The Wings Take Shape – Part Five

And Tuesday comes, bringing whispers of fiction on the wind…

It’s time for the next part of The Wings Take Shape, the second entry in the serial novella series I run on this here blog.

If you’re new to the story, head to Part One and start from the beginning!

In Part Four, the last known Winged Riders scrambled to gain information and plan their next move. Jonathan Sawyer, Skinchanger, grappled with his emotions over the slaying of an enemy while in his wolf form, Swiftstrike. He felt like he might be losing himself.

Captain Renee Mollen and Sergeant Marie Mollen, twins and twinners, sharing an empathic bond, reassured him that he did what was right and necessary. With Sergeant Regina Hughes, they set out to gather an army from the surrounding villages to take back the capital from foreign enemies, only to find each new village and garrison of Kingsguard assaulted and burned down.

_____

The Wings Take Shape

Part Five – Dismay

by Rick Cook Jr.

“This is intolerable,” Renee hissed. She booted her mare into motion after surveying the seventh burned village, the second garrison of Kingsguard slain. Marie marked every body as they passed through. These were innocent men and women. Children. Elders. People that had done no wrong.

“We’ll get the bastards, Renee,” Marie said, riding up beside her sister and giving her a small jostle.

“I’m beginning to doubt it, Marie.”

“You can’t go on talking like that, Captain. The others hear and whatever’s keeping ‘em up will drain straight away.”

Renee’s eyes closed with fatigue and sorrow, her face lining in a way Captain Claymonte’s used to do. Being in charge had finally made Renee older.

Renee said as they left the village behind, “I know it. I’m supposed to be some great leader here, but all we’re doing is finding bodies.”

“We’ll go farther, then. Head for the southern reaches. Find some angry villagers and begin the great army.”

Renee sighed and looked at Marie. “We may have to give up.”

“You wouldn’t.” Marie clutched at her sister’s arm and then let her go, forgetting her place as a subordinate.

“I didn’t say I would force anyone. But yes. If it looks far too hopeless, I will not let everyone die in a foolish campaign.”

Marie settled back, unsure what to say to that. They had taken the capital. They had probably killed Ma and Pa, little Glen and Rodger down at the shop. No way could she give up in the face of that.

“I won’t.”

“You will do what I say or be bound.”

“Rather be in stocks than give myself up to some foreign bastards.”

Renee clenched Marie’s wrist now, so tight Marie gasped, pulling her arm free and rubbing it to work out the pain.

“Marie, you mustn’t test me.”

“Then be the Captain you want to be and stop all this talk of surrender.”

That got the smile from Renee that Marie had been hoping for.

“I’ll figure it out,” Renee said, squeezing Marie’s hand before letting it go lest anyone see. They had ridden far enough to leave behind only the remnant of smoke on the wind. The glow of burning embers lit their backtrail in the darkness. They would be easy to spot if anyone was looking.

Sergeant Hughes came riding up beside them, buckles on her saddle snapping with her horse’s canter. “Captain.”

“Yes, Sergeant.”

“The rank and file need rest.”

“They’ll get it when we find a village what ain’t been scorched,” Marie said.

Renee rubbed her eyes with her palm, suppressing a yawn. “If we find one.”

“Captain,” Regina said again. “We may need to sleep in the bloody wood.”

“It’s a last resort, Sergeant.”

“Maybe, but you haven’t been listening to them back there. They’re ready to drop into the dirt right here and sleep.”

“One more village,” Renee said. “I have a good feeling about this one.” Her doubt was plain to Marie through their bond, but not on her face. She was learning too well how to be a Captain.

“Which is it?” Sergeant Hughes asked.

“Danver’s Table.”

Regina smiled at that. “We had some times there, didn’t we?”

“Danver Jr. never took no as anything more than encouragement,” Marie said, stifling a yawn herself. He was cute, but too aggressive. And not her type, it was turning out. Though she had enjoyed finding that out.

“Hundred will it’s in good repair,” Renee said. “We’ll be there in twenty, less if we push the horses.”

They did so, and Marie left the two to chat while she checked on her soldiers. Jon was quiet, like the rest, and she didn’t get much out of him. So she let herself fall farther behind until she rode side by side with Giselle Wander. Even this stalwart woman was lagging and tired, but she straightened in the saddle when Marie fell into step beside her.

“I weren’t sleeping, Sergeant.”

