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.
Chapter Eight: Possessive
Wy waited at the forest’s edge, fiddling with the tattered edge of her coat. She’d gotten Pan home and had just enough time to get back to the town’s border, and already she was regretting everything.
She’d spent too long away from the Blackwing. It would need more food, and soon, to keep up its strength. She had salted meats wrapped in her pack, but they would only keep so long and were likely to attract spiders besides. Spiders which she would struggle to see at night, for all her vaunted moon magic. She should never have suggested sunset, but she wanted to time to prepare and to give Mirran a chance to get away from their Knight master.
And now it was growing dark, and Mirran still hadn’t shown, and Wy was faced with the familiar conflicted stress of the oncoming night.
Sometimes, it seemed that her mark had been well-chosen, that it was the only mark that fit. She felt brighter at night, somehow. More alert, more alive. She could see well in the dark, for someone who generally couldn’t see that well. And where the cool air brushed her skin, she felt sparks.
If she was left to sit outside the shack on the little hill, with the candlelight filtering through the windows behind her and the goats gently snoring in their shelter, she would look up at the sky and feel like she could see directly into another world, as the elder witches had told her during her apprenticeship. She felt like something charged, a magical creature all her own, as wild and powerful as a feral dragon.
But if she strayed deeper into the wilds or even Amys Mor, she would shrink in on herself. Everything was cast in silver and shadow, too soft to easily make out. Every leaf that stirred, every animal that stepped, was amplified in the echoing silence. And the creatures that came out at night were not kind to lone witch girls — whether those creatures were shaped like giant spiders, or shaped like the men of Amys Mor.
And now, sitting on the border between both the wilds and the town, she felt doubly exposed, doubly vulnerable. And Mirran still hadn’t shown.
Perched on the large rock they’d agreed to meet at, with her feet dangling, the forest at her back, and the wide farm fields stretching in front of her, Wy waited with her chin in her hands.
The moon broke free of the horizon and still, Mirran didn’t appear. Maybe she had been foolish to expect a noble to keep her word. Maybe she should go back.
But then she saw a lone figure leaving the town, barely more than a blur in a long cloak. Wy shifted back on the rock, sheltering behind it to peek around, pulse loud in her ears. She knew that it must be Mirran, that it could only be Mirran, and yet there was a part of her that wanted her to run away rather than risk meeting a stranger alone at night.
As the figure neared, she became more certain.
‘Wydis?’ Mirran pulled down her hood. Her gaze searched the rock, then swept the tree line.
‘I’m here.’ Wy emerged, and Mirran took a half-step back. ‘Something wrong?’
She looked unsettled. ‘I … no.’ She raised her chin. ‘I’m just surprised. You were right there, but I had no notion.’
‘Witchfolk are good at hiding,’ said Wy. She motioned for her to follow, heading into the forest. ‘It’s not hard to hide at night, anyway.’ Which was one of many reasons it was so frightening.
Mirran easily kept pace with Wy, mediating her long strides to fall into step beside her. Wy looked the squire up and down. Her boots were a thick, crisp leather, her dark trousers and loose blue shirt made of a fabric so fine she couldn’t see the weave. ‘I told you to bring something you didn’t mind getting muddy,’ Wy said.
Mirran stopped and looked down at herself. ‘I clearly did.’
Wy crossed her arms, scrutinising them more closely. The boots were a little muddy, and the trousers a little stained in places, but … ‘This is really what you wear to — what? Muck out Valour?’
‘Among other things, yes. Is that so surprising?’ She sounded embarrassed, but Wy was already blushing and profoundly grateful that the moonlit hid it. She’d considered those clothes to be of ceremonial best quality.
‘Well, when we get to the swamp, you’ll need to follow my steps closely or you’ll ruin them forever.’ She pushed on, hoping to leave her misunderstanding behind.
Mirran’s lips quirked to one side as they resumed walking. ‘Thank you, Wydis. I’m sure I can handle a little mud.’
Wy pushed back a flare of irritation and let it pass. She’d learn her mistake soon enough. ‘Oh, and you’ll want to take this.’ She handed her a pale moonstone which looked almost luminous in the silver light.
