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.
Nashira was as strong a climber as she boasted, proficient in using the wrinkles in the tree bark as handles and steps. Even so, the climb down took ages. Every time she came across a fellow fairy, she threw herself against the nearest branch or tuft of leaves to hide her wings. By the time she reached the branch that held the healing hollow, her jaw hurt from fake smiling, her arm muscles ached from the climb and her wings throbbed, sending lightning bolts through her neck, shoulders and spine.
Hunched and shaking, she crouched and dropped through the hole in the hollow branch.
Thanks to fireflies that dashed and dived inside hanging glass cages, Nashira could see all the way to the end of the long, narrow space. Nests weaved from soft grasses, feathers and flower petals scattered the area, the flickering gold light capturing the arms and legs of the fairies sleeping within. The gentle light also illuminated the dust hovering in the air. It danced like snow, thickest in the areas closest to the fairies’ flaking wings.
The dust shifted suddenly as Healer Lich appeared from a shadowy corner and zig-zagged between nests, marching towards Nashira.
“Where have you been?” His sharp words ripped through the silent space, startling those who’d been sleeping. As he reached Nashira, he took her shoulders and spun her around to study her wings. He sucked air through his teeth then spun her to face him again. “Your condition has worsened. You’ve been overexerting yourself.”
Nashira couldn’t meet the healer’s eyes. As the oldest fairy in Talltree, Lich was also the wisest. When the body grew old, the brain grew bigger. There was no point lying to him.
“I was on the landing branch again.”
She tensed, expecting a lecture, but Lich’s anger dissolved.
He gave her shoulder a quick pat. “I’ll make a potion for the pain. Get to your nest.”
Nashira hated being ordered to her nest. Nests were for sleeping, not for the wasting of days. But too tired to argue, she dragged her feet towards the far end of the room.
As she passed the other nests, her heart ached. Not so long ago she’d been almost alone in the hollow, but now every nest held sickly fairies. Some had grey, flaking wings just like hers, while others had no wings at all. Bandages covered small stumps on their backs, but nothing could cover their misery.
A young fairy, Eta, momentarily met Nashira’s eyes. She was barely seven years from her cocoon, yet she sat on the edge of her mother’s nest attempting to spoon pureed seed into her mouth. Eta’s mother had lost her wings a week earlier and had yet to even speak let alone willingly eat.
It was a common occurrence amongst the wingless. Few fully overcame the emotional loss of their wings. Even the ones who recovered and left the hollow remained out of sight and—Nashira was ashamed to admit—mostly out of mind. It was easier not to think of them. Thoughts of the wingless gave her sleepless nights. As she passed Eta, she attempted an encouraging smile, but the youngster was too busy focusing on her mother to notice.
Reaching her nest, Nashira collapsed into it. She pressed her face into the softness and breathed in the scents of the forest. With the loss of flight, a nest was the only way she’d ever experience the world beyond the tree again.
“You’re still alive then?”
Nashira lifted her head to see Caph resting on his elbows in the nest beside hers. Dust speckled his unusually dark hair, making him look like he was greying.
“Although ‘alive’ might be a generous term for your current state,” he added as he looked her up and down.
Nashira smiled through her clenched teeth. “I’m fine, Caph. Really. If I look at all exhausted it’s from putting up with Wurren. He was showing off his latest gathered treasure. Gigantic dragon scales. They were almost as big as his ego.”
Caph snorted. “I thought you’d gone somewhere secret to die of misery, but it looks like you came back here to do it instead.”
“I have no intention of dying, nor of being miserable,” Nashira muttered.
“Of course not, you still hope to get better.”
“She will.” A head popped up from another nest. Ogma’s freckled face broke into a smile. “Nashira’s strong. She’ll still be here when Healer Lich finds the cure.”
Caph tutted. “Lich won’t find a cure. All he can do is remove our wings before the disease spreads to our bodies.”
“He’ll cure us,” Ogma said sternly. “We just need to hang on a little longer.”
“That’s what every sick fairy thinks,” Caph said. “Until their time runs out.”
“But we three aren’t average fairies,” Ogma said. “Nashira was the best gatherer. You, Caph, fought a swarm of fireflies singlehanded. And I have sketchbooks full of inventions just waiting to be built. If anyone can beat Dust Disease, it’s us. Right, Nashira?”
Suppressing pain, Nashira sat up. While she wasn’t sure Ogma was correct, she couldn’t bear to agree with Caph’s doom and gloom prediction. “Of course we can do this.”
