Tuesday has come once again and it is now time to delve back into the world of shapeshifters, twinners, and more with Part Two of “The Wings Take Shape”!
Last week, Jonathan Sawyer, hiding his Skinchanger abilities from the empire, found himself a recruit of the elite military Winged Riders under his twin friends Renee and Marie. They have set out upon their first mission together when the capital comes under attack from a foreign hostile takeover. They barely escape into the Red Forest with their lives and must decide what to do next.
The Wings Take Shape
Part Two – Fight or Flight
by Rick Cook Jr.
“This is insane!” Marie shouted, holding the reins of her horse as it tried to bolt once again. They had no horse-whisperer and she felt the lack keenly. The others all struggled with their horses, too. They weren’t far from the edge of the woods, maybe a quarter mile, but it was dread dark here, the light strangled under too many branches overhead.
Only then did it occur to Marie: “We’re in the bloody wood.”
“Sergeant!” Renee shouted from atop her horse. Not Acacia. She’d had to give up that scout’s horse for something hardy, and in every way she had emulated Captain Claymonte with a stout white mare.
Marie pulled her horse forward to Renee. “Renee?”
“Take Scout Irons and find us a clearing. Send for me when you have it.”
“Yes, Captain.” She looked for their young scout. “Irons! Scout Irons! To Sergeant Mollen.”
He came forward through the jostling horseflesh, eyes wide and jacket torn. She repeated the orders to him but he wasn’t taking it in. She grabbed him by the scruff of his shirt under the jacket and yanked him near off the horse.
“Scout Irons!” she shouted in his face, slapping it twice. He came around then, eyes focusing and yanking himself free.
“We’re dead!” he yelled. “We gots to get free of the bloody wood.”
“Shut it, ya nit, I been in the bloody wood more times’n I can count and I’m still here. We’re finding a place to calm down and figure stuff out.” When he appeared to be balking still, she grabbed his reins from him and tossed them to Private Tanner, who had managed his horse just fine. “Hold onto this one’s horse. We’re going for a ride.”
“You what now?” Scout Irons asked before Marie yanked him free of the saddle and settled him in front of her on her own horse. He yelped but she kicked the horse into motion and they disappeared deeper into the bloody wood.
Renee would be fine. She was their Captain. Jon was there. Tanner was there. They had plenty of backup. Already Renee was restoring order. Marie just had to do her part.
“Would you stop squirming? You’re a disgrace to the Scouts.”
“What would you know?” he shot back. Had Marie and Renee looked so small when they had been fresh recruits?
“That’s Sergeant to you, ya little bastard. I’ll have you know that both myself and our Captain were once Scouts. Finest you ever saw, too.”
“Sorry. It’s just… they never said we was going into the Red Forest.”
“Any normal day and you wouldn’t. What’s your name again?”
“Thomas. Thomas Irons.”
“Well, Thomas, you and I are a team right now. And we have a mission. You understand?”
“Good.” She ruffled his hair a little, and then remembered how much she hated it when she was his age. “Ah, hate that. Won’t happen again, eh?”
“Thank you, Sergeant. What about here?” The place had trees spaced maybe a little farther apart than where they’d left Renee, but it was still too close. The shafts of sunlight were too sparse.
“Let’s keep going. We’ll find a place. Keep your sword ready.” She freed her own, briefly remembering the odd blue glow from those mushrooms during that fateful cadshee fight. He was alive only in her dreams.
They went on a little longer, circling around Marie’s sense of Renee in her head, a pleasant other in the back of her consciousness. Renee was frustrated and scared, but hell, who wouldn’t be in this scenario?
And soon enough she and Scout Irons found it. Just enough sunlight to see by, a decent clearing for the soldiers, and plenty of trees to tie the horses. She concentrated, sending Renee a code of emotions. After a few moments she received the same in return, faint. And then they were headed this way.
Marie and Scout Irons worked to secure the clearing and create a perimeter while they waited. Renee and her Winged Riders came in, nodding approvingly of the space, and Renee smiled at them both. “Good job, Sergeant, Scout. This will have to do for now. Everyone tie your horses and gather up. I need – yes, Farsight Poul. Can you manage?”
Terrance Poul, an older man with the eerie yellow eyes of a Farsight, started climbing the tallest tree in their vicinity. The others all gathered up, and Marie stood next to Renee while they waited. The sounds of the fighting in the city were faint here, but still ongoing. Marie hoped their parents were all right, but she could do nothing about it.
“You okay?” Marie asked of her sister, quietly so the others couldn’t overhear.
“Even in private, sister, you must address me as Captain.”
