Blackwing Witch (Chapter 3: Cursed)

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 Three: Cursed

She got her supplies from the local healer, an old woman with a kind smile for anyone who wasn’t Wy. Her house was filled with plants and shelves of strange vials and the air was heavy with the scent of earth and flowers, a home that wouldn’t have been out of place for a witch but the healer always made it clear that she and Wy were nothing alike. Wy gave up all but the last of her coins for it with the familiar, uneasy feeling of having been overcharged, and left with her pack much heavier and the words, ‘Gods have mercy on your soul,’ ringing in her ears.

Then Wy was standing in the road, arms crossed as she hesitated. Her mother wanted her to visit her father, and that would be the polite thing to do. She liked her father well enough, and he would certainly hear that she’d been in town. But the blackwing might not have much time left.

She went to the shopkeeper and handed over the last of her coins for paper and ink and the promise of delivering her letter.

Father, she wrote. There’s a sick animal waiting on me so I couldn’t say hello. I’ll come visit in a few days, though. May the sun smile on you, Wy.

It was a little abrupt, but she couldn’t think of anything else to say. She handed over the letter to the shopkeeper, a young man with a thick and well-tended moustache, which he curled as he smiled and accepted the letter. The shopkeeper was always nice to her, but she didn’t think it counted for much. He was largely interested in her money, which spent as well as anyone’s.

When she got back outside, she tripped over Pan and fell to her knees, getting her hands out just in time. Before she could stand up, Pan was on her back and nibbling at her hair. ‘Pan!’ She tried to dislodge the goat, but Pan bleated delightedly and barely stumbled. Eventually, Wy just had to stand up and force the little goat to jump free.

‘I don’t have time to play, Pan.’ She turned her gaze to the mountain that reached jaggedly into the sky. ‘There’s someone counting on me.’

Pan was less delighted by the journey back, growing ornery and butting Wy more and more, until eventually she grew bored and trotted home alone. Wy’s path split from hers; if she stopped home, she might not make it to the blackwing by nightfall, and the sun was already lower in the sky than she liked.

When she made it to the blackwing’s cliffside perch, she estimated she had only a few hours left until sunset. She pulled herself up onto the stone shelf and crouched on the edge. The shadows had grown longer, enveloping the blackwing. It had rolled onto its side, its cheek still resting in a pool of dried vomit.

‘Hey there, beastie,’ said Wy. The blackwing’s eyelids fluttered in a flash of luminous green, then closed again.

It was a bad sign that it hadn’t managed to get out of its vomit. It had to be extremely weak if it couldn’t even spend such a tiny amount of energy. ‘Probably going to gut me for trying to help you and then you’ll go and die anyway,’ Wy said. She took a couple of steps closer. When the blackwing didn’t react, she dropped her satchel to the ground and started sorting through it.

‘I think you’ve just eaten something nasty,’ said Wy. ‘And you’re too weak to fight the poison. So I’ve gotta help you puke it out and soak up the rest.’ She took a vial of green liquid from her pack and a small waterskin. ‘This’ll make you vomit,’ she said. ‘It’s yellowthorn root extract. It shouldn’t poison you, if you’re anything like a bird, but it’ll make you puke like crazy.’

She poured it into the bowl, then poured some water on top. Then she picked up the bowl and gently tilted it, swirling the two liquids together. ‘Okay. I’ll leave that to mix a bit.’ She dusted off her hands and drew a deep breath. ‘I need to make sure you’re not wounded otherwise this will be pretty pointless. So I’m really hoping you don’t kill me.’

She got a bit closer, and closer, and when the blackwing was within arm’s reach and still hadn’t lashed out at her, she decided it was probably too weak to kill her.

She checked its back and hind legs first, stepping over the thick, tufted tail. The claws were held dried blood and dead flesh, probably from whatever carcass had sickened it, but the legs were whole and unharmed saved for some old scars on its sweaty, pimpled skin beneath the feathers.

Then she had to check the wings, which were both much closer to the forelegs and beak than she liked, but it hadn’t kicked her when she checked the feet so she decided to risk it. She felt the dragon’s sides — even for a bird-like creature, the blackwing’s ribs were too prominent. She wiped her hands on her trousers — the blackwing’s hot skin and oily feathers had made her hands feel greasy — then felt along the blackwing’s folded wing. She could barely cup the bone with her entire hand, but she couldn’t detect any breaks. She murmured a prayer to the moon and stars and tried to pull the wing out.

