Sacred Mountain

Chapter 2: The Burned One

Daisy stared transfixed, her mouth open in wonderment.

In front of her on a low marble plinth, glittered the largest, most magnificent crystal she had ever seen. It caught the sunbeam that slanted in through the skylight and refracted rainbows onto the white painted walls of the temple.

It’s bigger than a giant pumpkin, thought her kitchen maid’s brain as soon as it started working again. She leant forward to study it more closely. The crystal was multi-faceted and clear as ice with white striations running through it like wisps of cloud. At the top it tapered into a point like a pyramid.

Cressida sat cross-legged on the floor beside it in a long, flowing white dress. Her white hair hung loose down to her waist and her emerald green eyes sparkled in a kind face, creased with laughter lines. She patted the floor next to her and smiled an invitation. Daisy took her seat and tried to stay focussed. Looking into Cressida’s eyes was mesmerising, like diving into an unfathomably deep ocean. Sometimes it made her quite dizzy.

‘The crystal is a conduit.’ Cressida spoke with the clear measured tones of one who values words for the power they possess. ‘It enhances our healing powers. When a patient is so ill we cannot heal them by ourselves, we bring them here and the crystal amplifies our healing energy. It is a symbol of our power. But, Daisy, with great power comes great responsibility. Let the crystal tell you my story.’

Daisy gazed into its translucent depths. Shapes and colours started to shift and coalesce into an image of two young chestnut-haired girls collecting herbs in a wood. Daisy heard their voices in her head. They were chattering excitedly about a plant they had found, their identical faces beaming with childish delight.

‘My twin sister, Isolda, and I grew up in a farming village in Frailing. From early childhood we both felt the call. We knew all we wanted was to become Wise Women. The local Wise Woman taught us for a few years and then took us to the Great Forest where we became acolytes and finished our education.’ The scene shifted and she saw them both kneeling in the stone circle before a very old dark-skinned woman in a white dress who was holding two twilight blue cloaks in her arms. They spoke in unison.

I swear before the almighty Goddess that I shall use my Goddess-given powers only for the benefit of human and animal kind. I shall never allow selfishness, greed, hatred, ambition or jealousy to rule over me. I shall do no harm but only serve You, Goddess, in the lives of those You bring before me. This is my solemn oath.

‘We served the people of Frailing peacefully and happily for many years until the Burned One called us back to the Forest.’ Now the crystal showed the old woman lying in bed, her eyes sunken, her flesh wasted. The two sisters, fully grown now, knelt on either side of her, tears in their eyes. She turned her head towards one of them and whispered something. The sister leaned in to hear her better, tears coursing down her cheeks.

‘The Burned One told me she was dying. She wanted me to replace her. I would have to be burned in the Fire Ceremony.’

Next the chosen sister was standing once again in the stone circle, alone this time. She wore the Burned One’s white dress, her eyes were closed and her hands clasped together in front of her chest. She chanted spells in the ancient language.

In an instant, a gust of wind blew her hair back and she was plunged into darkness as an enormous shape blotted out the sun. Daisy could hear the sound of huge wings beating the air and gasped in amazement as a red and gold scaled reptile, twice the size of a cart horse, landed in the circle in front of her. Long claws gouged the grass as it folded its leathery wings. Sharp red spikes marched down the creature’s back from its head all the way to the tip of its tail. The dragon blinked its glowing orange, slit-pupil eyes and locked eyes with Cressida.

It snaked its head upwards, sucking in air through its snout. Its jaw dropped open revealing rows of needle-like teeth. Daisy started as fire billowed out from its throat, engulfing the woman in flame.

Cressida held her ground, arms upraised. The flames licked all around her. She was burning from head to foot. Her body was a blazing inferno.

‘Dragon-fire can never burn a true Wise Woman. Instead, by breathing fire onto the leader of our tribe, the dragon, that most ancient and sacred of beasts, symbolically purifies all Wise Women of selfishness, greed, hatred, ambition and jealousy. Wise Woman Tradition says that a Burned One must always sit at the head of our kind. If there is no Burned One, within a generation we will become corrupt, using our powers for our own selfish ends and bringing destruction to all around.

