Blackwing Witch (Chapter 10: Cowardly)

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 Ten: Cowardly

It took everything Wy had not to yelp at the sight of the Elysian Knight. ‘Lady Arielle,’ she said, in what she desperately hoped was a casual tone. She shook the haunch of mutton, sending drips of salty water flying from it; Lady Arielle’s nose wrinkled in distaste. ‘I’m sorry to miss you, but I’m just preparing for my trip home.’

‘And you need to take home food from your dear old dad? How familial.’ She smiled.

Wy clenched her jaw, hating Lady Arielle’s smugly sweet tone. ‘Yeah,’ she said. ‘My father’s pretty great. But I’m late getting home, so if you’ll excuse me.’ She sketched a hasty bow like she remembered her father and Mirran doing, hoping the obsequiousness would mollify the noble, and she strode from the yard. She glanced over her shoulder and when she was sure they weren’t looking, she dashed back around the house and came up to the workyard shelter from behind.

‘Spite?’

The blackwing was laying on the ground, chin on her hands. She looked up as Wy approached, ears pricking forward. Then her gaze fell on the haunch of mutton in her hand and she went incredibly still.

Wy hadn’t forgotten when Spite knocked her from the cliffside perch, so she tossed Spite the meat before the dragon could mug her for it. Spite caught it in her beak and with the creak of snapping bones, cut the entire haunch in two.

Wy watched her tuck into the first half, trying not to think about how easily she could sever a human limb.

Spite froze under her gaze, her beak still wrapped around the meat. She started to growl, deep in her throat.

Wy raised her hands and backed away. ‘Fine, fine. It’s not like I’m the one who fed you, or anything.’ When she got about twenty paces away, Spite stopped growling and resumed her meal.

Wy peered out of the shelter. Mirran and Lady Arielle were out of sight, possibly having returned to Alden Toll’s field for Valour. She just needed a way to lure Spite out of town … she’d hoped to use the meat, but then she’d needed to give it to her just to keep her calm …

She looked up to find the blackwing’s unnerving green gaze fixed on her. Blackwing made a high-pitched croak and leaned down to nudge the other half of the leg toward her with her beak. Then she croaked again and sat back with her half, watching Wy expectantly.

A lump formed in Wy’s throat. ‘Is this … for me?’ she asked. Slowly, she reached down for the haunch of meat. When she picked it up, Spite’s eyes slitted in pleasure. ‘This is … wow. Thank you, Spite.’

Spite nibbled her beak at her, then resumed stripping her portion of the meat.

Well. Wy still had this meat to lure her with, at least. Spite was being unexpectedly good-natured — it reminded Wy of one of her earliest widllife lessons.

‘Wolves are safe enough most of the time,’ her mother had told her, while they watched from a distance as a lone wolf limped across the swamp. Wy had been so small that she could share her mother’s cloak, hidden in her mother’s embrace. ‘But you can’t trust that one right now.’

Wy had gripped her mother’s cloak tightly, wringing it between her hands. ‘Mama, it needs help. Look at its leg.’

‘It’s dying, Wy. Or will soon. See the purple around the wound? One of the giant spiders took a bite out of it. But I need you to understand this, sweetheart: wolves can come almost as tame as a puppy if you put the time in, but a wounded wolf is ten times more dangerous than a healthy one. The fear will make it nasty and cruel against its nature.’

And Wy had covered her eyes as her mother loosed the arrow that had put it out of its misery.

Spite had been both physically ill and ill-tempered, but as her health had improved, so had her mood. Wy wasn’t so naive as to think that Spite would ever be sweet — blackwings, much like the crows they resembled, were mischievous bullies a great deal of the time. But she had understood that Wy was helping her. It had just been too difficult for her to put aside her pain and fear until she was better.

Wy waited until Spite had stripped her portion to the bone and was gnawing hopefully at the marrow, before she hefted the remaining half. ‘Come with me, Spite.’ She waved the leg. Spite’s eyes followed it, her head swaying on her neck. ‘Come on. We need to leave.’ She backed out of the shelter and used her hip to push open the back gate. Spite followed, cawing in irritation. She stepped right over the fence, untroubled by its height, leaning toward Wy and sniffing the meat curiously.

