The days swept by, each the same as the last. Elkeri’s feathers remained a permanent dusty shade of brown now, as though all the scrubbing in the world couldn’t remove the grime. Even her power feathers drooped from the weight of the accumulated dirt; they had fully sprouted in weeks ago now, dangling well beyond her jawline. Kusarel wished she could somehow remove those feathers for her friend, but there was nothing to be done. Removing or attempting to hide power feathers was a criminal offense, and Elkeri was better off alive as a farmer than pierced by a guard’s spear.
Kusarel fingered the pendant on her chest, the only area that remained cool in this heat. Her mother, Salaki, had given her the pendant a few weeks back, in recognition of her hard work. She had been filled with fear at the time, wondering if she was about to be scolded for working as a farmer…and instead, her mother had brandished this gorgeous gift.
“It’s for you, dear. A gift for all your hard work lately,” Salaki said, dangling a strange piece of jewelry between her talons. At the bottom of a silver chain swung a gleaming pendant. Its crystal surface glistened in the light, and inside, churning waters splashed against the inner walls, as though a river had been captured within the jewel.
“…For me? You got this for me?” Kusarel waited for her mother to nod before reaching out and tentatively cradling the pendant in her claws. Cold waves radiated off its surface, cooling her battered skin.
“Just for you. I bought it from my old friend, the traveling merchant. There’s real water inside; she said it was created by a water-controller and a jeweler. They plucked a full stretch of river and sealed it inside with their powers.” Salaki puffed out her chest somewhat, as though she was the one who had made it. “You always loved playing in the rivers as a cub, so I thought you’d like it.”
Kusarel watched the liquid shift and twist inside, constantly merging and splitting apart in a hypnotic dance. “It’s gorgeous, but what if I break it?” Thoughts of violent waves cascading over the fields and undoing all the farmers’ hard work ran through her mind. She could ruin everything they had worked for if the pendant cracked, and poor Elkeri would take the brunt of it, being the actual farmer.
Her mother waved a claw and chuckled. “It’s incredibly durable. Why, you’d have to have super strength to break it! It would be too much even for Xaiel.”
Relief washed over Kusarel as she put on the necklace, feeling the weight of the pendant against her chest. “I love it, mother, thank you! I…was afraid you’d be mad at me. For working as a farmer.”
Salaki’s gaze faltered, uncertainty lurking in her eyes. She didn’t say anything for a few moments, instead appearing to scrutinize the nearby cabinet, displaying all their family treasures. “Well, I must admit I was torn, but given the circumstances and all,” her eyes landed on Kusarel’s forehead, where power feathers would have rested, “I think it’s justifiable.”
Her mother hadn’t said anything else after that, instead whisking her out of the den. Outside, Xaiel had winked at her, leaving her to wonder how much he had to do with her mother’s acceptance of the situation.
A thorny root snagged against the inside of Kusarel’s ankle, jarring her back to reality. Hissing, she shook her leg a few times until its grip vanished, leaving her with a trail of blood. Beside her, Elkeri continued working unabated; her eyes were clouded over from being worked back to back without much time to rest, and her tail dragged through the dirt as though it were too heavy for her to raise.
“Kusarel, Elkeri! How’re you holding up?” Xaiel called, trotting over with an energetic gait. While his feathers were far from pristine, they glowed with an inner healthiness that seemed to be missing from Elkeri lately…and Kusarel herself, for that matter.
“Working, Xaiel,” Elkeri mumbled, keeping her beak down as she tore into the field.
“Shouldn’t you go back to work too?” Kusarel asked, glancing over at the village. She didn’t see any of his fellow guards running over, yelling at Xaiel to get back to work, but that didn’t help quell her anxiety.
He simply shrugged and stretched his legs. “I’m good. Got another guard to cover my shift for a bit. Figured it’s best if I stay close by, you know?” He lowered his voice, peering at Kusarel intently. “People talk less about you when they see me around…probably feel intimidated. And the less negative talk there is about you being a farmer, the less there is to go back to old mother.”
While the pendant had been a welcome cool spot, it now seemed suddenly too frigid, threatening to freeze her whole. She gulped and forced herself to ask, “What have they been saying?”
