Twin Feathers: Chapter 9

See all “Twin Feathers” chapters here. Prefer Wattpad? Read here!

Kusarel had never seen a town other than her own all her life, so she didn’t have much in the way of comparison. But even from this distance, she couldn’t help but suck in a deep breath as her eyes landed on the silhouette of Tremora. The city easily looked to be around four times bigger than her own, with a looming wall encasing all sides. Towers rose up from the walls, probably for lookouts or shooting down enemies in the case of war.

“It looks so…different from home.” Just uttering the word “different” made her stomach shift with tension. She and Elkeri had only been traveling by air for a couple days, and already she missed home. Craning her head down, even the trees covering the landscape looked unusual; these were much thinner, with sparser leaves.

“Yeah, it looks intense. Xaiel said it was peaceful, though,” Elkeri said, squinting at Tremora. “Maybe this is normal and our town is the weird one.”

That thought didn’t quite sit well with Kusarel; the idea of living in cities that were nothing like her own, even temporarily, filled her with unease.

I wish I could just turn around and fly home now. But my family wouldn’t even be there anymore…they’re probably off to the palace right now. I wonder what mother is thinking. Does she miss me?

Her mother’s tear-soaked feathers came back to her, and she felt her wings somehow grow even heavier. She had never flown this much before, and she could feel every muscle in her wings screaming at her. Still, this heaviness somehow felt deeper and more insidious.

“Elkeri, do you think there’s any chance I could live with my family in the palace?” Her mind went back to what Xaiel had said, about possibility talking with the Empress and getting her pardoned.

Her small bubble of hope instantly popped as Elkeri cackled from her side. “Kusarel, you’re gonna make me laugh so hard I’ll fall out of the sky.”

Her eyes blurred over somewhat as a small amount of tears squeezed out, before she could stop them. Embarrassed, she turned her head slightly away from Elkeri, not wanting her friend to see her like this.

“Aw, are you crying? I’m sorry, Kusarel. I didn’t mean to make you sad.”

How did she notice that? I know gryphons have sharp eyes, but come on. She just mumbled something in response, so low even she couldn’t hear what she was saying. Elkeri tilted her wings and flew a bit closer, nudging her on the side without saying another word.

An hour of blissful silence later and they arrived at the city. The two gryphons landed outside the wall, a ways back from the main gate. Two guards already had their gaze fixed on them, waiting for their approach.

“I wish we could just fly into the city.”

Elkeri nodded with a grumble. “Completely agree, but I’m pretty sure they’d swarm us and take us down.” Flicking her tail in the direction of the gate, she said, “Let’s get this over with already. I want to go in, take a nap, and eat some real food already.”

Kusarel ducked her head and followed her friend, keeping a few steps behind her. Somehow, having Elkeri take the lead made her feel a lot safer, like she was shielded from harm.

“Welcome, visitors. Just a couple questions and you’ll be good to go,” one of the guards called, stepping forward toward them. Both guards wore silver plates of armor over their torso and chest and carried a spear wrapped in their tails, yet their ears were held in a relaxed state. Kusarel remembered what Xaiel had said about Tremora being peaceful and hoped this was a good sign.

“First, where are you from?” the first guard asked. The other guard pulled out a pad of paper and looked at them expectantly.

“Kryga,” Elkeri answered in a clear, crisp voice. Kusarel shifted at the sound of coldness underneath the surface, exposing her friend’s seemingly innate distrust of authorities. Still, the guards didn’t seem to notice, or perhaps they were just used to it; they both nodded, and the one with the notepad jotted something down.

“Makes sense. Kryga’s so close to us. You ever been out of town before?”

“No. This is the first time.”

The guard chuckled and waved toward the walls. “Bet this comes as quite a shock then, eh?” Kryga’s nothing like Tremora.”

Trust me, I noticed, Kusarel thought, wishing she could get out of the center of attention and take a nice, warm bath already.

“Last question: What’s your business here? Since you’re a farmer, I’m guessing you’re here for trade or work. And you…” He peered around Elkeri and looked straight at Kusarel, making her quiver. His eyes, so warm and friendly just a moment ago, seemed to lose some of their luster, replaced by suspicion. “Where are your power feathers? You’re not an adult blank, are you?”

The other guard snapped to attention, ripping his eyes off of his notepad to zero in on Kusarel. She tried to respond, but only a quiet squeak came out at first. Clearing her throat, she tried again, her voice wavering and small.

“I’m…I’m just 28. Elkeri is my guardian.”

She sounded pathetic even to herself, but immediately the intensity vanished. The warmth returned to the first guard’s eyes as the other one began writing again.

“Oh, still a cub! Almost an adult though. Guess you still have two more years to get your powers.”

