Thick ice. Silver-jeweled masks. The skaters moved back and forth, leaving trails of light. For those watching, it was as if the dream had come alive. They heard the distant sound of chimes in the wind, though the air was still.
“Why did you choose them?”
“Wait,” Tarin said.
Harmilla stood with the other watchers, wishing she could understand what was going on. How long had she waited already? How long had she wanted to be part of the ceremony? But it had taken her years to learn how to manage her impatience. She wasn’t going to forfeit all the training now—especially now.
A mist rose and moved in twisting, curving folds of pale gray, chasing the ice. Fast, so fast, obscuring her view of this skater here, and that one there, and then it curled back upon itself. Many of the skaters had returned to the shore. Only a few figures were left. Each one stayed in motion, creating a swirling dance of color wherever they went, circling one another as if nothing had changed.
“Aren’t they afraid?” she asked, keeping her voice low.
“It doesn’t matter. That’s not what this is about.”
She was about to say more and insist the man beside her explain. Tarin was her mentor after all. She was entitled to know what was happening and why.
“It is as it is,” he said, as usual reading her mind. It irritated her to know she couldn’t yet keep him from seeing her thoughts.
”Watch. It’s not over.”
The edges of the pond were covered in several feet of snow. The woods beyond were caught in the impending dusk, somewhere between dark and light.
Harmilla held her breath. If anything was to happen, it would be now.
Out of the sky came the sound, a high-pitched chord of perfect harmony. The skaters stopped and looked up. As of one accord, and as it had to be, they threw their masks down onto the ice and joined hands in a circle, their eyes still riveted on the sky, their faces devoid of expression.
“Please stop,” Harmilla whispered.
“You don’t understand. We must do this. Let us be, Harmilla. Let us choose for ourselves!”
She stared into the circle. It was Miri who had sent the thought. It was a dangerous thing to do, for Tarin was so clever with his skill, pulling their exchanges out of the very air. But he was, for once, preoccupied. He wanted this ceremony to be complete. He worried at the details, since it was her first time. Had he let that go, he would have heard what Miri said to her from the circle.
“Sweet Harmilla, my lover Fairns and I both want this. Never doubt that. We know what we’re doing. We have to find the missing. Remember?”
Yes, she did, though the thought carried fear with it.
His voice made her reel back. Tarin rarely spoke aloud. She was so accustomed to feeling his words instead, that it was like a stroke of thunder. Had he heard Miri after all?
“It’s your turn now,” he said. “Pay attention.”
For a moment she stood still, wondering if there was another way. But Miri had said she was ready. So be it. She had to trust that. She took a step forward onto the ice. Instantly the mist swirled toward her and hovered, waiting. Harmilla swept her hands in a circle to the left and then pointed in a sudden sharp gesture to the right, toward the skaters who were still there, including Miri and Fairns. An instant later the mist covered them and the lake of ice was empty.
“Well done,” Tarin said. His face showed his pleasure. She had been a dutiful student. She had done what she was supposed to do, what she had been trained to do. He was satisfied.
The other watchers turned away.
“You have had trouble coming to terms with who we are, Harmilla,” he said. “We are better off without your friends—and the rest of them. Now you understand that, and you did what was necessary.”
“There are so few of us left,” she said to him in return.
Tarin turned toward her and smiled, a rare event. “Look at the ice.”
Harmilla did and saw the water flowing, cascading down a waterfall into the lake that received it, sending waves toward the shore. Yes, the ice was gone. The sacrifice had been the path.
“It’s not a sacrifice! It’s what has to be. How else can we survive? This is the only way to dissolve the ice.”
“How does it know?”
They had reached the long house where those remaining had gathered around the fire inside, waiting for Tarin.
“What do you mean?”
“The mist. How does it know who to choose?”
“It is but a device. How often have I said this? We choose. All of us. The vote was unanimous. None of the chosen objected. I told you this before. Have you forgotten?” Tarin’s long blond hair was burnished even in the dusk light, his tall figure confident, certain.
Would she ever feel assured like that? Would she have to live with the ritual? Or would Miri succeed?
“Succeed at what?” Tarin had reached out his hand to open the door of the long house but stopped. “Tell me!”
In the instant Harmilla buried the thought, keeping it far away from Tarin’s awareness. How had she done that? She held the space in her mind, filling it with random images. How had she done that, as well? It had never happened before.
“You send out such confusion. Your mind is full of chaos. Settle that. What you had to do distressed you. The first time can be difficult. Your next effort will be far easier. Trust me. When you do it again tomorrow, your mind will be clear afterward.” He pulled the door open and preceded her into the room. The others cheered. Each held a glass filled with the brew so familiar to them all, the elixir from the lake that was both breath and life.
“You see?” Tarin said before drinking his own. “We can relax.”
