Twin Feathers: Chapter 6

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The crowd continued to stare at Xaiel, some in awe, others in fear or shock. A few gryphons had begun inching away from him, clearly trying to get away from the center of the Empress’ attention. Those orange eyes glimmered as the Empress stepped forward, approaching Xaiel. Kusarel couldn’t help but notice something was odd about her gait, something uneven and faltering.

A limp! The rumors were true. Is she getting old after all? Is she dying? She inwardly shrieked at herself for having such a treacherous thought, resisting the urge to tremble. How can I think something like that! And with the Empress right here, no less. I deserve to be executed, with thoughts like this. She hoped for all the world that the Empress couldn’t see the treason written all over her face, exposing the guilt and shame and sheer blasphemy that went through her mind.

“Would your name happen to be Xaiel, young man? I believe that was the name I heard from the rumors.”

Her brother nodded his head up and down in a jerky fashion, like he couldn’t quite control his movements. “Yes, your grace. That’s me,” he said in a subdued, neutral voice, but Kusarel could hear the cracks underneath, as though it took all his effort to remain collected.

The Empress laughed with pleasure, folding her wings so they lay casually against her sides. Her silks fluttered and rippled with the motion, like leaves floating through the breeze.

“Oh, what a treat! I’ve been dying to meet you. I’ve heard lots of great things about you, you know.”

Xaiel’s beak fell wide open in shock, exposing the curved, sharp point at the end. Kusarel could have sworn she caught the Empress scrutinizing that powerful beak with a strange glee, as though she had found a great deal at the local bazaar.

“You…have? But why? Not that I mean to question you, your grace,” he stammered.

He might be rebellious, but even he knows better than to disrespect the Empress to her face. Kusarel couldn’t help but wonder if the Empress had heard about her brother’s constant disapproval of her reign. A chill shuddered through her feathers. Is she here to arrest him? Maybe she’s being sarcastic about the “great things” she’s heard. Casting a glance at Salaki, she saw the apprehension clouding her mother’s face. So she wasn’t the only one concerned, apparently.

“Why wouldn’t I? Everyone knows what a great warrior you are. It’s practically the talk of the kingdom! Many guards want to be just like you.”

At this, Xaiel perked his ears, craning his head up to meet the queen’s eyes. “Really? They…want to be like me?”

“Of course, of course! Tales of valor always travel quickly, you know. When I heard of you, I knew that I must meet you! After all, a warrior of your talent would best be in my personal army, don’t you think?”

The silence that smothered the entire village swelled to its bursting point and broke, eager chatters and murmurs rustling on all sides. Xaiel didn’t seem to notice, staring at the Empress with blank, glazed eyes, like he was having trouble processing her words.

“Personal army?”

“What an honor!”

“Must be a joke.”

“The Empress wouldn’t come here for a joke, you dolt!”

One of the royal guards raised a claw to silence the crowd, but the Empress nudged him on the wing. “No need. It’s quite the news! I can’t blame them for being excited.”

Kusarel’s mother, however, apparently felt otherwise. She flared her wings and glared loftily at her neighbors, stilling the chatter after mere moments.

“My Empress, we are honored beyond words. Certainly, our family has always been known for its excellence and well-bred offspring, but we never expected to be graced by the Empress yourself, Long-Lived One.” With this, her mother threw a claw across her chest and bowed once again. Kusarel couldn’t help but shuffle her claws in agitation. Is she really buttering up the Empress? Is that safe to do?

“Your family? Could you be…his mother, by chance?” The Empress said with an appraising gaze. Despite her calm words, something about the way she looked at her mother made Kusarel flick her ears. Her sunset eyes looked just a bit too narrowed and intense, the eyes of a predator sizing up a possible meal.

“Yes, yes I am!” Salaki raised her beak to the sky, before quickly remembering her place and resuming a more subservient position. “He was always a talented child, and we brought out the best in him.”

“Oh, how wonderful! It’s great to meet you, dear.” The predatory eyes vanished as the Empress patted Salaki on the shoulder like a family member. Kusarel saw the burst of pride and amazement on her mother’s face, though she did an excellent job in quickly hiding her emotions. “I’d like to invite you and the rest of the family to come live with me at the palace. A very high honor, don’t you think?”

Salaki almost tumbled over with a squawk, just barely catching herself. “I…to the palace? Live there? That…that’s the highest honor there is.” She stuttered and stopped mid-sentence a few more times before finally ducking her head. “I don’t know what to say, your grace. Thank you, thank you!”

“It’s no trouble at all. It wouldn’t be right to split up the family, of course. Speaking of, I don’t suppose you have any more children, now, do you?” The Empress said, tilting her head. The diamonds on her brow glimmered in the sun with the motion, sending arcs of light spiraling through the air.

There was a pause. Salaki remained frozen, as though the air had been sucked out of her lungs. The seconds ticked by at a painfully slow rate, filling Kusarel with anxiety for her overwhelmed mother. She toyed with the thought of chirping in, eager to take her mother off the spot, but her mother spoke first, her words slithering into the air with perfect finality.

“No, none others. He’s the only one, our single pride and joy.”

Kusarel blinked, trying to figure out what she had said. Did my mom mishear the Empress? She must have misunderstood. But a flick of her mother’s tail, directed squarely at Kusarel, stopped her from piping up and correcting her. That was the classic move her mother made when she wanted her daughter to kindly hush up, thank you very much. Which meant…

She knows full well what the Empress asked. So her answer means…

The fidgeting of gryphons in the plaza filled Kusarel’s ears like the buzzing of many insects. She could hear them talking in low voices, but she couldn’t tell anything apparent. All she could focus on was her mother happily chatting with the Empress, as though nothing unusual had just been said. Somewhere in the back of her mind, she vaguely registered Xaiel glaring at their mother with a look of pure disgust, but that didn’t matter. All that mattered were those seemingly innocent words, sealing the fate she had feared for so long.

