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Blackbringer, p.8
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       Blackbringer, p.8

           Laini Taylor
 

  “Maybe. And it’s perfect, nay?”

  Magpie nodded. It was.

  “He’s asleep in a deep place now,” Poppy said.

  Magpie’s stomach flipped. “Did the tree tell you where—”

  “There’s a school for humans just outside Dreamdark. In the gardens there’s a dry well. That’s where the Magruwen dreams, at the bottom of it, alone and forgotten.”

  Dazed, the two faeries stared at each other. Magpie realized she’d had only dim expectations of succeeding in her quest. It hit her now that she was truly going to see the Djinn King, and a shiver seized her.

  “In a well,” Poppy said, a sheen of tears blurring her eyes. “The Djinn King! At the bottom of a well in the belly of the world. It isn’t right!”

  “Neh, it isn’t. Did the tree say . . . why?”

  Poppy shook her head. “Nay, but he did say it’s high time someone had the nerve to wake him.”

  Magpie took a deep breath. “I reckon it is.”

  “But Magpie . . . you don’t really mean to?”

  “Aye, but I do. Come on, I got to go tell the crows!” She stood and sprang from the branch, shooting out through the tickling leaves. “Thank you, Father Linden!” she called as she went.

  “Blessings, old Father,” Poppy said reverently to the tree, then opened her own wings and followed.

  ELEVEN

  Magpie and Poppy snuck around the side of the stage caravan just as the play ended and cheers erupted in the Ring. They slipped in through the back door to wait while the crows took their bows.

  The caravan was even messier than usual. Gowns and tentacles were strewn everywhere from quick costume changes, and every trunk was flung open, so the lasses had to leap over them with a lift of wing. “It’s some fright in here,” Magpie said, but Poppy was taking it all in with shining eyes.

  “It’s grand,” she said, surveying the glitter of velvets, snakeskins, and manny jewelry that covered nearly every surface. “Is that where you sleep?” She gestured up at Magpie’s little bunk.

  “Aye, home sweet . . .” Magpie’s words trailed off when she saw that her patchwork curtain was yanked askew. “What the skive?” she growled, flying to it and not seeing how Poppy’s eyes widened in shock to hear her curse. Her book lay out on her quilt. She always put it under her pillow, and she always drew her curtain closed. She thought immediately of Lady Vesper. Her eyes narrowed and she sniffed the air, detecting in it a scent of intrusion. It wasn’t faerie, though, but creature. And there was a hint of something else, clean as snow and utterly foreign.

  “Magpie,” said Poppy, who’d been watching with curiosity as the huntress awoke in her friend. “What is it?”

  “Someone’s been in here,” Magpie answered, reaching for her book. She could feel her protective spells were still intact so she was startled when a slip of paper dislodged from the pages. It fluttered to the floor at Poppy’s feet, a trail of light unfurling behind it like the tail of a comet. Poppy picked the paper up and Magpie could tell her friend didn’t see the blaze-bright aura that hung on it, slower to fade than the brief traceries she’d seen that morning flying into Never Nigh. Poppy handed the paper to her and she took it and sniffed it like a feral creature.

  The strange pure smell was strong on it. Wary, Magpie turned the paper over and read it, and the ferocity left her eyes and was replaced by puzzlement.

  “What?” Poppy asked.

  “This wasn’t in my book before,” she answered.

  Poppy moved to her side and looked at the paper. It was writ in an elegant script.

  Magruwen’s Favorite

  To a batter of lily flour, oats, honey, and beetle butter, add:

  (1) half walnut shell of fish’s tears

  (3) strokes of tangled wind

  (1) shadow of a bird in flight

  (1,000) years of undreamed life

  Stir together with twig from a lightning-struck tree and bake until a porcupine quill inserted in the center comes out clean. Place in a starling’s nest to serve.

  “Magruwen!” exclaimed Poppy. “But . . . who put it there?”

  “Flummox me,” Magpie said. “I haven’t told anyone but you and the tree why I’ve come!”

  “Could the crows have put it here?”

  “Neh. They’d just give it to me.”

  “A mystery, Magpie!” Poppy said, excited. “And a riddle! What can it mean, a thousand years of undreamed life?”

