Chapter 5: The Red Cloud

When the meal was over, Kriston got to his feet.

“Guests and the members of the Royal Council, let us proceed to the Throne Room for the negotiations.”

Servants pushed open the Great Doors and King Kriston and Princess Annifer led the way through to the Throne Room. Its walls were hung with tapestries depicting scenes from Frailing legend. Two jewel-encrusted thrones on a purple velvet covered platform against the farthest wall drew the eye. The royal siblings took their places at one end of the long table. Morwain and his men sat at the other.. I positioned myself at the edge of the room with the rest of the servants, under a tapestry of the golden knight fighting an army of giants on the back of a unicorn. Our task was to fill the wine goblets whenever they were empty. The atmosphere crackled with tension. I held my breath.

All eyes turned to Kriston. The boy king took off his crown in a gesture of humility and laid it on the table in front of him before standing. His usually messy hair had been combed straight, his young face was grave. As he bowed deeply to his guests, I saw his hands were shaking. He gripped the edge of the table. “Prince Morwain of Quain, you are most welcome in our kingdom. We are most grateful to you for accepting our invitation. We send our best wishes to your brother King Edmund and all the members of the royal family. Please know that we have only goodwill towards the people of Quain. We wish them no harm and we have no desire to enter into war with you. Therefore we beseech you to withdraw your troops from our southern border and let us live in peace as neighbours and friends.” He bowed once again and sat back down.

Morwain rose to his feet, lifted his red-bearded chin in defiance and curled his nostrils. His green eyes narrowed with hostility. It hurt my eyes to look at him. I was trembling in spite of the protection I had cast around me.

“King Krissston of Frailing, we thank you for your hospitality.” His voice was sharp and he hissed his ‘S’s like a snake. “My brother is greatly concerned by your recent actions. By overturning the Old Law banning witchcraft in all the kingdoms of Tarth, which our father so wisely revived, you have put everyone in danger. It is only a matter of time before the ssso-called Wise Women use their powers to rise up against you and against all the rulers of the Tarthian kingdoms. King Edmund requests that you reinstate the Old Law and get rid of these evil women immediately. As soon as it is done, he promises he will withdraw his troops. ” He lowered himself into his seat and folded his arms across his chest.

“Morwain,” Kriston shook his blond head. “I am unable to comply with King Edmund’s request. My life was saved by a Wise Woman and my kingdom rescued from danger. I am in their debt. I cannot perpetuate their persecution.”

“Kriston, perhaps my brother’s gift to you will change your mind.” He gestured to the huge man next to him. “Harkin! Show them the chest!”

With a grunt, the giant hefted the chest onto the table where it thudded down heavily in front of Morwain.

“Inside this chest are some of the most precious gemstones from the fabled mines of Erith beyond the Shining Sea.” He stroked the gold-inlaid lid with his long fingers. “Sapphires, rubies, emeralds, diamonds of exceptional quality and value. Priceless coins forged by the ancient peoples of Tarth from a gold purer than any that exists in our times. Edmund offers these all to you in the hope that you will listen to his wisest of counsels.”

Morwain unfastened the clasp and pulled back the lid to reveal the contents.

As soon as it opened a great red cloud rose up from inside the chest. I recoiled instantly, jaws agape, watching it hang in the air above the treasure. I had never seen anything like it. The cloud rolled and pulsed, emanating a menacing, sinister power, its colour changing from deep scarlet to bright crimson with each pulse. Terror clawed my insides. I knew instinctively that it was that it was evil, pure evil, that it meant us harm of the worst possible kind. I tore my eyes away and scanned the table. No one had reacted. No one except Annifer whose hand was clasped to her mouth, her eyes wide, her features frozen in an expression of horror. Are we the only people that can see it? I stared back at the red cloud which throbbed malevolently in the air, its shade first deepening then brightening while Kriston replied.

“I stand firm. I will not reinstate the Old Law.”

“Then on behalf of my brother, King Edmund of Quain, I declare war on Frailing.” Morwain slammed the chest lid shut. “You and your kingdom will have to suffer the consequences of your sssoft-hearted foolishness.”

