ember Ember breathed deeply, tasting the earthy dampness of her little glade. Late afternoon light spilled through the trees, throwing long shadows across the forest floor. As always, she felt as though the whole glade held its breath, waiting for her to sing the Glimmer-song. Every tree, every mushroom, fern, and flower knew that something special was about to happen.
Alighting on the broad leaf of a nodding violet, Ember stepped into a puddle of rose-gold light. She ran her fingers through the Light-stream, its warmth caressing her skin. Her candle-flame eyes parted the strands. She saw a rainbow of liquid light where others saw only the cheerful glow of a sunbeam. Swirls of colour eddied at her fingertips, flowed down the back of her hand like smoke.
No-one saw the colours as she did, no other Fae could part the Stream or sing the Glimmer-song. She was born of the Stream itself, brought forth by the Creator's Word, the song of Lightdancing already on her lips. Without her, without Glimmer their nights would pass cold and dim. Her duty was important and she pursued it with serious dedication.
She watched the strands of light play over her palm. The Glimmer had to be collected at just the right time, when the light was past day-strength, but not yet weak with night. The crystals had to be warm and soft - a cosy cheer to light their paths and warm their homes through the night.
At last the rainbow strands dimmed, their warmth retreating into the west. All about fell a hush of expectation, no birds called, no insects sang. Ember inhaled deeply, drawing light into her lungs, holding it there. Its warmth spread through her like mulled wine.
She began to sing, each pure note crystallising into a flawless glowing gem. Buoyed by the light-stream the jewels danced about her, a swarm of rose-gold fire-flies. They spun and swirled, their light trails weaving a delicate, multi-coloured cloth that hung in the air for only moments before melting away in a shower of light.
This was the Lightdancing.
Sunlight filled her, radiating from her skin, burnishing her dark curls, filling her candle-flame eyes until they blazed like twin stars. She revelled in the electric current of energy flowing through every tissue, every cell. She was light, she was warmth, she was Ember.
Lifting the Glimmer-cage, Ember called the light-gems to her. They spiralled towards her outstretched arm, passed between the bars of the cage and settled into a quiet hum. The cage illuminated the glade like a small sun, casting back shadows, pushing back encroaching night.
The last bell-notes of her song drifted into the hush and were gone. Now, as she had every evening for countless decades, she would return to Ingengaard, scatter the captured sunlight, and enjoy its cheer until the dawn returned to claim it.
Inspecting the cage, she frowned. Something was amiss. It looked like her cage, felt like her cage, in fact it was identical in every way, but for one very important difference. Her cage held the Glimmer, completed the binding. This cage did not. Ember stared, horrified, as the Glimmer dissolved, deliquescing into strands of light.
A peel of tinkling laughter drifted down from the canopy far overhead. Ember glared into the leafy ceiling. Anger flared through her, knotting her stomach. She knew that laugh.
"Titch!" she yelled. "What have you done?! Get down here, now! I need the cage. I......".
Panicked, Ember glanced at the light-stream. It faded too quickly. "Titch!" she screamed, frantic.
"You are much too serious, Ember," a merry voice tinkled from the bell of a nearby calla lily.
Ember darted forward, tossing the useless cage aside. Titch was fast, but Ember was like light itself. Incensed, she grabbed Titch by the tip of a wing as she tried to escape, spinning her about. Seizing her by the shoulders, she shook her roughly.
Titch giggled uncontrollably, more of her dandelion-puff hair working free of its bell-cap. Funny?
She thought this was funny? "You twit! You silly little pixie! Do you realise what you have done?" Ember screamed, but her jaw was clamped so tightly shut the words hissed through her teeth. "Give me the cage, or there will be no light!"
Unwilling, or unable, to take her seriously, Titch showed her empty hands. "I must have lost it," she said with wide-eyed innocence.
On the verge of tears, Ember shoved her away. Getting Titch to help was a waste of time. She was not malicious, Ember knew, she just had no concept of limits. As far as Titch was concerned, there was no such thing as a bad joke.
Ember spun full-circle, searching the glade, mindful of the rapidly fading twilight. Heart hammering in her chest, she struggled to think. Titch favoured glamours, illusions, flowers where there were none, tricks of the light, dark shadows where.........
A flurry of wings, Ember darted beneath a stand of cream-bellied mushrooms into a patch of shadow too dark to see the mossy ground beneath. She brushed the shadow aside with a sweep of her still radiant arm, snatched up her Glimmer-cage and hurried back to the pool of waning light.
"See," Titch laughed behind her. "You will still get your little bits of light. Lighten up Ember." She giggled. "Lighten up, lighten up," she sang, clapping her hands, pleased with her cleverness.
But she was wrong. Ember let the light-strands spill through her fingers. Their heat had gone, the glistening strands felt soft and cool with advancing night. It was too late.
