Isabet slouched onto her toadstool and moped, a silent steady fit unbecoming a faerie of her age. Then again, hadn’t it been made explicitly clear the previous evening that she herself was completely unbecoming for a faerie her age? The dark though only served to dampen her mood still further, thickening the roots of despair that held her firmly to the ground as she watched the flit and flicker of gossamer wings high above her. They floated daintily on the breeze, free from the heavy thoughts that preyed on her own mind. She wondered if any of her sisters above thought of her now, but knew it was unlikely; they had barely spared a thought for her when they were on the same level, why would she cross their now elevated minds?
If she were honest with herself, they barely crossed hers either. Ever since she could remember, her sisters had never truly been more than avatars to her, figures of beauty but of no more substance than the whispering of the wind. They had laughed prettily when she joined them, when she had tried to make the same dainty sounds they did, tried to scamper after them with the same grace. She had never managed, and even if she did for a moment it was quickly lost as her interest wandered. She had no desires for their games, though they seemed not to notice, not when she joined or when she didn’t. Each morning she attempted to accompany them they had accepted her lightly, but instead of being swept along in their collective spell, she always found herself tumbling from it, distracted by the ripples on the water or the veins on the leaves.
“Why?” she couldn’t help but asking- both of her unwillingness to keep up and with curiosity and wonder at the beauty they seemed to be missing as the skimmed across the surface of a world deeper than they could fathom even if they tried.
She had eventually stopped trying, content to spend a few moments gazing upon her sister as they scampered across the library each morning before descending the narrow steps to the library, her newfound sanctuary where her mind could scamper and soar as her feet never seemed to manage. She had thought it a perfect solution, perfect bliss in the quiet company of old Master Sage, until she arose at twilight to rejoin her sisters for the evening meal. There her sisters talked at length of nothing and her thoughts silently, privately ruminate on what she had read that day, her face set in the same faraway expression as theirs, but for the hint of depth in her gaze. She had thought she was learning and growing in her own way, but never had she thought the consequences would be so dire.
There was no hint of what was to come, and the shock of rejection on winging night had come as sharp as iron.
The purple twilight of midsummer’s eve had hung from the newgreen leaves in sheaths of mist as the ceremony began, and Isabet felt as though nature itself had enveloped her in its perfection as she danced with her sisters on the moor as the chorus of elders sang above. One by one her sisters had taken to the skies, lifted on glistening new wings of crystalised song, until Isabet had been left on her own, her steps becoming clumsy in agitation. She lifted her gaze to the chorus, a silent question in her eyes.
“Too heavy!” the chorus of elders had sung, the words floating lightly in spite of their gravity. They gave no further explanation as the floated away, carrying their music with them and leaving Isabet in the gathering darkness and realisation.
“Dammit,” Isabet muttered to banish the painful memory as she slouched still further onto the toadstool, it’s gooey smoothness firm and solid beneath her back, firm and smooth as well. Try as she might, her mood would not lift, instead leaking from her eyes in a steady stream of tears.
“There you are! Idle and cursing, not a good start at all.”
Isabet started and sat up at the unexpected voice, turning to see old Master Sage limping up behind her. He looked her up and down before cracking something like a smile. “Still well grounded, I see. There is hope for you yet, provided you can be disciplined.” Master Sage turned from her to study a nearby tuft of switchgrass as Isabet sat up, a faint glimmer of hope coming to life within her.
“You mean. . .there is hope for me? I might get my wings?” Isabet asked with bated breath.
“Wings? Heavens no,” Master sage chucked as he plucked a stiff blade of grass and tested it’s strength. “You’re far too grounded for such things. Besides, what would you want wings for? You have no time for flitting about up there.”
“What do you mean?” Isabet asked, trying not to let her disappointment show. In the moment before Master Sage turned to face her, Isabet noted that his back was as plain as her own. How had she not noticed in all the time she had known him that the old master also lacked the wings she so envied?
“Why do the fairy lights twinkle? What makes the morning dew sweet? Why does the sun set red? Do you think these things just happen, that the perfection and beauty coalesce from nothing? THe world is a miraculous place, but it is not as convenient as that. There is magic in these things, but even magic requires sacrifice, requires effort, requires guidance.”
Isabet stared up at him, confused as ever.
“Heads and tails,” he muttered, “have you not yet seen? Heads and tails. The heads above get the attention, flashy and public. They think they make the rules, they think they control their world, but they are nothing without the underlings.” He gazed up at their fellows drifting gaily in the breeze, and though his expression softened Isabet thought she saw a hint of frustration in his gnarled features. Whatever it might have been vanished when he looked back at her and spoke with a new intensity. “The tails below may not have the same aesthetic, but they are just as critical for balance.”
Isabet nodded, though she only felt the faintest glimmer of understanding.
“Do you think them up to the task?” he asked, his eyebrows hinting upwards to the airy crowds above. “They could hardly hold a thought, let alone true power. No, it takes someone more grounded, more disciplined,” he emphasised the word with a cut of the switch that made Isabet jump, “to manage such things. I have great hope for you, though you are not off to much of a start. Where were you this morning? Every day for the last year you have been at your studies, and now, now that it actually matters, I find you here moping.”
“How was I to know?” Isabet protested, her heart quickening with hope despite not quite understanding the old man’s words.
“What do you think I’d been doing all those days you came to the library? Entertaining you? Far from it! Your mind was not meant to be empty as are those above. I could tell when I met you. You are one of us, one of the underlings. It may not appear be a glamorous role, but, when you are able, the magic you will wield will be more beautiful than the brightest summer sunset.”
“I had no idea,” Isabet replied, seeing the old master in a new light. She had always assumed he was merely indulging her interests, had never imagined that there was a purpose behind it. She had assumed she was merely biding her time in his library, had never imagined that what she was feeling was a sense of belonging. The thought lifted her spirits higher than any song of the elder chorus ever could.
“Silly,” he harumphed. “Silly, but silliness can be corrected. There is hope for you yet, but we had best get started quickly. Up and over with you!” he punctuated the command with another swish of the switch.
“Up and what?” Isabet asked, a tendril of fear creeping through her confusion as she took in his stern expression.
“Stand up, turn around, and drape yourself over that toadstool. Lift your skirt while you’re at it, we haven’t time to dally about with such things. And mind you, next time do it quickish; it does not pay to test my patience.”
Isabet did his bidding, unquestioning as she grasped onto the hope that he offered her.
And thus began her initiation, not one of light and song but of submission and pain. She had heard of such things before, had read of them once ago, but the feelings they left her with had confused her and those thoughts had been banished to the darkest recesses of her mind. They sprung up now, as she writhed and cried but made no attempt to escape the punishing switch, heedless even of the fact that the crime which had brought on her suffering was one of ignorance rather than malice. She knew, somehow, that such an excuse would not work with Master Sage. She knew so little of the world, and yet sensed that the role he had envisioned for her would allow little enough room for error regardless of the reason.
After what felt an endless assault on her bottom, Master Sage paused the switching. “You have much to learn, and if you are to take my place you must learn quickly. I will not last much longer, and I will not hand over responsibility to an untrained fool. We will do this as often as necessary, and I believe it will be necessary often indeed.”
“Yes, sir,” Isabet answered. Her voice was choked with tears, yet she felt no sadness, her rapidly blooming hope and the warmth of his acceptance leaving no room for other emotions.
“It will be difficult, but believe you me, wings or no, you will fly.”
As she sung and jumped higher than she ever had, encouraged by the sharp swish of the old master’s switch, she knew better than to doubt him.