Feathered Chapter 19
Raia woke the next morning just before dawn to a crick in her neck and a general stiffness all over. She stretched, wincing as she flexed her fingers—surprisingly the most painful parts of her body. Her hands were cramped from knitting all throughout the previous day and into the early hours of the morning. Yet despite her sore fingers, she could not regret the time she had spent at the task. Knitting had kept her hands busy and her mind occupied while her sisters had been away leading the guards astray from their trail. In fact, Raia had found herself unable to stop knitting even after the swans had returned safely back to the cave. She had found it a cathartic and effective way to keep herself from dwelling on the issue of her sisters’ now permanent avian state—at least, permanent until Raia could break the curse. And though she had managed to complete another shawl early in the afternoon the day before, she still had three shawls left to finish.
So she had knit even faster, forcing her grainy eyes to remain open long past the time that they first began drooping. Raia had at last fallen asleep, still hunched over her knitting with her back leaning against the cave wall. Her swan sisters perched all around her, and several of them had even chosen to sleep on top of her, their feathers vibrating as they breathed deeply in and out in slumber.
The swans were in almost the exact same positions around her when Raia stirred the next morning. In truth, it was by these positions that she was slowly coming to identify which swan was which sister—or at the very least to venture a guess. Raia was all but certain that Thaleia was the swan with ruffled neck feathers who had claimed Raia’s lap as her nest—rather loudly and forcefully, she might add. She had hissed at the other swans that had attempted to sit there, practically shoving them out of the way before plopping down firmly herself.
Yes, that was Thaleia, all right.
Two of the other swans had nestled right up to Raia’s sides, one on the left, the other to her right. Raia was reasonably sure that these were Cliodne and Eurielle. Cliodne—the largest swan of the bunch—had sat to Raia’s right. She occasionally bumped her head against Raia’s hand while she had been knitting, as though encouraging her in her efforts. However, as the hours ticked on, the swan’s head bumps had become less encouraging and more forceful, as though she had been protesting Raia’s incessant knitting, and was trying to tell her to stop working and get some sleep. Raia strongly suspected that Cliodne most regretted the loss of her voice for not being able to urge her younger sister to take proper care of herself. She felt a stab of guilt at the thought.
‘I’m sorry, Clio.’ Raia thought, patting the sleeping swan’s head with her hand. ‘I’ll do better.’
The swan to Raia’s left, however, acted very differently, and Raia was able to recognize Eurielle in the smallest bird’s mannerisms. She was nestled as close to Raia as possible, burrowing herself to where she was almost under Raia’s hip, rather than beside it. She had also been the first of them all to drift to sleep—evidence beyond all reasonable doubt that this bird was the youngest Kyorian princess. Eurielle the swan slept with her long neck arched gracefully and her head pillowed on Raia’s side, dangerously close to Thaleia’s territory—a classic Eurielle move.
Callia, Raia guessed, was the swan with the gray tint to her wings snuggled in the fabric in between Raia’s legs. Her identity was decided more by process of elimination than anything else, for the last swan—the one with the long tail feathers—could not be anyone other than Petra. The only one to wake before Raia, this swan had clearly been busy either throughout the night or during the very early hours of the morning. On the cave floor beside Raia’s feet was piled a small collection of food that had clearly not been foraged from the forest. On first glance, she saw fresh bread and cheeses, as well as several different kinds of fruit and an entire pie. Petra herself was perched on Raia’s ankles next to the food. Head cocked, she simply stared between her sister and the pile of food that she had accumulated, and Raia could swear that her sister’s avian face looked almost smug.
The smell of the fresh bread reached Raia’s nostrils, and her stomach growled. Petra the swan looked positively triumphant at the sound, nestling down further between Raia’s ankles with a self-satisfied body wiggle. Raia smiled her thanks and reached for an apple. She tried to move slowly so as not to dislodge Thaleia or her other swan sisters sitting around her. Yet as soon as her fingers touched the fruit, the swans suddenly awoke all at once.