“Yes sir,” she said quietly, filled with gratitude that they seemed to fall for the lie right away.

“Right, now, back to your business here,” he stated, turning his attention back toward Elkeri.

“Tourism,” Elkeri replied in a clipped voice. The two guards gave them a funny look once again, but the first one shrugged and gestured for the other one to write it down.

“We don’t get a lot of tourist farmers, but all right. You can enter, but don’t be surprised if the other gryphons don’t want much to do with you. Your kind is supposed to be working, after all.” The guard’s voice was still friendly, but there was a hint of sternness underneath, like a parent berating a cub for frolicking about.

Kusarel saw Elkeri’s wings raise ever so slightly in an ominous fashion. Thankfully, she stopped herself from spreading them more in what would have clearly been a battle stance. Instead, she gave a short nod and walked toward the gate as they lifted it open, waving the two of them through and into the city.

When they were out of earshot of the guards, Elkeri hissed, “Are you pulling my feathers? ‘Your kind is supposed to be working.’ How rude can you get! Right, Kusarel?”

She didn’t answer, but instead stared with wide eyes at all the sights around her. The stone path beneath them spanned at least twice the width of the ones back at home, if not more. Instead of a few dens peppering the sides of the path here and there, like back in her town, Tremora was filled with buildings and vendors taking up nearly every usable inch. Merchants squawked at her from their stalls, filled with goods Kusarel had never seen before: Jewelry embedded with so much gold and gems it would weigh down even the strongest flier. Whole fish stabbed through a stick, coated with a sticky sauce and appetizing seeds. Blankets colored like the rainbow with a thick, plush weave, so soft looking that she wanted to nestle against them right now.

My necklace probably came from a place like this, she realized. Her mother had mentioned she had bought the necklace from a traveling merchant. Did that merchant spend a lot of her time in stalls just like this, going from city to city? The thought of so much constant travel and loud, piercing noise like this made her shudder. She could never live a life like that.

“Kusarel, look at that!” Elkeri jabbed a claw at a huge hunk of meat, rotating on a skewer underneath one of the pavilions. The juices ran down the sides and dripped underneath, making her stomach grumble just at the sight of it. “Let’s go get some.”

Elkeri lowered her head and plowed her way through the crowd milling about the path, using her horns to push other gryphons aside and clear a way through. The others grumbled at them, and Kusarel could only avert her eyes and mutter quick apologies as she darted after her. Of course Elkeri would ram her way straight through everyone, instead of weaving in and out or going around like she would have done.

“I’ll take three servings of that amazing chunk of meat there,” Elkeri chirped to the vendor, pulled out her bag of coins. “And my friend–I mean, my cub here–wants some too. How much do you want, Kusarel?”

“Um, one serving is fine,” she mumbled, avoiding eye contact with the vendor gryphon. There was something about him she didn’t like, something a bit combative and on edge.

“Make that three for her, too,” Elkeri corrected. “Ok, so how much will that be?”

“Nothing. Get out of my stall now, farmer,” the shop owner barked.

Kusarel felt the air grow very, very still. The other gryphons around them stopped and turned their attention to the three gryphons. Some of them gave patronizing little laughs, nudging each other and pointing at Elkeri’s green power feathers.

“I didn’t realize you served farmers now, Galo. Downgrading your shop a bit now?” one of the gryphons asked the shop owner.

Galo fluffed his feathers and stood to his full height, never taking his eyes off Elkeri. “Absolutely not. I don’t know what this gryphon is doing here. Go work the fields like the others!” he snapped, the point of his beak flashing in the sunlight.

Kusarel felt shaking beside her–Elkeri, trembling from wing to claw with pure rage. As much as she wanted to distance herself, she inched just a bit closer and brushed her side, praying she could calm her down.

“I’m from Kryga, you sack of molted feathers! I’m not going to work your city’s fields while I’m on vacation,” Elkeri snarled, spreading her legs wide and flexing her talons against the stone below. A few gryphons behind her yelped in surprise as her tail whipped against them furiously, slashing through the air.

“Vacation?” another onlooker said with amusement. “Oh dear! I knew Kryga was a backwater little town, but this is just too much. To think they’re so out of touch that they let their farmers go on pleasure trips.”

“Just ridiculous,” another gryphon murmured in agreement. “Hope this doesn’t become more common. I don’t want to see dirty farmers milling about here.”

With a roar, Elkeri reared up on her hindlegs and screeched, “Dirty farmers? I’m cleaner than YOU! You look like maggots ate all your feathers.”

“Excuse me? I’m having a bad molt, farmer, not that I have to answer to you,” the gryphon spat back, stamping a claw against the ground. “By the Godslayer, Kryga really must be a dump if they let farmers talk back like this!”