The blackwing’s nasal whine stopped. A low, rumbling growl followed. Its feathers stood up, making it look larger.

Wy held very still. ‘I’m not going to hurt you,’ she said, in as soothing a tone as she could manage. ‘And I think you’re too ill to hurt me. So maybe you could stop threatening me?’

The blackwing continued to growl. Moving away might entice it to attack a fleeing target, but continuing to work as if she hadn’t been warned seemed a bad idea as well. So she stood there, hands on its wing, until its feathers smoothed and the growl died in its throat.

Once its breathing had returned to its wheeze, she spread the wings — a hard thing to do when it was larger than she was — holding the enormous limbs over her head and checking that they had a normal range of movement. Then she felt along the forelegs and the creatures thickly ruffed throat, but though it had some old scars beneath the feathers, there were no wounds that she could see.

The head looked clean except for the vomit. She covered her mouth with her arm while she checked, as the smell was so strong it was difficult not to gag. Up close, the blackwing’s face was more elegantly shaped than she’d realised, the strange semi-beak, semi-muzzle blending seamlessly together, the scales fading into the smooth head feathers. Its crown of horns looked smoother than she’d expected, and its long ears twitched at her nearness, picking up her every movement.

‘No wounds,’ Wy said. She backed up slowly, her eyes never leaving the prone blackwing. Then she got a large dropper from her pack and syringed up the mixed water-and-yellowthorn solution. ‘You’re not going to like the next part.’

She ran the end of the dropper gently along the dragon’s beak. It clacked its jaw at the touch, and she shoved the dropper in and dispensed the solution. While the blackwing made a faint prrt of protest, she refilled the dropper and gave him another dose. After the third dose, the bowl was nearly dry and the blackwing had opened its eyes to glare at her. Its claws scritched against the stone as it clenched its hand ever so slightly.

‘Okay. I’m done now.’ She raised her hands, then backed up a few more steps.

Within ten minutes, the blackwing was vomitting again, great long blorts of bile and liquid that brought up the rest of the meat chunks, and then it was only bile, then dry wretching, then it just shivered where it lay, utterly spent.

‘All right, beastie.’ She brought her pack nearer and rested a hand on its neck. It only continued to shiver, and didn’t register her touch at all. ‘That’ll have got the poison out of your belly, at least. But you’ve still got to fight all the poison already in your blood.’ She pulled another waterskin from her pack, this one with a long neck. ‘This has most of what your body needs, okay?’ She’d mixed it herself — water to hydrate, honey for energy, and a few pinches of salt besides. Until the blackwing was well enough to eat, it would have to get what its body needed from this.

The blackwing wouldn’t open its mouth this time when she ran the bottle along it — from exhaustion or wisdom, she couldn’t tell. ‘Okay. All right. Please don’t bite my fingers off.’ She’d been thoroughly chewed by animals in the past and her fingers had the scars to prove it, but the dragon’s serrayed beak looked wickedly sharp. She found a branch on the path below and after prising the dragon’s mouth open, used the stick as a bit to stop it closing. It was so weak that it barely struggled.

‘I’m sorry, you know.’ She put down the bottle. ‘I know you don’t understand me, and you don’t understand what I’m doing. But I don’t want to hurt you, or make you sick, and I don’t like seeing you like this. I’m not the world’s biggest fan of dragons, or anything that wants to eat me, but still don’t want to see you sick or dead.’

She stood up and dusted off her hands. ‘I’m off to refill that waterskin and the bowl. When I get back, I’ll clean you up before your next honey drink if you promise not to kill me.’

And when she got back, she did, wiping a rag along the dragons chin which came away crusty with vomit. She patiently wrung it out then continued to clean it, before finally using the rag to mop up most of the vomit on the ground.

The sun was starting to set, the shadows growing longer and more threatening over the swamp below. Wy poured the last of the honeydrink into the bowl. ‘Drink this if you can,’ she said. ‘I’ll be back tomorrow.’ She touched its feathered ruff, and this time it didn’t growl.

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