Knocking over his goblet of wine, he turned on his heels and stormed out of the Throne Room, cape swishing behind him. The rest of the Quaini party stormed after him, leaving the chest on the table. As they exited the Throne Room, the cloud broke up into tiny red wisps which shot outwards. They darted all round the room at lightning speed, flying haphazardly this way and that like angry wasps. Some slowed and hovered around the faces of the oblivious courtiers and servants, some flew through the open doors and windows and out into the rest of the castle.

My skin turned to goose flesh. I ran to the Great Doors and watched them — dozens of tiny red wisps — rolling in the air in the Banqueting Hall. Before my eyes, they each grew bigger, forming new pulsating clouds, then breaking up into hundreds more tiny wisps which flew out in all directions. A few of them wafted under the noses of the servants who were clearing up after the meal; the others flew out into the corridors of the castle. Oh no! I clutched my cheeks. This can’t be good.

I turned back to see Kriston, still standing at the head of the table, his pale face, his eyes wide — a frightened child in a king’s robes. One look told me that even though he hadn’t seen what I had, he could feel the cloud’s threatening power. He reached for the Moon Locket around his neck and clasped it for protection. Next to him I saw Annifer mouth, “Goddess protect us all.”

Kriston pursed his lips and drew his eyebrows together. Mustering his authority, he addressed his courtiers. “I ride south tonight. Tomorrow we fight the Quaini army. I leave the kingdom in the capable hands of my sister, Annifer.” He clapped her on the shoulder. “Please listen to her and support her. She is wise beyond her years. Do not worry. Goddess willing we will defeat them and restore peace to the kingdom as soon as possible. Now everybody go and get some sleep.”

He strode out of the Throne Room, accompanied by his chief noblemen, discussing in low voices which of them would ride with him and which would stay to protect the castle. Shaking from head to toe, I picked up a tray and started clearing away the goblets but Annifer grabbed my arm and marched me into the Banqueting Hall. We sat down side by side on a bench.

“You saw what I saw, right?” She was staring at me, her intense blue eyes wide with shock.

“The red cloud? Yes, I saw it.”

“Do you know what it is?”

“No, but I’m sure it’s something dangerous.”

“So am I. Can you go to Gerda’s first thing tomorrow morning and bring her here? I’ll meet you in the Throne Room. She’ll know what it is and what we can do about it.”

“I will. Annie . . . There’s something else.” With all that had happened, I’d almost forgotten about my news. “It turns out . . . I’m a Shape-Shifter. I . . . I can transform into animals. I just did it, at Gerda’s house. I changed into a rabbit. It was incredible.” Her eyes glazed, I could see her brain had just overloaded. She stared at me with a look that said, How many more impossible things do you expect me to believe before bedtime!

“Annie!” I clutched her upper arm, trying to snap her out of her trance. The lights went back on and her face softened into an affectionate smile. She covered my hand with hers.

“That’s absolutely amazing, Daisy! What a special gift! We might end up needing to make use of it very soon. I think we should both go and rest now. It’s been an eventful day.” She kissed me on the forehead. With a grimace of pain, she pulled off her silver high-heels and limped barefoot back to her tower, a shoe in each hand.

The goblets had been cleared away now so I helped wipe the big table and headed back to my room, followed by a couple of tortoiseshell cats. I left them outside and wedged the door shut with a chair so they wouldn’t be able to push it open. Poppy was fast asleep so I jumped on the bed.

“Wake up, Sleepyhead! I’ve got something incredible to tell you.” She groaned sleepily but when I told her what had happened at Gerda’s that morning she woke right up.

“Show me, Daisy! You have to show me! First thing in the morning. You can change into one of the castle cats. Pleeease, please please, please Daisy!”

“Wait!” I held my hand up.”I have to tell you what happened at the feast.” When I’d told her about the declaration of war and the red cloud and that Annifer had sent me to get Gerda first thing in the morning she frowned with concern. She squeezed my hand and forced a smile.

“If anyone will know what to do, it’s Gerda. We can trust her. Annie’s right, Daise. You should get some rest.” I scrubbed myself clean with a wet flannel, threw on a nightshirt and climbed into bed next to her.

“Night, Little Sis!”

“Night Big Sis!”

Within seconds I had fallen into a deep sleep.

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