Title: The Winter Dragon
Length: 2,538 Words
Rating: PG (For blood and mention of wounds)
Warnings: None that I can think of
HC_Bingo Square: Ostracized from society (Bingo card is here. Apparently I'm going for two horizontal bingos, which has nothing to do with how I still haven't thought of anything for 'coma' or 'bruises'.)
As you can probably tell, this is fantasy and will probably be the first part of a novel or novella at some point. Eventually. I've got two other novels to finish first.
Enjoy, and thank you very much for reading. :D
There was a puddle of blood in the snow, very red, about the size of her palm.
"Rabbit?" Rosemarie wondered aloud. She tilted her head back a little to sniff the air, turning this way and that, but all she could smell was cat spray--her moggie, most like--and smoke drifting over from the village. They'd be cooking their suppers now, stoking the hearth fires before the night settled down to bring too much cold and dark. Rosemarie's stomach rumbled, but there wasn't anything could be done about that; not when there wasn't even a whiff of rabbit, either torn up or alive.
"Owl probably carried it off," she grumbled, looking sourly at the blood. It had melted a shallow pool in the snow before it froze but it'd likely been there for hours already, whatever left it long gone. "Some kind of bird anyway, since there aren't any tracks." She peered up at the branches above her, squinting to see red among the growing shadows of evening. "Something overhead dropping blood," she mused. "No leaves to stop it coming down." And yes, now she could see thick streaks of red where something's blood had splashed on the winter dark wood as it fell to the ground.
"Dying bird," Rosemarie said, then tsked in sympathy. Maybe an eagle could survive a wound that would drop that much blood, but the eagles lived in the mountains, nowhere near the deep valley and its forest with the village clinging to its edge and her little cottage deep inside it. "No bird here's big enough to come out the other side of that." Rosemarie clawed a lock of frizzy orange hair behind her ear then wiped her nose on her sleeve. "Ooh, it's cold out." She wrapped herself in her arms to shiver and then breathed out a gust of steam. "So, do I go home to a warm fire and empty belly? Or do I try to find that bird and get soup tonight?"
She followed her footpath of crushed and hardened snow with her eyes until it twisted too far into the trees to be seen. "Long way to walk, yet, and short time until dark. I shouldn't waste it, but I'm hungry. Nasty villagers." She glared back down the path in the direction she'd come and spat violently onto the ground. "It's all good and well to come to Rosemarie when your husband burns his hand or your little girl's coughing fit to burst her lungs, isn't it? But as soon as I need something, suddenly three eggs or a few dried apples are too much to part with and the half-breed's out to steal your pigs and gobble up your children! The same children I tended all summer, with their coughs and their cuts and their broken bones and fevers, and now I want to thieve them for my stew, do I? Bah!" She scowled then pulled her worn cloak around her and lurched away from the path. "Spatter's that way, so the bird is this way," she muttered and nodded to herself. "Ooh, maybe an owl got a rabbit and dropped it! Maybe they'll be stew after all. Nice stewed rabbit."
Rosemarie sighed and kept walking, tucking her arms inside her cloak and gathering the cloth as tightly to her as she could. "There are only so many nuts I can gather, you know, before they're gone like the summer's berries. And I know who snuck into my hutch and stole my chickens! See if I tend you next time you try to kill a boar bigger than you are, Sam Green. It's not just a game if I'm starving now, is it? Not just a bit of fun at the expense of the Goblin-girl when I…Oh! Is that more blood there?"
She waded through the thickening snow until she was close enough to see another splash of red on the branches. "Oh yes, there it is!" she said happily, and then lifted her head to sniff the air. "Ooh, my nose. It's too cold for scenting. But I don't know that smell. I don't, I don't…Definitely not a rabbit, maybe no bird either." She sighed. "That's sad news. But what is it?"
Rosemarie's joints always hurt terribly in the cold, especially her hips and knees, but at least there was no wind. "And there's a warm fire waiting, and some tea. And I can spare some herbs for the pain. Yes. I'll do that tonight." She nodded firmly to herself. "Hmm. Flying lower now, looks like." There was more blood here, splashing along the trees' bark. "Strong thing too, if it--oh my goodness!"
