Part Seventeen coming at you!
Last week on Wings, the preparation had begun for the assault on the besieged capital of their homeland. Rothfort was a fortress, but they had a dragon.
Renee and the rest of her Wings that had bonded with the animal spirits, the Totems, changed into their animal forms after agreeing to a hasty plan to free their families and any soldiers within the capital to fight back. It was a desperate move, but it had to be made. The longer the enemy controlled the city, the firmer their grasp on the country became.
The Wings Take Shape
Part Seventeen – Assault
by Rick Cook Jr.
Deep in the heart of the military quarter, a woman heard a noise. Faint at first, so faint that Captain Claire Claymonte wasn’t even sure she was hearing it.
It had been a long few days in the prisons. They had beaten her. They had killed other Captains. She was sure she’d be next.
And all she could think about were those she hoped were well. That Regina had escaped. That Renee and her squad were bolstering their ranks for a siege. That the villages outside Rothfort hadn’t all been razed, or worse, pillaged and raped. That her woman, her Hundred-blasted fiancée, was still alive out there somewhere. Please be safe, Maggie.
Claire sat up, bruised bones protesting, and listened.
Her soldier in the cell next to her didn’t stir at first. They had put him through even worse, and though she didn’t know their tongue she sometimes heard them refer to Jeffrey Paige as a curse, an abomination. The others with gifts, the Enhanced, were all treated the same.
“Private Paige,” she whispered, and finally he groaned.
There were no lights down here. They existed in darkness such that they came to fear and revere the light. Light meant food and water. Light meant torture, death.
“I was having a rather lovely one,” Jeffrey said.
“I don’t care if you bought out the brothel of Calim Ray,” Claire snapped. “Do you hear it?”
He groaned again and then sucked in a short breath. The sound came once more and Claire heard it this time as a clarion call to action.
“It’s fighting, isn’t it?” he whispered.
She stood up, pushing back her own hurt and fatigue to strain at the door to her cell, listening for all she was worth.
“May be,” she said. “May just be a bar scuffle.”
“That’s clashing steel, ma’am.” He joined her at his own cell door. Somewhere above them, the resistance had begun. Had to be.
“We need to sit tight until we know who’s coming for us. If the enemy knows what they’re doing, they’ll send down some crossbows to have done with us. They need to forget we exist until we have steel in hand shoving it into their backs.” She whistled a short, sharp call, and her Wings knew what it meant. She didn’t know who all was alive, because every time they tried to organize someone else was beaten or killed.
Jeffrey passed the word along as best he could, whispers passing through cell doors like prayers in the chapel.
And a familiar feeling washed over Claire, one she hadn’t felt in several years. She didn’t recognize it.
Then a woman said from behind her, inside her cell, “You’ve seen better days, Captain.”
“Sadie?” she asked, dumbfounded, and Jeffrey echoed her.
“Sadie!” he called, fingers groping in the darkness. He grabbed inappropriately at Claire before she slapped his hand away.
“I’m here,” Sadie said, and then, “There will be time for that later. The fight is not going well aboveground. Once I free you all, we must get up there and help Renee.”
“I knew she’d come for us!” Claire hissed. “And you, Sadie.” The woman chuckled.
“You knew no such thing. But we don’t have time for banter and accusations. Do you know where your weapons are? Your gear?”
“Probably being passed around the enemy by now. We’ll make do with what’s in the armory, a couple floors up.”
“Good. Claire, you should stand back.”
The musk of a large creature filled the dank cell and she felt shoved back against the bars. A loud roar pierced her ears and she covered them while the bear Sadie had become launched itself at the door. A twisting and torsion of metal erupted and suddenly she was being shoved out by Sadie.
Claire let herself be guided since she couldn’t see in this darkness, but then she stopped. “We need everyone.”
Sadie huffed in annoyance. “I don’t know this place, and I can’t make that much noise over and over. You’re going to lead me to someone with the keys, and we’re going to free everyone much quieter.”
Claire didn’t like being ordered about, but what could she do? There was no fighting this woman, and she was probably right anyway.
“Lead on,” she whispered. Her guide led her up the stairs and shifted to smoke and oil around her. She disappeared for a moment, and then the door at the top of the dungeon steps creaked open, flooding the stairwell with weak torchlight that nevertheless burned Claire’s eyes.
Sadie let her come out and jangled some keys. “Are these it?” They were bloody and Claire saw the body a few feet away. She knew that soldier, had hoped to put a blade through him personally.
“Those’ll do,” Claire said, snatching the keys. “While I’m freeing everyone, what are you doing?”
Sadie lifted the blade from the corpse and offered it to Claire while listening, head cocked and ears perked. Claire took it. It wasn’t her blade, but it felt good to have a weapon again.
“I’m going to cause a little mayhem,” Sadie said, shifting to smoke and disappearing up the hallway. Her voice drifted to Claire, “Meet me here in ten minutes, and tell Jeffrey not to die.”
Claire would have answered, but the voice and the smoke were already gone.
She grabbed a torch from the wall and rushed back down the steps, hastily unlocking every cell door with a living person inside. They were all ready and waiting, save those too injured or weak, and Claire wasn’t sure what to do about them. There were more of them than healthy enough to walk.
