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Blackbringer, p.19
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       Blackbringer, p.19

           Laini Taylor
 
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  She had been writing, pausing, frowning, remembering, and writing again for several hours when she finally gave voice to what was frustrating her. “Is he a snag, or isn’t he?” she blurted suddenly.

  “Eh?” muttered Calypso sleepily.

  “It’s just not right somehow. I can’t get past it. He leaves no rooster tracks, he’s got no smell, he’s not stupid like a snag. . . . That snag the so-called queen set on me, now that was a devil, horrid and sure. To compare them—”

  “What snag, ‘Pie?” asked the crow.

  “Ach! I never told you!” she cried. “Aye, it was why Poppy came to Issrin Ev, to warn me that Vesper had a snag slave she’d set after us, and it came, sure, and it was some nasty meat, I tell you.”

  Talon cut in incredulously, “Lady Vesper set a devil after you?”

  Magpie glanced over her shoulder at him. “Aye,” she said defensively. “Your fine queen’s got some dark dabblings.”

  “She’s not our queen!” he returned hotly. “Lady Orchidspike and my father were the only elders in Dreamdark who wouldn’t recognize her claim and the others ignored them. Only time those Never Nigh fops care what Rathersting think is when they nick their wings dancing or spot Black Annis too near their hamlets!”

  “Ach, well . . . Lady Orchidspike, you were right. Vesper’s a fake and worse. That snag was grim, and it’s because of him Poppy’s . . .” She choked on the word dead and finished instead with a bleak “. . . gone.”

  “Is it still out there?” asked Mingus, puffing himself up.

  “Neh. The Blackbringer got it, just like that. Like it just vanished or melted. That’s the thing, feathers, I can’t get past it. That was a devil, and we seen plenty and that’s what they’re like, stringing drool and snaggle teeth and suckers and stink? But the Blackbringer, he’s not like them at all. . . .” She paused. “The Magruwen called him a contagion of darkness—”

  At the mention of the Magruwen Orchidspike’s fingers fumbled but she caught her stitch and kept knitting, eyes alert, and Talon’s jaw dropped open. “The Magruwen?” He gaped. “You’ve seen the Magruwen?”

  “Aye.”

  Talon stammered, “B-but how . . . ? Where? What . . . what was he like?”

  “Mean! Sure he couldn’t care a twitch what happens to faeries or anything else. Calypso was right: he’s through with the world.”

  Silence fell, broken only by the clicking of knitting needles.

  After a moment, Magpie said with a sigh, “Well, he might be through with it, but I’m not. I’m going to catch the Blackbringer with or without his help.”

  “That’s right, Mags!” chirped Pup. “Ye can do anything!”

  “How . . . ?” asked Talon. “How do you catch a shadow? It sounds impossible—”

  “So ready to cry impossible?” Magpie snapped. “And leave that beast to eat the rest of your kin?” As soon as she said the words she wanted to bite them back. She squeezed her eyes shut.

  Talon’s face grew hot.

  “Lass, lad . . . ,” said Orchidspike in a soothing voice.

  “Neh, she’s right, what do I know of impossible?” Talon said in a wretched voice.

  Magpie slouched and said miserably, “Neh, I’m sorry. I’m a brute. I just can’t seem to hold it all in my head, what I know of him, what I don’t know . . . what he is, and how to catch him. . . .”

  “Now ‘Pie,” Calypso encouraged, “ye’ll catch him, sure. Come now, what do we know of the beast?”

  She took a deep, shuddering breath and tried to calm herself. “He’s the Blackbringer,” she said slowly, “and sure faeries only remember him as a nursery story but that’s our own doom, to forget. He was the worst devil there ever was. He was the dark come to life. A contagion of darkness, the hungry one . . . beast of night with flesh of smoke, wearing darkness like a cloak . . .”

  Talon had a sudden clear and piercing thought. His eyes flew open.

  “He called himself . . .” Magpie thought back. “The heavens with the stars ripped out . . . but ach, that’s just poetry, neh?”

  Talon spoke up. “What if he’s wearing a skin?”

  Magpie looked skeptical. “A skin?” she repeated.

  “What you said about wearing darkness like a cloak, it made me think of a skin,” he said.

  “Usually I can spot a skin.”

  “Don’t I know!”

  “And made of what? The dark?”