  Magpie puzzled on it. “Undreamed life? A life that hasn’t started yet, that hasn’t even been dreamed up . . .”

  “But something you can bake into a cake?”

  “Like an egg? There’s a life inside that hasn’t been dreamed up yet.”

  “And will never be life, if you crack it into a cake.”

  Magpie shook her head. “I don’t know,” she said, looking at the strange recipe card. She suddenly squinted and looked closer. “Jacksmoke!”

  Again, Poppy looked startled by Magpie’s cursing. Magpie caught her look this time and blushed. “I mean, skiffle. . . .”

  “What is it?” Poppy asked.

  Magpie opened her book and leafed through it until she found a page marked with an iridescent snakeskin. Her eyes shifted rapidly back and forth between the book and the recipe. “Poppy, look.” Pasted to the page was a scrap of parchment gone sepia with great age, once ripped in half and carefully seamed back together. It read

  Hurry home, love, through the

  dream-dark glade,

  Where moontime beasts lurk

  in darkling shade.

  Never linger, love,

  where the shadows grow.

  The Blackbringer hunts where

  the light fears to go.

  “The Blackbringer?” said Poppy. “That old bogey? My mum used to scare me with tales about him so I wouldn’t stay out past dark.”

  “Aye, that’s just an old nursery story. But look, see on the recipe here, the initial B? Now look at the big B on Blackbringer.”

  Poppy looked back and forth between them. “It’s the same,” she said. “Sure! And look at the h on half and home. These were written by the same hand!” She glanced up at Magpie.

  But Magpie was chewing her lip and shaking her head, bewildered. “Sure looks like, but skive, it’s impossible!” Her voice had an edge of suspicion to it as she said, “Poppy, this parchment? I found it in the ruins of Shaith Ev, the temple of the Ithuriel. It’s part of a letter from the age of the devil wars.”

  Poppy’s mouth dropped open. “For true? That’s old. . . .”

  “Twenty-five thousand years. And that’s not all.” Magpie traced the B on Blackbringer with her fingertip. “It was written by Bellatrix!”

  The two lasses fell silent and stood looking at each other in disbelief.

  “Ach, there y’are, ye treacherous twitch!”

  Magpie and Poppy both swung toward the door to see Maniac in his lady wig, glowering in at them. “Feather . . . ,” Magpie said sheepishly, “I’m sorry—”

  He jerked his head so the wig sailed off and landed in a hairy heap at her feet. “Where ye been? Sure ye come back once it’s all over, neh? Sneaky as an imp!”

  “Glad to hear she’s not all crow,” said a growly little voice out of sight.

  Maniac turned his head. “Good-imp,” he croaked, “ye mistake me. She’s crow straight through. ’Tis only when she’s wicked that she’s imp.”

  “Then may she always be wicked!”

  “Snoshti?” Magpie leapt the prop trunks to get to the door and peered around for the imp marm. She saw her there, so small and quizzical, surrounded by beetles, and her heart swelled. She dropped to her knees before her and flung her arms round the little creature. “Snoshti!” she cried. Her whiskers tickled just the same after all these years.

  “How wild ye look!” Snoshti declared, holding Magpie at arm’s length to examine her. “Brown as a gypsy and skinny—”

  “As a twig,” Magpie finished. “I know! And you look
just the same as always. I missed you fierce, Snoshti! You should have come away with us when we went. We needed you!”

  “Blessings!” Snoshti cried. “The world’s too big for the likes of me, and flying gives me a flutter. Where can ye hide in the sky? Neh, sky’s no place for an imp.” She eyed Magpie’s feather skirt. “Ach, but look at ye, lass! Ye’ll have a beak on next and be squawking like a crow!”

  “She squawks as good as any of us!” said Maniac gruffly. “And curses too.”

  “Mags!” cried Pigeon, landing with a flutter beside her. “Where’d ye go? I was fierce shivered that queen would get ye!”

  “Piff!” Magpie said. “I’d like to see her try!”

  “She will,” said Snoshti.

  “What?” asked Magpie, surprised.

  “She will try, make no mistake. Better ye lot come away now, caravans and all, than stay right under her nose.” Snoshti jerked her head toward the palace. They all looked up and saw a figure silhouetted in the tower window, standing perfectly still. They shifted uneasily to feel they were being watched.

