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Blackbringer, p.24
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       Blackbringer, p.24

           Laini Taylor
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  “There are lights there, though,” she said. “I’ve been there. I was inside him for an instant—”

  The Magruwen flickered, surprised.

  “And I saw dying lights everywhere. Sure you could fashion something. Stars—stars burn bright in the emptiness each night, neh?” A thought struck Magpie then. “Wait. When you made the Blackbringer’s skin, you said you plucked out all the stars?”

  The Magruwen said nothing.

  “Well, what did you do with them?” Magpie asked.

  But even as she asked, she knew. Traceries spiraled across her vision, gleaming and glorious, as she caught a glimpse of the Tapestry with her inner eyes, without the Djinn’s help. In that instant she saw the threads the Djinn had spun in secret so very long ago, gathered in hiding while the Astaroth raged against the Tapestry. Here it was, not just the skin of night, but also the receptacle for the stars the Djinn had plucked from it like berries.

  “The pomegranate!” she cried. “That’s what it is! That’s where you hid the stars!”

  Before Magpie’s eyes and Talon’s, the Djinn suddenly flared again, as he had when Magpie had first mentioned the pomegranate, but now he didn’t catch himself, and the deep blue fire of his core surged and overtook him. The heat, like a woodstove door blowing open, knocked the faeries backward from their perch and into the deep smoke.

  Lying on their backs with treasure poking into them while the smoke swirled madly just over their heads, Talon whispered to Magpie, “I wish you’d quit surprising him like that. He’s going to torch us one of these times.”

  “Don’t I know. First Fade almost snorted me into ash and now him. I wish he’d put on a skin.”

  They rolled over onto their bellies and crawled through a spill of jewels. “Look,” said Talon, holding up the edge of a piece of tattered fabric. It was much heavier than his own skin but he knew it for what it was. “There’s why he isn’t wearing a skin.”

  “Ach, that thing must be mad ancient.”

  “Aye, I reckon. Bet it has dragon scale woven in it, by the weight of it, to make it fireproof.”

  “Come on.”

  They rose and scampered under the smoke to a place where a stack of helmets rose like a tower with its peak lost in clouds. They climbed it cautiously, holding their breath through the choking layer of smoke, and peered out to see that the Magruwen had gathered himself back in. He was waiting for them. “There are . . . lights . . . within him?” he asked.

  Magpie and Talon clambered onto the uppermost helmet and stood. “I saw them,” Magpie answered. “And in my dream I held up a light and they all flared to life!”

  “It was a dream.”

  “Aye, a dream. And don’t you think it could be true, that those could be their sparks still burning? Poppy, who made that cordial, could be trapped there, and Maniac, my crow brother, and Talon’s kin. . . . Lord, I have to try. I can’t capture the Blackbringer without knowing—I could be trapping all those sparks in the darkness with him forever!”

  “What you speak of, going willingly into him, it is suicide. He will do to you what he did to your friends and kin. He will unmake you. You will never enter that empty place, do you hear me?”

  “But Lord Magruwen, if you give me the pomegranate, I—”

  “In this you will be ruled by me! I would no sooner give you the pomegranate than unfasten the skin of night and loose the Astaroth on the world. It would amount to the same thing. Don’t you see? That’s what he wants. It’s all he wants.”

  “Oh,” said Magpie, understanding. “The stars . . .”

  “Restored to the skin, they would unlock it.”

  Talon said, “And he’d be free . . .”

  “To destroy the Tapestry,” concluded the Magruwen.

  “But one star—” continued Magpie stubbornly.

  “Beyond question!” the Djinn King roared with such scorching finality that Magpie’s mouth, opening out of habit to argue and cajole, found itself empty of words and snapped right shut.

  “You will capture the Blackbringer,” the Djinn went on. “And I will seal the bottle. You will attempt nothing else, do you understand?”

  Magpie’s mouth had pinched itself into a straight line, and her eyes flashed as she stared up at the Djinn, unblinking, and said nothing. He flared brighter, and still she didn’t blink. Talon looked back and forth between them, the towering figure of living fire with his terrible horns and the twig of a lass perched on a teetering stack of helmets. The stare they held in common was like a fuse running between their eyes that any moment could ignite an explosion.

  Finally Magpie said in a tight voice, “I will make no promise to forsake my friends and brothers, if there is any possible chance I might save them.”