Open the doors, but leave them behind. We have to. We can come back when we’ve won.
It was cold. It was Claire.
It took longer than she’d have liked to free everyone. She eventually passed the keys to a Winged Rider under someone’s else’s command and went back up the steps to protect against the enemy.
She found Jeffrey waiting up there, stripping the enemy of his clothing and tossing him into an alcove where barrels usually sat.
“Anything’s better than these rags,” he said, pulling the jacket over the tattered remnants of his uniform.
They waited for Sadie to come back. The longer it took the more convinced Claire became that something awful had happened to the woman. That the fight had gone poorly and they were going to be cut down trying to escape.
But who could kill Sadie?
Swiftstrike, sharing the bodies of two young women, bolted through the streets, dodging enemy soldiers and following Renee’s directions. They had seen little resistance thus far, and it made her nervous. Patience, Captain, Swiftstrike cautioned. They don’t know what to do about us just yet.
It’s not every day the old gods start attacking you, Renee mused.
She sat in the back of Swiftstrike’s mind, worried for her sister, for Jon, for Sadie and her family. There was a certain comfort in being able to sit back and let another run her body while she planned. It was like riding a horse if you were also the horse.
They came upon a residential district, Renee and Marie’s home. Renee directed Swiftstrike, and the two wolves, followed by Stalker and the other Totems, darted down an alley to avoid a patrol.
Marie says we’re close, Swiftstrike said.
We are. Down this alley, across the street, and down a ways. Home.
Swiftstrike mentally nuzzled her at the thought of home. Your family is safe.
They better be.
She had so far managed to avoid worrying too much about her parents, their younger brother, older sister. Aunts, uncles, cousins. She just couldn’t think about them all. But now, they were within reach.
They came out of the alley and Scalesoar roared overhead. Flaming arrows and cannons sailed through the night sky, but Tanner was far too deft as the dragon to be hit by anything.
But the momentary lapse in attention caught them out in the open by a large patrol of soldiers. And their appearance was no longer a surprise. The order went out for the attack and crossbow bolts fired. The soldiers charged down the street, spears and axes ready.
Swiftstrike’s lips snarled, but inside he was grinning. Renee gave him full control, as did the rest of the Totem-Bonded. Their pleasure at being given free rein was tempered by the wholesale slaughter of a people that worshipped them. If things were different, perhaps peace could be sought, but the foreign soldiers were in a fighting mode today.
Swiftstrike, with Talonglide on his shoulder, barreled into a soldier, tearing into the weak leather armor protecting his neck. Talonglide screeched. Nightingale and Talonglide ripped at the soldier’s face, plucked his eyes from their sockets. The taste of blood was thick, hot, and wonderful in Renee’s throat. She wanted to vomit, but shoved it back. This was Swiftstrike. This was a part of her now.
The other Swiftstrike, with Finkscuttle, performed a similar move. The mouse darted up the soldier’s face, chewing on her lip, while Marie in Swiftstrike’s body ripped her open from groin to sternum.
Foxbane and Shield-Trudger throttled a whole group of soldiers. The jackrabbit flitted between feet so fast that one soldier skewered another attempting to hit him. Shield-Trudger just trundled forward, crushing soldiers in her charge.
Private Bail and the recruits followed behind, cleaning up the wounded in the wake of the vicious assault.
In a span of thirty seconds, thirty or more soldiers were dead. No casualties on Renee’s side.
She urged Swiftstrike on while he was tearing the leg off another soldier in his glee. He let it go with a mental chagrin and they hurried forward, back out of sight into another alley.
They came out the other side and Renee said, I think we’re clear for now. We need to Change before we go in.
You have no clothing, Swiftstrike said. You humans make a big deal of that.
She grinned mentally at him. Private Bail has our belongings.
They became humans once more, stretching and rubbing at the blood and gore covering their naked forms. Bail gave them trousers and jackets, which would have to do for now. Again Renee blushed and hid her nudity from Jon, who likewise did the same. Swiftstrike said, I do not like Stalker much, but I can put up with her if you prefer Jon.
Enough of that, she thought. No time for that nonsense just now.
They dressed quickly and accepted their weapons. Renee turned to her Winged Riders.
“We’re here for our families and nothing else, understood? Marie and I will get ours, then we’ll go after all of yours. How many are in the city?”
“Hughes and Tanner have family inside,” Nightingale said. “I heard them talking about it the other night.”
“And so does Private Lark, but good luck tracking them down. He didn’t even know the directions to his own house,” Bail said.
That made things easy, though. Secure the family, meet up with Sadie and hopefully the full might of Roth Arden’s military force. A general. Anybody would do, to take this burden from Renee’s shoulders.
“Let’s go get our families, then,” she said, and they crept up the street to her home.
The final pieces are falling into place for the climax! There will be two more parts after this, plus an epilogue that helps set up the next adventure in the world of the Totems and the Winged Riders. I hope the journey has been fun and harrowing thus far, but believe me when I say it’s going to get worse before it gets better.