Their fingers brushed briefly; Mirran’s fingers looked long and delicate, but the skin was rough from use. ‘It’s warm!’ Mirran glanced up at Wy in surprise.
‘It’s warm from my hand; it’ll cool down quickly overnight. It’s an amulet of nightwalking. I enchanted it myself. It should bring you luck in moonlight, and help avert the gaze of those that would do you harm.’ She made a face. ‘That’s the idea, anyway. I’m not … I’m not very powerful. I wear my own one, anyway.’ She pulled a moonstone wrapped in copper wire from beneath her shirt collar. It hung around her neck from a leather strap.
Mirran’s expression rippled, too fleeting for Wy to read. At a guess, she was uncomfortable with witchcraft. Many were. But she only said: ‘Thank you for thinking of me,’ and tucked it into their pocket.
The journey with Mirran was largely silent. After a few missteps which led to her legs sinking up to the thigh in mud and Wy hiding a smile behind her hands, she followed closely in Wy’s footsteps.
If only Wy could be confident of her own feet. She paused often, taking in her surroundings and trying to pierce the thick darkness with her gaze. Paths were harder to find and predators were harder to detect. It made her uncertain, and her skin prickled constantly with the sensation of being watched. She hated to think that Mirran would think her an incompetent guide because she was out of her element in the night. But she managed to avoid falling into the stinking swamp mud, and she caught the eerie reflection of moonlight on a giant spiders many eyes in time to throw out her arm and lead Mirran onto a safer path.
‘You live here,’ Mirran said as she helped her out of yet another sinkhole.
‘All my life,’ Wy replied. She glanced back at her, but the squire’s expression was hard to make out in the darkness.
‘It’s … isolated.’
Wy shrugged. ‘Compared to a town maybe. But I live with my mother and usually my two sisters, although they’re away on apprenticeship. The wilds can feel small when we’re all home.’
In fact, she missed her sisters, though that was a weird thing to say. Yelen and Ilvisar were completing their apprenticeships with elemental witches — Yelen with air, Ilvisar with fire. Every night when she had returned to the shack on the hill, she’d felt the walls pressing in around her, and her sisters seemed to loom larger in that space, voices echoing, all emotion and scent and eyes with nowhere to escape to. But though they had only been gone a few months and would be back by the end of the year, she felt their absence now and the space seemed now simultaneously too big and too small — too big in the quiet moments when she was left alone, too small when she faced the full attentions of her mother with no one to distract her.
‘Do you visit your father often?’ Mirran asked. ‘Lady Arielle was very complimentary of his work.’
Wy glanced at Mirran sidelong. Yes, she was sure Lady Arielle was an excellent judge of character. ‘Often enough.’
That seemed to end that line of conversation, and honestly Wy was glad. She didn’t want Mirran or Lady Arielle prying into her family affairs.
When at last the earth rose from the mud and waters and they found themselves at the foot of Nyar Vell, the moon had reached its zenith and the air had grown chill. ‘It’s just up this path,’ she said to Mirran. She stopped when she realised Mirran hovered anxiously at the bottom. ‘Mirran?’
‘My apologies — I can’t see the path.’ She took a few steps, foot slipping to one edge.
‘It’s just a bit narrow,’ said Wy.
‘Of course. I’m quite capable. I’ll follow your lead.’ But a few steps on, Mirran slipped again, and Wy lunged back to catch her arm and stop her tumbling from the path.
‘I — yes. Thank you.’ Her usually musical voice was flustered.
Wy released her. She didn’t slip again.
At last, they made it to the part of the path that sat just below the blackwing’s ridge. It was too dark to make it out, and she had no idea how it would react to her visiting it at night — though surely it could hardly be worse than it had any other time.
‘The blackwing’s up there,’ she said, pointing. ‘Or it was the last time I was here, anyway. I suppose it could have flown off, if it got back enough strength, but it was pretty weak. I’ll go up first. Once I’m all the way up, you climb up after me.’
Mirran nodded. ‘If I may — why the delay?’
Wy stared up at the shelf of shadow above them. ‘Because I might have to come back down in a hurry and I’d rather not land on your head.’ She hoisted her pack higher on her shoulder. ‘Wish me luck.’