“I’m so sorry! She’s just in a bad mood after traveling. Please forgive her,” Kusarel said, bowing as she grabbed Elkeri by the foreleg. “We’ll leave now, promise.”

“You’d better or I’m getting the guards,” Galo growled. She nodded fervently and pulled Elkeri away, though it took more effort than usual–her talons were arched into the ground, making a horrible scraping sound as Kusarel heaved her through the crowd of onlookers and farther down the path. A few of the gryphons clucked their tongues at them in disapproval, but they let them through, probably happy to see the farmer forced to leave.

When they were finally at a good distance, Kusarel stopped and released her grip, shaking out her stiff claw. “Elkeri, we can’t afford to make enemies here. We need to lay low until Xaiel arrives, ok?”

Elkeri only glared at her with slit pupils, still shaking with her beak opened wide, like she was ready to tear into skin and feathers. “I just wanted some dinner. Is that too much, Kusarel?”

“No, it’s not,” Kusarel said in a tired voice, wings drooping against her side. She was suddenly all-too aware of how difficult it was to keep them folded properly, as though her muscles were too tired for even that little amount of work. Every part of her just wanted to sleep and be done with this day.

The exhaustion in her tone must have gotten through her friend’s skull. Elkeri still shook and snapped her beak at the air, but she turned away and began walking down the path. “Sorry, I know you’re tired. Let’s find an inn and turn in for the night. I’m sure there has to be one that accepts farmers.”

Kusarel didn’t say anything, but once again plodded behind her friend. Somehow, she felt even less enthusiastic about staying in Tremora than before.

© Nadine Anton “The Feathered Pagan”

Read Chapter 10

One-week hiatus

Hi everyone! “Twin Feathers” will be on hiatus next week, so I can take time to work on freelance writing. I’ll be back with chapter 9 on July 31st. In the future, I’ll take a one-week hiatus every month or two so I can juggle my novel with freelance work. Of course, I’ll always post a warning one week ahead of time, like I’m doing now.

Thank you all for reading! See you at the end of July.

Twin Feathers: Chapter 8

See all “Twin Feathers” chapters here. Prefer Wattpad? Read here!

Several heartbeats after Salaki had slithered out of the den, Elkeri jumped in through the open window and positioned herself between the two siblings. Now, she stood in front of Kusarel, her whole body shaking with a burning rage that left Kusarel feeling like she was standing in the middle of a flame.

“Stop jabbing those horns at me, Elkeri!”

“I’m not gonna let you hurt her, you filthy crow! I thought you were on our side.” She guarded Kusarel with a wide stance, head ducked and horns flaring ominously close to Xaiel’s face. Giving a sharp screech, she beat her wings and stirred up the air around them.

“Ok, first of all, crows are noble birds and not at all filthy. And second, I am on your side, thank you very much. We’re going to get Kusarel out of here.”

Elkeri cocked her head to the side, though she still kept those horns pointed squarely at Xaiel. “Really now? Because you just said you’d do the culling.”

With a sigh, he sat back on his haunches and raised a claw in surrender. “It was for show, Elkeri. I’m not going to hurt my sister. The fact I even have to say that is kind of insulting, you know?”

She looked back and forth between Xaiel and Kusarel, whipping her tail in agitation. At Kusarel’s gentle nod, she relaxed her stance and folded her wings. “Alright, alright, I’m sorry. Guess I got kinda heated up. Though I swear, if you make ANY sort of move, my horns are going right through that pretty face of yours.”

Xaiel clucked his tongue and threw his head back in a stylish pose. “I do have a good-looking face, don’t I? Thanks for noticing.”

Her friend grumbled something under her breath, probably an insult, but Kusarel could see the tension fading away. Her muscles no longer looked coiled and taut, ready to spring, and her tail had settled against the floor with no more fidgeting. “Stop complimenting yourself. What’s the plan?”

The sassy gleam vanished from Xaiel’s eyes as he nodded at Kusarel, all business now. “Kusarel, you’re going to head over to Tremora.” He pulled a map out of the bag at his side and spread it on the ground, circling a nearby city with a quill. “It’s very close, and it’s a peaceful city too, so you shouldn’t have much trouble getting in. The guards there are lax; I talk with them a lot, so I’d know.”

Elkeri leaned over and jabbed at another spot on the map, closer to their town. “Why not here? This one is closer, so let’s do that one instead.”

“No way! You two stay clear of Rivel.” He drew a giant X over the area and scowled at Elkeri. “That city is a hotspot right now. Tons of rebellion and fighting. I know you’re not a guard, but there’s no way you haven’t heard of that yet.”

She shrugged and preened the feathers on her foreleg, a little too violently. “Oh my, I’m so sorry I haven’t been able to keep up with all the news, what with me throwing my back out every single day from dawn to night.”

