Something hot and pungent dribbled past Alex’s lips. He coughed and sat up, batting away the spoon containing the vile liquid. He continued coughing, though the convulsions made every part of his body hurt. When he finally had control of himself, he collapsed back on the bed, breathing hard.
A wrinkled, dark brown face appeared above him, lit by the crackling firelight across the room. “You are awake,” the old woman said. She was missing several of her lower teeth. Even if Alex couldn’t see her back, he knew she was likely a Homm.
“Where am I?” he rasped. His throat was so sore, he could barely speak, but she understood him well enough.
“You are in my cottage,” she said. “A farmer found you in his field and brought you to me. He thought you were dead.” She sat her bowl aside and got a couple of pillows. She placed them against the wall, then grabbed Alex by his armpits and helped him sit up.
Alex groaned a complaint, but he didn’t have the strength to resist her. She was awfully strong for a woman her size.
“There.” She huffed and sat next to him. “This will be easier to feed you.” She picked up her bowl and scooped up more of that disgusting liquid onto the spoon. She held it out to him.
Alex turned his head away. “Poison,” he insisted with a strained voice.
“Poison?!” she exclaimed. “You think I would go through the trouble of healing some broken little bird dropped off on my stoop just so I could turn around and poison him when he finally woke up?” She made a show of slurping some of the liquid from the spoon. She smacked her wrinkled lips and said, “See? It’s medicine. It’ll make you strong.”
Alex shook his head. “Tastes disgusting.”
“Wormwood, valerian, willow bark, and yarrow tend to be a little bitter, but I boiled it down with sugar. It should taste just fine.”
“I can’t taste sugar.”
The old woman paused thoughtfully. “Oh. Well then, yes, this will taste disgusting.” She held the spoon to his mouth again.
With a resigned sigh, Alex yielded and ate it. The mixture was syrupy thick and clung to his tongue. He swallowed it as fast as he could, but it still made him cough. She gave him another spoonful when he could take it, but it didn’t get any easier.
“Well done, little bird,” the old woman said when the bowl was empty. She sat it aside. “You will be strong enough to fly again soon.”
Alex leaned his head against the wall and swallowed repeatedly, trying to clear the rest of the awful taste from his mouth. “Who are you?” he asked. His voice came out a little stronger.
“I am a healer,” she said. “The farms a league west refer to me as Old Choxi, though I never did like the ‘Old’ part of that much.”
“You’re a healer?” Alex asked. He looked for wings against her back, just in case he had misjudged her.
“The best in these parts.”
“But you’re a Homm.”
“There’s more to healing than feathers and fluff,” Choxi said. “One-hundred-and-eighty years, and I still have deal with sparrows like you thinking to look down on me.”
“No, I wasn’t- I didn’t mean-”
“Ah, I’m just teasing.” The old woman smiled. “I know you didn’t mean any harm. Don’t work yourself up about. You’ll make yourself sick again.”
“Are you really a-hundred-and-eighty?” Alex asked shyly.
“One-eighty-two next autumn.” She patted the blanket over his legs. “Though in all my years, with all the misery I’ve had dropped at my door, I’ve never seen one quite like you. What brought you out to the mud at this end of E’din?”
“I, um-” Alex didn’t know what to say. How much of who he was was safe to reveal to a stranger? He lowered his eyes, but then had the startling realization that the blanket covering him had sagged down to his hips. He was completely naked beneath that thin woolen layer. He instantly jerked it up to his chin and stared at the woman with wide, black eyes. “Where are my clothes?” he squeaked with a hint of desperation.
Chuckling, Choxi took her bowl and got off the bed. She moved like every joints in her body ached. “They’re hanging out with my laundry, though I could barely consider those torn rags ‘clothes.’”
While Choxi went to the wash basin to rinse the bowl, Alex peeked beneath the blanket. There was a clean bandage around his ribs. He poked it, surprised that it didn’t hurt. Then he noticed that he was using his arm, the one he clearly remembered Jequn breaking in the jungle. There was no sign of the injury at all.
Alex looked at the old woman again. “How long have I been asleep?” he asked.
“Hmm… You have been here four nights,” she said. “Before that, I don’t know. Couple days, maybe. When Terim found you, you were nearly frozen solid in the muck. That’s who brought you here.” She glanced back at him. “Fortunate he did. Don’t think you would have survived out there much longer on your own, even seeing as what you are.”
“What I am?”
Choxi appraised him carefully. “A child of the red star. I’ve dealt with your kind before.” She turned back to her bowl and finished washing it. “Though most birds that fly this far from the colony are running from something. Considering the spots on your wings were only blood and mud, I doubt there’s much beyond these hills that calls to you.”
“My wings…?” Alex glanced at his white wings. They were as clean as the rest of him, though his feathers could stand to be preened. Someone had taken considerable care in washing him. “Who else knows I’m here?” he asked.
The old woman placed her bowl aside to dry. “Just me and the lad that brought you. Though you don’t need to worry about Terim. He’ll be in his field until Tides planting all his crops. Wouldn’t stop complaining about the two days he missed just by hauling you out here. But he would have had an even rougher time of it if you ended up dead on his land.”
Alex sat forward, holding the blanket up around his neck. “Even if I was asleep as long as you say, there should still be signs of my injuries. Bitter herbs and roots can’t heal like that.”
“My, you are awfully suspicious for one so young.” Choxi selected a hard roll of bread from the basket on the counter. She returned to the bed, though it was fortunate her cabin was small. The short distance was still difficult for her. “Would you feel better if I showed you my power?”
“I don’t know. Maybe.”
Choxi held the roll in one hand, where Alex could clearly see it, and waved her other hand over the top. The crust of the bread glowed like it was being filled with light. When she stopped, the golden glow remained for a moment, then faded into the bread. She offered Alex the roll. “It won’t hurt you,” she said.
He cautiously took it from her. “What…? How?”
“My mother had wings. My father didn’t, but his father did. Somewhere along the line, it just stopped getting passed down.” Choxi settled on the edge of the bed with a groan. Her joints creaked. “Now, the powers I hold might not be as strong as something you would find in a city of feathers, but I do well enough. I find plants in the hills that can heal, and I infuse them with my energy to make them more potent. I only help what is already there. Nature does most of the work.”
Alex broke open the roll of bread. It felt warm. The inside was soft and smelled delicious. “Is it safe?”
“Of course,” she scoffed. “There’s everything in that loaf that a young bird needs to recover. My energy only helps boost the benefits. It’ll get you back in the air soon. Unless you’d rather have more medicine.” She motioned toward the bubbling cauldron over the fire.
“No thanks,” Alex said quickly. He tore out a fluffy piece of the middle and ate it. He was relieved that it helped remove some of the leftover flavor of the medicine. He took another bite, and another, until his cheeks were stuffed full of the warm bread.
Choxi smiled. “Good lad. You will be strong enough to fly again soon,” she said. “Tomorrow we will mend your clothes.”
Alex swallowed hard and started to take another bite, but he was suddenly very tired. “Tomorrow…?”
“You will sleep now,” she announced. “You will feel stronger in the morning.”
Alex wanted to protest, but it was difficult to move. His limbs felt heavy. He struggled to keep his eyes open. His body started to tilt toward the edge of the bed, and there was nothing he could do to stop himself from falling.
Choxi’s strong, wrinkled hands caught him. She eased him back into bed and tucked the blankets around his body. “Sleep,” she said, and his eyes fluttered closed. Darkness surrounded Alex as the last of the bread dropped from his hand.