She doesn’t have a daughter anymore.

I’m going to be culled.

© Nadine Anton “The Feathered Pagan”

Read Chapter 7

Twin Feathers: Chapter 5

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The days swept by, each the same as the last. Elkeri’s feathers remained a permanent dusty shade of brown now, as though all the scrubbing in the world couldn’t remove the grime. Even her power feathers drooped from the weight of the accumulated dirt; they had fully sprouted in weeks ago now, dangling well beyond her jawline. Kusarel wished she could somehow remove those feathers for her friend, but there was nothing to be done. Removing or attempting to hide power feathers was a criminal offense, and Elkeri was better off alive as a farmer than pierced by a guard’s spear.

Kusarel fingered the pendant on her chest, the only area that remained cool in this heat. Her mother, Salaki, had given her the pendant a few weeks back, in recognition of her hard work. She had been filled with fear at the time, wondering if she was about to be scolded for working as a farmer…and instead, her mother had brandished this gorgeous gift.

“It’s for you, dear. A gift for all your hard work lately,” Salaki said, dangling a strange piece of jewelry between her talons. At the bottom of a silver chain swung a gleaming pendant. Its crystal surface glistened in the light, and inside, churning waters splashed against the inner walls, as though a river had been captured within the jewel.

“…For me? You got this for me?” Kusarel waited for her mother to nod before reaching out and tentatively cradling the pendant in her claws. Cold waves radiated off its surface, cooling her battered skin.

“Just for you. I bought it from my old friend, the traveling merchant. There’s real water inside; she said it was created by a water-controller and a jeweler. They plucked a full stretch of river and sealed it inside with their powers.” Salaki puffed out her chest somewhat, as though she was the one who had made it. “You always loved playing in the rivers as a cub, so I thought you’d like it.”

Kusarel watched the liquid shift and twist inside, constantly merging and splitting apart in a hypnotic dance. “It’s gorgeous, but what if I break it?” Thoughts of violent waves cascading over the fields and undoing all the farmers’ hard work ran through her mind. She could ruin everything they had worked for if the pendant cracked, and poor Elkeri would take the brunt of it, being the actual farmer.

Her mother waved a claw and chuckled. “It’s incredibly durable. Why, you’d have to have super strength to break it! It would be too much even for Xaiel.”

Relief washed over Kusarel as she put on the necklace, feeling the weight of the pendant against her chest. “I love it, mother, thank you! I…was afraid you’d be mad at me. For working as a farmer.”

Salaki’s gaze faltered, uncertainty lurking in her eyes. She didn’t say anything for a few moments, instead appearing to scrutinize the nearby cabinet, displaying all their family treasures. “Well, I must admit I was torn, but given the circumstances and all,” her eyes landed on Kusarel’s forehead, where power feathers would have rested, “I think it’s justifiable.”

Her mother hadn’t said anything else after that, instead whisking her out of the den. Outside, Xaiel had winked at her, leaving her to wonder how much he had to do with her mother’s acceptance of the situation.

A thorny root snagged against the inside of Kusarel’s ankle, jarring her back to reality. Hissing, she shook her leg a few times until its grip vanished, leaving her with a trail of blood. Beside her, Elkeri continued working unabated; her eyes were clouded over from being worked back to back without much time to rest, and her tail dragged through the dirt as though it were too heavy for her to raise.

“Kusarel, Elkeri! How’re you holding up?” Xaiel called, trotting over with an energetic gait. While his feathers were far from pristine, they glowed with an inner healthiness that seemed to be missing from Elkeri lately…and Kusarel herself, for that matter.

“Working, Xaiel,” Elkeri mumbled, keeping her beak down as she tore into the field.

“Shouldn’t you go back to work too?” Kusarel asked, glancing over at the village. She didn’t see any of his fellow guards running over, yelling at Xaiel to get back to work, but that didn’t help quell her anxiety.

He simply shrugged and stretched his legs. “I’m good. Got another guard to cover my shift for a bit. Figured it’s best if I stay close by, you know?” He lowered his voice, peering at Kusarel intently. “People talk less about you when they see me around…probably feel intimidated. And the less negative talk there is about you being a farmer, the less there is to go back to old mother.”

While the pendant had been a welcome cool spot, it now seemed suddenly too frigid, threatening to freeze her whole. She gulped and forced herself to ask, “What have they been saying?”

“Nothing that really matters, but mother loves her rumors, so–“

A shrill, pealing noise erupted from somehow off in the village, reverberating over and over again. All the farmers perked their heads up, staring at each other with confused looks. The noise came again, just as piercing as before. Kusarel resisted the urge to cover her ears, fearing it may make her look weak.

“That’s the village gong,” Xaiel muttered, staring off toward the source of the sound. “We need to go back. Now.”

The farmers still didn’t move from their spots, even Elkeri staring at Xaiel with a foggy gaze. Kusarel glanced back and forth from Elkeri to Xaiel, waiting for one of them to act.

“It’s a summons, people! We need to move!”

Elkeri shook her head rapidly, clarity returning to her face. “Sorry, haven’t gotten good sleep in who knows how long. Let’s go, Kusarel!”

The three of them all bounded over together, none of them caring about going at an appropriately slow pace. Entering the village square, they stumbled into a crowd of gryphons, all chattering and buzzing amongst themselves. Elkeri tried to shove her way through the mob, lowering her head and poking at the gryphons with her horns. No one so much as budged, though a couple shot her a withering gaze. Xaiel gave a quick cough and suddenly, the gryphons around parted, bowing their heads in their direction.

“I miss when I could do that,” Elkeri grumbled.

They had just reached the front of the crowd when the gong rang again, nearly splitting Kusarel’s eardrums. She hissed and cupped her ears before she could stop herself, right as a voice boomed over the chattering crowd.

“Everyone, this is a joyous day! Bow now, for our glorious Empress Ardhelia has blessed us with her presence!”