‘My first act as Burned One was to appoint my sister as Wise Woman to the Court of King Rabin of Frailing, Annifer’s great-grandfather. He loved and respected us and wanted a Wise Woman at court to help and advise him.’

The shapes mingled and flowed. Daisy saw Isolda wearing her blue cloak, walking in the grounds of Castle Merlax, deep in discussion with a young bearded man with messy blond hair who she recognized from the royal portraits in the Throne Room of Castle Merlax. Now the crystal showed Isola’s face close up and Daisy saw that hers were the eyes of a woman in love. Now she was sitting beside him in a council meeting, speaking while he listened with rapt attention, now she was bandaging his wounded arm, her face took up the whole of the crystal, her soft green eyes half-closed, a gentle smile playing on her lips — the unmistakable gaze of love.

‘I could see what was happening but I did nothing to stop it.’ Cressida’s voice was heavy with regret. ‘I just thought it was a crush that she’d get over sooner or later.’

The crystal showed a golden carriage drawing up at the castle gates. King Rabin opened the door and took the delicate white hand of the princess who stepped out, her perfect nose held high in the air, her long eyelashes fluttering, her golden hair lifting in the breeze.

‘The King was betrothed to Princess Marguerite of Skaliff.’

Next the Banqueting Hall came into view. King Rabin sat at the Royal Table, next to his intended who wore a sumptuous fuchsia gown and a diamond tiara. She preened and flirted while he gazed mesmerized into her eyes, utterly smitten. Isolda watched from the other side of the room, her eyes glistening with unshed tears. Daisy could almost hear her heart break.

The images came thick and fast now: Marguerite and Rabin arguing, the king pleading, the princess shouting, ‘I don’t want her here! If you loved me, you’d get rid of her!’

Another banquet, Marguerite shooting hate-filled glances like arrows across the room, flicking her hair over her shoulder as she exclaimed loudly, ‘Honestly darling! We don’t have a Court Wise Woman in Skaliff, I don’t know why you need one here.’

Isolda’s wounded expression morphing — her eyes narrowing, her nostrils flaring, her lip curling — until all the hurt was gone, replaced by hatred. Boiling, venomous hatred.

The couple fighting again, this time in the princess’s bedroom at the top of the West Tower. Marguerite sweeping the contents of her dressing table onto the floor and dashing onto the balcony screaming, ‘Send her away or I’ll throw myself off this balcony!’ Rabin’s horrified face hardening, his lips pressing together in an expression of grim resolution.

In the Great Hall, Isolda stands face to face with Rabin, a column of vengeful fury.

‘Leave this place,’ he orders, pointing at the door. ‘Never come back. I’ll never look at you again!’ She turns on her heels, chestnut hair flying, and strides out.

‘But she didn’t leave the castle,’ Cressida’s voice was thick with emotion.

‘She waited behind a bush in the rose-garden. She knew Marguerite’s routine well. Black emotions broiled and bubbled within her. One thought ruled, I will have my revenge!’

In the crystal, Daisy saw Marguerite come skipping into the garden, delighted that she had got her own way.

Slowly and deliberately, Isolda stepped out from behind the rosebush. Marguerite stopped dead, her mouth gaped open, her face stretched with terror. Daisy saw the next part as if in slow motion.

Isolda lowered her chin and raised her arms, muttering the most ancient, the most powerful, the most wicked of forbidden curses. Daisy shivered as she watched her collect the energy of all her hatred, all her humiliation, all her smoldering anger, send it to her hands and prepare to hurl it at her love-rival.

At that moment, Cressida burst out of the castle, her arms flung out in front of her. She dived in front of Marguerite, shouting a defensive spell in the old language. There was an intense flash, a beam of red energy flew out from Isolda’s palms. Cressida threw her hands up to block the beam, screaming a spell of deflection. For a moment, her hands burned and sparked with red-hot curse-energy. Her face contorted into a desperate grimace as she fought with all her power to resist it. She let out a mighty roar and with a final, supreme effort of will, she cast the curse off.

There was only one place for it to go.

Isolda let out a blood-curdling scream.

And then there was silence.

The next image the crystal showed was Cressida’s face — her eyes widening, her jaw dropping in an expression of abject horror.

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