‘No, Annifer! You can’t say unicorn,’ Poppy insisted. Annifer rolled her eyes and leaned her forehead against the sled-carriage window.
‘You’re supposed to say an animal that starts with the last letter of the one I’ve just said. So I say lamb, you say bird. You say bird, I say dog. I say dog, you say goat. You say goat, I say turkey. I say turkey, you say . . . um . . .’
‘Wolf!’ Annifer shouted
‘No, wolf starts with . . .’
‘No really, there’s another wolf on the road up there. Stop the sled, Petros!’
She banged on the roof and Petros drew the horses to a halt in the middle of the Crossroads. Annifer threw the door open and bounded out. The other two followed behind her in what was now a practiced ritual. This was the third dying wolf they’d encountered on the road so far. Annifer knelt down on one side and prepared herself for the healing. Petros lay on the other ready to whisper as soon as it came round and Poppy stood at its head with the water pouch. After a minute Annifer turned her face skywards, only to shrink back immediately as two immense feathered forms flew towards her, blocking out the sun.
‘What . . . ? she gasped, shielding her face with her forearms. Next thing she knew, two golden eagles were perched on the ground on either side of her.
But they didn’t stay eagles for long. Poppy took a step back in shock as before her eyes, the two eagle bodies grew bigger and changed shape: curved beaks reshaping into flesh noses, yellow eyes widening, changing colour, humanising, wings thickening into tunic-covered arms, scaled talons transforming into booted feet and feathers into skin and hair. In no time, two familiar figures stood before her: girls a few years younger than herself in matching green cloaks and tunics, the shorter of the two’s pale, finely featured face was framed by a mass of curly red hair and the other’s unnaturally large, deep blue eyes were set deep in a kind face and a plait of black hair hung down her back.
Poppy’s heart leapt and she nearly dropped her water pouch in excitement when she recognized her sister, Daisy. She opened her mouth to cry out her name but Daisy’s expression was serious as she and Jemima knelt down on either side of Annifer.
Together the three of them raised their palms heavenwards, held them there as they spoke the prayer of healing in unison and then touched them to the animal’s fur-coated flank, flooding its exhausted body with wave upon wave of healing energy, until it twitched, shivered and sprung to its feet. Before Petros could even begin whispering, the wolf turned to Jemima’s kneeling form, put one giant paw on her shoulder and began licking her face so hard she almost toppled sideways. Giggling, Jemima extracted a tiny pair of scissors from her special belt, snipped off a small clump of the wolf’s fur and stowed it in one of the belt’s many pockets.
‘Look!’ Daisy chuckled, ‘Animals love her even more than they love me. She’s even had to learn a spell to make them go away.’ Jemima extricated herself from the giant wolf’s loving attentions and walked towards the edge of the trees. It followed her docilely, tail wagging like a little puppy. She stopped, put her hand on its head and spoke a few words in the old language. Then she snapped her fingers and the wolf bolted off into the forest.
‘C. . . can’t breathe. . .’ Daisy’s muffled voice came from inside the bear hug Poppy had her gripped in. Annifer and Petros dodged out of the way as Poppy picked her sister off the ground and spun her round, shouting, ‘Daiseee. . . I’m so happy to seeeee yoooou . . .’
Annifer’s face broke into a beaming smile as she wrapped her arms around Jemima and the next five minutes were spent blissful reunion.
‘What are you doing here, Daisy?’ Petros asked when the hugging and squealing was over. ‘I thought you were busy getting ready for your Cloaking Ceremony.’
‘Something bad’s happened and we need your help,’ Daisy answered, her voice serious.
‘Oh no, what is it?’ Poppy started panicking, ‘Nothing’s happened to Gerda has it? Something bad’s happened back home? Has something gone wrong in Frailing? Is it Mum? Is she okay? What about Kriston . . .’
‘Shh, Poppy and I’ll tell you.’ Daisy took a deep breath. ‘Morwain’s back.’
