WELCOME back to Panning For Clouds! It’s Tuesday and I’ve got Part One of a new serial novella all set up down below. If you read “The Shape of Family” as it was posted last year, I have good and bad news for you. The good news is that you will soon be able to buy that novella on Amazon for a buck under the title “The Shapes We Take”. The bad news is that you cannot read it right this very moment as it is being prepared for Amazon Kindle. I hope to have that out by the end of the month!
Other good news: Having read “The Shape of Family” will give you some decent insight into several of the characters, but it is not necessary to understand what is happening in “The Wings Take Shape”, so you can hop right in and enjoy!
The way this works, if you’re new to the blog, is that I will be writing and posting a new Part (Chapter) to “The Wings Take Shape” every Tuesday until the novella is complete. It will remain free to read on the blog for an undisclosed amount of time, at which point it will be taken down to get the same Amazon treatment while I prepare to write and post the third novella. That may be later this year, or it may be the start of next year. Not sure!
So join me on the continuing adventures of the Winged Riders! I have a lot of fun things planned for this story and I’m excited to be coming back to it.
A real quick recap for those who haven’t read the first novella:
- Sadie is a shapeshifter that takes on the form of a horse to sneak her way into the capital and rescue her shapeshifting nephew who has gotten captured.
- Claire is the captain of a squad of Winged Riders, elite soldiers of the empire. She and her Wings catch Sadie as a horse.
- A creature known as the cadshee attempts to abduct the young scout Marie, killing her horse in the process. She rides Sadie to the capital to warn of the cadshee’s increased daytime activity. The cadshee is a creature of smoke and oil, capable of shifting his form to become anything he likes. He is the last of his kind, bent on reviving his species, which requires young, fertile mammals to carry his brood.
- Marie is a Twinner, capable of emotional bonds at distance with her sister, Renee, also a scout. Renee and Marie meet on the road and Renee is abducted in the place of Marie. Marie and Sadie go to rescue Renee, but only manage to get Marie caught and Renee rescued.
- They meet back up with Claire. Sadie reveals her shapeshifting to Jeffrey, Claire’s Sergeant, so that he agrees to help her find Marie and then Sadie can get on with her own mission of saving her nephew.
- Claire is investigating a cult in the village of Stalbridge. She accuses Jeffrey of collusion with this cult when he is acting suspicious. Jeffrey knocks Claire out and takes Renee, fleeing on Sadie as a horse to try and rescue Marie.
- The cadshee knocks out Jeffrey, misses Sadie shapeshifted as a mouse, abducts both Marie and Renee and flees to a secret chapel he used to fool humans into doing his bidding once upon a time.
- Claire and her Winged Riders are injured during a skirmish with the cadshee, and Sadie discovers she can harm the creature when none else seem to be able to.
- They find information on the cadshee’s cult in Stalbridge and go after him, to try and put him down before he can enact his plan of rape, murder, and a new era of darkness as his brood sweeps across the land.
- They are losing the fight until the cadshee reveals that he is the father of Sadie’s skinchanging people, also revealing the names of creatures that were lost to time. Sadie becomes a dragon and they fight to the death, Sadie ultimately winning and taking the cadshee’s powers of smoke and oil.
- She and Jeffrey have two children, both of whom are also creatures of smoke and oil. Sadie has nightmares that they will mask the world in darkness. Her nephew, Jonathan is rescued and is interested in becoming a Winged Rider.
The Wings Take Shape
Part One – Recruits
by Rick Cook Jr.
The capital of the Empire stared down at Jonathan. He hated the place, but it was home during training. His fellow recruits waited with him in the practice yard. Waiting for their results.
Waiting to find out if they were Winged Riders.
Aunt Sadie was in attendance with her two toddling boys. He only wished he had her air of nonchalance. She favored him with a brief smile while talking with Claire Claymonte, famed Wing Captain. The rumors had it that Captain Claymonte wanted him for her retinue, and he knew the reason why.
Jonathan Sawyer was a Skinchanger.
Jackson Hill, a man who had given Jonathan more than a few lumps in his time training, stepped up to the unassuming podium in the practice yard, clearing his throat.
He said, “I feel it’s only fair to let you all know that you’re the last group. The Winged Riders have recruited all they need, and it’s my sad duty to inform the lot of you that you’ve none of you made the cut. You have the day, and then tomorrow you’ll get your assignments. Dismissed!” He walked away despite the protests from all the recruits, disappearing inside the barracks.
Jonathan just felt thunderstruck. He was sure he was getting in, and not just because Captain Claymonte was pulling every string she had to get him assigned to her.
He had outperformed his entire class. He had been the best. And they turned him down.
