Blackwing Witch (Chapter 2: Wild)

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 Two: Wild

Wy picked her way from stone to stone across swampy land and then deep into the empty wilds, where mist hung low and clung to the branches of the old hairy trees and rocks jutted up from the mud like blackened teeth. She tracked past wild cats that watched from the long grass with wide eyes, and beneath crows that cawed and cackled at her passing. A spider almost as large as she was dropped on an unsuspecting swamp pig, that in turn tried to gore it with its broken tusks.

For Wy, this was not an unusual scene; she had fended off spiders with fire and had fled for her life from an enraged boar. She knew where the mud was mud and where the mud was lake, and knew which caves were safe to shelter in and which were full of bears. Danger was a constant in her life, but familiar in a way that had taken the sting from it. The blackwing’s violence stayed with her, however. She wondered, for the hundredth time, if she was making a mistake by trying to help it.

Their shack nested on a small hill, overgrown with brambles and shrubs save for the well-tended little garden out the back. Goats bleated at her irritably as she trekked up the narrow path. She patted the ones within range, idly dodging their headbutts, too preoccupied to tease them as they complained about being thwarted.

She came to the front door, greening with age and pitted with lichen, but still comfortingly solid under her touch. She passed through the main room, cluttered with loose tools, baskets of herbs, and stacks of books. There was one spindly bookshelf that swayed under the weight of the heavy tomes crammed onto its shelves, and there were a couple old but sturdy wooden chairs scattered at the little hearth, padded with threadbare cushions with woollen blankets draped over the backs. A table leaned against the wall, old but solid, and thoroughly stained.

Her room was tiny, windowless, with just enough room for a bed and a chest at the end of it. She rummaged in the chest, sorting through roughspun clothes and bundles of dried flowers, until she found her money pouch. She shook it; it made a small but audible clink. It would have to do, since she doubted her mother had anything else. She tucked it into her satchel and headed for the door.

It swung open in her face. Her mother stood there, wearing a long skirt with mud up to the thighs. Bare feet, slick with mud, poked out from beneath the hem. Her shocking white hair was bound back in a plait, the black streak at her temple obvious. In one hand, she carried a bow, with a couple arrows between her fingers. In the other, she carried a hare carcass by the ears. Her eyes, a cold black, assessed her daughter critically before her expression melted into a warm smile.

‘Wydis!’ Her voice was throaty. She leaned the bow against the wall and brushed past to dump the hare on the wooden table at the side of the room.t She wiped her hands on her skirt, adding red to the brown, then spread her arms wide to offer Wy a hug.

Wy accepted it stiffly. She wasn’t a hugger, but it made her mother happy. ‘I’m on my way out, mama.’

‘Good, good. You know I don’t like to see you about the house too much. You’ll become sick in your soul if you hide away in here.’ She gave Wy one last squeeze, then withdrew. ‘Did you find the feathers for your altar?’

Wy hesitated. Her mother had pushed and prodded Wy into going out for the feathers and she would be irritated if Wy didn’t find any. ‘Still looking.’ She gave her mother a shaky smile. ‘I think the energy from flight feathers will be best, but I’ve only found downy feathers so far.’

Her mother smiled. ‘I’m glad you’re taking it seriously.’

Wy headed for the door, but the coins clinked inside her pack. She froze, feeling her mother’s eyes on her back.

‘Wy …’

Wy paused in the doorway. ‘Mm?’

‘You’re not going back out for feathers, are you?’

Wy sighed. She’d really hoped to get away without this coming up.

‘Don’t sigh at me, Wydis.’ Her mother’s voice had taken on the cold tone she reserved for townsfolk.

‘I’m going to town for supplies,’ said Wy. She met her mother’s eyes even though it made her feel restless and trapped, because sometimes that pacified her mother.

Her mother pursed her lips. ‘Supplies for …?’

Wy looked at the floor. ‘I found a sick animal.’

‘Again? Wy, I’ve told you — it’s better to let nature take its course. You’re just letting things suffer for longer by healing them. It’s nature’s way that the weak die.’

Wy clenched her jaw. On this, she would never agree. ‘I heal them. They go back out healthy.’

‘For what? To die again? To pass on their faulty bloodlines?’

‘That’s not how it works.’

‘What is it this time? A bear cub? A wild cat? They won’t thank you for your kindness, Wy. To them, you’re just someone that’s hurting them. And you’ll hurt yourself in the process.’