‘Come on. She glanced around. The sheep in the field behind them had scattered and were putting up a bleating call, but Wy had Spite’s attention with this easy meal. Her father lived at the far end of town, so with a little luck …

She hoped the moon would still guard her even in the light of day, because she was about to run from a blackwing and she had no idea how strongly their hunting instincts were tied to movement. She caught sight of the distant treeline and broke into a sprint. ‘Spite! Come on, Spite! More food this way!’

Spite cawed even more loudly and trotted after her, barely breaking a walk to keep up. She was an intimidating sight on the move, a huge black nightmare beast with dark feathers and a cruel beak, her wings shuffling threateningly at her sides. But Wy could see that although the blackwing’s ears flicked backward and forward in irritation, there was none of the signature tension that preceded an attack.

A cry went up from the town; a man pointed at Spite and shouted to someone Wy couldn’t see, while a little girl screamed loudly but watched avidly from the doorstep of a house.

Spite’s ears swivelled and her head followed suit. She hissed at the townsfolk, planting her feet and fluffing up, interposing herself between Wy and the perceived threats.

If she spat poison or attacked someone, there was nothing she would be able to do to stop Lady Arielle hunting her down and killing her. Wy immediately reached up and grabbed Spite by her enormous beak, pulling her head down to her level. ‘Leave,’ she said, like she was scolding Pan for pestering a hedgehog.

Spite growled at her, eyes flashing, but Wy didn’t relent. ‘They’re not a threat, Spite. You’re a great big dragon and they’re small squishy humans. Come on.’ She wafted the meat in front of her, catching her attention, and guided her off again.

She heard more shouts and even a few cries that sounded a lot like ‘Witch!’ Behind her, Spite grew tense, lowering her head and puffing out her feathers, but she continued to follow Wy out of the town, her long strides easily matching Wy’s short frantic ones.

Mirran ran out from the last houses, a crowd gathering at the edge of the buildings but not moving any further. ‘What do you think you’re –’

Spite turned and hissed at her, jaws wide, spittle flying. Mirran dropped back and said more quietly, ‘–doing?’ She started a jog at a distance, trying to keep up.

‘I’m getting Spite out of here before Lady Arielle gets her.’ Wy remained grimly focused on her task, but though Spite was still following her, she seemed a lot less interested in the meat. Now she watched Mirran beadily as she walked.

Mirran laughed, but it sounded bitter. ‘You think she doesn’t already know? There’s no way she won’t catch it unless it flies away right now.’

Wy narrowed her eyes at her. There was something beneath her haughty tone, a note of urgency almost. ‘We’re almost out. It’s just across that field and we’re into the Wilds. She won’t find us there.’

‘You think a few trees will help you? You really know nothing at all about dragons, do you?’

Spite hissed at her and there were flecks of green in the spit, forcing Mirran back another few steps.

‘We’re doing fine,’ Wy said shortly. She glanced over her shoulder; the crowd at the town’s edge had grown.

And then a shadow passed overhead and the thump of enormous wings filled the air.

Spite cawed loudly and charged wildly ahead, knocking into Wy in her mad dash for the forests edge.

Valour landed where Spite had been with a loud thump and a whoosh of air that forced Wy to the ground, but which Mirran withstood with patience, her tunic rippling.

Lady Arielle descended from her mount at the base of Valour’s neck, climbing onto Valour’s raised paw and then being deposited on the ground. Valour watched the tree-line fixedly, where Spite had vanished.

‘It’s fast for vermin.’ Lady Arielle landed in a clatter of armour, straightening her gauntlets. Her pale eyes raked the treeline, following her dragon’s gaze. ‘Sneaky, too, but that won’t help it.’

Cold radiated from the Knight, from the hard line of her shoulders to the tense set of her jaw. Still, she didn’t look at Wy.

