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Blackbringer, p.7
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       Blackbringer, p.7

           Laini Taylor
 

  She watched her fingers warily. No more lights, no traceries, but something did shimmer in her peripheral vision and she squeezed her eyes shut in frustration.

  When she opened them again and looked around she realized she must be near the old linden tree where as a wee babe she had been so cozy. Suddenly she wanted to see her old house very badly, and she gave herself a push with her wings and went drifting slowly along the curve of the river, looking at all the trees, wondering if she would know it when she saw it.

  She did. Years were like days to such an ancient being, and it looked just the same, its massive trunk, its canopy of palest green leaves. Whoever lived here now was sure to be at the Ring with everyone else, Magpie thought, so with a quick glance around she stole in among the leaves, just to get a glimpse of the bright red door. But when she came to the spot on the trunk where it should have been she saw nothing but bark. She circled round and found no door and nary a window, and just when she was thinking she’d come to the wrong tree, a small dull glint caught her eye. She looked closer, reached out, and touched the little smooth spot protruding from the wood. It was brass.

  It was a doorknob.

  Magpie backed away on her wings and sank onto a branch. She understood. When a tree gives itself to be a faerie’s home it expands to make rooms and corridors that flow within its living shape. And as it opens, so can it choose to close. The linden had closed, and the only sign her house had ever been here at all was a small protrusion of brass. Magpie dropped her face into her hands. It had been those little rooms that her mind conjured up to give any meaning to the word home, and now it was as if they’d never been.

  “Magpie?” inquired a soft voice.

  Magpie looked up sharply. A red-haired faerie lass—a beautiful faerie lass—stood balanced on the tapered end of the branch, smiling tentatively. “Who wants to know?” Magpie asked.

  “It’s me, Poppy,” said the other lass.

  “Poppy?” Magpie repeated, staring.

  She came closer, knelt at Magpie’s side, and tucked her huge wings behind her. “I looked for you in the play,” she said. “I thought if you were in it you’d turned into a crow, though now I see you’ve turned only halfway.” She nodded to Magpie’s skirt and smiled. “Fine feathers,” she said.

  Magpie wondered whether she was being mocked. This faerie was certainly not the type to wear crow feathers! She was beautiful even beyond the usual measure of faerie beauty and as poised as a flower. She wore rose-colored silk and her hair was upswept in a spiral of braids, each one a different shining hue of copper, bronze, or crimson. Next to her Magpie felt like she was wearing a bird’s nest on her head.

  “It reminds me of that time,” the beautiful lass said, “when you conjured yourself imp whiskers so you could look like Snoshti.”

  Magpie looked closely at her brown eyes then. They were warm as a hug, and she knew that it was indeed Poppy and that there was no mockery in her. “Poppy!” she said, and threw her arms around her earliest friend.

  “Blessings, old feather,” Snoshti said, coming up to Calypso behind the stage caravan where he awaited his next cue.

  “Ah, madam, we meet again,” he said, sweeping off his crown and bowing low.

  “So ye’ve kept her alive, and that’s something,” the little imp said grudgingly.

  “Been the pleasure of my long life,” Calypso replied.

  “Where is she?”

  “Hiding.”

  “Eh?”

  “Stage fright,” he said with a shrug.

  “We are talking of Magpie Windwitch?”

  “Aye, but don’t fret, Good-imp. It’s pure the only thing that frights her.”

  “So she’s coming on well?”

  “Perfect, just perfect. Clever and kind and mysterious strong.”

  Snoshti squinted at him. “Gifted?”

  “Aye, d’ye doubt it?”

  “Does she know it?”

  “I haven’t told her anything, if that’s what ye mean. But someone had better do, soon. She’ll start thinking she’s tetched.”

  “Eh?”

  “Not an hour ago she turned the queen’s hair to worms—”

  Snoshti snorted. “Worms?”

  “Aye, worms. Shivered herself some, I ken. The lass has got magic in her she don’t know what to do with.”

  “Is that why ye’ve come now? It en’t time. She’s still a sprout.”

  “Aye, that she is.” Calypso sighed. “Didn’t Algorab tell ye not to get in a fuss? ’Pie had her own reason to come. She means to find the Magruwen.”

