Saturday, 4 July 1931
“Hush, my darling,” the man whispers into the donkey’s ear, “just a moment more.” The old girl flicks her ear at him in irritation, but accepts the oats gratefully, nuzzling his hand. Hearing motion upon the trail, he crouches behind the animal, calmly petting her flank.
Footsteps clump noisily along the stony path. Two voices speaking quietly in German pass up the hill. Émilien Montcélance waits for several long minutes in the hot, still air as insects hum in concert. He fans himself with his hat to keep awake. Checking his watch again, he smiles – once more he’d managed to lose the curious strangers who kept following him.
They were there when he’d finally managed to photograph the strange light on his late master’s great painting a week ago. They are friendly enough for Germans but since then they would not leave him alone. They constantly pestered him with questions, too many questions, and far too many probing the legends surrounding these hills and his service as Alfini’s apprentice.
But if they follow him here, they are far from the cathedral and its secrets. Both his brothers, particularly Benoit, are as anxious as guilty schoolboys because of the light despite his repeated assurances it didn’t matter anymore. Leading the Germans far away would permit them to climb up and block the hole.
“Let’s go now, Antoinette,” he whispers. “Those damned spies are gone. Quietly, now, that’s a sweet girl.” His family thought him strange to call his beast after his lost love. They’d probably think much worse of him if they knew he’d killed a man, a priest even, for the girl’s sake. He could do no more to save her before he left for the Great War. Too bad she’d gone off and died before he could return. His opportune acts of vandalism, however, still kept them guessing.
He sighs. The donkey, old and grey like him, comes without complaint. Émilien limps along, the shrapnel in his leg from Verdun providing a constant if unnecessary reminder to avoid the Huns. After pausing several times to make sure the vacationing hikers are not skulking behind, he enters a pleasant green mossy opening between two large rocks, hidden amid the scrub oaks. From above, a tiny stream dribbles from the mouth of a small cave into a rocky pool.
The hollow is cool and inviting, but Émilien gets to business. He unburdens his ass as she drinks. Quickly setting up his tripod, he shoots several photographs with the boxy instrument, documenting the ancient pictographs on the rocks. Humming, he packs it away again before permitting himself to rest. While the beast munches contentedly upon the lush green grass, Émilien joins her with cheese and bread and cold spring water while he checks his maps.
“Old girl, master Silviano missed this alright but crazy old Tobias might not have. Hard to tell.” He picks up rope and lantern. “We’ll see. Shouldn’t take long: probably just another false trail, like the rest,” he sighs, but the donkey, resting in the verdant forage of the oasis, pays him no heed.
Émilien climbs to the opening, holding the lantern before him, and squirms into the cleft. A sudden clatter of falling rocks comes from within with a cut-off scream. The trickle turns red for a time. The insects drone steadily on.
The next day, the curious German tourist, a writer named Otto Rahn, and his young companion, come upon the donkey wandering nearby among the hills of Haute Maureven. The photographer is never seen again.
With its infamous witches’ cave, standing stones and pre-Druidic burial mounds, ancient mines, and abandoned quarries, Haute Maureven is cursed with an evil reputation, haunted by devils and holy men alike. The shepherd Tobias also sought solitude there in St. Horrig’s ancient hermitage after his conversion.
The isolation gave Endurists free license to worship just as they pleased. Thus at the accursed painted stone altar of Vel-Tyno, where whispered tales told of naked witches slashing themselves while howling and gibbering at the Moon in unspeakable rituals, blood ran freely again for a time.