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Blackbringer, p.5
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       Blackbringer, p.5

           Laini Taylor
 

  “Oh, aye? And what is it to do with?”

  “Ye wouldn’t believe me if I told ye.”

  “Sure I would. En’t I believed since I was hatched?”

  “En’t we all? We’ll see ye there, Algorab. Meantime, don’t get worked up, eh? It en’t time.”

  “All right, all right. Sure, feather.”

  “Blessings fly with you.”

  “And with you.” The raven spread his wings and rose into the sky.

  SIX

  Magpie woke at dusk to a sound of creeping inside her caravan. Instantly she came awake and lay rigid, listening, but within a few seconds she relaxed. It was only Bertram. He was moving as quietly as he could—which wasn’t very. He’d been something less than stealthy ever since he lost a foot to a croucher devil’s second mouth six years back. Magpie heard the faint thunk of the ebony peg leg she’d carved for him as he snuck amid the mess of costume trunks.

  He rustled around a bit and then left, and once the door closed Magpie slipped out of bed. He’d been at her trunk, she saw, and had left it open. On top of her wadded clothes was something new. She lifted it out. It was a skirt of black feathers strung together on a sapphire belt that had likely once been a human’s bracelet.

  She pulled it on over her breeches and turned slowly in front of the mirror, feeling a lump form in her throat. Bertram had made it, she knew, and out of the crows’ own feathers. As she stroked it fondly she counted one from each bird.

  In losing his foot, Bertram had also lost his edge at thieving and had since had to let the other crows handle all necessary thief work. But to make himself useful he’d taken up sewing with his good foot, stitching the crow-stolen kerchiefs and bits of parasol lace together into costumes and curtains for their theater. Farsighted as he was, he had a time threading needles, though, so Magpie sneaked into his workbox whenever he was away and did it for him. She always denied it. “Must be pixies,” she’d say, and lately she’d noticed him sneaking up on his box like he might catch the tiny creatures in the act!

  Out the door she went to where the birds were gathering groggily around the ashes of the morning’s fire, still in their dressing gowns. “Bertram!” she cried, hitting him with a flying hug. “I love it!”

  “How fine ye look, lass,” he said, pushing his specs up his beak and looking her over. “Fine indeed!”

  “Aye,” added Pigeon. “En’t ye lovely! Bit o’ the crow in ye, sure.”

  “That one’s mine,” said Pup proudly, pointing at a feather. “Neh, wait . . . that one! Neh . . .”

  “Ach, blitherhead,” grunted Maniac. “What’s it matter?”

  Magpie dropped an exaggerated curtsy and drawled,

  “Thennnk you sooo much! What a lot of chaaarming birds you are!” in a dead-on impersonation of an Ismoroth clan queen for whom they had recently recovered an amulet from a monkey.

  “And ye claim ye’re no actress!” said Calypso.

  “Actress, piff! Queeens do not act!”

  “Ach, drop it, Queen ’Pie, and toss me some brecky.”

  “Brecky” this evening was cheese. Again. Rubbery-edged from being left out all day and without the benefit of toasting. Maniac griped for coffee but they’d haul out soon—no time for a fire. Mingus brought clear water from a stream and Magpie perched on a stone between Pup and Pigeon, tipped up her tin cup, and drank so the water splashed down her chin. She saved the last gulp to wash her face with, and dried it on her sleeve.

  They flew all night in the arms of the wind and reached Dreamdark with the dawn. By the light of earliest morning Magpie had her first glimpse in more than eighty years of the forest of her birth. A world of oak and yew, pine and thorn, it seemed to go on forever. Long fog-blurred lakes twisted past knuckles of rock, and creeks meandered out of the dense woods and back in again. There were meadows hither and thither, and rising crags, and an island-dotted river, but mostly Dreamdark from the sky was a tapestry of treetops, as inscrutable as an ocean. Some white owls broke its surface like fish leaping in a sea. All else was still.

  No longer fearing human eyes, the crows dipped down from their cloud-high path and skimmed above the crests of the trees. Calypso flew ahead to find the way to the city of Never Nigh, while Magpie zigzagged behind and dropped playbills into the shadowed world below. Thoughts and memories were whirling in her mind. The crows had called Dreamdark home and she had piffed at the notion. In truth, she barely remembered it. She’d been such a wee babe when they’d left that she hadn’t even been flying with her own wings yet. She did have vague fond memories of the house where she was born, a cozy maze of rooms tucked high inside an ancient linden tree by the river. It was the last home she’d had with roots.

