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.
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.
“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”