Ogma cheered. “Just you wait and see, Caph. We three will be the first fairies to fight off Dust Disease and fly again.”
“We’ll be role models for the others who are sick,” Nashira added.
“And reminders to the healthy not to give up on us,” Ogma said.
Nashira thought of Wurren and the gatherers riding the morning breeze. “We’ll return to our normal lives.” It was more of a prayer than a plan. “And this…” She swept a hand around the dusty room. “This will be a fading memory.”
Ogma grinned at Caph. “Are you with us, dark one?”
Caph sighed, a hint of a smile obscuring his usual scowl. “If I say yes, will you shut up?”
“Have you ever known me to shut up?” Ogma asked.
“I’ve never even known the two of you to stop arguing for more than five minutes,” Nashira chipped in.
“Which proves,” Ogma chuckled, “things are practically back to normal already.”
They broke into a laugh, and for a moment at least some of the gloom slipped away.
Then Lich appeared beside their nests and something in the old healer’s expression dissolved their cheer. “Sorry to interrupt,” he said quietly.
Nashira grew rigid. Lich was only polite when he delivered bad news.
“I hate having to tell you this,” Lich went on. “Caph and Ogma, the Dust Disease infecting your wings has spread. I’m afraid it’s reached the time to amputate.”
For the longest time no one spoke. Nashira couldn’t even think, let alone form words and it seemed her friends were just as broken. Caph’s eyes had grown too wide. Ogma’s freckles sat too brightly on her paled cheeks.
“When?” Caph finally croaked.
“I can give you tonight to get used to the idea,” Lich said. “But we shouldn’t wait longer than tomorrow.”
The night seemed longer than most. Caph kept everyone awake, tossing and turning, and moaning each time he accidently rolled onto his dust-ruined wings. Eventually Lich handed out sleeping potions to everyone so they could spend the final few hours of the night in peace.
When Nashira woke, Caph was sitting in his nest, staring at her. “Ogma ran away. She left a note saying she won’t give up hope of flying again.”
Nashira bolted to her feet. “But she must have her wings removed. If she doesn’t, she’ll die!”
“You think you have to tell me that?” Caph spat.
“I’ll find her.” Nashira started across the room but Lich stepped in her way. “Every able fairy is already searching for Ogma. Stay in your nest, Nashira.” He shifted closer and whispered in her ear. “Stay. Caph is going to need you.”
She shot a look to Caph, hunched in his nest. His wings sagged like shredded rags, looking ready to drop off. But they wouldn’t. They needed to be amputated. And from the sound of things, Lich expected Nashira to hold Caph’s hand while he was butchered. She shuddered and sidestepped the healer.
“Caph has you to support him, Healer Lich,” she said, backing towards the exit. “But Ogma might be all alone.”
Dodging Caph’s stare and Lich’s frown, Nashira hurried for the exit.
At dusk Nashira returned to the healing hollow, exhausted and riddled with pain. She’d seen no sign of Ogma. In truth, she’d spent more time hiding herself from healthy fairies than searching for her ill friend. Lich had been right. She should have stayed and supported Caph.
This time when she dropped into the hollow, Lich didn’t rush to greet her. He remained by Caph’s nest, shooting her a quick glare before returning his focus to the bound stumps on Caph’s back. Nashira might have backed away, too shamed to approach, but the blood-dappled bandages hypnotised her, drawing her closer.
Before the Dust, Caph had led many battles against the ground-dwelling brownies, fended off fireflies and sent rock-monsters back to the cliffs they’d come from. He’d raced through the air, swooping on enemies, never hesitating, never showing fear. Even when a fire had roared through the forest, he’d charged into danger without flinching. But how could he face a danger that attacked from behind?
“Caph I’m so—”
“Don’t say it,” Caph hissed into the layers of feathers lining his nest. “If I hear one more word of sympathy, I’ll have Lich amputate my ears.” He lifted his head, the small movement making him wince. “Save your sorries for when it’s your turn to face the knife. Trust me, you’ll need them.” He lowered his head again, burying his face in feathers. “Ogma had the right idea running away,” he said, words muffled.
“Don’t say that,” Lich sighed. He tried to pat Caph’s shoulder, but the dark fairy shrugged him away, then winced from the pain the movement caused.
“I’d rather die than be this pathetic half-fairy,” Caph said.
