Aphelion Issue 240, Volume 23
June 2019
 
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The Harlequin Girl

by David Cleden





You ask how she was lost to me? I say, not lost: stolen.
* * *

In summer tourists flocked to the Far Lake, but it was said that autumn belonged to the deluded, to the runners. Now and then when the mists rolled in, you saw them congregating near the bridges, solemnly embracing family and friends or exchanging final words with well-wishers--but more often than not, just scared and alone. They brought nothing save what could be carried in a small backpack or running pouch, because speed was important. Travel light. Everyone knew that. Speed and a little luck--supposedly all you needed to make the crossing.

Some said the bridges were active all year round, functioning at some residual level even out of season, but in a town that thrived on its myths and rumors, what was one more untruth? A few of us who had lingered through several seasons, thought we knew the truth of it. Only in autumn, when heavy mists might last for days at a time, could the occasional bridge be awakened.

Then they become something else.

Not bridges: gateways.

Farholme mirrored the seasons: alive in summer, dormant the rest of the year. That sprawling town of ramshackle, wood-framed buildings, narrow cobbled streets and chaotic little market squares, spread along the lake's shoreline like creeping mould. The long summers were profitable. The town fed off tourists drawn not so much by clear mountain air and a stunning panorama as the enigmatic Far Lake and its myriad islands, and the ancient bridges that connected each to its neighbor. Yet with the suddenness of a thrown switch, the dry heat would vanish, the days suddenly growing chilly and thick mists would creep down the valley, blanketing everything in damp despondency. Winter had no meaning here. The locals named it 'autumn-fade', those long months before spring burst forth again, the valley dormant while Mother Nature seemingly regrouped her forces. The days were a little colder and shorter, the nights a little more bitter, but it was the constant gentle rain, replenishing the lake and spinning the water turbines a little faster in the upstream power houses, that gnawed away at one's soul. Until one day, summer's heat arrived as suddenly as it had disappeared all those months previously.

Coriane and I saw the first of the autumn mists and knew that we had stayed too long. I suppose by then, I had already lost her. We spent sultry days strolling by the water's edge, dining in the over-priced restaurants with little care as to when the money would be gone, talking of our dreams and ambitions.

I remember these times clearly, but not the moment when it changed, when the ease we had felt in each other's company turned to complacency, and complacency to boredom.

Slow-witted though I might have been, I did eventually recognize the signs and felt a steely determination to put things right before it was too late. I loved Coriane. This was the girl for whom I had abandoned my family, my prospects, and most likely my inheritance, to be with. I would not--could not--stand by and let her be lost to me.

In that, as in so many other things, I turned out to be wrong.


* * *

The harlequin girl hung from a branch high in the trees near the waterfront, dangling from a nylon thread so fine as to be almost invisible. She twirled one way, then the other, like a spider on the end of a thread spinning its web. As her body spun, she arched and stretched--now curling into a fetus-like ball, now straining as if for something perpetually just beyond her grasp. She made shapes with her body, silhouetted against the mist-drenched canopy of trees: stars, arrows, birds in flight, a flower, an angel. A demon.

Sometimes she used her voice to mimic the birds and the squirrels, drawing them close with her clever deceptions. If she was feeling particularly wicked, she imitated the voices of those strolling the paths beneath, throwing her voice so that a man might appear to make some impertinent remark to his companion. Some laughed at the joke; some hurried away scowling.

She did all these things and more, gracefully and artfully suspended high above the milling crowds. Some stopped to watch, appreciating the art in her performance, openly applauding when she bowed low. Many strolled on oblivious, too excited by the prospect of glimpsing a bridge runner.

On sunnier days, the harlequin girl chose a grassy spot near the lake's edge and juggled--often heavy crystal balls, each with a splash of color at their heart that momentarily flared with each catch-and-throw motion. Or she would pull intricately carved wooden flambeaux from her performer's trunk, setting each ablaze with a spark from the tiny flint-stone mounted on the ring she wore, their chemically altered flames a chill, guttering blue as she tossed then in whirling arcs. Or if she was feeling especially light-hearted, she brought her cage of pet gravollas and juggled with those furry puffballs, throwing them higher and higher until they mewled with delight, and the audience would laugh and clap and beg her to continue even when her arms ached from the effort.

