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Blackbringer, p.20
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       Blackbringer, p.20

           Laini Taylor
 
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  “She’s a real small one. Pretty too. They’re not all, you know. Mannies can be devious ugly. And the smell? Devils got nothing on an unwashed human!” They watched the lass for a moment in silence. She sat herself daintily on a patch of grass and began spinning the wheels of a little toy she’d brought with her.

  “First one I ever saw wasn’t pretty at all,” Magpie said. “He was a great, gnarled, evil-eyed brute with a matted black beard and all reeking of brew. . . .” She realized Talon wasn’t listening. He was still staring at the human lass but he’d squinted his eyes and now he stood and leapt nimbly to a higher branch for a clearer view.

  She followed him on wing. “What is it?”

  He was still squinting. “That thing she’s got,” he said, not breaking his gaze from the lass.

  “The toy?”

  “It’s no toy. I know it well.”

  “What do you mean?” Magpie squinted at it too.

  “It’s my granny’s surrey, from the castle. I haven’t seen it since I was wee. How the skiffle did that come here?”

  “I can guess how,” Magpie said, her voice hard, “but not why. That meat wouldn’t dare go back down the well!”

  “Who?” Talon asked.

  “Crows!” Magpie called, and they all fluttered round. She told them, “It seems that gobslotch of a scavenger is in the neighborhood.”

  “Ach!” Pup puffed up. “That irkmeat?”

  “The one who escaped the dungeon?” Talon asked.

  Magpie nodded. “Talon, he’s vermin, but he’s cunning vermin. He was in service to the Blackbringer, though sure not of his own free will. His master sent him to the Magruwen for something; he said it was a turnip—”

  “A turnip?”

  “Aye, of all the blither! We need to find out what the Blackbringer was really after. Let’s find that scavenger, crows.”

  “Now?” asked Pigeon, scratching his head. “What about the Magruwen?”

  Magpie chewed her lip and said slowly, “He’s not going to just offer to help us. I got to convince him, and I want to know as much as I can know first. I got a feeling this thing the Blackbringer’s after is important.”

  “All right, ‘Pie.” Calypso sighed. “But I want ye to wait here and have a rest whilst we search.”

  Magpie rolled her eyes. “Feather—”

  “Feather, nothing,” he said sternly. “Rest.” He turned to Talon. “Lad, ye’ll see to it?”

  Talon looked back and forth between the stubborn faerie and stern crow. He shrugged helplessly.

  “Good lad,” said Calypso, spreading open his wings. “We’ll have a look around. Come on, blackbirds!” The crows burst squawking from the trees.

  As soon as they were gone, Magpie said to Talon, “Let’s go.”

  “Go? Calypso said—”

  “Ach, you think I’m going to sit here? There’s something else you should know. This imp? He was there when your folk met his master.”

  Talon was still, his face frozen, staring back at Magpie. “Indeed . . . ,” he said quietly. Suddenly he stood. “What’s he look like, this creature?”

  “Like a scorched rat with a great big nose, wears diamonds on his tail.”

  “Think I’ll join in the search,” he said, and dove from the branch. He caught another with one hand and whipped himself around, jackknifing and shooting out past the bramble, where he dropped from Magpie’s sight.

  Talon had never set foot beyond the hedge. He’d peered through it on the northern border of Dreamdark, where the land without was as wild as the forest within and no humans ever wandered. A few days ago he’d never have dreamed of venturing out into the world, even with a gang of cousins, and now he was leaping into it alone. What a change a few days could make, he thought, stalking through the grass.

  But he wasn’t alone. “This way,” Magpie hissed, skimming up beside him. Together they darted into the shadow of the hulking school, Magpie flying low to the ground and Talon running, leaping. When he grabbed hold of a trellis post and swung himself wildly airborne, stretching headfirst and landing in a somersault to keep right on going, Magpie found herself grinning. She’d never known scamperers could move like that. She couldn’t help watching him and had to remind herself to keep her eyes peeled for imps and roaming mannies.

  “There’s a kitchen garden past that fence,” Magpie said. “Let’s try there.”

  Talon reached the fence first, and when Magpie landed at his side he slapped the back of her neck and said, “Slap the slowpoke!”

  “Eh!”

  “I’d smack you harder but you’re a lass,” he said with a wicked twinkle in his blue eyes.

