EXCERPT FROM THE SHEPHERD OF FIRE
COPYRIGHT © TAYLEN CARVER 2021
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
The Shepherd of Fire
February in Falconer was a miserable month. Harley had lived in a dozen different towns in the Canadian Rockies foothills over the near-twenty years of her career as a Mountie, but she couldn’t remember ever seeing the weather gauge drop below thirty.
Thanks to her recently recovered metabolism, she no longer set fire to bed sheets. Instead, staying warm had abruptly become a problem.
Harley had been using a cloak as an overcoat, because it went over her wings. In thirty below (Celsius) weather, the blanket-thin cloak no longer worked. She’d have been better off wrapping her bed comforter around her. This morning, she had been strongly tempted to do just that. It had been a miserable ten minute walk to the police station.
For that reason, she sent Bohdan Kask and Mojag Bear, her two constables, out on routine patrol without her. She stayed behind to finish paperwork they’d not got around to. She stoked up the wood-burning stove which heated the former souvenir store, then sat behind the station’s single laptop—a third-hand Toshiba Bohdan had updated with the latest operating system.
The laptop worked, sort of. Everything in the station worked, more or less, and usually not in the way Harley had become used to as a Mountie. But that was life in Falconer, Alberta. Everything was different, here.
The desk Harley sat behind was an old, scratched tin monstrosity that took all three of them to lift. It had a clear view through the glass front of the old store, and along Bethall Street to the intersection with Mountain Avenue, the other main street. A mile northwest of the intersection, Mountain Avenue changed back to the grand-sounding Alberta Provincial Highway No. 40, which Harley thought was a generous description. Its other name, Forestry Trunk Road, better suited the strip of tarmac which wound through trees and around mountain peaks.
Harley’s attention was caught when a woman turned the corner into Bethall Street and strolled along the deserted sidewalk on the other side of the street from the station. Everyone in Falconer was staying home today, if they could get away with it. As most of the residents of Falconer were former humans and therefore without documentation, staying home was a default state.
It wasn’t just because she was the only one out there that the woman snagged Harley’s attention. The woman’s appearance caused Harley to completely forget the report she was trying to complete and stare with her lips parted in surprised.
The woman wore a heavy winter coat in an off-white color which the fashion conscious called ‘winter white’. Her thick gloves and hat were pink. Her boots and the scarf winding around the lower half of her head were a pale grey.
The thickness of the garments was no big surprise. The color coordination might have made Harley roll her eyes on any other day. The truly startling aspect of the woman’s appearance, though, was the twin curves of folded-up white wings Harley could see over the woman’s shoulders.
Harley watched, fascinated, as the woman hefted the huge shopping bag she was carrying and shifted it to her other hand. Then she moved to the gutter, stepped over it and crossed the road. She didn’t bother looking in either direction for cars. There were none.
With a jolt, Harley realized the woman was heading for the police station itself. As she didn’t seemed to be in need of law enforcement or assistance, Harley’s curiosity was roused. She sat back and waited.
The woman pushed open the street door, making the old shop bell trill, then stepped in through the door with the same semi-sideways slide-through which Harley used to get through most doorways.
The door closed behind the woman, cutting off the gust of frigid air. She removed her gloves and unwound her scarf, revealing a pale face with a pointed chin. Her gaze fell on Harley, then shifted to take in Harley’s wings. Harley’s were red at the thick edges, moving to pale yellow at the feathered tips.
The woman smiled, which made her features light up. “Chief Canmore. You’re just the person I wanted to see.”
Harley tilted her head. “I didn’t know we had an angel in Falconer.”
The woman laughed. Her wings shifted, spreading so the tips moved out on either side of her hips and made a dipping… Curtsey was the only word Harley could think of. “There’s three of us in Falconer,” the woman said. “Only, Elias Krumins is nine years old, which is too young to be in trouble with the law yet, so it’s not a big surprise you haven’t met him. Randolph Kinsley is…was, I suppose I should say…well, he was Falconer’s only homeless drunk, but the Darnels asked him to live in the top of their house and watch it during the day while they’re sleeping, so he’s not homeless anymore. I guess he embraced the whole life-changing phasing thing with a vengeance. Phasing cured his alcoholism, which he calls a God-given miracle. It’s been ten years since he slept under the same roof more than two nights in a row, so now he’s making up for it by never leaving the roof he’s got…and listen to me babble, huh?”
Harley found herself smiling, too. “And you are…?”
The woman put down the oversized brown paper shopping bag and pulled off her hat. Waist-length locks of pure white hair fell about her shoulders. “I’m Noel ap Tailor. Just Noel to most everyone in Falconer.”
“I’m Harley.” Harley’s gaze returned to the woman’s coat. She was wearing a coat. Over wings. That weren’t stuffed underneath it and making her look like the Hunchback of Notre Dame. In fact, the coat was almost pretty, which was remarkable for Canadian winter outerwear. A wide belt the same off-white color as the coat cinched in the woman’s waist.
The woman picked up the heavy shopping bag and brought it closer. “I have something for you.” She delved into the bag.
“Uh-huh.” Noel straightened, withdrawing a garment from the bag—black, thick fabric which she fumbled to orient. Then she held it up by the shoulders.
It was a winter coat. Not a new one, Harley judged, running her gaze over the large, shapeless garment. She leaned to see Noel behind the coat. “I’m confused,” she said bluntly.
“It’s for you,” Noel repeated.
“I heard you say that before,” Harley said. “I can’t wear coats,” she added patiently. “And we’ve never met before, so I’m not sure why you spontaneously decided to bring me one.”
Noel lowered the coat. “I guess I’m not good at meeting new people,” she confessed. “I’ve lived in Falconer all my life. I never meet strangers.” She grimaced. “Moira Falconer sent me.”