  Snoshti snorted again. “The Magruwen? She’s afraid of the stage but wants to find the Magruwen?”

  “That’s my ’Pie. Ye wouldn’t know where we might find him, now?”

  “Neh, bird! And ye know how we’ve searched!”

  “Ach, well, I thought not. Now if ye’ll pardon me, madam, my cue. We’ll talk more later?” He hopped toward the stage entrance. “Over scones?” he called back to her.

  Snoshti chuffed. Scones! Crow was begging for treats. Well, small price. Her lass was back. She reached out to catch a wandering beetle with her crook. “The Magruwen, eh, missy?” she murmured, pondering. She drove the beetles back into the forest to find a quiet place to disappear. There was something she’d need to fetch.

  “Mad faeries, swooping mad shouty faeries . . . ,” Batch whimpered as he skittered along the forest floor as fast as his meaty haunches would carry him. He’d never have escaped if the faeries hadn’t swooped down like that, too near the crack where master lurked. They didn’t know. They only saw the vultures, sure.

  They couldn’t know.

  On wheezed Batch, grateful now he wasn’t slowed by his wheelbarrow. He didn’t even have the pomegranate to weigh him down anymore. Er, the turnip anyway.

  Master wasn’t pleased about that.

  “Munch turnip, devil!” Batch muttered. A pomegranate, a turnip. How was he to know the Magruwen had tricked him? It occurred to Batch now that master didn’t even eat fruits. He ate . . . Well, he didn’t eat fruits. What did he want a pomegranate for? It didn’t matter. Batch was out of it now.

  “Scurry scurry, little furry, through the forest, what’s your hurry?” he sang low and wheezy, urging himself on.

  There had been such a scuffle. The tattooed faeries, swooping in with that war cry. They’d crashed a vulture and Batch had cheered them on. But then out came that liver-colored tongue, long as a lash. It got the old faerie first and the younger ones went wild and threw their knives into the dark. Sure it went quick after that but Batch was already on his way. No need to stick around for a good look.

  Poor faeries.

  In the darkness of the catacombs master had been just a voice to him, a terrible voice. Batch hadn’t seen anything then and he’d scarcely gotten a better look since. Master was hard to look at. The eyes played tricks.

  Batch scooted along, wheezing and thinking of the silver bat wings. It was a real puzzle—he needed wings to get his wings, to flap down that horrid well and grab them! He should have ripped the pair off that old faerie chief and used those to fly down the well. Sure the codger didn’t need them anymore where he was going, but Batch did. A nasty gleam lit his eyes. There were plenty more wings like those in Dreamdark, sure.

  “Eenie meenie minie ming,” Batch sang. “Catch a faerie by the wing . . . If she hollers, let her sing, the lovely song of a faerie scream!”

  TEN

  “How did you know where to find me?” Magpie asked Poppy, looking around. The thick foliage of the linden enclosed her completely, like a little room.

  “I heard from some ivy,” Poppy answered, “and from a beech sapling just yonder.”

  Magpie cocked her head and studied her. “For true?” she asked. Poppy nodded. “You can speak with plants and things? That’s sharp! What do they sound like? What do they say?”

  “Oh, they’ve all kinds of voices, and they say all kinds of things. Herbs sort of sing, and flowers
gossip like biddies.”

  “And trees?” Magpie asked, laying her hand on the bark of the old linden.

  “Ah, trees, well, you know trees are earth elementals,” she said. “Some tell tales, but they tell far less than they know.”

  “Sure they know a lot.”

  “Aye. The ancient ones like old Father Linden here have drunk the dew of the Dawn Days. Think of it, they’ve been alive in the world for all the lifetimes of faeries stretched end to end, all the way to the beginning! But they keep their secrets close. I rarely hear them speak at all.”

  “Oh, aye? Pity. I wonder if he remembers me,” she mused, glancing at the place where the red door had been swallowed by a skin of bark.

  “I’m sure he does! Others do. They told me you’d returned.” Poppy paused and grew serious. “I missed you so when you left. Why did you? Why did you go?”

  Magpie frowned. “My mother . . . It’s the wind blood, I ken. She’s never gotten used to being in one spot. They only stayed till I was big enough to travel, and we never stayed anyplace half so long again.”