He covered his head with his arms but Nashira still caught a hint of his sniffle. She’d never known Caph to cry. The sound twisted her insides, scaring her worse than any pain ever could.
“I’m no better than the brownies we despise,” he muttered.
“That’s not true,” Lich said.
“You’re still a fairy,” Nashira added. “Wings don’t make a fairy.”
“That’s true.” Caph rolled his head to look at her. “It’s freedom that makes a fairy.” Fresh tears streamed. “And I have none of that left. I can’t fly. I can’t don armour and help protect our home. I can’t even wander the tree with my head high. To do so would expose me to looks of horror from the healthy.”
Nashira tried to form an argument but terror froze her tongue. If a hero like Caph couldn’t cope with wing loss, how would a mere gatherer like herself get through it? She sat on the edge of his nest, racking her brain for words that might lift him from his gloom. Nothing came to her.
She was saved from speaking by a sudden ruckus near the hollow entry.
Nashira recognised the voice, someone out of place in the hollow. Miram. The gatherer slipped nimbly through the opening, her scarlet wings flashing bright before she tucked them against her back.
“Help!” she cried again. “We’ve found—” Her words stalled, and her eyes widened as her gaze darted over the many nests and ill fairies. A hand went to her mouth. “Oh my.” For a moment she looked ready to leap for the opening and hurry away, but she shook off her shock and turned to Lich. “We’ve found Ogma!”
Lich and Nashira dashed across the room. They arrived at the entry in time to help catch Ogma as her limp frame was eased down through the opening. While Lich took Ogma in his arms, Nashira peered through the hole into Wurren’s face. From habit, she tried to turn onto an angle that would hide her wings but Wurren’s bird’s-eye-view made it impossible.
“It’s not as bad as it looks,” she wheezed, her face growing hot. “If I stay strong… if Lich finds a cure… if—”
“Nashira,” Lich snapped.
She dragged her eyes off Wurren to see Lich and Miram struggling to hold Ogma. Barely conscious, she moaned, eyes fluttering, her face flushed with fever.
“Help us, Nashira,” Lich said. “We must get her into her nest.” He flicked a look to Wurren lurking above. “You too.”
Nashira moved aside so Wurren could drop into the room. Just as Miram had done, he scanned the nests holding weakened fairies then he faced Nashira, his gaze settling on her wings. There was no point trying to hide them anymore. He’d seen what they’d been reduced to and horror stretched his features.
“It’s awful, I know,” Nashira whispered.
Wurren nodded. “Even worse than I imagined.”
Nashira sighed, oddly relieved that she didn’t have to hide anymore. Finally, Wurren properly understood what had befallen her. She could let go of her embarrassment and try to accept his sympathy. Maybe he’d even be a comfort to her in the last stages of the disease.
Wurren’s face twisted. “How can you stand having those things hanging from your back? They’re revolting.”
Horror froze Nashira.
“Wurren!” Miram gasped. “That’s an awful thing to say. Nashi can’t help how her wings look. None of the ill can.”
Wurren turned a worried gaze to Lich. “Are you quite sure the disease isn’t contagious? I can’t catch it from a touch?”
Lich’s expression hardened. “I’d hope there’s no answer that will stop you helping Ogma. Take her arms.”
Pulling a face, Wurren shuffled forward, but Nashira put a hand against his chest. It didn’t surprise her when he flinched away from it, but it filled her with enough anger to fuel a vicious push. With a growl, she sent him stumbling backwards.
“If you’re that repulsed,” she hissed, “then it’s better if you leave.”
“But Lich said I had to help.”
Nashira shook her head. “We don’t want your kind infecting our space with your filthy ignorance. Go, Wurren. Now!”
Wurren backed away. Whether he retreated from Nashira’s fiery words or from her disease, she didn’t know. And she no longer cared. She turned her back on the fairy she used to love, confident her diseased wings would keep him at a distance.
With his footsteps retreating behind her, Nashira marched to where Lich and Miram struggled to hold Ogma. She took Ogma beneath the arms and together they carried her to her nest.
Ogma lay flushed, her breaths coming thin and fast. Lich had given her every potion he knew but she remained unconscious.
“Maybe if we take her wings she’ll improve,” Nashira had suggested earlier, but Ogma’s neck and back were crusty with flaking flesh. The dust had spread too far. All they could do was numb the pain and stay by her side, comforting her.
Perched on the edge of Ogma’s nest, Miram arched her back, stretching her spine. The movement also spread her lustrous wings, but she quickly folded them closed again, an apology on her face.