A sharp intake of breath from Annifer, a yelp from Poppy.
‘No!’ Petros exclaimed.
‘He’s stolen the Wise Women’s crystal of power and released a gorgon who was imprisoned in the village. He’s taking them to Sacred Mountain. He means to kill the dragon.’
‘Cressida showed us how Morwain’s trapped the dragon beneath the mountain and he’s sending curses through the tunnels to weaken him.’ Jemima took up the story. ‘When the dragon’s too weak to fight back, he’s going to send the gorgon in. A gorgon’s bite is the only thing which can kill a dragon.
‘Wise Women need the dragon. Without him there can be no Burned One at the head of our tribe and if there’s no Burned One, the Wise Women will fall. It’s prophesied.’
‘That’s not the only thing the dragon does for us,’ Daisy added. ‘He protects our continent from . . .’ she suddenly remembered the existence of the giants was meant to be a secret,
‘. . . from danger. He stands between us and the dangers of the northern wilderness.’
‘So we need to save the dragon and we need Annifer’s help.’ Jemima and Daisy both looked directly at Poppy.
‘But Annifer’s got to go to Loska and marry . . .’ Poppy trailed off, her eyes widening as their intention slowly dawned on her. ‘You want me to . . .’
Daisy saw the fear in her sister’s eyes and felt a pang in her stomach, instantly doubting that this was a good idea. She laid a hand on Poppy’s shoulder,
‘Sis . . .’
‘I’ve always wanted to play at being a real princess,’ she covered Daisy’s hand with her own and smiled a strained smile. After all her sister had gone through to stop Morwain three years ago, she couldn’t let her down now.
‘You can do it, Poppy!’ Annifer clasped her by the other shoulder. ‘You’ll do a much better job of being regal than I ever have and it won’t be for long, I promise you. We’ll come back and explain everything to King Fenwick as soon as we’ve saved the dragon.’ Poppy gulped and nodded jerkily. She blinked hard, her stomach turning to ice as she tried not to think what an almost impossible task that would be.
‘Okay,’ Annifer grabbed a knapsack and started rummaging around in the back of the sled. ‘Let’s pack some clothes and provisions for the journey.’
‘Wait,’ Petros said, ‘Sacred Mountain’s at least a day’s journey away. You’ll need a sled but the last waystation’s a full day’s journey back the other way. I’ll have to take Poppy to the palace, then come back and drive you there.’
‘No, Petros. They’re expecting you to stay three days then drive back to Frailing with gifts for Kriston in exchange for me.’ Annifer scowled. She hated how much it felt like she was being sold. ‘If you change the plan, they’ll suspect something.’
‘Tomorrow we can shift again,’ said Jemima snipping off a lock from the mane of one of the shire horses and holding it up with a smile.
‘But what about all the wild animals?’ Poppy asked.
‘They don’t attack Shifters,’ Daisy answered. ‘You saw how that wolf treated Jemima. Every animal senses us as one of their own kind so we’ll be safe. Don’t worry.’
‘And where will you sleep? There are no more waystations between here and Sacred Mountain. You’re venturing into the wilderness. The road’s just a dirt track after a couple of miles.’
‘They teach us how to survive in the wild at the Wise Women’s village. Jemima’s great at building shelters and I can build a good fire.’
‘I hate to rush this,’ Petros butted in, ‘but the king of Crosstain’s expecting Annifer at dinnertime. If we delay any longer we won’t make it.’
There was another round of hugging with Daisy holding Poppy a bit longer than the others.
‘Goddess protect you, sister,’ she whispered, stroking Poppy’s hair tenderly as they pulled apart.
‘Goddess protect you, too.’
And with that they went their separate ways. Poppy and Petros in the sled along the road to Loska and Jemima, Daisy and Annifer on foot towards Sacred Mountain, neither party knowing what the road ahead held in store for them.