The cacophony disappeared in an instant, no one daring to utter a word. Wide eyes stared at one another, equal parts disbelieving and shocked.

“BOW!” roared the speaker, a veteran guard, right as a massive gryphon stepped into the plaza.

Golden armor encased almost all of the gryphon’s body, other than the wings and talons. Jewels of all colors and kinds gleamed proudly from her armor, trailing down the legs and chest. Over the wings draped purple silk, embroidered with swirls of silver and gold. The mask over her face covered the entire beak, dipping far down and curling inwards like the beak of a cruel eagle. Orange eyes peered out from under the mask, and above them towered bristling violet feathers around the ears, the only feathers visible on her entire body.

Feathers for longevity, the power of the royal family.

The Empress.

The gryphons all around fell to the ground in a blitz, some bowing so hard their beaks tore into the dirt. With all the sudden movement, Kusarel took this chance to dive back further into the gathering, away from the front line. The last thing she needed was the Empress realizing Kusarel was a blank…and having her executed on the spot. She bowed alongside everyone else, having no desire to stand out in any way.

Up ahead, she heard a strained voice whisper, “Son, you need to bow, now!”

A happy laugh from a young gryphon spread throughout the air, more piercing than the gong. “But she’s so pretty! Look at those jewels!”

The first voice started babbling out apologies, likely the parent of the laughing cub. Kusarel felt her insides grow icy, wondering what on earth the Empress would do to this poor family. Apparently she wasn’t the only one; the gryphons around her widened their eyes, some even quaking as they continued to bow.

“No worries, young’un. I know I’m on the flashy side. You’re fine,” a silky voice cooed, as smooth as a river stone. Kusarel tilted her head up ever so slightly and saw the Empress patting the cub on the head with her tail. “But please don’t give your mother such a fright. That’s never good for a parent.”

Kusarel blinked, unsure if she had heard correctly. She locked eyes with the gryphon to her left, who gaze her a perplexed stare in return.

“Oh, dear me! You all look confused. Surely you didn’t think I’m a monster who would punish a cub’s natural curiosity?” The Empress gave a hearty chuckle and sat back on her haunches, looking for all the world like she was gearing up for a pleasant chat with the locals. A couple gryphons laughed in return, though they sounded stiff and wary. Kusarel didn’t think she could force a laugh even if she tried; her mouth seemed far too dry and her tongue too heavy.

“Now, I’m hoping you lovely folks could help me out. I’ve heard rumors lately of a powerful guard, a gryphon with great strength. Does that ring a bill at all?”

Everyone turned to look at Xaiel, who flitted his head between the staring crowd and the Empress. Fear laced over his face as he took a step back, looking for all the world like he wanted to soar off into the horizon.

Xaiel? She’s looking for him?

Her stomach twisted in unease, filling her with nausea.

But why?

© Nadine Anton “The Feathered Pagan”

Read Chapter 6

Twin Feathers: Chapter 4

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

The unrelenting sun beat down on Kusarel, sweat pouring under her feathers and fur. A burst of dust and dirt shot straight into her lungs as she tended the fields. Coughs erupted from deep inside her chest, as horribly dry as the arid air, but she clamped her beak shut. Every bit of motion sent stabbing pain through her muscles, unaccustomed to wing-breaking labor.

“You doing ok there, Kusarel? Nothing like calligraphy or painting, huh?” Elkeri panted with a seemingly gleeful hoot, though her neck was hunched and stiff, as though sore. Kusarel managed to prop up her heavy head as she wiped the sweat dripping off her brow, glancing at Elkeri. Already, the old feathers around the base of Elkeri’s ears had begun molting away. New feathers poked through the tender skin, feathers that would be green and wispy, trailing down her neck like beautiful jewelry. Except, of course, for the fact that this particular piece of “jewelry” would forever brand her friend as a farmer.

“You’re staring, Kusarel.”

Startled out of her trance, she squeaked and whipped her head downward. “Sorry! I was just…um…”

“Admiring my new look?” Elkeri sniffed, tracing her claws over the budding feathers. “Don’t blame you–I’ll be rocking this style.” She gave a sharp laugh–too sharp. As her talons lingered over her feathers, Kusarel saw a flash of dread in her eyes, the realization that this was her fate and she would soon be branded for life.

“Could you run some of the vegetables over to the copiers? I’ll keep working here…” Elkeri pawed at the dirt below, part of the field they had been tending all day alongside the other farmers. All around them gryphons scrambled about, hardly paying each other any mind as they toiled in preparing the soil, watering, planting, and coaxing new buds to spring forth with their powers. Their sizes and colors varied, but all of them had the same thin, almost fairy-like green feathers above their brows.

“Of course!” Kusarel tore her gaze away from the farmers and wrapped her tail around a basket of carrots, lifting it into the air. The simple act sent screams of resistance throughout her body, begging her to drop down and relax.

Oh, if mother saw me now, she would shriek like it’s dawn. But if Xaiel thinks this will help…I’ll trust him.

Not like there’s anything else you can do, a nagging voice whispered in her head. You’re trapped, Kusarel. Nothing you do will be right. You’re going to fail no matter what, because you’re still a blank and that’s all that matters.

Suddenly, the blazing fields seemed like a sanctuary. At least she was so busy there that her backstabbing mind wouldn’t shoot these thoughts at her. Clicking her beak in agitation, she stepped onto the roads and wove her way over to the copiers’ tents, tucked on a side street at the far end of the fields. As she approached, the gryphons under the tents all bowed in respect, beaks touching the ground and claws stretched out in front of them.

Kusarel stood in front of them for a few moments, waiting for them to speak. The silence stretched on, the gryphons still bowing in perfect stillness, before she remembered they were waiting for her cue.

“Oh, I’m so sorry!” As soon as the words left her beak, she heard her mother mentally screeching at her: “Apologizing to a lower class…no, the LOWEST class? A disgrace, Kusarel! A disgrace!” “I mean…could you copy these for me, please?”

