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Blackbringer, p.9
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       Blackbringer, p.9

           Laini Taylor
 

  His feet touched down and he pushed on.

  He found Orchidspike awake when he arrived and she hurried to open the door for him. “Lad,” she said, relieved, taking his head in both her hands and looking straight into him through his eyes. Her relief was short-lived, for she saw the trouble in his heart. “What’s happened?” she asked.

  “My father’s gone. And Shrike, Wick, and Corvus. Gone.” Talon’s young face was somber under the ink of his ferocious tattoos, but Orchidspike knew him well, knew to look past the warrior and into his eyes, which were the eyes of a lad, and frightened.

  She took his hands and led him into the cottage. This place had been Talon’s sanctuary since he was wee. His clan had long worked closely with Orchidspike and her foremothers, for she and her kind were the healers of Dreamdark, and the Rathersting were its guardians. Besides protecting the forest from intruders and keeping a close eye on its unfriendlier residents like Black Annis, the Rathersting launched regular raiding parties into the drear Spiderdowns, the nastiest place in all of Dreamdark. There they gathered the silken skeins of web the healer required for her intricate magic of knitting torn faerie wings back together.

  Orchidspike had been ancient all Talon’s life, ancient and marvelous. When the shame of his wings had become at last undeniable, when he was still small and his cousins had started calling him “Prince Scuttle,” Orchidspike had been the light in his darkness. He had come here to her cottage every day after his lessons. She had never taken an apprentice, a lass who would become healer in her place when she made her journey to the Moonlit Gardens, so he had done what an apprentice would have done, the garden work, the transcribing, the spinning and winding of the spidersilk onto bobbins. He had even learned how to knit, though never, never had he breathed a word about it to anyone in his clan.

  Orchidspike’s knitting needles were ancient, djinncraft, passed down through generations of Dreamdark healers. They sang to the fingers and were capable of mysterious things. And using them, Talon had found himself capable of mysterious things too. In the privacy of the healer’s cottage he had stumbled upon an art form he believed no faerie had ever undertaken before, a secret art, and it had become a fascination for him. No instructions existed in any book, not even the slightest hint. He had to invent it for himself as he went along, stitch by stitch, but he didn’t feel himself alone in it. There was something that guided him, a sense he could not put into words. It was like being swept into a current of magic and carried along, even as he sat still and knitted. His heart pulsed with the pulse of some unseen force, glyphs came together in his mind, and his hands knew just what to do. It was almost like a trance. He had tried explaining it to Orchidspike and her eyes grew bright and sharp but she said little. And because it involved knitting needles he could never mention it to anyone else. Who ever knew a warrior prince to knit?

  Talon

  Orchidspike put on a kettle and gathered leaves from a half-dozen little jars, mixing a tea for Talon. Then she sank back into her rocker and said, “Tell me.”

  “Yestermorn on the watch I spotted six vultures,” he told her. “Monstrous big beasts. My father and cousins went out to see to them. They never came back. I found their knives at Issrin Ev.”

  “Issrin?” she asked, and nodded to herself. “Aye, near the mouth of the Deeps. Lad, I was in the Deeps this night and I felt a dark presence and it wasn’t vultures, I can tell you.”

  “But what was it?”

  “It grieves me to say I’ve no idea. Some dark power has come to Dreamdark and we need to learn what it is.”

  “I’ll go search the Deeps,” he said, rising to his feet.

  “Neh, you will not,” she said, her eyes ablaze. “There’s something out there, lad, and it might only be luck you made it through the Deeps once tonight. Come. You’ve some hours till dawn and work to do. You can finish in that time, I think.”

  “Finish? But—”

  “It’s time, lad,” she said. She opened a workbox that sat near the hearth and lifted from it her knitting needles and a long streamer of shimmering threads.

  Talon took them from her very gently. Light skittered across the fabric and couldn’t seem to fix a color to it. It looked frail as a cobweb adrift on a breeze, insubstantial as a veil knit of moonbeams. Holding the needles in his hands he felt the familiar pulse catch him up like a current, glyphs filled his mind, and the work began to flow from his fingers.

  Just before dawn he looked up from it and his eyes were shadowed with sleeplessness but bright with excitement.