For one brief moment he entertained the thought of marching into the barracks and becoming Stalker, or Swiftstrike. Prove to Sergeant Hill that he was special, that he deserved to be in the Wings.
And in the next moment he shoved that away. He had been a captive of the capital once. Never again.
But Aunt Sadie came to his side and rubbed his shoulder while the other recruits commiserated with friends and family. “Maybe next time, Jon.”
He brushed her off. “This was it. This was the only time.” Captain Claymonte came to stand in front of him and offered her hand to him. He shook it out of politeness and deference to a superior officer, though his first instinct was to curse her out for not doing more.
Claire was just as furious as he felt. “I did everything I could, Private.” She leaned in, and in a lowered tone she continued, “It would have been a hell of a boon having a dragon in my ranks.”
He kicked dirt, staring at the plume of dust as it settled. “I don’t know the dragon.”
Her eyes widened. “I’ve never understood this ability. If you can turn into one thing, why not another?”
He shrugged. “Elders say it’s a compatibility thing.”
She harrumphed, crossing her arms over her breasts. “If you’d like, I’ll go in and make a last plea on your behalf.” On your behalf, more like.
Jonathan shrugged it off. “You don’t have to. It was a long shot, anyway, I guess.”
Claire stared daggers at him and he felt foolish for a moment because he didn’t know why. “Sorry. Captain. I appreciate the offer, but I’d like to have gotten in on my own merits.”
She smiled and Aunt Sadie hugged him before going off to corral the toddlers running amok. They were remarkably well-behaved. Just the once he caught Jeffrey Junior shifting to smoky oil and back to evade his younger brother, Wren. Anyone else seeing it would think it a trick of the failing light of day.
Smokeshifts. They scared him more than all the tales of the bloody wood, and he had lived with them. Changed their soiled wraps, played Hide and Seek. A thrill of nervousness went down his spine whenever they shifted in front of him.
From inside the barracks Jackson’s voice rang out, “Captain Claymonte, a word if you please! Bring the Private.”
Claire stared at the barracks for a moment, lips pursed, then nodded. “Come on, Private. Your Aunt will be fine over there,” she said when Jonathan glanced at Sadie. “She’s more capable than anyone to protect herself, Hundred know it’s true.”
Jonathan let himself be guided inside, holding the door for Captain Claymonte. Once inside he was surprised to find Renee Mollen waiting at attention and looking uncomfortable as all hell. But she was all smiles for him and he returned them with his own blushing smile. Then her smile wiped off her face and she straightened once more, nodding at Captain Claymonte.
Renee was wearing Captain’s Stripes.
“Welcome, Captain,” Jackson Hill said from behind his desk, motioning for her to take the lone seat opposite him. When she was seated, he continued, “There’s been a bit of confusion, it turns out.”
“Oh?” Claire replied. Jonathan couldn’t help but notice the white-knuckle tension in her fists.
“You look surprised to see Captain Mollen,” Jackson said.
“I thought the announcements were happening next week, after all the recruits had been chosen. I’m of course gratified to see her, and Renee, congratulations on achieving Captain. And so young!”
Renee’s smile was undercut by her blush, but before she could respond Jackson cut back in. “Second youngest to make Captain.”
Claire laughed. “You did beat me out, didn’t you?”
“By a year, Captain,” Renee said, then her face turned even redder than before. “I mean, Claire.”
That set the others to laughing. Claire said, “You’ll get used to it. The Stripes are good on you.” She turned to Jackson, motioning at Jonathan. “So I’m not getting him, am I?”
“Afraid not, Captain. Mollen here got her pick, as you well know.”
“You stole my recruit!” Claire said, but it wasn’t accusatory. Good-natured.
Renee said, “He’s not the only one.”
Claire grimaced. “Which of my veterans, Renee?”
“The only one young enough to barely be called it.”
“You’re taking my Handsome Devil.”
Renee nodded. “Figured I could use one.”
Jonathan couldn’t believe his ears. He was serving under Captain Mollen. He was a Winged Rider!
He cleared his throat. “Begging your pardons, but does all this mean I’m a Wing, for true?”
“Yes, yes,” Jackson said, waving a hand his way. “There’s some paperwork, the matter of payment and the like, but here.” He pulled a small wooden box out of his desk and pushed it across.
Jonathan took it in shaking fingers and snapped open the lid. The shining metal pins glinted in the last rays of the daylight coming in through the windows. His Wings.
Jackson stood and offered his hand. “Congratulations, Private.” Jonathan shook, knees weak.
He lost the thread of the conversation and missed his dismissal. Claire cleared her throat again. “You’re dismissed, Private.”