Nothing but tricks and frivolity, of course, designed to please the tourists and loosen a few coins from their pockets.

Yet, it served her purpose. From her various vantage points, she carefully studied each of the faces as they passed.

Watching.

Listening.

Waiting.


* * *

"See the lady running!" the small boy shouted. A few adults turned to look with mild interest in the direction he pointed. "See the lady in the blue dress running!"

I was too far back from the shoreline to see clearly yet I reacted at once. I shouldered my way through a cluster of people patiently queuing for roasted sweetmeats at a vendor's stall. Angry shouts erupted behind me.

The boy at the water's edge pointed into the mist. It might have been nothing more than a child's imagination; I knew that only too well. Then the breeze disturbed the veil of mist momentarily and I glimpsed the iron latticework of a caterinalli, one of the smaller freestanding footbridges.

I thought hard. I had no recollection of an island near this part of the shoreline but I might easily have strayed further than I realized. With so many little islands and bridges it was difficult to keep track--and impossible once the mists descended.

I squatted in front of the boy who could have been no more than six or seven. His eyes widened in alarm. I started to reach out to grip his shoulders, and then thought better of it. "What did you see?" I asked, trying to control the urgency in my voice.

"There was a lady running. On that bridge over there."

"What did she look like?"

"She wore a blue dress. I saw her running, and--"

Strong arms suddenly pulled me backward, away from the boy. "You! Stay away from my son. You've no business with him."

"I meant no harm." I backed away as some of the people from the vendor's stall began to approach, muttering darkly. Seeing only anger on their faces, I turned and strode quickly away, despairing.

I had not gone far, putting only one or two twists of path between me and the grumbling knot of people, when a girl dropped lightly from an overhanging branch onto the path in front of me. She wore a one-piece harlequin suit, her skin glittering with some kind of gold dust cosmetic.

I was too surprised to say anything, half an expecting an attack, either verbal or physical. Instead, the girl cocked her head to one side like a curious bird, a bob of short, dark hair hanging away from her face. Then she bowed low and gracefully, holding out a hand formally. "Sadia."

I took the hand without thinking. "Mylok Hadchen," I replied.

Had I seen this girl before? There was always a throng of performers and entertainers working the crowds.

"Well, Mylok. I know a place that serves excellent spiced tea. Just what is needed on such a cold day. Shall I show you the way?" She raised an eyebrow enquiringly as I hesitated. "Or perhaps you have more people to upset?"

Not waiting for an answer, she turned and began to walk away. She was a head taller than most, and moved with the grace of a dancer, hips swaying to some unheard rhythm. She didn't glance back, either confident I would come or not caring if I didn't.

A moment later, I found myself hurrying after her.

She led me along little-used paths even I had failed to discover in my many months of wandering the valley. Back in the town proper, I grew impatient as still we threaded our way through crowds spilling from the central squares towards Far Lake despite the unpromising day. Two or three times I was on the point of giving up, perhaps choosing to step into the relative quiet of one of the many teashops we passed. I felt no obligation to follow this girl, but something drew me on, and I struggled not to lose sight of her as she weaved through the throng of people. Not once did she look back.

Sadia drew me into ever-narrower streets of roughly laid cobbles, little more than alleyways ascending towards the rocky escarpment rising protectively over the eastern edge of town. I wondered if she was leading me back to the Gatekeeper's compound and the narrow entrance portal cut into the rock. At this time of day, there would be long queues on either side waiting patiently to be allowed transit. Though Farholme welcomed visitors, it did not permit them entry without documentation. Tourists were allowed to stay no more than a quarter season--long enough for them to be separated from their money--before being escorted back through the Gate to the mountain trail that had brought them here.

However, the girl turned down another alley and stepped through a rough brick archway, the interior dark and a little dank. I stumbled on the first of a flight of stone steps spiraling upwards into near total darkness. We climbed until my legs were protesting, passing various landings and entrances to what I assumed were private dwellings. Suddenly the stairs widened into a light-filled antechamber, its walls covered pleasingly in soft drapes. Soothing music lilted from another room. It was as if we had entered another world.