“Don’t be ashamed of your good health,” Nashira said. “You can’t help that the Dust skipped you. Besides, someone as caring as you deserves good fortune.”
Nashira could barely believe the words were coming from her mouth. Even before the Dust arrived, Nashira hadn’t felt that close to Miram. They’d flown in the same clusters and had collected together, but Nashira had been jealous of Miram’s scarlet wings and a little distrusting of her ever-kind nature. But the hours Miram had stayed by Ogma proved her kindness was authentic. And Nashira was grateful. At such a dark time, Talltree needed all the kindness it could get.
“You’re not allowed to be ashamed of your wings either,” Miram said. “It’s not your fault the Dust liked the look of you.”
“I’m not ashamed,” Nashira said. “Not anymore. I realise now that good fairies won’t judge the Dust-damaged.” She stroked Ogma’s arm, too hot and dry beneath her fingers. “How did you get Wurren to help carry Ogma all the way here? It’s clear the Dust appals him.”
Miram bit her lip, opened and closed her mouth several times then sighed. “I said if he didn’t help, I’d not pair with him.”
Despite Nashira’s new dislike for Wurren, knowing he’d forgotten her and moved onto another love still stung. “You and Wurren are pairing?” she asked weakly.
“Not yet,” Miram said. “But he wants to.”
“Surely you’re not still considering him,” Nashira said. “Imagine if you contracted Dust Disease. He’d abandon you.”
“He’s scared,” Miram said. “Have you never been scared, Nashi? Never retreated when you should charge ahead?”
Nashira dropped her eyes. Just that morning, she’d retreated from Caph. Thanks to her fear, he’d faced the hardest event of his life alone.
“Wurren has good points,” Miram said. “He gifted me those scarlet dragon scales.”
Nashira tutted. “Only because he wants to pair with you.”
Miram shrugged and started to reply but a groan from Ogma silenced her.
“Oggi,” Miram whispered, brushing hair from Ogma’s face. She bent, putting her ear close to Ogma’s dry lips. “I think she’s trying to say something.”
But the only sound was Ogma’s shallow breathing.
Sighing, they sat back.
“Poor Ogma,” Nashira said. “If only she hadn’t run away. How far did she get? Where did you find her?”
“She was in a hollow in one of the lowest branches. It was quite a strange place, filled with devices and all kinds of clutter.”
Nashira smiled. “Ogma’s workshop. She invents there.”
“It looked like she’d been drawing in a journal,” Miram said.
Nashira scanned the nest for Ogma’s book of inventions but it was nowhere. “Do you have the book?” Too soon Ogma would be gone. The ideas in the journal would be all that remained.
“It’s still in the workshop,” Miram said. “I can fetch it if you want.”
Caph raised his head from his nest. He’d been quiet for so long, Nashira feared he’d die from depression before the dust could take Ogma. Nashira started to rise, the plan to check his dressings, but he scowled and waved her away.
“I’m fine. Leave me alone.” Wincing, he dragged himself from his nest. He tilted, staggering, but with a swing of an arm and a palm against the side of his nest, he found his balance. “I feel completely off kilter,” he muttered.
“You no longer have the weight of wings against your back,” Nashira said, repeating the words she’d heard from Lich many times. “Adjustments must be made to how you walk and stand and sit.”
“Thanks for the advice,” Caph muttered and started a slow shuffle through the hollow.
“Where are you going?” Nashira asked. “I promised Lich I’d watch you while he collected herbs.”
“I thought I’d go for a quick fly.” Caph paused to look over his shoulder and surprised Nashira with a weak smile. “Don’t look so concerned. I’ll just take a short walk. Get used to this new point of balance I have.” He shrugged, the action looking odd without his wings. “I’ll collect Ogma’s book while I’m out.”
“I’m not sure that’s wise,” Nashira said. “It’s a long way to Ogma’s hollow.” Caph looked exhausted just from walking a few steps.
“Relax, Nashira,” Caph gasped. “I once fought off a firefly swarm all on my own, remember? I think I can manage a tiny little stroll.”
Nashira feared he wasn’t ready for the task, but she couldn’t say so without causing him shame. Silently, she watched him cross the room and climb awkwardly out of the exit.
Nashira woke with a start as someone shouted. She opened weary eyes to see Healer Lich stomping towards her.
“The task wasn’t complicated, Nashira,” he barked, drawing gapes from the surrounding nests. “All you needed to do was stay awake and watch your unwell friends. And yet, somehow you failed.”