Marie scoffed, but nodded. “Are you okay, Captain?”
“Fine as can be, Sergeant. Do you have any suggestions?”
“Running and hiding seems to be keeping us alive.”
“Winged Riders do not flee.”
“Sure they do.”
“Not on their first day. Their first mission.” The look in Renee’s eyes was scared, but it was also angry. Furious, even. Marie hadn’t seen that since their brief captivity at the hands of the cadshee.
“We’ll be okay, Captain. We can’t go falling to pieces just ‘cause the Empire’s doing it.”
“That seems to me the best time,” Renee snapped back, but she was hiding a smile and choking back a laugh. Good. She needed to keep her spirits up. This was insane for a brand new Captain.
Farsight Poul came down from the tree and stood before Captain Mollen. “Report, Private.”
His accent was thick and slow, foreign. “Captain. The smoke still rises. I did not see over the walls, but the ramparts swarm with the enemy. It is likely I was seen.”
“Who are they?” Marie asked. “I didn’t get a good look before bolts was flying our way.”
“Blue and gray,” Jon offered. “They were wearing blue and gray.”
Renee cleared her throat. “Probably the tribes from the North. How they made it to the capital is a mystery, though.”
“Is there any chance we can get in and make a difference?” Private Tanner asked. His family was in the capital, if she recalled. He was holding steady if that was true.
“It seems unlikely, by ourselves,” Renee said. “We may have to head for the villages and hamlets, rouse the Kingsguard.”
“There was more,” Farsight Poul said. They turned attention to him. “Bodies swinging from ropes over the walls. Kingsguard, patrolmen, a Winged Rider. Civilians.”
“Sounds like it’s over,” Jonathan muttered. Marie didn’t like how happy he sounded about it. But she couldn’t really blame him. Renee and Marie were technically traitors for not turning him over as a Skinchanger, but his treatment had not been kind.
“It most certainly isn’t over,” Renee said. “We’ll watch through the afternoon and the night, I think. Make a decision in the morning. Until then, we should worry about securing our perimeter. The bloody wood probably isn’t too dangerous this close to the capital, but I’m not taking chances. Some of you know what lurks in the red.”
They nodded all around and Renee rubbed her eyes. It wasn’t even midday and already she looked like she hadn’t slept in days. Stress could do that to you.
“Sergeant,” she said, turning to Marie, “Secure our perimeter and establish the watch. Private Sawyer, with me.”
All the others watched Jonathan and Renee go off by themselves, and the rumors started. Even amidst the danger of the Red Forest and the death in the capital, folk whispered about each other. Marie thought she knew what it was about, but she entertained the other notion. Renee fancied the Private, that much was sure.
But she quelled the talk with stern glances and sterner words. It was her captain and her sister, and the things some of them said… indelicate even for Marie.
A hawk screeched above the trees a few minutes later, circling over the clearing. Could Jon change into a hawk? Dead useful, if so. Renee returned alone after the hawk vanished, pulling Marie and Private Tanner to the side.
In a whisper she said, “Aldwin, in case you haven’t figured it out, Jonathan is Sadie’s nephew. He’s getting a closer look inside the walls for us.”
“He’s a Changer?” He looked impressed. “Didn’t think I’d ever see one again after all that mess.”
“The capital still doesn’t know about Skinchangers, so keep it to yourself,” Marie said.
“Yes, sir. How are you planning to explain his intel?”
Renee shrugged. “We’ll worry about that if it’s actionable.”
Let it be actionable, Marie prayed. She didn’t follow the Hundred, not really, but she prayed just then. If Twinners and Smokeshifts and Farsights were real, why not a hundred jealous gods?
Hours passed and the evening meal was had, dried meat and hardtack. They couldn’t risk a fire, and maintaining their position was already dangerous since the enemies on the wall had to know they were still out here.
But as the sun passed from beyond their clearing, sending them into false dusk, Jon stumbled back into the clearing, adjusting his clothing as he came. Renee held a brief council with him, nodded gravely, and turned to her squad.
“Mount up! Something’s happening at the gate and I want to see it.”
Marie took over, getting the soldiers organized and into riding position. Again the hushed whispers. It wouldn’t be long before Jonathan was a spy himself the way they were talking. It might be preferred to let the Skinchanger out of the bag at that point.
But none accused him right then. They reached the edge of the bloody wood, and the torches on the walls revealed the bodies. Marie’s stomach lurched, but she held it in. There were women and children up there. Mixed in with the soldiers as if they deserved it. Whoever the enemy was, she wanted them dead.
