Twin Feathers: Chapter 14

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

“You’re not going to change your mind, are you?”

Kusarel shuffled her claws, but she forced herself to look Elkeri in the eye. “No, I’m not. I’m going to find Xaiel, no matter what.”

Her friend held her gaze for multiple heart beats, her expression unreadable. The two gryphons sat outside the healer’s hut, keeping their voices low. Happy with her recovery, the healer had released Kusarel from her care and promptly shooed the two of them out the door. Apparently, she hadn’t been joking about wanting that vacation.

Just as Kusarel hadn’t been joking about wanting to follow Apael. Elkeri hadn’t brought up the topic again in over a week, while she finished recovering, but they could no longer ignore the issue.

“Ok, let’s say we find your crazy twin again. Then what?”

She felt her stomach wrench and her throat close up. This was exactly the question she had been dreading, for the simple reason that she had no clue. Every time she had wondered this herself, all she could see were cruel talons plunging deep into her flesh and pulling her apart. Her mind always froze, replaying this grim future, and she had repressed the nagging question each time.

Maybe this isn’t such a good idea. You don’t have a plan, Kusarel, and you’re too scared to even think of one!

“I’m guessing your silence means you have no idea,” Elkeri said in an emotionless voice. Her eyes glimmered like smooth stone, barring Kusarel from reading what she was thinking.

“I…I don’t know. I don’t even want to think about it.” Repulsion at herself rose up deep inside her, making her throat tighten even more. Unable to meet those hard eyes, she finally turned away, choosing to gaze at the shattered path beneath her feet instead.

A wing spread over her body and engulfed her, pulling her close in to Elkeri. “I’m not trying to be mean, Kusarel, honest. I just don’t want to see you get hurt again. It could be much, much worse next time, you know?”

Oh, she knew. Her mind insisted that she know that quite well, replaying those claws and beak coming at her without end.

“Maybe we could just watch Apael? Not let him know we’re there?” she voiced, cuddling closer to Elkeri. The feel of her friend’s feathers against her own made her feel just a bit calmer and safer, at least for the moment.

“That’s probably our best bet–just watch him and hope we can figure out what’s going on. Though we’d have to be really, really careful, Kusarel. You look just like Apael, so if word spreads he has a twin running around the city, he’ll come looking for you.”

With a short laugh, she poked Elkeri with the tip of her beak. “Of course I’ll be careful! You’re the hot-head, remember?”

“I know, but you’re the one getting all emotional about seeing Xaiel again, so I’m reminding you. No trying to hug Apael and all that.”

Kusarel gave a snort and clicked her beak, trying to give off an amused vibe she did not feel. “I’m not doing that again. I learned my lesson the first time.”

Lifting a claw, she brushed the featherless skin on her chest. The wound had healed enough to no longer need bandages, but the feathers still hadn’t grown back, leaving an ugly, jagged line for all to see. The exposed skin burned an angry red, still irritated and raw.

What if the feathers don’t grow back? I’d feel so wrong without all my feathers.

She knew it was a silly thought. With everything going on, who cared about a scar and a few lost feathers? Yet she still longed for some normalcy, and the thought of bearing a permanent sign of the worst days of her life didn’t sit well with her. She moved a talon up to cradle the pendant gifted to her by her mother, sitting just above the scar.

“You look like a war gryphon now, with that scar,” Elkeri said with a sassy little tail flick. “All fierce and battle-hardened. Ready to go fight for the Empress, Kusarel?”

She hissed and flapped her wings, pushing Elkeri away from her. Her friend only snickered in response, looking all-too pleased with herself for rubbing Kusarel the wrong way.

“I’d never fight for the Empress. She took my family away, and she ordered that cub to be killed!”

Elkeri looked at her in stillness for a few seconds before doubling over, clutching her chest as she laughed. “Now that’s just gold! Who was the one who told me and Xaiel to cut the blasphemy all the time?

Laying her ears back against her head, she sat down on her haunches and glared at Elkeri. “Alright, fine: You were right about the Empress. There, I said it. You happy now?”

“Overjoyed,” Elkeri gasped between laughs. With a few coughs, she finally managed to calm herself down. “Guess you’re one of us now. I’m so proud of you, Kusarel.”