  “Ach.” She gave him a surly look and rubbed the back of her neck. “Don’t let that hold you back. The crows don’t. But you won’t have to worry—sure that’s the last time you’ll ever win.”

  “Oh, aye?”

  “Aye, now hush your spathering. See anything?”

  They peered through the slats of the fence at the rampant mess of herbs within. Eyebright and lavender, sweet basil and lemon balm, a great jumble of shivering leaf and flower. A gnarled apple tree hung heavy boughs over a bench where a human lass sat shelling peas, and a dozen hens scratched in a sunny dooryard where another lass tossed out handfuls of grain.

  Just then, another human came out the door. A mountain of manny she was, cradling in her arms a cat as gaunt as she was huge. She tossed it and it twisted in air, landing among the scattering hens with its ears flattened back and tail lashing. The human barked at it in her unlovely language and it skulked away, low as a weasel.

  “That meat looks mean starved,” Magpie said, eyeing the cat warily. “Don’t let him see you. I don’t like his looks one bit. Come on.” They prowled through the fence into the garden, taking care to keep well hidden as they scouted for any signs the imp had been there.

  When Talon came across a human’s abandoned shoe, it really sank into his mind where he was. He experienced a moment of wonder. He was in a manny garden! He felt as if he’d slipped into someone else’s life the way he’d slipped into his falcon skin. And watching Magpie prowl forth with the stealth of a fox, he thought he had slipped into someone else’s life: hers. Or at least, he was tagging along with it. Spying, hunting down devils, vanishing into thin air, visiting the Djinn King, racing with crows, all in a day? What must her life be like out in the wide world?

  She suddenly drew back even with him. “Bless me if that’s not a shindy,” she said, pointing at the cluster of hens.

  “A what?”

  “A shindy. Look, see the featherless one?”

  He saw it, a naked chicken scratching among the rest. “Poor meat,” he said.

  “Neh, that’s how they are,” she told him. “Wizards hatch ’em from rooster eggs they incubate in their armpits.”

  “Rooster eggs?”

  “Aye, shindies are mad rare. Wizards use ’em for servants. I’d guess his wizard’s passed on and he’s made himself at home here.”

  Talon laughed and cocked his head. “You sure it’s not just a bald chicken?”

  “Aye, and we’ll want to talk to him. Maybe he’s seen Batch. But skive, that cat’s keeping a cool eye over the place.”

  They crouched side by side, scanning the garden with calculating eyes. There was half an open yard between the shindy and themselves, with two mannies and a starved cat standing by. Magpie clasped her fingers into fists, remembering Bellatrix telling her there was magic in her, and she smiled ruefully to herself. If there was, she had no notion how to summon it, not even to scare a cat, much less a monster like the Blackbringer!

  Talon interrupted her thoughts. “I’ll go around the side and distract the cat, and you can get that shindy’s attention.”

  “Eh? What will you do?”

  “I’ll just make him a phantasm to chase,” Talon said. “It’s a clan spell; we use it to trick the spiders on raids, get ’em going the wrong way. Well . . . ” He colored slightly. “The others use i
t anyway . . . on raids.”

  Magpie was on the verge of telling him she’d handle it herself when she realized that was probably the story of his life. He didn’t get to go with the other warriors because of his wings; he probably didn’t get to do much but get left behind. “Okay, then,” she said, “but be careful.”

  He nodded and disappeared into a thatch of dill. Magpie crept as close as she could get to the shindy while remaining hidden. She hoped the lad knew what he was doing. A picture came into her mind then of him skewering the Blackbringer’s tongue on his blade, and she recalled he had saved her life. Surely he could trick a cat. She relaxed among some strawberry runners to see what he would do.

  She didn’t see him climb the apple tree, so she was as surprised as the cat when he—or rather, his phantasm—suddenly dropped from its branches to land right before the cat’s nose. It was very lifelike for an illusion, Magpie thought, seeing no hint of the telltale traceries she’d detected around his falcon skin. She wouldn’t have been able to tell the phantasm from the real lad. The cat’s green eyes snapped open, but before it could move, the phantasm had flipped over its head and sprinted the length of its back, diving off its tail to land rolling and spring through the fence. With a yowl the cat gave chase. Magpie wanted to watch but she had her own part to play. She turned back to the shindy and lobbed a small strawberry at it, hitting its bare rump.