With an abashed look, he clucked his tongue in apology. “Right, sorry. Guess that makes sense. So anyway, Kusarel, you’ll head here-“

“With me,” Elkeri interrupted, nudging Kusarel on the side.

“Perfect. You two will head to Tremora now and wait there until the next half moon. I’ll meet you there then. If I can’t be there, I’ll send a messenger letting you know what’s going on. Either way, you’ll hear from me.”

Kusarel finally got her voice back in working order, still rattled from the close encounter with her mother. Her mind kept going back to those sad eyes, but she did her best to keep focused on the current situation. After all, it was the only way she’d get out alive. “But what’s going to happen then?”

“Well, we’ll see.” Xaiel rubbed his forehead, hissing as he accidentally dislodged some feathers with a crooked talon. “I have two different plans. The first one…and don’t you dare laugh at me, Elkeri…is that I’ll talk to the Empress and get you pardoned.”

She felt shaking—Kusarel turned to look at Elkeri with concern, still brushed up against her side. Her friend looked like she was in pain, trying to hold something back. A couple seconds later, she erupted in raucous laughter, slapping her claws against the flooring as her whole body shook.

“Oh, that’s gold. Great plan, Xaiel, great plan. Nothing is gonna go wrong there.”

“I told you not to laugh,” he grumbled. “And yes, I know it’s probably not going to happen. I’ll just keep an eye on how things are going, if the Empress values my opinion or not. I’ve heard some of her personal guards are more like advisors, so it could happen. And if she does, I’ll take the chance. Mother won’t be happy we lied to her, but if the Empress gives you a personal pardon, she won’t be able to complain.”

“Yeah, that’s cute. So what’s the real plan?” she said with a snicker.

“The ‘real plan’ is that we get you and Kusarel to a city closer to the palace. I’ll escort you there to make sure you’re safe; if we fly quickly, I can get you there and zip back to the palace without anyone being too suspicious. You’ll make a life there, and I can visit you two sometimes. Keeping it secret from our family, of course.”

Much better. That I can actually see working. What do you think, Kusarel?”

Kusarel tried to still the shivering anxiety in her stomach, the fear she could never make a life anywhere. I’m a blank. What city will want me? She brushed the area around her ears without realizing it, where power feathers would be if she had them.

Xaiel’s eyes went up to her claws, cupped on her forehead. He gave a sympathetic chirp and brushed against her. “Don’t worry, Kusarel. Since you’re a new adult, you still look like you could possibly be a cub. You’re in that weird in-between state. So just pretend you’re still young and Elkeri is your guardian.”

“But…how long can we do that for? I’ll look older eventually, and then what?”

“Well, we’re gonna hope you have your powers by then. And if not, we’ll figure it out when the time comes, ok? No one is going to abandon you here. Other than dear mother,” he said under his breath, so quietly Kusarel was fairly certain she wasn’t meant to have heard that last part.

Elkeri slapped her a few times with her tail, chortling, “Yeah, it’ll be fine. We’ve got this.”

Her brother rose to his feet and walked toward the window, sticking his head out for a moment. “Sorry to cut this short, but you two should get going. I can still hear all the racket in the plaza, but the last thing we want is anyone getting suspicious.”

“No problem. We’re off.” Elkeri started trotting toward the entrance, only for Xaiel to rush forward and block her path.

“Hold up! First, you two should take the map and some money.” He rolled up the map, dusting off the dirt from the ground, and passed it over to Elkeri. She tucked it into her bag, along with a roll of coins he threw her way. “Next, I hate to say this, but we need to make this look real. You know, blood and feathers on the ground.”

Kusarel pressed her ears flat against her head, feeling herself grow squeamish. “Is that necessary?”

Elkeri sighed, nodding toward Xaiel. “He’s right, actually. Your mother would be really suspicious if it doesn’t look like you were killed.” She took a step forward and gestured toward him. “You can go ahead and claw me. You’re a guard, so you’ll know how to avoid any real damage.”

“Eh, no promises.”

“Excuse me?!” Elkeri shrieked, though Kusarel couldn’t help but laugh.

“I’m just messing with you,” he chuckled. “I’ll just nick you on the side and spread the blood on the ground. I’ll mix it with some water for good measure, make it look like there’s more. I doubt mother will want to look that closely.”

She gave another nod, but Kusarel shook her head and said, “No, wait. I’ll take the hit, Elkeri.”

The horned gryphon blinked at her in confusion. “Why? You’ve been through a lot tonight. I’ll do it for you.”

