The Mountain Shrine of the Veil
Ratomir swore as his boot was submerged to the ankle in water, it wasn’t the first time that this had happened. The thin crust that was forming on his leg cuffs meant that for whatever Lord forsaken reason, this mountain spring was filled with salt water. As he propped himself up against the wall and decanted his boot, he cursed again.
“Antonije?” He called out for his fellow. Antonije had suggested they come here and given him directions, after all, salt water bathing was better than nothing up here in the mountains. No response. He sighed, the fool had probably dozed off. In truth, it wasn’t hard to see why, it was quiet in here and strangely peaceful in spite of the cold. His friend had told him of the inner pool, a chamber lit by a break in the rocks above, with hot water springs... He hoped he’d get there soon.
His footsteps echoed across the rocky walls as he walked, attempting unsuccessfully to avoid another meeting between his boot and the water. The torchlight he had was of little use, as the veneer of moisture that covered the rocky outcrop he walked on was just a slippery and near indistinguishable from the pool itslef. At least, he thought, it would all be worth it in the end.
No sooner had the thought crossed his mind, than he saw a glimmer ahead. White light- Moonlight, streaming in atop another plinth emerging a few clear inches of the water. Ratomir could barely contain his excitement as he hurried forward, slipping a few times, but otherwise making it to the platform unscathed. There was no sign of his friend, but at this point he couldn’t have cared less. His relief was further bolstered when he noticed that the pedestal, unlike all the other rocks in the place, was dry.
Gleefully, he began to peel off his heavy cloak, put aside his belt and hatchet, removed his woollen vest and fibre underclothes, and finally he unlaced his leather boots and set them neatly next his folded garments. The air was still biting this high up in the mountains, so he quickly slid into the warm waters, letting the geothermal currents wrap themselves around him. His short gnome legs struggled to reach the base of the pool, but he could comfortably push off from the sides, and found a rock at perfect sitting height that would keep his head just above the water. He let out a contented sigh, closing his eyes and laying back, the journey had been well worth it.
He peeled open one eye and checked, he could see the moon, still high in the night sky through the slit in the rocks. Plenty of time before he needed to head back... He chuckled to himself, closing his eyes once more, in all honesty, it would be worth the boot-heeling he would receive to loiter here a little longer. The water rocked him gently and he found his eyelids feeling evermore weighted...
As he drifted back to consciousness, an echoing footstep drew his attention. He opened his eyes hesitantly, but not all that alarmed. “Antonije?” He squinted into the darkness, the contrast of the bright halo of moonlight making it hard to see further into the cavern. No response again. “I know someone is there, who is it?” No answer, no movement. He sighed, maybe it had been his imagination. He was about to close is once more when a voice broke the silence.
“Why do you trespass here?” It was a women’s voice, soft and slightly off, it may have just been the acoustics of the cavern, but her speech seemed to fade at its end. Ratomir frowned however, a women should not be out this far, and trespassing?
“What do you mean, lady?” He squinted, trying to catch a glimpse of the figure, and quickly hurrying over to the plinth to at least retrieve some coverings for his modesty. “Excuse me,” he quickly pulled on a loincloth beneath the water, grimacing. It would be an uncomfortable walk back, but it would spare this lady her blushes. “Sorry, what do you mean by trespassing? These mountains are in the land of the King-” A terrible thought crossed his mind, “Your not with the royal family are you? Forgive my transgression if I was naive-“
“I am not your royalty.” The voice cut off the gnome’s hurried apology.
Ratomir heaved a sigh of relief, but his trepidation remained, “Alright,” he frowned, still not grasping the situation, “Why I am I trespassing then? I have as much right to bathe here as anyone...” he hesitated a moment, considering his words before continuing, “I don’t want to put this the wrong way lady, but it isn’t exactly safe out here for a lone women like yourself, especially saying such things. No doubt you’re capable, you wouldn’t have gotten here if not, but there are many soldiers out there... Not all of them would be so kind.”
The women stepped forth into the light and Ratomir’s frown deepened. The heavy cloak was normal enough, but judging by her stature and rounded ears, she was human... There were no humans here, certainly none that could speak such clear Gowinač. Her yellow eyes bore into his and he could feel his pulse rise slightly as it began to dawn on him that something was very wrong.
“You trespass in this sacred place.” The women spoke and he observed that her voice was much clearer now.
