The Dancing Bird

February 3, 2015 - Short Story

The Dancing Bird
Kelly D. Tolman
Firelight reflected dimly from Garen’s face as he peered out from the deep woodland shadows. He tipped his hat lower to cover more of his face. In the meadow blazed a large fire, shedding a reddish hue across the glen. Around the fire a slim figure spun and swirled sharply, casting faint reflections of sliver buckles out into the night. From his place in the trees, Garen couldn’t see the figure’s face; only the buckles and the dance. The rhythm was almost hypnotic, the movement delicate yet complicated and intricate, following the subtle cadences of the evening breeze as image shifted through the forest boughs. Garen lost track of the pattern quickly as his gaze became welded to the willowy figure. Without thinking, he felt himself drawn toward the dance, and took one step out of the shadows towards the fire. The dancer made a last turn, and brought herself face to face with him, but when she saw the intruder, she let out a gasp and fled the meadow. Garen watched as she left; still captivated by the magic of the moment before he too finally turned and left.
In the blackness of the forest, Garen felt his palms grow sweaty as he reflected on the image of the dancer before the fire. He wandered slowly through the forest until he finally came to his own camp. Garen his father stooped over the fire, cooking the evening meal. “Didn’t find much in the way of firewood, I see,” said the grizzled man when he saw his son.
“I saw something tonight,” began Garen quietly.
“We all see things sometimes,” responded his father, handing him a plate of stew. “What was it?”
“There was a woman dancing around a fire in the evening light, but when I came near she ran off, like she was frightened of an ordinary woodcutter.” Garen took a mouthful of the stew and began to chew without tasting it.
“Really, now.” Garen’s father contemplated his son, and said, “you don’t suppose it was a wil o’ wisp do you? There are a lot of strange things out there, some of them just illusions sent to bend our minds.”
“No, father, she was very real.”
“Then what are you going to do about it, son. You can’t just go chasing vanishing females in the night. Better to think on it after a good meal and a good night’s sleep.”
Garen took his father’s words to heart, and ate the rest of his meal in silence, and bedded down without commenting on the scene again. But the image continued to return in his dreams, the dance, the shifting pattern and then the one shadowy glimpse of that mysterious face just before it vanished into the shadows.
The morning labor was much more monotonous than usual for Garen. Although he had been a woodsman all his life and he enjoyed the time he spent alone or with his father in the wild, that day he found something missing. “Pining away for the shadowy lass, are you,” said his father when he noticed Garen slacking in his labor. “Worry about the day’s work, son, and tackle the mysteries of the night another time.”
But Garen couldn’t clear his mind of the rhythm of her feet, or her swaying to the silent music of the forest. “I’m sorry father, but I just can’t forget what I saw. There was a look about her that I’ve never seen before. It was something sad, horrible. But beautiful too.”
“A forest spirit, son, forget her and be happy with the good things you have here. Tomorrow we’ll go into town to sell what we’ve gathered so far, and you’ll see that there are other girls to look at.”
That evening Garen returned to the spot where he had seen the dance. Once more the fire burned dimly in the darkening forest shadows, and once again the seeming patternless dance began. Garen watched, enchanted for several moments as she spun, slowly at first, and then more quickly and surely about the ever changing flames. Almost as if part of the fire, her body turned and twisted dangerously, and once more Garen was drawn from his hiding place beneath the darkened boughs. Three thoughtless steps, and he had crossed the clearing, and of their own accord his feet joined hers, marking the pattern, and for a few brief moments they danced beneath the rising moon. When the rhythm stopped, they found themselves standing breathless in front of each other, their faces filled with fear and wonder.
“Who are you,” asked Garen when he finally found the ability to speak again.
“My name is Arieta. I come here to dance for my mother. She was a daughter of the forest, and promised that if I would remember her, she would protect me. Do you come from the village?”
“No, I am a simple woodsman,” responded Garen as he looked for the first time into her dark eyes, and reached out to touch the dark hair that fell straight and soft to her shoulders. “My father and I gather wood and hunt or fish to sell what we find to the villages around. Why is your dance so sad.”
Arieta dropped her eyes quietly, and Garen felt his heart thump. He opened his mouth to apologize, but Arieta had already begun to cry softly, and turned to face the fire. In a very quiet voice between sobs she began, “I come to mourn my parents. They died from the sickness that passed through the villages. Now I care for the house of my brother. But he is a cruel man.”