She threw down the basket of carrots, harsher than she intended in her embarrassment. A few vegetables tumbled out and fell in the dirt, rolling off to the side. The copiers finally broke their bow and snatched up the vegetables before she could react, as though from years of practice.

“Of course, Miss Silversky. We would be honored,” one of them spoke, a petite little gryphon that kept her eyes dutifully downcast. A wealth of deep blue feathers cascaded from the side of her head down her jawline, the telltale sign of a copier. None of the gryphons made eye contact with her, only keeping their heads pointed in her general direction.

“Thank you very–“

“Copiers! Get over here now,” a voice from behind bellowed, cutting Kusarel off. Three of the copiers scrambled around Kusarel, groveling to the newcomer. Kusarel recognized him as a gryphon of just average standing, nothing special. Still, next to the copiers, he may as well have been the Empress.

“I want these construction materials all copied by tomorrow. No imperfections,” he huffed, flapping his wings and throwing his head back. The copiers remained bowing, but she saw them give each other sidelong glances as they flicked their ears.

“Forgive us, but our powers are meager. We cannot avoid imperfections, but we will do our best.”

He snorted and stamped his claws into the ground, stirring up loose gravel. “Useless! It’s ridiculous your kind is allowed to live in the city. Leeches, that’s what you are, you know that?”

Still bowing, the copiers nodded their heads, none of them so much as trying to retort. Kusarel glanced behind the demanding gryphon, hoping to see Xaiel or Elkeri stomping over. They never let this sort of rudeness go…though come to think of it, Elkeri probably couldn’t argue back without risking her own neck, Kusarel realized with a start. She no longer had her family’s name to protect her.

“And what are YOU staring at, farmer?” The gryphon advanced forward, ears upright and flared. Kusarel stepped back without thought, but as she did, he suddenly scrambled away with a yelp.

“Silversky! I mean, Miss Silversky! I’m so sorry, very sorry, yes. Of course, I should have noticed the feathers…lack of feathers. Please pardon my rudeness.” He inclined his head, just like the copiers moments ago, and zipped away before she could reply.

Didn’t take long for him to switch roles there, muttered that ever-irritating voice in her head. Kusarel stamped it down, just as she always had. That sort of rebellious thought was for Xaiel or Elkeri, not for her.

Hours passed as she ferried baskets of goods to the copiers and back, her tail growing heavier and heavier with the never-ending loads. Still, she couldn’t help but feel she was better off then the copiers; whenever she returned to their tents, they had their eyes squeezed shut as they concentrated on their work, claws held above the vegetables. Misshapen clones slowly took form next to the original crops: Tiny, lump-ridden little morsels. Yet as pathetic as these copies appeared, she saw more than one copier collapse to the ground from the strain, their breathing coming in short gasps. Kusarel almost ducked under the tent to help one of them, but a guard rushed around the corner and prodded the poor gryphon with a spear. Kusarel slipped away and kept her distance after that, not wanting to risk a confrontation with the guards.

Her legs burned more and more with each passing minute. She watched the sun with bleary eyes, keeping track of its movement and waiting, almost begging, for it to dip into the horizon. The shadows grew longer as the fields were bathed in a dim red light, finally signaling the end of a brutal day. Elkeri threw down her watering pot as though it were a venomous snake and let out an exhausted murmur. She nudged Kusarel in the side, almost knocking her over.

“Done. We’re done,” Elkeri panted, swaying on her feet. “Let’s go take a bath, ok?”

Kusarel gave a clipped nod, unwilling to bend her tense neck anymore than necessary. The thought of a perfectly warmed bath, water flowing under her feathers and loosening matted fur, filled her with an eagerness she hadn’t felt all day.

It took longer than it should have for them to plod over to the baths, both of them dragging their claws against the pavement. A dozen stone tubs, propped over low-burning fires, greeted them as they arrived at the bathhouse. A few gryphons bustled about, placing their talons over the flames to keep them at just the right temperature and height. Kusarel spotted Yatalo hunched over one of the tubs. He cocked his head briefly in their direction, then shuffled back to his work far too quickly, turning his back to the two of them.

“Stop,” barked the attendant at the front, blocking off Elkeri’s path with an outstretched foreleg. “No farmers until after sundown. Though Miss Silversky, you are very much welcome.”

For a second, Kusarel’s mind filled with confusion. They had both always gotten into the baths just fine, with no trouble at all. It took a few seconds for the full weight of the attendant’s words to settle in.

Oh shoot. Elkeri’s not going to be happy. She turned to look at her friend, who, sure enough, had puffed out her chest so far she looked like a war gryphon. The attendant flinched and stepped back just a bit, casting a look at Yatalo behind them. Elkeri’s father made no sign he was aware of them at all, muttering to himself as he adjusted the flame.

“There are plenty of empty baths here, Jasunel. It’ll be fine.” Elkeri tried to shove her way forward, but Jasunel bounded in front of her, legs spread in a battle stance. Kusarel backed away slowly, wishing she could melt into the shadows and get away from this mess.

“It’s not fine at all. Those are the rules and they must be followed.” Jasunel glanced back and forth before lowering her voice, pleading, “Look, I’m sorry, Elkeri. But the patrons will be furious if I let you in. They’ll call the guards, and then, well, I don’t know what they’ll do to me. I can’t risk it.”

For a moment, it looked like Elkeri planned to rip off the attendant’s face, beak and all; a low growl emitted from somewhere deep in her throat, pupils dilated and ears flat against her head. Kusarel took a deep breath and forced herself forward, placing a claw on Elkeri’s back as gently as she could.

“We don’t want to get anyone in trouble, right, Elkeri? We’ll go to the rivers to take a bath instead.”

Jasunel bobbed her whole body up and down, sending Kusarel a thankful glance. “Yes, the rivers are an excellent idea! Open to all.”

