Six figures, ursine and human, straggled over the bald flanks of the Mountain of the Mother in a drawn-out line. Urska and Marron were in the lead, roaming ahead, bristling with suspicion. The cub gambolled behind, trying to tempt Drakon to chase him; Alastor and Borysko brought up the rear, both of them breathing hard as they struggled up the slope. Borysko was obviously struggling but he mulishly continued alone, fending off Alastor's intermittent attempts to aid him.
It was getting decidedly hot. The cub mewled thirstily, begging at Drakon's belt for his water skin; Drakon obeyed, but only a thin dribble emerged. He'd run out of water, and if he'd run out it wouldn't be long before the others did either.
Glancing back at the two older men, the young prince bit his lip and scurried forwards to catch up with Urska. She cast him a curt glance over her shoulder and grunted "What?"
"My father...and Borysko. They need to rest," Drakon explained. "I saw something further up the slope that looked like a good place to stop...and I think there was water there too. We're running out."
Urska eyed him, then gave a heavy shrug and inclined her head.
"Find th' place an' we will stop," she allowed, a little grudgingly; Drakon bobbed his head in assent and scrambled hastily further up the mountain. Amid the scrubby brush was a patch of greener, fresher plantlife that had caught his eye earlier; as he had thought, they were growing around a tiny pool of water trickling from a gap in the rocks. The bushes were thick enough to provide some cover, but sparse enough to allow them to sit comfortably. He waved the others over hastily; Urska and Marron and the cub came quickly, apparently smelling nothing amiss about the place he had chosen. Alastor and Borysko, the latter limping and with his face set against pain, sat down as soon as they reached their companions.
"Is th' water safe to drink, son?" Alastor grunted, casting a longing glance at the bubbling spring. Drakon, unsure of his abilities in that area, looked across at the bears, but they seemed distracted; Borysko had his eyes shut and his breathing was ragged. So Drakon leaned over the spring and sniffed it cautiously; it smelled all right, so he scooped up a little bit and touched it with his tongue.
Nothing immediately horrible happened, so he decided it was probably all right. Alastor sighed with relief and leaned over to drink where the spring trickled from between two tumbled stones.
And then lurched back with a choked yell of surprise.
The bears spun around, growling; Borysko opened his eyes, jerked out of the uneasy doze he had fallen into. Drakon scrambled hastily over to see what had so startled his father.
It turned out to be the face of a tiny woman, formed from ripples, pulling a horrible face. Pulling in his breath, Drakon leaned back slowly.
"Water nymph," he whispered to the others. Alastor looked baffled; the bears snuffled uneasily. Ancious to reassure them, Drakon added, "Not actively malicious...but touchy. And they don't live in poisoned water. We'll...probably have to ask her permission before she'll let us drink."
"You do it," Borysko said, shrugging. "Use your pretty courtly manners. But we need that water, remember. Don't mess it up."
A little hurt, Drakon told himself it was merely the man's weakness that made him grumpy, and leaned back over to peer into the pool. The little nymph's face had disappeared, but the faintest hint of a silvery giggle heard from amid the rocks reassured him that she was still there.
"Nymph, I beg an audience," he called softly. "We are merely weary travellers; we do not seek to harm you or your spring. I am named Prince Drakon, and these are my companions, my father King Alastor and my fine bodyguard Borysko."
The nymph's face formed swiftly, then her tiny, naked body, all outlined only in the water's lights and shadows. Her perfect form was transparent as she leapt lithely from the stream, somehow keeping cohesion, and stared up at them fearlessly.
"Crinaeae," she said pertly, her voice like the bubbling of spring streams. "I am no nymph, manchild with the pretty manners. I am of the Crinaeae."
Frowning, Drakon scrabbled in his memory for the word, then raised one eyebrow.
"I beg pardon for asking, but are not the Crinaeae the spirits of fountains? I see no fountain here, simply a spring."
The little water-creature laughed her silvery giggle. "Ignorant manchild, know ye none of the history of this region? Once there was a temple here, with fine fountains, fountains of white stone brought from far away. We of the Crinaeae love fountains such as those, and so we came, and we lived for long ages. But the temple has fallen, and with them the fountains; this tiny spring is all that is left of the finest fountain, and I am the only Crinaeae who remains."
Her clear voice held a tinge of sadness, but she stood straight, seemingly daring Drakon to pick fault with her story. Instead, he bowed his head to her.
"I apologise for my ignorance, fair one. We are simply travellers, but we are willing to learn."
The Crinaeae tilted her head, curious. "Seek ye the Vagari who live behind this fair mountain?"
"You are insightful; it is them we seek."
The little woman smiled smugly, pleased with herself, and nodded with self-satisfaction.
"I may warn you, manchild with the pretty manners. You will not cross this mountain unopposed. Strange beasts roam its sides, and there is one who resents all passers-by. Do not anger it...or ye will be sorrier than ye can believe."
Drakon heard Borysko snort behind him and knew he was thinking of the strange carnivorous rabbit, but the little nymph apparently did not notice. The prince quickly touched his forehead in a gesture of respect.
"I thank you for the warning, fair one. We will be sure to take it to heart. May I beg a favour? We have need of water, to sustain our travels, and your fountain-spring is clear and pure. May we drink of it?"
The Crinaeae put her head on one side, considering, then bowed her own shimmering head and smiled, the expression enchanting on her fine transparent face.
"Ye may, manchild with the pretty manners, Drakon. And your father and bodyguard, and the bear-beasts also. Do not be afraid of contagion; the water is as pure as the snowmelts from the highest mountain."
She returned Drakon's gesture of respect, and abruptly lost her human shape, melting away and rippling back into the streamlet. Drakon let out a relieved breath, and gestured to the stream.
"You can drink now, but be careful. And don't piss in it or anything."
"Drakon!" Alastor chided. Drakon grinned, unremorseful.
"Well, don't," he said, leaning over to fill up his waterskin.