“Thank you so much,” she muttered. With the thought of Xaiel and Apael looming over her, she didn’t much feel like joking around and giggling. Besides, Elkeri had been much too loud. She craned her neck to the side to peer around the corner, making sure no one was there listening in. Thankfully, they were still alone, the alley beside the healer’s hut remaining empty.

“Jokes aside, I’m serious.” Elkeri nudged her on the shoulder, a little more gently than usual. “You’ve handled this all really well, considering. And you did a great job fighting Apael.”

Kusarel cocked her head in disbelief. “I did a horrible job, Elkeri. That’s why I have this scar, remember?”

“Wrong. You have that scar because YOU were trying not to hurt him.” Elkeri pointed a talon at her and jabbed it with each word, as though trying to beat the meaning into Kusarel’s mind. “You pinned him down super fast, and if you were fighting for real, you would’ve killed him right there. That’s extremely impressive.”

The unexpected compliment made heat rise to her face. She mumbled something unintelligible, trying to find the right words. “But I’m bigger than him. It doesn’t count.”

“Again, wrong. He’s a soldier, remember? Red power feathers? He should be way stronger than you. But you still pinned him down.” Elkeri looked down at Kusarel with her ears perked upright, her expression a mix between tender and proud. Suddenly, her eyes switched to blazing hot, searing straight into Kusarel. “But that doesn’t mean you can approach him again, you hear? He still has serrated claws and that beak, and I KNOW you won’t fight back for real, so he’ll always have the advantage.”

Kusarel held up a claw, cutting off Elkeri before she could continue on her rant. “I understand, Elkeri. We’ll stay hidden the whole time, promise.”

Elkeri grumbled something and shook her whole body viciously, like she was trying to toss away her anger. Her horns veered a bit too close to Kusarel’s face for comfort, and she shied away. She had already been slashed near the beak once already–no need to go through that again.

“As long as you promise. But let’s get out of here. There’s no point staying in Rivel if we’re going to the city around the palace.” Elkeri pulled out the map from her bag, the one Xaiel had given them at the very start. Even though it had only been a few weeks, the parchment somehow managed to look more wrinkled and battered than before, as though it too had been under more stress than usual. Elkeri peered down at the map, pointing at a spot near the very top. “Looks like this is the city we want, to the north. It’s called Shamais, apparently. The palace is right at the very back of it.”

Shamais. The name sent a tingle down her feathers. While her mother had never talked much about other cities, this was a name she recognized. The favorite place to live for nobles and other higher-up gryphons. Salaki had sometimes uttered the name in a wistful manner, like she dreamed of being whisked away there someday.

Of course, she had gotten her wish when she went off with the Empress. She likely lived either in Shamais among the other nobles, or directly in the palace itself now.

What if I see her again? I couldn’t let her see me. Her heart ached at the thought, but she knew it was true. Her mother thought she was dead, and they couldn’t give Apael any idea they were stalking him. Approaching Salaki was not an option, as much as it may hurt to admit that to herself.

Maybe someday in the future, I can be with her again. But as she spread her wings to take to the sky with Elkeri, she didn’t quite believe that anymore. The future seemed hazy, filled with serrated claws and uncertainty.

© Nadine Anton “The Feathered Pagan”

Read Chapter 15

Twin Feathers: Chapter 13

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

She was first aware of voices talking around her, sliding in and out of her awareness. She couldn’t make out what they were saying, and some part of her longed to ignore them and sink back into deep sleep. She had the nagging feeling that something important had happened, though, and that someone was worried about her, but she couldn’t remember why.

Am I back home? With mom? Maybe one of those voices was Salaki chatting with Xaiel, the two of them waiting for her to wake up so they could decide on what to eat for breakfast. That would make sense. Xaiel had chosen last time, so it was her turn next.

But then why did she feel so worried? And now that she listened a bit closer, none of them sounded like Salaki or Xaiel. They all seemed foreign, other than one…Elkeri?

Her hazy brain continued to fumble over itself, trying to place where she was. She struggled to open her eyes, heavy eyelids refusing to budge. Her whole body felt frozen in place, still curled in the throes of sleep. With an inward grunt, she kept trying to move until, finally, she managed to shift on to her other side. A burning blade stabbed through her chest right as she moved, making her screech in pain.

“Kusarel! Don’t move, you’ll hurt yourself.” A claw pressed her down, avoiding the area that felt like it was on fire. Kusarel took in a few deep breaths, trying to get the pain under control. She wanted to paw at the wound to make it calm down, but she knew that was a horrible idea. It would only make it worse.

