Ylva stopped and drew a sharp intake of breath. She had finally found it.
It had taken a 6-week trek through unforgiving terrain to get here. In truth, she never thought she would make it. The last villager who left in search of the Pool had never returned. But Ylva possessed an unparalleled determination that had driven her forwards, even as the wolf pack hunted her through the dark forest, even as she traversed the precariously frozen river, even as the raging blizzard chilled her through to the bone and confined her to a small cave for over a week. She had overcome it all. When the snowstorm had subsided, she had set off again at the first signs of a thaw, knowing that she had no more time to waste. And now, her effort and unquenchable willpower had been rewarded.
Before Ylva lay a vast grassy plain, part-dressed in the last vestiges of recent snow. In the distance, the Black Forest clung to the foot of majestic, ivory-tipped mountains, whose peaks grazed the steely, snow-laden skies. The fabled Dragon Mountains… She could still remember her mother’s bedtime stories. Above, the weak winter sun tried in vain to burst through the velveteen swathes of thick cloud. Not ten metres away from Ylva were five unusual stones of varying heights, perched on the edge of a glassy pool. It was all just as the witch had shown her. At first glance, anyone would assume that it was just a large puddle of meltwater. But this was no mere puddle.
Ylva lay her spear carefully on the ground and ventured a little closer, bracing against the chill wind that whipped across the unprotected grassland. She placed her hand on the nearest stone. It was almost as tall as she was, flecked with lichen and moss, wet, cracked and misshapen. The other stones, she noticed, were all smaller, darker, and seemingly older. Perhaps once they had been as tall as the rock beside her, but had succumbed to the elements. Her gaze turned to the Pool. In spite of the wind, its surface was remarkably still, not a single ripple disturbing its tranquility. It reflected the swirling grey skies with improbable perfection, such that it appeared as real and clear as the sky itself. Ylva watched as a loose leaf drifted into view and floated down towards the Pool; upon contact with its surface, the leaf vanished before Ylva’s eyes, quicker than a blink. Her heart skipped a beat. This was undoubtedly the pool she sought: the Pool of Miracles.
“Are you sure you want to do this?”
The elderly woman glared at Ylva with piercing eyes, as though questioning her very soul.
Ylva was resolute. All she could think of was her sick, emaciated mother lying on her deathbed, feverish and drenched in cold sweat. The earnest apologies of the village healers, who had tried all their methods and medicines but were unable cure her. The looks of pity from her friends and neighbours. Her mother had raised her alone, teaching Ylva to be proud and independent and strong. The very least she could do was find a way to save her mother from the sickness that was consuming her. And so she found herself here, in the cabin of the village witch doctor. It was her last hope.
“Absolutely,” she replied, returning the woman’s stare.
Satisfied, the witch doctor turned to take a powdered root from the shelf behind her, and threw it onto the fire. It roared and blazed in a spectrum of vivid colour. Awestruck, Ylva saw the image of a pool of water deep in the flames.
“It is known as the Pool of Miracles,” the woman said, in hushed tones, “Because it mirrors the Heavens in all their glory. It has the power to grant one’s deepest desire. If you wish it to heal your mother, it shall do so.”
Ylva nodded, eyes fixed on the image in the fire pit.
“But miracles are not given for free. The Gods will demand a great sacrifice from you in order to work their magic.”
“What sacrifice?” Ylva whispered back, a tremor in her voice.
“That I do not know. The Gods only know. But if your contract with the Gods is not fulfilled, I can assure you that the punishment is far more petrifying than the sacrifice demanded. Many foolhardy men with fear and selfishness in their hearts have entered the Pool and have failed the Gods. Failed themselves.”
Ylva gulped. She had never much trusted magic nor been devoutly faithful to the Gods. But the thought of her mother continuing to suffer was unbearable, and her recovery was the only thing that mattered to her. She could not think of anything that she would not sacrifice.
“I will not fail.”
The witch eyed her with a mixture of admiration and scepticism.
“Then go, seek the mirror of the Heavens that you have envisaged in the flames, flanked by the five stones. It is a month’s journey due East. Keep the highest peaks of the Dragon Mountains always in your eyeline. I wish you good fortune.”
Ylva did not tell anyone else of her quest; she knew they would not let her leave. She gathered her warmest furs, survival tools and provisions, weapons for hunting, her trusty spear, and a small quantity of food. She bade her sleeping mother goodbye with a tender kiss on her fevered forehead. Then she slipped away into the black night.
Ylva’s toes teetered over the brink of the Pool of Miracles as she shivered in the icy wind, hair flailing in knotty tendrils. Her heart beat a tattoo in her chest, her knees were trembling. Her brain raced through every fear she had ever had, the impending possibility of death or worse. The weight of her mortality pushed her feet firmly into the muddy bank, urging her not to jump. She almost buckled, were it not for a faint sound issuing from the distant mountains, which echoed down the valley. A sound like a roar. Visions of dragons filled her head, pictures her imagination had once painted whilst listening to her mother weaving her bedtime tales. Ylva felt a pang in her heart. Her mother had taken care of her single-handedly for twenty years. Now, it was time for Ylva to return the favour.
So she took a deep breath, and leapt.
Emma H, age 27, 23/01/2018
This short story has been written for Sue Vincent’s #writephoto “distant” prompt. It is one of my favourite photos so far. If you’d like to take part or find out more about Sue’s challenge, you can follow the link below:
This photo could have spawned many stories, and I’m happy with the tale that eventually emerged! I toyed with the possibility of having closure in the ending, but instead opted to leave it open to the reader’s interpretation and/or to allow me to possibly continue the story in the future. Please comment and give me your thoughts! 🙂