"Well, come on then," Titch urged. "Catfish got your tongue?"
Ember could not speak. Her breath came so fast she grew light-headed. Never, not since the time of Creation, had the Fae been without Glimmer, never.
"It is too late," she whispered, voice thin with shock. "There will be no Glimmer in Ingengaard this night."
"But...." Titch alighted beside her.
Ember rounded on her, hands balled into fists. "You! You and your childish tricks! I have always said they would lead to trouble and now you prove me right." She struggled against her anger, felt the sun's heat rising, flushing her cheeks, filling her eyes. Flames danced across her knuckles.
She retreated, skittering backward on furiously beating wings when she ran out of leaf. She had to put some distance between her and Titch. Titch appeared unaware of the calamity she had brought down upon them all.
Looking to the west, the cheeky faery pointed into the sunset. "But, the light still shines over there," she said, bemused.
Ember's first impulse to throttle Titch was arrested by the sudden realisation that she was right. Shooting upwards, Ember erupted through the canopy in a shower of leaves. The strength of the breeze caught her by surprise, tumbling her backwards across several treetops before she could right herself.
In all directions the forest spread unbroken to the horizon, an undulating sea of green, crested now with the last golden glow of daylight. Hope urging her on, Ember sped west, a stream of light chasing the sunset. The magenta disc sank behind a sheet of pale mauve cloud, casting a final pearly glow on wisps of rose cloud that hung in the faded blue sky. As fast as she was, the Stream remained just out of reach.
Ember flew until her back and shoulders burned. She could scarcely draw breath. Strands of hair whipped her face, stinging her eyes so they watered. Despair reached inside her chest, seized her heart. The headwind was too strong, her speed was not enough. She had failed.
Exhausted, she skimmed the forest roof. The sun disappeared, leaving a pale sky of watery blue fading to waxen yellow. Defeated, she dropped into the canopy, a falling leave drifting to the forest floor. She hardly noticed how thin the undergrowth had become, did not see the track of bare dirt cut through the stand of tall silver birch.
Beneath the gloom of dusk, Ember fell into the furry-leafed embrace of a lantana bush. Head sunk to her chest, she sobbed, large wet drops soaking into her dress, clinging to the end of her nose. How could she go back? The thought was too horrible to imagine.
"Such large tears for one so small," a gentle voice said.
Crying out in alarm, Ember darted beneath a head of pink flowers. Heart threatening to burst from her chest, she peered out through the sticky blossoms. A large almond eye peered back at her.
The eye crinkled with a smile. "Do not be afraid, little one. I am friend, not foe."
The eye retreated, giving Ember a glimpse of delicately arched eyebrows and full blood-red lips. Finding her courage, she emerged cautiously, wings quivering, ready for flight.
Her eyes widened, mouth dropping open in amazement. "You're, you're....."
"A Sentinel?" the enormous Fae finished for her.
"Huge!" Ember breathed, neck craning to take in the full sight of her.
Merriment danced in her sage eyes, lit her face. She was breathtaking. She dropped to one knee, the silken curtain of her hair falling forward, caressing her shoulders like black molasses. Headed tilted slightly to the side, she regarded Ember with gentle, serious eyes.
"Tis not safe here for Little Folk," she said softly. "What brings you beyond the Barrier?"
Ember gasped, her eyes darting about, for the first time noticing the foreignness of the forest. "I..... Oh." She felt fresh tears welling, held her breath, swallowing hard to keep from crying. "I am sorry," she said in a tiny voice, wiping her nose with the back of her hand.
It was forbidden to cross the Barrier, strictly forbidden. None but the Queen could do so, and her Sentinels, the fierce warriors who patrolled their borders. To pass through the Barrier was very, very bad. She looked up into the Sentinel's slanted eyes, large as river stones. She had to explain. She was not a wilful sprite, was not...... Words tumbled out with a rush.
"I... I... I was chasing the Light-stream. I had the wrong cage, and the Glimmer would not stay, it just flowed away, and I had to chase the sun, I have to sing the Glimmer-song, there is no other way to do it you see, so, so....." Her voice shrank into a whisper, she felt impaled by those dark, knowing eyes. She tried to swallow, but hiccupped on a sob.
"And did you catch the Stream?" the Fae asked quietly.
She was so calm, so softly spoken, yet more commanding in that quietness than Ember could ever be though she blazed with a thousand sunsets. It was a humbling realisation. "No." Her voice sounded pathetically small to her own ears, weak, echoing her terrible failure. "No," she said again, deflating like an overripe berry. She held up the empty Glimmer-cage. The last of her strength fled, leaving her exhausted and trembling. Sinking to her knees, she gave in to more tears, burying her face in her hands. "Titch, she took the cage, she....."
