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
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
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.
* * *
"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
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
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.
* * *
Why stay in this place?
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
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
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
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
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
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
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."
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."
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
"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
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
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
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.
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
"It's too dangerous! What if the bridge takes us?"
"What if it does? You came to no harm before."
I frowned. "Before?"
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
"Not follow. Return."
"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
"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
"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.
© 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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