Originally published in the magazine Beyond Centauri in 2004.
Elysia was the only one of her friends to not have wings yet. Even Renae, who was six months younger than her, had grown hers in. But Elysia’s hadn’t arrived yet.
“There was a scratchy spot between my shoulderblades,” Renae had explained eagerly, three days after the wings had sprouted, “and they were growing in the next morning. I’ll be able to fly in just another week!”
Papa had promised Elysia that she’d grow her wings soon. But it hadn’t happened yet.
Elysia stared out the window, glumly watching Renae. Now that she had wings, Renae could play with all the older kids, instead of watching the babies, like Elysia still had to. If Elysia tried to go outside to play, she’d get stuck baby-sitting again for sure. Parents always wanted older kids near the younger ones, to make sure they stayed safe. And if the older kids didn’t have wings yet, either, all the better — they wouldn’t be tempted to go off playing with friends.
“I’m the oldest person in the whole village not to have wings,” Elysia muttered to herself, staring at the others jealously. “I’m the only one my age who can’t play buzz tag with the others. It isn’t fair!”
* * *
Elysia had a dream that night. At least, she thought it was a dream — but afterwards, she wasn’t certain. It had felt too real to be a dream, but it couldn’t have been real. Could it?
She dreamt she woke up in the middle of the night, because she heard a noise outside. Then she went to the window, the same window she’d been looking out the day before, and there was a unicess waiting for her.
Elysia’s breath caught in her throat. She stared at the creature, the winged unicorn, with something like awe. She knew it was a unicess, because she’d heard about them in stories, but she’d never thought they existed.
Come with me, the unicess said.
Swallowing, Elysia climbed out of the window, onto the grass outside. The unicess stared at her for a long moment. Then it spoke again.
Climb onto my back.
Elysia stared at the unicess with wide eyes. But something in the creature’s gaze told her she had to obey. So she hauled herself up, barely avoiding the feathery wings, and tried to figure out what she was supposed to do now.
And then came the part of their journey that Elysia was sure had to be a dream. They flew up, up higher than any human could fly, above the part of the sky where you should be able to breathe. Then they reached something that looked like a cave, only it was made of crystal. The unicess landed on a ledge right near the cave’s opening, and ordered her to dismount.
And follow me, the unicess added, heading towards the gaping maw.
Frightening as the cave looked like it might be, Elysia didn’t dare disobey. What would she do here without the unicess, anyway? And anyway, if this was a dream, she couldn’t get hurt.
The crystalline walls loomed up around her, sharp and cold and unyielding. She shivered, rubbing her arms, as she followed the unicess down a long corridor. The creature’s hooves tinked against the crystal floor with each step it took, making a regular rhythm that began to pound into Elysia’s mind. Tink, tink, tink. At least the cave wasn’t as dark as she’d feared it might be — the walls seemed to give off some kind of light, so she never lost sight of where they were going.
Finally, they reached a huge chamber with some kind of fountain in the middle of it. Elysia rubbed her eyes, not knowing if she was seeing it for real, but the fountain was still there when she looked again. The water in it seemed to glow with an eerie quality, a light that had nothing to do with the reflected walls or crystals.
“What is it?” she whispered.
The unicess stared back. Elysia thought she caught a hint of amusement in the creature’s eyes. The flight water, it answered. Your kind was not originally born with wings. Nor was mine. Both of us gained the gift of flight through this water. But my kind, who live longer and in greater heights than yours, have not forgotten where our wings came from, nor where the flight water still resides. Yours have.
Elysia stared at the unicess. “You mean — the people of my village?”
Yes. Twice now we unicorns have had to interfere. Once in a century, a person of your village without wings must come here to drink the flight water again. If no one comes, children will stop growing wings, and eventually, winged humans will disappear completely. Do you want that to happen?
Elysia stared at the unicess in horror. “Oh, no!” she cried. “Life would be awful if no one could fly!”
Then go to the fountain. If you are pure in heart, it will allow you to drink. And if you do, it will allow your people to keep the gift of flight for another hundred years.
“And give me wings too?” Elysia asked, hardly daring hope.
Elysia bit her lip, frightened, but also tingling inside with excitement. She was going to gain wings of her own at last! And do something to help the rest of her people, too. Even if she was jealous of them, she’d never wish them harm.
She stepped forward, and knelt down by the pool of water. In its smooth surface, she could see her reflection shining back at her. Then the water rippled of its own accord, and her face vanished, replaced with a brightness so dazzling, it hurt her eyes.
She turned back to the unicess, blinking at the spots that had appeared in front of her vision. “What does that mean?” she asked anxiously. “Is it good?”
Yes. It means you have been judged worthy. Drink.
Elysia turned back to the pool, squinting as she looked at the water. Then she closed her eyes, lowered her face to the water, and drank.
A cold shiver ran down her spine, and when she pulled back, the pool had stopped glowing. The light of the crystals around them seemed to be growing dim, as well.
Quickly, the unicess said, its voice sounding urgent now. We must leave soon, before the light vanishes. Climb onto my back again.
Feeling strangely tingly, Elysia obeyed. Then the unicess set off down the passageway they had come through at a gallop, hooves hitting the crystal with a tinkling clatter that sounded like a cross between gravel falling on glass, and raindrops hitting a window.
Sooner than she expected, she and the unicess were out of the caves again. Then they were flying down towards her village, and before Elysia knew it, they were back at her home again. She pulled away from the unicess with a little reluctance, sure she would never see the creature again, and then climbed back through her window.
Sure enough, by the time she had gotten back in bed, the unicess was gone.
And when Elysia woke up again, she was certain it had been a dream.
Except for one thing — the tingling feeling she’d felt from the pool was still with her when she woke up. And her shoulderblades were starting to itch.
As if her wings were about to sprout.
Available in print or e-book format through the Worlds of Wonder anthology.