  “It’s ready,” he said.

  Orchidspike looked it over closely. “It’s more than ready. You’ve done something true here, lad. It’s perfect.”

  Talon glowed with pride.

  Orchidspike said, “Once the sun’s full up I want you to go to the hamlets on the Sills and see how they fare there. If anything seems awry—anything—shepherd the folk to the castle for safekeeping, you ken?”

  He nodded and shook out the skin—for that was what he had made—and stepped into it, visioning the glyph that would awaken it. After that, even Orchidspike couldn’t have distinguished him from a real falcon.

  The clot of darkness had returned to Issrin Ev. Before sunrise it slipped into a deep fissure in the rubble of the temple, and five vultures hunkered down on branches to wait out the day, restless and hungry. They’d eaten nothing since their brother’s corpse, a whole day past. And though their master had hunted through the night, he had left them no bones to pick over. He never did.

  THIRTEEN

  Magpie woke half buried in pillows in a blanket nest on the floor. She stretched like a cat and rolled over, blinking up at the root-ribbed ceiling of Snoshti’s burrow. It smelled sweet in the close space, of tea and earth and spice. “Up and greet the day!” Snoshti called, and Magpie got to her feet and ambled down a low corridor to the kitchen, where hot scented water awaited her in a copper tub.

  “Ach,” grumbled Magpie, for whom a bath was a dip in a pond or a quick shine with the last gulp in her cup.

  “Sure even crows bathe sometimes,” Snoshti told her, frowning at the feather skirt, for Magpie had slept in her clothes same as she always did. As she stepped out of them she unstrapped her new knife from her leg and laid it aside. It caught Snoshti’s eye and the imp did a double take behind her back. A little later, when Magpie’s head was underwater, she looked closer, sucking in her breath when she saw the knife’s runes, but when Magpie surfaced, Snoshti didn’t say a word about it.

  She lathered Magpie’s chestnut hair with pear-scented soap and watched fondly as the lass used magic to float a scone across the room from the stove to her mouth, leaving it suspended in the air before her face and taking great bites without the use of her hands. Crumbs cascaded into the bathwater. “Little barbarian.” Snoshti chuckled.

  A dozen families lived in the hedge imp village, an intricate warren beneath the earth with wide tunnels for avenues, and passages that Snoshti said reached all the way to other villages. Glossy gem-hued beetles milled about as Magpie made her way topside, and impkins darted up to touch her shyly and giggle, never having had a faerie visit them underground before nor ever having met one so ready to smile at them or carry them into the air on short flights.

  The crows were up and smoking in their dressing gowns, and Mingus poured Magpie a cup of sludgy coffee.

  “So, ’Pie,” said Calypso, “when are we for the Magruwen, eh? First thing? Or ye going to make that cake?”

  Magpie took the recipe out of her pocket and chewed her lip. She’d have been certain the writing belonged to Bellatrix but for the one thing that made it impossible: the paper wasn’t ancient; it could have been written yesterday. “What if it’s a trick?” she asked.

  “A trick? Ye mean, like, if it’s not really his favorite cake?” puzzled Pup.

  Magpie smiled. It seemed such a silly notion in itself, that the great Djinn had a favorite cake at all. She looked at the ingredients. Oats, honey, the u
sual things, and what else? Tears, wind, lightning . . . Magpie cocked her head to one side and took a swig of her coffee, thinking. Tears, wind, and lightning. Water, air, and fire—that was three of the four elements.

  She thought of what she and Poppy had talked of, how the Djinn had dreamed a world he couldn’t even touch. He couldn’t wade in a stream and feel the rush of water without boiling it, couldn’t sleep beneath a tree without burning it, or ride a bird, or feel the wind, or lay his cheek on a sun-warmed stone. It began to seem like just the kind of cake that would be his favorite.

  And what of the thousand years of undreamed life? What was a life not yet begun? A cocoon, sure. But no butterfly or moth lived a thousand days, let alone years. And Magpie had an idea that this last ingredient would somehow represent the fourth element: earth. Rich earth, steady, solid earth, the element that anchored all the rest, like roots in soil.

  Suddenly she had it. She clapped her hands. “An acorn!”