She wanted to take her up on the offer, but the thought of doing so filled her with a deep guilt. Already, she felt guilty about deceiving her family like this; she didn’t need more feelings of shame in her life right now. “You already tried to fight Xaiel for me earlier. I’ll handle this now.”

With a quick incline of her head, Elkeri stepped aside and let Xaiel walk forward.

“Sorry, Kusarel. I’d do it to myself, but it’ll look like you fought back if I’m wounded. Guessing you don’t want that, right?”

Remembering her mother’s broken expression, Kusarel whipped her head back and forth so rapidly that the world started to spun. “Definitely not. I don’t want mother thinking less of me.”

She waved for him to go for it. There was a flash of talons and then the sensation of something warm dripping down her side, before a sharp pain set in. Xaiel checked the wound and nodded, his talons bloody and covered in a few of her torn feathers.

“Elkeri, you bandage her up. I’m going to make a mess here now.”

A couple minutes later and they were done. The bandages pressed into Kusarel’s torso in an uncomfortable restriction, but already the pain had decreased to a dull throb. I guess Xaiel does know what he’s doing. Thankfully.

Xaiel gave a few more stamps into the ground, pressing her ripped feathers into the blood marring their den. “There. That should be good enough.” Satisfied, he turned to Kusarel and gave her a quick embrace before stepping away. “I’ll see you soon, ok? Stay safe, you two.”

She felt her pulse quicken, filled with the looming uncertainty of leaving her home and family. What if things go wrong? What if I don’t see him again?

Elkeri grabbed her front claw and dragged her forward, out of the den and into the open air. “No time to get anxious, Kusarel. We’re off on an adventure!”

“I’d rather stay home,” she muttered, but of course there was no helping that. She had no future in this town. Willingly or not, it was time to flee.

© Nadine Anton “The Feathered Pagan”

Read Chapter 9

Twin Feathers: Chapter 7

See all “Twin Feathers” chapters here. Prefer Wattpad? Read here!

“You’re not going in there alone, Kusarel.”

Elkeri and Kusarel stood outside the entrance to Kusarel’s home. In the distance, the excited babbling of gryphons in the town center could be heard. Yet there was no hint of joy in either Kusarel or her friend, both hunched next to each other with drooping ears.

“I have to. This is family business. You can’t interfere.” Kusarel felt horrible for sounding so cold, but it was the truth and there was no use skirting around it.

Elkeri let out a low hiss and whipped her with her tail. “You’re joking, right? I’ve known you all my life. You really think I’m going to abandon you now?”

Lowering her head, Kusarel traced the stones beneath her claws, winding her talons along the edges in an effort to calm herself. “If I drag non-family into this, mother will be furious. And I don’t want to make her mad.”

“Don’t want to make her mad? Are you crazy? She’s going to kill you! Why do you care if she’s angry or not?”

A small lump formed in her throat, but she did her best to push it down as she focused on the motion of her talons. “Maybe she won’t actually cull me. She might just tell me to stay in the town, and the rest of the family goes to the palace. So…I want to stay on her good side.”

There was a pause. Kusarel feared her friend would whip her again and roar at her for being so stupid, so naive. She deserved it, after all. That horrible nagging voice whispered it to her, that she was being wishful and she knew it. But she couldn’t help but cling to that hope: The hope that maybe, just maybe, her mother would show mercy and let her live.

Instead, Elkeri placed a claw over Kusarel’s, stilling her fidgeting. She looked up and saw her face, Elkeri’s eyes brimming with a nauseating mix of sympathy, pity, and disbelief.

“You really want your mother’s acceptance, even now.” She shook her head and gave a chuckle, but there was no warmth in it at all. With a nuzzle, she stepped back and stretched her wings. “All right, I’ll leave you alone for now. But I’m staying close by in case things go wrong.”

And they will, were the unspoken words that flitted between them. Kusarel saw the determination on her friend’s face, the furrowed brows and glittering eyes, and her eyes landed on those towering horns. She couldn’t help but think how much damage those natural weapons could do, if Elkeri decided to fight with the intention to maim.

“Please don’t do anything stupid, Elkeri.”

“No promises, sorry.” And with that, Elkeri scurried into the space between the Silversky den and the neighboring buildings, blending into the shadows. Kusarel thought she could just barely make her out crouched underneath one of the windows, probably with the intention of watching. She felt a deep shudder pass through her whole body, imagining Salaki and Elkeri screaming and clawing at each other like hawks battling over territory. Please, please don’t let anyone get hurt. Let everyone get out of this alive.

Including me.

With that looming thought, she brushed aside the entrance curtains and stepped into her den. The living room greeted her with its towering ceiling, lit candles dangling from the chandelier. Normally the dancing flames filled her with joy, but now they seemed to flicker and sway in a jerky, ominous way, like they were searching for a new sacrifice to set aflame.