Kusarel felt Elkeri shaking beneath her talons, but she knew her childhood friend well enough to realize these were tremors of fury, not fear. She spat out some disjointed words in rage before rearing back on her hind legs and pivoting away, almost sending Kusarel toppling to the ground.

After mumbling a quick sorry to the attendant, she bounded after Elkeri, forcing her aching muscles forward. The ground trembled as Elkeri slammed each claw down in a vicious gait, chest still thrust forward and beak pointed to the sky.

“The nerve! That pile of parrot droppings! I deserve a simple bath after hours of working my tail off. Don’t I?” Elkeri hissed, whirling on Kusarel like a crazed wolf.

“Yes, of course you do. We’ll take a nice bath in the river, ok? It’ll be just like when we were cubs, splashing around. Remember when you tricked Xaiel with that stick, back then?”

Elkeri blinked at her a few times before the rage started to seep out of her eyes. She relaxed her stance and let out a happy chortle, slapping her tail against the stone. “Ooh, that was great! He thought it was a real sea serpent, that wimp.” She walked off toward the rivers with a cackle, waving Kusarel forward. Shuffling into the gentle waters, the two of them scraped the grime and mud off their hides, doing their best to loosen the matted areas tugging painfully at their skin.

An hour later they scuttled over to their dens, shivering as the night air passed through their feathers. Elkeri nuzzled Kusarel with her beak, giving a quiet chirp.

“Thanks for helping me out, Kusarel. Even when I’m a hothead.” She gazed down the road to the row of farmers’ dens, something weary settling in her eyes. “Well, time to rest and do this all over again tomorrow. For the rest of my life.”

A heavy silence followed, nestling in the shadows all around them. Without another word, Elkeri tore herself away and went off to her den. Somehow, her gait seemed less prideful than before, as though weighed down by something heavier than she could handle.

© Nadine Anton “The Feathered Pagan”

Read Chapter 5

Twin Feathers: Chapter 3

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

“Welcome to my palace, Kusarel,” Elkeri said in an uppity voice, beak pointed snootily toward the roof of her den. “Where would you like to sit? Perhaps some tea or fancy appetizers will suit you?”

Kusarel couldn’t help but laugh as she squeezed into Elkeri’s den, though the situation was anything but funny. Still, seeing her friend joke around like this helped calm the massive headache that had been brewing all day. Scrunching up her brow deep in thought for too long wasn’t good for her, apparently.

“You doing ok, Elkeri? I’m…sorry I left you earlier.” Kusarel lowered her head, drooping her ears in apology.

“You’re fine. It’s your mother who should be apologizing. You know I can’t stand your family. Or mine, for that matter,” she added with a snarl. “All ‘family name’ this and ‘honor’ that. Drives me mad.”

The tense knot in her stomach began to unravel a little. Seeing Elkeri back to her usual self filled Kusarel with relief, so much that she hardly had the energy to rebuke her for being rude.

“But, this den is…really something,” Kusarel said, trying to change the subject before Elkeri could go on one of her rants.

The single den Elkeri had been given was nothing like the dens of their families. Rather than sturdy stone, these shelters had been constructed out of of a paper-mache material, so thin the rays of the sun shone through in places. The scuffling of other gryphons could be heard through the shared walls, destroying any semblance of true privacy. Kusarel tried to stretch out her hindlegs, feeling a cramp setting in, but the back of her calf slammed against the wall near the entrance.

“Careful there, Kusarel. If you stretch too much, you could knock down a wall,” Elkeri said with a roll of her eyes. “This heavenly palace is not nearly big enough for two gryphons, you know.”

And now she had led Elkeri down another possible route for ranting. Kusarel would have slapped herself with her tail, but she was pretty sure she’d accidentally hit Elkeri in the process with how tightly they were packed in.

“Well, at least the village gave you a den! You don’t have to sleep outside or anything. That’s good, right?” Kusarel pawed at the dirt beneath her talons, so different from the smooth marble flooring in her family’s dwelling.

“Cut the act. Your optimism can be cute, but I don’t get it at all. Like how you always defend your mother, for instance. She threatened to cull you today, didn’t she?”

Kusarel dug her claws deep into the dirt, keeping her tail as still as possible. “How’d you know that?”

Her friend leaned over to embrace her with her wings, only to jam her horns against the ceiling. A chunk of paper-mache fell away, exposing the sky above. “Oh, for the love of…I’ll fix it later. But anyone would know that, Kusarel. Your family’s pretty predictable. Honestly, I’m surprised you even visited me. Thought for sure you would’ve been scared away with your reputation at stake.”

“I’m not that bad, am I?” Kusarel said in a small voice. The guilty feelings from before sank back in, remembering what a terrible friend she had been earlier.

“Aw, I didn’t mean it that way,” Elkeri nudged her on the forehead, placing a claw over hers. “You’re a good friend. You’ve just always been so straight-laced. I get worried about you sometimes, doing whatever your family wants.”

“But that’s how it is, Elkeri. You know that.”

“Oh trust me, I know it, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it,” Elkeri sneered, brows furrowed as she snapped at the air. “Screw the Empress with all her rules and hierarchy. I hope the Godslayer offs her for us!”

“Elkeri! Don’t say things like that!” Kusarel squeaked as a loud thwap came from the other side of the shared wall.

“Oi, cut the blasphemy over there! Some of us are trying to sleep!” called a voice from the other side in a drawl.

“It’s not even sundown yet! You can deal,” Elkeri barked back, glaring at the wall as though she wanted to tear it down.

“You know nothing, whelp. Just wait until tomorrow. They’ll work you to the bone, every day of your life.” They could hear a couple cackles before silence finally returned.

Neither of them said anything for a moment; the air felt more tense than before, as though something ominous had crept in the den. Memories of bony, mud-caked gryphons toiling in the fields all day came back to Kusarel. She had hardly ever seen the farmers in the plaza or gathering areas; they spent every waking minute working, and when they finally had a break, they always slunk to their dens to rest their weary feathers. Will Elkeri really be ok? She’s going to be miserable for the rest of her life. What do I do?

