It took only a week in Tremora for Kusarel to learn a painful lesson: No matter where they went, they would always be second-class gryphons at best.
The inn that finally accepted them was a run-down old shack, with thin walls and no doors to shield them from eyesight–anyone could walk down the hall and see all the gryphons sleeping there, the walls between them only giving the illusion of privacy. Between the two of them, they hardly had enough space in their “room” to turn around, eerily similar to Elkeri’s den back at home. Still, as cramped and uncomfortable as they were, it was still far better than going out in the city.
Just about everywhere they went, the other gryphons either ignored them like they were invisible or shot them disgusted glares. More than a few stared at Kusarel openly, their eyes gawking at her lack of power feathers. It was clear they were wondering if she was an adult blank, and the thought made her want to curl up and hide herself from view, far from their judging looks. Even Elkeri, with all her inner fire, couldn’t stand up to them anymore; after more than a few screaming matches with merchants who refused to sell them even the most basic of goods, they had resorted to staying in the slums, only purchasing the muck that was allowed for the lowest of gryphons, some water, and a scratchy patch of hay to throw in their inn room.
Kusarel flexed her legs and rammed straight into Elkeri’s stomach, making her friend hiss and glare at her. Her feathers drooped with crud from a week of not washing, unable to find a bathhouse or local river they were allowed to use. Kusarel herself didn’t look much better, and the build-up of dirt around her talons drove her nearly mad; no matter how she scrubbed at the grime, it refused to come off without water, and neither of them were willing to waste the little drinking water they had on bathing.
“I swear Kusarel, if you kick me one more time, I’m pushing you out of here,” Elkeri growled, flicking her ears back.
She muttered a quick apology and tucked her legs underneath her, squishing herself into a tight little ball. The agitation from being in a foreign place made her want to pace back and forth or fidget, yet she had no choice but to sit with as little motion as possible.
Still, it was getting close to Xaiel’s arrival…today was the day he should be arriving. She couldn’t wait to wrap her wings around him, maybe poke him with a talon in good fun like they did in the old days. Any hint of normalcy sounded amazing to her right now.
“Elkeri, do you think we can head down to the gate? Xaiel should be here soon.”
“Is that today?” Elkeri’s ears perked up and she leapt to her feet, making Kusarel squawk as she pushed herself against the wall to make room. “Dear Godslayer, let’s get out of here!”
Elkeri nearly pranced down the hall as she ran out of the inn, the other visitors casting her disgruntled glances at her obvious enthusiasm. Kusarel followed behind at a slower pace, doing her best to keep her head down–if she lowered it enough, other gryphons may not notice her lack of power feathers. And the less attention I get, the better. I don’t need anyone questioning me. Let’s just get out of her quietly.
“Come on, Kusarel! We’re gonna get OUT of this dump!” Elkeri called with an excited trill, gathering the attention of the gryphons on the path outside as they stared at the two of them.
Or Elkeri can just shout at the top of her lungs for everyone to hear. That works too, she thought wryly, but her exhaustion kept her from berating Elkeri. She didn’t have the energy for an argument.
The two of them arrived back at the main gate half an hour later, Elkeri humming to herself the whole way. They stopped right at the entrance, and the same two guards from before waved at them.
“Oh, the farmer and the cub! Ready to head out?” one of the guards asked, the same one who had chewed out Elkeri for being on vacation. The other guard just gave them a mild look, clearly relaxed and not too interested in their presence.
“No, we’re waiting for someone. Her brother.” Elkeri jerked a claw toward Kusarel, who stepped back and murmured something unintelligible. “His name’s Xaiel. Have you seen him?”
Both guards shook their heads. “Nope, no one with that name has come through. What’s he look like?”
“Just like Kusarel here.”
He clucked and gave an apologetic shrug. “Nah, haven’t seen him. Feel free to camp here for the day, though. It’s the only way in, so you’ll see him right away when he arrives.”
Elkeri inclined her head and Kusarel gave a quick, quiet thanks. The two of them sat down on their haunches and waited, happy to have the fresh breeze ruffle through their feathers. The sun beat down on Kusarel’s back, and she unfolded her wings to let them soak in all the warm rays. After a week of being cooped up, she felt pure bliss wash over her as she reclined outside, free at last. And with the guards right next to them, none of the other townsfolk dared give them trouble.
This is heaven. I could sit here for hours.
And she did—straight through the evening and well into nightfall. The sun had long disappeared, replaced by the glimmering half moon. The wind now had a cold bite to it, making Kusarel shiver and nuzzle closer to Elkeri. The main guard gave them a sympathetic look and gestured toward the path, barely stifling a yawn.
“I don’t think your brother’s coming, young’un. Head back to the inn and try again tomorrow, ok?”
Elkeri got up and nodded, stretching like a cat with her claws forward and tail in the air. Distraught, Kusarel followed after her as they returned to the inn, nervous thoughts chattering in her mind.
“Why didn’t he show up?” she asked, unable to keep the quaver out of her voice. “Do you think he got hurt?”
Her friend just gave a huge yawn as she fluffed her wings. “He’s probably fine. It’s normal to get stalled for a day or two.”
