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Blackbringer, p.25
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       Blackbringer, p.25

           Laini Taylor
 
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  Orchidspike broke the silence. “My lads,” she said. “I know ’tis a sore and hollow thing for a warrior to sit idle, but there’s magic in this lass that makes me hope. We don’t know that she’s not right. This Blackbringer, maybe he’s wrapped his terrible cloak round our kinsmen and kept them. And maybe we can yet do something great. Aye, there’s great risk, too, that more will be lost and none saved. But then, mayhap all will be saved.”

  “But Lady, to balance lives on a sprout’s dream . . .”

  “You’ll decide what you must, Orion, but I’ve felt a tide of mystery wash over us such as I’ve never felt in all my life, and it’s my belief these are no ordinary dreams and this is no ordinary sprout.”

  Orion frowned and looked at Magpie, small and ornery, and at his nephew by her side. He sighed, then told his men, “No hunting tonight, then. I don’t know about dreams and that, but Talon’s right. We’re just not ready for this foe. There’s naught I know to do against him.”

  Not all the warriors were happy about this. Grumbles of “another night” and “strange lass” and “Prince Scuttle” could be heard in deep muttering voices.

  “We’ve warned all the hamlets and clans. We’ve done what we can. Tomorrow we’ll hunt the Blackbringer in the Spiderdowns and be ready when he comes out again. But he’ll hunt tonight, of that we can be sure, and I want to double the watch,” Orion continued. “Hiss, Viper, Howl, Lash, Prowl, Thorn, Hornet, and Mars, with me. The rest of you, sleep.”

  And so ended the counsel. Magpie felt some tension go out of her as the fierce tattooed faces found other things to scowl at besides herself. She left the hall with Talon and the crows. “Tough crowd,” she told Talon with a shiver.

  “They’re feeling feeble and not much liking it.”

  “Aye, bless their scowls. Sure I never met a warrior yet who didn’t sneer at me as a wee useless lass . . . except you, anyway.”

  “Well, I’m no warrior.”

  “What? Course you are! Prince of ’em!”

  “Neh,” he told her, flushing. “I’ve never even been on a raid, because of . . .” He fluttered his wings.

  “Well, maybe you haven’t. But do you think you’d have ever made a skin if you could fly?”

  He shrugged.

  “I bet not,” she went on. “You’d be just one of them in there, saying ‘neh’ and never dreaming up a single new thing.”

  They had come to a fork in the corridor where Talon would turn toward the chief’s tower and Magpie and the crows to the castle’s guest cells. He asked her, “Lass, do you really mean to go inside the Blackbringer again?”

  “Aye.”

  From behind them, Bertram cut in. “I don’t like it, Mags. Sure I want Maniac back, but not if ye got to risk yerself.”

  “He’s right, ‘Pie,” said Calypso. “I en’t spent this life raising ye up ever so careful, and Lady Bellatrix didn’t talk Fade’s ear off all them years just so ye can go like that.”

  “And if he gets ye,” added Pigeon, “who’ll get him? Sure nobody could, and that would mean the end of everything, forever!”

  “And wouldn’t yer mum skin us then!” squawked Pup. “And Good-imp Snoshti! She shivers me fierce!”

  “Ach, birds! You’re supposed to be on my side!”

  “We are,” answered Bertram. “On the side of yer skin, love. How can ye keep from turning shadow like the others?”

  “There’s got to be a way.”

  “Maybe you’ll dream it tonight,” Talon suggested.

  “I hope,” she said. She hugged all the crows good night and went her way, calling back, “Good night, Talon.”

  “Good night, Magpie. Dream of magic,” he called back.

  “You too.”

  But the kind of dreams they meant, the ones that come tumbling like springs from unmapped deeps, full of hints and secrets, wouldn’t visit them this night, because both faeries were too anxious to sleep.