He fumbled to salute and left the barracks, trying unsuccessfully to pin his Wings to his lapel. He’d receive a new uniform, but for now he couldn’t help it. He had to wear them.
Outside he did a double-take when he saw, not Renee, but Marie, in animated conversation with his Aunt Sadie. She caught sight of him and yelled his name, running over and throwing her arms around Jonathan.
“You big lout! So it’s official, is it?”
He let her go, feeling awkward at hugging her in the practice yard, with others watching.
“I’m your boss!” she declared.
He started to say no, but then caught sight of her Sergeant pin on her lapel, and said no in a totally different way.
“What do you mean no like that?” She socked him in the arm and he laughed, rubbing the sore spot. “I’m gonna have a hell of a time making you scrub my saddle.”
He groaned. “You will, too, won’t you?”
“As sure as the barmaids get their bottoms pinched.” She winked at him and he laughed. Renee and Marie, both his superiors. What a wild day this was turning out to be.
“What were you talking to Sadie about?” he asked.
“Oh, this and that. Your Auntie saved our bacon one day, you know.”
“And you’ve been idolizing her ever since.”
She smacked his arm again. “You can’t talk to me like that come the morrow.”
“Then I’ll get it all in today.” It was weird with Marie. Where he felt awkward and boorish in front of Renee, her twin was another matter entirely.
Renee came stalking out of the barracks and called them both to attention. She could barely contain her grin as she stood in front of them and it made Jonathan want to flash his own foolish grin.
She said, “At ease, soldiers. I have some business in town and you will accompany me.”
Marie saluted and fell in behind Renee, and Jonathan stumbled to follow suit. He had been well-trained, but she was putting him off his game. Sadie waved them over before they could leave.
She gave an approving nod to Renee. “Well, I knew you were on your way to the Captaincy, but so soon?”
Renee shook her hand and cooed at Jeffrey Junior in Sadie’s arms. “It’s good to see you again, Mrs. Combs. Your nephew is going to be a good addition to my squad.”
“I’m sure you’ll find some novel uses for his unique talents,” she said, eyeing him specifically.
“I’m not about to turn into a turtle in front of strangers, Aunt Sadie.”
“You can do that? I thought you was wolf and hare?” Marie interrupted.
“Sergeant, lower your voice,” Renee warned.
She scoffed. “Ain’t nobody around who would know what we was talking about.”
She sighed heavily. “Sorry, Captain. That’s gonna take some getting used to.”
“You’ll adjust.” In a whisper she said to Jonathan, “I will need to know the full scope of your abilities, Private.”
He nodded, fighting a blush. “That can be arranged.”
She reached for his lapel, where he was embarrassed to discover he had affixed the Wings upside down. “Thank you,” she said, adjusting them for him. “Can’t have you making a bad first impression for my squad, now can I?”
“It won’t happen again, Renee. I mean Captain.”
“Easy. We’re not on duty until tomorrow,” Marie said. “This is all just sham today.”
Sadie smiled at the three of them. “You lot are going to be wonderful.”
“Sadie,” Jonathan complained.
“I know, I know. I’m mothering. Go on, enjoy your last day. Write me when you’re coming home, Jon.”
She hugged him and there was a brief round of goodbyes among them all. Jeremy Junior, barely old enough to talk, grabbed hold of Jonathan’s leg in a deathgrip.
“Hey, buddy,” Jonathan said, managing to disentangle him and pick him up. “I’m just going for a while. I’ll be back.” His fright of these little shifters was nothing compared to his love for them.
“Back, back,” Jeremy repeated. “Home soon.”
“Yeah, I’ll come see you all soon.” Jeremy Junior let him go and clung to his mother as Jonathan left them behind to follow his superior officers.
The moment they were out of the military quarter, Renee’s shoulders eased and she slipped off her jacket with her Stripes. “Phew! I thought I’d never get you both away.”
“Big day for this galoot,” Marie said, throwing her arm around his neck, hanging off him like an overlarge pelt. “Not every day you fail to become a Wing and then become one anyway.”
“Yes,” Renee said, turning to him and helping extract her sister from around his neck. “Sorry about her, you know how she is.”
Marie snorted and flitted off down the street. Jonathan ignored her and Renee busied herself folding her jacket over her arm to avoid creases.
“Would have been nice to know it was coming,” Jonathan said.
“We only just found out this morning.”
The Stripes were still showing on her jacket, and she caught him looking. He looked elsewhere and she hid the Stripes by folding it the other way, and they stood together, saying nothing.
“Is it going to be weird, taking orders from someone younger than you?” Renee asked finally. He sighed, glad to be changing the discussion.
“I think it’ll be stranger having you boss Marie around.”