A few more moments passed and she felt her body relax just a bit, enough for her to return to the present. She blinked her eyes open and raised her head, looking at the room she was in. Three gryphons perched around her, staring with similarly concerned expressions. One was Elkeri, another appeared to be a familiar soldier, and the third she didn’t recognize.

“I’m glad you’re up. You’ve been out for four days,” the unfamiliar gryphon said with a soothing purr. Kusarel could hear hints of fear under that calm tone, though.

But why would she be afraid? And why am I injured?

Suddenly her memories snapped back into place. Of course this gryphon would be scared of her–she looked just like Apael, who had taken a chunk right out of her chest and face.

“I told you, it’s alright,” the familiar soldier said to the other gryphon, probably in regard to her fear. “She fought Apael. She’s on our side.”

“I suppose that’s true. But don’t give any information.”

“Information about what?” Kusarel asked, trying to sit up. She felt so undignified, spread on the hay bedding beneath her in a sprawl. Shaking her head, Elkeri pressed her claw down on Kusarel’s torso, gently forcing her back down.

“You have to stay still. The healer is still fixing you up.”

The gryphon who had sounded afraid gave a quick nod, glittering eyes staring out from beneath cloth that completely covered her head and beak.

“Yes, you still need a few more days of recovery. At least. I’d prefer a whole additional week, if I have it my way.”

Kusarel started to bow, then remembered that wouldn’t work too well with her lying on her side. “Thank you very much for healing me. Um, what’s your name?”

The healer pointed a talon at her covering and said, “Sorry dear, but I’m not giving away my identity. Hence the mask.”

She cocked her head to the side, wondering if she had insulted the healer in some way. “But why? Did I do something wrong?”

“She’s part of the resistance, Kusarel,” Elkeri broke in. “She’s playing it safe.”

“Oh.” She couldn’t think of anything more to say, though she knew she sounded like an idiot. A real member of the resistance! I can’t believe it. But isn’t this dangerous?

As though reading her expression, the soldier piped up, “Most of the soldiers have left Rivel by this point. They’ve been called back to the city around the palace, so it’s safe for us to heal you here, as long as we stay hidden and quiet.”

“But aren’t you a soldier?” Kusarel squinted her eyes and slapped her tail on the bedding, the only part of her body she could move without Elkeri scolding her. “And who are you, anyway?”

He whipped his head back and forth before replying, scanning the tiny little room they were all housed in. All the curtains were drawn, and the world sounded quiet outside, only the faint hiss of the wind coming through.

“Should still be safe enough to talk,” he muttered, more to himself than anything from the sounds of it. “Anyway, the name is Nanulo. Or that’s what you can call me, at least. You saved the cub and I from your twin, remember?”

The harried-looking soldier clicked in her mind: It was him who had stood between Apael and the cub. “Oh, is he ok? What happened?”

“He’s safe, don’t worry. I’ll be bringing him over to—”

“Nanulo, quiet! I just said don’t give any information,” the healer scowled, whacking him on the head with a bandage.

“I don’t think that’s sanitary,” Elkeri said, looking down her beak at the healer.

“Oh hush, you. Do you want me to fix up your friend or not?”

Elkeri couldn’t say anything to that, so she just flicked an ear and glowered, managing to seem far too large for the cramped room. The healer didn’t seem to notice, however, and she turned away to fiddle with a bunch of medical supplies on a low table to the side.

“My healer friend is right,” Nanulo said, inclining his head. “I wish I could say more, since we owe you our lives. But I’ll bring the cub to a safe, resistance-friendly city. He doesn’t have any more family left here after Apael had his way with them, after all.”

“I don’t understand. If you’re a soldier, why are you working with the resistance?” She glanced back at the healer, who had her head turned away from her. Kusarel thought she saw her ears prick up, but she continued to busy her claws as she hustled over the table, ignoring the other gryphons.

“I am a soldier. Or…well, I guess I was a soldier,” he added with a tired wheeze. “I used to serve the Empress loyally, but things happened.”

Kusarel waited for him to continue, but he didn’t say anything else. She knew it was impolite to pry, but curiosity managed to win over anyway.

“What happened?”

He muttered in a low voice, “I’ll spare you the details, but suffice to say plenty of us soldiers have lost family to the Empress’ hierarchy, too. And some of us are dead sick of it.” His face grew dark and haunted, as though he had been flung far back to a distant, regretted time.

