By the time I stepped outside, the leaves were on fire.
I’m enraptured briefly by the crimson and burgundy hues before me. My tiny frame trembles until I burst, throwing my hands in the air in glee.
“Momma!” I yell, rushing back in the acorn house and into her arms. Excitedly, I withdraw from her hug to beam at her.
“They’re changing!” I shout, pulling the taller woman to the door.
“I can see that,” she chuckles softly, running fingers through my raven hair. “But don’t forget the rules. You must wait.” I moan but start laughing when Wind plays with vibrant fronds. I jump to the ground, bare feet bouncing on soft needle-strewn dirt as I play with my friend.
“Inside, Pratyani,” mom calls to me. “You have yet to eat. You can play later.”
“Can I play with Qiyana?” I ask, skipping back to my mom’s side. Her laugh is soft and gentle as the light rainfall of spring.
“After you eat,” she reiterates. She lightly pushes me inside and places a plate of assorted berries in front of me on the leaf table. I grin sheepishly and grab my carefully crafted wooden fork to eat the sweet treats, blatantly ignoring the small green pieces that had been mixed in.
“The vegetable, too, Pratyani,” mom says without turning from making her own bowl, lavender wings fluttering in quiet delight, and I grimace.
“But they’re bitter,” I whine, even as I admire the soft purple petals she had chosen at her own Changing.
“They help keep you balanced,” she rebuts. She joins me at the table, wings folded down and out of the way. “Try eating them with the berries – you may like the taste.” I frown at my food but add some of the dark greens with my blackberries. I stare at the threatening image, close my eyes and shove the fork in my mouth.
They pop open in surprise as I chew. The bitter kale seems to increase the berry’s sweetness! I grin and eagerly shovel the mixture in my mouth, humming as I relish in the enhanced tastes.
Mom sat with her head resting in her hand, short dark hair lightly brushing against her tawny skin as soft amber eyes watch me.
“It won’t be much longer we can do this,” she sighs fondly.
“What?” I ask. She gestures to the table.
“After the Changing Ceremony in a couple days, you’ll be all grown up,” she says softly. “You’ll have your wings and be a true Fae. You won’t need me.”
“Maybe not,” I say, tapping my fork to the table thoughtfully. “But we can still eat together, right? I mean, things will change, but we can stay friends and do things together.” Her wings perk up as she brightens, soft pink lips stretching into a joyous smile at the promise.
“That sounds lovely,” she agrees. I smile and finish my food, then grab a green leaf jacket before heading out.
I carefully climb the knots on the tree next to my house until I reach a smaller branch second from the bottom. Then I climb in a walnut shell and grab the nearby vine that loops over branches above and pull, bringing myself up several levels until I get to the bird’s nest I needed.
“Pratyani!” I brace for impact as the small body slams into me, dark red hair tickling my nose as she hugs me.
“Qiyana!” I laugh, wrapping olive arms around her warm ivory shoulders. “How are you?”
“Great!” she cheers, pulling away. “Have you seen these colors?”
“Yeah! Have you decided on yours?”
“Of course!” Qiyana says proudly, standing with her hands on her hips. “I’m going to have yellow wings. They’re supposed to give you the most power – like Silvertongue the bookkeeper! She controls lightning and everyone loves her!” I grin, not at all surprised. Being one of the smallest sprouts, Qiyana did not appreciate how all the bigger sprouts got more attention or were assigned better jobs. Having yellow wings that enhance strength and intelligence has been the sproutling’s goal for years.
“What about you?”
“The flame wings?” she asks dubiously. “Why those? They can only destroy, and they don’t have a whole lot of stamina.”
“Not necessarily. Akoni has the fire wings and he is our fiercest warrior. It’s all in how you use them.”
“I suppose that’s true,” Qiyana murmurs, tapping her chin. “Arisha has yellow wings, but she doesn’t influence lightning, just heat.”
“She is a builder,” I laugh. “So that has to help her job a bit, right?”
“Maybe. Do you want to go look at the colors?” I nod enthusiastically. We run to the walnut shell and go to the lower branches where we could use the bridgeway between trees to see more of the beautiful shades.
While red was dominant outside my house, yellows, oranges, and even greens joined the crimson in the joyous dance of change. We ooh and awe when Wind slips between the colorful flags and reveals leaves that have multiple colors on them. We laugh at the pinkish hue of one and marvel at the yellow leaf with a green boarder. We even see several yellow with brown spots on them.
Truly this is a season of wonder! I can’t help but think we’re so lucky our Changing Ceremony is happening during Autumn as I notice several flowers scattered around us with the leaves, adding new colors of blue and white and purple in lieu of the many leaves.
I pause in my happy frolicking when I notice Qiyana isn’t beside me anymore. I look back to see her entranced by a cluster of vibrant yellow leaves and skip back to her.
