Feathered Chapter 27
On the third morning, Raia was packing up her few belongings to begin walking again when she realized that something was different. She stiffened, glancing around the clearing nervously. There, Ayden was kicking dirt over the campfire in an attempt to extinguish the still glowing coals. That couldn’t be counted as out of the ordinary. There were no odd sounds in the vicinity—not anything she could hear, at least. And if there were anything nearby, Raia was certain that her sisters would have made a fuss long before she would have sensed it, anyway. But they remained oblivious to any disturbances, scratching at the ground and snatching up weeds in their beaks. So what was the problem?
Then it hit her.
Her gaze swept over the swans wandering the campsite and she counted them mentally. One, two, three, four...
Raia’s mouth dropped open in horror. Where was Cliodne?
She dropped her pouch and spun around, looking wildly in all directions for any sign of her fifth sister. Why were the other swans not as worried as she was by Cliodne’s disappearance? Had they really not noticed? Or didn’t they even care? Panic filled her chest. Where was she?
“Looking for something?”
Ayden’s voice sounded amused, and Raia turned to face him with her face filled with anger. Did he find her panic funny? Then she followed his gaze, and her legs buckled under her in relief.
There was Cliodne, perched on the saddle of Ayden’s horse and looking for all the world as though she had always been there. Raia nearly cried at the sight of her. Her worry had been brief, but intense nevertheless.
Ayden stood with his hands on his hips. His lips quirked to the side as he regarded the swan with an expression that was highly amused. He glanced back at Raia.
“I think at least one of your bodyguards might be warming up to me, don’t you think?” He commented with a small laugh.
Raia’s smile was faint, and her mind was racing. She knew her sisters better than anyone. While she knew that Ayden spoke the truth in regards to how they—and she—were slowly coming to trust him, she could also read between the lines, and knew that Cliodne’s choice of perch was anything but coincidental. She recognized the colossal hint that her sister was trying to send her, and had to admit to experiencing profound relief at this evidence of her elder sister’s blessing.
Raia picked up the pouch she’d dropped and walked over to the horse, stopping only when she’d drawn level with Undertow’s stirrups. Cliodne tilted her white head to look down from her perch on the saddle, and then jumped gracefully down to the ground, fluttering her wings to keep balance. Raia turned to look at where Ayden stood watching her with a bemused expression on his face. She touched the saddle lightly with one hand, and then placed the other on her own chest.
Ayden looked puzzled for a moment, but then comprehension dawned in his eyes.
“We’d reach the castle mid-afternoon if we rode. On foot, it would take another couple of days.” He told her. Raia nodded, and then patted the saddle decisively. She—they—would ride.
For a moment, Raia thought that Ayden looked almost disappointed at the idea, but his expression quickly cleared. He smiled at her just as cheerfully as ever, and walked to stand beside the mount as well. He looked apprehensive, and Raia suspected that he was expecting her swan sisters—or more accurately, Thaleia—to attack him at any moment for daring to approach so close to her. But that morning, Ayden remained unscathed.
Ayden stepped right up beside Raia and for the first time, she realized how tall he was. He wasn’t a giant by any stretch of the word, but Raia still had to crane her neck back a bit in order to hold his gaze. She hadn’t noticed before, but his eyes were a rather lovely shade of cocoa brown. There was an unreadable expression in their depths as he looked at her—a curious expression, as though a puzzling revelation had only just occurred to him in that moment. Raia felt a strange fluttering sensation deep in her chest that she couldn’t remember ever experiencing before.
Ayden tilted his head towards the horse. “Shall I help you up?” he asked her, his voice soft. Raia felt a moment of indecision, then of panic. Was he simply talking about giving her a leg up, or was he planning on lifting her into the saddle, as some of the Kyorian guards had occasionally done? Truth be told, Raia was not certain of being able to handle the latter option; she felt a nervous fear at the idea of Ayden carrying her, even if it were only to lift her onto the horse’s back.
She shook her head, smiling slightly in an attempt to lighten her refusal of his offer. Again, Raia thought she caught a look of disappointment cross Ayden’s face. She dismissed the idea, and made to mount up onto the horse. Mounting Undertow on her own was an easier task than what she was expecting, as the ripped state of her dress prevented her skirts from becoming tangled around her legs. Once she was firmly settled in the saddle, Ayden mounted as well to sit behind her on the horse’s back. He reached his hands to either side of her to take the reins, encircling her body with his arms. Raia felt her face heat slightly at their proximity. To her, he smelled not of the forest of which she was becoming quite tired, but rather of the smell of the leather armor he always wore. She had to admit that she found the scent quite pleasant. Her face heated even more, if that was possible. It felt as though she had stuck her face close to a campfire.
Ayden kicked the horse first into a trot, and then into a slow, lumbering canter. Raia gripped the horse tightly with her knees. She was unused to the sensation of riding with her feet hanging loosely by the horse’s side, rather than resting in the stirrups. She glanced behind her and past Ayden’s face, so close to her own, craning her neck to watch her sisters. The swans rose into the air with joyful honks, flapping their wings eagerly as they lifted higher and higher into the sky. Raia had a moment’s panic. What if they should leave, just fly off and disappear from her sight, never to be seen again? What would she do then?