He was happy, his attention diverted. Though she knew he could hear her thoughts even when he was asleep, if he chose, Harmilla trusted she had a few moments to herself. She wanted to dwell on what Miri had told her.
They had come together in a glen the day before, a place where water flowed freely along a creek. The ice had been broken again. It had been Fairns who had performed the ritual that morning, and he was consumed with anger and guilt.
“We’ll never be able to stop Tarin by staying here,” Miri said.
“The others are passive, and agree with whatever he says,” Fairns added.
“Not only that. It is because they’re afraid of him, as much as the ritual. And why not? It has always succeeded. Until now.”
“But what if I fail you?” Harmilla asked. She had joined them both reluctantly, frightened, yet the missing ones had nagged at her long enough, too long to shut away her doubts anymore. Still, what Miri wanted to do was dangerous. If Harmilla failed, it would mean her own death, for Tarin would realize what her intention had been.
“Those that have been removed are in a place of suspension,” Miri said. “I intend to release them. Tarin has never imagined that is possible. I know it is!”
“How? How do you know? What if you’re wrong?”
“Only Fairns knows what I’m about to tell you. The weight of it has been so hard to hide. When I was ill with a fever—you remember?”
“Of course! It came on you so fast and we had never seen anything like it. You couldn’t even swallow the drink. It was terrible.”
“For three days I couldn’t take in anything. That’s when it happened.”
“When what happened?”
Miri glanced over at Fairns, who nodded in agreement for her to go ahead.
“I had been without anything to drink that whole time. I had another dream. Not the one we all share. This one took our common dream and added more. I saw a different place, not the gray wall we are used to, where the skaters are prisoners. Instead, there was sunlight, Harmilla, and the sea, and so much more. And in the dream I saw there was a way to release everyone. Do you understand? I want you to join us. Isn’t that what you want, too? What life is here for you with Tarin? What is there to live for besides the ritual—the incessant anticipation of those you know being removed forever?”
“Why do you believe this other dream?” Harmilla asked.
“When I came out of the fever and saw where I was, I knew I couldn’t stay. No matter what waited, I couldn’t stay here. I felt the essence of the dream. It was real. It is real. For too long, the drink has obscured our knowing this.”
“Tarin has power only when the ice has been dissolved,” Fairns said. “He is unlikely to forfeit the ritual that makes that happen. He is your surrogate father, not your real one. You owe him nothing.”
“I owe him my life,” Harmilla had said softly.
“That is his hold?” Miri asked. “No matter what else he does, he is rewarded with your loyalty? There are boundaries we all need, don’t you know this? You have given away your power to him. Isn’t it like a living death for you already?”
Harmilla had gone to the edge of the creek and watched the water cascade over the rocks. The sound of it reminded her of the sound after the skaters had been taken.
“What I know is that I can release them from the prison they are in, all of the missing ones. I can find a better place for them, for all of us.” Miri bent down beside her and ran her fingers through the flowing water.
“How? With what? You have no idea what’s out there! You’re guessing!”
“Do you think I would put my life at risk for a guess?” Miri stood up again. “No. Listen to me. Where they are is a state of mind, the same as ours, the same as Tarin’s. That’s what the dream showed me, and also how I can shift that for them. If they yearn to stay in the prison, and some deluded souls will, I won’t stop them. But most will choose to go with me.”
“This is all we have!” Harmilla had swept her arm around the space they were in. The spikes of glass flowers shone red in the light, like blood. Yellow thorn bushes crowded the path they had come through. Around her she could hear the trees whispering.
“Is it? We all share the common dream. Every night it comes to us. What Tarin fears the most, perhaps the only thing, is to have anyone believe—as I do—that the dream is more than we’ve been shown, for what then would become of him? He loves what he has created. It is a risk we take to go, but I’m asking you to believe me. Can you?”
“Why should I?”
“Because otherwise, when we go, you really will be left all alone.”
Harmilla had put her head in her hands and the sobs came, but for what, she didn’t know. Miri was right. Nothing would remain for her to care about. Only the endless days of the ritual. Until what? Until they all were gone? She had lifted her head and heard the despair in her voice.
“Tarin doesn’t want to send everyone away! Who would he have as followers? What would he do if no one was left?”
“I can answer that easily. You know other settlements exist. He would simply bring more skaters here. That’s all he needs. Where do you think the ones living with us now have come from? They did not always live here. They were not born here!”
It was true. Only Tarin himself had been born in the long house. Other families, other watchers, other skaters—they had all arrived later. Now most of them were gone. Tarin would need to replace them.
She pulled her mind away from the meeting in the glen and looked around the long house quickly. Had anyone seen her, watched or felt her thoughts? But no one was paying her any attention. They were all celebrating the success of the ritual yet again, as they did every time.
