A Practical Guide to Wound Healing
She lived alone in the woods. There was something eerie about her, though one would be hard pressed to say what, exactly, it was. Perhaps it was a glint in her eye, or the knowing edge to her smile. She had long, dark hair, a charming face, and a strange, lilting way of speaking. She frightened the villagers, but they would never lift a finger against her. There were other things in the woods. Things much darker than the witch. As long as she protected them, she could stay.
She knew they were unnerved by her, although she blithely pretended not to notice. She hummed to herself under the willow tree, shaving silver bark into her basket. Her long skirts dragged in the mud and moonlit water. Her breath plumed in the frozen air, the chilly night coiling around her like a second skin. Ice gathered in the lace of her dress. None of this bothered her. Her dexterous fingers and small, sharp knife made quick work of the tree, bark peeling away in long, slender strands. Willow was an excellent painkiller, and she had a persistent, needling feeling that she would need a lot of it very soon. She recognized the feeling as a premonition and knew better than to ignore it.
She sang tunelessly to herself as she worked. It is often said that a Witch’s voice is enchanting, but hers was sub-par. The kelpie in the river listened contentedly anyway. A creature that resembled an owl watched from the boughs of a tree, eyes gleaming in the moonlight.
She skipped along the bank, heedless of the mud splattering her skirts and boots, basket swinging gayley. Herbs dripped over the edges, colorful flowers bobbing. She tucked the knife into her dress. Her hair bounced around her shoulders, studded with tiny crystals of frost. She smiled and strode along the banks, water swirling around her shoes. It was a strange sight, a lovely, mad-looking woman strolling cheerfully through the black woods at midnight under the full moon, a myriad of shining eyes watching her from the shadows. She left no footprints. There was something in the woods that did not appreciate her gentle song, or the way she pulled the cold around her like a cloak, the way the moonlight glimmered off her skin and glittering hair. It could smell the magic on her, trailing in the waters of the river and soaking into the earth. All the plants bloomed more vigorously in her wake and the light poured like liquid silver around her.
She could feel the hungry eyes on her back. It made the skin between her shoulder blades itch. She had felt the eyes on her for the past several months, growing more and more venomous. Something was growing restless. Her song faltered. A small fae creature trilled unhappily, and she hastily picked the tune back up.
She made her way back towards her cottage, following the mercurial pull of magic. She was particularly fond of full moon magic. It was soft and silvery and made something swirl delightedly in her breast. Her cottage did not look like a witch’s cottage. Or, more accurately, it did not look like the witch’s cottage the villages likely expected. It was a small, three-roomed affair, ivy and moss and climbing roses crawling determinedly up the slate walls. Yellow honeysuckles draped themselves over the tree branches, nodding lazily. A black cat sat on the neat little stoop, watching her with wide green eyes. The witch smiled at the animal, who meowed in return. It got to its feet, silver and moonstone charm around its neck glittering, and trotted up to her side.
The cat, Knox, glared reproachfully as she realized that she wouldn’t be able to wind
around the witch’s ankles. The witch smiled, smug. The cat had a terrible habit of tripping her and making her drop her basket.
They climbed the steps and the witch, whose name was Serena, unlocked the door. Immediately, rows and rows of cheerful, half-melted white candles burst to life. Some bobbed in the air, others littered every available surface, cantilevered like legions of drunken soldiers. Bundles of dried and drying herbs hung from the ceiling and the walls were covered with strange metal contraptions, painted symbols, and exotic art. Any surface not occupied by candles played a host to a myriad of books, some stacked in precarious piles, others left open and set aside, stuffed with pages of notes in Serena’s elegant scrawl. A huge bookshelf dominated one wall, so full that the wood strained. Little glass vials full of multicolored liquids crowded the shelves over a thick butcher block counter. Two large blackened metal cauldrons sat shoved in the corner, flanking a neat broomstick that hovered an inch above the floor. A large black owl watched her calmly from the rafters.