“Didn’t say you were.”

“Though I might like a little shut-eye.”

Marie yawned, hiding it behind a palm. “We’re stopping at Danver’s Table if it still stands.”

“Mmm.”

Marie continued, “If it’s gone, we’ll camp in the Red Forest.”

“Figured. Won’t be the first time I’ve closed my eyes in the bloody wood, but every time I wonder if it’ll be my last.”

“For once, what’s outside the canopy scares me more,” Marie admitted.

“Scared is good. Keeps you alive when bravery gets you skewered.”

Marie smiled at that. “My old Captain used to say that.”

Private Wander nodded. “Most of ‘em do. Look at some of my fellows here,” she whispered, “Tanner, Bail, and Yoris are fine, and Nightingale seems to have found her courage. But Farsight Poul? That Sawyer boy? Lark and our widdle Scout? Onrey. They’re done for if there’s action.”

“Some of them might surprise you,” Marie said shortly.

“Beggin’ your pardon, Sergeant, I know Sawyer’s your friend, but he stank of vomit last I checked.”

Gross. Not unexpected. “So? I found a bush after that combat.”

“Did you now?” Wander eyed her up and down. “I don’t know that I believe you.”

“Careful, Private.”

Giselle Wander leaned in closer, sniffing at Marie before she could back away. “Your vomit must smell like sweat and roses. Sergeant.”

She inclined her head and trotted her horse faster, leaving Marie behind. Burning with a feeling she didn’t want to admit.

Had she thought Danver Jr. too aggressive? How naïve.

Farsight Poul caught up with her, giving her a slight nod as he rode by. “Are your eyes better than mine, Sergeant?”

“Huh?”

“I was just curious. You can watch our backtrail if you like.”

“All of you, unruly to a fault. I don’t know how Sergeant Hughes ever handled us,” she muttered, kicking her horse into motion and leaving Farsight Poul to his rear watch.

They arrived at the next town, Danver’s Table, and found it standing. Those out this late at night were carousing and drunk, and no one appeared to know of the events of the day. The fall of the capital. The end of the empire.

Renee called on Danver Jr. after setting her Winged Riders to patrol the roads and question the townsfolk, many of whom had to be woken with loud bangs on doors.

Marie and Regina joined Renee in greeting Danver. He had grown a beard since their last visit, and perhaps a few pounds as well. He smiled to see them all.

“My favorite Scouts!” he called, then took in their new ranks, “To have risen so high, and so young. Captain Mollen, is it now?”

“Yes, Danver,” Renee said, bristling at his demeaning tone. “We have much to talk about. How have you avoided the raiding parties?”

“Raiding parties?” he asked, fingering his collar as he took in the women in Renee’s squad. “I haven’t the faintest idea what you mean.”

“So you haven’t seen the smoke? No soldiers have come? You have no idea that the empire is crumbling.” Renee spat. “You’re getting drunk while your homeland is burning down.”

His eyes widened at that and he gave a little squeak. “What do you mean?” he asked, rubbing at his mouth. Marie felt like something was off, but she couldn’t put her finger on it.

“I mean that a foreign enemy has taken the capital and is burning every village. Yours is the first that hasn’t been completely demolished.”

“We’ve seen nothing,” he muttered, rubbing at his mouth again, a nervous habit Marie remembered from her dalliances with him. “Danver’s Table is always set.”

Renee sighed and nodded. “Then we have found our first lucky break. We need the use of your common building, Danver.”

“Of course, of course. We’ll get it stocked with linens and food immediately.” He turned to go, then turned back, holding his hands in front of him in supplication. “Hundred pray it is not so bad as you make it out to be. Perhaps in the morning you’ll see it is not so.”

“Hundred will it,” they all replied.

They gathered up in the town’s common building, a large, sparse affair used for just such traveling parties and meetings. A Wing and a townsman were set at each of the three roads into town and a watch was established for the night.

Marie dropped to a pile of linen meant for six and let her muscles scream as she stretched. To just close her eyes for a minute…

“Sergeant,” Renee called, and Marie pulled herself up, groaning as she did so.

“I feel twice my age and all of it wasted,” she complained.

“You’ll feel eighty when this is over, and be glad you feel anything at all,” Regina said. She had stripped her jacket off and tenderly attempted to remove her trousers to change her bandages.

“Yes, Captain?” Marie said, ignoring Regina.