“Did I hear some good ol’ fashioned Empress bashing over here? Because if so, count me in!”

Elkeri’s ears perked up as she hooted, “Hey, Kusarel, your twin is here! Now we can get this party rolling.”

Kusarel barely suppressed a groan as her brother, Xaiel, poked his head in, eyes filled with a mischievous glint. “He’s not my twin, Elkeri. I’m nothing like him.”

“Yeah, he’s much more fun than you. But you sure look like twins,” Elkeri chirped, mirroring her brother’s impish look.

“You know I love picking on my little sis, but I’m here for hating on some royalty,” Xaiel said, trying to inch his way into the den best he could. He may have been smaller than the two female gryphons, but the den was still far too cramped for all three of them. His forelegs and neck just barely squeezed in, the rest of his body sticking outside the entrance. Draping his claws over one another, he dipped his head toward Elkeri. “So, I heard some rumors out on guard duty. Want to hear ’em?”

“Xaiel, please don’t,” Kusarel begged, flattening her ears against her head. “What if someone hears? We’ll be in so much trouble.”

Elkeri waved a claw at Kusarel and leaned forward, wings shivering in excitement. “Oh, do tell!”

“My pleasure! That lovely old pigeon we call the Empress is starting to show her years, finally. They say her time is coming to an end.”

A sharp hiss erupted from Elkeri as Kusarel tried to turn her head away, longing to flee from this conversation. She poked Xaiel in the side with her back paw, but he refused to budge, lost in his gossip.

“The guards I talked to? They’ve met up with other guards closer to the palace city, and you know what they say there? The Empress’ feathers are falling right off her skin! She walks with a limp and is always hunched over. I mean, go figure. That waste of space is over 500 years old now.” Xaiel barked out a harsh laugh, digging his talons deep into the ground as though he longed to rip into the Empress himself.

“Dying of old age? Too good for her,” Elkeri snorted. “She’s the reason families turn on each other.” Something wavered in her glance as she lowered her head, doodling in the soil with a single talon. Kusarel squinted, trying to make out the upside-down drawing from her angle, before realizing it was a picture of Elkeri’s father. She felt her throat swell up, remembering how Yatalo said he may never talk to his daughter again…all to preserve the family’s reputation.

“Absolutely agree. I could go on forever about how she deserves to die…” he took a deep breath as though preparing himself for a never-ending rant, than stopped as he glanced at Kusarel. “But, for the sake of my paranoid sister here, I’ll save that for later.”

“I just don’t want us to get hurt, or arrested,” Kusarel muttered, feeling like a killjoy. At least she was used to the feeling, if nothing else.

“Speaking of getting hurt, Kusarel,” Xaiel said, all his playfulness disappointing in a heartbeat, “Tomorrow, you need to help Elkeri out as much as you can. Work around the clock, ok?”

Kusarel just blinked at him, cocking her head quizzically. “I can, but why?”

Xaiel leaned closer, dropping his voice to a mere whisper. Kusarel pricked up her ears, struggling to hear him. “The more you can make yourself useful, the better your chances of surviving until you get your powers. We need to give our dear mother less reason to cull you.”

A weight pressed against Kusarel’s chest, heart hammering. With Xaiel and Elkeri gossiping, she’d been able to distract herself from her grim future. Now, it was facing her down once more, eyeing her like a spider waiting to jump on its prey.

“Not that I would ever let them cull you,” he added. “Mother may be a clawlicker who worships the Empress’ molted feathers, but I’m not. Well, you know that. ” He nudged Kusarel with a chirp. “But I want to put off that confrontation as long as possible, you know?”

“I won’t either,” Elkeri said, raising her head sharply as she whipped her tail back and forth. A few thin layers of the den wall tore off, whirling into the air. “Let them cull you, I mean. If it comes to it, I can help you flee, too. Me and you could start a new life in a far-off city together.”
Kusarel knew those words were supposed to make her feel better, so she bobbed her head up and down like an excited cub. But all she felt was a choking pressure spreading throughout her body, a need to run out into the open air and breathe deeply before her lungs locked up. Her vision went hazy as she thought of leaving this village, her family, behind. I can’t do that! It’s all I know. How would I survive away from here? What do I do?

That thought swirled through her churning mind as she plodded her way back home with Xaiel, leaving Elkeri to turn in for the evening. He tried to engage her in light chatter a few times, even slapping her with an outstretched wing to get her attention, but nothing broke through the fog surrounding her.

What do I do?

© Nadine Anton “The Feathered Pagan”

Read Chapter 4

Twin Feathers: Chapter 2

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

It took all her strength for Kusarel to snap out of her bout of self-pity. After the confrontation with her mother, she had hidden away in the forest on the outskirts of the village; the thought of going home seemed too painful then. She had managed to calm herself down now, a couple hours later, though her muscles felt heavy from the past adrenaline high.

I’m still alive now, and besides, I may still get my powers soon. But Elkeri…there’s nothing Elkeri can do now. She repeated these words in her head over and over, doing her best to squash her anxiety. Her friend needed her right now; she didn’t have time to let herself break down in a wreck. Guilt seeped through her, realizing she had left her best friend alone for a good chunk of the afternoon.

Elkeri’s home is close; no excuse for me not to go. Stamping down her emotions one more time, she picked herself up off the ground, shaking away the dirt on her feet and tail. Elkeri’s family was one of the higher-ranking bloodlines in the village, and they certainly wouldn’t approve of her running in covered in muck. She could just imagine the gossip this would create, inevitably getting back to her own mother. Remembering the shine of her mother’s talons, Kusarel repressed a shudder and flapped her wings a few times to dislodge any extra-stubborn grime. Angering her mother more than necessary seemed like a poor idea at the moment.