The floor was absolutely clean. Potion making and spell casting could be dangerous work, and one of the first things a witch learned was to keep her workspace floor clear. No one wanted to spill a half made, simmering potion down their front. The cat, Knox, darted away and leaped onto the worn, cozy old couch, finding a clear spot on a thick woolen afghan to settle down and watch. Serena strode into the generous kitchenette and set her basket down atop a pile of books. Despite their frankly absurd angles, they did not fall over. She really should clean up, but her fingers trailed along the complex diagrams of stars and planets, the careful illustrations of flora and fauna, and the painstaking lines of cramped writing, and could not bear to set them aside.
Serena was a certified bibliophile, and there were more books in her home than in the three nearest villages combined, not to mention the maps, charts, and scroll she bought from sailors and merchant when they passed through. Serena loved knowledge, which was part of what made her a formidable witch, a sensible woman, and contributed to the villagers’ distrust. Sensible women, she had found, quite terrified un-sensible people.
There was something heavy in the shadows tonight. The moonlight streamed in, pooling on the floor and distilling in bright quartz crystals placed strategically around the cottage. The black owl hooted. Serena hadn’t named it; he neither needed or wanted a name. Unlike Knox, he was entirely wild, and while Knox would be thoroughly offended to be called tame, she lived with Serena, and thus, needed a name.
Serena began picking curls of willow from the green stems of other plants. She was quick to shut the willow and the foxglove into a small wooden box with the rest of her potential poisons, worried for Knox, who had a habit of chewing on leaves left in the open. In went the wolfsbane and holly, the stinging nettles and lily petals, the yarrow, oleander, and other toxic plants. The harmless ones were carefully sorted and put in their own box, then placed on the shelves with the other potion ingredients. She would string up the ones that needed drying tomorrow morning. Until then, they would remain preserved in their respective places.
Serena eyes her potion store critically. She was running low on several ingredients. Kelpie hairs and grave dirt were easy enough to get ahold of. Banshee tears and phoenix feathers, on the other hand, were much trickier. She hoped a merchant came through town soon. She sorely regretted that she didn’t live near the ocean and the mountains herself, but she was needed in the woods. If it came to it, she could spare a weeks journey, but the crawling darkness in the forest was unsettling, and she was reluctant to vacate her post. She put it out of her mind, taking up a notebook and glossy owl feather quill to jot down notes. The prickling feeling of premonition had eased, but there was something coiling uncomfortably in her gut.
Willow, she thought. Cobwebs. Honey. Goldenrod. All shining in her mind’s eyes like gemstones. Wound healing, she thought with dread. And a lot of it. She looked worriedly at Knox, who seemed unconcerned. She watched Serena out of brilliant emerald eyes, slitted in the gloom. Her paws were tucked under her chest and her tail twitched from side to side. The owl in the rafters hooted calmly. Serena trusted their instincts, but even so, she found it difficult to sleep that night. She felt like something was watching her. Something that meant her, meant all of them, harm. And it wasn’t the kelpie in the river.
Serena woke to gentle sunlight spilling across her face and a weight on her chest. Knox’s nose was nearly pressed to hers. The dappled sunshine was warm and Serena stretched luxuriously, reluctant to climb out of bed. Now that she was awake, however, the world around her bright and alive, she found it impossible to fall asleep again. With a reluctant sigh, she sat up. Knox landed with a fwump and a disgruntled meow on the blankets beside Serena. A book toppled to the floor and she jumped, fur fluffing up along her spine. Serena laughed, standing and pulling a red and black robe over her nightgown.
She padded into the main room, inhaling the scents of herbs and flowers and old books. The door was ajar. She frowned at it. The owl was fast asleep in the rafters. Nothing had been disturbed, but she was certain that she had closed the door behind her. Closed and locked. Nothing untoward should have been able to open that door, but there it was, sunlight streaming in through the gap. The crawling feeling was back and stronger than ever. She remembered a gaze full of hatred and hunger and shuddered, checking the lock again. The symbol carved delicately into the metal glittered in the light, free of the thin coat of rust that usually covered it. Unsettled, Serena knelt and checked the runes carved into the doorframe and the stoop. The symbols were still there, still strong, but every scrap of dirt and dust that should have been settled like a downy blanket on their surfaces had disappeared.
