The Wings Take Shape – Part Eight

Tuesday comes along, and with the dawning of this day, new words form up into a story for you to drink up like water in a desert.

Another chapter of The Wings Take Shape is coming at you!

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

Last week, Captain Renee Mollen and her Winged Riders hid in the bloody wood, the Red Forest, seeking shelter for a little rest in the dangerous forest. Renee was worried about Jon, who had turned into a cougar in front of everyone, revealing his Skinchanger nature and violently murdering Renee’s Scout Irons in his rage and escape. She took to calling for him in the woods, but he didn’t appear.

Sergeant Marie Mollen, Renee’s twin sister, came to Renee and discussed their future and the wisdom in seeking Sadie out knowing that her nephew Jon’s fate was uncertain. The twinner bond they shared was weakening just as they needed it most, but once it starts to go, it is said nothing can be done.

Farsight Poul saw something in the woods creeping upon them, and a pack of cougars set upon them, snarling and ready to attack, but a larger cougar, what must have been Jon, scared them away.

He attempted to Change back to his normal human form, but it failed midway and he fled back into the bloody wood, still a cougar, still wild. They pressed on to find Sadie and hopefully some help.

_____

The Wings Take Shape

Part Eight – Sadie Skinchanger

by Rick Cook Jr.

Another town burned to the ground. Renee was sick of the sight. She brought her Wings to the edge of the bloody wood and they stared at the smoldering wreckage of Sadie’s village.

Marie’s fingers clenched around Renee’s arm. “Is she dead?” she whispered.

“As hard as she fought to keep herself alive against the cadshee? I doubt it.” Renee pulled her arm free and tugged on the reins, making her horse follow into the village square. The rest of Renee’s Wings and recruits came soon after.

It smelled only of charred wood and linen. No scents of burning flesh. No bodies to speak of. That was good. Where had Sadie gone? Had she taken the townsfolk to safety? Her children?

“Fan out,” Renee said, directing her soldiers and recruits around the perimeter. “If there’s survivors, find them. If there’s soldiers, stick them with the pointy end. And,” she hesitated, “if you see something like what happened to Jon, you don’t fight back, you run. Is that understood?”

Her Wings saluted and separated. Marie split up the Danver’s Table lot equally with the Wings. Danver Jr. went with Private Tanner. Regina went to look at the ruins of Sadie and Private Jeffrey Paige’s home. Renee watched her Winged Riders moving about, knowing their duty even though some were raw recruits. Private Wander went back into the bloody wood, looking for tracks most like. Privates Nightingale, Bail, and Yoris all took the villager recruits and searched the ruins of houses and shops. She spotted Farsight Poul looking up the road, towards the capital.

“Poul,” she said, stopping next to him. “You see something on the road?”

“Nothing your eyes couldn’t pick out,” he said. “My duty is to watch, so that’s what I’m doing.”

She patted his shoulder and he flinched under it. “Your gift has been a wonder, Terrance. Without Scout Irons, it’s even more worthy.”

“You call it gift.”

“What would you call it?”

He scoffed. “Curse, maybe.”

She was taken aback by his anger. “You are well-treated, an elite soldier, your family cared for. Your ability has given you a life you couldn’t normally have.”

“It’s also given me no choice in the matter,” he muttered. “I don’t expect career military to understand. I’m sorry, Captain.”

“You don’t need to apologize for the way you feel, Farsight Poul.” She didn’t know what else to say to the man. How could he resent the life he’d been granted? The life he’d been able to provide for his family?

She left him alone and walked the perimeter, waiting for reports she already knew were coming. No bodies, or very few. No sign of the villagers. No sign of Sadie and her boys. What she expected but didn’t find were the bodies of the enemy. They, too, were nowhere to be found. If the village had been empty when they set upon it, why would they have bothered to burn it?

She didn’t know what it meant, but she felt like she should know. Sadie wasn’t the cadshee. But she wasn’t just a normal Skinchanger anymore, either.

“I need scouts!” she called out. “Form up and listen in, Wings.” The Winged Riders all came together, dragging reluctant recruits behind them. Some at least appeared ready to serve, which was good.

“We’re going to split up into four teams and search for the villagers in the bloody wood. Sergeants, Private Tanner, you know who we’re looking for. You know about her… grandfather’s shelter,” she said, hoping they understood her. “We need her help and I think she’s still nearby.”

“Pardon, Captain,” Private Wander said, “but who is this we’re looking for?”

Marie glanced at her askance, but Renee shrugged. “You saw what Jon could do, Private. All you need to know for now is that she is… similar. She might be able to help us.”

Private Lark spoke up from his pallet, useless in combat as he now was. “You saw what Jon did to Thomas. And you want us to go after another one? Suddenly glad I’m not able.”

“What’s going on with Private Sawyer is new.” Renee sighed, fists clenched tight. How much to tell? They relied on secrecy. It wasn’t her place to let it all out. “I need you all to trust me. Trust that my time as a Winged Rider wasn’t wasted. I know what we’re doing, and we need Jon. We need Sadie. We need – “ She hesitated again.

Private Wander looked at the group, gauging reactions. She shrugged. “I’m not keen on entering the Red Forest, but I’ll do as you say, Captain.”

