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”