She stopped, blinking, and then carefully shuffled forward one step, then two. The forest was very thick this deep inside it, so she hadn't seen the thing until she edged around the giant trunk of an oak tree and nearly stumbled into it.
The path led here. There was something large and red lying in a tumbled heap on the snow and a mess of splintered branches. It was as big as a wolf but it certainly wasn't one. Wolves didn't have long, thick tails like that, and they certainly weren't as blood red colored as what had seeped down and frozen on the snow. Wolves certainly didn't have wings.
"Goodness," Rosemarie said again, very softly. "What are you? Are you still alive? Wyvern, maybe?" She thought aloud as she got closer. "No…not wyvern, though my, you do have wyvern teeth. But there's never been a wyvern that red, and you've got four legs, don't you, beastie? Not just two." She was close enough now that her nose was full of the smell of the thing: the thick copper of its blood and something else that reminded her of her hearth and the Market hut of the tea seller when she'd gone in the spring. "You smell male for sure, just like my mog. But no stench of dead yet, which means you have to be alive. Ooh, I hope you're alive--gah!"
The red creature was very much alive, and showed her just how much by whipping up his head on his long neck to snap at her. She yelped and tried to scramble backwards and instead fell on her backside in the snow. His eyes were yellow as the sun and narrowed in very obvious threat, but the creature could barely hold his head up, and sank back to the hard-packed snow with a small sigh.
Rosemarie tsked as she fought her way onto her knees. "Oh hush, you. I know I look a fright, but I'm not going to hurt you. Besides, I'd be a real beauty among my Da's family, I'll have you know. 'A prize', he said. Even if I'd be no good for hunting with my bad legs." She looked over the creature as she spoke, her gnarled but still-deft fingers feeling for breaks or the hot tightness in the belly that would mean he was bleeding inside. The animal lifted his head again long enough to growl before he flopped back to the snow. He pushed feebly at her with his claws, too weak to more than scratch her tough skin.
"Don't you think you'd be dead by now, if that's what I wanted?" Rosemarie scolded. "You're no rabbit, but I bet you'd make good stew all the same, wouldn't you? Probably taste like salamander though, most like." She sighed. "Wish I had a rabbit to offer, beastie, or a bird even, but it seems we're both going hungry tonight. Ooh--that wing is torn, poor lamb. And that's where the blood's from, I see. Well, I don't think you'll die from it but I can't do anything for you here." She sniffed and rubbed her cold nose then tucked hair behind her ear. "And me with such a long way home and you to carry and no rabbit." She sighed again. "Well, nothing's to be done for it. All right." She stood up, wincing as her cold joints unbent. Her leggings were wet from blood and snow and her feet were freezing.
"Now don't tear my best cloak," she said to the creature and then grumbled a little to herself as she fumbled the deer-bone clasp open and pulled it off her shoulders. "I have a book at home that will tell me what you are, but for now I can't just call you 'beastie', can I? So, you're Red. Red blood, red skin…suits you, I'd say. Now I know this will hurt. There's nothing I can do about that. You just behave."
Rosemarie gently dropped the cloak onto the creature and this time she was prepared for the growling and thrashing as he tried to escape. But she was strong like her father and even cold and aching as she was it wasn't too much trouble to wrap Red securely, rolling him into the cloak so that only his head and part of his neck peeked out. She was careful as she could be, folding the wing against his side, but the creature still cried out in obvious pain. He screamed like an eagle from the mountains.
"I'm sorry!" Rosemarie said. "I am, truly, but if I leave you here you'll die and I won't do that. Sometimes it's cruel to be kind and there's no choice about it."
Red wasn't impressed. He hissed and snapped at her as she lifted the bundle into her arms and staggered upright, trying to bite though he could hardly even swing his head up to get his teeth near her. "Fierce little thing, aren't you?" Rosemarie said. "And Stubborn. That's good, though. The stubborn ones live. You'll live too, I'm sure of it. Don't know about that wing, though. Dear me, you're heavy! Stop squirming--do you want us both back where we started, ass-deep in the snow?" She clutched the bundle of creature more tightly to her chest. Red let out an angry little squawk but he couldn't move well enough to struggle. "There, that's better. Oh, don't look at me like that! You brought this on yourself, you know. Well, at least you'll warm up some, rolled in that. Better than both of us freezing, anyway."