But as always, the swan sisters seemed to be drawn to accompany Raia, and kept pace above her as the horse cantered on. Though they were not actually traveling at Undertow’s top speed, Raia marveled at how quickly they were covering ground. After weeks of walking at a snail’s pace—or rather, a swan’s pace—riding on horseback seemed to positively swallow the ground underneath them. Her body adjusted easily to the rhythmic motion of the horse, and she welcomed the refreshingly brisk breeze that caressed her face. Raia felt a bit sheepish. Had she not been so suspicious, they could have been riding like this several days ago, and probably would have already reached the Hiallan palace by then.
Raia looked up at her sisters flying far above them. The swans were certainly enjoying this change in their routine as well; they swooped in large loop-the-loops, wove in and out of the clouds, and dive-bombed each other in play. Raia smiled at the sight. She suspected that the endless walking had been much harder on her sisters than it had been for her. They had been capable of flying without being able to capitalize on their ability—at least, not while there had still been a risk of being spotted, and subsequently recaptured by Soran’s men. Now, they were free to spread their wings and fly as they wished. Their joy in this newfound freedom was palpable, and Raia’s heart lightened at the sight.
The only downside that Raia found was that she could no longer knit while they traveled—not that she didn’t try, of course. But however smooth the rhythm of the horse’s movements appeared to be, her hands were still jostled a little too much for her to adequately control the motions of her needles. After her third dropped stitch on the same row, Raia gave up all attempts. She tucked away the unfinished shawl, and tried to simply enjoy the ride in the fresh morning air.
Raia picked up her knitting again when the group stopped for their midday meal, which consisted of dried jerky once more. Even after three days of eating the same fare, she still relished the taste of the protein. Ayden, however, seemed more than apathetic as to the flavor, and Raia suspected that he was already dreaming of the moment when he would again be able to taste fresh food. She was surprised, therefore, when he appeared reticent to continue on their way immediately after they finished eating.
“Might as well let your bodyguards eat a bit longer,” he told Raia, his voice casual. He leaned his back up against a tree and stretched his legs out straight in front of him. Raia glanced at her sisters with raised eyebrows. All but one—Thaleia—had already finished foraging for their lunch, and were nestled on the ground. Callia and Petra sat grooming their feathers with their beaks, while Eurielle had her head tucked under her wing, and looked in serious danger of falling asleep then and there. Ayden followed her gaze, and then looked at her with a sheepish expression.
“Or we could get going now.” He admitted, sitting upright and then rising to his feet in one smooth motion. He held out a hand to Raia and, slightly surprised, she took it. Once on her feet, she busied her hands—and her eyes—by stuffing her knitting away once more, eager to avoid Ayden’s gaze.
Ayden adjusted the stirrups on Undertow’s saddle while Raia herded together her swan sisters. Eurielle, she had to nudge awake with her foot. In a matter of moments, all six princesses—swan and human—were awake and ready to travel on. Already mounted, Ayden held out his hand and pulled Raia up into the saddle in front of him. The swans lifted around them into the air, and the party was off once more.
The sun was still high in the sky when they crested the last hill and Ayden brought the horse to a stop. Raia caught her breath in amazement. Sprawled before them was a huge city, full of buildings with spiky roofs and winding streets crowded with moving figures. In the center of the city was an enormous palace with a domed roof made of what looked like solid gold. The roof was dazzling in the afternoon sun. Light sparkled off the exterior and for a moment, Raia was blinded by the reflection in her eyes.
The Hiallan palace. It had to be.
At any given moment, Raia expected Ayden to stop the horse to let her off, so that he could continue on his way towards his home while she walked on to the palace. However, this was not the case. Ayden kept them riding at a slow walk right down the main thoroughfare, as if he were intending on escorting Raia to the palace personally. Raia had no voice with which to tell him that this was unnecessary—kind of him, certainly, but unnecessary.
Fingers pointed as they rode the horse into the city. Raia was not surprised that they were drawing so much attention; after all, her sisters still lingered above them, following Raia like trained birds. She had a feeling that very few people in the world—let alone in Hiall—had ever seen a party that was composed almost entirely of swans.
Raia was slightly surprised, however, by the attention that Ayden seemed to be attracting from these same people. Many of the citizens that they passed smiled broadly at the sight of him, waving to him in a friendly greeting, and sometimes blowing a kiss. Ayden returned many of these gestures good-naturedly, and Raia could only assume that he was very well-known—and well-liked—in his home city, as nearly everyone seemed to recognize him.
“Good to see you, Your Highness!”
Raia started at the shout and her eyes scanned the crowds of people for the person who had recognized her. Yet she saw no familiar faces. Then she realized that the shout had been directed not at her, but at Ayden.
Raia looked back over her shoulder at Ayden, her shock registering clearly on her face. Ayden caught her gaze and smiled.
“You never asked.” He told her, his voice sounding a bit mischievous. Her look turned stern, Ayden’s lips quirked to the side a bit as he remembered her apparent muteness. “Oh. Right.”
Raia turned to face forward once more, but her eyes saw nothing of the city streets before her. Ayden was royalty? But that wasn’t possible. From everything she’d heard, the Hiallan royal family had always been similar to her own; Queen Therese and the king consort had only ever had daughters—three of them, to be precise. All three were much older than Raia and her own sisters, and as of six months ago, none of the three had yet been married.
As they neared the palace, Raia’s gaze fixed on the crest of arms emblazoned in gold on the palace gates. It looked nothing like the pictures of the Hiallan crest that she’d seen in books; instead of the Hiallan pine tree, the crest depicted a rearing steed, surrounded by spiky ocean waves. Raia’s eyes widened, and her mouth fell open in horror. She recognized that emblem, and she knew exactly what it meant. They weren’t in Hiall.
They were in Ithcar.