  “But what is it you do . . . beyond?” Poppy asked. To the faeries of Dreamdark, leaving the forest was like leaping off the edge of the world.

  “Well . . . ,” Magpie mused, wondering where to start. Not with devils, sure, or chasing witches, or hanging upside down in a monkey king’s dungeon. “We go find faerie clans and we try to learn their magic. Papa writes it down in books so it won’t die out with the old folks. Right now they’re with a clan on Anang Paranga that still practices shape-shifting.”

  “Shape-shifting?” Poppy marveled. “And your parents will learn how to do it?”

  “Aye. We also search for clues of what happened to the Djinn and try to keep magic relics out of the hands of monkeys and mannies, who’re always messing about where they oughtn’t.”

  “You’ve seen humans?”

  “Piff. Thousands. Mannies are nothing special.”

  “But aren’t they giant-big?”

  Magpie shrugged. “Not so big. About like a stack of raccoons. There’s plenty of bigger things. You should see elephants. Whales!”

  “And dragons?” asked Poppy.

  “Dragons?” Magpie frowned at her. “There aren’t any dragons left.”

  “What?”

  “Neh. Humans killed ’em out ages ago! Firedrakes too.”

  “All of them?” Poppy asked, aghast.

  Magpie knew that faeries lived in isolation, ignorant of the world, but she was still shocked. How could it not be known in Dreamdark that the dragons were extinct? Seeing Poppy’s horrified expression, Magpie felt the tragedy anew. She herself had first heard the chronicle of the dragon-slaying many years ago, but it still clenched her insides to think of it. Such a frenzy of butchery it had been that even thousands of years could not cleanse humanity of its stain. Magpie chewed her lip. There was no need to school Poppy in the ugliness of the world, was there? She said casually, “Ach, who knows? There’s whole volcanoes a dragon could slip down into like a bubble bath. Sure they’re hiding. . . . But tell me, what about you?”

  Poppy said, “Nothing to do with mannies and monkeys! Just growing things. Dreaming new flowers. Making potions.”

  “Potions?”

  “Aye. I’ve never been great with glyphs,” she admitted with a pretty blush. “But potions I can see and stir. They make sense to me.”

  Potions were a very different art from glyphs, an earthy magic Magpie associated with hearth witches and healers. “What sort of potions?” she asked.

  “Oh, say, for better night vision or a singing voice, or seeing lies or remembering your dreams. And for things like wrinkles and warts—”

  “Causing them or curing them?”

  Poppy laughed. “Both! And there are potions for telling if a babe is a lad or lass before it’s born. And love magic—”

  Magpie snorted. “Love magic! I don’t think you’ll be needing any potions to make lads fall in love with you.”

  “Me?” Poppy grimaced. “Lads? Echh. Nay, please! But oh, my cousin Kex has been hounding me fierce for a potion to woo the queen.”

  Magpie froze and narrowed her eyes. “Queen?” she asked.

  “Aye! Haven’t you heard yet?” Poppy laughed a hard laugh. “The heir of Bellatrix has been found, blessings be!”

  “That fake’s nothing to do with Bellatrix!” Magpie snapped.

  Poppy looked at her, surprised. “Oh, I know that!”

  “You do?”

  “Aye. Well . . . I don’t know it, quite. But I don’t believe it. It all happened too fast, her showing up here and getting crowned queen.”

  “But . . . how did it happen?”

  Poppy shrugged. “She had Bellatrix’s crown and tunic. She had some scroll proving who she was. And she had . . . well, she had a city full of folk whose legends were worn out. They just wanted to believe her that bad. To have a new legend, you ken?”

  Magpie remembered how, for a moment, she too had wanted to believe in Vesper. Ashamed, she grimaced and asked, “Are faeries so bored they got to invent legends?”

  “Bored, aye, and afraid. I know I am. Afraid nothing exciting’s ever going to happen again!”

  “Not all excitement’s good,” Magpie warned. “Most isn’t.”

  “Well, boredom’s none so fine either. There’s only so much dancing a faerie can do. And it’s not just faeries,” Poppy said. “The imps and creatures have a story of their own. They’ve been waiting for years—so I hear—for the faerie they believe will bring back the Dawn Days.”