"Ah," the Fae breathed. "Titch".
Ember looked up. "You know her?"
A corner of the Sentinel's mouth turned up in a rueful grimace. "We have had occasion to meet," she admitted. "More than once".
She offered a hand, palm up. "Come, little friend, we will race the sun together".
Ember stared at the hand, stunned. "You mean - you are not going to turn me into a newt and leave me to be snatched up and eaten by an owl?" Her gaze drifted to the razor-sharp sword hanging at the giant Fae's waist. She had expected punishment, dire and swift, not an offer of help.
Rich laughter rang through the forest. Ember felt foolish, and blushed.
"Is that what they say, little one? Am I so horrible, do you think?"
Ember smiled timidly. "No," she said.
"Well then, let us be on our way, the sun waits for no-one."
Ember fluttered onto the offered hand, falling quickly to her knees when the Sentinel rose to her feet. They left the ground with such a rush that Ember threw her arms around her new friend's thumb to keep herself from falling behind. She looked up at the warrior as they ascended through the trees. She had never seen a Sentinel before. She had thought it a myth that they were the size of Men, a story to frighten children curious to see the Barrier.
"I am Saren," the Fae offered.
Ember took breath to give her own name when they burst into open air. Her new hopes quickly sank. Nothing remained of the sunset but a faint glow on the horizon. Nothing could catch the day now, she was lost.
"Hold tight," Saren cautioned, cupping Ember carefully against her chest.
Ember caught sight of Saren's full wingspan, and tightened her grip. Forever afterward she would remember the day she raced the sun.
The forest rushed by below them, then fell behind and they sped over open meadows of tall grass that rippled in silver waves as they passed. Soon the ground passed by too fast for Ember to make out much of anything. Impossibly, Saren's speed seemed to increase with each passing second. The roar of the wind in her ears was deafening. Ember longed to ride on Saren's fingertips, to catch a glimpse of this world beyond the Faery Haven, but she stayed within the shelter of Saren's hands, afraid of being snatched away by the wind.
She was wondering how far they would have to go when the scream of the wind disappeared so suddenly it took a few moments for her to realise it had gone. Risking a look, she found the whole world had disappeared. They flew down a white tunnel, its end lost in silver light. There was no sound, Saren's wings seemed hardly to beat at all, yet she was sure they still moved forward.
After a while she realised that the tunnel walls were not actually solid, but translucent like watery milk. Strange shapes and colours flashed by, impossibly fast. What was this place?
"We ride the Slipstream," Saren explained. "Once there were many such tunnels, flowing across the earth like the currents of the great oceans. Why they came to be we do not know. Perhaps the Creator laid them here when the Fae were many, when our number covered the whole earth. I believe we travelled them like Men now travel roads."
"You say 'once'. What happened to the others?"
Saren's smile was heavy with sadness, her brown eyes unreadable. "Men cut away mountains, move them to create new hills, they build tall structures, reaching to the stars. They interrupt the current, corrupt its path. That is the way of Man. He must change his world, bend it to his purpose. Perhaps one day this tunnel too will be gone."
Ember felt like a child, there was so much she did not know. She had lived many lifetimes of Man, yet was aware of so little. The Fae thought themselves the wisest of races, caretakers of the Creation, the last hope in the face of Man's destructive nature. Yet by what right did they judge the races of Men, when they themselves remained aloof, cloistered away from the world? They were sheltered by the Barrier, kept safe from the changing world, but at what cost?
A heavy sense of dread settled in the pit of her stomach. A flash of precognition showed a dark and difficult future, one her people were ill-prepared to face. How could they? Today she had encountered the greatest crisis in her long life - failing to collect tiny pieces of sunlight. How insignificant they seemed now. If she returned empty-handed - what then? Would it be the disaster she had imagined?
Dropping back into the warmth of Saren's palm, Ember drew herself up into a tight ball. With the clarity of hindsight, she realised that a solution would have been found. Queen Galiana would have understood - she would have helped. But pride had not allowed her to admit failure. Now a Sentinel had left her post to help her. She closed her eyes, resting her cheek on her knees. She was so, so tired.
She sensed Saren's other hand cover her, heard the snap of air beneath the Sentinel's enormous wings, put out a hand to steady herself as they banked right. The wind returned with a roar. Ember waited, wondering at the world hidden behind Saren's fingers. It occurred to her that perhaps Saren was deliberately concealing the location of the Slip-stream tunnel by covering her as they entered and left. And with good reason - if the Fae were to maintain their isolation.
Saren removed her hand. Ember gasped. Golden rays of early twilight bathed rocky steppes plummeting many thousands of feet into an immense canyon. Apricot sunlight shone off red rock cliffs, so that the whole scene resembled a lake of liquid light.