Serena hurtled down the steps and fell to her knees in the dirt, not caring that her whitenightgown was stained, not caring that her robe flowed after her like a matador’s flag beforespilling to the dirt in a puddle of crimson and black. She looked wild, the sunlight and shadows playing across her clothing and glowing in her tiger’s eyes.
There were pawprints in the dry black dirt. They were larger than her spread hand, long and bestial, but there was something disturbingly human in the spread of the toes. There was nothing human, however, in the unmistakable mark of razor claws sinking into the soil. A shiver like frigid talons shredded down her spine.
Knox meowed from the doorway. Serena jumped to her feet, fear making her quick. “Knox, no,” she snapped, holding out a hand. “Stay inside.” Knox froze. She was a cat, and thus she did not take orders, but there was something deadly serious and very scared in Serena’s voice. Knox made a quizzical twittering sound, glossy raven fur prickling. Serena tried to smile reassuringly. The footprints stopped at the foot of her stairs. Willow. Cobwebs. Honey. Goldenrod. She scrambled back up the steps and into the room, snatching her messenger bag and madly stuffing things into it. In went tinctures and bandages, potions, a sewing kit, clean water, boxes of herbs and bundles of cotton. In too went a pair of silver daggers, a sharp iron poker, bottles of magnesium and salt, and a large pair of shears.
She shoved a thick leather-bound book into the bag, barely stopping to see what she was grabbing, trusting her hands to know what she needed. When the itch in her head subsided, she stopped and peered around the cluttered cottage. Knox was standing on the table, watching her, tail waving. The black owl was glaring out of sleepy yellow eyes. She couldn’t see anything else that might be useful, and though she was not entirely certain what was in her bag, she felt prepared. Well, as prepared as she could, considering the circumstances.
Her broom flew obediently into her hand and she grabbed a heavy black cloak from the rack by the door. It settled around her shoulders like a pair of great black wings. The clasp was silver and glinted in the light. She dashed out of the door, slamming it behind her with a loud thud and a click, then nearly tripped over a sleek, furry something under her bare feet. She stumbled and caught herself on a tree laden with flowers. Knox looked up her innocently. Serena growled in the back of her throat, but something told her to allow the little cat to come. After all, what kind of witch didn’t have a helpful black shadow of a cat at her heels?
Sighing, she lifted the little creature into her arms and placed the broom horizontally in the air. It stayed there, motionless. She looked sternly into Knox’s great green eyes. “Do not,” she said, “scratch me.” Knox meowed. She was a clever creature, and Serena hoped she had gotten the message even though cats, traditionally, do not speak.
She jumped neatly onto her broom, which sank under her weight before recovering. The broom was an entirely inanimate object without her, but she was fond of it, in the way that many people are fond of their mode of transportation, and had a habit of addressing the broom like a living being. A bundle of soft golden feathers and bright stones swayed from the end of the handle. She balanced Knox securely on her thigh, tucked under one arm, and took hold of the handle. The stones glittered, catching the sunshine in a wholly unnatural manner. Serena kicked off.
The broom soared into the blue sky. Wind whistled past Serena, tangling her curls, sending her cloak streaming out behind her. A handful of songbirds burst out of the trees, twittering indignantly. Serena shouted an apology, the wind snatching her words away. A crow flew beside her, black wings beating in the air. It cawed happily, mistaking her for one of its own. Serena smiled. She liked crows.
The broom soared above the trees, catching a crisp, gentle breeze and racing towards the village. Lush green leaves zipped past below her. The sunlight was warm against her back despite the wind. Knox’s claws dug painfully into her thigh and her heavy bag pulled at her shoulder.