Even the plush seating, filled with the finest wool, suddenly seemed scratchy and prickly against her feathers as she sat down. She fanned her wings, stretching them out as far as she could as an intense feeling of claustrophobia smothered her. With her beak wide open, she took in juddering breaths as her lungs clamped up.

I need to get out of here. I can’t stay here. I don’t want to die.

Please, I don’t want to die.

At that moment, her mother stepped into the room.

Salaki had always been large, even for a female gryphon, but now it was like she was in the presence of a giant. No matter where she looked, her mother was there, blocking the exit and any hope she had of escape.

“Kusarel.” Her mother stopped for a second, then cleared her throat. “You must know why I summoned you here.”

Of course she knew why; yet she couldn’t make herself say the words, couldn’t make them become real. “I…I don’t know. I’m not sure.” She winced at her voice, weak and trembling and filled with the sort of hope expected from a young, gullible cub.

Salaki didn’t avert her gaze, keeping those perfectly hard, expressionless eyes locked right on Kusarel. “I hoped it wouldn’t come to this, but it has to be done. You…” She stuttered and cleared her throat again. “You are a blemish on the family name. We can’t let you live, with our family attaining the greatest possible standing. You have to be culled now.”

The words rang through her ears, burying deep inside her brain like a slippery parasite. It took her a few moments to feel them settle in, writhing around and tearing at her mind as animalistic fear dripped through her whole body. She felt a sudden bump in the back of her hindleg–whipping her head back, she saw the wall directly behind her. She must have been backing up without realizing it, that primitive part of her brain screeching at her to flee and live.

I have to speak, have to say something, have to convince her

She tried to string something coherent together, but everything was all jumbled together in one giant block of panic.

Speak Kusarel, speak!

“M-maybe I can live here. In secret,” she managed to stammer, though the thought of never seeing Xaiel again filled her with a deep pain that almost equaled her terror. Immediately she knew these were the wrong words as her mother’s eyes dilated, ears snapping back.

“Absolutely not! The townsfolk here will obviously know you are alive, and word could get back to the Empress. Our status would be in jeopardy.” Salaki flourished her wings and stretched up to her full height, glowering down at her daughter. “Don’t you dare be so selfish. If you have ANY respect for me or the family, you will accept what needs to be done. If you do not, you will be no child of mine!”

Those harsh words forced Kusarel’s mind back into intelligible thought. Aren’t I already no child of yours? Didn’t you disown me? You told the Empress I don’t exist. Now rage began to bubble up from someplace dark and deep, the place she kept firmly locked down all her life. What am I to you? Do I even matter? Am I just a tool for the family?

But that wasblasphemy, pure and utter blasphemy. She couldn’t let herself think like that, even now. With the power of years of habit, she squished down all those horrible, ungrateful thoughts and the blooming fury that rode alongside them. Maybe she really does love you, Kusarel. Maybe she still considers you to be her child, even if she has to cull you. Do you want to ruin that? She’s your mom.

I just want her to love me.

And so Kusarel bowed her head and said, “I understand.”

She lowered herself to the ground, pinning her wings against her sides and stretching her neck and head far out, exposing them for an easy kill in the proper position for a culling. Squeezing her eyes shut, she breathed in deeply and tried to keep herself from trembling, praying her mother would do this so rapidly she wouldn’t even know what happened.

Seconds stretched by as she sat in total darkness, waiting for her mother to take action. More and more time passed, but there was nothing, not even the sound of her mother moving forward for the kill. She couldn’t bear it any longer and forced her eyes open. Her mother just stood in front of her with an outstretched claw, like she had stopped mid-strike, and a very strange expression on her face, as though something wasn’t quite processing.

“Your grandfather’s feathers!”

Kusarel just blinked, wondering if perhaps she had gone insane from the terror and hadn’t heard her mother correctly. “What did you say?”

Salaki scurried over to the cabinet against the wall that stored all of the family’s treasures. Flinging open the doors, she cupped her claws around a handful of ancient silver feathers and walked over to Kusarel. She winced as her mother’s talons loomed close, but she simply tucked the feathers behind her ears.

“There. So you’ll be led to our family in the afterlife.”

Now that was strange. Kusarel managed to squeak out, “But I thought you didn’t believe in that, mother? You told me that was a silly superstition for low gryphons.”

“Yes, well, better to be safe. Right, dear?” Something about her voice wasn’t quite right. It seemed a bit too stretched or high-pitched, not like her mother’s usual deep rumble. “Oh, and of course you need your chicken plushie.”

Salaki darted out of the living room and into Kusarel’s bedroom. A few seconds later she returned with a beaten, well-loved stuffed chicken curled tightly in her tail. She lowered it gently by Kusarel’s side and snuggled it up next to her. “You always loved your chicken.”