Nashira rubbed her eyes, then peered around. Ogma still rested as she had, with Miram waking from the other side of the nest.
“Ogma’s fine,” Nashira said. “Well, she’s no worse.”
“And Caph?” Lich asked.
Nashira looked around. His nest sat empty.
“He took a walk,” she said.
“You allowed him out alone?” Lich pinched the bridge of his nose. “At least tell me you know where he went.”
“To Ogma’s workshop. I’ll go and collect him.” Nashira started to move but a hot hand gripped her wrist.
Ogma peered up at her. “Nashira…” She licked her crusty lips, but her tongue seemed just as dry as the rest of her. She forced a whisper into the air. “Caph’s not at my workshop.”
“He is,” Nashira said.
Miram nodded. “He took a walk to get your journal, Oggi.”
Ogma shook her head. “Not a walk. A flight.”
Miram stroked Ogma’s arm. “Oh, you poor dear. You’re so unwell, you must have forgotten. Caph no longer has wings.”
Ogma shook Miram off and wincing, forced herself to sit. Her eyes, no longer bright but crusted, met Nashira’s. “Not a walk,” she repeated through clenched teeth. “One. Last. Flight.”
Nashira frowned and shook her head, but her last conversation with Caph returned to her. Ogma was right, he had mentioned flying. But that had been a joke, hadn’t it? But when had Caph ever joked?
“Oh no,” Nashira breathed. “I think Ogma might be right. We won’t find Caph down in the workshop, but up on the landing branch.”
She shot for the exit.
Nashira scrambled up branches, ignoring looks from healthy fairies who’d probably never seen a fairy climb instead of fly. She moved faster than she ever had, working her arms and legs until they screamed for rest, then forcing herself to work them even harder. Despite her lack of wings, she reached the top of Talltree in time to see Lich and Miram land and fold their wings. Together the trio faced the end of the landing branch.
Caph stood at the very tip, hunched, exhausted. As they approached, Nashira held her breath, afraid even the smallest breeze might dislodge his precarious footing.
“Come away from the edge,” Lich said gently. “Please.”
Caph turned to face them. “No, Healer Lich. I appreciate your help, but you’ve done all you can for me. My life is out of your hands now.”
“Move,” Lich demanded, his voice cracking. “I know why you’ve come up here, but you can’t give up.”
Caph’s dark eyes narrowed. “Don’t tell me what I can and can’t do. I’ve had most choices stolen from me in recent months. The Dust chose my wings without ever asking if I welcomed it. Next, it stole my strength to fly. Then I was forced to live in the healing hollow, encouraged to stay hidden when all I wanted was to feel the breeze and see the stars. Then you took my wings.”
“I had to, Caph.”
“I know you did, and I thought I had no choice but to let you, but Ogma showed me otherwise.”
“Ogma’s going to die because of her choice,” Miram cried.
Caph nodded. “Considering the paths available, I’d say she made the wise choice.” He looked to the sky and tipped his head back, allowing the breeze to shift his hair. “Removing my wings was the wrong choice, but it’s not too late to put things right.” He spread his arms.
“Please don’t,” Miram sobbed.
“No, Caph,” Lich added huskily.
Nashira wanted to join her protest to theirs but she couldn’t find the words. What right did she have to tell Caph how to live or die? When her turn came, she hoped no one would stand in the way of whatever choice she made.
“Fly free, Caph.” Nashira’s words were less than a whisper, but the breeze must have caught them and coaxed them along because Caph turned his head to look at her.
He nodded, smiled then faced the open air. Holding his head high, he dived into the sky.
It was a strange sight, watching a wingless creature soar. But soar Caph did. Momentum carried him into the wind and the breeze caught him. Of course, without his wide wings, it surely couldn’t hold him long. Before it could release him, Nashira closed her eyes, determined her last memory of Caph would be of him flying. She held them closed as Miram choked on a sob and Lich moaned.
When she finally opened them, Caph was gone.
The following day, Nashira again stood on the landing branch. This time she was far from alone, the branch bending beneath the weight of the many fairies who attended the double funeral. The healthy might have been absent for Caph and Ogma’s illness but they were there for them now. Too late by far, but it was still a welcome gesture.
As was tradition, Caph and Ogma’s remains had been burnt, to be scattered on the breeze so they could take their final flight into Mother Nature’s arms. It was the fairy way, yet discomfort settled in Nashira’s stomach.