The Light-stream was bright, dancing before her eyes, its gossamer strands caressing the rocks and sparse shrubs. She should sing now, before the sun retreated again. But, for the first time in her long life, she did not have the heart for it.
As if sensing Ember's reluctance, Saren ferried her to a flat outcropping. "Sing for me," she said. "I have never heard the Glimmer-song."
Ember nodded, strumming the Light-stream with her fingertips. Her voice lifted into the cool air, clear and sweet. But now she felt less sure. Her world had changed, perhaps irreversibly. It was so much larger now, an unknown place of lurking dangers. It was vast, and she was only a speck, dislodged by the slightest breeze. Of what import was her Glimmer in a world such as this? Her voice faltered, the gathering light scattered.
A butterfly fluttered at her shoulder. Surprised, she turned.
The Man-sized Saren was gone, in her place stood a Saren of faery proportions, although she was still head and shoulders above Ember. She laughed, apparently amused by Ember's amazement, and winked. Flicking her delicate veined wings, she folded them into a thin sheet that draped to her knees. Hand on the pommel her sword she stared into the sunset, a fierce defiance in her blazing eyes, in the jutting line of her strong jaw.
"Nothing is as it seems, Ember," she said quietly, a rising wind lifting strands of her jet-black hair. "The world is what we make of it."
Her eyes found Ember's and a lifetime of meaning passed between them. In that moment, Ember saw a heart filled with yearning, anguish, uncertainty, a soul pressed into dutiful solitude, old beyond her years. She was trying to tell her something, but Ember was not really sure she understood.
The intensity of Saren's serious gaze softened. Touching Ember's shoulder fleetingly, she smiled.
"If we are to walk a new path, first we must have light to find the way," she said.
Her enigmatic words were maddening. Ember thought that perhaps later, at a quiet moment when she thought of other things, their meaning might suddenly occur to her, but for now she remained confused. Inexplicably, though, it suddenly did not matter overly much. Saren's smile reached her heart with a warmth like sunbeams.
For the second time that evening, Ember drank deeply from the light-stream. Its warmth suffused her, but something felt different inside. New notes lifted eagerly from her lips, drifted along the light-strands. Her weariness dissolved, she felt charged, made more alive inside by this newness.
The Glimmer did not dance the frenetic dash of swarming fireflies, weaving a cloth that unravelled before it was spun. It swirled slowly, the myriad gems pirouetting a languid ballet around her. The rainbow colours of the Light-stream were dazzling, seeming to shine far brighter than ever she had seen them.
The fabric of the Lightdancing hung in the air about her. Still singing, she stretched out to touch it with a fingertip. Ripples of light pulsed outward, jumping across the threads. The ripples became waves, rolling and crashing together until finally fading.
Gradually she became aware of a soft swell of sound, a sweet counter-melody. The canyon reverberated with music, catching her voice, bouncing it back in a cascade of unearthly beauty. Ember's spirit soared. It was though the whole Creation sang with her.
Finally, Ember fell silent, her song spent. Music echoed through the canyon, rebounding, swelling into a single pure chord. Breathless, she barely noticed as the Glimmer floated unbidden into her cage.
She could not have said how long they stood there. The sun dipped behind the far walls of the canyon, night descended. Without words, they both sensed it was time to leave. It was only when she turned to step onto Saren's now large hand that Ember noticed the tumble of bright cloth at her feet. Stepping from the tangle she realised that it was actually a sheath, the cloth of the Lightdancing, fallen to her feet.
Wondrously, carefully, afraid it might dissolve at her touch, she lifted it up. Lighter than air, soft as twilight, it played across her hands like silk, twinkling like a thousand captured stars as the strands caught light from the Glimmercage. What could it mean? Clutching the sheath to her chest, she stepped onto Saren's palm. An idea captured her imagination.
"Rest now," Saren instructed. "We will not be long in returning."
The wonderful cloth made a soft pillow and Ember was soon asleep.
She came awake slowly. She had had a dream, a warm, pleasant dream that left her relaxed and weightless. Stretching luxuriously, she breathed deeply, sighing away the last spiderweb tangles of sleep.
The soft glow of pre-dawn brought her fully awake with a start. She searched frantically for the Glimmer-cage. It lay empty beside her. Heart hammering, disoriented, she tried to remember what had happened. She remembered the song, the Lightdancing, the cloth.
The fabric lay across her lap, glittering still, as if with a light of its own. Her surroundings became familiar, she realised where she was, in her own tree, her own cosy bower of flannel down and cotton puff. Then she saw it. All around her, in every tree, shining from every home and lighting every path of Ingengaard, was the glimmer of the Lightdancing.

© 2003 - Sherri-Lee Lavender Green

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