It took them very little time to reach the village. Flying was quite an expedient, not to mention enjoyable, mode of travel. Even the nerves leaping like a shoal of fat silver fish in her gut couldn’t banish the delight Serena took flying. The crow peeled off abruptly as she began her descent, letting out an alarmed caw when it realized where she was going. That was not a reassuring sign. She could not hear any birds, or, in fact, hear any sign of non-human life, as she dipped back into the woods. Even the little giggling fae among the branches were silent, not one single one trying to tempt her off the path. Dread shot down her spine.
Knox leaped to the floor before she had come to a full stop, grateful to be on terra firma once again. Cats were not meant to fly. Humans were not meant to fly either, but humans often have misguided ideas about what is good for them, so this did not deter them one bit. Serena jumped gracefully off the broom and took off running, leaving it suspended in the air. Knox bounded along at her ankles and her robe, cloak, and gown flapped after her in a series of strange banners. The rough forest terrain did not bother Serena. She ran so quickly and lightly that she barely seemed to touch the ground, feet guided by some peculiar second nature. Not a single twig dared to catch and yank at her hair on that day, not a bee or wasp or biting ant took advantage of her exposed skin.
She had landed a little under a mile away from the village proper, aware that dropping from the sky on a broomstick, whatever her intentions, was inviting trouble, but she and Knox cleared the distance in less than two minutes. She skidded to a stop in the center of the village, earning herself scandalized looks from the proper village folk. Here she was, this wild young thing, showing up in her nightclothes, hair unbrushed and wind-tossed, hem stained, barefoot. As ever, she did not care. She spun around, searching. Knox growled, a deep, low snarl summoned from somewhere primal in the animal’s body. The phrase ‘scaredy cat’ is misleading in many cases, and Knox remained stubbornly at Serena’s side.
Serena grabbed the arm of the nearest passer-by. She registered blonde ringlets and a fine silk dress. Tessa, a voice supplied, though the girl was a stranger. “Tessa, have you noticed anything strange recently? Aside from me, that is.” Tessa looked stunned and horrified, staring at Serena’s hand like it was venomous. Serena snarled, taking Tess by both shoulders and turning her so they were nose to nose. Tessa’s eyes were wide and blue and scared as she stared into Serena’s fierce, handsome face. “Tell me!”
Tessa squeaked, terrified, and pointed frantically down the road. “There were strange sounds from the Tyler farm this morning,” she yelped. “I heard some traders talking about it, but that’s all I know!” Serena dropped her without another word and took off at a dead sprint. That little interaction would do nothing for her reputation, but at the moment she couldn’t care less. She felt sick, her stomach turning over and over, premonition screaming in her brain. Willow. Cobwebs. Honey. Goldenrod. She ran as fast as her legs could carry her, the wind gathering under her arms and propelling her across the ground. Knox raced loyally beside her. The pair was a black, red, and white blur, sending alarmed villagers scattering. The wind seemed to laugh, skipping around Serena like a pack of playful wolves.
She could smell something burning, something hideous and acrid, and her gut clenched. Bile rose in her throat. She recognized that smell: burning flesh. She raced up the path to the farmhouse, registering distantly that there were no horses, no cows, no fowl, to be seen. Strange, elongated footprints marred the dirt. The door shattered inward in front of her and she bounded through the entrance, the scent of blood thick and revolting. She swerved around the corner, feet nearly slipping out from under her in her haste, and froze. Something hot and sticky splashed up onto the hem of her nightgown. Knox stumbled into the back of her legs, yowling unhappily as her claws scrambled for purchase on the smooth wood. Serena was too busy trying not to throw up to pay her any mind.
The farmer had always been a nice man. He hadn’t trusted her, there were too many stories of witches diseasing cattle for that, but they had an understanding. She had provided him with a cure for his sickly daughter and he gave her a discount on cheese and eggs, and a few other things that must have seemed downright strange, like feathers and fur and toenails. He was sprawled out on the ground in the living room, although that was perhaps the wrong word. More accurately, he was scattered there, along with something red and squishy that, judging by the long auburn and silver hairs and torn leather boots, might have been his wife and son. Serena retched. She recognized the muddy, crimson pawprints on the carpet. They were the same ones she had seen outside her cottage. The thought that those horrific talons had been so close to her for so long squeezed like a vice around her heart. It had been so close and she had done nothing and now the Tylers were dead. Except someone was missing. Their daughter, Elizabeth, the one she had saved as a baby, wasn’t there. It was difficult to tell, but she couldn’t see any scattered golden hairs or shredded pink bows that would have indicated her presence.