“Beautiful,” I sigh. The yellows are so perfect they glow with the promise of a powerful Change. They almost make me want to change my color – but I shake myself from the thought. There is a reason I chose red.
“I want them,” Qiyana says. I nod.
“We’ll remember where they are so we can get them tomorrow.”
“They could be taken by someone else,” Qiyana says possessively. “Or lose their vibrancy. I want them now.”
“We can’t. There are serious consequences for breaking the ceremony rules. You’ve heard the stories.”
“They only say we’ll turn into Boggarts because they don’t want us to break tradition,” Qiyana growls. “And to make it fair for all the other sprouts.”
“Those aren’t the only stories,” I counter. “Besides, we’ll get in serious trouble with the Council.”
“They’re mine,” Qiyana hisses and I step back in shock. She rips her arm from my grasp as I do and reaches up to pluck the four leaflets from the branches.
A harsh chill rushes through the limbs and whips our hair about our faces. I could feel Wind try to fight back, wrapping warmth around us. But the cold rips through the feeble barrier and forces Wind back. It invades the clearing, nipping our exposed skin and tearing at our clothes. I hunch over as the shock forces me to my knees. Fear fills my heart as I see Qiyana still standing defiantly in the midst of the harsh wind. Her shoulders were hunched over as she tries to withstand the onslaught, teeth bared as the wind tries to push her down. The yellow fronds whip around fiercely as if the new torrent was attempting to tear them from her grasp.
After several minutes, it’s finally gone. I look down at my hands in horror and confusion as another fierce shudder shakes my small frame.
What was that? What just happened? And why?
A frustrated and angry scream makes me look up in panic only to see Qiyana throwing four black things over the side of our branch. I gasp as I recognize the pattern of the lifeless things as leaves. Qiyana’s anger helps me realize.
It killed her wings.
“Qiyana,” I say softly. She jerks away before I can reach her and screams again at the sky.
“That’s not fair!” she yells, grabbing her red hair. Her anger surprises me, but that takes a backseat when I see what she uncovered.
“Your ear,” I gasp, holding my friend to look at the pointed appendage. “It’s turning blue.” A very slight tint at the tip of her ear concerned me, but I also realize the same malady affected her scalp, though her red hair covers it well.
“Who cares?” Qiyana howls and pushes me away. “They destroyed my wings. Those were mine.” She hisses and growls like an incensed Pixi. It makes me nervous.
“They who?” a deep voice rumbles behind me, and I whip around in surprise before smiling in relief.
“Uchitpal,” I greet the ebony skinned Fae. “I d-don’t know what happened. It w-was cold and I was s-so sc-cared.” He stops me before I could touch him by leveling his spear at me. I step back in mute disbelief.
“Do not touch me, Pratyani, Qiyana,” he warns softly, forest green wings flaring behind him. The two Fae with him also lower their weapons to face us.
“Akamai?” I ask the usually cheerful dwarf-like Fae, who simply continues to stare at us blankly, bow pointed to my chest. He seems much more intimidating with his black beard on honey-brown skin, and his burgundy cap certainly didn’t help. I turn to the sandy-toned Fae beside him.
“Adelina?” Her usual smile does not grace her red lips. Even her crystal blue wings appear threatening here. To see the usually joyful and compassionate fairies I play with so grim scares me.
“What’s going on?”
“We are taking you both to the Council,” Uchitpal says grimly. I turn to Qiyana, but her complexion’s drawn and grim, eyes narrow in a seething anger I’m not used to seeing. She was standing taught as if ready to fight. I take a deep breath and raise my hands slowly, and nod.
The three guardian Fae relax their stances, but not their weapons, as they nudge us onto their owl, careful not to allow us to touch.
Maybe the Council can hep me understand what’s going on.
I sat in a daze as the Council filed out. Uchitpal is pushing a bound and caged Qiyana on a cart out a door on the other side of the room. They had simply looked at our ears and decreed her banished.
“Nurisha will be relieved,” someone says as everyone leaves. A moment later, familiar arms wrap around me and I turn to fling myself in her strong embrace.
“I don’t understand,” I gasp, only then realizing tears are streaming down my face.
“She broke a sacred law,” mom whispers. “One that protects us from a cruel nature. Now, she has to leave so the rest of us remain safe.”
“B-but she just chose her wings!”
“She chose before the Full Moon,” my mom says, and pulls me back to look in my hazel eyes. “The moon’s shine protects us from a curse cast at the beginning of time. Choosing her wings without that protection turned her Dark. Within a week, she will no longer be the Qiyana you knew.” I shudder and sob, leaning back in her comforting embrace as sadness overwhelmed me.
Why couldn’t she have waited one more day?
I wander among the branches and colors along with the other sproutlings old enough for Nature’s Blessing. I barely heard their excited cheers and gasps as they choose the leaves that would become their wings. I walk slowly among their gleeful skips and sprints as they work to find the leaves that would guide their growth into the Fae they want to be.