  When the Magruwen let out an exasperated hiss, Talon had to duck under the spray of sparks.

  “Pigtail delivery,” squawked Calypso from the doorway. They all turned to him unsmiling, and he caught sight of Magpie’s face. “Ach,” he said, flying over. “Ye got on yer ornery mouth.” He whispered hoarsely in her ear, “Sure ye’re not defying the Djinn King, pet. I was that sure ye were no eejit.”

  She turned her stern face on him then, and the line of her mouth softened into a frown. “Ach, well, you may yet be surprised,” she said, then looked back up at the Magruwen. “Lord,” she implored. “Please . . . how better to start a new age than to right old wrongs? All those sparks the Blackbringer stole leave a lot of cold places behind in the world, empty shoes and torn lives, and why not start fresh by stealing them back and making things whole? Whatever it was faeries did in the past, whatever treachery, it’s done, and sure the past can’t be undone, but it can be forgiven. I swear I’ll do everything I can to make you proud of faeries again, and how much finer will it be to build a new age on forgiveness than on anguish?”

  “There will always be anguish.”

  Magpie heard what he said but paid closer heed to what he didn’t say. He didn’t say there would be no new age; he didn’t say he could never forgive. With a stir of hope she tried one last thing. “And Lord, what of this? I saw all those lights in him! What if he keeps their sparks burning inside him? What if he needs them? What if they give him strength, and we can take them away?”

  The Magruwen’s vertical eyes looked hard at her. After a moment he said, “Put the hair there, crow, and leave me. All of you.” He turned away. “I’ll have the seal for you tomorrow.”

  Magpie waited, holding her breath. At length the Djinn muttered, almost inaudibly, “And one star. One. Only one.”

  The faeries had rejoined the crows and were well into Dreamdark when, behind them at the school grounds, the earth began to tremble.

  The quaking was rhythmic as the approaching footsteps of some slow giant. In the manor, windowpanes rattled and fell still, rattled and fell still, again and again. White-faced, the humans listen in silence until the headmistress looked out the window to see smoke roiling out from the old well. Its plumes were braiding themselves in patterns as they rose to disperse on the wind. She gasped, and her gasp unlocked the moment. Schoolgirls shrieked. White frocks fluttered.

  “To the chapel!” cried the headmistress, grabbing lasses and shoving them in the right direction.

  In the dooryard the chickens ate on, merely jumping a little with each tremor. Strag the shindy perked up and looked around. With unchickenlike agility he hopped up onto a fence post and gazed at the column of smoke. He had not yet been hatched the last time the world shook from the force of a Djinn’s hammer on anvil, but he knew the sound for what it was, and his heartbeat quickened. Long had he dreamed that he would live to see the Djinn reclaim the world, and if the old scorch was back at work under the earth, that meant that times, well, they were most certainly going to change.

  He threw back his bald head and crowed.


  Several times during the flight over Dreamdark, Talon switched crows mid-air, perfecting a daredevil leap between Bertram and Mingus whe
never one or the other began to flag from his extra weight. As they swooped in toward the castle he spotted his sister on the ramparts and dove off Bertram, flipping once to land in a crouch at Nettle’s feet.

  “Talon Rathersting!” she breathed in a deadly voice, grabbing his tunic with both fists and drawing his face close to hers. “Where you been? Flying off like that—”

  He answered, “Beyond. I’ve been beyond,” and watched her mouth fall open. Magpie dropped down abruptly beside him and the crows began to land noisily on the ramparts. “You won’t believe it, Nettle,” said Talon. “We saw the Magruwen!”

  “Stubborn old scorch,” added Magpie.

  “Him stubborn? I thought I was watching a stubborn-match and I’m still not sure who won!” Talon teased her. “Oh, and by the way,” he added, reaching out to smack her neck, “slap the slowpoke.”

  “Skive!” She twisted away, smiling, and said, “I thought you didn’t play eejit sports, eh?”

  Nettle, looking back and forth between them with her mouth still hanging open, managed to say, “What?”

  “Oh!” Magpie reached into her pocket and produced her last bit of chocolate.

  Talon gave it to Nettle. “It’s manny food, Nettle. Try it!”

  “Manny food?” she repeated, but before they could attempt an answer Pup and Pigeon barged forward, tugging at Batch’s tail while the imp still floated above their heads like a balloon.