“This feels wrong,” she whispered to Miram as they each gripped a nutshell containing the remains of their friends. Caph and Ogma’s wings had turned to dust, and now the rest of their bodies had been reduced to ash.
“Everything has felt wrong since the dust arrived,” Miram sighed. “What did we do to deserve such ill luck?”
“Maybe nothing,” Nashira said. “Perhaps we’d just been fortunate for too long, and this is Mother Nature’s way of setting the balance right.”
Miram stifled a gasp. “You blame the Great Mother?”
“Better than blaming myself, Caph or Ogma. We didn’t earn this cruel punishment.”
A hand fell on their shoulders and Lich leant close. “Why are you so sure this is a punishment? Consider that it might be a test.”
“A test of what?” Miram asked.
“Of what we can rise above.”
Nashira tutted. “Easy for you to say when you have healthy wings. My pathetic wings make rising above anything impossible.”
“Do they?” Lich asked. “Have you not risen to the top of Talltree today? You did that without wings. Wings aren’t all there is to a fairy. There are many ways to rise.”
He gave their backs a gentle push, coaxing them forward. It was time. With the eyes of all Talltree’s fairies upon them, they weaved their way through the gathering.
The whole tree was silent as Nashira and Miram passed. Some eyed the ash shells and bowed in honour, while others shed tears. A few did neither, instead tiptoeing and craning necks, their eyes settling on what was left of Nashira’s wings. The temptation to turn and hide them was strong, but where could she hide in such a crowd? She could no more hide from their eyes than she could hide from her fate. Squaring her shoulders, she marched forward.
At the tip of the branch, she and Miram stopped. Shoulder to shoulder, they opened the shells. Miram held Ogma’s remains high over her head and Nashira copied her, showing the sky what remained of Caph. They didn’t throw the ashes; that was not the fairy way. They waited for the wind—the Great Mother’s breath—to swoop in and accept them. It took only moments.
A gust built and forced its way through the tree. It lifted the ashes from the nutshells and spread them throughout the sky. Sparkles danced. Specks shimmered. At the end, their wings might have dulled but Caph and Ogma’s ashes bore the same glint as every fairy’s, proof the Dust couldn’t infect a fairy’s soul.
Nashira watched until every bright speck of Caph and Ogma were gone, then she turned to face the crowd. Most still stared at the sky but from the front row, Wurren watched her. He sagged, emerald wings drooping.
Nashira frowned, surprised to see him so close. Even before the Dust arrived, he hadn’t been good friends with Ogma and Caph. Ogma was too odd, he’d said, and Caph was far too brooding. Yet there Wurren stood, looking forlorn.
“Farewell, fly free,” Lich shouted into the wind, and the traditional call was echoed by others.
“Farewell,” the crowd cried over and over. “Fly free.”
Wurren joined in, repeating the chant in a murmur, while tears built in his eyes. It warmed Nashira’s heart to see him caring so deeply until she realised, he stared not at the sky, but at her. Her heart constricted. Wurren’s farewell wasn’t for Caph or Ogma. It was for her.
“He mourns me while I still live,” Nashira choked. “I’ve yet to even lose my wings, but he chants for me as if this is my funeral.”
Miram followed Nashira’s gaze then shrugged and wrapped an arm around Nashira’s shoulders. “Don’t fret over Wurren. He’s a much better gatherer than he is a thinker. And we both know he’s wrong. There won’t be a funeral like this for you.”
There was a challenge in her words and Nashira rose to it.
“I choose to live,” she agreed and turned her back on Wurren’s grim gaze.
“I choose to live,” she repeated weeks later when Lich approached with a dragon scale blade in hand. She rolled to her belly and prepared for pain. “I choose to live.”
The pain of the cutting faded long before the grief. Despite Miram often by her side and Lich’s care and encouragement, Nashira shed tears day and night.
“I can see why Ogma avoided the blade,” she muttered as Lich studied her wounds. “I can equally understand why Caph took that last flight.”
Lich pressed his fingers to her scarred back, but he made no reaction to her words. He’d heard such remarks from her every day since the amputation. She could no longer draw shock from the old healer.
“You’re not in danger of infections anymore,” he said. “You’re more scar than wound now.”
“That I am,” Nashira sighed. The scars ran deep, covering her heart.
“There’s no reason for you to remain in the hollow.”
Nashira twisted to face him. “You want me to leave?” Go outside, wingless, looking like a brownie?