“I don’t need my chicken plushie, mother.” Can she tell I’m that scared? What’s going on? Why’s she stalling like this?

“Of course you do. That’s not an option.” Salaki clucked her tongue and looked off into the distance. Maybe it was just the flickering from the candles, but her eyes looked rather watery. “What else…oh, you love eel pie. You should have some as a last meal.”

Now Kusarel felt worry settle inside her, a more insidious feeling than the base fear from before. “Don’t you need to get back to the Empress? I don’t understand.”

Her mother didn’t appear to hear her and rattled on in that thin voice, “But the eel pie is cold, and Yatalo normally would heat it for us, but he’s back at the plaza and I can’t go back there, not until…but the eel pie is cold and you don’t like it cold.”

“Mother, it’s ok. It’s not a big deal.”

Something snapped in her mother’s eyes, breaking the mask she had always worn. Tears cascaded down her beak and flooded her feathers as she broke out in sobs, covering her face with her claws. “No, it’s not ok. It has to be the best eel pie for you.”

Kusarel’s beak dropped open as she watched her mother crumble. Salaki sat hunched over on the ground, wrapping her wings around herself as she rocked back and forth while sobbing. Suddenly, she didn’t look like her mother, the battle gryphon, but a scared cub that seemed horribly lost and trapped.

Is this…what was under her mask the whole time? She’s been terrified?

The thought seemed ludicrous to her, but there was her mother in a broken-down wreck. Kusarel managed to heave herself up and inched toward Salaki, having no idea what to do or how to approach her mom in this state.

“Mom…”

Before she could make her beak work properly, another figure stepped into the room. Both of them turned to look, Salaki blinking back more tears as she stared with bleary eyes.

“Mother, I’ll cull her. Please go back to the Empress.”

The air seemed to evaporate from the room for a moment. The two of them could only gaze at Xaiel in confusion.

“No, Xaiel. I’m the mother…I should…” Salaki couldn’t finish her words before she choked on her sobs, not able to look either of them in the eye.

“But the Empress chose me specifically. It’s my duty and responsibility to keep the family name clean now,” Xaiel said in a voice that was both soothing, yet forceful.

Her mother’s chest rose and fell in heavy heaves as Xaiel helped her off the ground, letting her lean against him. “I’ll do it. Get out of the den and go calm down, then head back to the plaza. I’ll meet you there when it’s done.”

Salaki could only nod as she stumbled toward the entrance with the help of her son.

“Wait,” she stuttered, turning toward Kusarel. “Come here.”

Kusarel tentatively walked forward, standing next to her mother. Salaki threw her wings around her and pulled her in, nestling Kusarel against her chest, wet with tears. She couldn’t so much as wiggle in her mother’s embrace, hugged more tightly than she could ever remember from her past.

“I love you, Kusarel,” she whispered.

And then Salaki pushed away and tottered to the entrance. She looked back once, locking glistening eyes with her daughter, and Kusarel saw all the fear and regret and overwhelming sorrow lurking there. She wondered if her mother would ever be able to put her stoic facade on again, or if it was gone for good, permanently smashed by this moment.

Her mother ripped away her gaze and slipped past the curtain, tail slithering behind her until it too disappeared. She was gone.

© Nadine Anton “The Feathered Pagan”

Read Chapter 8

Twin Feathers: Chapter 6

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The crowd continued to stare at Xaiel, some in awe, others in fear or shock. A few gryphons had begun inching away from him, clearly trying to get away from the center of the Empress’ attention. Those orange eyes glimmered as the Empress stepped forward, approaching Xaiel. Kusarel couldn’t help but notice something was odd about her gait, something uneven and faltering.

A limp! The rumors were true. Is she getting old after all? Is she dying? She inwardly shrieked at herself for having such a treacherous thought, resisting the urge to tremble. How can I think something like that! And with the Empress right here, no less. I deserve to be executed, with thoughts like this. She hoped for all the world that the Empress couldn’t see the treason written all over her face, exposing the guilt and shame and sheer blasphemy that went through her mind.

“Would your name happen to be Xaiel, young man? I believe that was the name I heard from the rumors.”

Her brother nodded his head up and down in a jerky fashion, like he couldn’t quite control his movements. “Yes, your grace. That’s me,” he said in a subdued, neutral voice, but Kusarel could hear the cracks underneath, as though it took all his effort to remain collected.

The Empress laughed with pleasure, folding her wings so they lay casually against her sides. Her silks fluttered and rippled with the motion, like leaves floating through the breeze.

“Oh, what a treat! I’ve been dying to meet you. I’ve heard lots of great things about you, you know.”