  He had a look of glee on his face and was crying, “Wheeee!!!” and flapping his little arms until Magpie unspelled him and he plopped back down onto the stones with a howl.

  “Back to the dungeon with him,” Magpie said. “But he’s got to have a guard full time.”

  “Neh, not the dungeon!” protested Batch. “Mudsucking munchmeats!”

  “All right, come on,” Talon said, leading the way down a flight of stone steps. He glanced back at Nettle and said sternly, “Eat that!”

  Nettle watched the whole procession go by, faeries, crows, and one cursing imp, her eyes narrow with suspicion. But when they were gone she unwrapped the little paper and hesitantly put the sweet in her mouth, and she felt considerably more forgiving after that.

  After a quick encounter with some hot water and soap and a misguided attempt to drag a comb through her hair, Magpie straightened her tunic and headed down the labyrinthine corridors and stairs toward the Great Hall. There she found Talon in front of the massive fireplace with Orchidspike, Nettle, and two older faeries whom he introduced as his mother, Lady Bright, and his uncle Orion, the chief’s brother. Like most of the ladies Magpie had seen about the castle, Talon’s mother—Rathersting by marriage, not birth—had no tattoos. Orion was gruff and grizzled, with a broad scar marring half the black designs on his face.

  Magpie curtsied to the lady. Orion nodded to her and she nodded back, but her attention was claimed by the food on the long tables, platters and platters of food. As she greeted the others, her eyes kept returning to it. Chestnut pudding, corn bread, ripe red tomatoes, custard in fig syrup, soft blue beetlemilk cheeses wrapped in leaves, steaming stew, crispy fried squash blossoms . . . Her stomach rumbled loudly and a mere instant later Talon’s stomach cut in even louder.

  “Eat, then.” Lady Bright laughed as a biddy set down an enormous tray of hot loaves.

  They grabbed plates and heaped them high, then hauled them to a table where they began to eat as if it were a competition. If it was a competition, Magpie lost, for she slumped back in her chair and groaned while there was yet food on her plate. She said, “If I had food like that waiting for me at the end of each day, I’d be fat as a tick on a manny’s fanny!”

  Talon laughed into his second custard, and the faeries sipped cider until Orion called the counsel to begin.

  Brandy was served and pipes were lit. Everyone but the warriors left the Hall, though Orchidspike and Magpie stayed in their places and the crows hunched in a cluster smoking the chief’s tobacco. Chairs were scraped nearer the fire and elbows slung across knees as the warriors leaned forward to listen.

  Orion stood. “Gents,” he declaimed, then gave a nod to Orchidspike, “Lady,” and to Magpie and Nettle, “and lasses. ‘Tis a terrible time! Never in memory have the Rathersting failed in our duty to protect Dreamdark, but now we fail every night. Since the battle at Issrin Ev we been chasing shadows whilst the fiend hunts free! Word’s come that last eve the whole Followtide clan down river way was took and only Codger Spindrift left behind, who’d fallen asleep in his canoe.”

  A murmur went round.

  “And that’s not all. This very morning, as well you know, our raiding party came back smaller than it left. We lost Spiro and Bruxis in the Spiderdowns, but not to spiders, neh, and so we know now where the devil lurks. He’s there in the worst of all places, and the spiders do his bidding like those vultures did, so it seems.”

  Magpie and Talon stared at each other, alarmed.

  “Dark’s falling fast,” said a bearded older warrior, rising to his feet. “And more will vanish tonight, neh? It’s intolerable. We must end this devil, now!”

  “But you haven’t seen it, Hornet,” said Orion. “How do you stab a shadow? How can you kill a cloud?”

  “You can’t,” said Magpie. All eyes turned to her when she spoke, three dozen fierce pairs of eyes, framed in tattoos and mirroring the firelight back at her in their stares. She continued, “You can only hope to capture it, and I’ve got its bottle.”

  “And who are you?” asked a younger warrior, his voice hostile.

  Talon’s chair scraped back suddenly as he stood. “Hiss, well you know the name of our guest, so mind your manners. She’s Magpie Windwitch and she knows more about devils than any of us, and she’s our best hope for catching this foe.”

  There was a stir among the gents, of surprise and, Magpie thought, derision.