Raia was afraid at first that she had been the one to wake them, but quickly realized that this was not the case. Soft light filtered in through the mouth of the cave, and Raia felt a stab of horrified comprehension.
It was dawn.
Her sisters were experiencing all the pain of their transformation without the actual transformation. They all keened and hissed, their feathered bodies writhing on the floor as if they were in the utmost agony. Raia watched them helplessly, racking her brain for anything that she could do to alleviate their pain, but there was nothing.
Finally—finally—it was over. Her sisters stopped moving and writhing, and for one terrifying moment, Raia feared that they were dead. Had they made a horrible mistake leaving Soran’s castle? What if this were their punishment for escaping, the loophole in their curse that they had not anticipated?
Then Eurielle’s wing twitched and Raia released the breath she had been holding. She reached out with trembling fingers and stroked first Eurielle’s head, then all of her sisters’ heads in turn. The five swans seemed to welcome the small ministration, even Petra. Then as one, the birds rose to their feet. Thaleia pushed Raia’s apple towards her twin in a silent appeal for her to eat. She obeyed.
As Raia slowly ate her way through the provisions that Petra had collected for her, her swan sisters foraged for their own food. They snapped up weeds and insects in the dirt surrounding the mouth of the cave. Raia shivered slightly at the sight of Thaleia swallowing a large beetle. Clearly, her sisters had already become used to such fare after spending the last couple of weeks as swans during the daytime hours, but Raia nevertheless found this evidence of their new diet to be slightly disturbing—not to mention disgusting. She thanked her lucky stars that she was still human and did not have to resort to eating insects for food. Then she felt an immediate stab of guilt at the thought. It had certainly not been her sisters’ choice to be transformed, nor had Raia had any control over being excluded from the curse. It was luck—pure, dumb luck—that she was not also swallowing crickets like her sisters, let alone feeling the pain of their transformations.
Raia had only just finished the last of the apples—she only had the pie left to eat—when she realized that her sisters were all standing at the cave entrance, staring at her expectantly. Clearly, they felt that it was time that they all got moving. Raia packed away the pie rather reluctantly, dropping it into the pillow pouch where she’d hidden her knitting supplies—the same pouch that Callia and Cliodne had been using the last couple of weeks to collect nettles. Her knitting, however, she kept in her hands. Raia had mastered the art of knitting while walking when still just a child. She fully intended to take advantage of the time that they would have to spend walking through the forest in order to get as far as she could knitting the shawls for her sisters.
Raia felt a pang as she and her sisters walked away from the cave. Though they had only stayed there for one night, she had felt safe for that night—her first night of newfound freedom. She could not help regretting leaving the shelter behind, though she understood the need for it. After all, staying too long in one place would soon become very risky in regards to evading recapture from Soran’s search parties. Still, while she and her sisters had several other possible shelters in the forest that they eventually planned to use in their escape, they could not guarantee when they would actually reach any of them.
The six sisters walked west through the forest underbrush, using the brightening sky at their backs to situate themselves in terms of direction. During their late-night planning sessions as Soran’s prisoners, the princesses had collectively decided not to head directly northwards towards Kyoria after they managed to escape from the castle.
“It’s the first thing Soran would expect.” Cliodne had argued reasonably. “We need to outthink him.”
Her younger sisters had unanimously agreed with her, though some with more disappointment than the rest at the bitter realization that they would not be heading straight home. Thaleia had been the one to suggest that they flee west instead, towards the neighboring kingdom of Hiall. Hiall was a known ally of Kyoria, though separated from Kyoria itself by the antagonistic country of Ithcar. Cliodne had been in contact with the ruler of Hiall—Queen Therese—for the past several years through correspondence, though she had yet to visit the country in person due to the perceived danger of straying too close to the Ithcarian border. Despite their limited personal experience with Hiall, however, the sisters had been convinced that they would be able to find shelter within their ally country’s borders. Once they were safe in the Hiallan royal palace, they would then be able to send a message to their father or Eralie regarding the true nature of their circumstances.