Elkeri shot Kusarel a look, but it wasn’t necessary: She knew better than to push him more at this point. Already, she felt guilty enough for asking at all.

“Well, I think that’s quite enough of that. The patient needs to rest, because if she doesn’t, I’ll be the one with more work,” the healer huffed. “And I want to take a much-needed vacation after this, thank you.”

“Aren’t there a bunch of other gryphons who need to be healed here?” Elkeri pointed out. “How can you go on vacation?”

“Hush!” the healer hissed as she slapped Elkeri across the beak with a bandage. “No more out of you and your sassy beak.”

A chortling little laugh escaped from Kusarel before she could stop it. Elkeri glared at her with her ears flattened at first, before she relaxed and gave a quick chirp.

“It’s good to hear you laugh. I got so worried, when Apael attacked you like that.” Her gaze fell to Kusarel’s chest, covered in gauze and tightly-wrapped tape. “At least your face isn’t too bad, though. He really only grazed you there.”

That was a graze? Kusarel thought with a start. I guess his claws are serrated, after all. It probably could have been worse.

“So, before the healer makes us shut up again,” Elkeri said with a sharp, pointed glare at the covered gryphon, “what do you want to do? After you’ve recovered, I mean. Where should we go?”

That question froze her mind. It hadn’t even occurred to her that they had no plan now. Rivel had been the last destination on their list, and now, they had no real leads or ideas of where to go. What do we even want to do? Should we hide away forever? But what about Xaiel…what happened to him? She saw Apael in her mind’s eye, with those strange serrated weapons, but the exact same scar as her brother. What was going on? Was that some twisted form of Xaiel after all, or was her brother somewhere else, doing who knows what?

She didn’t know, and she knew deep down she could never live not knowing the answers. Never mind the fact she could never live without Xaiel, one of her best friends and closest family. Which left only one choice, even though she wanted absolutely nothing to do with it and Elkeri probably wouldn’t be too pleased.

“We’re going wherever Apael went.”

No one said anything for a few seconds. Kusarel felt her body grow hot with anxiety and embarrassment, unsure what the others were thinking.

“Elkeri?”

“Just a second, Kusarel. Have to do something first.” She turned to the healer and stated, with an outstretched claw, “Bandage.”

The healer passed her the wrapping, and without another word, Elkeri spun around and whacked Kusarel upside the head with it like a whip.

“Hey! What was that for?” she yelped, wincing and trying to cover her head with a few talons. At least Elkeri had possessed the decency to avoid the wounded part of her face, but she had been awfully close.

“No attacking the patient!” the healer said, ripping the “weapon” out of her friend’s grip.

“Oh, you know what it’s for. You want to follow the gryphon who almost murdered you.” A nervous expression crossed Elkeri’s face, and she turned to the healer, whispering, “Do you think her brain got injured during the fight?”

“I can hear you, you know,” Kusarel said with an indignant fluff. “My brain is just fine.”

“Then why do you want to follow him, Kusarel? That’s crazy talk and you know it.”

With a sigh, she leaned her head down on her outstretched legs, looking for all the world like a resting cat. “I know. But what about my brother, Elkeri? Something’s going on. If we follow Apael, we may find out what happened to Xaiel.”

“Sure, sure. Or we could all die a horrible death by a psycho gryphon. Sounds like a good plan.”

The absurdity of the situation got to her, and Kusarel couldn’t help but chuckle a bit. “Since when are you the one trying to talk me out of something stupid? This feels backward.”

“And that’s why I’m worried about your head,” she retorted. “Though to be fair, he is your family. I guess that does make sense. Just a bit.”

“Alright, this has gone on long enough.” The healer appeared between them, shoving Elkeri away as she wrapped her talons under Kusarel’s chest wrappings. “I’m changing the patient’s gauze, and then she’s going to sleep. No more of this nonsense until she’s fully recovered.”

“Fine by me. That’ll give Kusarel more time to realize she really, really doesn’t want to go up against Apael again.”

Kusarel didn’t argue, but somehow she knew that wasn’t going to happen. Her brother was out there somewhere, either as Apael or not. One way or another, she was going to find him or bring him back to his senses…even if it killed her.

© Nadine Anton “The Feathered Pagan”

Read Chapter 14