Blackwing Witch (Chapter 9: Contrary)

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 Nine: Contrary

When next she visited Amys Mor, Wy found that Lady Arielle had already arrived. From the forest line, she could see the Knight striding around the village, trailed by awed onlookers and servants wearing the same blue-and-green tunics that Mirran had worn on their initial visit to the town.

Wy glanced nervously at her mother, who took in the scene with the focused gaze of a bird of prey. There was no hope that she hadn’t seen — Wy’s mother could see a fish struggling in the mud from a hundred paces.

‘So that’s the Elysian Knight,’ she said, her voice oddly flat. She looked especially intimidating today, as she refused to make any concessions to the townspeople’s judgement. She wore a flowing brown lace dress that split at the front, a full skirt beneath it, bare feet, and a wolf fur shawl around her shoulders. A quiver of arrows hung at her hip and she held an unstrung bow in one hand — she rarely left home without it.

‘Lady Arielle,’ Wy said, trying to hide her dislike. ‘What’s she doing back here? Father can’t have fletched her more arrows already, can he?’

‘I wonder if it has to do with your father at all,’ her mother replied, giving Wy a sidelong look that made her squirm. ‘You didn’t say much about her last visit.’

Wy stared at the sheep-cropped grass beneath her feet. ‘There wasn’t much to say.’

Not much that wouldn’t get her into trouble with her mother, anyway, and she seemed to be in enough of that already. Today, Wy wore crow feathers in her hair and a split black robe over patched trousers and soft-soled boots. She’d finally finished her altar to her mother’s satisfaction, though her mother had questioned the crow feathers as an option. ‘Crows are traditional,’ her mother had said approvingly. ‘But didn’t you want a nocturnal bird — an owl, perhaps?’

Wy had shrugged and averted her gaze. ‘I guess I’ve just been feeling a connection with crows recently,’ she said. She felt like her mother would read ‘blackwing’ on her face, or hear it behind her words, but of course that was ridiculous.

Her mother had only made a polite sound of acceptance, but Wy had often caught her staring at Wy’s altar with a thoughtful twist to her lips.

Now, she watched Wy with that same look, like she knew there was more to the story and was just waiting for the rest to reveal itself. ‘Well, I’m sure we’ll have little to do with her, at any rate,’ she said. ‘We’ll say hello to your father, trade with the shop, and be on our way.’

Wy nodded quickly, though she’d never enjoyed visiting her father when her mother was there. Her parents had a complicated relationship that she’d never quite understood, and it made her uncomfortable to be in the same room while they made awkward small talk, as if they hadn’t had three daughters together.

The sheep barely stirred as they passed, just waggling their short tails and sidestepping to clear their path, never pausing in their happy grazing. Wy missed Pan with a sudden pang — having the little goat with her on the last few trips had made it pass more quickly, and she’d really enjoyed watching her attempts to harry the normally unflappable flock.

As they passed into town, people looked up but the usual whisper chains didn’t start. Everyone’s attention was on Lady Arielle and her entourage of servants. She was pointing at the buildings and carrying on loudly: ‘And of course we’ll need to widen the roads. If there’s to be proper travel through these parts, these sand tracks will never suffice. And the farm of course, will –’

‘What is she on about?’ Wy murmured to her mother.

Her mother cast a dark look at the Knight. ‘Nothing good. It never is, with nobles.’ Her gaze moved past Lady Arielle to Wy’s father’s fletching yard, where even now her father was outside at the worktable. Her expression shifted entirely, going wide-eyed and thin-lipped. ‘Oh, and there’s your father. Actually, Wy, would you mind giving us a few minutes before you come in? I need a word with him in private.’

‘Uh … sure. I’ll just … go somewhere else, then.’ Wy stopped walking and watched her mother straighten her shoulders and stalk toward her daughters’ father.

She scrubbed at her face and looked around. It would be hard to do the planned shopping without her mother, who always added several items to the list once she was standing in the shop and would expect Wy to somehow have intuited what those would be. Plus, her mother had all their charms and trade goods, and feeding Spite had thoroughly cleaned out Wy’s meager pockets.

