It took all her strength for Kusarel to snap out of her bout of self-pity. After the confrontation with her mother, she had hidden away in the forest on the outskirts of the village; the thought of going home seemed too painful then. She had managed to calm herself down now, a couple hours later, though her muscles felt heavy from the past adrenaline high.
I’m still alive now, and besides, I may still get my powers soon. But Elkeri…there’s nothing Elkeri can do now. She repeated these words in her head over and over, doing her best to squash her anxiety. Her friend needed her right now; she didn’t have time to let herself break down in a wreck. Guilt seeped through her, realizing she had left her best friend alone for a good chunk of the afternoon.
Elkeri’s home is close; no excuse for me not to go. Stamping down her emotions one more time, she picked herself up off the ground, shaking away the dirt on her feet and tail. Elkeri’s family was one of the higher-ranking bloodlines in the village, and they certainly wouldn’t approve of her running in covered in muck. She could just imagine the gossip this would create, inevitably getting back to her own mother. Remembering the shine of her mother’s talons, Kusarel repressed a shudder and flapped her wings a few times to dislodge any extra-stubborn grime. Angering her mother more than necessary seemed like a poor idea at the moment.
She slipped between the trees effortlessly, having long romped through these woods. The forest had always been her safe space ever since she was a cub, a place she could get away from the staring, judging eyes of her family. Even now, that hadn’t changed. Passing a particularly gnarled tree, she brushed her tail fondly against its bark, remembering how she and her older brother had climbed up this very tree so often as cubs. They’d always squabble over the highest branches, though Kusarel’s larger size meant she’d usually win. It didn’t take her ever-conniving brother long to decide that if he couldn’t have the top branches, she couldn’t either…and promptly snapped them off the tree. Fury had filled her at the time, but now, she wished she could go back to those easier days.
Shaking her head, she willed herself forward, finally making it to the end of the forest. Here, she could see the outskirt of the village, where dens taller than the trees had been constructed out of chiseled rock. The sun’s rays splayed over their polished surfaces, gleaming like perfectly tumbled river rocks. Elkeri had once told her the dens were supposed to resemble caves in the mountains–not that either of them had ever seen mountains themselves.
The dens peppered the sides of the stone road, which wound its way deeper into the village. Spotting the den of Elkeri’s family, she scurried forward, before forcing herself to slow to a dignified gait. While no one was in sight, any gryphon listening nearby would be able to hear the fast clicks of her talons against the road if she ran. And running, of course, was hardly befitting of a higher-class gryphon. Kusarel’s mind roared in frustration at the slow pace, but she couldn’t risk it. She had to play it safe.
Finally reaching the family home of Elkeri, she grabbed the rattle dangling near its entrance. A glistening crimson jewel lay embedded at the very top, proclaiming to any passerby that this was indeed the house of a very wealthy family. She shook the rattle a few times, hopefully enough for them to hear her arrival, but not so much she annoyed them. The proper amount of rattle shakes always eluded her; Kusarel would have much preferred if she didn’t have to make any noise at all. It made her feel exposed, like she was announcing her presence to the entire street.
A few moments later, the drapes covering the entrance parted, revealing a wizened old gryphon. His feathers were the same golden-hued brown as Elkeri’s, though his beak was far shorter than her friend’s sleek, elongated one. Gleaming orange feathers sprouted around the base of his ears, proclaiming his fire-harnessing power to all other gryphons. A mass of horns jutted out from the top of his head and the side of his jaw, giving him a fierce appearance at odds with his exhausted eyes.
“Oh, Kusarel. I’d say good to see you, but…I’m fairly certain you’re here because of my daughter,” Elkeri’s father said in a raspy voice. Kusarel raised a brow at the sound; his voice had always been strong and clear despite his age, nothing like this wheezing.
“Pardon me, my voice is going from all the yelling. It was quite a mess in here. But that’s done now.”
The yelling? Kusarel felt more regret set in, knowing her friend probably needed her more than ever. “Can I talk to her? I need to see her, Mr. Hornfeather.”
The gryphon huffed and waved a talon briskly. “Call me Yatalo now, please. You’re an adult; no need to talk to me like you’re still a cub. Though…” He narrowed his eyes, something icy settling in his expression. “Come to think of it, you’re still a blank, aren’t you?”
Kusarel chuckled nervously and stepped back, trying to put some distance between herself and the much larger gryphon. “Oh, well, I guess so. But where’s Elkeri, sir?”
Yatalo peered down his beak at her, clucking as though scolding a disobedient cub. “Do get your powers soon; your mother must be worried sick. It always takes so much out of parents, wondering if they’ll have to cull their own children.” He shook his head, then seemed to collect himself. “But yes, Elkeri. She’s not here anymore, of course. We kicked her out of the den; we can’t have a farmer in the Hornfeather family.”
Kusarel’s heart sank at the words, though she did her best to keep her face neutral. “Ears up, tail high, no fidgeting with your talons,” the familiar voice of her mother whispered in her head, though the memory did little to relax her. “Where is she now, Mr. Hornfeather? I mean, Yatalo,” she added in the same breath.
“Off to the single dens, I would assume. Since she’s a farmer, check the poor ones. The village won’t give her anything better than that with her status.” A heavy sigh escaped his beak, filling the air with its weight. “Poor girl, but there’s no helping it. Empress knows when I’ll talk to her again, if ever.”
He waved in the direction of the single dens, which Kusarel took as a sign it was time for her to leave. She bowed her head in thanks and hastened off, feeling Yatalo’s eyes on her as she scuttled down the road as fast as was acceptable. Her mom’s words echoed in her head: “But when they start thinking of you as an adult…we’ll need to do what’s best for the family’s name.”
I hope that’s later rather than sooner, she prayed, but something told her she wouldn’t be so lucky.
© Nadine Anton “The Feathered Pagan”