  THIRTY-SIX

  Magpie closed herself into her windowless chamber deep within the castle and slouched on the edge of the cot, chewing her lip. Magic didn’t come to you only in your sleep, sure. The Djinns’ dreams—the luminous threads—those were open-eyed dreams, things of intention and will. But they were art, and hadn’t the Djinn shown her just how artless she was? The magic she’d made—turning Vesper’s hair to worms, sparking the Magruwen awake—had she ever done a bit of it on purpose? It just blurted from her like curse words when she was in temper and made chaos in the Tapestry. That was no way to take on the greatest foe her folk had ever known!

  She opened her book and leafed through it. So the Magruwen would give her a star to light her way. That was something. But did she know any protection spells strong enough to withstand that sucking dark? Unlikely. Nothing in these pages would help her. She slammed the book closed. Things were different now. Bigger. And the same went with capturing him when that time came. Her usual tricks would be useless.

  She stared at her hands, remembering the tingling that had come into them when the warriors in the hall had laughed at her. She’d had to bite her lip to quell the magic she’d felt surging up in her. How could she summon it when she needed it? How could she bend it to her will? The Magruwen had said the Tapestry would be no use to her unless she understood it. Well, she didn’t, but there sure wasn’t time just now to learn!

  She sighed, wondering how the champions had captured the Blackbringer before. Suddenly she sat up straight with a grin. Why not ask? she thought. She closed her eyes and did as Snoshti had taught her, imagining herself fading while she visioned three glyphs in her mind, for threshold, for moonlight, and for garden, linked in just the right way. She held her breath, waiting to feel the winged touch, and when she did she sighed with relief, opening her eyes to the moon-washed riverscape.

  Crossing the bridge to the Moonlit Gardens, Magpie caught the startled looks of faeries who’d witnessed her first crossing and who were stunned to see her come again. They whispered among each other and pointed, and she gave them a shy wave before taking to her wings and setting off toward the cottage carved into the cliff. Flying beside the whispering river, she felt a pang of loneliness. To be here, the only living soul in this quiet land, it made her wish for the stuffiness and dust of that trunk in the mannies’ attic, for the crows gathered round on all sides, the stolen picnic, the farting imp, and Talon.

  Talon. She realized she’d memorized his tattoos as if they were a glyph and wondered what would happen if she visioned them like one. Would it summon him? She smiled at the thought. That would be sharp. He wasn’t so bad to have around.

  She reached the cliff’s edge and descended on her wings down the rock-cut stairs, but as they curved and Bellatrix’s garden came into view, she slowed and stopped. The lady was sitting there on the same stone bench where she’d braided Magpie’s hair. She seemed to be looking out into the canyon, but one glance at her face made it clear that whatever she was seeing, it wasn’t the familiar landscape.

  Her beautiful face was a portrait of longing, of loneliness, and need. And her eyes were the eyes of one who knows exactly where the border lies between hope and despair and who has stood before it many times and looked across. Magpie had never seen such a look and a wave of sympathetic misery washed over her to see Bellatrix in such a state. She who was so brave . . . But it was more than bravery that bound Bellatrix here and kept her from joining the seraphim in the high planes.

  What was it? She’d called it obstinacy, but even Magpie, who had but a sprout’s understanding of it, could see that it was love, and it shivered her.

  Love. She’d always thought of love as . . . affection, the look that passed often between her parents, or the feel of their arms around her. But wasn’t it this too, the core of iron in someone’s soul that made them capable of impossible things? It seemed a terrifying force.

  If Kipepeo had never fallen to the Blackbringer, Magpie wondered, where would the world be now? If Bellatrix had followed the path laid out for
her, had lived her life in the world, crossed the river as a biddy, and joined the seraphim when it was her time, there would have been no one here to notice when things began to go wrong. There would have been no one to trick the Magruwen, and Magpie might never have been. It was the lady’s tragedy as well as Fade’s that gave a flicker of hope to the rest of the world.

  Magpie longed to give her hope in return. She thought of telling her of her dream, of the sparks trapped inside the Blackbringer, but she was afraid. What if it was all a fancy? Or would it be worse if it wasn’t? Even if she could rescue some souls, surely Kipepeo had long ago subsided to darkness. Surely his spark couldn’t be among those dull embers after so many thousands of years. She resolved to say nothing of it.

