It started slowly, as slow as the soft-burning fire; a mere flicker, here and there, then again, as an ember shot up into the air to hang in the hot updraft before winking out. Whispered conversations of the trees added a sibilant descant, not quite singing but not speaking, either. A leisurely walk, the beginning was not rushed.
Steps were unhurried and measured, pacing around the fire-glow of the embers. Throwing off its dark red heat, the light cast the weirding shadows of the trees; shadows that swayed in the wind, moving and dancing—but slowly, oh so slowly—as if they were alive and knowing, full of shaded secrets. Reflected in the dark green of the leaves, the light beckoned forth a metallic sheen from the plants, calling out the pigments otherwise hidden. And it was to all these sights, the fire and the patient sentient shadows, hidden and hiding, that he began the dance.
Stately and purposeful, his strides were deliberate and exactingly slow, for the drums had not yet started, and the beat was still silent. For there was another purpose to this wait, and as the dancer placed his feet so carefully, his mind relaxed and he began to tread instinctively, his pulse slowing while he forgot where to step, and instead put his feet there automatically, unconsciously. As the dance came to him in its patient strides, his muscles loosened, releasing some of their tension as he was caught in the rhythm.
Then it was that the beat began, and as had happened with every other dancer before him he could not have said whence it came, or why at that moment, but it came. Though just as slow as the un-timed walk, the dance was set now to a pattern. Perhaps it was the wind, blowing against the caves by the shore, getting caught in the hollows until with a great snap it whipped free. Perhaps it was the water, the waves sweeping in to catch the lower fissures, rushing back and forth with a ponderous booming crash of water drumming on rocks. Carried by the wind and earth to the dancer, it might have been the noise and the smell and the feel of the sea, some ancient creature with a mind all its own. Or perhaps it was something else entirely.
But though the dancer did not know what it was or why it was called forth, the beat came nonetheless, drilling through his bones and strumming his sinews. Low as the voice of the mountain and as deep as the river, it hummed and then waited, before humming again, carrying with it the dry smell of rock. While it thrummed and then paused, and thrummed and then paused, the fiery embers broke open to feed upon the air, and at once the fire flickered higher, catching the fresh wood so carefully stacked above it to form a small lodge hut. Choking smoke filled the air, but though he felt it and somehow knew it should bother him, he continued the steps unhindered.
It quickened. Gradually, imperceptibly, but it quickened all the same. In return the dancer's footsteps hastened, for he was one with the dance and the dance was one with him. Timed and unthinkingly faultless, he quickened his pace, and in reply the beat quickened yet still more.
Perhaps it was his heartbeat.
For with each of his steps, it went faster, as a sheen of sweat began to form on the dancer's body, coating him and forcing the fire to throw shimmering shadows off of his skin, reflected by the coat of perspiration. But this sweat was the sole sign of effort, for his breathing was even despite his exertions. Pounding the earth, packed hard by the generations of dancers who came before him, his feet were coated grey by the dust that lay upon the surface of the ground. For with each footfall it was thrown up to cover his feet, so that they turned to the colour as the mountain's rock, yet glimmered with so much more life. Dusted so, he did not slip, for the dry earth soaked up his sweat, carrying away the tangy odour of salt.
And now the beat increased, and he danced faster, whirling about as the wind began to blow harder in response to his challenge. Turning and leaping, yet always he hit the ground on the beat, and again, and again, even as the beat increased still more, throbbing in his veins and heart and mind. The wind blew with all its force, carrying the tangy smell of the rumbling sea, and yet it could not compare to the dancer, and the trees bowed before him, pressured by the urgings of the air.
Whirling, swirling, the colours merged, a kaleidoscope of rainbows that glimmered by the light of a miniature sun that sat upon the earth, for the fire had grown with the quickening beat. Flames gyrated and roared, danced and reached their long, bright fingers towards the glimmering stars—and the fire was his opponent now. Recklessly and selfishly, the dancer would not permit it to win this contest, for he knew in his soul that he was the master of this light, of this frantic dance; yet even as he knew this, the dance sped furthermore, and his feet hit the earth again and again and again.
For the drums drove him, though he could not see the player.
On and on he leapt and spun to keep pace with them, his dust-coated feat battered the earth into submission, as so many dancers had battered it before. And against his sheer determination, his raw and wild exhilaration, the fire was forced to surrender, and now it was second to his lead, though it still danced as well. Ever he danced onward, to the pulsating beat, the hectic rhythm of the elements.
Still with the fire's submission the dance was not yet finished, for it carried onward, spinning and nauseatingly dizzying. Thunderous steps beat the ground, and now the dancer was not alone, for the colours and the lights and the weirding shadows had all merged together, now, and now they all danced, giant and superhuman beings. Made up of nothing, they were somehow more substantial then stone, dancing in perfect timing with him, as the world blurred and turned in the speed of the dance they competed. And these elemental creatures of the wind and fire and darkness hammered the earth, their soulless feet pummelling the ground, for the dance continued, faster and faster, a wild shrieking frenzied animal, and yet the human-form dancer kept up, for this dance was perfect, sickening, merciless, as it drove ever onward into the night.
But then it was done. For an instant, he slipped, and though the dancer corrected his mistake quickly, he knew already it was too late; the shadows slipped free of the fire and grass and trees. Roaring flames were gone in a flash, the fire fleeing and the colour of the leaves returning to their deep green. Less then a second had passed but the burning light was gone, leaving the boy to stare at white smoke, in a clearing lit by the cool and distant glow of the stars.
And the drums had given way to silence.