“Yes, Nashira, I want you to leave. I want you to leave and find your new place in Talltree’s society, then return here and encourage others to do the same.” His eyes drifted to little Eta, nurse to her wingless mother. To make it worse, her own wings bore the first flakes of dust. It wasn’t a contagious disease, but some families were unluckier than others.
“I wish I could help,” Nashira said. “I’d like to be a role model for the little one, but I have no role in tree life now. I was a gatherer, but how can I gather without wings?”
“You might be unable to gather dragon scales without wings,” Healer Lich said, “but I see no reason you can’t gather hope. Find hope and bring it back here for the others.”
“Let’s take a walk,” Nashira said when Miram arrived for her daily visit.
Miram’s eyes widened, then she clapped. “Oh hooray! I knew the old Nashi was still inside you somewhere. Always the adventurer, you were. Never still for long.” As they walked to the exit, Miram squeezed Nashira’s arm. “Where will we walk, great adventurer? Up to the landing branch?”
Nashira leapt for the hole in the branch, surprised how much easier her body lifted without the weight of her dying wings. Out in the sunshine, she smiled down at Miram. “We’ll go up, down, everywhere. We’ll walk until we find the right way.”
Stares followed them everywhere they strolled. Some fairies scrunched their noses. Most watched with their heads tipped at angles, as if baffled to see a fairy without wings walking with her head high.
“You shouldn’t be the only one out here,” Miram said. “All the wingless hidden within hollows and nests should come join us.”
“Agreed,” Nashira said. “We must visit them all and encourage them to venture out. But not today.”
She stopped beside a hollow decorated in strange metal items that had been collected from the human world. Ogma had known a great deal about humans and had long ago told Nashira the objects’ human names. Bolt, needle, thimble, coin. Ogma said humans were large, lacked grace and took up too much space, but they were excellent inventors.
“Ogma’s workshop,” Miram said. “Should we go in?”
Nashira nodded and slipped through the opening.
It was dark within, Ogma’s half-formed inventions reduced to shapes and shadows. There were no fireflies to brighten the space but Ogma had invented her own form of light. Nashira fumbled for Ogma’s special grey stone and struck it against a plate. Sparks flew, igniting dried leaves. Nashira scooped them up and touched them to a woven thread that swam in a bowl of oil. The room swirled with light.
“How exciting,” Miram laughed.
Nashira left her staring wide-eyed at the flames and ventured deeper into the room. She passed long benches and tall shelves crammed with strange contraptions and devices. Some were familiar thanks to sketches Ogma had shown her. Others were a mystery Nashira could only wonder about. She touched each item as she passed them. The contact made her feel a little closer to her friend.
“Why do you suppose Ogma returned here for her last day of life?” Nashira asked. “Was it to feel normal one last time, do you think?” She’d have given anything to go gathering one more time before her wings were taken.
“I think Ogma was building something that day,” Miram said.
Nashira gaped at her. “You never told me that.”
“Didn’t I? Maybe I forgot in the chaos.”
“What was it?” Nashira asked.
Miram shrugged. “To be honest, I barely even glanced at whatever she was doing, more concerned about getting her some help. But I can show you.” She circled benches, heading to the far end of a table. “This was her final invention.”
Nashira hurried to her side and looked down at a small contraption that sat atop Ogma’s open journal. The device made little sense, but the drawing beneath it stole Nashira’s breath.
Ogma had drawn a fairy. It was a rough likeness, but the unusually dark hair left no doubt it was meant to be Caph. In the picture, he was flying, but the wings on his back weren’t those of a fairy. They looked hard and shiny, like the human metal fused to the workshop entry.
“Is this what I think it is?” Nashira lifted the contraption and now it made more sense. It was a vaguely fairy-shaped model carved from wood the length of her hand. On its back were thin, hard wings, also wooden.
“Ogma was inventing wings,” Miram breathed.
“But the question is, did she succeed? Do they work?” Nashira drew the model back behind her shoulder then thrust it forward and let it go. For a moment it wobbled and dipped in the air then it steadied and glided across the room. As it crashed into the far wall, Nashira and Miram broke into laughter and Nashira’s heart swirled in a way it hadn’t in a long while.
Then worry wriggled in. “A fairy couldn’t carry the weight of wooden wings, nor the human material Ogma sketched in the drawing.”
“Human?” Miram said. “There’s nothing human about the substance drawn in Ogma’s journal. Look again, Nashi. Do you see?”