She looked around at the townsfolk, hoping vaguely for a friendly face, but she was met with only scowls and averted eyes. Her gaze passed back to Lady Arielle and her cohort of servants. Now she had roped a handful of townsfolk into her crowd and was gesturing exaggeratingly at them.

‘Visiting dear old dad again?’

Wy turned. Mirran stood beside her with her arms crossed, taking in the scene. Today the long hair on top of her head was a mess of silver curls. She wore the same dragon-marked tabard she’d worn the other day, a silver-threaded belt encircling her waist and a dagger at her hip. She looked every inch the noble warrior, at ease in her colourful finery. Though all the servants wore the same peacock blue, only Mirran bore the dragon-mark.

‘We’re here to trade,’ said Wy. She frowned at Lady Arielle.

‘We? Don’t tell me your wayward sisters have returned.’

They weren’t wayward in any sense of the word, but Wy didn’t think Mirran was concerned with fairness right now. There was an edge to her tone, a lightness to her lyrical voice, that set Wy’s teeth on edge. She hadn’t noticed it before, but Mirran seemed the sort to whisper poison with the sweetness of honey.

‘My mother,’ said Wy, holding back a smile at the thought of Mirran trying to put down a witch as hard and wily as her mother. Mirran would soon lose her false sweetness when faced with that. ‘Why, what are you doing here? Father can’t have made your master more arrows already.’

‘Oh, the arrows.’ She sniffed dismissively. ‘That was an incidental part of our trip. Lady Arielle has been granted Amys Mor and surrounding lands as a reward for her service as a Knight.’

Wy went cold. She glanced at Mirran, whose arms were crossed, her expression artfully calm. ‘Amys Mor is already owned,’ she said.

‘By who?’

‘By the people living in it!’

Mirran shrugged. ‘Perhaps you see it that way, but the law is quite clear. These are the queen’s lands, and the townsfolk are just living on it. She can give it out as she pleases, and the law states that her Knights may claim any town for themselves and only the Queen can take it back, unless another Elysian Knight makes a challenge for it. And all the other Knights are already settled.’

Wy turned to her, troubled. It was a law she was familiar with, in a fairytale story sort of way. Knights taking to the skies in search of land of their own in which to raise their dragons, in the sprawling comfort of the countryside rather than the cramped quarters of court. But for Wy it had always just been that: a story. The Empty Wilds were too mired in mud and too full of beasts and bandits to be of interest to anyone. They rarely even saw traders in Amys Mor, which was a town on the way to nowhere and boasted only sheep and an elderly fort that watched the non-existent border. She’d never even seen a Knight until Lady Arielle came to collect her arrows.

Maybe it was the law, but it was wrong. She felt it with an iron certainty and a forge fire in her gut: Amys Mor belonged to the townsfolk, to people like Alden Toll whose family had lived there for generations, to people like Irrina Velen, the healer as old as the hills, and to Arnwright Cooper, the shopkeeper who had moved in a few years ago and was nonetheless a fixture of their town. Amys Mor belonged to the people who lived in it, and as for the land … the Wilds belonged to no-one, not even Wy, not even her mother. The land belonged to itself.

She didn’t think Lady Arielle, with her sparkling armour and her perfectly coiffed hair, could know the first thing about caring for it.

Mirran arched an eyebrow. ‘Something the matter?’

Wy didn’t feel like getting into that with Lady Arielle’s squire, especially not when she was feeling hostile. She was tempted to walk away, but until her parents were free, where would she go?

‘Is Valour here?’ she asked.

A shutter went down behind Mirran’s eyes. ‘Of course,’ she said guardedly. ‘You can hardly expect Lady Arielle to ride horseback like a common cavalry soldier.

‘Is she well?’

Mirran blinked. She uncrossed her arms, letting them hang at her sides. ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘She’s healthy, anyway. She doesn’t much like waiting in an empty field, and she doesn’t enjoy being the centre of attention. But Lady Arielle is already making arrangements for a stable to be built for her.’

‘I’m surprised you aren’t with her,’ Wy said. ‘You seemed quite devoted to her on your last visit.’

Mirran looked away. ‘Lady Arielle requested me in the town,’ she said carefully. There was a tightness about her jaw and lips that made Wy think there was more to this ‘request’ than Mirran was letting on, but she didn’t think anything good would come of prying.