The next day came and went, with still no sign of Xaiel. And the next, and the next. Every day they sat by the gate with the guards, who gave them sympathetic looks as more time passed.
“You sure he was going to meet you at Tremora?”
“We’re sure,” Elkeri said, though Kusarel could hear the tight worry rippling beneath her words.
“Well, just to be sure, I’ll send out messages to the guards at nearby cities. See if any of them have seen him.”
Kusarel chirped in appreciation, and even Elkeri curled her tail in a sign of approval. As patronizing as he may have been at the beginning, the guard did seem to care at least somewhat, which made her feel just a bit better about staying in such a strange place.
A few more days passed until it had been a full week and a half since they first started waiting for Xaiel. They trudged back down to the gate once again, the sun just barely peeking over the horizon, dotted with those unusual thin trees. The guard with the notepad perked up and waved to them, running over.
“You two, we heard back from the other guards.”
“And?” Elkeri demanded, not even bothering to sound polite. Her eyes had a shuttered look to them, and her tail dragged on the ground. Kusarel could tell she was still half asleep, just barely pulling herself along at this early hour.
“Good news–one of them spotted a gryphon who looks just like you, cub,” the guard said, pointing a claw at Kusarel. She felt her heart surge up, filled with renewed hope she hadn’t felt for well over a couple weeks.
“Oh, thank you so much! Where is he…sir?” Kusarel just barely remember to tack on the “sir” at the end, so overcome with excitement. They found him! He’s ok! I can’t wait to see him again.
“Well…” he coughed and looked away, rifling the papers in his notepad. “See, that’s the bad news. Your brother’s apparently in Rivel.”
Both Elkeri and Kusarel whipped their heads to stare at each other, remembering the warning Xaiel had given: Stay out of Rivel.
“But…isn’t that city violent right now?” Kusarel asked.
“Exactly. Sounds like it’s gotten much worse, too. The guard was pretty terrified, said there’s a lot of fighting and it’s not safe. He was vague though, that’s for sure.”
Elkeri let out a deep sigh, a sound that seemed to well up from a canyon inside her. “Well, that’s just lovely. I guess Xaiel is a soldier. He’s probably fighting there with the others.”
Kusarel’s mind churned, trying to figure out what to do. On one claw, she wanted to meet up with her brother now. The more time that passed without them being reunited, the more anxious she felt. On the other claw, he made it clear to stay far away from Rivel. Was it worth going there?
“Elkeri, what should we do?” she managed to voice, looking at her friend for guidance. Surely she would take the lead, make it clear what should be done.
Instead, Elkeri only drooped her wings as she leaned back on her hindlegs, scratching at her bleary eyes. “I don’t know, Kusarel. He’s your brother. What do YOU want to do?”
Me? The thought made her brain freeze. I have to choose?
She peered at Elkeri with wide, pleading eyes, but Elkeri only returned her gaze in silence. It was all up to her.
“We could keep waiting here,” Kusarel stammered, squinting at Elkeri to see if this was the right thing to say.
“If you want,” she replied in a dejected voice. “I’m not gonna lie, I’m not sure when he’ll be getting here. But if you want to hold out, we can.”
Kusarel glanced at the guard, who only shrugged and looked back at his notepad. She clicked her beak in agitation, walking in tight circles as she paced at the gate.
What do I want to do?
She thought back to the sorrow on her mother’s face and her brother’s insistence that they would make everything work out. Already, she missed seeing her family, even with all the drama and tension. Xaiel especially had always made her feel at ease, at home even when everything else was uncertain.
She just wanted to feel at home again.
And what if he was hurt? He’s probably fighting right now. If he gets injured, will he be ok? If he’s in danger, I have to help him.
She may not have any powers, but she couldn’t just leave her brother to fend for himself. He hadn’t even sent them a messenger warning them of his delay; something was clearly wrong.
Feeling her blood quicken, she stopped her pacing and said, “Elkeri, let’s go to Rivel.”
Elkeri blinked at her, her claw still on her face. “Say what now?”
“To Rivel. I want to see Xaiel now.”
“You want to go to the city of death and destruction?” Elkeri said in a flat voice, slapping her tail a few times for effect.
“Oh, um, I guess you’re right,” she said, backing away a bit and inclining her head. “Sorry.”
With a grunt, Elkeri rose to her feet and trod over to her, cuffing her on the shoulder. “Don’t apologize. If you want to go, we’ll go. I just wasn’t expecting it, you know?”
Trust me, I feel the same way. Every inch of her screamed to stay in Tremora, far away from whatever danger lurked in Rivel. It was safe here, even if it was uncomfortable and the citizens wanted them doing nothing but working the fields. They weren’t at any real risk if they kept their wings tucked in and tails between their legs.
But the thought of Xaiel out there, fighting without friends or family in a strange city, made her heart ache, stronger than her fear. She did her best to drown out the wailing voice in her head, begging her to stay put and keep waiting for a day that may never come.
“Alright. Let’s go, Elkeri.”
© Nadine Anton “The Feathered Pagan”