‘May the Goddess shine on you,’ Mirran replied, which didn’t sound anywhere near as good as luck, but it would have to do.
Wy started the ascent up to the blackwing’s perch, all too aware of how precarious her position was. In the haze of night, it was a lot harder to place her feet, or reach for the next handhold. Everything was obscured by shadow, and it was hard to tell where the edge of any single piece of rock or branch really was.
When at last she got her hands on top of the mountain shelf, she glanced warily around before pulling herself up. The blackwing lay in the corner, stretched out in sleep. As she got her knees up, its eyes opened, their green glow cutting through the dark.
‘Hello, beastie,’ she said softly.
The blackwing hissed, throaty and full of spit, but didn’t move from where it lay.
She took off her pack, and she watched its eyes follow the movement, lingering on the pack before darting back to her. People said that noble dragons were extremely intelligent, smarter than dogs and young children, but feral dragons were meant to be too primitive for that level of reasoning. Through her interactions with the blackwing, she was undecided, but it definitely seemed to connect her pack with the food she’d brought last time.
‘I’ve brought more food,’ she said, and its ears flicked forward then back again, edges illuminated by the glow of its eyes. ‘You can have it in a minute.’ She didn’t want to incite it to push her from the cliff again. She hadn’t forgotten its possessive excitement over the meat paste, nor her painful tumble. One side of her body still ached terribly with every movement, and the flesh there was still black with bruises.
‘I’ve brought someone to see you,’ she said. The blackwing heaved itself onto its feet, stumpy tail flicking. The glow of its eyes made them seem much larger at night. ‘Someone I hope you won’t be able to kill, since she knows about dragons and will be onto your tricks.’
The blackwing took two steps toward her, then fluffed its feathers and fanned its wings. It lowered its head, a growl emanating from deep within its throat.
She was amazed by the number of different ways this dragon had to express its displeasure. She’d always found cats to be very encompassing, but the blackwing’s vocabulary for aggression far oustripped any feline’s.
She held still, keeping her eyes on it but not challenging its stare. Gradually, its feathers smoothed. It sat back on its haunches and started preening its chest, an incongruous scene for a creature with such a long, cruel beak.
‘Mirran?’ she called, muting the sharper notes of her voice. ‘Come up. Slowly.’
The blackwing flicked one long, tufted ear, but did not respond.
A moment later, Mirran appeared at the edge of the shelf. Wy glanced at the blackwing: still preening. She quietly went to Mirran and helped her up. The squire’s hands were cold from the climb.
‘So this is your blackwing,’ said Mirran. Wy glanced at her, noting the pity as her eyes lingered on the blackwing’s narrow ribs.
The blackwing’s ears pricked and its head lifted. Green eyes flashed. Wy didn’t even get time to cry a warning before the blackwing launched itself at Mirran. Wy and Mirran scattered, Wy backing against the wall and Mirran balancing precariously on the cliff’s edge. The blackwing stood with its back to Wy, feather’s fluffed, ears back, hissing at the squire with more venom than Wy had ever seen from it.
Mirran regained her balance, hands out in a wary show of peace. ‘Calm down,’ she said. ‘I’m not a threat. I’m just a small, squishy human.’
The blackwing hissed again and shuffled its wings, trying to look bigger.
‘Be careful,’ Wy said. ‘It’s pushed me over the edge before.’ She tried to skirt the blackwing, but it shuffled with her, hiding her from view. She went in the opposite direction and it went with her again, this time thumping her with its short tail. ‘Uh … Mirran?’ She peered under the blackwing.
Mirran kept her hands out and slowly slid their pack from their shoulders. ‘It’s protecting you,’ she said softly.
Wy eyed the blackwing uncertainly. As if it sensed her gaze, its ears flicked back at her. ‘That seems unlikely.’
‘Not really. You’ve been feeding and nursing it. Dragons are intelligent creatures.’ They froze as the blackwing started to rumble with a high-pitched internal growl. When the growl died down, she continued, ‘It might be more of a possessive thing. It doesn’t want to share you.’