  “That lady’s one mean twist,” said Pigeon in a low voice. “Sure she’s no match for ye, Mags, but maybe the imp’s right. We en’t come to tangle with faeries. We got any reason to stay in Never Nigh?”

  “Neh, none,” Magpie said. “I already found what we’re looking for.”

  “What?” croaked Maniac. “When?”

  “While not on the stage, as a matter of fact!” she said. “So thank you!” She planted a smooch on his beak.

  “Ach,” he grunted. “Don’t be thinking that gets ye off the hook!”

  The rest of the crows gathered round, tossing their crowns and capes into the caravan. Magpie introduced them all to Poppy and quickly whispered what they’d learned from the ancient tree. They were suitably impressed, with the news and with Poppy both.

  “Gorm,” said Pup, still wearing a pair of devil horns. “Ye can talk to trees? How fine!”

  “Thank you.” Poppy blushed.

  “Poppy Manygreen!” called an imperious voice from overhead, and they all looked up to see a gent hovering above them on smoke-grey wings. It was one of the two who’d earlier been fawning over the queen. Magpie narrowed her eyes.

  “My cousin,” Poppy muttered to her and called out, “What is it, Kex?”

  “The queen calls for you. Come at once,” he said, looking down his nose at the crowd of crows.

  Poppy frowned. “The queen? Tell her I’m busy—”

  “At once!” he cut her off.

  “Now, there’s no call to be barking at the lass,” Calypso interjected.

  “Neh, it’s fine,” said Poppy, turning to them with a twinkle in her eye. She whispered, “This is sure to be about her hair, neh? She’s always demanding potions for this or that. Sure she wants me to undo your spell.”

  “Can you?” Magpie asked.

  “I’d have to want to, first. And though I haven’t seen it yet I’m fair certain I’ll find it suits her.”

  “Cousin!” hollered Kex.

  “Calm yer pepper!” squawked Pup.

  “Magpie, the cake recipe,” Poppy whispered quickly, unfurling her wings to fly. “Do you think we could make it?”

  “I don’t know where it came from! It could be a trick.”

  “Meet me in the morning at old Father Linden.”

  Magpie nodded. “Sure.”

  “Good!” Poppy curtsied to Snoshti and the crows and said, “I’d best go, then. Lady Vesper awaits. I can’t wait to see this!” And with a wink she flew up to meet her cousin.

  “She seems a fine lass,” Calypso said, watching her go. “Could be mad handy, talking to trees.”

  “Aye,” Magpie agreed. “She hears things. And one thing she heard? That the creatures have this story, right, about a faerie who’s supposed to bring back the Dawn Days.” She chuffed a laugh. “You haven’t heard that, have you?”

  Calypso scratched his head with one talon. “Eh? Maybe, sure,” he said vaguely. “Creatures got nursery stories, same as faeries got.”

  “Aye,” agreed Bertram. “Like that one about how a rain shower on a sunny day means a fox’s wedding?”

  “Ach,” said Snoshti. “That one’s true. Ye never been to a fox’s wedding? They do make a fuss.”

  In the Ring, tunes shivered across fiddle strings and Magpie turned to look. Faeries were dancing in air, jewel-bright and shimmering in their gowns and frock coats. She glanced up at the palace. The queen was gone from the window. To the crows she said, “Where to, birds?”

  “Come on,” Snoshti said. “There’s a green near my village. My kin would be pleased to host ye.”

  Leaving the stage props in disarray inside, the birds slipped into their harnesses and towed the caravans out of the city.

  TWELVE

  Daylight twinkled into twilight as the last slanting rays of sunset withdrew from the treetops. Darkness came, and the forest’s moontime citizens awoke, glittery-eyed and hungry. Wolves slunk to the edge of the river and dipped their pink tongues in. Foxes jackknifed on scurrying voles. The hag Black Annis crouched naked on a high branch and shot her tongue at bats who flew too near.

  In the southern reaches of the great wood, Magpie and the crows sat around a fire with a clan of hedge imps, trading wind songs for scamper ballads and sipping spiced wine.

