No one approached the lone gryphon, hunched over with her wings brushing the grass. The chirps of young gryphons at play, filling the park just moments ago, had faded away. Now, only a somber silence was left in its wake.
Kusarel shoved her way to the front of the crowd, squeezing her wings against her sides. Disappointed murmurs floated all around her as the silence broke, the crowd of onlookers finally ready to pass their judgment.
“So much wasted potential.”
“Her parents will be so disappointed. A farmer? What a disgrace!”
Finally breaking through the crowd, Kusarel trod right up to the lone gryphon—her closest friend, Elkeri—and nudged her with her beak. Somewhere in the back of her mind, she knew she was playing a dangerous game; associating with a lowly farmer would tear up her own reputation. But seeing Elkeri huddled in the circle of naysayers, feathered ears drooping and tail curled tightly by her side, she couldn’t just leave her be.
“Let’s get out of here, Elkeri,” she whispered, doing her best to tune out the mob around them. Elkeri said nothing, only staring at the ground–or more accurately, at a delicate carnation that had blossomed from beneath her talons in an instant, towering above the grass with a proud air. Little did it know its sudden burst to life now set Elkeri’s future in stone.
“I’m a farmer, Kusarel,” a small voice finally said with a stutter. “One of the lowest gryphons there is. You should get away from me.” At this, Elkeri ripped her gaze away from the hated carnation and stared at the gryphons around her, only to lower her eyes almost instantly. “They’re judging you too, you know.”
Alarm laced through Kusarel, feathers bristling at the sound of Elkeri’s distraught voice. Never in all her years had she seen her normally raucous, rebellious friend so resigned. Kusarel opened her beak to respond, trying to force her tongue to say something supportive. Instead, only a sharp squawk came from Kusarel as rugged talons dug into her shoulder from behind, yanking her away from Elkeri.
“Stay away from her, Kusarel,” snapped a voice right in her ear. Wincing, she tried to wiggle away, but her mother’s talons remained firm as she dragged her away from Elkeri and out of the crowd. She tried to shout something encouraging to her friend before she lost sight, but Elkeri’s dead eyes killed the words in her throat.
The pressure finally disappeared from her shoulder as they came to a stop in the village’s plaza. An older gryphon towered over her, ears upright and wings spread. The silver feathers lining her head, avian forelegs, wings and chest shone brilliantly in the noon sun. Halfway along her torso, the feathers abruptly switched to a lush, velvety black fur, which blanketed her back lion-like legs and tail. People had often told Kusarel she looked just like her mother, but she wholeheartedly disagreed; she could never hope to replicate the rage contorting her mother’s face, eyes narrowed beneath heavily feathered brows.
“You know better than to associate with lower classes, Kusarel,” spat her mother, arching her lithe neck down to peer with a patronizing stare at her daughter.
Before she could stop herself, Kusarel shook her head and said, “Mother, I’m a lower class than her. She’s younger than me by two moons and got her powers. I’m still just a blank.”
At this, her mother’s gaze softened, only to be replaced with a stony mask an eyeblink later. “That’s nonsense, and you know it. You only became an adult three moons back; you’re still basically a cub yourself.”
“It doesn’t matter. I’m not a cub anymore, and the more time that passes, the lower I’ll get. Everyone says blanks are useless.”
Perhaps Kusarel just imagined the fear in her mother’s eyes; she desperately hoped so, as the thought of her mother being afraid tore a hole right through her stomach. The rumble of her mother’s deep voice snapped her out of her thoughts a moment later.
“You’ll get your powers soon enough, Kusarel. All members of our families have powers. We have no mature adult blanks, and you won’t be the first.” Something about the way her mother said the last line made Kusarel take a step back. She could still feel where her mother’s claws had dug in minutes ago; that was nothing compared to what her mother could do, if she used all her strength.
They wouldn’t cull me, right? I’m still their family. She craned her head up to meet her mother’s gaze. All she could see was that same impenetrable mask, the mask that loomed in all her childhood memories. She had never known what her mom was thinking then, and she couldn’t tell now.
“The other gryphons still consider you to be a cub, since you just became an adult,” her mother said quietly. Yet even though her voice was soft, poison dripped from her words. “But when they start thinking of you as an adult…we’ll need to do what’s best for the family’s name, if you’re still a blank then. You wouldn’t want to disgrace the family, now would you, Kusarel?”
Kusarel stared at the ground. Her mother tapped her talons impatiently against the stone plaza floor. Eyes locked on those shining claws, Kusarel felt a lump rise in her throat, blocking out all response.
“In fact, I think a thank you is in order,” her mother continued. “Many families would cull their newly adult blanks right on their birthday. You’re lucky to have me as your mother.”
She knew failing to respond to that would be incredibly dangerous, possibly downright fatal. Yet the words wouldn’t fall from her beak, blocked deep in her throat by that massive lump. Instead, she nodded her head up and down rapidly, eyes still locked on her mother’s claws.
“I’m glad you understand. You always were a good cub.” Her mother lightly patted her on the head with her tail, a classic sign of affection. “And with such a distinguished bloodline, I’m sure you’ll get your powers soon.”
Kusarel tried to cluck in agreement, but her voice still failed her. She thought back to Elkeri, standing in the midst of a disappointed mob, and desperately wished to be her at this moment. Better a lowly farmer than an adult blank. At least Elkeri’s family couldn’t legally murder her now. It had taken Elkeri only a month after reaching adulthood to gain her powers–still a late bloomer, but now she was safe, and that’s all that really mattered. She had status, even if it was next to nothing. But an adult blank, on the other hand…it was in her family’s right to cull her if they wanted. No one would bat an eye at that.
And so even after her mother left, probably off on guard duty, Kusarel still didn’t budge. She continued staring at the ground, feeling more lost and alone than she ever had before.
© Nadine Anton “The Feathered Pagan”