Feathered Chapter 23
Raia heard Thaleia’s warning honk alerting them to the presence of danger only a split second before the sound of cantering hooves echoed on the path behind them. Though the cadence told her that it was but a single horseman approaching, Raia’s heart clenched with fear at the thought that one of Soran’s men had at last caught up to them. It was the moment that Raia had been dreading. As she had feared, her sisters had taken up defensive positions at the sound of Thaleia’s signal, circling together and hissing as they had been doing for the last week or so. Raia would have no time to herd her sisters into the underbrush before the cantering horseman was upon them.
She was ducking into the shadows herself when she realized an even greater danger: her sisters were standing in the very center of the path. ‘They’ll be trampled!’ she realized in horror.
Raia had but a moment to act. She leaped out of the shadows and back onto the forest path, placing herself in front of her swan sisters just as a huge gray horse cantered around the curve with his rider. Raia threw her arms open wide to block as much of the path—and her sisters—as she could. She heard the startled shout of the rider and the frightened whinny of his horse, and she scrunched her eyes shut tightly, bracing herself for what seemed to her an inevitable impact.
The impact never came.
Raia opened one eye slightly, peeking out from under her eyelashes at the horseman. She let out a silent sigh of relief. The rider had managed to stop his horse mere inches from where Raia stood, and he was now trying to calm his mount. As the stallion reared in protest, Raia felt a small, unwilling pang of guilt for startling the animal so thoroughly.
“Easy, boy!” The rider soothed, his deep voice far gentler than Raia had expected to hear. “Easy!”
Raia’s immediate instinct was to take advantage of the horseman’s distraction and make her escape unnoticed. She lowered her arms and glanced around for somewhere to run. Then she hesitated, looking over her shoulder at where her swan sisters were still bunched together in their defensive circle. Her heart sank. Though she might make it alone, she would never be able to outrun the horseman with her sisters in toe. And she couldn’t—wouldn’t—leave without her sisters.
Raia turned to look once more at the horse and his rider, her eyes as cold as blocks of ice. She vowed silently not to make it easy for the man to return her to Soran. She flexed her fingers, preparing to scratch them deeply into the man’s face as soon as he tried to grab her. She glanced quickly again at the group of swans, mentally willing them to help her attack as soon as the time was right.
‘Bite him!’ she thought fiercely, desperately hoping beyond hope that somehow, someway, one of her sisters at least would be able to read her thoughts and come to her aid should she require help.
The rider had regained control of his mount and had turned his attention to Raia.
“Well now!” he said, his voice soft and even, as though Raia had not just appeared from nowhere and startled his horse half to death. “You’re not what I expected to see, I can tell you that much.”
Raia straightened her shoulders and lifted her chin proudly. She flexed her fingers once more, hiding the action behind the cover of her skirts.
‘Aim for the eyes,’ she thought to herself, and felt a slight twinge of guilt at her sudden bloodthirstiness. Thaleia would be proud, she knew.
The man made no move to dismount, or even to approach closer to Raia and her swan sisters. He patted his horse on the neck affectionately. “Here I thought Undertow and I were the only ones to ever use this path. But it seems I was wrong. It wouldn’t be the first time, I suppose—or the last.”
Raia’s brow furrowed in confusion. Hadn’t he been following them? Wasn’t he trying to capture them? Wasn’t he one of Soran’s men?
The rider dismounted. Raia tensed at the action, then noticed the man’s clothes for the first time. A mere glance was enough to convince Raia of one thing: the rider was clearly not Deturian. His clothes were made from a material that Raia had never seen before, a loose blowy fabric that looked soft to the touch. Rather than the standard shirt and breeches that she had become accustomed to seeing on the Kyorian and Deturian guardsmen, the man wore a rather long tunic over a baggy pair of pants. He had no metal breastplate or chain mail, but rather wore leather armor over his tunic to protect his chest. Again, Raia had yet to see the like of such equipment.
Her shoulders relaxed somewhat, though she still remained on high alert. While the man may not be Deturian, he was still a stranger, and after events of recent past, Raia was disinclined to trust individuals with whom she was not already acquainted.