Suddenly they heard the sound of a branch cracking in the distance, and Arieta’s eyes once more rolled with fright. “He is coming,” she said, “quick, you must leave.”
“But . . .” stammered Garen uselessly as she pushed him toward the edge of the clearing. “Where can I find you,” he whispered, but it was no use. Arieta had already returned to the fire, and begun the dance again. Wordlessly, Garen turned and went to find his father.
This time his father was waiting with their supper already prepared. “Visiting your dancing shadow again?”
“Her name is Arieta, father,” said Garen defensively. “She dances to mourn her parents who died in the plague that has cursed these villages from time to time.” Garen fell sadly silent with a dark frown on his face.
“So, she is no spirit after all.” The grizzled woodsman recognized the pain on his son’s face, and also fell silent. They ate together in silence for several moments before anyone spoke again. “Arieta is a gypsy name, son. What did she look like?”
“She has dark skin and dark hair, like the gypsies, father.” Garen looked into the fire, and chewed his food thoughtfully. “I know that the gypsies aren’t accepted in the villages father. . .”
“Not everyone thinks alike, son. Don’t worry about the shade of her skin so much as the nature of her heart. Tomorrow we will go into the village and see what we can find.”
Garen’s heart was heavy as they brought their goods to the village, as he knew that he would not have the chance to see Arieta that evening. The Fair had arrived once again to celebrate the year’s harvests, and everyone had turned out to celebrate with the farmers. Garen’s father decided to sell to their usual buyer, a middle-aged merchant who in turn distributed the goods to the villages further down the river. As usual, the price was only moderate, but more than enough to provide the two with the few supplies the forest hadn’t given them. By noon their work was complete.
“How about a turn around the Fair grounds to see the games, and maybe buy something other than new ax blades,” asked Garen’s father. Garen’s eyes lit up at the thought of spending a little time in the village. He wanted to look around, and maybe find a small gift for Arieta. “You go on alone, I’ve got another man I want to see on the other side of town.”
“You mean the pub,” laughed Garen, and his father smiled broadly.
“You can find me there a little later if you like, you know the place.”
Garen wandered off quietly, passing the booths of fresh produce that had once seemed so exciting. A few games were being played by stray children, and a strange tune wafted over the crowd from a young group of musicians. The music seemed almost discordant, yet there was a familiar rhythm about it. On the far edge of the fair grounds, Garen found a brightly painted wagon where an old gypsy lady was telling fortunes. The woman had a familiar look about her eyes, and Garen caught himself wandering toward the wagon.
“Shall I tell your fortune, child,” said the woman when Garen stopped and looked at her. “A good fortune you must have, one so strong and young. Surely there are great things ahead for you.”
Garen smiled at the woman, and nodded, “I’ll hear my fortune, though I doubt you’ll find much glory in it.”
Garen followed her into the little red and yellow tent set apart by the gypsies, his eyes darting every direction. A little wooden table was set in the middle of the tent behind a low stool. A worn tablecloth covered the table, and a large crystal ball was set up in the middle. “Be seated, child,” said the woman in soft, yet commanding tones, and Garen silently sat down.
As his eyes adapted to the dark, Garen picked out the frayed ends of the purple table covering, and the scratches on the crystal’s wooden stand. The stiff chair bit into his backside and Garen felt immediately out of place. He stared around in quiet confusion at the dimly lit, yet easily discernible tent interior. The carpet was almost shiny orange and yellow, and the walls were a contrast of green and purple that had been patched in several places with pieces of plain homespun cloth.
“The forces of the universe are gathered here to tell what might come,” intoned the woman in a quiet chant. The light in the tent became even dimmer, and Garen felt lost in strange shadows. A dim glow started at the base of the crystal ball, and began to brighten throughout the rest of the room. Garen crouched closer to the table, and leaned in to see the ball. “The power of destiny has been called,” continued the fortune teller, “look into the ball, and see what may become.” Garen peered into the soft glow of the crystal, but he couldn’t really see anything. “I see fame and fortune,” the woman said in a voice with a strange garbled accent, “greatness and riches beyond the simple life you have enjoyed.”
Garen continued to look into the ball, but his mind began to wander a little. The woman’s voice became a blur similar to that of the glowing ball as she continued in the strangely accented account of his future glory. Suddenly a movement caught the corner of his eye. He turned and saw a dark figure duck into the recesses of the tent with a brief flash of silver buckles. Garen stood up quickly, and dashed after the shadow, shaking the table violently, and nearly toppling the crystal ball on its stand. “Arieta,” he called, and she paused for a moment, half turning back to look at him. “Wait a moment, Arieta.” The fortuneteller stood up behind him with a strange, confused smile.