That wasn’t her experience at all. The animals she cared for were sometimes wild or savage, yes. But given time, they usually understood that she was helping. That she provided food, that she eased the pain. They rarely tamed unless they were very young, and that was just as well — she didn’t want them to change their nature for her. She just didn’t want to watch them suffer. And if she got clawed up trying to heal them, that a price she was willing to pay.

After a moment of silence, her mother stepped forward and touched Wy’s shoulder lightly. ‘I’m sorry. I don’t want to fight about this. I just worry about you. I’m glad you have a soft heart, you know I am. I’m just afraid that it leaves you vulnerable.’ She took Wy’s chin, forcing her to meet her eyes, but still Wy’s gaze flickered from her eyes to her nose, not quite bearing the sustained eye contact. ‘Not everything deserves your love, Wy.’

‘Mama.’ Wy mumbled her name, irritated.

Her mother released her. ‘At least you’ll be going into town. Meeting other humans.’

Wy shrugged and opened the door. ‘You don’t spend time with other humans.’

Her mother laughed. ‘I did my time! I’m an adult with social skills.’ She sat in her chair and started wiping the mud from her bare feet. ‘Say hello to your father.’

Wy nodded and ducked out the door. As it swung shut behind her, a goat bleated and charged across her path, tripping her. She stumbled a few feet and it trotted up to her to try to bite her pack.

‘Yeah, all right. You got me, Pan.’ She scratched the goat between her ears. She was a black goat with a white moustache and a blank yellow gaze. She leaned into the scratch and then tried to stomp on Wy’s feet.

‘We’ll play when I get home. I’ve gotta go!’ She nudged Pan aside and headed down the path and back into the swamp.

She picked her way from earth to earth, avoiding the murk as best as she could, laying low when she heard the tell-tale rustle of predators. After an hour, she felt like she was making good progress: she’d easily make it to the village before nightfall and maybe even make it back to the Blackwing. If not, she’d shelter at her father’s. Her mother might claim she was destined for the night, but she’d rather not stumble around in the dark if she could avoid it.

It was not long until she heard distant bleating. She looked back; she saw something small and black struggling in some vines. ‘Pan!’

The goat bleated back at her and unsuccessfully headbutted the vines.

‘Hold still! Pan, you’re getting more tangled!’

Pan bleated some more. Wy went back and took a small knife from her belt. She murmured a prayer of apology to the vine before she cut the little goat free. Pan did a little prance when she was out, shaking her head so hard that her ears flapped.

‘Go home, Pan. Home. Home.’ She pointed back the way they’d come. Pan reared onto her hind legs and staggered about, trying to nip her fingers.

Wy sighed. ‘Oh Pan.’ It wasn’t completely unheard of for one of the goats to follow her, especially Pan. There were no fences on the land around Wy’s home, and their animals were free to come and go as they pleased. They didn’t usually make it this far, but Pan’s legs were clean and she had no scratches or wounds that Wy could see. She was doing a fairly good job of traversing the swamp so far.

‘You daft thing,’ she said, half in exasperation and half in affection. She scratched Pan’s chin. ‘If you won’t go home, stay close, okay?’

Wy fretted after Pan for a while after that, but the little goat was surprisingly good company. She pranced and played and grazed as they went, charging squirrels and rats and boulders. When the path got murky, she was quick to find a way across — sometimes leading the way for Wy and then laying in wait to try to push her into the mud. When predators approached, Wy didn’t have to warn Pan. Her playfulness vanished when faced with danger and she was fairly good at hiding, or leaping up into a tree and out of reach. Wy thought Pan would turn back, but the little goat seemed determined to dog Wy’s steps.

When at last they saw the town as the trees thinned and the mud firmed into long grass, Wy heaved a sigh of relief. The sun was still high in the sky, and she was really ready to rest her feet. She waded through the long grass with Pan following in her footsteps. Then long grass gave way to fields of sheep, who pan harrassed for a while before they ganged up on her and she hurried after Wy.

Then at last she stood on the edge of town. The buildings were all so large and the streets to busy. Everyone seemed to be doing something — a farrier hammered away in an open forge, a man washed sheets in a basin in the road, children chased chickens or were chased by sheep, and women sat at the well with knitting in their laps.

As she walked in, she heard a child call, ‘It’s the witch girl!’

Another shrieked, ‘Don’t let her touch you, she’ll put a curse on you!’ They scattered as she approached, and the farrier gave her narrow-eyed glare.

Wy sighed. ‘Well at least I have a friend this time,’ she said to Pan. The goat stared at her, then ran after the children.

‘Right. Right.’

 

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