Feathered Chapter 21
Raia had long lost track of the number of days since she and her sisters escaped the Deturian palace and Soran’s clutches. She knew that it had certainly been longer than a week since their grand escape—perhaps even more than two weeks. The days and nights had merged together in her mind from hours spent walking and knitting and stumbling through the forest. Raia was certain that she must look a right sight from tripping over roots and sloshing through countless mud puddles on a daily basis. Her feet had already developed blisters on top of blisters, and her shoes—the sturdiest boots that she owned—were all but falling apart. Her dress was stained with the forest, despite all of her efforts to wash it—and herself—in the river by which they had camped only the night before. Though Raia still tied her hair back daily in her usual chignon, it was also getting harder and harder for her to untangle the strands with her fingers.
Her swan sisters, of course, did not have the same problem, as their grooming consisted mainly of ensuring that their feathers remained white and clean. The swans’ appearances did not reflect the difficulties of their forest journey to the same extent as Raia’s; it was a distinction that Raia found herself envying on more than one occasion, particularly as she struggled to wash her hair without soap or shampoo of any kind. Yet despite the challenge that maintaining her personal hygiene presented, Raia would have given anything to ensure that such minor issues were the extent of her worries.
But her days on the road were also filled with the never-ending fear of discovery—and of their subsequent recapture. Raia and her sisters had initially gone five days without seeing another human soul, but by the sixth day, it was clear that Soran and his men had at last realized that the princesses were not, in fact, on any of the roads heading back to Kyoria. Deturian search parties could now be heard or spotted in the forest nearby, though they had yet to actually cross the sisters’ paths on the tiny forest trail that the princesses had been following. The game trail that Raia and her sisters had been using to guide them was all but deserted apart from themselves. Clearly, Cliodne had done her research well in selecting their route out of Deturus.
Still, Raia saw the presence of Soran’s soldiers in the forest as excuse enough for the princesses to be more cautious both during the day and at night. The smallest trace of guards in their vicinity was enough to send Raia and the swans scrambling for cover, so that their presence would not be detected. As the scout, Thaleia would honk once at her sisters to signal that soldiers were moving around nearby. The sisters would stop walking immediately, ducking into bushes and up trees in order to hide themselves from sight. Raia all but stopped breathing in these moments, waiting with bated breath for Thaleia’s low hiss—the signal that the strangers had moved on and that the coast was clear. While Raia regretted the time lost traveling during these short interludes, she nevertheless welcomed the respite they offered from the incessant walking.
She did not, however, welcome the break from knitting that was forced upon her. These mad scrambles for cover in the forest underbrush were among the only times of the day when Raia would stop knitting, but only because she was terrified that the low clatter of her needles would attract the attention of the people from whom they were hiding. She regarded each and every pause with unbridled impatience, eager to resume her work.
She needed to resume her work.
Raia felt the pressure of this task like a heavy weight on her shoulders—a burden that she was forced to bear silently to fulfill the terms of the ritual. She felt as though words were bottling up inside of her, desperate to be released, but time and again she bit them down. Her sisters were counting on her to finish the shawls to break their curse, and she was determined not to let them down. But Raia’s vow was complicated by these new forced pauses in her work. Being in constant motion had already slowed down the progress she was making in knitting the third shawl, and she chafed at the addition of further delays.
An even more pressing concern was Raia’s rapidly decreasing supply of nettle yarn. Prior to their escape, Raia and her sisters had tried to spin as much nettle yarn as possible with the hope that their supply would be enough to create all five shawls. As Raia knit the third of the five shawls, however, she kept a worried eye on the nettle yarn still remaining. She was doubtful that the yarn that she had left would stretch to complete all of the necessary garments, and Raia was at a loss as to what she could so should she run out. While she was sure that there would be a plethora of nettles to be found in the forest, she no longer had a spinning wheel with which to spin them into yarn. Furthermore, Raia could no longer count on her sisters to help her in spinning more nettle yarn, given their permanent avian state.
In fact, she was beginning to doubt whether they would even be able to aid her in gathering nettles as they had before. As the days passed by, Raia found herself worrying more and more about her sisters. She suspected that their prolonged removal from the magic lake—and the subsequent rupture of their nightly human transformations—was beginning to take a toll on their minds. Raia noticed with fear and dismay that they had begun to act increasingly less like princesses—or even less like humans at all. Her sisters were now behaving more and more like… swans.
