‘I certainly hope there are no spiders in here,’ Bree shuddered at the thought as she crept forward. Exploring the inside of the mound had seemed like an excellent adventure when she had been standing outside. Now however, crawling through the narrow passage with the screen of her phone providing the only light, she was beginning to doubt the wisdom of that decision.
Still, it was better than staying cooped up with Ryan. Two days into their stay at the quiet countryside cottage and he was going completely stir-crazy. So was she, though she would never admit it to him. He’d said all along that they weren’t old enough for this sort of trip, but had eventually agreed when she insisted. She had hoped that here, in what must be the most serene of places, that their arguments would melt away and they would become that happy couple they had been when they had first met.
Unfortunately the opposite had been true. The quiet only seemed to amplify every little argument from home. It had gotten to the point where Ryan seemed to be going out of his way to cause frustration. He had even left his breakfast plate in the sink this morning, an offense that had set her off into a yelling, stomping tantrum that propelled her out of the cottage.
And so she found herself climbing the nearby hill, for lack of any other specific reason for her excursion. An old man at the village pub last night had mentioned something about an old tomb at the top, which she figured could be worth a visit. The gentle enough slope made a fairly enjoyable hike until the rain started.
After a sloppy climb, she was rewarded with the unimpressive sight of a grassy mound, as though a smaller hill was being spawned at the top. Walking around to the other side, she found the only remarkable feature- a neat row of large boulders along the edge. On closer inspection, the largest lay slightly out of line with its neighbors, exposing a dark opening in the mound. Bree had poked her head in tentatively, trying unsuccessfully to peer through the darkness that seemed to stretch endlessly. She was debating whether to explore the depths or turn back, when the rain intensified and made the decision for her. She scampered into the shelter of the opening, barely taking the time to fish her phone from her bag to light the way.
After much scraping of elbows and knees along a narrow tunnel, Bree reached a chamber, though as it was only slightly larger than the tunnel itself she was not certain if the term applied. It was not so much the size of the space but the texture that drew her attention. Whereas the tunnel had been made from rough cut stones, the walls now had transitioned to smooth rock carved with intricate designs.
“If you have any questions, please ask.”
Bree started at the voice, dropping her phone and plunging the chamber into darkness. A few moments later, just as she was beginning to panic, a sharp crack heralded a flood of light into the chamber.
In the firelight, the carvings on the stones around her seemed to come to life. Bree turned slowly to examine the carvings. Spirals climbed the walls and morphed into a diamond pattern on the sloping ceiling. Awed, she had completely forgotten the stranger until her gaze fell upon the the man holding a torch.
His greying hair was pulled back behind his shoulders, exposing his prominent shoulders in a tan leather jacket covered in designs similar to those on the surrounding walls. He certainly looked as though he belonged here. His pale blue eyes were fixed not on her, but at some point in the middle distance.
“Who are you?” Bree asked. Certainly he was not among the people she had met from the village; she would have remembered him.
“I the guardian of this place and all within,” he answered, something in his tone implying that he was not just referring to the rocks. “If you have any questions, please ask.”
Bree returned to examining the chamber, deeming him rather odd but not much of a threat. After all, if he had meant her any sort of harm he’d had ample opportunity to take advantage of her in the dark when she’d dropped her phone.
The only break in the abstract patterns was on the back wall, where the spirals encircled a pair of rough but certainly human figures. One was standing as the other seemed to be cowering below. The standing figure was grasping what Bree had first taken for a snake, though on closer inspection it looked more like a curved weapon.
“Was this some sort of war?” Bree asked, stepping closer to the carving.
“One could call it that, though it is a very private war,” the guardian continued in the same distant voice. “ A ritual might be a more accurate interpretation. Those who built this chamber found the practice depicted here to be a much more effective way to solve conflicts than violence.”
On closer examination, the second figure was not stumbling, as Bree had originally assumed, but appeared to be purposefully bent over some sort of stand at the mercy of the other. ‘Looks pretty violent to me,’ Bree thought.
As she advanced, she noted another gap between the bounders that formed the walls of the chamber, invisible unless viewed from up against the back wall.
“What’s through there?” Bree asked, intrigued given the fruits of the first part of her adventure, but also wary of becoming lodged in the opening.
“More,” the guardian replied cryptically. “You may enter if you wish. Be warned, though, the next chamber is a place of power and transformation. Those who cross over rarely emerge unchanged.”
Bree laughed slightly. It was all a bit too much to take seriously. Deciding she may as well continue exploring and see what other mystical-sounding explanations the man would come out with, she squeezed through into the next chamber. When the guardian joined her with his torch, she got her first good look around.
This was a chamber in the true sense of the word; it was difficult to imagine a space this size could be concealed under the mound, but then again her powers of estimation were notoriously faulty. The walls were covered in more carvings in the same vein as the one outside, though they were in remarkably better condition. Fascinated, Bree began walking the circumference of the room, studying the scenes in detail. Each was different, though she quickly picked up on a few chilling similarities. One figure bent over a stand, one figure towering over. Some sort of stick. A pose of pain. Suddenly remembering that the guardian was watching her she tore her gaze away, not wanting to seem too intrigued. “How horrid,” she remarked aloud.
“That, like many things, depends on one’s perspective. What may seem horrid and abusive to an outside can be merely healthy and healing to the penitent.”
As she turned back toward the passage to face the guardian her mouth dropped. The walls on either side of the passage were hung with a wide variety of objects- punishment implements, she realized, the same implements depicted in the carvings. Tucked into the corner was a bench eerily similar to the one featured in many of the scenes she had been studying. “What is this place?” Bree snapped, both loosing patience and beginning to feel something like fear.