But this could be Wy’s only chance to plead Spite’s case. ‘L-lady Arielle,’ she began shakily. ‘This isn’t what –’

‘Enough!’ The words were barked. Still, Lady Arielle didn’t turn. ‘I think I made myself quite clear about what I expect from my people.’

Wy bristled. She felt her hair stand on end like a cat. ‘I am not your people –’

‘No?’ Now Lady Arielle turned, her expression thoroughly bored. ‘I own the land you’re standing on. I own the house your father lives in. I even own this muddy pit you call a swamp. I’d say that means I own you.’

Wy clenched her fists. ‘You don’t own any of that.’

‘And who’s going to challenge that? I don’t see any other Knights rushing to claim this backwater nowhere.’ She shook her head. ‘But the people here are going to thank me for coming to protect them from freaks like you.’ Her eyes turned flinty. ‘You set a blackwing on them, in their own homes. You’ll answer for that. But for now –’ She lunged for Wy.

Wy leapt out of her reach, her heart pounding, but Lady Arielle kicked dirt in her face and then grabbed her hair while she reeled. ‘You,’ she whispered in her ear. ‘Are going to help me find your ugly crow of a dragon. Won’t that be nice? Mirran.’ She summoned her squire.

Mirran stepped forward and bowed. ‘Here, milady.’

Wy grabbed the base of her hair, hoping to tear free, but Lady Arielle shook her.

‘Get Wydis of Amys Mor up on Valour. We’re going hunting.’ She shoved Wy’s head, sending her stumbling to Mirran.

Mirran gripped her arms, deceptively strong for such a lean woman. ‘Don’t struggle,’ she warned, flicking her eyes at Lady Arielle. Mirran’s mouth was set in a tight line; a muscle twitched in her jaw.

Wy glared up at her, considering her options. She was good at running, but not from a dragon. She was good at hiding, but there was nowhere to hide. If her mother were in her place, she would lay a curse Lady Arielle, but witchfolk didn’t have real, storybook power — at least, not most of the time. Curses were slow-acting, and that kind of dark magic could leave a stain on someone’s soul. More than anything, the threat of them scared people into leaving witches alone.

But they were in broad daylight, far from her swamp, and there was no power for Wy to draw on and no hope of escape. Not yet, anyway.

But maybe, if she looked for her moment, she could save Spite.

She let Mirran march her to Valour, hand on her shoulder. As she approached, Valour chirped a question, lowering her enormous head to sniff Wy.

‘Saddle, Valour.’ Mirran’s voice was firm.

Valour snorted and her enormous tail thrashed anxiously, but she offered them a forepaw, which Wy stepped onto, followed by Mirran. Slowly, Valour lifted them to just below her shoulder. Wy focused on Valour instead of the way the ground was falling away from them, then stumbled onto Valour’s broad back.

Mirran settled cross-legged, gripping the woven leather harness around her shoulders. A padded seat was at the base of her neck, clearly reserved for Lady Arielle. ‘Hold on,’ Mirran advised. ‘The first leap is sudden.’

Wy stared at her a moment, unable to read the emotion behind the words. Then she settled behind her, getting a good grip on the harness and looking around her at the stretch of glittering blue feathers. Even without a saddle, Valour was incredibly soft, with none of Spite’s boney build.

Valour deposited Lady Arielle on her back as well. The Knight settled into her saddle. ‘Valour: up!’

Wy felt the muscles beneath her shift and bunch, and then Valour launched into the air, wings sweeping out to catch her just as the jump turned into a fall. Each wingbeat shunted them higher with a whump of wings hitting air. Wy’s stomach dropped and her lungs squeezed as she peered queasily over Valour’s rippling sides.

‘Deep breaths!’ Mirran shouted over the whistling wind.

‘What?’

‘Deep breaths! It’ll settle your stomach!’ She said something after that was lost to the wind and looked a lot like ‘idiot’, but Wy was too caught up to take offense. She tried to slow her rapid breathing into long breaths. As her breaths became more controlled, the tightness in her chest eased and her nausea settled. She still gripped the harness so tightly that it cut into her hands, and her every muscle screamed with tightness, but she gained enough of her mind back to start looking around.