  “Eh, ’Pie?” Calypso asked.

  “A tree lives a thousand years!” she said, and the idea settled in her mind with the snick of a puzzle piece fitting into place. What was an acorn if not the perfect expression of life, a millennium of it and more, curled up tight and just waiting for the proper encouragement to begin?

  She would make the cake. Wherever it had come from, whoever had written it out, it was made of such things as could have only good in them. “I’m going to meet Poppy,” she told the crows.

  She went back down into the imp village to borrow a half walnut shell from Snoshti, then she set out.

  Fringed by a circle of willows, Lilyvein Pond was the largest of a string of spring-fed ponds on the outskirts of Never Nigh. Faerie weddings were often held here in the spring when white narcissus bloomed round it thick as snowbanks, and in winter it was the favorite spot for ice-skating. Magpie flew quietly over the glassy water and, hovering just above the surface, began to sing. Poppy watched and listened from the air.

  The strange words, sung low in a language not often heard above the waves, rippled over the water, and sleek shapes began to gather beneath.

  Magpie was singing the ballad of Psamathe, fiftieth of the fifty daughters of the sea, and it was a tale of despair sure to bring tears to the eyes of fish, eel, and creek maiden, and any other creature who knew their language. Magpie couldn’t speak the fin tongue fluently but she knew a good number of their ballads by heart as a result of a long winter some twenty years earlier spent trapped in an ice cave with selkies. She’d become quite a good ice sculptor that winter too, a skill she hadn’t since had to call upon, but who knew but that one day she might? Little had she suspected then, sharing a selkie’s seal pelt for warmth, that the day would come when she’d need to bring a fish to tears. But here that day was.

  “And all clad in sea foam

  she clung to the waves,

  singing her love to the sky.

  He swept o’er without stopping,

  that tempest, by moonlight,

  ne’er heeding her heart-rending cry. . . .”

  The tricky fin verses trilled off her tongue, and as the last notes rippled across the pond, the fish wept like babes. Hanging like a dragonfly over the green water, Magpie gingerly scooped the walnut shell in and filled it to brimming with their tears.

  “What was that song about?” Poppy asked as they flew slowly away, trying not to slosh the tears. Not understanding a word of it, she’d still felt a tug at her heart, so mournful had been the sound.

  “Lost love,” replied Magpie with all the feeling of a child to whom such a thing is mere words. “Woe and heartache. The usual.”

  The Manygreen lands sprawled across a varied terrain of speckled meadows and scrubby rises laced with tree cover. As they were growers and plant mages, they lived where the trees were sparse and the sun could dip down and kiss their growing things to life. Poppy guided Magpie to a soft landing atop a tangle of wild plum roots at the edge of a garden in riotous summer bloom. There were checkered heads of drooping fritillary mixed into swaths of bird cherry and cloudberry, kiss-me-quick and creeping jenny, primrose and bee orchid and yellow archangel. Fuchsia and wild peony tumbled over rocks, and fiddleheads unfurled among stalks of honey daphne. From tree to tree rolled carpets of wood anemone, and above it all a fringe of whitebeam and flowering plum waved its plumage in the wind.

  “Oh, Poppy . . . ,” Magpie breathed, taking it all in. “It’s wonderful here. . . .”

  Poppy beamed. “There’s my workshop,” she said with a flourish of her arm. Emerging from a nook between roots was a many-gabled roof bristling with copper chimneys. Poppy led Magpie through a covered porch into a single large room. Herbs and blossoms hung upside down from the ceiling to dry, and the walls were hidden entirely by shelves and glass-fronted cabinets. A pair of big slab worktables were covered in a tumble of kettles, crucibles, and cauldrons, bubbling vials, interconnected tubes, beakers, shining instruments, and books.

  Magpie looked at it all, wide-eyed. “Skive,” she murmured. “I’ve never seen the like!”

  Poppy pulled a bowl down from a shelf and emptied the tears into it.

  “Songbird tisane.” Magpie read a tiny label on an earthen jar. “Lover’s posy. Cure for hiccups and nightmares. Moonlight mist . . . What’s that do?”

  “That helps you remember your dreams.”

  “Sharp! Does it work?”