She forced herself to step forward, the carpet squelching, oozing between her toes, and inspected the remains. She saw no sign of the little girl, though she did find a torn eyelet blanket that had once, probably, been white. Mrs. Tyler had been expecting, she remembered suddenly, and tears spilled down her cheeks. Behind her, Knox howled. Serena whirled to see her cat turned into a Halloween caricature, back arched into a near-perfect crescent, fur standing straight out, eyes wide and wild. She scrambled to Knox’s side and screamed at the top of her lungs.
Serena was not a woman prone to fear or exaggeration. She was, as mentioned earlier, a very sensible girl. The thing in the hall, however, banished every sensible thought from her sensible brain and replaced them with the high, blank buzz of the truly terrified. She screamed loudly enough to send distant birds scattering, to cause every dog in the village to howl and the wind itself to stumble in surprise. The kelpie in the river snorted, and the black owl lifted its disgruntled head. Her horrified screaming and Knox’s yowl mingled into a hair-raising sound of absolute fear that would have been enough to turn the stomach of even the bravest of men.
The creature nightmarish, all twisted lines and vitriolic, burning eyes. Its claws were longer than most kitchen knives and wickedly hooked, and it was so blatantly almost-human that she wanted to cry. It was soaked with blood and flecked with little bits of the Tylers. Knox screeched indignantly, offended by the incredible unnaturalness of the grotesque figure. Serena reached into her bag with shaking hands. She had never been so afraid in her life. She had stood toe to toe with kelpies and fae, with dragons and sea monsters and sphinxes, and nothing she had seen had been so deeply, viscerally upsetting. It was its eyes, she thought. They were so human, but the emotion in them was so far beyond anything human that it was dizzying. It advanced on her, growling low in its throat. Knox snarled, backing away beside her girl.
The creature was taller than Serena, tall enough that she had to tilt her head back, giving her a disturbingly good view of its long, bloodstained teeth. It advanced, slowly at first, and then all at once. It launched itself forward, slamming Serena into the wall, its claws sinking into the soft flesh of her shoulder, scraping the bone. Serena shrieked in agony, the creature’s foul, stinking breath steaming around her face.
She thrust her dagger up, driving it between the creature’s ribs. It yelped like a wounded dog but didn’t let go. She caught a flash of fangs and just managed to twist out of the way. She had the terrible feeling that letting those fangs meet her flesh would be the end of her. There was something diseased about those jaws, something ugly and gangrenous. She twisted the knife, the creature’s bulk pressing down on her, claws burning like fire in her shoulder. She snapped her left hand out, the razor point of her second dagger slicing through the tendons of its paw. It screeched, obviously not expecting her to still be fighting.
Her vision was going fuzzy and blood, both her own and the Tyler’s, soaked into her clothes. The Tyler’s were still warm, and that filled her with rage. Her desperate, cold fingers closed on something glass in her bag, and she smashed it into the side of the creature’s head. There was a sizzle, a flare of blinding light and searing heat, and a familiar smell. Magnesium. The beast recoiled with a howl. Serena scrambled to her feet, stumbling towards the Tyler’s kitchen. Blood streamed, hot and vital, down her arms. She couldn’t feel the wound, but she knew that her lifeblood was slipping away. She had precious little time before she wouldn’t be able to lift her head, let alone fight a creature twice her size. Knox was mewling, bouncing around her ankles, trembling as droplets of dark blood spattered her flank. Serena collapsed against the heavy wooden table. The air smelled strongly of herbs. There was a small, muffled scuffling from the larder.