He gulped, “Sacred?” His manner turned to hurried appeasement and he bowed his head again and attempted to remove himself from the water, but the women held up a hand. “Please, lady, I would not wish to burden our Lord with such indignity-“
“Our Lady is no lord!” Her voice cut across him again, the tone was odd, admonishing, but sympathetic, almost pleading. It set him on edge far more than the other strange circumstances that had transpired. “Do not look at what is beneath the water!” Her voice broke slightly as she spoke and he saw that the light in her yellow eyes was not anger, but apprehension and fear.
He resisted the intense urge to look down and moved to pull himself up from the pedestal. The cool air hit his wet back when he felt something hard close around his ankle. He blood ran cold and he gasped. Instinct drove him, and his head was already turning to look back when a hand forcefully turned it to face upward, focusing his gaze onto the women. Up close, her expression was less intimidating, her face was quite youthful, attractive, even. Strands of white hair curled from beneath the heavy hood and those yellow eyes glittered in the moonlight.
“Do not look below,” She repeated, slowly removing her hand from his face and grasping his wrist. Gently, she leaned back, hefting him from the water. The thing gripping his ankle, loosened, then subsided. As it withdrew, he felt a soft fluttering over his legs, but dared not look back given the maiden’s warning.
Free of the water, he dried in the frigid air, the white residue of salt rendering him corpse-like and stiffening movements. Despite his chattering teeth, he deigned only to grab his loose clothes, before stumbling past the women, into the passageway that had lead to the chamber. Once there, he collapsed in a heap, chest heaving, adrenaline surging, the sound of his own heartbeat ringing in his ears. With shaky hands, he fumbled with his clothes, pulling them on in ragged and uneven motions. As he buckled his belt, he realised with some alarm his hatchet was nowhere to be found, not that he was going to return for it.
Footsteps! He flinched from the darkness, but was relieved when that familiar voice spoke.
“You left your effects, so I have brought them for you... It would be unwise to return here.”
He jumped again as the dark pressed a wooden handle into his hand, he took the familiar weight with some comfort. The temptation lingered for but a moment to reach out for the hand that had passed it to him.
“I will guide you from this place, to pollute it with all but the light of the moon and sun, is to disparage Our Lady.” A cool, but not unpleasant hand was placed in his and he was tugged along, nearly stumbling.
“Wait- Wait!” He pulled back, but the hand did not let go, “In the water- What was that?” He rasped between heavy breaths, “It felt- it felt like...” What had it felt like? ”...It felt like a- a-“
“The water is home to the Veiled One,” The women said calmly with a hint of reverence, “Our Lady’s presence amongst us. You are most blessed to be released from it.” She added.
He wrenched his grasp free and double over, feeling like he may throw up. “Lady, you are talking nonsense! I need answers! Not the deranged- Ah!” He bellowed in frustration, exorcising a some of the energy racing through him, “Sorry.” He pinched his brow, panting and gathering his thoughts, “I need an answer... Fine, fine! Let’s say it was true. Who are you? How would you know this?”
“I am Elain. I am a servant to Our Lady, the Mourner of the Shrine... You must leave. Soon.” Elain’s voice carried urgency, enough to prompt Ratomir to stumble blindly into a wall. Elain took his hand once more and began to lead him. “The Veiled one told me of you, Ratomir. While you bathed in the pool, it whispered to me that it would seek you. I wished to prevent this, it would be too soon-”
The thought of sharing a bath with that thing made Ratomir’s blood run cold, somehow the fact this women knew his name hardly bothered him.
An errant thought wandered into his mind, “Antonije! My friend- He came here before me, where is he?”
There was a prolonged pause.
“The one who came before you?” Elain’s voice sounded both surprised and forlorn, “There were none that were present when I came to you. I am sorry... The Veiled One will have judged him.”
“Judged him?” Ratomir was worried.
“Judgement awaits all who dwell upon the mortal coil, it is the fate we all must suffer. He has faced it prematurely.”
“It killed him? So he may face the Great Lord’s judgement...” Ratomir’s own words were weighted with disbelief.
“You do not understand this, gnome.” She spoke not unkindly as the glimmer of moonlight appeared in the distance, “You should go back to your soldiers and your king and forget about this place. For your own good... There your Great Lord can protect you.” Her hand left his.
“Forget about this place? Antonije- He had a family, what do I tell them?” There was desperation in his words, but the darkness was forthcoming with no answer. He shivered again as the icy wind blew into the mouth of the passageway. Ahead, he could see the orange glow of fires and grey smoke spiralling up. The camp. Warmth. Safety. All that would await him and yet he hesitated at the threshold to the mountain wilds...
Created by Goldweight 11 months ago. Last modified by Goldweight 1 month ago