Nashira sat on the highest branch of Talltree, squinting into the dawn sky where specks shifted against glowing peach cloud. From such a vast distance the tiny blemishes looked like a flock of birds, but as they neared, details emerged. Silhouetted, slender figures. Hair shifting in the breeze. And of course, wide, fluttering wings.
Nashira never wearied of watching her fellow fairies return from night gatherings, their cluster rising then lowering in unison, saving energy by working with the wind. They travelled slowly thanks to bulging bags that hung from their shoulders. When Nashira had been a gatherer, she’d judged the success of a venture on how deeply her shoulder ached on return. It had been a long time since she’d felt that satisfying pain.
As the fairies’ silhouettes dissolved into glinting gold armour and brightly coloured wings, Nashira rose to her feet. It was time to go. If she could see the patterns on her brethren’s wings, then they’d be able to see her details just as easily. But the grey, flaking excuse for wings drooping from her back weren’t assets to display with pride.
It had been a year since Nashira had contracted Dust Disease. The illness had arrived after a fierce, hot wind that destroyed plants and coated the forest in a strange dust. The forest recovered when the rains arrived, and at first it seemed the dust had washed away. But it had only moved, choosing a new target. Fairy wings.
While Dust Disease picked victims randomly and wasn’t contagious, Nashira preferred to avoid healthy fairies. The sight of her withered wings made many folk uncomfortable, and each time she witnessed their unease it killed a little of her heart.
Concentrating, she managed to move her wings. A hindwing twitched. A forewing fluttered weakly. She tucked all four wings against her back then dashed along the branch in the direction of Talltree’s trunk. Each stride caused her wings to shift, and the movement sent pain stabbing down her spine. It was tempting to grow still and fear-frozen, but the breeze carried voices on it. The returning fairies were close. With teeth clenched, Nashira hurried on.
Then behind her came the patter of feet, fairies landing on the branch. With no time to scramble down the trunk, Nashira placed her back against the bark, hiding her wings from the other fairies’ sight. As they made their way towards her, Nashira stood in what she hoped would pass for a casual stance.
The gatherers were chatting as they walked the stretch of the branch, but when their eyes fell on Nashira, they fell silent and still. They stood bunched together, staring.
Nashira breathed through nerves. She was sure the gatherers couldn’t see her wings, but they were probably picturing them, flaking brown, ugly and useless. Even from a distance Nashira recognised the barely masked disgust on some faces, and horror and pity on others. Then she spotted a smile.
“Nashira, hello!” Miram, Talltree’s best armour maker jumped up and down and squealed. “It’s good to see you, Nashi.” She broke from the huddle and skipped along the branch, stopping in front of Nashira. “It’s been so long since I last saw you. How are you?”
How was she? Really? Her wings were dying. Still, Miram was at least willing to speak to her. That counted for something.
Nashira dragged a smile onto her face. “I’m well, thank you.” Dropping her eyes to hide the truth, her gaze fell on Miram’s bag. “What did you gather last night? Moon flowers? Owl eggs?” No. Night gathering at that time of year could only mean one thing. Her heart fluttered. “Dragon scales?”
Everyone who lived on Talltree prized dragon scales above all other items. They made the strongest, most light weight body armour and the sharpest swords. No brownie spear or hawk talon could penetrate dragon armour, and not even rock-monsters could withstand the edge of a dragon scale blade. And the best time for fairies to collect scales was during the dragon mating season.
Like everything a dragon did, the mating ritual was savage. A fairy bold enough to approach a recently mated dragon could salvage scales knocked loose during the ritual. Until the dust took her wings, Nashira had been a brilliant scale collector.
“We had a most successful night,” Miram said, patting her bag. “I found a collection of tail scales that had fallen from a dragon nest. Though small, they’re lovely colours. They’ll make wonderful wrist armour. But Wurren had the greatest find.”
Wurren. His name was enough to send nerves scooting through Nashira in a thousand directions. Spotting him amongst the watching fairies weakened her knees.
“Wurren,” Miram called over her shoulder. “Come show Nashi what you collected.”