The girl led me through an airy dining area, half a dozen tables covered with starched white tablecloths and spotless place settings, and out onto a balcony so narrow it was little more than a ledge. It held a single table and two chairs, hard against the white painted railings that was all that protected us from the long drop. The girl squeezed into one chair and I edged carefully into the other. Below--some two hundred feet or more--the jumble of buildings, streets, and cobbled squares were laid out before us like a planner's model.

I saw her watching me carefully. "Afraid of heights, Mylok?"

"I... I've never seen Farholme quite like this before."

Her gaze rose to look beyond the town and out towards Far Lake itself, cosseted by the steep, mountain-lined valley. A narrow strip of parkland edged the nearer shore but was soon lost to thick forest. Higher up the valley sides, even the hardiest tree found no purchase on the rough scree slopes. Thus, Farholme laid claim to the valley and its lake. The town guarded the mountain pass jealously, the single point of entry and exit.

In summer the islands of Far Lake were ablaze with color, the flowering shrubs displayed at their very best. Now though, deep into autumn, the islands merely dappled the lake like some kind of algal bloom. Each was linked to its neighbors or the shore by quaint little footbridges, pointlessly yet oh so beautifully. There were hundreds upon hundreds of them, until they became lost to sight in the distance. From our aerial vantage point I began to appreciate the true scale of Far Lake and its strange beauty.

A waiter materialized to take our order of spiced tea and sugared delicacies, greeting Sadia by name. I barely noticed him.

"They say each island represents a different place, a different world maybe," I said. "If you believe the legends, Far Lake is no natural formation; it was created. Built as some kind of scaled down map of the heavens. They say mankind once knew how to stride between the stars as easily as we can stride across the bridges today. Then, somehow, we forgot. All except the ghost runners."

"Ghost runners?" Sadia seemed amused by something.

I frowned. How was it possible for someone who claimed to have lived in Farholme as long as Sadia not to have known about the ghost runners, those rarely glimpsed figures on the bridges who seemed to neither begin nor end their crossing in this realm? "Doesn't matter," I said.

Sadia seemed transfixed by the valley. "And do you, Mylok? Do you believe those legends?"

I turned to look at her. "Do you think me an idiot, then?"

She said nothing, but now her grey eyes turned to me and I felt suddenly uncomfortable.

"Once I believed a great many things," I conceded. "But fortunately wisdom grows as youth fades, or so my father said."

"Fortunately? Perhaps you should have more faith. More belief."

"Perhaps I should."

We returned to gazing out across the valley. "I have a question to ask you," Sadia said eventually. "Will you answer truthfully?"

"It depends. What is it?"

She smiled. "I think you already know."

I realized she was right.

I did.


* * *

Why stay in this place?

Why indeed.

Back then we had no plans, lingering whenever the mood took us, traveling on when it didn't. My father--or rather, his men--seemed not to have pursued us with any great vigor, so we had soon ceased running and become wanderers, living very handsomely on the family funds I had liberated. No, I didn't consider it stealing; this would have been my inheritance in time. Had my father not taken so violently against Coriane and her 'common forebears' as he liked to call them, none of this would have been necessary.

We traveled in increasingly leisurely fashion as time wore on; becoming little more than tourists. In hindsight, it seems inevitable that we gravitated towards this strange valley in the mountains. It does, after all, have a reputation for that kind of thing.

We knew our wanderings would have to end one day, but coming to Farholme was another way to postpone the inevitable–-or so we thought. We trusted that youth and good fortune would protect us. When the money ran out, as it surely would, we would think of something else.

That suited Coriane better than me. Coriane, with more than a little of the wild and untamed in her spirit, seemed to grow restless whenever I tried to impose order upon her life and, for my part, I suppose I was too blinded by love to understand that mutual accommodation was as important in the relationship as passion.

Thinking back, the signs of her restlessness were everywhere. Not content with seeing the sights, or strolling the endless lake paths, it was adventure that she sought, but whatever plans I made, nothing ever seemed to measure up. For entirely different reasons, we would lapse into sullen silences more and more frequently.