Wy’s gaze went back to her father’s house, hoping her mother would be standing outside and waving her over. Instead, her eyes caught on a too-dark shadow in the corner of the yard and the impression of feathers. She blinked, and the shadow was gone.

No. It couldn’t be.

‘You’re staring. What is it?’ Mirran followed her gaze.

‘Oh! Nothing! I think my mother’s ready for me.’ She walked in front of Mirran, blocking her view. She felt breathless and frantic, her pulse jumping in her veins. She left Mirran pursing her lips, looking irritated, but she didn’t have any concern left to spare on that. She half-ran to her father’s house and rounded the corner, hoping desperately that her mind was playing tricks on her and she hadn’t seen feathers.

As she turned into her father’s yard and into the shelter of his workroom, she came up short.

The blackwing froze mid-preen — it had been cleaning the feathers on its legs — and stared at her with all-green eyes. Slowly, it lowered its foreleg.

‘Oh Spite.’ Wy was breathless with shock, her lungs suddenly thin. ‘What are you doing here?’

Spite cocked her head to one side and made a quiet sound somewhere between a caw and a high-pitched croak. It was an incongruously sweet sound from a creature with a beak as long as her forearm, even if it was a bit frog-like in tone.

Lady Arielle would kill her if she discovered her. That’s what Elysian’s did: they trained to hunt and kill dragons, from dragonback and on foot. And Wy didn’t doubt that the Knight would take pleasure in doing it.

Spite stretched her neck toward Wy.

Wy backed up. ‘Woah. What’re you doing?’ Her entire body tensed, poised to flee.

Spite nudged her satchel, nostrils flaring.

‘Oh. No, I didn’t bring anything.’ She pulled her satchel behind her and out of reach of the dragon’s sharp break.

Spite’s eyes flashed; she snapped at Wy’s arm, and Wy barely pulled out of the way. ‘No!’ She said the words firmly, and without thinking she tapped the dragon on the beak. It was so light that it would barely have registered to a cat — she considered punishment cruel, and had always favoured expressing displeasure over actual punishment — but still both dragon and girl froze in place. Wy held her breath, wondering if this was the moment when the blackwing would finally gut her.

Spite’s mouth opened wide, jaws slick with saliva, the serrated edges of her beak cruelly sharp. She cawed in Wy’s face then shuffled backward, fluffing up her feathers like a crow sheltering from the rain.

If Wy didn’t know any better, she’d think the blackwing looked remorseful.

‘Wy?’

‘Aargh!’ Wy stumbled back out of the sheltered area into the workyard at the sound of her mother’s voice. ‘Oh, uh — hello, mama.’

Her mother rounded into the yard, brow pinched. ‘I thought I heard you. Who were you talking to?’

‘Oh, um — a crow,’ she said, praying to every star in the sky that Spite would remain hidden.

‘A crow, really.’ Her mother’s voice was flat, but then she shrugged a sharp shoulder. ‘You are getting very fond of them. I wonder if they might be relevant to your power awakening.’

‘Mm,’ said Wy, nodding, because she really didn’t know what else to do. She wanted to keep her mother happy but she also desperately wanted back out of this conversation so that she could find some way of getting Spite back out of the town without Lady Arielle spotting her.

Her mother raised her eyebrows. ‘Come in, your father’s waiting.’

Wy hesitated. If she went, she wouldn’t be able to track Spite. But if she stayed, her mother might get suspicious, and she definitely didn’t want her to encounter the blackwing. ‘Actually, mama, I’m, um, not finished with this crow.’

Her mother stared at her, non-plussed. ‘With the crow.’

Wy nodded mutely.

A pause. ‘…Alright. Well, I’m going to the shop. I’ll stop by again before I leave, but if you’re not here you’ll have to make your own way home.’

Wy nodded again. ‘That’s fair.’

Her mother stared at her for another few seconds, clearly sensing that something was amiss, but since she could hardly have suspected that Wy had accidentally smuggled a feral dragon into the heart of Amys Mor, she just shrugged and moved on.

Wy sagged with relief and hurried back to the sheltered area. ‘Okay, Spite –’ she stopped, then closed her eyes and inhaled raggedly.

Spite was gone.