Wurren didn’t move. With eyes shock-wide, he stared across the space dividing himself and Nashira. She had a feeling he would have remained that way but the fairy beside him gave him a rough nudge that made him stumble forward. With his bag clutched in front of him like a shield, Wurren moved slowly and rigidly along the branch. His obvious discomfort hurt Nashira worse than any pain her wings could inflict because she and Wurren had once been inseparable. But thanks to the Dust Disease, for almost a year they’d barely seen each other, let alone spoken.
As Wurren neared, he snapped his emerald wings closed. Maybe he thought the sight of their beauty might break Nashira to pieces. No wonder they’d once been such a perfect couple. They’d understood each other exactly.
He stopped in front of her. “Good morning, Nashira.” His stiff politeness stung. “What brings you all the way to the landing branch?”
Longing? Jealousy? A twisted need to torture herself?
“I roam Talltree every morning,” Nashira said with forced poise. “It was just coincidence that brought us here at the same time.” Then to shift the focus away from her, she jutted her chin at Wurren’s carry bag. “What wonderful treasure did you find last night?”
Wurren opened his bag, revealing a stack of large, scarlet scales.
Nashira whistled. Not only was red the rarest colour, it was unusual for such large scales to come away from a dragon’s hide. “What a find! What will you do with such beauties?”
Wurren shook his head as he stroked their glossy surface. “I have no idea. How am I supposed to decide the best way to use such a special collection?”
“They’d be perfect for body armour,” Miram said.
“Of course you’d say that,” Wurren replied. “You’re an armourer. But the scales are too colourful. If I wore red armour in a brownie battle, the brownies would die laughing.”
Nashira smirked. “Quite a powerful weapon then.”
“Except,” Wurren said, “my fellow fairies might also succumb to the joke.”
Miram pouted. “I didn’t say they’d make armour suitable for you, Wurren. But I’m sure there are many other fairies who’d love a scarlet breast plate.” She toed the bark beneath her feet. “Armour looks delightful when it matches a fairy’s wing colour, don’t you think?” With her face set in innocence, she opened her wings a little, revealing a hint of vivid crimson.
Nashira’s insides curdled, not from the beauty of Miram’s wings, but from the way Wurren smiled crookedly as his eyes roamed all over them. He used to save that look for her.
As if realising how see-through he’d become, Wurren hid his pleasure with a concerned frown that he planted on Nashira. “Should you be up here with your ill health?”
While his words were gentle, they still hurt. Did she really look so poorly?
His frown deepened. “How did you even get up here without the ability to fly?”
He stood on his toes, trying to peek at Nashira’s wings, but she pressed her back harder against the tree trunk. The pressure worsened the ache that was her constant companion, but she breathed through it. Better some pain than the shame of Wurren seeing her hideous, useless wings.
“I have arms,” she said, recapturing his gaze. “Strong arms. I could climb around this tree far longer than you could fly. Besides, I’m quite well and I’ll remain so. Healer Lich is making great progress on a cure for Dust Disease.”
“He is?” Miram gave a little clap. “That’s wonderful to hear, isn’t it, Wurren?”
“Of course, it is… if it’s true.” Wurren’s eyes narrowed and he searched Nashira’s face. She met his stare but feared he could see past her eyes to the grim truth that Lich was failing.
“We’re so glad you’re feeling better, Nashi,” Miram said. “You’ll be flying with us again in no time.”
“Yes.” Nashira clenched her teeth, forming a rigid smile. “Well, I mustn’t keep you.”
Wurren returned the smile but it looked strange mixed with his worried frown. “It’s been nice seeing you, Nashira. Really. I…”
“Yes? What is it, Wurren?” I miss you? I still want to be with you? She held her breath.
“Ah, nothing.” With the shake of his head, Wurren hefted his bag, moved to the edge of the branch and stepped into the air. Spreading his wings, he descended slowly between branches and disappeared.
Nashira’s spirits sank with him.
One at a time, the other gatherers followed until only Miram remained. “It really has been lovely to see you, Nashi. And I mean it, I really can’t wait to fly with you again.” She hid a chuckle behind a hand. “Gatherings are dull without you convincing us to take silly chances.” With a last smile, Miram stepped gracefully off the branch. She spread her perfect, scarlet wings and floated after Wurren.
Even after the gatherers disappeared from view, Nashira continued leaning on the tree. Every nerve ending in her back sizzled, but she refused to move. Given time, maybe the pain would hurt worse than the loss of Wurren’s love, her friendships and her freedom, but she doubted it.