One day, beyond the end of summer, we ventured out to look at the bridges. It had begun to drizzle and the cobbled paths were slick and treacherous. I made the mistake of letting my lack of enthusiasm show. We had seen the best of the bridges weeks earlier. There were the spectacular Seven Sorrows, a cluster of wrought metal bridges linking together a chain of small islands, two or three hundred meter spans arcing across the water with no supporting pillars. Alternatively, the Shadow Bridge, cast in some unknown alloy that looked incapable of supporting its own weight much less that of the thronging crowds. Then there was the Bridge of Rainbows made entirely of crystal that shimmered even on the dullest of days, but of the other thousand or so bridges, there was little to remark upon--an eclectic mix of styles and materials, some little more than extended planks spanning the black waters. Little to remark upon--except, of course, for that one unusual and erratic property which drew now and then a runner like a magnet draws iron filings.

"Look, there's a mist coming in," Coriane said. "The first of the season. Do you think someone will try a crossing? We should go and see."

I sighed. I preferred to believe this was nothing but a powerful myth dreamt up by the Town Elders to draw in summer crowds, but there was a certain desperate romance to the idea all the same, and Coriane would go whether I went with her or not.

The shoreline paths were quieter than we had known them, cold and damp and grey, another sign that summer had faded to autumn overnight. We had no choice but to follow the convoluted trail along the shoreline. All the bridges were shut now to pedestrians, discrete little chains across the walkways to discourage casual strollers from trespassing. I held back a derisive laugh when I saw that. More perpetuation of the myth.

Uncharacteristically, Coriane reached for my hand as we walked. She seemed happier, calmer than I had seen her in days. Perversely, my own mood was somber.

Then, as we walked, the mist slipped down from the head of valley. Swiftly, tendrils of fog crept across the paths, entwining and thickening until we could scarcely see more than a few feet ahead of us.

We heard the commotion from somewhere across a narrow neck of water. Screened by the thickening mist, the voices seemed close by; an angry beggar was haranguing passers-by, some of whom were arguing back. Two or three couples had halted near us by a bridgehead, staring out into the mist to catch a glimpse of the fracas. Just then, a Town Elder rushed past, ceremonial robes hitched up in undignified fashion, the better to reach the commotion as quickly as possible. With the bridge closed, he had no choice but to follow the circuitous path along the water's edge.

Intrigued, Coriane broke away from me to follow. Then she seemed to change her mind. "Catch me," she called. "Catch me if you dare!" With that, she was gone, stepping lightly over the chain guarding the bridge's entrance. I called after her, laughing at first, and then crying out in alarm.

If she heard, she took no notice. I saw the flash of her blue dress as she ran along the gently rising arch of the bridge. The nearest span stretched for only a few yards before the swirling mist closed around it. I tried to remember whether this was one of the longer spans, but with the lack of reference points in the mist, I had grown confused. It was so easy to become lost.

I pushed past the onlookers and made to step over the chain myself. Coriane had kicked off her sandals and I half stumbled over one. A man put out an arm blocking my way. "Not on the bridge," he said. "Not unless you mean to." His expression was solemn. I felt a stab of fear in my belly for Coriane, but it was just a stupid myth--the whole 'connected to another place' stories, the ghost runners... It brought the tourists but I was too smart to be taken in. So I pushed past him and took my first step onto the span. Behind me, I was aware of a hush descending over the crowd. Everyone was watching me now.

"Coriane..." I had meant to shout her name but what came out was barely a whisper. Somewhere in the folds of mist, I thought I caught a flash of blue but it was so tentative, so insubstantial it could just have easily have been my mind playing tricks. I called again, louder this time, but my voice was flat, easily stifled by the damp air. I strode perhaps ten paces towards the thickest part of the bank of whiteness. The mist made my skin prickle, like the air itself was charged. Part of me was irritated with Coriane for making me feel like a fool, but another part felt scared. I still expected Coriane to reappear at any moment laughing, teasing me for my concern. It was well known that many runners tried their luck on the bridges in the season of mists, but almost all of them came back, and those that didn't? Well, there would always be a few who had never intended to return, one way or the other. The waters of the Far Lake were notoriously deep and cold and, no doubt, unforgiving. I doubted they gave up their secrets easily.

But still...

I looked back only once, and was surprised to see the faces of my audience almost vanished in the white mist where they stood at the end of the footbridge. Either I had gone further than I realized or the mist was thickening. Another couple of steps and they were gone completely. I faced in the direction Coriane had taken, calling her name without great conviction. I jogged forwards, anxious now to resolve this, already framing the anger I felt at her thoughtlessness.