“Do you know this boy,” asked the woman.
“Oh, no,” answered Arieta, but her eyes gave away the lie. The fortuneteller raised a brow, and Arieta continued, “we met in the forest, Maelena, I was dancing the mourning of my parents.”
Maelena turned to Garen, “did you see her in the forest, child.”
“Yes, we met in the forest,” answered Garen, his voice choking a little, “we danced together under the rising moon.”
“Where did you learn the mourning dance,” questioned the fortuneteller, her voice taking on a tone of bitterness.
“My feet moved of their own accord,” said Garen looking at the ground, “I didn’t understand it all myself, I just followed the music the forest played.” Garen lifted his head and looked into Arieta’s eyes.
“Then you weaved the spell of willows to deceive him in the shadows,” said Maelena in a stern voice as she stared with cold eyes at Arieta.
“No,” mumbled the girl, her face downcast.
“It was a simple dance of mourning. Though my heart desired comfort, the dance was simple. Nature . . . my mother’s spirit . . . the magic just happened,” stammered Arieta defensively.
Maelena’s face changed suddenly and her smile beamed brightly. “I just wanted to be sure, child. These are the true forces of the universe, Garen, not just the gibberish of fortune tellers.”
Garen reached out and took Arieta’s hand, squeezing it gently, and pulled her closer. “I don’t know what has caused it, but I love you,” he said.
A rough voice came from outside the tent, “Arieta, Arieta, where are you? The chores are not done yet for this morning.”
Arieta’s face lost color at the sound of the voice, and she looked around the tent for a shadow to hide in. “What is it,” asked Garen.
“Styven,” answered Maelena, “Arieta’s guardian and brother. You will have to speak with him if you really think you love her.”
A dark face with long mustaches poked through the flap at the back of the tent. “There you are, sister. What are you doing here?” Styven’s voice was tainted with unconcealed anger. Styven noticed Garen holding his sister, and the scowl on his face deepened, “who is this?”
Maelena reached a soothing arm out and pulled Styven into the tent. She gestured toward Garen, and explained, “Garen was brought by the powers of nature to ease your sister’s mourning.”
“The only forces of nature are those we create and control ourselves. His kind took our parents away. I will not allow this one to also take my sister. Come, Arieta.” Styven’s voice carried a tone of finality, and Garen had no response.
“I can’t leave him, brother,” said Arieta, “we were brought together for a purpose. Would you deny the blessings of our parents’ spirits.”
“That is nonsense for fortune tellers and fools. I forbid you to be with this creature.” Styven grabbed Arieta’s arm, and pulled her roughly toward the back of the tent. Garen reacted instinctively, and swung wildly at the other man’s face. His blow connected, and the gypsy fell back, tearing a hole in the tent and scattering Maelena’s mystic symbols.
“No,” called Maelena as she stepped in front of Garen, “do no more violence here, please. There are laws and customs. You can not take her by violence, and she would not go with you if you tried. Styven will set the terms, and if you accept and meet his terms, Arieta may choose you. By custom, he cannot forbid her, but you must be very careful.”
Styven fumbled his way out of the torn tent, and looked angrily at Garen. “Custom says you may meet the terms,” he said angrily. Styven grabbed Arieta and pushed her roughly out the back of the tent. “Come to your place in the forest tonight, and we will discuss the terms.” With that Styven turned and disappeared in the jumble of gypsy wagons.
Garen grumbled angrily to himself, and turned to leave the tent. “Garen,” said Maelena, “he will not give her up lightly, and although she loves you, she still loves him too. His terms will be difficult for both of you.”
Garen looked soberly at the gypsy woman. “I know.”
“Styven is a sort of magician among us, no matter what he says is about fortune teller nonsense,” continued the Maelena, “he may try to use certain spells.” Maelena held up a long dagger with leaves etched into the blade. “This will break any spells he weaves with his magic. It won’t affect any other spells, or be more than a knife if he doesn’t use magic, but it might help. Be very careful.”
Garen left the tent with a heavy heart, his head down as he wandered across the village to the pub where his father waited. The fair continued in all its frivolity throughout the afternoon. Gay tunes played in the evening air, and all around people danced merrily or played at the games. A bawdy song rolled out with the warm light from the pub, and the strong scent of alcohol and tobacco reminded Garen that time was short. He found his father with a group of local farmers whose faces were familiar from past fairs, singing merrily over pints of ale. Garen was handed a mug almost immediately, and was pushed into a stool beside his father.
