Ah, can you smell it? The oaky scent of a fresh installment in The Wings Take Shape.
Last week, Sergeant Marie Mollen helped keep order in the Red Forest while her twin sister, Captain Renee Mollen, decided what they should do. Their home had just come under attack from a foreign enemy, and they were barely outside the city when it started.
Private Jonathan Sawyer, a secret Skinchanger, took flight as a hawk to gather intel for Captain Mollen, and they rushed to the gates of the city based on what he had to say. Marie and Renee’s old Sergeant, Regina Hughes, came bursting out of the exploded gate, fleeing the capital, and Renee helped escort her to safety.
They flee to relative safety in the bloody wood while Sergeant Marie Mollen leads the chasing soldiers away with three of her Winged Riders to fight them off.
The Wings Take Shape
Part Three – Reunion
by Rick Cook Jr.
Renee urged silence as they worked. The foreign soldiers had scarcely passed them by, Marie’s presence flitting away on a high of anger and excitement. Regina Hughes was not just injured, she was pinned to her horse, biting on the leather reins as Tanner and Jon removed the crossbow bolt from the thrashing horseflesh and finally through Regina’s backside.
Regina fell from the saddle only to be caught by Tanner, and he set her down against the red bark of the tree, preparing bandages. She sucked in breaths, seething through teeth clenched tight.
“The rutting bastards,” she hissed. “Can’t believe I let them get a shot at me.”
Renee sent out Scout Irons to watch the road and glanced at Jon, giving him the nod. He disappeared in the confusion. Having a Skinchanger was proving damned useful.
“What happened in there, Sergeant?” Renee asked, kneeling down in front of Regina, feeling foolish for calling her by a lesser rank when Regina had been her superior for years.
“Chaos and blood, Renee. Fighting.” She winced as Tanner unceremoniously stood her up and told her to undo her trousers. Renee blushed for the woman, but Regina didn’t even flinch. The men present, save Tanner, turned attentions elsewhere. Some prayed to the Hundred for their families. Others thudded their weapons against the trunks around them, frustrated at their inability to fight back.
Regina grinned through the pain at Private Tanner and unlaced the catches at the sides of her trousers. “You always said you’d get me in my knickers.”
He frowned. “When did I say that?”
Renee scoffed and nudged him. “Every lonely night around a campfire when the rest of us were ‘asleep’.”
He had the good manners to turn redder than the bloody wood around them all, but he only cleared his throat.
“I can get Nightingale or Onrey to patch this,” Renee offered, but a glance at her remaining female Wings said they were in no condition to be wrapping wounds. Both looked sickly and too frightened to focus on delicate field-dressing.
Regina shook her head, stripping her trousers down and displaying her bottom for all the world to see.
“Just get it over with, Aldwin. I trust your needlework more than a couple of rookies.” Tanner set to work and Regina stared at Renee. “Hell of a first day, eh, Captain?”
Renee couldn’t even muster the smile for the poor joke. A brief flash of pain and fright wound its way through her head. Marie injured? Marie fighting? She was good with a blade, better than Renee by a wide margin. Renee didn’t know Wander, Bail, and Yoris’s abilities beyond a brief assessment, but they were accounted the best pikes in her squad and she had to trust that.
“Marie?” Regina asked, and Renee realized she must not have hidden the shared emotions well enough.
“She’ll be fine. I need information, Sergeant.”
Regina flinched as Tanner worked. “Would that I had more to give you, Captain. Claire sent me out, to rally the Kingsguard in the surrounding hamlets and come back with enough steel to topple a mountain.”
“That has the stink of a direct Claymonte quote,” Tanner commented, and Renee smiled. It did.
Regina continued, “Do you have a useful Special, besides yourselves and –” She stopped herself saying what Renee had been sure was going to be outing Jonathan, and thanked her with an almost imperceptible nod.
“Farsight. He’s –” She looked up. “He’s getting the lay right now.”
Regina twisted in her leaning posture to see the older man climbing up the gnarled wood. “I’ve never been able to climb a tree as good as he is at his age. But that’s of use, all right.”
Renee nodded. “I think, under the circumstances, you’re going to be absorbed into my squad and your mission is our mission.”
“Where’s the nearest Kingsguard barracks?”
“There’s five or six villages between us and them,” Renee said, calling on her time as a Scout to remember them all. “We can be at the first by nightfall, and if we’re lucky we’ll catch them on patrol.”
“Luck would be nice,” Regina agreed. “I think it goes without saying, but the capital isn’t faring well. It took far too many lives to get me to the gates and out of the city.”
“The rest of Claire’s Wings?”
Regina shook her head, wiping sweat away and clenching down as Tanner began tightly wrapping the wound. “I want to believe they’re still in there, putting up the fight of their lives, but Renee, there were just so many foreigners.”
“From the north tribes?” Renee asked.
“Near as I can tell. We kill most of them before they get a mile inside our border, so I can’t say for true. You almost done feeling me up, Tanner?”
“You wound my professionalism, Sergeant.” He smacked her uninjured cheek and she stood up, wincing at the pain. “But yes.”
“Enough,” Renee snapped. “We’ve got greater worries than harassment right now.”
“Yes, Captain,” they answered in unison.
Ride for the Kingsguard. Rally an army. She was no general. But she had to be.
She waited for her various eyes to come back to her, occasionally flinching at a phantom emotion from her twin, fighting to keep the rest of them safe and hidden.
Be well, Marie, or you’ll pay.