Part of the explanation dropped into place for Harley. She had met Moira Falconer a few weeks ago, just before Christmas. The older woman was a descendant of the town’s founding family, and had seemed to take offense at Harley’s lack of an overcoat. At the time, Harley hadn’t needed one, but that was before she’d figured out how to use her wings and fly, which now kept her core temperature at something less than incendiary level.
“Moira told you to give me a coat?” Harley asked politely.
“Oh, not just any coat,” Noel said. She turned the coat around and held it up again, so Harley could see the back of it.
The back of the coat had two splits running from the hem to nearly the top of the shoulders. The splits reminded Harley of the way she had to tear the back of her shirt to get it over her wings, only these vents were not raw rips made by her pocket knife, but neatly finished openings. Hanging from the middle of the center section were two sides of a belts, also black. One end had the buckle. The other had metal-edged holes, like any normal belt.
“I don’t understand what all the hanging-down bits are for,” Harley said, staring at the belt things and the flapping panels.
“I get that a lot,” Noel said, lowering the coat. She dropped it back into the bag. “Maybe this will help.” She flipped her white hair over one shoulder, so it all hung down over her chest, then turned to show Harley her back.
Noel’s wings were blindingly white, and larger than Harley’s. Dr. Michael Jones, in Spain, had told Harley that angels were the only winged old race who could carry another human. The other winged races, including firebirds, didn’t have enough wingspan to lift that much weight for long distances.
Noel lifted her wings up and out of the way, so they arched up on either side of her head, letting Harley see the back of her winter-white coat.
And the other half of Harley’s understanding dropped into place with an almost audible thud.
Noel’s coat had been adjusted the same way as the black one, with two long vents running down the middle of each side, so the back of the coat was almost split in three. The openings sat on either side of Noel’s wings. The center panel between the two openings wasn’t a straight rectangle, either. Just beneath the bottom of her wing joints, the panel flared out, so it covered the edge of each side panel.
At waist level, the two belt sections were attached to the center panel. With the belt fastened in front, it pulled the center panel in snugly, holding the two side panels securely closed, too.
It was an identical arrangement to the shapeless black coat Noel had dropped back into the bag.
“Batarnak,” Harley breathed. “A coat that goes over wings…”
“Yes!” Noel spun and picked up the black coat once more. “That’s what Moira said you needed. Let’s try it on.”
Harley got to her feet, feeling a bit dazed. She reached for the coat, but Noel shook her head. “Let me show you how to put it on, first. You put one arm in, then sort of thread it over your wings, before you put your other arm in. Go on, I’ll show you.”
Harley pushed her arm into the sleeve Noel held up. Noel dropped the shoulder of the coat over Harley’s shoulder, then flipped the loose center panel over the rounded top of Harley’s wing, so it dropped between her wings. The other side of the coat was lifted over the second wing.
“Now reach back and pushed your other arm in, the way you used to do with normal coats,” Noel said.
The arm was there, just like a normal coat. Harley pulled the fronts of the coat in around her, marveling.
“Now reach behind you and under your wings, and grab the two ends of the belt,” Noel added.
Harley complied, and pulled the belt in around her front.
“You might have to sort of flap the center back to get it to lay properly over the sides,” Noel explained. “Then you can close buttons and buckle the belt and you’re done. It takes a bit longer, but it beats the hell out of wearing blankets!” She laughed merrily.
Harley buckled the belt, smiling. She tugged at the heavy sleeve cuffs, enjoying the warmth of a well-fitting overcoat. She bent to look down at herself. The coat covered her properly, to below her knees. With her fur-lined mukluks, she would be warm when she was outside for the first time this winter.
“This is incredible,” she confessed. “I don’t know what to say… You actually made this?”
“Hell, no,” Noel replied. “It’s a coat I bought at the Goodwill. Actually, two coats. I used the second one for all the extra fabric you need for around your wings and the belt. But I make clothes all the time, including for Moira, and she saw my coat and said I had to make one for you, so I had to go on a hunt through the secondhand stores to find two coats that were the same color and material, but that’s something I do a lot of these days.”
“Noel ap Tailor,” Harley murmured and rolled her eyes. “Now I get it.”
Her phone buzzed, on the desk behind her.
Harley snatched it up. “Excuse me a second,” she told Noel. She put her spare hand into the deep side pocket of the coat—there was room for gloves in there, and other stuff, too. She was grinning as she answered the phone. “Bohdan, what’s up?”
“Umm…boss, we got another body,” Bohdan said, his tone apologetic.
Harley’s attention snapped away from the marvels of her new coat. “Accident?”
“Um, looks like, yeah.”
“Then you know the drill,” she told him. Death was common in Falconer. Suicides were triple the national average, because a lot of townsfolk couldn’t cope with their new life as an old one, or couldn’t stand waiting to phase into an old one. Lack of decent food and shelter added to the stats. Bohdan and Mojag had learned how to process bodies in the last few weeks. “If it’s an old one, take them to Doctor Pranee. If it’s someone who is still human, call Staff Sergeant Hopson at Sundre and he’ll have someone come and pick it up.”
“It’s not that simple, boss.” Bohdan sighed. “It’s Sexton Audley…used to be Audley, I mean. Sexton of Falconer.”
An old one of the Earth element, Harley interpreted. “I don’t know the name,” she told Bohdan, for he had pronounced it as though she should know who that was.
“Sexton is married to Moira Falconer’s granddaughter, Claire,” Bohdan said. “Was married,” he amended.
“Need you here, boss,” Bohdan added.
“Yeah,” Harley said heavily. “Send me the coordinates. I’ll be right there.”