Magpie had simply been curious—she’d scarcely ever known a s
camperer; they were exceedingly rare—but she saw his face color with shame and she cursed herself. He avoided meeting her eyes and she could think of nothing to say that wouldn’t make it worse, so she just frowned and resolved to speak no more.

  When Orchidspike was ready to begin, Calypso tried to talk Magpie into lying down to sleep through the healing. “Ye can’t just go and go, ‘Pie, after what ye been through. Ye’re pale as biscuit flour and yer folks would have my feathers for it. Ye need sleep.”

  But she resisted, seating herself on a low stool in front of Orchidspike’s rocker. “My mind’s buzzing too much. I wish I had my book to write in.”

  “Here, Mags,” said Mingus, holding it out to her. “I got it from the caravan for ye.”

  “Ach, Mingus, thank you,” Magpie said, taking it and giving him a kiss on his beak while he shuffled his feet and examined the floor.

  She held her book in her lap and unspelled it so it fell open to the page she’d last written. She’d been en route to Dreamdark then and knew the devil only as “the hungry one.” So much had happened since! She had found the Djinn King in the bottom of a well. She had fallen through the darkness of the Blackbringer and lost two dear friends in it. She had journeyed to the afterworld and had her hair braided by Bellatrix! She had fallen off a cliff and been caught in a dragon’s fist. And she had learned of a gaping hole in the legends she had always cherished. An eighth ancient!

  She wished she could talk to her parents. They were so far away, probably shape-shifting themselves into fish with the elders of Anang Paranga right this moment. She would tell her book instead, and maybe in the writing things would come clear. She tapped her quill against her lip and began to write.

  Behind her, holding Magpie’s right wing taut while Orchidspike worked on it, Talon could just see the page over her shoulder. The crows were all around, though, so he couldn’t stare, and he caught only a word or two now and then when the birds nodded off for little naps. Magpie didn’t nap. Head bent over her book, she wrote. Orchidspike’s needles clicked steadily and the spidersilk reeled off the bobbin. Rows of spells danced off the knitting needles, rows of words filled Magpie’s page, and time passed.

 
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