Dead Things and Magic
Summary: The last golden-born fae struggles to find a purpose in a life with no wings.
Once upon a time, deep in the thicket, below the curtain of bluebells and ash leaves, a fae princess was born, the last of seventeen sisters to emerge from shimmering gold chrysalids. Golden-born fae had long patrolled the glen, guardians of all the flowers and of light, but this one, the last princess, won no march of her own. Because she had no wings.
She'd emerged that way, flat-backed and bare but already able to stand. Her sisters dried their nascent wings and wept blood-tears, certain to a one that she would not live past dawn. For how could a grounded fae escape those who might harm her? And how would she ever reach a flower to eat? They could only look down in pity as a line of ants circled the hobbled fae, surely set to claim her for their supper. The sisters stretched their still-wet wings in impotent agony, but to their surprise, the ants took pity on the last golden-born and brought her food instead of death. They fed her from their stores and gave her a place in their line. She marched with them thereafter, though she never really became an ant.
Well, of course she did not.
Still, she grew strong and worked hard at her tasks among her benefactors. And though she applied her talents as best she could, her fae soul surged at the end of its tether sometimes, tugging her off her path with unexpected violence. And daily though she trudged through the rot on the forest floor, she paused and basked in sunbeams when they bled through holes in the canopy. She could not resist the lure.
At first she experimented with stringing narrow vines and anchors, seeking always a way up, but climbing wasn't flying, and at the end of all her work the forest still loomed far above her, insurmountable.
Oh, certainly she gained respect for the layers of loam and delved deep enough that she could touch the dust cool of magic in the earth -- things that no fae had ever known -- but the only time she caught the perfume of her sisters' flowers was when someone was kind enough to bring a petal back. The only blossoms she knew were dead ones.
One day, all her sisters left. Inexplicably and without farewells. The last golden-born fae assumed that they had matured and mated, a pattern she'd noted with other forest creatures. She imagined iridescent-blue swallowtails and lacewing children, and she envied. To find a place or purpose for her tears, she assigned herself a new duty, that of tending the dead. Everything flying or footed eventually ended up on the forest floor, her demesne. She might not be able to soar or protect or produce offspring, she reckoned, but she could do this. Birds, beasts, and kin, she mourned them all and then sorted the carcasses. Her soul grew hard against such constant onslaught of transience, but the task only reinforced her desire to be something other than what she was. Or at least a better, more complete version.
She grew bitter and pale and fierce and stubborn. Moonset after moonset she wrapped the dead and covered them with beetles, and every time she did that a little less of her felt alive. At last even the generosity of the ants failed to move her. So she brushed their hill-tunnels clean and made certain their stores were full, and then she crept off one night, when all the other daytime beasts lay sleeping.
The last golden-born knew all the hovels of this forest, knew all the small places. And deep there, alone and fired by a lifetime of exclusion, she twined those vines again in a new pattern. She filled the holes in her design with leaf litter and dead things, furling bird-feathers and fashioning, at last, a set of wings: ghastly, bile-black and heavy, but wings. Wings!
All night she climbed with this hideous machine upon her back, purposing a thousand plans beneath the stars, and she knew it when dawn came, though her world was dim as ever. At the edge of a limb she stood, bent beneath the bulk of her self-crafted wings. Above, still, stretched the canopy. Below, she could no longer see the ants. Or the fallen leaves. Or the dead things. She stretched out her arms, hitched a breath, and jumped.
A baby bird might have told her, had she asked, how flight works the first time. Her own sisters might have advised her not to panic, to let the wind lift her. She had consulted no others, though, and all she knew was dirt and death and dreams. A summer breeze caught briefly, and she flapped her mechanical wings, giving them impetus with her own will, but sacrificing her aim. The breeze captured her and pulled so hard that her body moved faster than the breath she needed. Her world dimmed again, even as she tumbled through the air, and she spun within the wind's grasp, hurtling with such speed that she knew she would not survive. And then, when she thought that surely she'd hit her end, light bathed her, all at once, a vast wash of heat and bright and perfume and air. She didn't blink against the glory, determined not to miss even a moment of it. She'd lived her whole life for this vista, soaring at last above the canopy.
Toward the edge of trees, where she knew the copse gave over to wide swathes of meadow, she stretched her vision, searching for the flowers her sisters had spoken of. Her birthright. It was here, she thought. It should be here. It should be ... but all she saw were neat lawns, stubbled by machines and crisped yellow by the unrelenting summer sun.
This is it? she thought. She adjusted the levers and knots, gliding herself low over the lawns. The heat burned the back of her throat, and in all directions, save the little copse of trees she'd just left, identical squares of burnt grass lay slashed by ugly gray ribbons. An organized chaos.
The last golden-born fae tried to turn her mechanical wings, tried to get back to the forest she knew, but her attention had wavered and her eyes had grown wet in her sorrow. She couldn't find her way back, and she had glided too low on the breeze -- another thing that more experienced fliers might have taught her. She did not feel the crack of her wing as it broke on a metal wire in the sky, but she did feel the shift in balance, and despite the horror of the moment, a thrill surged: if she was falling, that meant that she'd flown.
That thought propelled her spirit, though the wings failed in parallel. The last golden-born fae fell, cushioned unhelpfully by a wad of paper-trash in an alley. And no one tended the forest dead.
Story copyright 2011 by Vivien Jackson.Image of wings is derived from game costuming described here.