  And she remembered Snoshti, of course, the bright-eyed imp marm with tickling whiskers who’d rocked her and sung to her in that growly little voice. The only other face that came easily to mind from her time here was Poppy Manygreen’s. Her first friend. Magpie had made many friends since. Mountain faeries, jungle faeries, selkies, hobgoblins, owls. The world was scattered with friendships she’d begun and left behind when the time came to move on, and the time always came.

  Once, it seemed, her family’s gypsying life had been filled with golden seasons. They would find a ruined temple or a remote faerie clan and they’d set down their caravans and stay awhile, collecting glyphs, digging for relics, settling into the rhythm of the native ways. But nowadays Magpie lived a different kind of life, a hunter’s life, and there was little time for lingering. The devils gave her no rest. It seemed an age since she’d seen her family or made a new friend. In all of it, the crows were her one constant, her kindred. She’d said they were her home, and she’d meant it. This might be Dreamdark, the navel of the world and her own birthplace, but what of that? Magpie pushed all thoughts of friends and treehouses from her mind. She was looking for a devil and Djinn, not a home.

  She and the crows followed the river like a road of poured silver. Each curve they rounded on tilting wings brought them nearer to the hidden city of Never Nigh, until finally Calypso led them toward the trees. The branches reached out to gather them in, and just like that, they passed into another world, one as ancient as the Djinns’ first dreams of trees.

  Dreamdark.

  Here on this very spot in the unimaginably distant past the Djinn had gathered to dream the world. Here the Magruwen’s dragon, Fade, had curled round them while they worked, his serpent shape crushing a great arc in the forest that remained to this day, Fade Hollow, a crescent clearing where nothing grew but blood-red moss. Here, down an avenue of arching branches, lay the fabled city of Never Nigh, where the great faeries of the Dawn Days once had lived. There King Valerian and the ice princess Fidrildi had joined hands on the balcony of Alabaster Palace and said their vows. And there their daughter Bellatrix, the greatest of all, had been born and rocked in a cradle of willow.

  Spells were woven tight as a basket around Never Nigh, and as the forest closed around her, Magpie gasped and faltered. It was as if she had swum into a current of light. A pattern of radiance flared all around her, weaving and moving, then flickered away into the far reaches of her vision. She alighted upon a branch to clear her head.

  “Mags!” cried Bertram, whisking past with a caravan in tow. “All right there?”

  “Fine, feather!” she called back. She blinked and looked around, seeing no more spinning lights but only the dense bower of the forest. It was the spells, she thought. Those luminous patterns she’d glimpsed in the air must be the ancient spells of protection the Djinn had spun round Never Nigh so long ago. Somehow she had seen them. Ever since she’d felt the Vritra’s death with her memory touch, these strange traceries of light had been seeping into her sight, and they seemed to be growing brighter. What new oddity was this, to see what was invisible to other eyes, to see magic?

  Magpie shook her head and spread her wings, stepping back into the air to follow the crows down the avenue. When she saw the city, thoughts of the lights fa
ded from her mind.

  The trees grew wild and strange here, of any shape the Djinn had had a mind to try as they honed their treecraft. The trees were the city. Their roots wove across the ground like interlacing fingers and spiraled up into walkways and bridges. Everywhere paths meandered in hidden ways and from every nook and fissure in the bark sprouted fanciful spires. The massive arms of the yews were festooned with palaces and hanging gardens. Each generation of faeries had added its own flourishes and the grove was a marvel of towers and domes, balconies and catwalks, chimneys and carved gates and porticos and stained-glass windows. For all the exotic places Magpie had been, no city could hold a candle to Never Nigh for sheer audacious beauty.

  The crows and their caravans rocketed beneath soaring bridges and over domes tiled with gold, down the main thoroughfare toward the Ring, the gathering place where they would set up stage. Magpie glimpsed tiny stairways and lamp-lit courtyards among the branches as she flew. She swooped past a nectar parlor, a haberdasher, a teahouse, and Candlenight’s Bookshop, her father’s childhood home. As the way widened and branches opened to the Ring, she caught sight of Alabaster Palace gleaming white in the branches above, and her breath caught in her throat.