She slipped between the trees effortlessly, having long romped through these woods. The forest had always been her safe space ever since she was a cub, a place she could get away from the staring, judging eyes of her family. Even now, that hadn’t changed. Passing a particularly gnarled tree, she brushed her tail fondly against its bark, remembering how she and her older brother had climbed up this very tree so often as cubs. They’d always squabble over the highest branches, though Kusarel’s larger size meant she’d usually win. It didn’t take her ever-conniving brother long to decide that if he couldn’t have the top branches, she couldn’t either…and promptly snapped them off the tree. Fury had filled her at the time, but now, she wished she could go back to those easier days.

Shaking her head, she willed herself forward, finally making it to the end of the forest. Here, she could see the outskirt of the village, where dens taller than the trees had been constructed out of chiseled rock. The sun’s rays splayed over their polished surfaces, gleaming like perfectly tumbled river rocks. Elkeri had once told her the dens were supposed to resemble caves in the mountains–not that either of them had ever seen mountains themselves.

The dens peppered the sides of the stone road, which wound its way deeper into the village. Spotting the den of Elkeri’s family, she scurried forward, before forcing herself to slow to a dignified gait. While no one was in sight, any gryphon listening nearby would be able to hear the fast clicks of her talons against the road if she ran. And running, of course, was hardly befitting of a higher-class gryphon. Kusarel’s mind roared in frustration at the slow pace, but she couldn’t risk it. She had to play it safe.

Finally reaching the family home of Elkeri, she grabbed the rattle dangling near its entrance. A glistening crimson jewel lay embedded at the very top, proclaiming to any passerby that this was indeed the house of a very wealthy family. She shook the rattle a few times, hopefully enough for them to hear her arrival, but not so much she annoyed them. The proper amount of rattle shakes always eluded her; Kusarel would have much preferred if she didn’t have to make any noise at all. It made her feel exposed, like she was announcing her presence to the entire street.

A few moments later, the drapes covering the entrance parted, revealing a wizened old gryphon. His feathers were the same golden-hued brown as Elkeri’s, though his beak was far shorter than her friend’s sleek, elongated one. Gleaming orange feathers sprouted around the base of his ears, proclaiming his fire-harnessing power to all other gryphons. A mass of horns jutted out from the top of his head and the side of his jaw, giving him a fierce appearance at odds with his exhausted eyes.

“Oh, Kusarel. I’d say good to see you, but…I’m fairly certain you’re here because of my daughter,” Elkeri’s father said in a raspy voice. Kusarel raised a brow at the sound; his voice had always been strong and clear despite his age, nothing like this wheezing.

“Pardon me, my voice is going from all the yelling. It was quite a mess in here. But that’s done now.”

The yelling? Kusarel felt more regret set in, knowing her friend probably needed her more than ever. “Can I talk to her? I need to see her, Mr. Hornfeather.”

The gryphon huffed and waved a talon briskly. “Call me Yatalo now, please. You’re an adult; no need to talk to me like you’re still a cub. Though…” He narrowed his eyes, something icy settling in his expression. “Come to think of it, you’re still a blank, aren’t you?”

Kusarel chuckled nervously and stepped back, trying to put some distance between herself and the much larger gryphon. “Oh, well, I guess so. But where’s Elkeri, sir?”

Yatalo peered down his beak at her, clucking as though scolding a disobedient cub. “Do get your powers soon; your mother must be worried sick. It always takes so much out of parents, wondering if they’ll have to cull their own children.” He shook his head, then seemed to collect himself. “But yes, Elkeri. She’s not here anymore, of course. We kicked her out of the den; we can’t have a farmer in the Hornfeather family.”

Kusarel’s heart sank at the words, though she did her best to keep her face neutral. “Ears up, tail high, no fidgeting with your talons,” the familiar voice of her mother whispered in her head, though the memory did little to relax her. “Where is she now, Mr. Hornfeather? I mean, Yatalo,” she added in the same breath.

“Off to the single dens, I would assume. Since she’s a farmer, check the poor ones. The village won’t give her anything better than that with her status.” A heavy sigh escaped his beak, filling the air with its weight. “Poor girl, but there’s no helping it. Empress knows when I’ll talk to her again, if ever.”

He waved in the direction of the single dens, which Kusarel took as a sign it was time for her to leave. She bowed her head in thanks and hastened off, feeling Yatalo’s eyes on her as she scuttled down the road as fast as was acceptable. Her mom’s words echoed in her head: But when they start thinking of you as an adult…we’ll need to do what’s best for the family’s name.”

I hope that’s later rather than sooner, she prayed, but something told her she wouldn’t be so lucky.

© Nadine Anton “The Feathered Pagan”

Read Chapter 3

Twin Feathers: Chapter 1

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

No one approached the lone gryphon, hunched over with her wings brushing the grass. The chirps of young gryphons at play, filling the park just moments ago, had faded away. Now, only a somber silence was left in its wake.

Kusarel shoved her way to the front of the crowd, squeezing her wings against her sides. Disappointed murmurs floated all around her as the silence broke, the crowd of onlookers finally ready to pass their judgment.

“Poor girl…”

“So much wasted potential.”

“Her parents will be so disappointed. A farmer? What a disgrace!”

Finally breaking through the crowd, Kusarel trod right up to the lone gryphon—her closest friend, Elkeri—and nudged her with her beak. Somewhere in the back of her mind, she knew she was playing a dangerous game; associating with a lowly farmer would tear up her own reputation. But seeing Elkeri huddled in the circle of naysayers, feathered ears drooping and tail curled tightly by her side, she couldn’t just leave her be.

“Let’s get out of here, Elkeri,” she whispered, doing her best to tune out the mob around them. Elkeri said nothing, only staring at the ground–or more accurately, at a delicate carnation that had blossomed from beneath her talons in an instant, towering above the grass with a proud air. Little did it know its sudden burst to life now set Elkeri’s future in stone.