Lady Arielle directed Valour with taps and shouts, her blonde hair streaming behind her. Mirran looked over Valour’s side, scanning the world below as it blurred past at frightening speeds. Valour herself was fluid in motion; her long body rippled and swayed in the air; if not for her wings, she would look like she was swimming rather than flying, with her tail a liquid pennant behind her.

She could feel Valour’s breathing, too, the rapidly pulsating breaths of a bird. But she needed to not focus too closely on Valour and her riders: they were hunting Spite, who must have still been too weak to fly. Her eyes raked first the forest and then the swamp, looking for the tell-tale flash of green eyes or the oily black of her feathers.

‘Mirran! South-east!’ Lady Arielle bellowed over the wind.

‘Might be!’ Mirran replied.

Wy looked too, and caught the shadow flitting across the marsh. She wondered at Mirran’s reticence; it looked like Spite to her.

‘Valour, go low!’

Valour’s wings tilted and very suddenly Wy was lifting from her seat on her back. Only her grip on the harness seemed to tether her, though Mirran seemed quite comfortable, crouching with her feet beneath her.

Wy could still make out Spite, darting from shadow to shadow, fearfully glancing overhead with a flash of green eyes. She recognised this part of the swamp; if she could just locate it …

There! Almost camouflaged among the dirt and mud was a muddy lake of a depth she’d never managed to reach the bottom of. As Spite rushed around the edges and Valour swooped low, Wy slid down Valour’s side.

‘Wydis!’ Mirran reached for her, panic in her eyes, but Wy gritted her teeth and jumped. Valour gave a great trumpeting cry and twisted in the air, trying to catch her with her enormous paws, but Wy was plummeting too fast. She braced herself and tucked her knees as she hit the water in an burst of stinking brown water.

For a moment, she was drifting in cloying darkness, unable to breathe. She kicked, but the water was thicker than she remembered and her legs were already exhausted from tensing on Valour’s back.

When at last she broke the surface, she gasped in the stinking swamp air, her hair thick with mud and algae. Above, Valour trumpted frantically, her alarm clear, but still distant.

Wy swam to the edge and heaved herself out onto a clump of plants and dirt. ‘Spite!’ She yelled. She dragged herself to her feet, water cascading from her hair and robes. She could already feel her body freezing; it was too late in the year to safely take a full dip in a lake. She looked around; Valour was unable to get down to her, the tree cover too thick around the edges of the lake.

‘Spite! Are you here?’

Two green pinpricks appeared in the distance. Wy dove into a patch of ferns and bushes, knowing they would hide her path, and made for them.

She found Spite cowering under a large boulder with a dip beneath it from where water had eroded the earth. Her feathers were dulled by dirt and packed with moss; her legs were coated in mud up to the haunch. She cawed anxiously.

‘Shh! It’s okay.’ Wy looked up then darted across to join the blackwing under the boulder. ‘They don’t know where we’ve gone.’ Distantly, she heard Valour cry again. So strange to think the creature Lady Arielle was using to hunt Spite was so distraught over losing Wy.

Spite cawed again, but more softly.

‘It’s okay, Spite. We’ll work it out. You’re not strong enough to fly yet, is that right? We’ll hide. I’m good at hiding. I’m a witch; you know about witches?’ She kept up a constant stream of soothing conversation and gradually Spite’s trembling subsided. Wy was glad to be near to her; she was so warm, Wy wanted to burrow in against her feathers under her wings, but there was no way that was going to be safe. But as Spite calmed, she reached up and stroked the sides of her face, just under her eye. Spite’s eyes closed briefly, appreciating the touch.

‘We’re gonna get out of here, okay?’ She rubbed the scraggly feathers on her chin. ‘We’re gonna be alright.’

She heard Valour cry again, more distant this time.

‘Okay, Spite. Follow me.’

 

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