‘I’m honoured,’ Wy’s tone was dry. Again, she tried to edge free of the blackwing; this time it cawed and backed up against her, pinning her to the wall. Its feathers were musty and smelled of dander and swamp. She turned her head and held still. Better not move again lest it completely smother her.
‘I’m going to back up,’ said Mirran. ‘I don’t think it will let me get any closer.’
After a moment, the blackwing eased off of Wy and she squeezed past it. Mirran was on the far side of the perch, sheltering behind the same boulder Wy had used to defend herself from the blackwing’s attempted poison breath.
She went to her pack and pulled out a wrapped leg of mutton. She unwrapped it and tossed it at the blackwing’s feet. It pounced on it, stripping it with its serrated beak, growling all the while.
‘Are you sure that’s wise?’ Mirran asked from behind the boulder.
Wy wiped her hands on her trousers. ‘If it’s well enough to crush me into a wall, it’s well enough to eat.’ The blackwing settled down on its haunches to properly enjoy its meal.
Mirran came around the boulder slightly and the blackwing froze and started growling again. ‘Testy.’ She disappeared behind the rock again. ‘I suppose you’ll have to tend it. The horrid creature won’t trust me any time soon. Have a look in my travel pack, would you?’
Wy crouched beside the squire’s pack, noting that the ‘travel pack’ looked expensive enough to feed her family for a year. Gold-plated fastenings and leather embossed with noble dragon art: clearly a must-have for a pack you were taking into a swamp. ‘What am I looking for?’
‘Basic things, such as any real Elysian has to hand,’ she said airily. ‘There’s a nail trimming kit, some feather oils, and a nutritional supplement. There are also sedatives.’
Wy’s stomach clenched. ‘I’m not sedating it just because it’s a bit difficult.’
Mirran peered around the boulder again. ‘Wydis — that’s more than a little temperamental. It’s a feral dragon. It’s probably killed humans before and thought nothing of it.’
Wy pulled out the crystal vial labelled ‘sedative’ and tossed it over the side of the mountain.
‘Wait!’ Mirran rushed out, only to be chased back by a snap from the blackwing’s beak.
She eyed her dispassionately. ‘I’m not sedating it. It’s not displaying stress behaviour and I’m not doing anything invasive. It’ll never trust me if I start drugging it.’ She opened the jar of supplements, sniffed it, and made a face. ‘This is more the thing.’ She closed it and sneezed into her arm. The blackwing hissed and jumped back, watching her with narrowed eyes.
It made a sound that was more grumble than growl, then resettled atop the leg of mutton.
Mirran made a sound somewhere between a sigh and a growl of frustration. ‘Why did you invite me if you don’t want my help? I’ve been Valour’s squire since I was a child: I know what I’m talking about!’’
Wy glanced at her. ‘I do want your help. I just don’t want your help sedating it. We’re getting alone well enough, aren’t we, beastie?’ She approached cautiously with the supplement, hoping to toss some over the mutton, but the blackwing puffed up and swiped at her as she neared. She dropped her handful in her haste to back away.
‘Really? Two seconds ago you were defending me!’
It tore another strip of meat, flicking an ear at her.
For a moment, the only sounds were Wy’s panicked breathing and the blackwing noisily deconstructing its food.
‘Are you alright?’
‘Fine.’ Wy struggled to sound calm. ‘It didn’t get me.’
‘Wydis … I know you don’t want to hear this, but that blackwing needs to be put down.’
Wy backed away from the blackwing and joined Mirran behind the boulder. The squire stared at the blackwing, her skin ashen.
‘It’s doing fine,’ said Wy, her voice low. She didn’t want the blackwing to pick up on the tension tightening her gut. ‘In a week, it may even take off on its own.’
Mirran lifted her chin, silver hair falling away from her eyes. ‘I think you’re probably right. But — and I know you don’t want to hear this — it’s extremely dangerous. It seems fond of you, in its way, but it nearly disembowelled you right then. You have no notion of how sharp those claws are, nor how strong that dragon is, but I’m certain that it knows.’ She peered around the rock, to where the blackwing was eviscerating the leg of mutton. Without looking up from its meal, it started growling. ‘Worse, it associates you with food. What will happen when it gets hungry again? Do you think other humans will be safe from it, when it comes so close to killing you?’