“Nothing that really matters, but mother loves her rumors, so–“
A shrill, pealing noise erupted from somehow off in the village, reverberating over and over again. All the farmers perked their heads up, staring at each other with confused looks. The noise came again, just as piercing as before. Kusarel resisted the urge to cover her ears, fearing it may make her look weak.
“That’s the village gong,” Xaiel muttered, staring off toward the source of the sound. “We need to go back. Now.”
The farmers still didn’t move from their spots, even Elkeri staring at Xaiel with a foggy gaze. Kusarel glanced back and forth from Elkeri to Xaiel, waiting for one of them to act.
“It’s a summons, people! We need to move!”
Elkeri shook her head rapidly, clarity returning to her face. “Sorry, haven’t gotten good sleep in who knows how long. Let’s go, Kusarel!”
The three of them all bounded over together, none of them caring about going at an appropriately slow pace. Entering the village square, they stumbled into a crowd of gryphons, all chattering and buzzing amongst themselves. Elkeri tried to shove her way through the mob, lowering her head and poking at the gryphons with her horns. No one so much as budged, though a couple shot her a withering gaze. Xaiel gave a quick cough and suddenly, the gryphons around parted, bowing their heads in their direction.
“I miss when I could do that,” Elkeri grumbled.
They had just reached the front of the crowd when the gong rang again, nearly splitting Kusarel’s eardrums. She hissed and cupped her ears before she could stop herself, right as a voice boomed over the chattering crowd.
“Everyone, this is a joyous day! Bow now, for our glorious Empress Ardhelia has blessed us with her presence!”
The cacophony disappeared in an instant, no one daring to utter a word. Wide eyes stared at one another, equal parts disbelieving and shocked.
“BOW!” roared the speaker, a veteran guard, right as a massive gryphon stepped into the plaza.
Golden armor encased almost all of the gryphon’s body, other than the wings and talons. Jewels of all colors and kinds gleamed proudly from her armor, trailing down the legs and chest. Over the wings draped purple silk, embroidered with swirls of silver and gold. The mask over her face covered the entire beak, dipping far down and curling inwards like the beak of a cruel eagle. Orange eyes peered out from under the mask, and above them towered bristling violet feathers around the ears, the only feathers visible on her entire body.
Feathers for longevity, the power of the royal family.
The gryphons all around fell to the ground in a blitz, some bowing so hard their beaks tore into the dirt. With all the sudden movement, Kusarel took this chance to dive back further into the gathering, away from the front line. The last thing she needed was the Empress realizing Kusarel was a blank…and having her executed on the spot. She bowed alongside everyone else, having no desire to stand out in any way.
Up ahead, she heard a strained voice whisper, “Son, you need to bow, now!”
A happy laugh from a young gryphon spread throughout the air, more piercing than the gong. “But she’s so pretty! Look at those jewels!”
The first voice started babbling out apologies, likely the parent of the laughing cub. Kusarel felt her insides grow icy, wondering what on earth the Empress would do to this poor family. Apparently she wasn’t the only one; the gryphons around her widened their eyes, some even quaking as they continued to bow.
“No worries, young’un. I know I’m on the flashy side. You’re fine,” a silky voice cooed, as smooth as a river stone. Kusarel tilted her head up ever so slightly and saw the Empress patting the cub on the head with her tail. “But please don’t give your mother such a fright. That’s never good for a parent.”
Kusarel blinked, unsure if she had heard correctly. She locked eyes with the gryphon to her left, who gaze her a perplexed stare in return.
“Oh, dear me! You all look confused. Surely you didn’t think I’m a monster who would punish a cub’s natural curiosity?” The Empress gave a hearty chuckle and sat back on her haunches, looking for all the world like she was gearing up for a pleasant chat with the locals. A couple gryphons laughed in return, though they sounded stiff and wary. Kusarel didn’t think she could force a laugh even if she tried; her mouth seemed far too dry and her tongue too heavy.
“Now, I’m hoping you lovely folks could help me out. I’ve heard rumors lately of a powerful guard, a gryphon with great strength. Does that ring a bill at all?”
Everyone turned to look at Xaiel, who flitted his head between the staring crowd and the Empress. Fear laced over his face as he took a step back, looking for all the world like he wanted to soar off into the horizon.
Xaiel? She’s looking for him?
Her stomach twisted in unease, filling her with nausea.
© Nadine Anton “The Feathered Pagan”