Blackwing Witch (Chapter 1: Sick)

Blackwing Witch is a work-in-progress but I wanted to share it while I work on the first draft. Please bear in mind that this is an unedited work, but hopefully you will still enjoy it! Image is a commission from ShadowDragon22.

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Chapter One: Sick

When Wy saw the dragon, her stomach clenched in fear and her throat clogged in pity. Because here, steaming under the scant shelter of the cliff shelf, half-obscured by mist and shadow, was a beautiful and terrible thing and she was bearing witness to its death.

It was a blackwing, all tattered feathers and skinny, scaly legs. It was a feral dragon, as common as dirt, with none of the sleek beauty of the noble dragons with their long necks and colourful plumages. It didn’t have their size, either. It would dwarf a horse rather than a house. Its face, belly, legs, and tail were largely bare of feathers, revealing cracked, black scales and a blocky muzzle with a serrated beak.

It was beautiful in the way a crow was beautiful. Common and scruffy and looking like it had just come from a fight. It was so clearly a wild thing, but then so was Wy. Her heart went out to it.

Its body rose and fell with ragged breaths underlaid by a thin, nasal wheeze. Even through its thick feathers, she could see it was boney and underfed.

Wy scrambled up from the mountain path to crouch on the same level as the blackwing. Rocky dirt crunched beneath the thin soles of her leather boots. Her chest was tight and her heart quivered, but something about seeing a dragon so vulnerable pulled at her with an inexorable force.

It smelled of feathers and dust and something vaguely metallic. Its eyelids fluttered at her approach, eyes glowing luminous green from the shadows. Wy flexed her hands as if she could stretch away the tremble its look caused.

She was only out here to collect feathers for her altar. She’d been marked by the moon in her name day ceremony, a black crescent painted on her forehead that even now rested above her brow. Wy’s mother insisted she do all her witchwork at night — as a moon witch, her powers were meant to be greater under that silver light — but she had argued that she would not be able see well enough in the dark to forage. Her mother had relented, and so Wy now walked in the shadow of the mountain under a grey sky, with fog clinging to earth and rock and trees.

Her ‘powers’ had never gained her much. A prayer whispered to the stars. A wish sunk into a lake. And always the secret shame: that she feared the night she had been marked for.

But she was here, and the blackwing was here, and it had the feeling of fate. She had nursed many sick animals in her life, but never anything so large or so dangerous. Assuming it could even be saved; it was in too much pain for her to walk away in either case.

She licked dry lips and held out her hands, palm up then down, to show she had no weapons. ‘I’m not going to hurt you,’ she said in a low voice, though she doubted it could understand. She stood up slowly, pulse pounding, breath tight.

Blackwings were a familiar danger, a menace to anyone travelling through the wilds of Wy’s home. They raided caravans, spitting poison and carrying off provisions and sometimes people in their long-fingered grasps. It was why her mother said witchfolk must learn to pass silently through the world, leaving no trace for hungry predators to find. It was a skill Wy had yet to master: like her witchcraft, like her fear of the dark.

The blackwing watched her, glaring at her through heavy eyelids.

She edged nearer. ‘Where does it hurt? I’m a healer — sort of. I can help.’

The blackwing lashed out with a forepaw. Wy tripped backwards in her haste to get out of the way. The tips of its claws raked the air only a foot from where she’d been standing. ‘I’m trying to help!’ She couldn’t keep the anger from her voice. An angry badger might bite her leg, and a hawk might savage her wrist, but the blackwing could kill her — and it knew it.

She got back to her feet, taking a long breath. ‘I’m sorry.’ Her tone was calmer. ‘I’m just trying to see what’s wrong –’

Luminous green smoke filled the blackwing’s mouth. Wy dived behind a boulder before it could blast her with its hideous poison breath. She covered her nose and mouth with both hands, already assaulted by the pungent, swampy stink of it. But the dragon hacked twice then blorted wetly, rather than the signature boom and hiss.

Wy peered around her rock shield, still covering her nose. The blackwing had gone limp, forelegs splayed. Its chin rested on the ground. The smoke had all but dissipated, and now an ugly red vomit dribbled from its jaws. Its head was in a pool of the same.

The smell from this was somehow even worse, because it was so biological and so familiar. Wy’s stomach heaved and she had to turn away for a moment, unsure if she would follow suit.

‘So you’re sick,’ she said.

The blackwing didn’t open its eyes. It resumed its thin, wheezing breaths.

By Stars and Sea, she couldn’t leave it to die stewing in its own vomit. She stepped closer, muscles coiled and ready to spring. ‘Don’t hit me, okay? I’m fragile, but I’m useful.’ She continued to speak in a low tone, reasoning that it would be better not to startle it. ‘I actually spend a lot of time around sick people. Well. Animals, anyway.’ In a muttered aside, she added, ‘I’m not so good with the people.’

When the blackwing didn’t strike, she took another step, then another. She was well within striking range now, but it was clear that the blackwing had used up its last reserve of energy trying to disembowel her. If it struck, she could probably get out of the way. Hopefully.

She took a look at its steaming vomit, nose wrinkling at the acrid smell. There were several large chunks in it. She nudged them with the toe of her boot. ‘Is that rotten meat? No wonder you’re sick. You can get some pretty nasty poisoning from bad meat.’ She paused. ‘I didn’t even realise blackwings could get food poisoning. Isn’t poison kind of your thing?’

The blackwing cracked an eye open and Wydis scrambled back, raising her hands. ‘Sorry! I think I can help with this. I just need to get some supplies. It’s just the sickness, right? You’re not wounded?’

It closed it eyes. She wished, as she always wished, that animals could talk. It would really make nursing them a lot less dangerous.

She could maybe try to edge around it, get a look at its body … but she didn’t want to get too close. She’d check the wings of a bird, but the blackwing could break her neck if it opened its wings suddenly. She couldn’t see any missing feathers though, and it would bleed a lot if it lost any.

Really, it was just a hungry thing that had grown desperate, and now was paying the price.

‘I’ll come right back,’ she promised. She climbed back down onto the path and took one last look at the enormous creature huddled against the mountainside. Then she ran down the path, her ragged coat streaming behind her.

 

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