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But Who Shall Lead the Dance?

by Marie Brennan

(Originally published in Talebones #34, February 2007)


If fate is kind, I shall never see the likes of Elsara Reen again.

Always has it been thus: we faerie folk have our lands, and mortals theirs, and to trespass unbidden from one to the other brings swift retribution. Be it by purpose or chance, if a mortal strays within our grasp, we deal with him according to our ancient ways.

And so it should have been with her.

She was one who came by chance; I know not what odd quirk of fate brought her through our lands. I can only hope it will not do so a second time. But on that summer night, she turned from her path, and we saw her wandering lost in our wood. We guided her steps, by subtle means, 'til she emerged into a glade, and found us waiting there.

I bowed to her and smiled a smile which held no warmth at all. "Have you enjoyed your tour, O mortal child?"

She was not a child; she was a woman grown, a youthful, mortal flower. But to us, she was a mere infant. Weak. Vulnerable.

Doomed.

She knew our ways, but protested still. "I swear to you, I meant no harm. I lost my way --"

"And found yourself here, beneath the summer moon."

"But not on purpose."

"It matters not." My smile grew. "Your name, O mortal child?"

Her eyes flashed fire as she glared at me -- my first warning, which I heeded not. "You shall not have it."

"We shall." Forth I reached my hand, and pulled it from her lips. "Your name."

"Elsara Reen," she said; she knew the danger, but could not fight my will.

Wide I spread my arms. "Welcome to the faerie ring, Elsara Reen, mortal child. We care not why you came; you are here. And all who come here face a common fate." The elvenkind had gathered round; I looked at them and smiled. "And what, my friends, might that fate be?"

"She will dance!" one called, his voice the growl of a stalking cat.

"And when will she dance?"

"Tonight!" shouted another, his voice the bay of a hunting hound.

"And where will she dance?"

"Here!" shrieked a third, his voice the scream of a hawk on the wing.

And I smiled at Elsara Reen, and asked my final question of her. "But who shall lead the dance?"

She had passion and pride, that would not be cowed by our presence, by our threats. I saw that, and it was my second warning, but I heeded it no more than the first. "You, I suppose."

I laughed, for her spirit pleased me, even as I knew we would break it tonight. "Oh no, mortal child. It is ever the way with us, that guests should have a special place." My own voice cut like winter wind, and I used it as a weapon. "What place more special than this, in the center of our ring? You will dance for us, mortal."

Her eyes went wide with fear, for well she knew what that would mean. "I refuse your judgement. I have committed no crime."

"Dance for us!"

"I shall not!" she screamed.

"Dance!"

My command thundered forth, born on a tide of rising sound as our musicians set lip to flute and finger to string. Their music swelled, and the circle about us began to turn, and in that faerie ring at last Elsara Reen began to dance.

Her feet dragged; her arms hung stiff. She fought our call with every strand of herself. But though she fought, still she moved, for never yet was mortal born who could resist our dance.

The music soared higher. Faster. Wilder. I took her hand and led her round, and in the faerie ring we danced, Elsara Reen and I. My feet fell light as dew on grass; hers were the heavy stomps of a clumsy mortal body, weighted by the resistance of a mortal mind. She fought to pull her hand from mine. But once and twice I led her round, and when I spun, she spun with me. When I leapt, she leapt as well. The voices of the flute and harp wove a net in night's chill air, and beneath it all there was the drum, and the fierce swift pulse of the immortal dance.

Her heart sped up. Her breath came fast. Thrice around the circle went, and we two in the center, Elsara Reen and I. Her midnight hair loosed from its knot, one strand, then two, until at last it fluttered free, raven feathers in shadowed night. She fought us still, but we would win. We always did. This price her kind must pay to us; trespassers cannot escape the dance.

The wind rose to a howl, ice-cold and sharp. Naught could save the mortal now; dance she would, until her lungs split, until her heart burst and her blood screamed dying in her veins. I could feel it now. She whirled about the circle with her tresses flying free, and her will too weak to fight. She was ours, a mortal toy, a puppet of the dance.

The howling wind tore clouds away, and shone the moon on the dance below.

Elsara Reen's arms were wide, her face upturned to see the sky. The moonlight silvered her sweat-slick skin, reflected from her wide dark eyes, and I felt then what I had never felt before, in centuries of this game: she surrendered to the dance.

My heart soared then with savage joy, for I did not understand. The faerie music filled the air, the circle spun round faster yet, and in the center there we danced, Elsara Reen and I. We flung our arms out and we kicked our legs high and we spun and we leapt and then, only then, did I see her surrender for what it was: my third warning. Nay, not a warning, for by then it was too late.

Countless times have we done thus, taking in our midst a mortal stray and forcing her to dance until her death. We are immortal creatures, tireless and wild; no human clay can match our faerie dance.

The passion of a human heart, though, burns brighter than any elven soul, and its heat is more than we can bear.

Elsara Reen surrendered to the music, body and soul, heart and mind; she loosed from bonds all the fire of her mortal spirit, and gave it to the fury of the dance.

In the center of the faerie ring, she led us all, and now the lead was hers. And we must follow where she led.

Higher she leapt. Faster she spun. Wilder grew her dance.

Bound within the magic of the ring, the musicians played to meet her lead.

The mortal maiden drove them on.

Higher and wilder the music went.

And still the mortal danced.

And with her went our ring. Higher we leapt, and faster we spun, and the wildness of it dragged our bodies after, our spirits caught in burning nets we could not slip free of.

Yet still the mortal danced.

Others felt the terror now. This dance was ours, not the mortal child's. She would dance until she died, driven by our will, and we would weaken not at all: that was how it always went.

But still the mortal danced.

And we began to tire.

Faster and faster round she went. Her feet were as blocks of stone, weighed against faerie flesh; even so, they moved with passionate grace. Her raven hair sliced the wind, deadly and beautiful, signaling doom like a flag. Her mortal heart beat in her breast and it burned with such heat: human life, human fire. It drove us to greater heights, and the players with us, 'til the song was a scream, a sound to give voice to the terror we felt. For we tried to stop, and could not; we tried to break free, and could not. The mortal maiden led the dance.

And she would kill us all.

The air was fire in my lungs, but I drew breath enough to scream, "Cease!"

She did.

No few of the dancers collapsed on their sudden release, fainting to the grass among their kin. I held to my feet, but barely, and lifting my head to face Elsara Reen felt like lifting a mountain.

She stood there in the ragged remnants of the circle, and she was not without marks from the dance; her breath came quickly, her skin was flushed, and her arms trembled at her sides. But she stood, when fae had fallen; she lived, when countless mortals before her had died.

She, alone among them, had not fought against our dance.

"And so you made it your own," I whispered, my voice the merest ghost, quiet on the breeze.

"You commanded me to lead," she said, and laughter filled her voice. For all that her ordeal had drained something from her, it had given something in return. What it was, I could not say; the ways of mortals are strange to me.

"We did indeed," I said grimly. "For which folly we have paid."

"And my folly?" Elsara Reen smiled at me. She was tired, yes, but there was fire in her still; did we call for it, she would dance again, until none of us could stand against her.

We did not call.

I bowed my head. "Leave our lands. And never come again."

She departed from our ring, and no one tried to bar her way. We did not want her there. Elsara Reen held power over us; she was a danger in our midst. The safest course was to send her on her way.

In the following days, I feared for what her power might mean. Would we now find ourselves at the mercy of every passing traveller? Would our lands be overrun?

But it seems she is unique among her kind, for others have fallen into our hands, and have met with the fate we intended for her. Few mortals have the strength and passion to follow her path.

May it ever be that way.



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