Renee had commandeered the only table in the building, spreading out a parchment Marie knew well. Every Scout had one, and Marie knew her sister had not given hers up, against tradition. Renee’s was long gone, in the hands of some young, probably dead, boy.

“These are the villages we know are gone,” Renee said, pointing out the ones that had been burned. “Here’s us. We can go north or east tomorrow, finding more villages.”

“North is crazy if it’s the Tribes,” Marie said, fighting back a yawn and losing. “I say East.”

“I agree, but if we go east and the first hamlet is ash, we should turn and ride for north. Perhaps it is not the Tribes.”

“What are the chances the Totems are in play and it’s NOT the Tribes?” Regina asked, eyeing the map and pointing out the north border. “I think we need to head south as soon as possible.”

“You’re probably right, Sergeant,” Renee said. “The cougar pins are troubling. Have you shown them to Jon yet?”

Marie fished them from her jacket and handed them to Renee. “Sure. He thinks we should be going to Sadie.”

“The thought had crossed my mind,” Renee mused. “If for no other reason than I’m certain she’s alive and would make a good ally.”

Regina huffed. “If she’s an ally.”

“After everything she did for us?”

“After learning about the Totems and the cadshee? I wouldn’t be so hasty to drop into her lap.”

Renee nodded, and Marie felt her reluctance to agree through their bond. “Lady saved our lives, Captain. Saved yours, too, Sergeant.”

“And don’t you think I’ve forgotten it. But she took the cadshee into her. We all saw it. And those children of hers make my skin crawl.”

To that Marie could certainly agree. She loved the little buggers but they were far too keen and cunning for their ages. And they delighted in playing tricks, like turning into vapor while Marie held them and giggling like fiends when she panicked.

“I’m not saying we go straight to her,” Marie compromised. “But she can help. You both know she can.”

“I know it,” Renee said. “We all know it.” She yawned heavily and stared around at her squad bedding down. “We should sleep while we can.”

Marie nodded, yawning as well. “Tomorrow we’ll build an army. Maybe Danver will have a couple men to spare.”

“We’ll ask in the morning. Sergeant, please make sure the watchers keep their eyes open.”

Marie and Regina said, “Yes, Captain,” then grinned at each other. Marie didn’t like sharing rank, but Regina was all right. At least she was familiar.

“Help you with that bandage, Sergeant?” Marie asked, and Regina favored her with a pained smile, then her eyes narrowed and she cocked her head at Marie.

“Maybe I’ll just have Tanner do it again.”

“That lookie-loo?”

“Or this lookie-loo?” Regina said, nodding her head towards Marie.

Marie grinned. “You take all the fun out of being a Sergeant, Sergeant.”

“Just keeping what dignity I have, Sergeant Sergeant.”

Marie kicked Tanner out of the pile of linens he had chosen, sending him to help Regina with her bandages. She was asleep before Tanner had done more than protest at losing his bed.

And when she woke, all hell had broken loose.

Shouts and screaming, a lantern knocked over. Someone stepped on her gut, tripping over her in their haste to get away. Black-cloaked figures trussed up her friends, her soldiers. Renee, Regina, everyone was either fighting or subdued. Onrey had a sword through her chest. Lark bled freely from a wound in his leg and his voice added to the cacophony. Marie struggled to stand, calling out for her Wings to regroup, but it was too late. Someone threw her onto her stomach and trussed her hands. She would have fought but it was hard enough just to breathe after a foot on her stomach.

And then Jon dropped to all fours, snarling and swiping. Roaring. He Changed, becoming a cougar the size of a lion. A cougar? She hadn’t known he could become that. Skin fell away, clothing ripped.  His face altered and whiskers appeared.

The black-cloaked figures danced away from him and he slashed out, knocking one man to the ground, tearing the throat free of another. But there were too many, and they brandished spear and fire at him, yelling at him to get gone, to die foul beast.

She managed to yell at him, to run, to get help.

Only he didn’t seem to hear her. He jumped at the nearest warm body, tearing its throat open and tossing it at the soldiers with their fire. Scout Irons. Poor Thomas.

She fought the vomit rising in her throat as she struggled to free herself, but finally Jon fled, leaving carnage behind in his wake.

And the last Winged Riders were taken prisoner.

_____

Thus concludes Part Five. Come on back next Tuesday for another helping of Winged Riders struggling to save their kingdom!

Head to Part Six!

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