“Said like you have a choice, Private. But thank you. Sergeants, split everyone up. We’re searching the woods. Private Tanner, consider yourself a corporal until this is over.”

“Yes, Captain,” he said, saluting.

“Meet back up in an hour. You’re dismissed.”

Marie pulled Renee aside before they disappeared into the woods. “Captain, do you remember Private Dawson?”

“Sure. Why do you ask about him of all people right now?”

“Well, I was just thinking about the time that Sergeant Hughes and Private Dawson… got together. Do you remember that?”

Renee cocked her head at her sister. “Marie, what in the Hundred verses are you getting at?” But then she understood. She looked around, following Marie’s gaze until it hit –

“I understand, Sergeant. Orders remain. I’ll take the Private with me.” They nodded, and for a moment their shared bond pulsed, strong with understanding and purpose. What would it be like to lose it for good?

They spread out into the woods. Renee had Private Wander, Danver Jr., Private Bail, and another woman recruited from Danver’s Table. The recruits came wielding spear and dagger. Renee made sure they were always in sight.

“Captain,” Private Bail said, “you never said what it was we were looking for.”

“Redwoods. We’re looking for a big one. Might have a hole in the base of it.”

“A den?” Danver Jr. asked. “We’re searching for an animal?”

Renee quieted him with a glare. “We are searching for a safe haven. A place the villagers might have come. If Sadie led them to safety, I expect it’s in one of these.”

“You seem to know this Sadie well,” Private Wander said. “How do you know she won’t just kill us all, like what Jon did to Thomas?”

“Because she’s not a monster, Private. She is my friend, and I know she’s done what needed to be done. Do you understand?” she asked significantly. Private Wander receded into silence, only nodding sheepishly. It was so obvious now.

They walked for a little while longer, looking for redwoods. Bail, Danver, and the other recruit wandered aimlessly, but Private Wander was in the lead, walking them in a more or less straight southern track. Renee let her guide them, giving the larger redwoods a cursory glance.

“Captain,” Private Wander said, jogging to a larger than usual redwood tree. “Is this what you were looking for?” She pointed at a well-shadowed burrow in the side of the tree. Renee grinned.

“It just might be. Does it go down, Private Bail?”

Bail started. “She’s standing right there, Captain.”

“I didn’t ask her, did I?”

“Sorry, Captain.” He came to stand beside Private Wander, who watched him with wary eyes.

“Looks like it does,” he called. “The opening’s barely big enough for a person.”

Renee nodded. “Private Bail, take the recruits and go back to town. Gather everyone after the hour and bring them back here. Private Wander and I will hold our locations.”

“Yes, Captain. You sure you’re okay along in the bloody wood? What if those cougars come back at you?”

“I think they’re the least of my worries, Private. You have your orders.”

He saluted, as did Danver and the other girl. Clumsily, but they were trying.

They left the base of the tree, disappearing into the bloody wood and back towards town.

Private Wander stretched, leaning against the tree. “How soon did you know?” she asked.

Renee smiled. “I might not have. Marie pointed it out before we left the village.”

“That girl is far too observant.” She shifted from the form of Private Wander into Sadie, smoke and oil drifting over her and into her as the familiar face of Jon’s Aunt reformed, smiling sadly.

“You chose her crush, what do you expect?”

Sadie smiled. “She’s safe, you know. I took her down to the others.”

Renee stepped closer, heart gladdened at the news of her private’s safety, and of the villagers. “Why the ruse? You know us.”

Sadie’s head shook. She was different. Not feral, but ready to strike at a moment’s notice. A wild animal backed into a corner was the most dangerous of all.

“I don’t know anything anymore. One day I’m congratulating my nephew on achieving his dream of becoming a Winged Rider, and the next I’m saving a bunch of strangers who call me neighbor from an enemy I’ve never seen before.” She rubbed her eyes. “Enough nights of restless sleep and worry and I’m jumping at shadows even though I am one.”

“Have you been to the capital? I know you can go if you want to.”

Sadie’s head shook again. “I didn’t want to risk leaving my children with the villagers for longer than an hour or two. They’re good folk, but they’re scared. If my boys shift in front of them, it’s liable to spook them into doing something I’d regret to retaliate.” The threat was there.  She really wasn’t the Sadie that Renee remembered. But she was, in other ways. She was still a mother. She was still an aunt.

“We don’t know what’s happened with Jon,” Renee said.

“I gather he’s revealed himself to everyone. Once a fool, always a fool.”

Renee flinched at her harsh words. “He did it while we were being attacked. But he… he hurt my Scout. He fled. We saw him again, and he tried to Change, but –“

“He was Stalker, wasn’t he?”

“Stalker?”

“The cat.”

Renee stared. “How could you know that?”

“Because Stalker was the cadshee’s biggest failure, and greatest success. She’s not like the other Totems.”

Sadie shifted again, smoke and oil. Fur and fangs replaced Sadie’s soft features. With the throat of a cougar, Sadie said, “Stalker is the beast that will not be tamed. I fear if Jon lost himself to Stalker, we may never get him back.”

_____

Come on back next week to find out what Sadie means by her cryptic words, and to finally get some answers about Jon!

Head to Part Nine.

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