Her lips quirked in a smile, watching her sister arguing with a random stranger in the military quarter. Jonathan felt connected to the twins in a way he didn’t feel with anybody else. They were special. They had abilities that set them apart, just like him. His family was one thing, and the Skinchangers were all family of a sort back in the village. But the twins understood him. Renee commiserated and Marie joked.
What did he add to the dynamic?
“You think so?” Renee asked. “She seems to be taking it in stride. I’m just one more person she’s had to listen to. First it was the recruiters, then the drill sergeants, Captain Claymonte… and now me.”
Jonathan wondered about that. Marie was the one with the commanding presence, but she had no interest in actually leading. That she was a sergeant was curious enough.
“How’d that happen, anyway?” he asked, referring to her rank.
Renee sighed, holding her jacket close to her chest as they walked, following the wake of chaos Marie left behind. “I’m the youngest Captain of the Winged Riders since Claire, and there’s only one person ahead of me.”
“Rory of the Black,” Jonathan said. Everyone knew about Rory, a fifteen-year-old boy who took command after his Captain and Sergeant were both killed and the squad scattered. Creatures of the Red Forest picked off others until he established order and brought them out safely.
“They let him keep the Captaincy, but that doesn’t mean they’re generous giving it out to the inexperienced.”
“So why you?”
She shrugged. “I think Claire pushed for it, and they’re interested to see what a Twinner does in command.”
“So they put your sister with you in case it goes sour.”
“I guess. I was hoping to have a few days with the squad, to get to know you all better. As it stands I have never met any of them but you, Marie, and Aldwin.”
“You never met Private Tanner?”
“Heard of him in passing.”
“He’s the Handsome Devil.”
Jonathan made an affirmative noise in his throat. “That’s right. He softens the women and stiffens the men.” Renee choked on laughter and then they were both giggling, embarrassed at the saying.
Marie came back to them at their laughter, but they wouldn’t share the joke. “Jerks. Oh Captain, my Captain, did you actually want us here for something, or are we just having a last hurrah?”
Jonathan hated to hear her refer to it that way. It struck him as bad luck. Renee said, “I thought it would be nice to visit the horses, take in a show. Tomorrow I cannot be your friend and today I’d like it to remain that way.”
“The stables?” Jonathan asked. They were by the kennels. He paled and his stomach churned.
Marie thumped him on the head. “It’s where they keep the horses, ya dolt.”
“We’ll avoid the kennels,” Renee said. Of course she knew the story. All of Claire’s Wings did by now. Reliving his captivity was best avoided.
He nodded his thanks and they spent the evening together. It was a good way to remember them.
The next morning was a whirlwind of activity and Jonathan could scarcely recall the individual moments. They received their honorary first mission orders, their new uniforms, their supplies and horses. Jonathan met Private Tanner whom he instantly became jealous of his handsome features; Scout Irons who was not a Twinner but a regular youth; Farsight Poul, their Special; and a dozen others he barely had time to greet before they were setting off.
No fanfare. No crowds gathering. No trumpets sounding their departure. Just Sergeant Marie Mollen handing over their papers at the gate, and then they rode through atop their newly-assigned horses. Renee looked nervous as they rode from the gates into the untamed wilderness beyond.
Jonathan’s gut felt heavy as the gates closed behind them. He was leaving the capital, which is what he was always wanting to do, so why did this fill him with such dread? It was almost as if he was taking on the caution of Foxbane, leaving the safety of the known for the outer world.
And yet he couldn’t shake it.
Minutes after their departure, within full sight of the capital and its polished gray stone walls, explosions ripped from behind them. They wheeled about on their horses as the creatures started and some tried to bolt from the noise. The guards on the wall were shouting, bows raised to the inner city. Smoke poured in black, noxious clouds above the walls, so much that the entire city must have been set ablaze.
“To the gates!” Captain Mollen shouted, dragging her saber from its scabbard and kicking her horse into motion. The others followed, freeing their spears and swords. Jonathan fought every instinct to run away from danger. He unhooded his spear and held it at the ready, letting his training dictate what he should do.
Only that wasn’t going to work. The guards on the wall disappeared, only to be replaced by others in blue and gray garb. They held up crossbows at Renee’s Wings and it was only Private Tanner snatching at Renee’s horse and diverting it into the woods that kept them all from being stuck with bolts.
Shouts in a language Jonathan didn’t understand. More bolts fired aimlessly into the tree line where they’d fled. Another series of explosions and the whiff of black powder burning. Screams from within the gates.
There was no question: someone was attacking the empire, and Jonathan’s squad had narrowly escaped the assault.
That’s it for Part One! Next Tuesday we’ll see what the newly-minted squad of Winged Riders will do in the wake of this unknown attack.