“I’m a farmer, Kusarel,” a small voice finally said with a stutter. “One of the lowest gryphons there is. You should get away from me.” At this, Elkeri ripped her gaze away from the hated carnation and stared at the gryphons around her, only to lower her eyes almost instantly. “They’re judging you too, you know.”

Alarm laced through Kusarel, feathers bristling at the sound of Elkeri’s distraught voice. Never in all her years had she seen her normally raucous, rebellious friend so resigned. Kusarel opened her beak to respond, trying to force her tongue to say something supportive. Instead, only a sharp squawk came from Kusarel as rugged talons dug into her shoulder from behind, yanking her away from Elkeri.

“Stay away from her, Kusarel,” snapped a voice right in her ear. Wincing, she tried to wiggle away, but her mother’s talons remained firm as she dragged her away from Elkeri and out of the crowd. She tried to shout something encouraging to her friend before she lost sight, but Elkeri’s dead eyes killed the words in her throat.

The pressure finally disappeared from her shoulder as they came to a stop in the village’s plaza. An older gryphon towered over her, ears upright and wings spread. The silver feathers lining her head, avian forelegs, wings and chest shone brilliantly in the noon sun. Halfway along her torso, the feathers abruptly switched to a lush, velvety black fur, which blanketed her back lion-like legs and tail. People had often told Kusarel she looked just like her mother, but she wholeheartedly disagreed; she could never hope to replicate the rage contorting her mother’s face, eyes narrowed beneath heavily feathered brows.

“You know better than to associate with lower classes, Kusarel,” spat her mother, arching her lithe neck down to peer with a patronizing stare at her daughter.

Before she could stop herself, Kusarel shook her head and said, “Mother, I’m a lower class than her. She’s younger than me by two moons and got her powers. I’m still just a blank.”

At this, her mother’s gaze softened, only to be replaced with a stony mask an eyeblink later. “That’s nonsense, and you know it. You only became an adult three moons back; you’re still basically a cub yourself.”

“It doesn’t matter. I’m not a cub anymore, and the more time that passes, the lower I’ll get. Everyone says blanks are useless.”

Perhaps Kusarel just imagined the fear in her mother’s eyes; she desperately hoped so, as the thought of her mother being afraid tore a hole right through her stomach. The rumble of her mother’s deep voice snapped her out of her thoughts a moment later.

“You’ll get your powers soon enough, Kusarel. All members of our families have powers. We have no mature adult blanks, and you won’t be the first.” Something about the way her mother said the last line made Kusarel take a step back. She could still feel where her mother’s claws had dug in minutes ago; that was nothing compared to what her mother could do, if she used all her strength.

They wouldn’t cull me, right? I’m still their family. She craned her head up to meet her mother’s gaze. All she could see was that same impenetrable mask, the mask that loomed in all her childhood memories. She had never known what her mom was thinking then, and she couldn’t tell now.

“The other gryphons still consider you to be a cub, since you just became an adult,” her mother said quietly. Yet even though her voice was soft, poison dripped from her words. “But when they start thinking of you as an adult…we’ll need to do what’s best for the family’s name, if you’re still a blank then. You wouldn’t want to disgrace the family, now would you, Kusarel?”

Kusarel stared at the ground. Her mother tapped her talons impatiently against the stone plaza floor. Eyes locked on those shining claws, Kusarel felt a lump rise in her throat, blocking out all response.

“In fact, I think a thank you is in order,” her mother continued. “Many families would cull their newly adult blanks right on their birthday. You’re lucky to have me as your mother.”

She knew failing to respond to that would be incredibly dangerous, possibly downright fatal. Yet the words wouldn’t fall from her beak, blocked deep in her throat by that massive lump. Instead, she nodded her head up and down rapidly, eyes still locked on her mother’s claws.

“I’m glad you understand. You always were a good cub.” Her mother lightly patted her on the head with her tail, a classic sign of affection. “And with such a distinguished bloodline, I’m sure you’ll get your powers soon.”

Kusarel tried to cluck in agreement, but her voice still failed her. She thought back to Elkeri, standing in the midst of a disappointed mob, and desperately wished to be her at this moment. Better a lowly farmer than an adult blank. At least Elkeri’s family couldn’t legally murder her now. It had taken Elkeri only a month after reaching adulthood to gain her powers–still a late bloomer, but now she was safe, and that’s all that really mattered. She had status, even if it was next to nothing. But an adult blank, on the other hand…it was in her family’s right to cull her if they wanted. No one would bat an eye at that.

And so even after her mother left, probably off on guard duty, Kusarel still didn’t budge. She continued staring at the ground, feeling more lost and alone than she ever had before.

© Nadine Anton “The Feathered Pagan”

Read Chapter 2

Novel Incoming!

I’m more than a little excited to announce that I will be posting Twin Feathers, my fantasy novel, chapter by chapter on this site (along with Wattpad). The first chapter of Twin Feathers is already available on Wattpad here, under Nadine Anton. I’ll be posting the first chapter on The Feathered Pagan tomorrow (Wednesday). On Thursday, I will post chapter 2 on both Wattpad and The Feathered Pagan. From that point on, all new chapters will be posted simultaneously on both sites either Thursday or Friday of every week.

Here’s the blurb for the novel:

Kusarel knows she doesn’t have much time left. As a newly adult gryphon, society expects her to have gained her powers by this point, cementing her role for the rest of her life. Yet she is still a blank, with no powers in sight. Soon, she will be culled by her family, deemed nothing more than a useless blank. With her future uncertain, Kusarel finds herself far from her home…and flung right in the line of sight of the most powerful gryphon in the country: The Empress, who will stop at nothing to enforce the strict hierarchy smothering all gryphon-kind.

As a side note: While I know The Feathered Pagan is very small and not many people visit, I do want to give a whole-hearted thank you to the few of you who do read the content on this site. It’s because of the views and likes you have given that I finally mustered the courage to go forward with posting my novel online. It means the world to me and I am so thankful for every single view!