Not moving from her protective stance in front of her sisters, she studied the man standing before her on the path. Apart from his clothes, the man was of a darker complexion than the fairer-skinned Deturians. His shoulder-length hair was a deep brown, almost black in color, and was pulled back in a low ponytail. He had a handsome face, with a strong jaw and an aquiline nose that was just a tad too long. The strong features would have given his face a very serious appearance—possibly stern—had his expression not been so very amiable. His dark eyes crinkled at the corners with laugh lines as though he were well used to smiling. Even now, his lips twitched slightly, and Raia got the distinct impression that he was a bit amused by the near miss that they’d had.
‘Soran smiled often as well.’ Raia thought, tensing once more.
The man seemed to notice her unease. He stood with one hand resting on his horse’s neck, his eyes flickering between Raia and her sisters with a curious expression.
“Well,” he said slowly, “I suppose that I should apologize for coming so close to trampling you. I assure you—it was not intentional.”
Raia—of course—made no response. Had she even been allowed to speak, she had no clue what she would have said. Was he expecting her to apologize for jumping out and startling his horse? Truth be told, she couldn’t—and didn’t—regret her actions. She had no idea whether or not the man would have kept riding had she not stepped in his way, even to the point of trampling five swans under his horse’s feet.
The rider seemed slightly taken aback not to have been acknowledged at all in his apology. “Then again,” he said, his voice slightly dry. “It’s not every day that a woman nearly throws herself under my horse. And certainly not in order to save…” he paused slightly, his eyes falling once more on the bunch of swans hiding behind Raia’s skirts. “Are they…swans?”
He paused long enough that Raia knew he was waiting for her to answer his question. Raia said nothing.
The man seemed to be even more perplexed by her continued silence, but kept on speaking as though she had responded all the same. “You see, I’m not the best hand at identifying species of birds. It’s not really my forte.” He confessed in a conversational tone, then patted his horse’s neck again. “I’m more a horse-person myself. But excuse me, where are my manners? I’m Ayden.”
Ayden stepped forward slightly and made as if to bow once more, but at his forward movement towards Raia, the five feathered princesses burst into action. The swans emerged from behind Raia’s skirts and stood side-by-side to block the path, seeming to take offense at Ayden so much as approaching even one step closer to their sister. Their wings were spread wide and their beaks were open as they hissed in unison. The sight—and sound—of five full-grown swans coming at him threateningly seemed to give Ayden pause in his approach. He stopped immediately and bowed where he was, a deeper bow than the one he’d given previously.
Raia rested one of her hands on Thaleia’s head in a calming gesture of thanks. She, too, would rather the stranger keep his distance.
Ayden rose from his bow. “I’m Ayden.” He repeated, and then paused, clearly expecting once more for Raia to respond. When she didn’t, he pressed, “And you are?”
Raia could not stop the exasperated look from crossing her face. The man was evidently not going to accept her silence unless he believed it to be involuntary. She raised her hand and patted her throat gently. It took a few seconds, but at last she saw comprehension dawn on Ayden’s face, followed by a look of embarrassment. He inclined his head once more. “My apologies, my lady. I did not know that you were…that you…that you couldn’t speak.”
Raia shrugged—a gesture that was completely lost on Ayden, as his head was still lowered in his bow. Ayden straightened, his eyes appraising her appearance. “I take it from your clothing that you are not from this area.”
He gestured towards her dress, and Raia blushed slightly. Her gown was ripped and stained almost beyond recognition from weeks spent traipsing through the Deturian forest.
“And,” Ayden mused slowly. “From the direction you’re heading—and the one you’re coming from—I assume that you have just crossed the border from Deturus, and now you’re on your way to present yourself to the royal palace as is custom. Am I correct?”
Raia did not respond. Her mind was too busy processing the words ‘crossed the border’. Had she and her sisters made it out of Deturus and into Hiall without even realizing it? It certainly wasn’t impossible. After all, the boundary between Kyoria and Deturus had been very subtly marked. It seemed entirely likely that the Hiall-Deturus border could be marked just as subtly, and that Raia and her sisters had simply missed seeing the marker entirely.
Raia’s heart lightened at the thought. After weeks and weeks, they had finally escaped Deturus; they’d escaped from Soran’s grasp.
They had reached Hiall. Now all that was left was to reach the palace and present herself and her situation—their situation—to Queen Therese.
Her sisters shuffled their feet and honked softly among themselves, as though chattering to each other. They seemed to realize the significance of what Ayden was saying, and Raia was heartened by the idea that they could comprehend at least that much in their current avian state.