Frowning, Nashira looked again at the sketch then gasped, finally seeing what Miram had already realised. “Oh! This could work! We could actually build these, couldn’t we?”
She might once more feel the wind safely hold her, and the world grow wide around her. Hope filled her heart but quickly ebbed. “At least, we might be able to build them if we can gather enough materials. But it’s the wrong time of year for this kind of gathering.”
“Oh, silly Nashi,” Miram laughed. “You don’t need to gather anything. I already have what we need.”
She squeezed Nashira close, then together they lifted tools.
Several foggy days followed but on the morning that the wings were completed, the day dawned clear. Miram and Nashira stood on the landing branch, staring into the sun.
“You look amazing, Nashi.” Miram’s eyes roamed over the wings that protruded from Nashira’s back, held in place by many straps. Nashira couldn’t see much of them while they were pressed to her back, but she glimpsed hints of scarlet shining in the morning sun. Red dragon scales might be too bright for armour but for replacement wings they were perfect.
“Thank you again, Miram. These wings wouldn’t exist without your scale-sculpting skills. Nor without your extremely generous gift. I know how much you wanted to turn these scales into armour that would match your wings.”
Miram swiped the air. “This is a much better use for the scales. Now, in a way, I have a twin sister.” She beamed. “How do they feel?”
Nashira shifted, shrugged shoulders and bent this way and that. “They feel a little strange. It has been a while since I had any weight at my back. But it’s a good weight, a good strangeness. I feel strong.”
“Are you ready to try this? It’s dangerous, you surely don’t need me to point that out. The model flew well but that was small. We don’t know how well these full-sized wings will function.”
“It can’t be more dangerous than raiding a dragon’s nest,” Nashira said. “And will surely be less frightening than the amputation of my original wings.”
“It will be the most exciting moment of your life.”
“Yes. One I can’t wait to experience.”
Still they waited. They stared into the sun, enjoying its warmth. Then behind them came voices. They looked towards the trunk to find the area filling with fairies. Some swooped up from below. Others used a mix of their arms and wing strength to scamper up from the lower branches. Soon the branch bent as deeply as it had during Caph and Ogma’s funeral.
“We received your message,” Lich said, coming forward. “You said you’ve gathered that hope I asked for?” His eyes widened as they moved over the dragon scales welded together and shaped to suit a fairy. “Oh, Nashira, you brave and foolish girl. I’m so proud of you. Terribly worried, but also incredibly proud.”
“You’ll tell Eta of this?” Nashira asked. “And her mother?”
“No need,” Lich said and gestured to a point in the crowd where Eta’s mother stood with little Eta pressed to one side of her. All the wingless and Dust-ridden were present, perched safely within a circle of the winged. Though pale and thin, the withered watched as eagerly as everyone else.
Nashira spotted Wurren amongst the crowd and gifted him a nod. Despite all he’d done, he’d collected the dragons scales she now wore. That deserved thanks.
“Well go on, Nashi,” Miram said. “The wind won’t wait forever.”
It would. The wind came and went as it pleased, but never failed to return. But Miram was right. It was time.
“Remember what we discussed,” Miram said as they faced the dawn. “Out a short way and then straight back.”
Nashira smirked. “Maybe.”
“Maybe? Nashi, we decided. We planned.”
“We can only plan so much, Miram. In the end, it’s not completely up to us. Mother Nature will nudge us wherever she chooses, and we must make of it what we can.”
“I suppose that’s true.” Miram squeezed Nashira tightly then stepped away. “Good luck.”
Taking a breath, Nashira steadied her nerves. Far ahead, the dawn glowed, striking the trees with sparkles and promise, and the breeze whispered secrets she so very much wanted to know. And know them, she would. She released her breath in the form of a shout and ran along the landing branch. At the tip, she bent levers which spread the scarlet wings wide. Nashira dived into the air.
She wobbled. Dipped. Behind her, fairies gasped and wailed.
Then the wind caught her and lifted her high and the cries from her brethren transformed into cheers.
Nashira’s heart thudded.
As the breeze carried her towards the sunrise, she made out the wind’s whispers.
“Fly free,” it told her.
GB Burgess is a writer from Tasmania, Australia. Her work has appeared in On the Premises, Daily Science Fiction and Fabula Argentea. When not writing, she spoils her rescue kitties, neglects her devoted husband, and extreme doodles (that’s drawing without talent). Find more here: gbburgesswrites.wordpress.com