The bridge still seemed to slope upwards although I must have covered more than a hundred yards by now. I searched my memory. Given its length, I judged this to be one of the major spans, a named bridge, but then I remembered once being told me that all the thousand bridges had names. It was just that nobody bothered with them; too many to keep track of.

Then suddenly I could see grey shapes to the left and right-–shapes that quickly resolved into trees and bushes and the feathery giant ferns that grew wild on some, although not all, of the islands. My perspective altered sharply and instead of the bridge sloping upwards, I stepped downwards towards the far bank, as I must have been doing for the last minute or so of my journey, so subtle was the gradient.

I smiled then. I knew Coriane well enough. Knew her love of games, and her teasing which could be cruel at times. "I see you!" I called out. "Behind that bush. Your pretty little nose is peeking out," though in truth I saw nothing. I wanted to prick her bubble of excitement, convince her that she hadn't fooled me at all. Me? Worried? About her? She flattered herself.

So I scouted round the trees and bushes on this new island, poking the denser thickets, calling her name, my initial laughter turning to irritation and then outright anger as the search continued.

I lost track of how many hours I searched.

I never did find her.

Now a year has passed, and I am still looking.


* * *

Sadia, the harlequin girl, gestured for more spiced tea but I waved the pot away when it was brought. Into the lengthening silence she said, "So Coriane is gone, and everyone knows the runners do not return, but you're still avoiding my question. Why have you stayed in Farholme? It's most unusual for the Elders to permit that."

I stared at her and she held my gaze steadily until I had to look away. My chest felt tight. Summoning a breath seemed to take enormous energy. At last, I heard myself say what I had never dared admit to myself, "Because I hope that one day she may find a way back, and if she does, I will be waiting for her."

"Oh Mylok..." Sadia turned to look out again at Far Lake. "Does this place frighten you?" she asked.

"No. Why should it?"

"Because I think it's fear that holds you here, not hope. You're afraid that if you leave this town it means admitting defeat, giving up on Coriane, but you're afraid to look for her too."

"I don't understand."

"You don't have to run from the unknown, Mylok. Seize opportunity wherever you find it."

I shook my head. I was beginning to lose patience. Sadia seemed to be talking in riddles.

We drank the rest of our tea in silence.


* * *

Many of my waking hours were spent walking the twisting paths alongside Far Lake's shoreline, crossing and re-crossing bridges at random when the weather was fine. In bright sunlight they were just bridges; curiously shaped, sometimes intricately beautiful things, but just bridges nonetheless. On such days, those myths concerning their origin and powers seemed exactly that--myths fabricated by the Elders for obvious commercial gain.

Yet, Coriane had vanished.

The harlequin girl haunted me, often dropping lightly from a branch onto the path in front of me, or cart wheeling from behind a bush, breaking into my thoughts with a suddenness I didn't always welcome.

In the afternoons, we took tea high on the cliffside terrace, no matter the weather. Sometimes when the damp air rolled in we sat shivering, looking out across the top-most folds of mist blanketing the town below and the lake beyond.

For all our talking, I learned virtually nothing of her past, the subject always veering in a different direction whenever I tried to raise it. Naturally, I was grateful for a sympathetic ear and if her persistent questioning of my motives became irritating, I tried not to show it.

It was friendship, nothing more--albeit a curious one, and each night when I closed my eyes, it was still Coriane's face I saw.


* * *

I had begun to sketch again, something I'd not done since adolescence. On the increasingly rare sunny days of autumn, I took my sketchpad and wandered the lesser paths until the crowds and vendors and entertainers dwindled. That became easier as the weeks passed and the town drained of its seasonal visitors. Then I would find a grassy bank on which to sit and sketch the bridges.

It was always the bridges; nothing else. I felt a powerful attraction, a fascination I suppose--though I could hardly claim to be the first. Though the architecture interested me--the detail in their differing forms and styles an endless challenge--somehow I could never quite capture their essence. Whatever talent I had was limited, but I took pleasure from striving to capture the geometric sweep of their spans, the intricate filigree of wrought-metal railings, the chiaroscuro shadow-play amongst ornate balustrades, or the delicate spun-wire of the tiny stepping-bridges arching high above the black waters.