As further incentive to adopt this plan, the route to Hiall through the forest presented by far the quickest way to escape Deturus’s borders. Where it had taken the princesses’ first travelling party nearly a month to reach the Deturian palace on horseback from the Kyoria-Deturus border, the journey to Hiall from the royal Deturian castle was at most a week and a half using the same form of transportation.
Unfortunately, making their escape from Deturus on horseback was not a viable option, as the sisters had decided to err on the side of caution in order to avoid recapture. It had been determined that stealing a mount for Raia for their journey would garner far more attention than they could afford to gain. To make matters worse, the same had also been decided in regards to the swan sisters’ flying—apart from their initial escape, of course. However way they looked at their situation, the princesses could not deny that the sight of five large swans flying daily over the forest was bound to draw the gazes of passing travellers and villagers.
And thus the swans were grounded. They were forced to waddle alongside Raia on the thin forest trail, and as a result, the pace of their travel was laboriously slow.
Cliodne led the way, her white tail feathers swaying gently from side to side. Having explored all the possible avenues for their escape over the past several weeks, Cliodne was the one most familiar with the route the princesses had agreed upon, and was serving as navigator for the little group. She also determined the times throughout the day that they rested, signaling each break to her sisters with a definitive honk.
Behind Cliodne waddled Callia and Petra, both of whom had been placed in charge of finding nourishment for Raia, though in very different ways. Here, Callia’s previous lessons in identifying edible plants were used to their advantage. At several occasions throughout the day, Callia broke away from the group to seek out a sprig of burdock or other edible flora in the forest underbrush, though she did not wander more than a couple of feet away at any given time. Returning to the group with the plant clasped tightly but carefully in her beak, she would drop whatever she had found into Raia’s hand, waggling her tail feathers in a manner almost reminiscent of a dog. Raia smiled and accepted each offering from her sister gratefully, stroking her sister’s head in thanks.
Petra, however, wandered much farther afield than her elder sister in searching for food for Raia, often disappearing from their sight completely for fifteen to twenty minutes at the very least. Raia gave a silent sigh of relief each time her sister came back into view carrying whatever pastry or legume she had managed to snatch that time. Though Raia accepted these offerings with just as much gratefulness as she did Callia’s, she could not help but wonder each time where Petra had managed to find the food. Was she raiding kitchens or gardens in the area? Raia strongly suspected that to be the case, and could not help feeling guilt at the thought that she was eating stolen food.
Thaleia also tended to stray from her sisters so that she could scout the surrounding area for possible dangers, whether human or animal. Though this task had once again been agreed upon by the princesses prior to their escape from Soran’s palace, Raia’s heart remained lodged in her throat every time her twin sister vanished from sight. Her heartbeat only returned to normal when Thaleia once again returned to her view.
Raia herself walked slowly behind the group of swans in order to check her pace, with Eurielle almost constantly underfoot. The youngest swan princess seemed unable and unwilling to detach herself from Raia’s skirts—a clinginess that Raia had not seen in her sister since Eurielle had been a very small child. As the artistic ones of the group, Raia and Eurielle had shared a bond growing up that almost rivaled that between Raia and Thaleia. Still, Raia felt slightly worried at her sister’s newfound attachment; she was afraid that such a reversion in behavior was evidence perhaps of a more serious deterioration as well.
Not to mention that having Eurielle walking so close made it difficult for Raia to continue her knitting. On several occasions already, the swan had nearly become tangled in her skirts and as a result, Raia was now constantly wary of tripping over her sister. Yet despite this and other newfound difficulties in their journey through the Deturian forest, Raia kept her eyes fixed on her knitting needles. She only glanced up from her work throughout the day to occasionally check that her path was clear, and that her sisters were still waddling doggedly on in front of her. She ducked reflexively under low hanging branches that the swans had not even noticed. She hopped over small puddles through which her sisters had seemed happy enough to trod. Thorns snagged and mud splattered on her skirts as she walked.
And through it all, Raia knit.