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”