  Far across Dreamdark in the tiny hamlet of West Mirth, a certain darkness was gliding down the white road out of town. It was a formless thing, unfixed, the edges of it bleeding into the night like watercolors on wet paper. There was no one to feel the desolation it left in its wake. The sentry tower was empty, and in front of its dying fire a rocking chair was slowing to a halt as if someone had stood and stretched and gone to bed. But all the beds in all the cottages were empty. The coverlets were drawn up as if tucked beneath the chins of sleepers, but sleepers there were none. Nothing had been disturbed. The dray pigeons snoozed in their stables and beetles dreamed in their pens, but the faeries were gone. Every one. Even the cradles were empty.

  The faerie healer Orchidspike, out foraging in the Deeps for night-blooming flowers, stopped suddenly and straightened up. She was the oldest faerie in Dreamdark, older by an entire lifetime than the next oldest, but her senses were creature-sharp and she knew the currents of the forest like no other. She looked around, feeling an alien chill riding the air, and shivered. Pulling her shawl tight around her, she picked up her basket of flowers and hurried home.

  At the ruin of Issrin Ev, Talon Rathersting discovered what the search parties had failed to find: his kinsmen’s knives abandoned in a shadowed cleft in the cliff. He gathered them up and brought them out, laying them carefully on a flat rock. There were fourteen in all. That was all of them: Wick had been wearing only two; the others had worn four each. All were bare of their sheaths. They’d been drawn and thrown at something sunk in that crevice. The point of one blade was nicked off where it had met rock, hard and fast. None of the knives seemed to have hit flesh or drawn blood, and whatever had been in the crevice, it was gone now, as were the vultures and the warriors who’d gone hunting them.

  When several hours had passed yesterday with no sign of their return, Talon had summoned the rest of the Rathersting warriors, his uncles, more cousins, and his sister, Nettle, and they’d sent out rotating search parties all through the day. Talon had stayed behind at the castle keeping the watch, his heart clenched like a fist in his chest as their wings flashed away over the treetops. The shame and yearning boiled into a kind of fury as he watched and waited, feeling the relentless tug of the sky as his feet stayed firmly on the rampart.

  Days were long this near the summer solstice and there had been light well into the evening, but the search parties had returned with nothing but haggard faces. Talon and Nettle had stayed up in the tower watching owls hunt over the silent forest, and when the moon was high he’d turned to look at her. She was taller than he, being a half century older, but with nearly identical tattoos and the sa
me royal circlet on the same pale hair. Her eyes were copies of his too, and her heart knew his heart, and she met his gaze evenly, understanding. She put a hand on his arm and said, “Be careful.”

  And Talon went over the wall and into the woods, alone.

  He stood now in the courtyard of Issrin Ev with the Rathersting daggers laid out at his feet and the moon-cast shadows of broken statues swaying around him. Headless, wingless, toppled, split, and shrouded in moss, the statues made the Magruwen’s temple seem like a monument to suffering and battles lost. It wasn’t. It had been a place of the highest glory until the very day the Djinn himself destroyed it. Bards and scribes and kings had hurried along these paths, their hearts and heads full of great magic. Now it was hard to imagine any but ghosts coming up the long, crumbling stair in the rock face or anything arriving on wing but vultures.

  Talon had found bones and feathers down the slope. A vulture had been devoured. Not enough remained of it to tell whether his father and cousins had killed it, but he suspected so. As for what had eaten it, it could only have been its five fellows. Cannibals. Talon’s lip curled in disgust.

  They were gone now.

  Talon couldn’t carry all the bare daggers but he took his father’s favorite and turned west. There was only one faerie he wanted to talk to. He headed for Orchidspike’s cottage, starting down the ruined stair at a loping gait and gathering speed. Soon he was hurtling through the gloom of the Deeps, the long wooded basin gouged between two rocky plateaus. The sun penetrated here only a few hours each day when it was directly overhead, and the rest of the hours were just a slow fade from dark to dusk and dusk to dark again.

  He raced along, launching himself off roots and spiraling airborne so fast he blurred. He would run half up a tree trunk and dive for the next one, never even slowing as he came to land between wild leaps and kept on, powerful and thrilling, explosive, acrobatic. But he always touched down between leaps. He’d launch, push off, careen toward the canopy of the forest, and never quite break through to the sky.

 
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