I pause as a vibrant color flickers in my peripheral. I turn to see the red I had craved a day ago, glorious and vibrant, promising a strength and the ability to protect; passion and power to create. Something that would support those I choose to call my family.
Something that would have complimented the powers yellow would have given my best friend.
I turn away. I don’t feel worthy of that power, nor does it feel right to get what I want when my friend could not.
A golden yellow more profound than what I saw yesterday catches my eye, right next to my favored red. I tilt my head as I considered. Qiyana wanted the yellow, and it would have made her great. But I have no desire for the omniscience or attention it would garner me.
But to remember her…
I carefully pluck two yellow fronds, then pick two reds as well. Four leaves to make two wings.
Perhaps this way, both our wishes will be fulfilled.
I slowly walk to the platform, where the final steps of the ceremony take place. I watch as each sprout steps onto the raised platform, and step off fully grown, glorious wings they had chosen gracefully extending from their backs and spines. I ignore the raised brows and surprised looks for choosing two colors, something that has never before been done. Once I reach the oak table, I lift the leaves above my head, shimmering softly in the moonlight with untapped power and a promise burning in my heart. I whisper the solemn vow.
By the Night and of the Day, Forever Light and guide the Fae.
The moonlight cocoons me, wrapping its silvery light around me in a comforting hug. For the first time since the harsh wind, I felt warm.
As I feel the warmth spread through my heart and up my spine, I hear a soft feminine voice make a promise.
For the Day and by the Night, Fight the Dark and be the Light.
A brilliant flash of light and I straighten, leaves gone from my hands. Instead, magnificent orange wings flutter behind me, pulsing with life and strength. They shimmer and glow with an innate energy unlike any I’ve seen before. Likewise, I felt a wisdom and understanding I never knew I lacked. Suddenly, a lot of things make a lot more sense.
I square my shoulders and calmly step off the shorter pedestal, long legs taking the distance easier than my previous appendages had. I practically glide across the awestruck room as the Fae within wonder at my Change.
I pause in front of my former caregiver and look into her eyes, a little disoriented at the difference in height. Unlike when I was a sproutling that morning, now I stand on equal ground.
“Do you still want to take your meals with me, Nurisha of the Aziza?” I ask softly. I could feel the change – the power and confidence my wings instill me with in the Changing Season – and wonder if my mother of ten years would change her mind for it. Her eyes clear of uncertainty as she smiles at me.
“I can think of none I would rather share that time with,” she responds warmly, and I smile back.
“Nor can I,” I agree, and we turn to leave.
“That was quite a Change,” a velvety voice says in shadows beside me. I turn to greet the unfamiliar voice only to see a very familiar shock of red hair.
“Qiyana!” I say happily, only to freeze right before launching into a hug. Something was…off.
She had clearly undergone her own Changing – she was a full-fledged Fae. Even without wings, power oozed off her new form, tall and regal and beautiful.
But her smile, while similar, had an undertone of mockery. Her skin now had an ethereal glow that seemed more porcelain than her usual warm ivory. Eyes that used to be a blue as warm and clear as the morning sky now had a coldness to it that was reminiscent of the harsh wind that chilled me to the bone.
“What’s wrong, Pratyani?” she snarks. “Don’t like what you see?”
“What happened to you?” I ask, reaching out for her. Her eyes soften and flash with regret as she pulls back.
“Don’t touch me,” she says sadly. “Or you’ll be tainted.”
“What? No, we can fix this. The Council –”
“Sentenced me to a life in the Dark Realm,” Qiyana finished for me with a pained smile. “The law protects sproutlings from Changing to Dark. And I broke it.”
“But we can –”
“No.” Her words were strong, firm, and reminiscent of my friend. My heart constricts and I choke on a sob.
“To say goodbye,” she answers. “I’ve grown to understand a lot of things since my own Changing. One of which is that the mind is the last to go. In a few hours, the Qiyana you know will be dead.”
“No!” I cry. “I won’t accept this!”
“We can’t stop a curse older than time,” she murmurs sadly. “Just know that no matter what I don’t blame you. You were my only friend despite my huge differences and issues. I will always be grateful to you for that.”
“Y-you were my best friend, too,” I sob as my heart ached within my bosom. “I will miss you, Qiyana of the Ohdow.”
“And I you, Pratyani of the Yakshaw. I pray we never meet again, to keep our memories pure.”
A chill wind brushes through, and she’s gone.
I fall to my knees, sobbing as my soul tore in two. Nurisha drops next to me and wraps me in her arms, whispering soothing words.
I continue to cry as the moon marks its path across the sky and the heavens turn into shades similar to my new wings.
They say the year of the Changing is monumental and marks the path a Fae will take. Their wings will power them on as they walk their chosen life.
And with the wings I chose – the crimson of passion and protection and the yellow of discovery and intelligence – I know my path.
May my heart be strong enough to withstand it as the color of hope and stability guides my way.