Sadia encouraged me. "You have a good eye. You see more than most," she said. "And to observe is to understand."

Indeed, no two bridges were alike, each as different in their design and craftsmanship as in their span or width or construction material. Each held a mystery--who had built such a thing all those centuries ago, and why? With more than a thousand to choose from, I filled a sketchbook within a week, and then a second--and a third soon after.

However, as autumn-fade approached, even the blanketing mists became a rarity, replaced by constant drizzle and the opportunities for sketching, or indeed walking the valley paths became fewer. One day I found myself sitting in a favored spot, shivering despite my thick coat, sheltering as best I could from the rain. I looked down at my inferior, almost child-like drawing, blotted with moisture, and felt a tidal wave of despair break through the walls I had so carefully constructed in past months.

What had I been thinking, wasting my time playing the part of some tortured artistic soul? Coriane was never coming back. None of the runners came back.

When I looked up, Sadia was standing in front of me. She had the uncanniest way of materializing unexpectedly, often navigating the paths even when the fog lay thickly.

"Few stay once autumn-fade arrives," she remarked, a trace of sadness in her eyes.

I sighed. "What choice do I have?"

"There's always a choice, Mylok."

"Really? Then tell me--when something is lost to you, something so precious that words alone cannot adequately describe the loss, when that thing is taken from you, what choice is there but to wait–-to hope-–for its return?"

She laughed her little tinkly laugh and I grew angry. "Don't laugh at me!"

"Why Mylok, the choice is obvious. You can choose to go after it."


* * *

The man stood alone by the steps of a bridge, ill at ease, a small knapsack on his back. It was growing late, the park all but deserted. He looked up hopefully, as if expecting a familiar face, but when he saw me, his eyes seemed to cloud with a mixture of suspicion and despondency.

His intentions were plain. At a loss for words, I asked him if needed help.

"Courage, perhaps. Nothing else."

We both gazed at the curving span of bridge for a moment. I felt a shiver of fear run through me. "You're certain?" I asked.

The man gave a short bark of a laugh. "Hardly. I'm not certain of anything, anymore. Isn't that rather the point?"

The first tendrils of mist were drifting across the surface of the lake. He glanced at me, our eyes locking in understanding for an instant, and then he turned back to the bridge.

"Don't--" I began.

He took a step forward onto the bridge, then another. The mist seemed to come in waves, swirling theatrically around our ankles. I thought to call a warning but the man had come alone and obviously knew his mind. Who was I to interfere? The truth was, I was curious.

"Your name, sir?" I asked. "Is there someone I should notify?"

He ignored me. He began to walk faster. Soon he was running. In moments the mist claimed him, nothing but a grey outline, until even that ghostly image vanished, but still I could hear his steps on the bridge, pounding hard and fast. The sound of his running feet echoed on and on, surely far longer than the narrow span of bridge could contain. I strained to hear. Minutes passed until I realized the rhythmic pounding I still heard was nothing but the beating of my own heart.

I did call out then, my shout sounding flat and smothered, and though I waited a long time, no answering call came from the far bank.


* * *

One evening as I was preparing a simple meal, there was a rap on the door. A Town Elder, flanked by two uniformed gatekeepers, demanded entry. The Elder pushed past me into the room, eyes surveying the clutter disapprovingly. Sadia must have slipped into the back room for there was suddenly no sign of her.

Wearily, I produced my crumpled permit that the Elder inspected perfunctorily. It was unusual to have renewed my visitor stamp so many times but I had made sure to follow protocol.

"You came with a companion?" the Elder said, looking up.

"Yes." I hesitated. "We became separated in the mists. A long time back now."

"A runner?" he asked sharply.

I nodded reluctantly.

The Elder produced a quill, striking through the permissions page. "Then you have no further reason to stay in Farholme."

"But--"

He ignored me, eyes sweeping the room, finding what he sought on the low table near the window. "Just sketchbooks," I protested.

He flicked through the drawings. "But no ordinary sketches, these. So much detail, so much science behind these drawings." The words appeared to leave a bad taste in his mouth. "This will not do."

"But the market vendors sell paintings of the Seven Sorrows and the Rainbow Bridge by the hundred!" I protested.