Cliodne at the front of the party hesitated every time they came to a new crossroads in their path, where previously she had been so certain of the route that they were on. Raia worried that her elder sister was starting to forget the maps that she had so painstakingly memorized in the weeks of planning their escape. She held her breath every time Cliodne paused, letting it out again only after the new path had been chosen. Raia could only hope that she and her sisters were still on the correct path to reach Hiall; she had no way of knowing exactly where they were, and she mentally kicked herself for not having brought a map with them. She and her sisters had been so confident in Cliodne’s ability to navigate them out of Deturus that they had thought stealing a map to be an unnecessary risk. None of the princesses had ever imagined that Cliodne’s lightning-quick mind and photographic memory might become unavailable after her prolonged experience as a swan.
How Raia regretted that decision now.
Eurielle was also slowing down the party even more, for she had seemingly lost all sense of urgency to escape from Deturus. No longer constantly under Raia’s feet, the youngest and smallest swan often lagged behind the group, waddling slowly and lazily as if she had all the time in the world. On several occasions, Eurielle had stopped walking entirely, plopping herself down in the middle of the path and tucking her head under her wing as if about to take a nap. She had had to be nudged awake once more by Raia and then pushed forward a couple of steps before she could be urged to continue walking.
Raia found that her sisters also seemed less cognizant of her presence among them—or at the very least, they seemed to have forgotten that her needs were different than their own. Neither Callia nor Petra sought out food for Raia as often as they had before, and what food they did bring her was increasingly more in the line of their own diet—pond reeds and berries inedible for humans, and once, a whole beak full of crickets. Raia had only barely refrained from screaming aloud when Petra had dropped the insects into her hand, with the same look of pride on her avian face that she wore every time she brought Raia something to eat. Raia could still feel the sensation of the tiny legs crawling over her palm, and she shuddered at the thought. Following this cricket incident, she had taken to foraging for her own food rather than relying on her sisters’ offerings, which took even more time away from her knitting.
To make matters worse, the group of travellers was forced to stop more and more often by the sound of Thaleia alerting them of danger in the vicinity—even when there was none to be found. Thaleia had begun sounding the alert for increasingly innocuous reasons, the most recent being the presence of a lost tomcat in the forest nearby. The swans had immediately bunched together in a protective circle, their necks outstretched and bobbing threateningly as they hissed. Though a confused Raia had managed to shoo the cat away with a simple wave of her hand, it had taken several minutes before her sisters had calmed their fear enough to continue on their way.
In fact, the swans’ behavior at the last several alerts had provided Raia with a new area of concern. Rather than hiding in the bushes and trees as the sisters had previously agreed upon for their strategy, the swans now invariably circled together to face the perceived threat head-on. Though these last few alerts had all been false alarms involving no real danger, Raia did not like to think what would happen should she and her sisters encounter one of Soran’s men now. She had a horrible feeling that her sisters’ new defensive strategy would make it incredibly difficult for her to ensure that they all evaded notice. In truth, Raia doubted her ability to hide five swans from sight when the swans themselves seemed more inclined to fight.
The only silver lining that Raia could find was that the pain that her sisters felt at dawn and at nightfall seemed to be dissipating. While the swans still keened and hissed at those times of the day, their frantic writhing had diminished to a simple shaking. It was as though the deep agony that her sisters had felt previously during their faux-transformation had lessened to a gentler ache. Though Raia was relieved that her sisters were now spared the worst of their daily torture, she also regarded this change as yet another sign of the curse worsening still more.
And it frightened her.
What frightened Raia—and saddened her—even further was that her sisters no longer seemed to desire the same physical comfort as they did before—the same physical comfort of which she still felt in dire need. She had come to cherish the feeling of her sisters’ avian bodies nestled beside her at night, their heads and sometimes even their wings spread wide over her. And then several nights prior, Petra had tucked her head under her wing and slept with her body barely grazing Raia’s skirts.
Raia’s heart broke a little.
The next night, Cliodne and Callia slept in the same position, heads tucked and wings close to their sides. Only Eurielle and Thaleia still nestled in close to Raia, each using her leg to pillow their heads. Raia drew comfort from the contact, but she missed the warmth of her other sisters.
That night, Raia choked back a sob as Eurielle curled her neck and placed her head under her wing like the other swans. Raia did not dare look down at Thaleia by her side—the last of the swans to fall asleep. Her hands trembled in their knitting when she felt Thaleia begin to settle in beside her hip. Raia’s eyes were misty with unshed tears as she waited, half dreading what her twin sister would do.
Thaleia stretched out her wings wide before pulling them in close to her body. She wiggled once to make herself comfortable. Then she lowered her head onto Raia’s leg, and closed her eyes in sleep.
Raia wept silent tears of relief.