  The crows spiraled in to land and Magpie eased the floating spells off the caravans and set them gently down on the moss. Then, as the crows shrugged off their harnesses, she turned her gaze up to the treetop palace.

  It was white as sugar, its many graceful spires flowing seamlessly into one another as if the whole palace was shaped from one immense block of marble, but with a look of lightness, like it could float into the sky. It stood as a monument to greater times. No one had lived in it, Magpie knew, since that day twenty-five thousand years ago when Bellatrix had announced to the cheering folk that the devil wars at last were at an end.

  “Dance and rejoice, my friends, my faeries, and my kin,

  No longer fear to fly at dusk, no longer hide within.

  Come out and feel the pulse of night,

  clawless, fangless, free.

  The devils are all gone and shall no longer

  trouble thee.”

  Looking up at the palace now, Magpie couldn’t help wondering, for a thousandth time—a millionth?—what had become of Bellatrix after that. How many libraries and crypts had Magpie searched, how many books and scrolls had she scoured for some word on what became of the Magruwen’s champion after that day? The greatest faerie of all legend had simply dropped from history, leaving an empty throne in Dreamdark and no heirs to fill it ever again, and so it had stood empty all these long years since.

  Just as her gaze moved on, Magpie caught sight of a figure in the corner of her vision and she turned. Framed in an arched window of the tallest tower, a lady was peering down at her. She was far away, but Magpie’s sharp eyes had no trouble perceiving that her dark hair was crowned by a shining circlet of gold. Crowned? Magpie’s eyes widened in surprise, and she thought for an instant that she was seeing a vision of Bellatrix. But that was absurd. The lady in the window was no ghost. But who was she? Alabaster Palace had no tenant, just as Dreamdark had no queen.

  “Hoy, Mags!” cried Swig. “Ye going to brush yer tumbleweed head of hair sometime before the town wakes up?”

  Magpie turned to stick her tongue out at him, and when she glanced back up at the tower, the lady was gone.

  Down the avenue, Never Nigh was stirring to life. Soon the whole city would be awake, the air vivid with wings as faeries promenaded from their palaces, bejeweled, lacquer-haired, and lovely. Magpie tried to remember when last she’d combed her hair with something other than her fingers and thought it was likely near a week ago. Tumbleweed, indeed. She went zinging back to her caravan to do it.

  SEVEN

  Batch awakened with a gasp to find himself slung over a tree branch. “Neh, neh, neh!” he said frantically. “Not sleep, neh!” That was how master had found him in the first place. He clung tight to the branch and shoved the tip of his tail into his mouth, sucking at it furiously until his terror had subsided to mere panic. When he let it drop from his mouth it was a spot of shining pink on a lump of filth-caked imp.

  Batch moaned. He was bruised and scorched and hungry and he missed his treasures but at least he’d done as he was ordered so he could go his own way. He patted his satchel to make sure the pomegranate was still there. It was.

  “Stupid fruit,” he muttered, recalling the silver bat wings with a trembling lip. He should have chosen them as his treasure and flown far, far away. Let the master fetch his own fruits. Let the vultures fetch them for him!

  The vultures. Batch pulled himself up to a sitting position. They’d have been waiting for him at the hedge all night. Let them wait! Slowly he climbed down the tree and dragged himself back to the well. He peered over the edge. “Down in the dark, the mudmunching dark . . .” His words twisted into a sob. He knew he couldn’t go back down the well. It would be madness. Death. And yet his thoughts steered back to the wings from second to second. There was a warp in his mind that pulled all thoughts to treasure. Such was a scavenger imp’s peculiar genius. Until he had them he’d be able to concentrate on nothing else.

  He tried to think what to do. He could find a bird to carry him down the well! But he scarcely spoke their language. He had no reason to talk to birds! Imps generally spoke a pidgin form of Old Tongue in addition to the scamper language favored by those that scurry and slink: beetles, lizards, squirrels, and the like. Rats, of course. Batch had a strong rapport with rats, but that wouldn’t serve him now. He needed wings.

  As if in answer to his thoughts he heard wings in the sky above him. In the instant before he looked up, a hopeful smile started to shape his snout, but then the shadows fell over him and the smile died unborn. “Aieee!” he shrieked as the vultures bore down on him. “Neeehhh!”