  “Aye, sure. Here.” She poured some of the blue cordial into a little metal flask and screwed the cap on tight. “For later. Just a sip before bedtime.” She handed it to Magpie.

  “Thanks!” The flask had a ring on its cap that Magpie threaded through her belt. “How’d you make it?”

  “You’ve got to collect full-moonlight all night long in a mirror, set out someplace no shadows will fall over it from dusk to dawn, and at first light tip it and pour the moonlight through a sieve of mist into a jug with a sprig of lavender and then distill it for a moon’s time.”

  “There’s one for my book!” Magpie said. “How’d you think that up?”

  “Sometimes,” Poppy said with a bashful glance at Magpie, “I just sort of . . . feel what to do, like the magic’s already there, all around, and I just have to sort of let my mind open—like a flower—and then . . . I don’t know, I . . . find it.”

  Magpie stared at her and Poppy blushed, looking back down at the bowl in her hands as she said quickly, “It’s just a fancy, really.”

  “Neh,” said Magpie, a push of her wings carrying her half across the room. “Poppy,” she said earnestly, “is it like . . . a pulse?”

  Poppy looked up sharply and said, “Aye . . .”

  “Like . . . ,” Magpie went on, “like invisible blood pulsing through the veins of the air?”

  Poppy nodded eagerly. “Like if you could feel the roots of things alive under the ground, twisting and living and growing, even though you can’t see them, but it’s not just underground, it’s everywhere, all around, and it’s faster than roots growing and bigger, bigger than anything—”

  “And it’s warm and alive and—”

  They spoke the next words in unison—“and it carries you along with it”—and stood staring at each other.

  Tears suddenly sprang to Poppy’s eyes. “Magpie, I’ve never . . . no one else has ever understood. . . .”

  “I know,” said Magpie. “Me too!”

  “Have you always—?” Poppy started to ask, but just then a crow poked his head through the window.

  “Mags,” he croaked. “C’mere a secky, darlin’.” It was Swig. He had a hunched, serious look about him that Magpie knew could mean nothing good. She went to the window at once. Beyond, she could see Maniac and Mingus close in conversation with a raven so large he made the crows look like hatchlings.

  “Who’s that feather?” she asked.

  “Algorab’s his name,” said Swig. “Dreamdark bird. He’s heard something, Mags.”

  “What?”

  “Little hamlet called West Mi
rth? There’s bats who hunt bugs round the pigeon stables there by night. They say last night something came through.”

  “What kind of something?”

  Swig shook his head. “Don’t know. Bats said their echo sense went right through it. Just darkness, they said.”

  Magpie’s stomach lurched. “Darkness? Not the hungry one! Not in Dreamdark!”

  “No one came out of those houses this morning, Mags, and Algorab says it’s some eerie kinda quiet.”

  “Quiet,” Magpie repeated, remembering the terrible hush of the catacombs. ”Neh . . . ,” she said, leaning heavily on the window ledge, her head spinning. It was mad. Dim as devils were, they’d always known to steer clear of Dream-dark in their day. If the beast had come here, then she’d been right about one thing, one awful thing: it had come for the Magruwen. “Where’s Calypso?” she asked Swig.

  “Pup went for him.”

  She glanced at Poppy, who was watching them, puzzled. “All right,” she told Swig, “I’m coming.” To Poppy she said, “We’ll go gather up the rest of the ingredients. The shadow and wind and that? You got the oats and flour and all?”

  “Aye, sure my mum has it at home.”

  “Good, then, I’ll meet you back here.”

  Poppy watched with a slight frown as Magpie flew out the window to join the birds. After they’d flown away she stepped out into her garden and pondered what she’d overheard. Then she knelt beside a patch of crimson primroses. “Good morning, beauties,” she said. “What gossip in the wood?”

  FOURTEEN

  A falcon hung weightless in the updrafts that rose along the rocky Sills. Suddenly it plunged into a harrowing dive, spiraling hard groundward before swooping into a long, smooth upward glide. There was something joyful in the sight of it, a wild, bracing freedom that the flightless could only dream of. After a hundred years of standing on heavy feet watching other wings rise, Talon felt as if a flare had been lit over the world, revealing all new colors. He’d never felt so alive.

 
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