“Welcome, son, and join the revelry. The harvest has been good to all this season . . .” but the merry look faded quickly when he saw his son’s eyes. “What is it, boy.”
“You can guess, father,” said Garen. His father nodded and frowned. “I have something to do tonight. It might be dangerous, I’m not sure.” His father looked into his eyes, smiled softly, and nodded again. Without touching the ale, Garen left the pub quietly, and wandered into the darkening forest. Behind him the party only grew louder.
The shadows lengthened significantly as night approached, until Garen could barely see to place one foot in front of the other. When he finally arrived at the clearing, the moon was high in the starless sky, shining only dimly behind the thin clouds. A fire burned brightly in the center of the clearing and a dull red light reflected like blood from Styven’s face as he waited for Garen’s approach. Behind him huddled Arieta in the black mourning gown, her hands bound by a white cloth.
As Styven began to speak, his voice was dark and menacing, and the fire seemed to burn hotter and higher as he continued. “So, you would have my sister, the gypsy princess, go with you to the life of a simple woodsman, and forsake the tradition of her people. Arieta, do you want this?”
The raven-haired woman looked defiantly into the eyes of her brother. “You know that I do. I cannot deny what has happened, or what I feel.”
“And you, woodsman,” sneered Styven, “are you prepared to pay the price.”
Garen stared defiantly back at the gypsy man, giving only a slight nod to indicate that he was prepared to accept the challenge.
“Very well,” continued Styven, “the terms are simple. We among the gypsies have a magical, a bond with nature. Within each of us is the spirit of a protecting force, which can change us and bond us forever with nature. If Arieta is allowed to bring out magic within herself, and bond completely with nature, you may have her.”
“What will happen to her?”
Arieta spoke up, tears coming to her eyes. “I don’t know, Garen, but I will be changed forever, bound to the forest.”
“Do you agree,” snarled Styven, those are the terms.
Garen looked away from the angry gypsy, and his eyes met Arieta’s. The tears had dried on her cheeks, but the look of fear was obvious. He could see something else in that gaze, though, the unmistakable look of passion, and Garen felt the sweat forming on his palms. “Agreed,” they said in unison, and Styven stepped back in surprise.
“Very well, I will begin the spell, but Arieta must finish it.” Styven began to chant in a low voice, and did a quick dance around the fire. As his voice oscillated, the fire rose and fell, and his body moved in a smooth rhythm. Seemingly from nowhere Arieta’s voice joined his in a high discordant tone. As the flames rose, and the red glow brightened, their voices formed a cacophonous union until Styven’s dance came to an end, and he collapsed in exhaustion to the ground. Arieta’s song continued to rise, and a soft blue glow, like an intense reflection of the moon surrounded her. As if compelled by an outside force, she lifted herself from the ground, and stood, looking into Garen’s eyes. The song rose higher, until the notes were like birds crying in the night, and the blue light became too bright to look into. With a flash, the crescendo died slowly into a lower hum until the light dissipated and the song was finished. Where Arieta had been, a beautiful white bird flapped its wings nervously, and then flew over to Garen. He took the bird on his arm, and as tears streamed down his face whispered, “Arieta.”
On the ground Styven writhed in perverse joy. “Behold, your love, the dancing bird of youth.” The gypsy’s face broke into a vicious grin, until he realized that his words meant nothing to the woodsman. Garen stood, enchanted, a look of joy playing on his face. Styven stood angrily, and let out a rough grunt. “You will never have her,” he cried, and leapt toward Garen. The woodsman turned to face the attacker, but he was too late. Styven tackled him, and they flew together toward the fire. Garen turned, and rolled away from the flames, preparing to defend himself, but Styven was no longer moving. Carefully the woodsman rolled the gypsy over, and found Maelena’s knife lodged near Styven’s heart. Behind him he heard a quiet sob. Garen turned to see Arieta kneeling and crying in the shadows.
“The spell is broken,” said Garen, as he embraced his beloved.
“Yes, and no. Under the light of the moon I am free to roam these woods, but I can never leave them, and when the moon is gone, I will be the dancing bird again.” Arieta sobbed, but Garen tenderly wiped the tears away, and embraced his dancing bird.
The End

› tags: Fantasy Story / Short Story /

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