  Talon shrugged. “The legends say the Djinn wove light, neh? Why not dark?”

  “A skin . . . I don’t know. When I was inside it,” Magpie said, “it wasn’t just a little patch of shadow. It was . . . I don’t know, endless, empty . . . infinite.” The word leapt like a spark in her mind, and she felt the rush of an idea forming. It danced just out of reach.

  Calypso asked, “But why would the Djinn make something so nasty?”

  “Could something else have made it?” Talon asked. “If it’s a skin, anything could be inside it.”

  Magpie stared. Anything, she thought. Infinite. And she was reminded of the glyph for infinity, that eight laid on its side, and her pulse quickened.

  “Lad . . . ,” Orchidspike said in a frightened whisper, and Talon turned to her. He saw a look of puzzlement on the healer’s face and followed her gaze to Magpie’s wings. At first he didn’t know what was amiss. The knitting needles fairly flew along, unfurling neat rows of silk and spells behind them. He looked back at Orchidspike, then hastily back at the knitting needles.

  They were moving very, very fast.

  Spidersilk was flying off the bobbin.

  “Every choice casts a shadow,” Magpie said low to herself, repeating the Magruwen’s words, “and sometimes those shadows stalk your dreams. . . .”

  Orchidspike’s old fingers couldn’t keep up with the furious pace of the spells. She lost her hold on the needles and they clattered to the floor at her feet. Magpie didn’t notice and neither, apparently, did the spells. Needles or not, the silk kept right on, zipping off the bobbin into the weave of Magpie’s wings. Orchidspike drew back, astonished.

  “He meant the choice between the world and the Astaroth,” Magpie said, speaking faster now, trying to keep pace with her thoughts. “But what does that mean? Fade said the Djinn chose the world, but he never said what they did to the Astaroth. He never said they killed him.”

  “Fade?” Talon repeated weakly. He glanced at the bobbin and saw it had almost run out. That would put an end to it, he thought, but when the tail end of the thread disappeared into the weave . . . with no spidersilk binding them, no physical substance at all . . . the spells kept right on going. Magpie’s wings were knitting themselves, and perfectly. As fast as her thoughts moved, the spells moved, caught in the flow of some strong magic like leaves in a river, pulled inexorably along.

  And that wasn’t all.

  Talon suddenly felt himself lose contact with the floor. He was lifted gently so his feet hung just above it, and he grabbed at the mantel in surprise. He saw Orchidspike clutching the arms of her rocker and the crows treading air with their wing tips as they all floated, helpless and wide-eyed. Magpie too was hovering above her chair but she didn’t seem to notice.

  “And its eyes,” she said excitedly. “No snag has eyes like that, like the Djinns’ eyes!”

  All around the castle, from the biddies to the stable sprouts to the ink-faced warriors on the ramparts, feet floated off the floor and a collective gasp went up every corridor and down every winding stair.

  Magpie had forgotten the healing entirely now, and even as the last spells shimmied along the crisp new edge of her dragonfly wings, she rose into the air on them. “The fire that burns its bellows can only turn to ash, he said to the Vritra . . . and . . . he was the bellows! The Blackbringer’s no snag! He might be the Astaroth’s final plague, but the Astaroth didn’t make the Blackbringer . . . the Astaroth is the Blackbringer!”

  Still hanging in the air bewildered, Talon asked, “What’s the Astaroth?”
r />   Magpie whirled to face him. Her eyes were alight with revelation. “He’s the worst thing that ever was.” So enthralled had she been in her thoughts, Magpie didn’t feel the impact of them until she heard herself speak those words. Suddenly she paled. Talon’s feet dropped back onto the floor and Orchidspike’s rocker settled with a thud. “The Astaroth . . . ,” Magpie whispered. A look of slow horror spread over her face. “Jacksmoke, the skiving Astaroth . . .”

  It all made so much sense now, so much dreadful sense. The Djinn hadn’t killed him. They had translated him, somehow, into that thing of darkness. They had robbed him of his element. And he had returned for vengeance. He was the shadow that stalked the Magruwen’s dreams. “I got to go see the Magruwen again . . . ,” she whispered.

