Wings Too Wide is a short story I wrote for FantasyCon 2000. Organised by the British Fantasy Society, FantasyCon is an annual celebration of all things wonderful in speculative fiction, culminating in the spectacular British Fantasy Awards ceremony.
The story appeared in the menu for the convention’s final banquet, a dragon-themed affair entitled The Slayer’s Surfeit. Invited to contribute the centrepiece story for the aptly-named Bill of Fayre, I came up with a little tale about a dragon called Ordinal, a minor character from my first novel, Dragoncharm. In the novel, Ordinal is very old; the story takes us all the way back to her youth.
After the convention, the story stayed buried for 20 years, only to emerge when I stumbled over one of the limited edition menus I’d signed for the banquet. I re-read the story, decided it deserved its place in the light once more, and decided to publish it again here. I hope you enjoy it!
Wings Too Wide
As soon as I turned my back on them I knew I’d done the right thing. A forbidden thing, of course, but the right thing all the same. They called after me but I just sent a blast of cold cavern air pounding down across their upturned faces and fled. I’d had enough. I was getting out for good.
A sentry tried to bar my way; I widened my grin and spat fire across his flank. He glanced down at Brask, panic-stricken, as if he’d never been told he might actually have to apprehend somebody one day. As I flew past I clipped him with my tail. He scuttled back as if he’d been stung and I plunged on into the exit tunnel reserved for Council members only.
Behind me in the Great Chamber, Brask was shouting, “You can never return, Ordinal! Never!”
I didn’t care. I wanted out of these stinking caverns for good. I threw up a bow wave of charm and crashed through a dozen flimsy shield walls. I skidded through tunnel after tunnel, scattering dragons, until I finally reached the one tunnel nobody ever uses. Jaws gaped at me as I turned into it.
As I finally headed for the surface I decided my mother had been right.
I was born with wings too wide for the world.
Torrstein’s a pretty ordinary place. About fifteen thousand dragons living in an underground system of caves and tunnels, with a big aquifer set aside for those who like to swim. For all his faults, Brask does a good job of keeping it all in order. He might be old and crusty but he can work charm better than most and for the most part he wields it well.
Charm? Yes, every dragon uses it, me included. Shape-changing is popular and, like most dragons, I’ve chosen to resculpt my body. Not that I follow the crowd; while all the others have been shrinking their wings down to little autumn leaves – the latest fashion – I’ve been doing the opposite, growing my wings longer and longer … and longer.
“What do you need those great gangling wings for, Ordinal?” they’d ask me. “They don’t suit the tunnels.”
Well, exactly. I don’t care if they think my long wings are unfeminine. I only care that my wings do the job I want them to do.
Dragons didn’t always live underground. Dragons did use the sky, once upon a time – all the time, in fact – but only until they discovered charm works better underground. Charm’s a bit like words, you know. If you speak in the open air the words drift far away; speak in a cave and they bounce back at you, echoing, reverberating, growing louder and stronger.
That’s what being underground does for charm – it multiplies it – and that’s what drove the old dragons to move deeper underground in pursuit of ever more complicated charm, until they eventually forgot where they’d come from. They excavated places like Torrstein, burning fissures through the rock and opening out chamber after chamber, making runs and tunnels and spaces to live in and spaces to die in, spaces for everything a dragon needs.
Everything except flying.
Oh, you can fly in a tunnel, but it’s abbreviated flight. Did dragons make wider tunnels to compensate? No, they made their wings smaller instead. Now every dragon has small wings and nobody goes up to the surface any more. Fifteen thousand dragons and not one of them interested in what lies outside.
“We can see the sky any time we like,” Brask said to me when I went to the Council with my request to go outside. “Charm-sense brings us any vantage we like, down here or up there. I have seen the world above. It is over-rated.”
But seeing isn’t being. Abbreviated flight and abbreviated ideas. Not a single dragon wanting to soar.
I’d asked politely and been refused. The only thing left was to open my wings and just go.
So that’s what I did.
The tunnel leading to the surface reminded me of the ancient tombs in the very deepest part of Torrstein. It was dark and spooky – no bobbing charms here to light a dragon’s way. Biting back my fear, I poured charm into my protective bow wave, making it glow pale blue. Through the phosphorescent aura I could see craggy granite walls thick with slime and cobwebs. It stank.