The Elder waved a hand dismissively. "Souvenirs. Artistic representations, nothing more. These... These have architectural significance. Whatever secrets the bridges hold are not yours to possess. Such accuracy... Some might think you were trying to comprehend their design." He looked up sharply. "Are you?"

"I swear I--"

"We granted you entry as a tourist, to stroll the paths, dine in the fine lakeside restaurants, drink in the taverns if you desire--but you have outstayed your welcome."

"But surely--"

The men forced me to watch as the sketchbooks burned in the fireplace.

As they were leaving, the Elder turned back. "One more thing. There is a girl. Some call her the 'harlequin girl'--a juggler and park acrobat; a nuisance. She spreads many lies and mistruths about Far Lake and its bridges. For all her public entertaining, she has proved hard to track down. Do you know her?"

I fought hard against the urge to glance behind at the bedroom door. Instead, I forced a smile. "I'm sure I would have remembered had I seen her."

"Inform the Elders if you do. She has no permit, no leave to stay. She is not welcome in Farholme."

I nodded stiffly.

He glanced at the table. "A meal for two?"

My heart sank, but I thought quickly. "Force of habit. Since Coriane left..." I shrugged helplessly.

At a nod from the Elder, one of the gatekeepers pushed past, shouldering open the bedroom door. He returned a moment later, a single shake of the head confirming he had found nothing. The Elder seized a scarf I had carelessly tossed over the back of a chair. "For the dogs," he said. "Your scent." I remembered they kept a pack in the gatekeepers' compound; mean animals, half-starved to keep them on edge. At night, the sound of their snarling yelps sometimes carried across the rooftops, but it was rare for them to be turned loose; their presence a sufficient deterrent for most.

"You'll be gone by sun-down tomorrow," the Elder said matter-of-factly. "If not..." He glanced at the gatekeepers and the men returned crooked smiles.

When I was alone again, I padded thoughtfully back into the little bedroom. Other than the window open just the merest crack, there was no sign that Sadia had ever been there.


* * *

All the next day I searched for Sadia but could find her nowhere. I navigated the narrow streets but must have become confused because that oft-visited archway and stairs leading up to the cliff-top café were not where I remembered.

Neither was she down by Far Lake--the paths deserted now the season was truly over; the tourists departed and the entertainers and street vendors packed up and gone.

As the shadows slipped down into the valley, I returned to my lodgings and with mounting despair packed the few things of value into a simple shoulder bag. I was leaving behind the most valuable thing--or rather, it was she who had left me behind, and now it seemed I had lost Sadia too.

Reluctantly I made my way out into the deserted streets, heading for the town gate and the long road that would take me away from Farholme. Daylight was fading, but in the main square, I stopped. I could not bring myself to leave, no matter the consequences. Abruptly, I turned and made for the familiar shoreline paths, my mind clouded with anger, desperation, and indecision. My options were limited. I was certain they would loose the dogs on me come nightfall. Perhaps I could just walk into the foothills, taking my chances with the wild beasts on the mountain slopes. Or--

It was too late now for autumn mists. Even if that option had been available, it seemed suicidal. I was tied to Farholme, yet could not stay.

Lost in the misery of my thoughts, darkness seemed to fall quickly. The shoreline paths were never lit at night and not even the light spilling from the rowdiest hostelries penetrated this far. I wondered how it would feel to wade out into the dark waters until they closed over my head. Surely the cold would be numbing; the pain brief. Instead, I blundered on. In the distant, I heard dogs howling.

That was how I found the Gossamer Bridge, for what other name could it possibly have?

In the starlight, its ghostly white arch appeared suspended in the air, its supports concealed by pools of darkness. Its elegant, narrow span was seemingly fashioned from spun glass; delicate and insubstantial, scarcely capable of supporting its own weight. I had never seen such a bridge before, never heard it described by others in the town.

Curious, I stepped up. Grasping the handrail was like shaking hands with a corpse. Beneath my feet, the structure creaked and moved a little, as if stirring into life.

I crept cautiously forward, heart pounding, and the sour taste of fear in my throat. It was impossible to forget the past. Oh, Coriane. What mad thought had driven you? Had you no inkling of the risks you were taking?