  Talon went on. “These two days past we’ve been beyond—” The murmuring grew louder. “And we’ve had counsel with the Magruwen.” Gasps burst out. “And we’ll tell you what we’ve learned and what must be done.”

  Talon and Magpie related all they knew of the Blackbringer, and a dark silence settled over the Rathersting with the revelation that there was an eighth ancient stalking their wood on a rampage of vengeance.

  “But can he be captured?” someone asked.

  “The Djinns’ champions did it once,” said Magpie, “and we’ll do it again.”

  “Then we should do it tonight!” someone yelled, and a roar went round, and stamping of feet. “To war!” they bellowed, and some rose up on their wings.

  “Neh—” said Magpie, but her voice was overpowered by the roaring so she called out in her loudest crow squawk, “Wait!”

  They all swung to look at her. “Wait,” she said again. “The Magruwen’s making a new seal, and we’ll need that first. And there’s something else. The chief and all the others? Once the devil’s been caught there’ll be no hope for ’em. If we’re to bring ’em back, we got to do it first.”

  They stared at her. “Bring ’em back?” said Orion. “Lass, what are you on about? Much may we mourn our fallen, but there’s no coming back from the Moonlit Gardens!”

  “They’re not in the Moonlit Gardens,” she said.

  “Now how could you know that?” demanded the one called Hiss with scorn thick in his voice.

  “Indeed,” said Orchidspike, speaking for the first time. “Magpie, what is it that you know?” she asked.

  Magpie glanced around at the ferocious faces and wondered how to answer. Sure they wouldn’t believe what she had to say. “They’re just not there,” she told them. “I saw my friend Poppy turn into a shadow even as I held her. I was inside the Blackbringer for an instant myself and I felt my skin begin to melt away. I reckon I’d’ve become a shadow, too. So I think that’s where they are.” She paused. “In him.”

  There was silence until Hiss broke it with a short laugh. “In him? You think?” He looked around at his fellows. “What is she even doing here?
This is a warriors’ counsel! I say we go a-hunting, tonight!” he cried, and was joined by others.

  Magpie gave Talon an anxious look and he nodded and cried sharply, “Hiss! Viper! The lot of you, have a thought. This is no spider or marsh hag, cousins, but the king of all the devils! You’ll need a spell that’s equal to him or you’ll just be flying out to make yourselves his meal! Has any of you got such a spell up his sleeve? If you do, I’d very much like to hear it!”

  No one answered.

  Hiss shifted uneasily on his feet and looked surly. “Then what, Prince?” he asked. “Has she got a spell like that?”

  “Aye!” said Talon. “She has!”

  This was a revelation to Magpie herself, and she cast Talon a sidelong glance.

  “Let’s have it then and go!” Hiss went on.

  Talon looked at Magpie and all the others did too. She lifted her chin, took a deep breath, and said, “I won’t be doing any capturing until I’ve brought back my friends and your kin and all the others, and that must wait till tomorrow, with the Magruwen’s good grace.”

  “That’s madness! Whilst you play at raising the dead, the devil will be making more dead all the night long, and none are ever coming back again! Best to stop him before he gets anyone else!”

  Magpie’s mouth drew into its most stubborn straight line and she said, “I know they’re not dead, not proper dead, and they’re nowhere in the Moonlit Gardens and I’m going to get them back!”

  “How?” asked Nettle simply.

  Magpie turned to her and said, “I know what to do; I dreamt it—”

  “Dreamt it?” interrupted a grizzled older faerie with a scoff that was met with laughter from the others. “Lass, dreams are stuff and air, not battle plans!”

  “You’re wrong,” she said fiercely, meeting his eyes. “Dreams are everything! I can’t stop you trying to capture the Blackbringer yourselves, but nor will I help till I’ve brought out all those folk and creatures he made to shadows. I won’t see them go in the bottle with him for the rest of forever. I won’t!” Her voice had been steadily rising and with it the color in her cheeks, so that when she finished speaking her face was flushed and her eyes were flashing. She felt a tingling in her fingertips and clasped her hands together, but a soft shimmer had already flowed from them, though no one seemed to see it. They did, however, feel the air suddenly shift and sharpen round them and squeeze. It was so subtle they weren’t certain what was happening, if anything at all, but the feeling silenced them. Talon looked sharply at Magpie. The hairs on his arms stood up and the warriors weren’t laughing now, but were eyeing Magpie warily.

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