Her words struck Wy somewhere deep, landing with every bit the sharpness of the blackwing’s claws, but Wy refused to let her see that. ‘Do you think I haven’t heard these arguments before? That I should let wild things die, that I shouldn’t let them get used to people. But the fact is, the blackwing needed my help and I gave it. I don’t regret it, and I’m definitely not going to hurt it.’ A darker thought occurred to her and her gaze sharpenend on the other girls’ face. ‘And I’m not going to let you hurt it, either.’
Mirran met her eyes for a frozen moment, then let out a long, exasperated sigh. ‘I’m not going to kill your pet murder beast,’ she said, looking away. ‘How would I manage? An overdose of sedative would do it, but you’ve rather defeated that idea. It was expensive stuff, too.’
Wy scoffed. ‘As if money means anything to you.’
Mirran’s jaw clenched. ‘Money means plenty to me, Wydis of the Empty Wilds. It means something to anyone who doesn’t want to grub around in the mud.’
For a moment, Wy was entirely and completely vulnerable. She had bared her world and heart to Mirran, and Mirran had seen it and plunged a knife directly into it.
Tears burned in the corners of her eyes and she fought to keep them in. Of course this was how Mirran saw her — how everyone saw her. A savage witch girl rolling in the mud. A freakish outsider.
‘Leave.’ Wy’s voice was tight. If she let up for even a moment, she knew she would crumble.
Mirran’s eyebrows sprung up. ‘Really? Fine.’ She stood and dusted herself off. ‘Good luck playing “dragon tamer” without me. You really have no clue, do you? She’s female, by the way: no feather crest on her head, not that you would know.’
She made to collect her pack but the blackwing lunged forward, hissing, so she backed away with hands up. She threw Wy a disgusted look. ‘Keep it. It’s filthy now, anyway.’ She scooted to the edge of the perch and disappeared below.
Wy drew in a shuddering breath, clenching trembling hands at her sides. This was every reason she hadn’t wanted to meet Lady Arielle.
‘I’m such an idiot,’ she said to the blackwing. It — she — eyed Wy beadily as she collected Mirran’s pack and slung it over her shoulder. ‘It’s like mother says: witchfolk are solitary with reason.’ She stood just out of range of the dragon, which still watched her, green eyes luminous and unreadable in the dark. ‘Blackwings too, I suppose,’ said Wy. ‘I’ve never seen more than two of you at once.’
Mirran’s disgust flashed through her mind again and a wave of shame rushed over her, making her breath shake. She sunk to her knees, trying to push the image away. The tears she’d been holding back now ran down her cheeks. She dashed them away with hands that trembled as much with rage as with sadness. ‘Moon and stars, how did I ever think this would work out? I thought — nevermind.’ She brought her knees up and wrapped her arms around them, burying her head.
She’d thought she would have an ally. She’d thought Mirran’s kindness to Valour would extend to the blackwing. A sign of a softer nature. But she already knew that people who were kind and good had a limited supply of both, and never had any to waste on her. She was an idiot. Again and again, she was an idiot.
Warmth and the musty smell of feathers. She lifted her head slowly: the blackwing’s beak was inches from her head. Her breath — swamp and blood — washed over her.
The blackwing nudged her shoulder gently. She closed her eyes a moment and wished for the blessings of the night, then lifted her hand and rubbed it down the blackwing’s beak. The light from the blackwing’s eyes vanished momentarily as she closed her eyes in acceptance. Then, just as quickly as she had appeared, she fled back to her corner.
Wy watched her stretch out in the shadow, claws reaching for empty air, stumpy tail shaking out. ‘The noble dragons all have names of beauty and virtue. You know — Valour, Wisdom, Aurora — that sort of thing. Somehow, I don’t think you would like that. I don’t think I would like that, either.’
The blackwing’s eyes slitted open, watching her from the shadows.
‘If you don’t mind,’ said Wy ‘I think I’ll call you Spite.’
The blackwing cawed back at her, her voice oddly gentle. Then she closed her eyes and snored loudly, leaving Wy alone in the dark.