  Throughout Dreamdark playbills were being carried in all sorts of hands, furry fox paws and globed frog toes, hooked hawk talons and slippery webbed fingers. All across the forest’s many miles paws and hooves and fins were changing course and heading toward Never Nigh. Faeries weren’t the only ones who loved a play.

  Kneeling in her garden, Poppy Manygreen knew the crows had come even before the playbill fluttered down to her. The flowers had whispered it to her. She sat on her knees with her head bowed toward the honeysuckle and its voice was as soft as a feather falling on moss, but she heard it. The forest was a wonderland of voices if only you could hear them, but no one else could, even in her own clan, though plants had always been their lifeblood.

  “The crows,” she heard the soft voice say, “from years ago.” Faeries thought news traveled fast by wind and bird and butterfly, but it was nothing compared with the root-to-root gossip of the green and growing things. “The noisy crows,” the honeysuckle whispered, and Poppy smiled. She remembered the noisy crows. She remembered them clowning on the stage they set up in the Ring, and she remembered how the lead crow had a cracked beak that made him seem to grin. Most of all she remembered the day they left, because her best friend had flown away with them and had never returned.

  She whispered a question to the vine and the answer came at once. “Aye,” the voice whispered, “the trees have seen her. She has come home.”

  Poppy leapt to her feet. She didn’t spread her wings so much as she unfurled them, the vast red wings of a swallow-tail butterfly, iridescent and veined with gold. Fully spread they were twice as large as she was herself. It was a mystery where they’d come from. No one in the whole history of her clan had ever had such wings. She surged into the air, fast as a spark off a firecracker, and sped toward Never Nigh.

  It was not uncommon for faeries dawdling in a garden or gossiping under a streetlamp to suddenly notice a hedge imp, where the moment before no hedge imp had been. Sneaks and spies, faeries called them, having a general mistrust of imps, even of hedge imps who were known as fine craftsfolk and cleanly neighbors. That their stealth might be of a magical nature never occurred to faeries. Few
creatures looked less magical than hedge imps, and kin though they might be to faeries, faeries were few who would claim them as such.

  Snoshti appeared on a small avenue leading into Never Nigh with a twinkle in her eye and a beetle in her arms. It was blue as lapis and mild as a milk cow. She set it down and looked around. Seeing no faeries, she went away again directly. That is, she faded from sight and no sooner had her afterimage glimmered out than she was glimmering in again, this time with a garnet-red beetle in her arms. She set this one down too and repeated the process.

  The third time she appeared, she carried an emerald-green beetle under one arm and a shepherd’s crook in her paw and she was whistling. She set off down the avenue, driving her small herd before her. About waist-high to a grown faerie, she was a stout bandy-legged creature with a shiny black nose and whiskers set in a broad, furred face. Her coarse fur was mottled grey and honey, with a touch of white the only hint of her age, and it tufted from the neck and cuffs of her flowered frock. She was sturdy and wide, with a pleasant gentleness in her face and a sparkle of intelligence in her pure black eyes that could turn fierce in an instant.

  Poppy

  She whistled her way into the throng of creatures headed toward the Ring. A steady stream of faeries, butterflies, and birds flitted overhead, and the avenue was bustling with toads and crickets, ladybugs and newts, hedgehogs and snakes and badgers and imps, all heading to see the show. Turtles had even come out of the river, some of them with creek maidens riding on their shells, and progress toward the Ring slowed behind their lurching gait.

  But Snoshti went on whistling, and why not? Her lass was back. She’d been saving this song for over eighty years.

  Talon Rathersting spotted the vultures from the north tower of the castle where he was daydreaming his way through guard duty. Rathersting Castle, peering out from a great hollow yew on the stony east slope of Dreamdark Crag, commanded a view of nearly the entire forest. Every winged thing that swept its way across could be seen from here by those with the eyes for it, and today there were more wings on the wind than usual. The crows had drawn Talon’s notice only an hour ago, but they’d made right up the Wendling for distant Never Nigh. Talon had been there only twice in his life; his folk seldom mingled with those Never Nigh flibbertigibbets with their fancy hair and ribbons and baubles, but well he knew that no unwelcome creatures could slip through the spells that twined round the city. It was the safest place in the world. So after the crows disappeared into the trees, he’d returned to his daydreams, unconcerned.

 
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