  She turned to Orchidspike and said a distracted, “Thank you, Lady,” but the healer was too flabbergasted to respond. “And Talon . . . thank you for the idea.” Even in her daze their eyes caught for a moment, and both felt the air pulse faster around them. Magpie turned to the window, stepped up onto the ledge, and launched herself out. Talon saw her begin to fall in a graceful arc, and he felt his heart catch in his throat, thinking sure her wings weren’t ready, weren’t healed yet—they couldn’t be, after all, it was impossible—but then she flicked them sharply and was propelled forward like a loosed arrow, and he remembered, What do I know of impossible?

  “Come on, feathers!” she called back, and the crows roused themselves from their own stunned stupor and squeezed one by one out the window after her.

  Talon and Orchidspike turned to each other. Their looks said, How? What? but before they could speak, Nettle and Orion charged through the doorway.

  “Talon!” Nettle cried. “Did you feel that magic? The devil—”

  “Neh,” Talon said hastily. “It wasn’t. It was the lass.”

  “What? How?” Nettle looked around the room. “Where’ve they all gone?”

  “To the Magruwen . . .”

  “The Magruwen?” Orion gaped.

  Talon went to the window. He had a strange look on his face when he turned to them and said, “And I’m going to follow them.”

  Nettle and Orion looked at him like he was crazy. “Talon . . . ,” his sister began, “how? Sure they’re flying. . . .”

  He reached deep into his pocket, pulled out a wadded bit of stuff, and shook it. It fell open shining and much larger than it had seemed at first glance, and Nettle and Orion watched perplexed as Talon stepped into it, one foot at a time. “Prince, is that a . . . stocking?” Orion asked with a look of dismay.

  Talon didn’t answer. He pulled the gauzy stuff over his head and was Talon no more.

  Nettle gasped. Orion stared.

  A falcon hopped onto the window ledge and glided off into the forest.

  THIRTY

  “Ye going to tell the Magruwen who ye are?” Calypso asked Magpie as they flew above the treetops.

  Magpie snorted. “Who I am? I’m flummoxed if I know that myself! Some skinful of secrets is what. But you were in on it all along, neh?” She fixed him with a glare. “For shame, blackbird! You owe me a hundred years of secrets!”

  “The imp made me swear!” he protested. “Just doing my part, trying to grow ye up right. Besides, I only know what Snoshti told me.”

  “Which was what?”

  “Not the half of it, I reckon. I know my old dad, Dizzy, blessed ye himself here in Dreamdark when ye were wee. He gave ye a thief’s iron nerves and fast fingers! And all those creatures who came to see ye were sure ye’d grow up some kind of special. I tell ye, the creatures might’ve had no magic to lose, but they had to watch the faeries dither theirs away, and we all suffer for it, neh? When the imps started telling how there’d be a faerie born to take things back to how they used to be, the creatures were mad keen on it and kept their eyes peeled for ye.”

  “Take things back . . . ?” Magpie repeated. “How am I supposed to do that? There’s no turning back time! The world’s different now. There’s humans. . . . ”

  “Ach,” Calypso croaked. “Don’t get in a frazzle. Just think on the next thing to do. The Magruwen, now, what’re ye going to tell him? He weren’t quite itching to help, as I recall.”

  A flush came to Magpie’s cheeks as she imagined actually speaking any of the words that might tell the Djinn King the truth of her. You didn’t mean to, but you dreamed me up to save the world, Lord. Ha!

  “Hoy there,” called Mingus from the rear of the flock. “Looks like we’re being followed!”

  “Followed?” called Magpie, turning to look back.

  “He dipped into the canopy just now, but he’s on us, I ken. ‘Tis a small falcon.”

  “Falcon, indeed!” Magpie declared. “It’s that lad. Let him come.” With a twinkle in her eye she added, “Let’s give that skin a good test. Come on!” and she doubled her speed, zinging so fast forward the wind unworked her braid in no time and had her hair streaming loose behind her.

  The crows sighed and groused. “Don’t she know we’re no spring chicks?” Bertram grumbled, but the birds picked up their pace behind her.

  And farther back, so did Talon. When Magpie sped up he followed suit and found with a thrill that the faster he flew, the smoother he glided and the easier it was to stay aloft. He hadn’t soared like this since early sprouthood when his father, keen to accustom his small son to the rush of flight, had carried him in his arms.