  It turned and she waved and, after pausing to peck at the strawberry, it shuffled toward her. “Bless me,” it said. “A faerie? Never seen one of ye lot here.”

  “Blessings, master shindy,” Magpie started to say.

  “Strag,” he cut in. “No masters among the clucks and mannies! Just Strag.”

  “Strag, then. And I’m Magpie Windwitch—”

  He cut in again with a low whistle. “Well, feather my britches,” he said. “If it en’t little foxlick, come back home!”

  “Foxlick?” Magpie’s hand flew to her hair. “How do you—?”

  “Oh, I know ye, I do indeed! How’s the blessing coming on?”

  “Eh?” puzzled Magpie. Just then Talon came up behind her, and Strag jumped at the sight of him. “Skaw!” he exclaimed. “Who scribbled on ye, faerie?”

  “My great-uncle,” replied Talon, nonplussed. “Who plucked you, chicken?”

  Magpie nudged him with her elbow and made introductions. “Strag, we’re looking for someone.”

  “Not so hasty, little missy. After all these years? Here I didn’t think to see ye till ye were grown, but there ye are, in my own little yard! Let’s see the blessing, eh? Please?”

  Magpie glanced at Talon, who looked bewildered, and she said hesitantly, “Er, the blessing? See, Strag, I didn’t know about all that till yesterday.”

  “Ach, imps and their secrets! Me, I’d’ve spilled the beans years ago. It was my finest bit of sparkle. I learnt it off my wizard. I gave ye a glamour, missy, a disguise for slipping amongst the mannies. Know what it is? Know what they never look twice at? A little brown bird! If it en’t got color to catch their eye, it’s nigh invisible to ’em. Ye’ll see.”

  “You mean . . . I can turn into a little brown bird?” Magpie asked.

  “Aye, nothing simpler! Just picture it, like it’s standing there in front of ye, ye ken, a wren or a nuthatch or what, then sort of step into it like boots.”

  Magpie glanced at Talon again. He had his suspicious look back and he arched his eyebrow at her like a question. She chewed her lip and turned back to Strag and did as he described. She knew from Talon’s gasp that it had worked. She fluttered her wings and caught sight of dull feathers out of the corner of her eye. Strag crowed with delight. “Perfect! If a manny even noticed ye he’d just shoo ye out the window and forget all about ye!”

  She stepped backward out of it and returned to normal. “Sharp!” she said. She could feel Talon giving her a hard look but she ignored it and hugged Strag. “That’ll be mad handy for spying. Thank you!”

  His puckered chicken skin blushed all over. “My pleasure. Now, what ye doing lurking in a hen yard if ye didn’t come special to see me?”

  “We’re looking for someone,” Magpie replied. “Big haunchy imp been sizzled bald. You seen him?”

  “Hoy, aye, I saw the scoundrel! Never thought he’d haul his rump up the drainpipe but he did, and quick. Sure it helped, the cat being on his heels! Slink nearly made a meal of him!”

  “Where did he go?”

  “Right in that window.”

  Magpie looked where he pointed, a drainpipe up to an open second-story window. “Talon, you up for a shimmy?” she asked him.

  He just gave her an icy look and nodded sharply, and Magpie frowned uncomfortably.

  “Ye’ll come back and see me, missy?” asked Strag.

  “Aye, we’ll be back, and soon. We got to go and see the Magruwen.”

  “Skaw!” cried Strag. “The Magruwen?”

  “Aye, he’s down the well there. Didn’t you ever know?”

  “The well?” The shindy looked stupefied. “Neh! Sure but the mannies think it’s cursed and won’t go near it cause of the smoke and the smell of sulfur! Ye’re saying it’s the Djinn King . . . ?”

  “Aye, and he’s woken up from his long sleep.”

  “The old scorch himself! Explains why carrots and turnips been coming out of the ground already cooked!”

  “Turnips?” Magpie repeated, flicking a glance to the window Batch had climbed in. She muttered, “That explains where the turnip came from, anywhich.”

  “Hoy,” said Strag. “Better hurry on. Slink’s back.” The cat was perched on a fence post staring right at them.