Tomorrow would be the test. Even though she had agreed with Miri’s plan, Harmilla felt terror enter her heart. Tarin would know. He would see through her.
“What would I see through?”
She started and dropped her container of the brew, spilling it over the tiled floor. She answered with such panic she could see he believed her words. “You would see how inept I am at the ritual!”
He looked surprised. Someone else came and ran a cloth over the floor, drying it.
“You did it well enough today. I see no reason you won’t tomorrow. Sleep well, Harmilla. I want you alert. Everything will be fine, so long as you simply do what you did this time, do you see?”
The next day was overcast. The ice had come again, thick and impenetrable. With their silver-jeweled masks the skaters moved back and forth, once again leaving trails of light, even against the gray sky. As always she felt the dreamlike quality of the scene, the dancing flow of the skaters mesmerizing her. Then the sound came, hinted at by faint chimes. Once again there came the high-pitched chord of perfect harmony. The skaters who were left this time stopped and dropped their masks onto the ice and looked up as they were required. As it had to be, they joined hands in a circle, their eyes still riveted on the sky, their faces devoid of expression.
“Now,” Tarin said, when she hesitated. “Hurry! They’re waiting! It will be too late!”
She lifted her hand. Instantly the mist swirled toward her and hovered, waiting, a cloud of suppressed motion. Harmilla swept her hand to the left, as she was supposed to.
“Now hold your arms out, straight ahead of you,” Miri had said. “Sweep them in a full circle so that your hands meet together. Do this three times and clap your hands once. Be prepared. Allow whatever happens.”
All right. She held the thought as she moved her arms in a circle.
“All right what?” Tarin asked. “What are you doing!”
The third time, she clapped her hands, and the mist rolled in and covered her and she felt herself lifted into the air.
Tarin was screaming in fury, but it was too late.
The next moment Harmilla found herself surrounded by a gray void. She heard Miri’s voice.
“You are with us! You did it!”
Her vision cleared. They were all there—Miri, Fairns, and the skaters she had brought with her. Beyond them stood what seemed to be a sea of people, all suspended in the gray emptiness.
“The missing! So we’re all prisoners now,” she said, though somehow the idea didn’t frighten her. Tarin and the ritual had brought her a far greater fear and regret.
“No. Not a prison. That’s an illusion, Harmilla, what Tarin told us, what he told you, about the dream. All of it. Where we were and where we are now both occupy the same space. Each one is the dream, and each one is the truth. The difference is that now we can choose which one we want. Together! Tarin wanted to control us. Instead, against his will, he has set us free. Where would you like to be?”
“Here, with you and Fairns.”
“No, I mean what kind of place?”
Harmilla thought back to the silver-jeweled masks and the skaters.
“Dancing in the sunlight, where there is no ice.
The next moment they all stood in a paradise of turquoise water and trees with fronds that sang in the wind.
Miri smiled. “Done. If those here change their minds later, they can go back, or imagine somewhere else. It will always be a choice. Do you see?”
“That’s what Tarin always asked—did I see.”
“But for him it was a seal of his will, an endgame. For us, there are no limits.”
“How can you be sure, even now?”
“Look at me, Harmilla.”
“I see myself as in a mirror.”
“I see you again.” Harmilla looked out over the sea as it washed in gentle waves onto the shore, and remembered the lake after the skaters had disappeared.
“None of it is real. All of it is. Forever. Come with us now,” Fairns said.
“Why? What is it all for?” she called out, still unsure, still worried, as she saw all the others, one by one, moving into the shape of a figure eight, with the hushing sound of palm fronds below them.
“So you could understand this.” Miri took her hand and Fairns joined them. They soared together up into the sky and flew in trails of light, crystalline forms reflecting the sun. She heard chimes in the distance, until she became aware that they were not far away at all, and that she was the sound and the dance, both.
Regina Clarke follows her passions for reading mysteries, watching film noir and 1950s science fiction B-grade (sometimes C-grade) movies, absorbing biographies of writers like a sponge, exploring metaphysics, and feeling reverence for nature and all wildlife. She now calls the Hudson River Valley her home, and it pleases her no end to live not very far from where Rod Serling grew up and Jane Roberts encountered Seth.
Her stories have appeared in Thrice Fiction, Kzine, Bewildering Stories, Mad Scientist Journal, NewMyths, and T. Gene Davis’s Speculative Blog, among others. She has written a number of books in the genres of fantasy, science fiction, and mystery that are up on Amazon, both in Kindle and paperback formats (also available in iTunes and Kobo). In the spring of 2012 she was a finalist in the Hollywood SCRIPTOID Screenwriter’s Feature Challenge for her script about a mother seeking the disabled child she had abandoned, in “Second Chances.”
Visit Regina, see her books and story page, and read a blog post (the one on golden retrievers is recommended!) at her website: www.regina-clarke.com