Rosemarie took a great gusting breath that drifted away as white mist, and then took her first lurching step to go back the way she came. "It'll be easier going in my own footsteps, lucky for us both or we'd be here all night. What am I going to do with you, anyway?" She glanced down at the creature as she carefully placed her feet. "Maybe you'll fly away come springtime, like the winter birds." She frowned. "If you'll fly again. I've never seen a wound like that. Don't know how to fix it, either. Maybe I can sew the pieces back together, like a torn shirt. What do you think, Red?" She ducked and turned her head so she could look at one of his big, birdlike eyes. "If I sew it up, will you be able to fly? I'm good with stitching--Sam's belly was like a burst water skin after that boar got him, but I mended him up. He's not nearly so pretty without a shirt anymore, but he's alive and hale and that's what counts. I don't think your wing will be pretty either, I'm afraid. But pretty won't mean anything if you can't fly, hm?"
Red blinked at her, slow and sad, and then let his head drop.
"I promise I'll try," Rosemarie said. She adjusted her hold on the creature so that she was carrying him more like a baby and less like an ill-tempered cat. "Well, you sleep then. You don't feel quite so heavy without all that struggling, anyway. That's good."
She staggered her way back to the path, making sure to put her feet in the holes she'd already made. Night had fallen and the cold was awful, but she could smell her moggie again now, and her eyes were keen enough to see his delicate paw prints weaving between the clumsy holes made by her boots. "Ooh, he came to lead me home, Red," she said, patting absently at the bundle in her arms. "He's a good cat. Good, lovely cat. If you eat him, I'll have a stew of you right after. Make no mistake."
Red slit open one eye.
"You heard me," Rosemarie said. Satisfied, she nodded to herself and walked on. It was easier going now that she was on the path again. "Almost home," she murmured. "Almost home to my little cottage. The villagers gave it to me, you know," she told the creature. "After Tamin the woodcutter died and there was no one else to claim it. It's perfect, you see," she went on, the bitterness in her voice like rotted honey. "Close enough to the village that they can find me whenever they need a healer, and far enough to keep the ugly goblin-girl away. But I don't mind," she said quickly. "I've got Moggie for company and all the quiet I could ever want, otherwise. It's not so terrible, being alone. You'll see."
"You'll see," she said again. She could see the bent shadow of her cottage now and walked faster, despite how tired she was. "Here we are. It's small, but it's warm and clean. I'll get you settled and comfortable and then tomorrow I'll see what can be done about your wing. And you can meet Moggie. I'm sure he'll like you, if you don't try to eat him. It's always nice to have someone new to talk to, isn't it?" Rosemarie said as she fumbled the key off her belt. "Sometimes I do get a little tired of just hearing my own voice. Ooh, it's cold." She sniffed then wiped her nose on her bundled cloak. "Sorry." She managed to slide the key into the lock on the door without dropping it or Red, despite her trembling. "Not that you seem to be a speaking type of creature," she added thoughtfully. "But you do seem to be good at listening. Ah, here we are." The door finally creaked open and she carried Red the last few steps into the house.
The only light in the small, one-room cottage was from the hearth where a fire still put up a weak orange glow against the darkness. It was very warm, almost hot, and Rosemarie sighed in relief. "That's better."
She lay the creature down on her own bed, though to be truthful it wasn't much more than a pallet of reeds in a corner near but not too close to the fire. She kept Red wrapped in her cloak, as much because she didn't have the strength to free him right then as because she was worried that he'd try to hurt her or escape.
"I'll snare a rabbit in the morning, or Moggie will find something. You'll see, Red," she promised. "We'll eat and I'll find out what you are and fix that wing of yours. Everything will be all right.
"Just don't eat my cat," she added, as she latched and barred the door.