  Bellatrix sensed her presence then and turned to Magpie, and her face lit up. She stood and held out her arms. “Magpie, blessings, I needed a breath of life just now.” Magpie went the rest of the way down the stairs and stepped into Bellatrix’s arms, and the lady clung to her and whispered, “Child of my heart.”

  A little later, when Bellatrix had poured some cordial for them into crystal glasses and they were sitting on the cliff’s edge with their feet dangling over, watching the dragons, Bellatrix asked her, “What brings you to visit, child?”

  “I was wondering, Lady, how you . . .” She hesitated, knowing the question would bring memories of Kipepeo, but she went on. “How did you capture the Blackbringer before?”

  Bellatrix nodded. “Ah, aye, I thought it might be that.” Her eyes went far away into memory. “We tried many things,” she said. “But it was one glyph that worked in the end, though there were six of us visioning it together. Magpie, do you know what a vortex is?”

  Magpie answered hesitantly. “It’s . . . a whirlpool?”

  “That’s one kind of vortex,” said Bellatrix. “A vortex can also form in the air, a whirling that draws all things to its center. Let me show you . . . ”

  And the two faeries bent their heads together and talked of magic. Bellatrix visioned a glyph and Magpie touched it from her mind with her fingertip, and for a time they practiced conjuring the spell together. Magpie watched with fascination as the empty air below their dangling feet stirred, then spun, lazily at first, then whipping steadily faster until it began to tug blossoms off the tufts of nightspink overhanging the cliff and suck them in. She could feel the tug on her feet and hooked her toes to keep her slippers from flying off. “Sharp!” she said.

  But the spell faltered when a voice distracted them. “Mistress! Mistress!” Magpie and Bellatrix both spun to see Snoshti hurrying down the stairs. The imp paused when she saw Magpie, then rushed down, crying, “Blessings! My lady, my lass, it’s bad, it’s awful bad!”

  The faeries both lifted themselves with their wings and rushed to meet the imp. “What is it, Snoshti?” asked Bellatrix.

  “It’s—” she gasped, struggling for breath. “It’s the Magruwen! Strag . . . the shindy—” She gasped again. “He saw . . . the Blackbringer . . . go down the well!”

  THIRTY-SEVEN

  In Dreamdark the Blackbringer seeped through the trees, seeming like a shadow cut loose from its moorings. Other nighthunters—foxes, bog hags, bats—fled before him as his hunger reached long fingers into the night. He was moving away from the school and the Djinn’s well, headed back to the Spiderdowns, where he would sink out of reach of the coming light.

  Throughout the great wood, creatures and faeries crouched hidden in cellars and burrows, tense and sleepless, knowing the darkness could come for them at any moment. Only in Never Nigh did the faeries sleep soundly within their wreath of ancient spells. But one bed, at least, was empty, for the Blackbringer was not the only one hunting this night. Queen Vesper sailed among the treetops, clutching her mirror in her hand and whispering a steady chant, “Whatever your will, whatever your whim, come back to my mirror, your place is within” as she searched furiously for her wayward slave.

  At Rathersting Castle, Talon too was awake. All through the night he had hunched by his fire, clicking his needles together and knitting glyphs into spidersilk. All night his mind had flowed with the river of energy he now knew was the Tapestry, and it had guided his fingers and his mind as he made this new thing, rushing to finish it before the break of day.

  Beyond the hedge, Magpie glimmered in silently beside the Magruwen’s well. She lifted her head and sniffed the breeze like a creature. She prowled up the side of the well, cocked her head to listen, and sniffed again. Then she descended into the sulfurous dark. When she reached the bottom she saw the Djinn’s door stood open. Within was . . . darkness. Neither flame flickered nor ember glowed. Sick with memories of the Vritra’s dreaming place, Magpie sagged against the door frame.

  The Magruwen was gone.

  Despair filled her like a cup. She could scarcely find breath as panic overtook her, and she leaned there, gasping and dizzy. The Magruwen had only just awakened, and the world had trembled on the brink of a new age, but now . . . he was gone. She hadn’t even gotten the seal or the pomegranate seed. It was too late. The Blackbringer would have the pomegranate. Even now, he could be peeling back its withered skin. The light of all those stars could be flooding back into the fabric of night, unlocking the ancient being imprisoned within.