  Those times were like little jewels he kept wrapped in velvet in his memory. Sprouthood had veered after that into darker times, when the other sprouts had lined up on the ramparts, gathered their courage, spread their wings, and leapt. Some had soared on the first try. Others had faltered and fallen into the waiting arms of uncles and aunts, to be carried up and encouraged to try again. He alone had never stood there and leapt. Not until today, leaving Nettle and Orion behind with their mouths hanging open.

  He smiled and flew on.

  It wasn’t how it had been in those young days in his father’s arms, though. He could still remember the feeling of swimming in sky, the way the air swirled and eddied around you, tangling itself in your hair, filling your mouth. The weavework of his falcon skin was like a glove, muting that sensation, so when a cool whisper of pure air hit his neck, he knew something was wrong. He remembered the lass’s djinncraft knife pressed to his throat and he swore.

  “Bilge!” he cursed, trying to see the hole. “Skive!” But he had no more luck seeing his own throat than was to be expected, and he couldn’t pause to feel it with his fingers without dashing himself out of the sky. “Skiving blast!” he muttered, and he began to slow.

  The crows and the lass were growing smaller in the distance, and the air hitting Talon’s throat was more than a whisper now; it was a steady flow. His perfect falcon skin was unraveling.

  He knew he should turn aside and head back home before it gave out altogether and dropped him from the sky like a piece of windfall fruit. Where was the lass going, anyway? There was nothing down in southeastern Dreamdark but some recent Black Annis sightings and a whole lot of hedge imp warrens. It would be a long walk from here back to Rathersting Castle, long enough to catch him out after dark, and there were far worse things than the Black Annis abroad in the night these days.

  He knew he should turn aside.

  But he didn’t.

  Talon Rathersting whooped, and all the years of longing, all the nights of standing on the ramparts wishing, poured into his arms and uncommon wings, and he surged forward and began to bridge the distance between himself and the crows. Within moments he knew they weren’t headed for southeast Dreamdark at all but beyond. Beyond. He caught a glimpse of the southern hedge and on the far side of it an immense roof, a tower, and land rolling away to the south in a vast patchwork.

  The human world.

  The crows had scattered and disappeared into the forest just short of the hedge. Talon approached with caution, landing on an oak branch from which he could peer over and up the tidy lawn and
gardens to the human place. For a moment he forgot Magpie and the crows and stared at the gargantuan brick structure, its dozen chimneys, and the massive cattle grazing in the distance.

  “Slap the slowpoke!” Magpie cried, suddenly dropping down from overhead and giving him a light cuff to the back of the neck. Talon nearly jumped out of his skin. Her hair was loose and wild over her shoulders, her eyes sparkled, and she was smiling. “A game we play,” she told him as a couple of crows fluttered round on the branch. “I’d smack you harder, but you didn’t know the rules so you get one pass.”

  “Nice flying,” one of the birds said jovially, “but hoy, have a care for your skin, neh?”

  “Aye,” agreed Magpie. “You’re undone.”

  Talon parted the skin and it slid aside, revealing his face, neck, and shoulders. He examined the hole and found it to be as big now as his fist. “A djinncraft knife will do that,” he muttered.

  “Ach! Did I do that?” Magpie cried, dismayed. “I’m sorry! I’d never want to wreck a thing like that.”

  “I can mend it later,” he said, stepping the rest of the way out of it and folding it away into his pocket. He looked back out through the hedge. “The Magruwen’s here?”

  “Aye, down a well over in the garden.”

  “What is this place?” Talon asked.

  “Just a school for human lasses to learn their books.”

  “Humans can read?”

  Magpie nodded. “Sure. They even write their own books. It’s funny about mannies. They’re no eejits. The things they can build, like bridges and ships? And they carve statues you’d swear could start breathing. But . . . they are eejits! All the killing! They’d as soon kill as look at each other half the time. But then I’ve seen ’em sleeping all scooched on one side of the bed so not to wake a little kitty. I can’t figure ’em. Ach, there’s one now.”

  Talon spun to see, and he stared, transfixed. “That?” he asked, surprised.

  “What, you’ve never seen one?” Magpie asked.

  “Neh,” he answered, craning his neck for a clear view of the human lass. She had yellow hair braided back and wore a white frock and shiny shoes. “Doesn’t look like a killer,” he observed, “and she’s not so big as I thought.”

 
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