“It is a place, like many others. What you see is what is here, but what you make of it is what it is.”
“I think I’d rather like not to make anything of it,” Bree replied quickly, truly anxious for the first time since she had lost the light from her phone.
“Is that so?” the guardian asked, looking directly at her for the first time. “Everyone who finds there way here does so for a reason. Are you truly ready to return to the outside? Do you have no need for atonement?”
Caught by the intensity of his gaze, Bree’s response died before it began. She thought back to the tantrum that had sent her out on this adventure.
“I am the guardian of this place and all within. None find their way here save for those in need. You are not the first, nor will you be the last. You are free to leave, of course, but if you do you’ll depart along with the guilt that brought you here. Or you can stay, and perhaps leave behind that which is no longer helpful to you.”
Bree stood as if rooted to the spot. How could he possibly know? Breaking through her roiling thoughts, the guardian reached out and took her hand. His grip firm and gentle as he lead her over to the bench.
“Come, let me show you,” he said. Reassured by his steadying hand, she followed. As if entranced, she gave no resistance even when he helped her over the bench and raised her skirt.
She heard him remove one of the implements from the wall. ‘This is insane,’ she heard herself think, as distantly as if it had occurred in another mind. She had no time for further coherent thought before the first blow fell.The strap seared into her behind and she let out a shriek so lout it scared her almost as much as the stroke itself. Her tormenter was apparently unphased as the next stroke arrived a few seconds later. She tried to rise, but, as much as she struggled, she could not remove her hands from the lower crossbeam of the bench. Her panic at this realization was temporarily banished to the back of her mind as a flurry of strokes landed and the urge to scream and squirm took over.
After an apparent eternity, the strapping stopped and the only sounds in the chamber were her rough panting and the soft footsteps of the Guardian as he slowly paced behind her. She thought with relief that it was over, but soon felt the heavy weight of the strap rest against her bottom as he prepared to continue the assault on her bottom.
“Let me go! I’ve changed my mind,” she cried out, desperate to escape the burning pain.
“If you want to leave, then rise. You’re free to go anytime you wish,” he answered.
Bree had not been prepared for this answer, and it took a while for her to comprehend his words. She looked down at her hands and saw that her knuckles had turned white from gripping the crossbeam beneath her. She gently uncured her left hand and fluttered her fingers. Could she really leave? That would be the smart thing to do. The adventure had been painful enough already. Though as she pondered this revelation, she remained bent over the bench.
“I see,” the Guardian said gently. Her hesitation to rise told him more about her feelings than even Bree herself realized. “Let us continue then.”
Bree heard the words and knew what they meant, but didn’t quite understand what she had gotten herself into until she felt the strap rise and return with yet another wave of pain that shook her entire body as she held herself in place across the bench.
Time dissolved as her entire being focused on the pain in her bottom. The blows continued to fall long after she began to sob. She did not notice when the punishment ended, only noted that she was no longer over the bench. The guardian had pulled her into his strong arms and held her as she continued to cry.
“Do you regret staying?” he asked. Bree shook her head and he smiled. He helped her to her feet and lead her back into the passage. “Go now. You know what you need to do. I will be here when you need me,” he said with a parting smile.
The next weekend Bree was again enjoying the soft summer breeze as she climbed up to the cairn. Looking up, she was struck with jealousy of Ryan’s easy gait as he climbed ahead of her. If only he were huffing and puffing along with her rather than springing around like a mountain goat this would be a perfect afternoon. . .and if only she didn’t have a small kernel of dread smoldering at the pit of her stomach. It had seemed like such a good idea when she had suggested it under cover of darkness as they fell asleep last night, but now in the light of day she worried about what Ryan would think when they got to the top.
“What was it that you wanted me to see up here?” she heard Ryan call down impatiently, already at the top. “Seems fairly unimpressive to me.”
Joining him, Bree was still debating how much of her adventures from the previous day to relate. The opening of the story she had prepared caught in her throat when she looked around. The mound she had seem the previous day had vanished, or rather collapsed, Bree realized as she circled the top of the hill. She walked between the rows of stones that had formed the walls of the dark passage she had explored the previous day, now exposed to the sky and far less intimidating. Reaching the end, she could find no trace of the large chamber.
“Well that’s interesting” she heard Ryan remark. Turning around, she saw that Ryan had followed her and was examining the lone carving at the end of the passage.
Blushing, Bree turned away. “I guess that’s one way to resolve a conflict.”
“I guess so,” Ryan chuckled. “I wonder what she had done to warrant that kind of resolution?”
“I don’t know,” Bree replied, reflecting back on the previous day. “Probably something absolutely horrid. You know, like screaming and abandoning her partner in a quiet cottage in the middle of nowhere.”
“You think?” Ryan asked tentatively, cocking an eyebrow. “Seems like a rather old fashioned way to handle things.”
“I don’t know,” Bree replied, not quite meeting his eyes, “maybe we could benefit from the wisdom and the ancients and all that.”
Ryan grabbed her shoulder and gently turned her to face him, searching her expression to see if she was serious. “Perhaps we should continue this discussion back at the cottage,” he suggested with a smirk. “Wouldn’t want to disturb the whole village with our resolution, don’t you think?”
Unable to find her voice, Bree nodded. Taking his hand for the first time in days, they made their way back down the hill to their cabin for a very long and transformative discussion.