It was at first light that Shala disturbed the waters, a lone bird cry having beckoned dawn, and stripped naked she waded into the cold, where the sacred stream of Seluin came tumbling from snowy peaks.
Further in and the water drew level to her breasts, her nipples stiffening, and her eyes shut as she willed her mind into the ancestral dream of Evrelyn in search of strength.
The worthy dwell here...
All warmth leaving her she did her best not to shudder and shiver, wanting to show no weakness before the mountain. Yet involuntary movements crept up her body all the same, afraid that the tiniest tremor might displease the spirits of a lost order.
The strong linger in places where others cannot...
But thoughts of doubt crossed her mind and they would not leave her without having their say. The Wolves are long dead, tremble all you like, you are alone in your petty ritual.
A harsh wind had come down the mountain that night, hurtling through snow-laden passes with a howl that reminded the north of those who once walked the ranges of Dunnoom. Its ghostly fury was their dead echo and the fear of it was waited out by friend and foe alike. Smoke billowing chimneys from town told of people huddling around a fire, and maybe, at least some of them, speaking amongst each other of the Savage Art. Late in the night, when the white moon had danced among the clouds for hours, the wind finally abated, the world holding its breath.
Come dawn the sun crested the horizon slowly, illuminating the castle of Attoras, nestled at the rocky foot of the Black Mountains, the morning air crisp. Where the slope allowed for such things was kept the secret enclave with its pool as smooth as a mirror, hidden behind the castle and out of sight from town. The waters there had iconic white pillars circling its boundary, a low icy mist still clinging to its surface.
Higher up, an old keep long abandoned rested far above the castle of Attoras, built near the summit and obscured by folds of heaven high spires of rock. Throughout the year blizzards pummelled the peaks with snow, barricading its surroundings in white mounds. From the foot of the keep’s gate spilled the water freshly thawed, following natural mountain channels to down below.
The mightiest of Attoras’ warriors once resided in that keep, and bathed also in the waters even as Shala did now, cleansing themselves of weakness and doubt. They were the Wolves of the Black Mountain, infamous and renowned, having passed from this world without a whisper.
The water itself was pure and untainted, rolling and bubbling over every other rock on the way down, a trail of a thousand tiny waterfalls, said to take upon itself the strength of the mountain as it did, delivering to those who could dare into the cold the strength of Dunnoom and renewing a faithless heart. The pool in which Shala stood was where the water finally came to rest, there to provide a crippling test, reducing one and all to nothing but the power of their will.
‘Open your eyes, Princess,’ said deBella suddenly, the handmaiden, her usually warm demeanour as cold as the water. deBella wandered the enclave with a heavy amphora in her hands, her shoes tapping lightly on the white porcelain tiles around the pool.‘Look up into the mountain and hold to your dream. Embrace the cold.’
I must be strong to rule in his stead…
But her enemies were pressing, many of them living right here in the castle and using their fealty to the crown as a guise to sabotage Shala’s birthright. They were King’s men in name only, for they desired no heir from Evrelyn. It was only here that she truly escaped them, in the privacy of an ancient ritual, where she suffered in the cold. The castle is supposed to be my birthright.
‘Turn your thoughts away from this place child,’ said deBella knowingly.
Shala obliged for her own sake, losing focus meant the cold became overwhelming.
deBella moved closer to impart the last of the test. Standing right above Shala, deBella turned the amphora over and spilled the icy water on Shala’s head, her thick auburn hair instantly rendered dark and plastered to her face. She did not wince or gasp, but inhaled deeply through her nose to warm the air in her lungs, as the new shock of cold left her breathless.
’Strengthen yourself child or you will die!’ urged deBella.
In the serenity of the dream she called the magic, the familiar power of Evrelyn, the healing hands of the king. Gently it bubbled within her, and it kept dangers of the cold away.
Seeing the change in her deBella said, ‘Good child, the discipline of your mind must become a fine edge that does not waver.’
Using the discomfort to slay all intrusive thoughts, Shala brought her mind to the keep sitting high in the mountains among a veil of clouds, its foundation built over a waterfall. Half awake and yet halfway into slumber the family of Evrelyn could walk in this dream and summon powers inherent to them. It was a welcoming place, but it reminded her of death and what follows afterwards. In the foremost of her thoughts came her father’s note, a passage he had written on his deathbed.
“Here, I sign the death of my House, but not yet the end of all things.” He wrote.
What say had you in the fate of the world Father?
But she feared she knew the answer, and that whatever her father failed at she must now accomplish. He would expect that of her, and for him, she would do it, lovingly.