  “I’ll distract him,” Magpie announced. Seeing the two human lasses so near, she added, “I’m going to try on my glamour!” and she took a step and blinked herself into a little brown bird. “Talon, run for the pipe. Thanks, Strag. Blessings!”

  “My pleasure, foxlick!” he called.

  Magpie made straight for the cat, and she might have looked like a dull garden bird but she flew like a faerie. She zinged spirals round his head as he batted at her, and she scolded, “For shame, you suck-toe, gawping after manny scraps! The Djinn dreamed you finer than that!”

  “Djinn?” scoffed the cat. “It’s the humans’ world now, bird, and we cats’ll be snug in their laps while they pick the bones of every last creature! They’ll clean their teeth with yours, if I don’t first!”

  Magpie gave the cat’s whiskers a good tweak and darted out of reach so it keeled over backward swinging for her and toppled off the post with a yowl. Then she spun round and saw Talon had made it to the drainpipe and was well up it, so she sped to the windowsill, stepped out of her glamour, and sat herself down to wait for him.

  When his head came into view, she said, “Slap the—” but he knocked her hand away and scowled at her. “Ach, what the skiffle, lad?” she asked, surprised.

  “I didn’t come all this way to play eejit sports,” he growled, climbing up onto the windowsill. “Or to maraud manny schools with some lass who’ll tell her secrets to some plucked chicken but not me—”

  Magpie stared at him.

  “I saved your life,” he went on, “and I got you that skiving knife back that you near slit my throat with and you just scolded me for it like I’m some sprout, and I helped knit your wings and I haven’t asked you who you really are, even though I’ve seen you do things no faerie can do and for all I know you’re in with that devil yourself!”

  Magpie flushed and replied hotly, “I didn’t ask you along, if you’ll recall,” she said, “and I’ll be happy to ‘maraud’ without you! But I am sorry if I insulted you by including you in ‘eejit’ games I’ve been playing with the crows since I was wee. You want to get back to Dreamdark and sit around fretting with all the others, you go. Better still, go on to Never Nigh, where they’re saying I’m in with the devil. You’d fit right in! But about the knife . . .” Her hand went to Skuldraig. “The only reason I didn’t want you touching it is ’c
ause it’s cursed and if you’d tried to use it, it would have murdered you!”

  There was a thick silence between them until Talon said with an awkward frown, “Oh. Well, maybe you shouldn’t leave it lying around then.”

  Magpie’s mouth dropped open, and she chuffed indignantly. “I’m sorry if nearly dying, I didn’t keep better inventory of my things!” Then a flicker of shame came into her expression and she chewed her lip and said roughly, “But about saving my life . . . of course, thank you. Of course! I’m sorry I didn’t say so sooner. I could barely even think; I just lost my friends. . . .”

  Now Talon looked ashamed, and his blush deepened. “I know,” he said quickly. “It’s okay; I’m not grubbing for thanks. Just, all the secrets . . . I thought maybe you’d tell me, but you told that shindy—”

  “I didn’t! Strag knew it all before I did! I only just found out myself—”

  “Found out what?”

  “Er,” Magpie said, coloring crimson as she tried to imagine telling him what she’d learned. Even in her own head it sounded preposterous, so after a long pause she blurted, “The imps and creatures gave me a blessing ceremony. I don’t even remember it. They gave me gifts, like that glamour and seeing in the dark and all. First I knew of it was when Snoshti . . . er, took me, yesterday!”

  Puzzled, Talon asked, “Why? Why’d they bless you?”

  Magpie shrugged. “Look, you want to maraud or neh?” she asked in a surly voice. “Or you can leave. Whichever.”

  Scowling, Talon said, “Okay then, let’s go,” and they turned their attention to the window.

  THIRTY-ONE

  Inside was an empty schoolroom with two neat rows of desks facing a world map and a globe, and shelves of books on the far wall. “It looks like the schoolroom at the castle,” Talon said, “only huge.”

  They leapt to the floor and crossed on foot to the door. Peering out, they saw they were at the end of a corridor, with two more doors facing them. The first room was cluttered with painting easels and lumps of clay in sad replicas of manny heads, and it stank of turpentine. The second room stank too, but the odor wasn’t turpentine. Magpie fluttered up to the top of a cabinet, and Talon climbed up beside her. Grimly they surveyed the room.

 
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