But the tunnel was wide! Until now I had been forced to keep my charm-lengthened wings almost completely furled, relying on flight-charm alone to carry me aloft. Now I could spread my wings to over half their full length.
The dragons who made this tunnel weren’t diggers, I thought with excitement. They were fliers!
The lower sections of the surface tunnel had been almost unbearably cold, having long ago been isolated from Torrstein’s intricate heating system. Now the air was growing perceptibly warmer. What’s more, there was something ahead – at first I couldn’t understand what I was seeing. Then suddenly I saw the light. Literally.
Extinguishing the glow from my bow wave, I stared up into a brilliant yellow halo. It was light of a colour and texture I’d never known before. Daylight! As it speared my eyes, I found I was crying.
My bow wave ripped through hundreds of strange, stringy growths criss-crossing the tunnel, which was broadening even more now.
Tree roots! So this is what they look like!
The closer I came to the exit, the thicker the roots became. Still, my charm made short work of them, carving them to splinters as I thumped my wings forward and back, forward and back, pumping flavour-filled air down from the sky and deep into the ground. I wondered if they could taste it down there in Torrstein. I wondered if they could taste its sweetness.
I reached the very mouth of the tunnel, where I encountered no resistance whatsoever.
There’s no barrier! It was a revelation. They didn’t even seal it off. Any of us could have left any time we wanted!
Liquid light splashed against my scales. With it came unexpected warmth, a hot yellow flood. Wings pounding, neck straining, tail whipping for balance, I exploded into the world above.
The stone walls of the tunnel were gone. Tree roots had become whole trees, living towers meshing green-soaked limbs with the air – and so big! I rejoiced in the first caress of wind, whose name I knew but whose touch I had never felt. Oh, the dazzling colour of it all, the green and the brown, the burning yellow, the blue and the white! I cried out my joy and listened in wonder as my voice began its journey into the unknown, its sound made endless, freed at last from rock’s dead echo.
I rose higher with my wings fully spread now. I moved them this way and that, feeling the air fill their membranes then spill free again, always free, always moving on, always somewhere new to go.
Wings wide, I soared.
Soon I was immersed, a tiny speck of dragon dust adrift on an infinite sky. The clouds fascinated me; I could see shapes pressed into them like faces into clay, faces changing from breath to breath, dragon faces and faery faces. Sometimes it seemed to me they were the faces of all those souls who were yet to live on this world, looking down on the rest of us as they waited their turn, chose their place, bided their time.
Later, after the sun’s disc had turned orange and been swallowed by the distant fiery soil, I watched the sky dim to purple dusk. My first sunset.
Shortly after that I saw my first star.
That first night was so wondrous, I couldn’t sleep at all. I spent it on the wing, all of it, watching the slow turning of a billion points of light against a blackness more profound than the deepest cavern, only alighting when the morning sun broke the spell with its own glorious magic.
After resting and drinking from a fresh mountain spring, I flew again. I started thinking about Brask. About all of them. How could they have turned their backs on this? If I returned, could I convince them to join me up here? Seeing the wonder of it all, how could they not be swayed?
Fifteen thousand dragons, I thought, and they didn’t even seal up the tunnel.
No. I knew the truth of it, hard as it was.
“We have all seen the world above,” Brask had told me with a sad smile on his wizened face. “It is over-rated.”
Oh, it is darker underground than he will ever know.
I thought I might cry for them, then, but already they seemed like ghosts to me.
I saw them just before the sun reached its zenith. A cloud of tiny dust motes floating dark against the blue. Dragons. Dragons like dust, but I know now that dust is real. Solid. Touch it and it touches you right back. Ghosts don’t do that. If you try to touch a ghost, it floats right through you like you were never there.
I started flying toward them at once. I’m nervous, of course; who wouldn’t be? They look at home here, these strange dragons; maybe I won’t fit in. There’s only one way to find out, and there’s really no other choice. I’m certainly not going underground again. I’ve been there already.
They’re very close now. That’s the great thing about being up here – you can go a long way in a very short time, like a voice, like a word. All you need to do is spread your wings wide.
I think mine are wide enough.
Copyright © Graham Edwards 2000. All rights reserved.