Xaiel’s beak fell wide open in shock, exposing the curved, sharp point at the end. Kusarel could have sworn she caught the Empress scrutinizing that powerful beak with a strange glee, as though she had found a great deal at the local bazaar.

“You…have? But why? Not that I mean to question you, your grace,” he stammered.

He might be rebellious, but even he knows better than to disrespect the Empress to her face. Kusarel couldn’t help but wonder if the Empress had heard about her brother’s constant disapproval of her reign. A chill shuddered through her feathers. Is she here to arrest him? Maybe she’s being sarcastic about the “great things” she’s heard. Casting a glance at Salaki, she saw the apprehension clouding her mother’s face. So she wasn’t the only one concerned, apparently.

“Why wouldn’t I? Everyone knows what a great warrior you are. It’s practically the talk of the kingdom! Many guards want to be just like you.”

At this, Xaiel perked his ears, craning his head up to meet the queen’s eyes. “Really? They…want to be like me?”

“Of course, of course! Tales of valor always travel quickly, you know. When I heard of you, I knew that I must meet you! After all, a warrior of your talent would best be in my personal army, don’t you think?”

The silence that smothered the entire village swelled to its bursting point and broke, eager chatters and murmurs rustling on all sides. Xaiel didn’t seem to notice, staring at the Empress with blank, glazed eyes, like he was having trouble processing her words.

“Personal army?”

“What an honor!”

“Must be a joke.”

“The Empress wouldn’t come here for a joke, you dolt!”

One of the royal guards raised a claw to silence the crowd, but the Empress nudged him on the wing. “No need. It’s quite the news! I can’t blame them for being excited.”

Kusarel’s mother, however, apparently felt otherwise. She flared her wings and glared loftily at her neighbors, stilling the chatter after mere moments.

“My Empress, we are honored beyond words. Certainly, our family has always been known for its excellence and well-bred offspring, but we never expected to be graced by the Empress yourself, Long-Lived One.” With this, her mother threw a claw across her chest and bowed once again. Kusarel couldn’t help but shuffle her claws in agitation. Is she really buttering up the Empress? Is that safe to do?

“Your family? Could you be…his mother, by chance?” The Empress said with an appraising gaze. Despite her calm words, something about the way she looked at her mother made Kusarel flick her ears. Her sunset eyes looked just a bit too narrowed and intense, the eyes of a predator sizing up a possible meal.

“Yes, yes I am!” Salaki raised her beak to the sky, before quickly remembering her place and resuming a more subservient position. “He was always a talented child, and we brought out the best in him.”

“Oh, how wonderful! It’s great to meet you, dear.” The predatory eyes vanished as the Empress patted Salaki on the shoulder like a family member. Kusarel saw the burst of pride and amazement on her mother’s face, though she did an excellent job in quickly hiding her emotions. “I’d like to invite you and the rest of the family to come live with me at the palace. A very high honor, don’t you think?”

Salaki almost tumbled over with a squawk, just barely catching herself. “I…to the palace? Live there? That…that’s the highest honor there is.” She stuttered and stopped mid-sentence a few more times before finally ducking her head. “I don’t know what to say, your grace. Thank you, thank you!”

“It’s no trouble at all. It wouldn’t be right to split up the family, of course. Speaking of, I don’t suppose you have any more children, now, do you?” The Empress said, tilting her head. The diamonds on her brow glimmered in the sun with the motion, sending arcs of light spiraling through the air.

There was a pause. Salaki remained frozen, as though the air had been sucked out of her lungs. The seconds ticked by at a painfully slow rate, filling Kusarel with anxiety for her overwhelmed mother. She toyed with the thought of chirping in, eager to take her mother off the spot, but her mother spoke first, her words slithering into the air with perfect finality.

“No, none others. He’s the only one, our single pride and joy.”

Kusarel blinked, trying to figure out what she had said. Did my mom mishear the Empress? She must have misunderstood. But a flick of her mother’s tail, directed squarely at Kusarel, stopped her from piping up and correcting her. That was the classic move her mother made when she wanted her daughter to kindly hush up, thank you very much. Which meant…

She knows full well what the Empress asked. So her answer means…

The fidgeting of gryphons in the plaza filled Kusarel’s ears like the buzzing of many insects. She could hear them talking in low voices, but she couldn’t tell anything apparent. All she could focus on was her mother happily chatting with the Empress, as though nothing unusual had just been said. Somewhere in the back of her mind, she vaguely registered Xaiel glaring at their mother with a look of pure disgust, but that didn’t matter. All that mattered were those seemingly innocent words, sealing the fate she had feared for so long.

She doesn’t have a daughter anymore.

I’m going to be culled.

© Nadine Anton “The Feathered Pagan”

Read Chapter 7