  “Bring back the Dawn Days?”

  “Aye.”

  “The creatures got a story about a faerie?”

  “A secret story.”

  Magpie was flummoxed that she’d never heard it herself. The crows couldn’t keep secrets to save their beaks. “But . . . you don’t think they mean Vesper, do you?”

  “Nay. When first she came I wondered. She does make you want to believe! Wait until you see her; you’ll understand.”

  Magpie let out a humorless laugh. “Ach, I’ve seen her!”

  “Oh, aye?”

  “And she’s not like to forget it soon. . . .” Magpie chewed her lip.

  “What do you mean?”

  “I, er . . . sort of . . . turned her hair into worms.”

  Poppy stared at her for a long moment, her face frozen in disbelief. At last she whispered, “Nay . . .”

  “Aye.”

  A guffaw erupted from Poppy that threatened to knock both faeries from their branch. Her face turned as red as her hair and she couldn’t stop laughing. Magpie had to start in too, and soon both lasses were clinging to the branch, wheezing with laughter. When she was able to gasp out the words, Poppy asked, “How did you do it?”

  Magpie’s laughter died away. “I don’t know! I didn’t even vision any glyphs. I don’t know what glyphs I’d even use if I was trying. It just . . . happened.”

  Poppy looked puzzled. “Are you sure it was you who did it?”

  Magpie shrugged. She knew how it sounded. That wasn’t how magic worked. She thought of the curls of light that had wavered off her fingertips. She wasn’t about to tell Poppy that and get a blank stare in return, so she said, “Well, Vesper believes it, so I reckon I’ve made a nice new enemy, my first day back in Dreamdark.”

  “Oh, Vesper, she—” Poppy began, but fell suddenly silent. “Old Father,” she said with surprise, her eyebrows shooting up as she glanced at Magpie. “Blessings to you and the earth at your roots.” Her head cocked toward the linden tree in an attitude of listening. “Aye, very pleased she’s come back. Why? I don’t—” She looked at Magpie, wide-eyed, and said, “Old Father Linden wonders why you’ve come back to Dreamdark.”

  “For true?”

  Poppy nodded, seeming stunned that the ancient tree was speaking.

  “Well—er . . . ,” Magpie stammered, caught off guard. “I . . . I came to find the Magruwen.”

  Poppy looked ev
en more stunned. Her expression hovered between disbelief and dismay. “You’re jesting.”

  Magpie shook her head. She saw Poppy’s eyes go softly out of focus as she listened to the tree for a time before saying, “Nay, faeries have all but forgotten him. He’s only legend now.” She paused. “The dreamer . . . I like that.” She paused again, then murmured, “Aye, I never thought of it that way. . . .”

  There followed a long listening that made Magpie antsy. Poppy’s eyes were far away and her brow creased with worry, and Magpie longed to hear what she was hearing. She tried not to wiggle. Long moments passed before Poppy said faintly, “Aye, old Father, I’ll tell her . . . ,” and blinked her eyes back into focus.

  “Poppy!” said Magpie. “What did he say?”

  “Did you know they used to call him the dreamer?” she asked slowly. “Because he dreamed a world into creation he couldn’t even live in.”

  “The Magruwen?”

  “Aye,” answered Poppy, sadness sweeping over her face. “He made a world he couldn’t even touch. Have you ever thought of that?”

  Puzzled, Magpie shook her head.

  “Wouldn’t you think . . . creatures of fire . . . wouldn’t you think they’d make a different sort of world? One that wasn’t so . . . fragile?”

  Magpie saw what Poppy was getting at. For fire elementals, spinning through the eternal blackness of the beginning, to come together and make this delicate place, these fern fronds, these woods . . . it was a beautiful dream, but not a sensible one. They could wear skins to keep from setting fire to their creations, but it wouldn’t be the same. Magpie’s grandfather had said it was like holding hands while wearing gloves. The air elementals could at least dance through the treetops in their true forms and caress the birds they carried in their arms, but the Djinn never could, not without burning everything to cinders. The textures of things, which they’d rendered with such artistry, must always have been a mystery to their own touch.

  “Maybe they didn’t make it for themselves,” Magpie murmured. “Maybe they made it for . . . us.”

 
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