Serena struggled to stand, panting. Her head was spinning. She reached into her bag, searching for something, anything, to help her. Her slick fingers closed on the cover of her book. She spared a moment to feel annoyed that it was being damaged, but pulled it out and dropped it onto the table anyway. It fell open to a yellowed page, worn, covered with nearly indecipherable diagrams. She scanned it, trying to find something useful. She could hear the creature standing in the other room, coming closer. A sentence stood out to her: …restless spirits are vulnerable to salt, iron, and… The creature didn’t look like a restless spirit, but she remembered the disturbing human intelligence in its eyes, the bipedal spread of its toes. She scrambled for the iron poker in her bag, her fingers closing on the slender shape and a smooth glass container. Salt. Her hands were so slick with blood that she could barely keep hold of them, and her vision was alarmingly dim. There was a strange ringing in her head and she realized with dread that she was shivering. She hastily shoved a handful of willow into her mouth and began to chew. It was a dangerous move. Willow could thin the blood, but she could feel a dreadful tingling in her arm, and she knew that if the pain sank in she was a dead woman.
The creature appeared in the doorway. Serena tried to straighten, but her knees crumpled. She dropped the poker. The creature appeared in the doorway, stalking towards her, claws gleaming. She closed her eyes, reaching hopelessly across the tile but knowing that she wouldn’t get there in time. But then the creature stumbled back, a small, howling black shape fixed upon its shoulder. Serena almost laughed. Knox was fixed like a burr to its back, scratching and biting with all the strength her little body could muster. Serena’s fingers found the poker.
The creature twisted, claws reaching for Knox, and Serena’s fear for the cat spurred her forward. She drove the poker up hard, piercing the creature’s side and curving up towards its heart. The sound the beast made was so unbelievably awful that Serena’s ears shuddered. Knox leaped to the counter. Serena collapsed to the floor, a puddle of red and black on the ground. The creature writhed, screaming, its sticky black lifeblood oozing down its side. It limped towards the witch, slobbering and snarling. Serena dragged herself backward with her good arm, the other one limp and bloodsoaked by her side.
They were dying, both of them, but the creature was so full of rage that it mustered its failing strength for one final act of vengeance. It crouched over Serena, claws tearing the cloak spilled out around her, paws on either side of her head. Its thick yellow saliva dripped onto her chest, hot and slimy, and its teeth hovered over her face. Serena tried to pull herself away but her arms trembled with pain. Desperate, she grabbed the edge of her cloak and yanked with all her might. The creatures paws were wrenched out from under it, and it collapsed on top of her. Serena gasped, the burning weight sending waves of agony down her arm and driving the breath from her lungs.
The creature’s teeth were alarmingly close to her throat, but Serena was a sensible woman, and she had the presence of mind to recall the glass orb she clutched in her hand. She lashed out, slamming the orb into the creatures eye. The shards of glass cut into her palm, but she didn’t care, grinding the glass and salt into its face.
The creature howled, the kind of howl that rips its way down the spine and buries itself in the heart, that stops the lungs and freezes the blood. It eyes bubbled and steamed, the creature reeling backward, pawing at its face. Its claws dug great strips of flesh from its own head, exposing white bone and hideous black flesh. It collapsed, whimpering, bleeding out on the floor.
Serena sagged against the ground. Her nightgown wasn’t white anymore. Knox crept up to her and licked at her cheek, pink tongue frantic. Serena couldn’t even gather the energy to stroke her spine. “It’s okay,” she gasped. Her lips were cold and numb. She could hear scuffling from the larder, and the door swung open. A pair of bright green eyes appeared in her greying vision. Like me, a voice whispered. Small hands reached for her messenger bag. “What do I do?” A high little voice piped.
“Willow,” Serena whispered, voice thin and weak. “Cobwebs. Honey. Wound treatment.” Elizabeth Tyler set to work, guided by an itch at the back of her mind.
Lucy Marshall is a freshman at UNCG. She is an aspiring author, artist, and actress, and can be found online on twitter and instagram at Bluebirddraws.