  At any moment the Astaroth could burst free to destroy the world. Millions and millions of lives would subside into the endless ocean, just as the Magruwen had predicted. And then there would be nothing. Ever again.

  Magpie fought to steady her breathing and as she did she became aware of the pulse of the Tapestry all around her, aswirl and urgent, tugging at her like a tide, lifting her like a wind. She stood. She rose up on her wings, following it. So strong was its compulsion she felt she had scarcely to beat her wings but simply let it carry her, and as it did, a small hope flickered within her.

  In the grip of the current of magic she flew swiftly westward across the vast expanse of Dreamdark as the sun rose.

  At the castle, Pup straggled bleary-eyed down the corridor to wake Magpie and opened her door to an empty room. Thinking she had already gone to the Great Hall for breakfast, he went to find her there. Within moments the crows were in a panic. They raced along the corridors, down to the dungeon where Batch lay muttering in his sleep, up to the ramparts where the warriors nodded grim good mornings to them. Magpie was nowhere to be found.

  Hearing a ruckus, Talon laid his work aside and hurried from his room. Visions of the knives scattered at Issrin filled his mind and for a terrible moment he was certain he would find that the guards had been swallowed in the night. But as he rounded the corner of the uppermost stair with a bound he saw the guards all gathered with the crows and his panic eased . . . until he got a look at Calypso.

  The bird’s eyes were wild. “Magpie’s missing, lad,” he said.

  Magpie hovered uncertainly above Issrin Ev. The ruin was as forlorn by dawn as it had been by dusk, more so, now that grim memories of Poppy and Maniac haunted the place. She shuddered and wondered why she was here. The pulse had simply ebbed away and left her. She hung in the air and looked down, and then, through shadow and pine bough, suddenly she saw eyes peering up at her. A jolt went through her, and her first reflex carried her backward and away, but an instant later she realized whose eyes they were and who it was lurking down in Issrin Ev.

  It was Vesper.

  With a steely look, Magpie dove like a hawk, swooping low to the ground and coming in for a sharp landing in front of the lady, who drew back a step and looked at her with hate-filled eyes. “Alive?” she hissed.

  “Aye, and why should I be otherwise?” Magpie hissed back. “If you’re hunting your devil, you’ll have no luck.”

  “My devil?” repeated Vesper with a forced laugh.

  “Aye, laugh!” Magpie spat. “Even if the world wasn’t about to rip wide open, I wouldn’t trouble my mind with you, Lady. You’re less than nothing. But it aches me something sick to see Bellatrix’s crown on you, and her tunic. Give the
m to me now, queen!”

  Vesper laughed again. Her hair was still hidden in its layers of scarves, still wrapped in pearl strands and crowned with Bellatrix’s golden circlet. Standing there with the light of dawn shimmering across her firedrake scales, tall and elegant in her headdress of silks, she did look like a queen, like a cold, vicious queen on the wrong side of a legend. “Little gypsy,” she purred, “who are you to threaten me?”

  Her eyes never leaving Vesper’s, Magpie slowly unsheathed Skuldraig and held the gleaming blade up in front of her face. With her lip drawing up in a snarl, she growled, “I’m the one who wields Bellatrix’s blade.”

  Vesper’s eyes widened and she stared at the knife. She looked back and forth rapidly between Magpie’s eyes and the blade, and her lips contorted into a snarl of her own. Magpie could see cunning in her expression, and greed. “Which do you think’s more useful in a fight, Lady?” Magpie asked. “A dagger or a crown?”

  Vesper’s hand moved in her pocket, and Magpie held Skuldraig at the ready, thinking the lady was drawing out a blade of her own. But what she held out wasn’t a blade. It was a mirror.

  “Fine time for vanity!” Magpie scoffed.

  Vesper replied in her most lilting, musical tones, “Whatever your will, whatever your whim, look into my mirror . . .” Unthinking, Magpie flicked her eyes toward it in irritation, and the lady finished with a hiss, “. . . Your place is within.”

 
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