This didn’t need to be a cause for panic. Perhaps the dragon had returned to her shelter on the cliff, or had simply flown off to resume her life — she was clearly strong enough to follow her here, and there was no reason to think she hadn’t flown. It would be bizarre for her to continue skulking around the town, especially when there was a noble dragon so nearby — feral dragons hated and feared noble dragons, and tended to flock together to attempt to drive them off.

She would take a quick walk around town and hopefully she would manage to avoid —

Something pushed her from behind. She staggered and spun; Spite cocked her head to one side and croaked hopefully.

‘Spite!’ Wy looked around; the blackwing would be visible to onlookers, but nobody was screaming yet. She hurried into the shelter and the blackwing followed her. ‘Spite, you can’t just wander around here. People here will kill you if they see you!’

Spite flattened her ears at Wy’s tone. Her stumpy tail wagged anxiously.

Wy exhaled slowly. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said in a low voice. ‘I didn’t mean to upset you.’ She almost reached up to rub Spite’s face as if she were a cat, but restrained herself just in time.

Spite nibbled her beak at her, mollified. She started eyeing Wy’s satchel again, which Wy quickly put behind her. While Spite tried begging with a pleading look from her pupilless green eyes, Wy’s mind spun, trying to come up with a plan. She needed to get Spite out of the town without her being seen. That would be difficult enough, but Spite had followed Wy here with no prompting — she had no idea how to convince the blackwing that Amys Mor wasn’t safe.

‘Stay here,’ she said. She pointed at the ground. Spite’s gaze followed her hand, then bobbed back up to her face. ‘No … here.’ She knelt and patted the ground. Spite leaned forward and sniffed it, then sneezed and looked back up at Wy expectantly, mucus dribbling from her nostrils.

‘Spite …’ Wy said tiredly.

Spite licked the mucus clean with a horny black tongue.

‘Look, just … stay.’

She backed out of the shelter and when Spite only watched her with her head cocked to one side, she fled to the house.

When she got inside, her robe was stuck to her body and her hair was somehow both frazzled and sweaty. Her father looked up from his sketchbook at her arrival. ‘Wydis, you made it! I thought perhaps you’d had enough of me.’

There was a shyness to those words that made Wy’s heart ache. She never wanted her father to feel unloved, but visiting him required travel and preparation, not to mention that they never seemed to know quite what to say to one another. Her mother, frustrating as she could be at times, was somehow a lot … easier. They might irritate each other sometimes, but there were no awkward silences.

‘I’m always happy to see you,’ she said, meeting his eyes to try to convince him of its truth. ‘I’ve just got my hands full today.’

Her father nodded. ‘I see. Anything I can help with?’

It would be such a relief to have help, to be able to show someone the blackwing and strategise how to get her out of town. But Wy was under no illusions as to how Spite’s appearance would be received, and she hadn’t forgotten her father telling Lady Arielle about her — even if it was out of a misplaced sense of pride, it still stung like betrayal.

But she did have the help?

‘Do you have any meat?’

Her father blinked. ‘Uh?’

‘Raw is fine.’ She hesitated. ‘I can pay you back after Mama sells my charms.’

Her father raised his hands. ‘No, no, it’s fine. It just wasn’t what I was expecting — you’d think I’d be ready for that by now, but you girls never stop surprising me.’ He headed for the door.

Wy immediately blocked his path.

‘Uh … Wy?’

‘Where are you going?’

He raised his eyebrows. ‘I keep my meat in a salted barrell in the yard. Are you alright?’

‘I’m fine. I’ll get it. Thanks so much!’ She flashed her father what she hoped was a bright smile and rushed out of the door.

‘You’re welcome?’ His puzzled reply followed her.

She found the barrel along the wall. It was bolted shut and packed tight, so it took a few minutes of straining to pop the lid. The smell of salt and blood immediately assailed her. ‘Great,’ she said, pulling out what looked like a haunch of mutton. That would probably do the trick, though she worried about feeding the blackwing so much salt. She heaved it out of the salt barrel and washed it in the waterbutt in the yard.

‘Ah. Wydis of Amys Mor. A pleasure to see you again.’ Lady Arielle strode toward her, Mirran a step behind and looking sheepish. Her eyes trailed to the leg of meat hanging from Wy’s grip. ‘Planning for company, are we?’

 

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