She nearly fell from her horse leaning away from the sword strike. Their wicked, curved blades made fwip sounds through the air, and it was everything Marie and her soldiers could do to keep out of reach. One well-placed strike and the saddle would slide free, or the horse would falter, and it would be over for that Wing.
Marie snarled, coming back up and yanking her horse closer to the melee, clashing steel and horseflesh, driving the sword into the leather armor and deep into the enemy’s heart beneath. He yanked away from her, and Marie lost her sword, trading it for the one he released upon his death throes. Her soldiers Wander, Bail, and Yoris similarly parried and clashed. They took out one rider a piece as the remaining four in pursuit closed the distance. Suddenly a losing fight looked like something they could win.
“Rally!” she yelled, and her Wings shored up the holes in their flight. But one of the pursuers turned and fled. The game was up and they must have realized this was just misdirection. The other three blockaded the road with their horses, waiting. The fleeing rider was already disappearing in the dust of the road, but a wild howl pierced the calm, and the horse reared up at the unexpected attack.
A wolf dashed out of the Red Forest, nearly as big as the horse it struck, knocking it to its side and sending the rider into the scrub on the side of the road. The wolf pursued, but the three foreign soldiers didn’t wait for the outcome. Their blockade broke and they fled in the direction of the wolf. Their swords were in their hands but they didn’t look like they were going to rescue their companion. No, they wanted to get back to the capital and report, bring reinforcements.
Marie wouldn’t let that happen. Please be Jon, she prayed, and yelled, “Run ‘em down! Not one escapes!”
Bail and Yoris guffawed as they picked up the pursuit. Private Wander, the veteran woman Marie had admired earlier, gave Marie a wink and a war shout as she kicked her horse into motion. The four of them rode down the foreign enemy, suffering shallow cuts and bruises, and Marie nearly lost her lunch seeing what the wolf had done to the rider and his horse as they passed, but all in all it was a successful ruse.
The soldiers dispatched, Marie pulled her Wings together in the center of the road, staring back up at where the wolf had done his job.
“What random luck the Red Forest vomited up a dire hound,” Private Wander mused. “I was half expecting it to come for us.”
“The Hundred have our backs today,” Private Bail said, spitting on one of the slain soldiers. He eyed Marie up and down a moment, nodding approvingly. “I wasn’t sure you’d be worth your weight, Sergeant.”
“I’m certain glad you were. That belly of yours is worth a soldier or two all its own.” Privates Wander and Yoris laughed at that, but Marie silenced them with a glare.
She continued, “I’d love nothin’ more than to sit here and pat our own asses, but we’ve got intel to gather. Yoris, Bail, search them. I’ll take Wander and see if the wolf left anything.”
“What of the horses?” Bail asked. Two of the eight were still around. Three had fled without their riders, and three more had been cut down.
“Gather ‘em. We’ll need every one if I know Sergeant Hughes.”
They broke off into two pairs and Marie took Private Wander with her back up the road to the gore on the side of the road.
“Never seen anything like it,” Wander mused, “dire hound comes ripping out of the forest, does us a favor, and then scarpers.”
“Maybe the Red Forest doesn’t like outsiders,” Marie joked.
“Or maybe it does, a whole lot more than it does us.” Wander winked and Marie’s stomach fluttered. “I guess I’m searching this one, huh?”
Marie nodded. “Sergeant’s privilege. Only reason I became one.”
“Ha. I’d be more than a little willing to bet on the truth of that.” Wander stepped down from her horse and handed the reins to Marie, giving her a small but worried frown. “Keep that poker handy? Case the wolf comes back, like.”
It was the first chink in the woman’s armor Marie had seen, and it melted her insides a little. “Sure, Private. I’ll protect you from all the things that go bump in the night.”
Now Wander slipped Marie a grin. “Maybe not all of them,” she said, and bent to the grisly work of searching the enemy’s tattered uniform. Bail and Yoris came up trotting the spare horses, slung over with the saddlebags and one of the dead soldiers.
“Nothing much telling from this lot,” Private Bail said. “Figure we’ll take back a body and see if anyone knows the look.” Through it all, Marie had barely seen the faces under the helms. Now she spent a moment looking and didn’t see anything in the face that marked him a foreigner. Skin the same, if a little pale; hair a light shade of brown and braided in an unusual style; brown eyes; shaved chin, but a long mustache drooping below his face. Otherwise he could have been any rank and file in the empire.
“I got something,” Wander said, holding up lapel pins. “Looks like a- maybe a lion?”
Lions. She held her hand out and inspected the bloody pins. Two, matching felines in a stalker pose, but not lions.
“It’s the Cougar,” Marie said. “Has to be. The North Tribes follow the Totems.”
“They teach that in officer’s school?” Private Yoris asked, scratching his beard.
Marie shook her head, avoiding the question. “Anything else, Private?” she directed at Wander.
The woman shook her head, wiping blood and guts on the foliage nearby. “Just buzzard-feed.”
Marie nodded. “There’s a stream not far from where Captain took the others. We can wipe the blood and sweat away once we get back. Congratulations on not dying.”
“And to you, Sergeant,” Private Wander said. “I’m just getting used to the idea of you and it would have been a shame to see you run through.” She mounted her horse and rode on without seeing Marie’s reaction, which Marie was quite glad for. She stared at Yoris and Bail for a moment, and they took the hint to get their asses moving.
She stood in the road, looking into the darkness of the bloody wood beyond the dead soldier. When her Wings were far enough away, she whispered, “Thanks, Jon. Come back safe.”
That’s it for Part Three! Come on back next Tuesday for Part Four, in which they hope to join with the garrisons around the countryside and stage a resistance to protect their homeland!