“Gate looks like it did this morning,” one of the women Wings commented. Marie couldn’t remember her name just then, but she was gruff and masculine. A true warrior. Marie would have bet the woman had a few choice scars under that armor.
She blushed and shook her head to free it of those thoughts. Now wasn’t the time.
And the woman was right, at any rate. The gate was unmoved, protected from above the walls and by the arrow-slits in the walls.
“Private?” Renee asked of Jonathan.
He pulled his horse close to her and whispered, “The Wings were coming.”
Renee nodded. “Listen up. There’s about to be some kind of ruckus and I aim to take advantage of it. If we can get back in, we will. Follow my lead and wait for my mark to advance or retreat. Understood?”
The Wings all nodded, and they waited. There were still shouts, explosions, children crying in the distance. And then, amidst it all, a bugle sounded atop the walls. All the shooters turned inwards, and calls rang out. Horses neighed. It was driving Marie mad not to be able to see inside, to know what was happening. And her nervousness was a feedback loop with Renee’s, feeding on each other and strengthening it until she was ready to piss herself or run screaming back into the woods. She stared hard at the gruff, scarred woman. Emulated her. I can be that woman, she thought. I have to be.
And her confidence spread to Renee. She smiled back at Marie briefly before the gates exploded outwards, a giant fireball protruding out of it. And from the smoke came a single Winged Rider atop a horse, riding for Hell or the closest approximation.
“Ride!” Renee shouted, kicking her horse into motion. Marie followed all of Renee’s Wings, anticipating Renee’s next orders.
Renee called, “Cover the rider and retreat!”
The rider stared at them with wild-eyed fury and surprise, and Marie recognized her in that instant. Sergeant Regina Hughes. Captain Claymonte’s second-in-command.
And Regina didn’t stop as recognition crossed her face. She nodded at Renee, and Tanner, then at Marie as they all sped past, crossbow bolts on their heels. Where Marie had thought they would divert back into the bloody wood, Regina just kept riding and Renee kept up the protection detail on her.
Marie brought up the rear with Jonathan and a couple of other Winged Riders. She handed her reins to Jonathan and twisted in the saddle to watch their backpath. None more rode from the gate, but in their wake Marie saw the bodies of two Winged Riders, two of Renee’s soldiers, struggling in the dirt path. The man limped, holding his arm and attempting to get to the woman, who was coughing and bleeding in the dirt from a crossbow bolt in her chest. Their horses had left them behind. A third lay motionless under his horse and the horse thrashed from a half-dozen bolts sticking out of its flesh.
Before the man could reach the woman, she lay still, and a crossbow bolt took him in the shoulder. He fell and just like that, three of their Wings were clipped on the very first day.
Riders poured from the gate just as Marie’s horse wound down the curved path of the road, obscuring her vision of the gate and the soldiers chasing them. She took the reins back and rode ahead to catch Renee.
“Captain! Enemy’s hot,” she shouted as she reached Renee’s side. It was all any of them could do to keep up with Regina, who was beating her horse half to death to eke out every extra inch, so fast she could have been riding a Pegasus.
“I saw Seven or eight ‘fore we rounded the corner.”
Renee nodded. “How many did we lose?”
She balked at hearing three, then observed her Wings. She nodded to herself and said, “Take Wander, Bail, and Yoris. Slow them down. Lead them astray!”
“Yes, sir!” Marie saluted, feeling the blood in her veins fire up. Combat. As scouts they hadn’t been allowed to engage in combat unless absolutely necessary. Now she was leading a fireteam.
She called the three over and they fell back, letting Renee and the others outpace them. The soldiers following their trail couldn’t see well enough to know what was happening, not unless they had a Farsight of their own.
That was a consideration. What if they had a Special?
Couldn’t worry about that just now. They had maybe a minute lead on the enemy riders. They rode hard, pacing Renee all while the enemy closed the gap.
And then, finally, Regina turned. Straight into the woods. Regina wasn’t skilled enough to know what was in the woods right here, but Renee sure was.
There was an old, defunct moonshine distillery not far from here. Marie and Renee had scouted it once upon a time, and Renee must have convinced Regina to hide.
Their dust trail mixed with Marie’s as they rode, and within half a minute all of the enemy had ridden past, still chasing Marie.
Marie sheathed her sword and freed her spear, looking wild-eyed at her combat companions. They rode hard and she whispered, “Come on, then, ya murdering bastards. Let’s have some fun.”
That’s it for Part Two! Next week there’s gonna be some violence and some mysticism as we follow Sergeant Marie Mollen on her desperate flight to keep the enemy away from Regina Hughes, their old Sergeant and friend.