Raia patted Thaleia’s head again for lack of anything else to do, then turned to follow the path once more. After all, there was nothing to keep her standing there apart from the stranger, and it didn’t seem to her as though he really intended her any harm, or was even remotely aware of her original situation. That being the case, Raia doubted that this Ayden would attempt to stop her should she simply walk on with her sisters towards the Hiallan palace. More likely, she expected that he would continue on his way as well.
She and her sisters made to begin walking once more, and Raia’s hands instinctively took up their normal knitting positions. She was nearly finished with the third shawl, though it had taken her much longer to knit than the first two. She was confident that she’d have it done before reaching Queen Therese.
Raia paused a moment, her hands stopping their task as well. The swans—even Eurielle—were clearly not eager to stop again, especially not for the stranger. Thaleia hissed, her hackles already raised against the man. He took no notice as he approached a couple steps, leading his horse.
“At the rate you’re going,” he began conversationally. “It will take you at least a week to reach the castle on this path.”
Raia’s heart sank a little at the thought of another week of walking. Then she chided herself. Surely she and her sisters could handle another seven days. They had already been traveling for at least three times that length just to escape Deturus.
“But,” Ayden continued, patting his horse’s neck. “It is but a day and a half’s ride on horseback. Undertow would not mind carrying two for such a short trip.”
Raia looked at the horse. It was certainly a tempting offer, cutting their travel time by over half. Not to mention the miles of walking it would save her feet. And surely her sisters would be safe to fly again, now that they had left Deterus behind them…
Raia shook her head. Truth be told, she was not overly eager to gain a traveling companion—aside from her sisters, of course. Particularly not a male one. Raia could not help but feel suspicious of Ayden’s generous offer—a distrust that she attributed to her recent experiences with Soran. She didn’t know this man from Adam. Hiallan he might be, but how could she be sure that Ayden wasn’t Soran’s man after all? Or that he didn’t have some nefarious scheme in mind for her and her sisters? How did she know that he didn’t intend to lock her away as Soran had?
Ayden seemed slightly surprised at Raia’s refusal of his suggestion, but he recovered quickly.
“Well then,” he said, recovering quickly. “As we’re going in the same direction, perhaps I might walk with you a ways.” He took hold of his horse’s reins and made to lead his mount forward. Both Thaleia and Petra rose up high on their feet, spreading their wings wide and hissing at Ayden furiously. He paused uncertainly as if reconsidering his request.
Raia hid a smirk.
But Ayden simply shrugged. “Or walk near you a ways.” He amended with a look at her feathered guards—a look that was half-wary, half-amused. “This really is not the best area of the forest to be walking alone, even when you have such…fierce bodyguards.”
Raia could have sworn she saw all five of her sisters puff out their chests in pride at Ayden’s description of them as her bodyguards. She hid her dismay at his words. She couldn’t very well argue with the man, seeing as how she couldn’t speak to him at all. Neither could she really prevent him from walking on the same path that she and her sisters were following.
Raia was not entirely certain at first what response she should give him, but then she settled for giving him no response whatsoever. She simply turned her back on him once more and continued walking. The combined sound behind her of footsteps as well as hoofbeats told her that Ayden was following on foot, and was likely leading his horse behind him. Like it or not, she had a—what did one call a stowaway when on foot? Raia’s shoulders were tense, and she hated keeping her back to him. All the same, she was convinced that she would be in no real danger of attack from behind. Her conviction was due less to feeling an implacable trust in Ayden’s honesty—as trust him, she did not—than to the certainty that her swan sisters remained just as alert to his presence as she was. Raia had no doubt that if the man tried anything funny, or approached even a step too close to the group of princesses, her sisters—Thaleia especially—would make sure that he regretted his decision most heartedly.
A moment later, Thaleia herself confirmed Raia’s prediction, after Ayden strayed a little too near the princesses for the swan’s comfort. Raia’s twin responded to his trespass with a mighty lunge, and a violent bite to his right leg.
“Ow!” he cried in pain and surprise. “Can’t you call off the attack birds?”
Raia’s only response was a shrug. She couldn’t—and she wouldn’t. The stranger would just have to learn the hard way to keep his distance.
Another “ow!” sounded from behind and Raia smirked, her eyes still fixed on her knitting. Yes, he would learn the hard way, indeed. Her sisters would see to that.