Yet, the answers were obvious to me now. Coriane had known, she had just not cared, willingly embracing the danger. Coriane: always the adventurous one, fearless and foolhardy. Me--ever cautious and fearful of confronting the unknown.

Now... Still, I had no plan. Did I think I could somehow call to her across whatever void separated us? Would the bridge permit that? If it did, and if she heard, how would she ever be able to find a way back?

To these, I had no answers.

I leaned heavily against the guardrail feeling every inch the fool I was, letting my head sink onto my arms. Alien materials touched my forehead and I welcomed the coldness as it bit into my flesh.

I don't know how long I stayed like that. Long enough not to notice the reflections of the stars wink out one by one as a mist crept across the water, rare though that was now that autumn had passed.

I felt something then, a tiny vibration, and a tingling sense of energy flowing around me. Even the glasswork of the gossamer bridge felt warm as if I rested against some slumbering creature. I started to withdraw. Bridges were dangerous places to be, infinitely more so in the mist. They had taken Coriane and cast her across the galaxy; I would not fall victim too.

Then I noticed a patch of lightness on the bridge. It flickered and brightened, moving towards me, until a figure stepped out of the mist.

Sadia.

Flinging her flaming torches in high arcs, she juggled so expertly that they burned a little hole in the mist around her, a bubble in which colors flared and writhed, beating back the damp air.

"Come and see," she called softly. Swiftly the little circle of flaring light grew dimmer as she moved further onto the bridge. Darkness began to close around me. "Wait--" I said.

I stumbled, finding myself stepping further onto the bridge to keep the flickering lights in view. Sadia's gentle laugh, kindly not mocking, rang through the deadened air. "Come and see!" she called again.

"It's too dangerous! What if the bridge takes us?"

"What if it does? You came to no harm before."

I frowned. "Before?"

"Oh, Mylok."

I sensed her disappointment in me, but I still didn't understand. "I would follow Coriane if I could. I've nothing to lose now, but I don't know how."

"Not follow. Return."

"I don't--"

"Coriane never left. The bridge took you, Mylok. Not to a different place, but a different version of this place. One without Coriane, evidently. It's what Far Lake does--a nexus between versions of the universe. For those who can overcome their fears, they are not bridges but gateways."

"Is this some kind of trick?"

"Wouldn't you like to go back, Mylok? To see Coriane again?"

The flickering light from her torches was rising higher as she moved up the curving span of the bridge. I moved to follow but something pressed against my shins: a low chain across the bridge entrance. I remembered a time like this long ago, and I remembered how I had hesitated then.

"Wait--" I called.

I stepped awkwardly over the chain. After four or five steps, I halted, still afraid even now. Who was this harlequin girl really?

"Mylok?" A voice so faint, I was not certain I had imagined it. Not Sadia; a voice I hadn't heard in so long. It propelled me forward.

Then I slowed, wary again.

"Hurry..." the voice urged. I took a step closer, then another.

"Coriane?" I called softly, not daring to believe.

Somewhere up ahead I could still see the flare of the torches, a steady white glow amidst the fog.

"Hurry--" the voice called.

At last, I began to run.


* * *

On the far side, the harlequin girl caught the torches expertly, extinguishing each flame with a practiced move before laying them at her feet. She listened briefly to the footsteps on the bridge, a runner's footsteps, pounding hard until the bridge shook with their sound. Briefly, the steps came faster, an urgent drumbeat, then--

All was quiet.

Sadia smiled. "Goodbye, Mylok," she whispered. She said it not in her mimic's voice, but her own, and in her own alien tongue. Then she lifted her head like an animal tasting the air for the scents carried on the breeze. It was her time, too.

She stepped onto the bridge once more. In seconds, the mist painted her from view. For the briefest of moments there was the sound of running feet, graceful and athletic, and then that, too, ceased.

In the morning, they found a set of juggling clubs stacked neatly at the foot of the bridge.


THE END


© 2015 David Cleden

Bio: Mr. Cleden works as a technical writer.  Previous writing credits include runner-up in an Omni short story competition, fiction published more recently in Bewildering Stories, Betwixt and Jupiter magazines, and two business-related books published by Gower.  David lives in the UK with wife, family, and a ridiculously large number of cats (as per the rules of all author bios).

E-mail: David Cleden

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