The night air was crisp, clear and earth-scented.
The moon shone just brightly enough for Poppy to see where she was going. She crept noiselessly along the cobbled pathway to the other side of the rose garden. There, amidst the creepers covering the courtyard wall was a thick wooden door, speckled with lichen. It was sealed shut from the inside with a rusted bolt. Poppy grasped it with both hands and tried to pull it across, straining and grimacing with the effort but it wouldn’t budge.
Frowning, she took the perfume oil bottle from her pocket, dabbed a few drops on the mechanism and waited for it to seep in, her nose filled with the floral scent. Then she tried it again. This time there was a crunching sound and it slid across. She shoved the door with her shoulder leaving a greenish smear on her black fur and with a creak of rusty hinges, it swung open and she stepped out onto another cobbled pathway.
If her mental plan of the castle grounds was right, this path should take her through the gardens behind the Banqueting Hall all the way round to the back of the stable block. She moved quietly, eyes down, careful where she was putting her feet on the uneven surface. Her heart was beating with anticipation and nervousness. To her left a flowerbed choked with dead weeds nestled against the castle’s high wall. To her right a moss-covered stone fountain stood in the middle of an unmown lawn, its spout formed by the pursed lips of a forlorn-looking cherub who had lost one wing and one arm.
Poppy tiptoed along the path until the smell of horses told her her destination was near. The path turned sharp left and sure enough, there in front of her she saw the thatched roof and stone walls of the stable block. She found the door, slid the bolt across (this one came easily) and stepped into the almost pitch dark interior, closing it gently behind her. The familiar smell of straw, dung and horse body greeted her nostrils. Blindly, she felt her way to the nearest stall, screwed up her eyes and peered inside, but the faint moonlight filtered through the thatched roof was too weak to see by.
‘Why didn’t I bring a candle?’ she scolded herself under her breath.
‘Poppy! Is that you?’ a surprised but familiar voice said.
‘Petros?’ She’d known he’d be here. In Frailing he’d always preferred a pile of hay in the stables beside his beloved horses to a bed in the servants’ quarters. The sound of rustling a couple of stalls away followed by the stall door opening and closing and then Petros voice again,
‘What are you doing here, Pops?’
‘Looking for you, of course.’
They both stepped gingerly towards the other’s voice, arms outstretched in the blackness, until their fingers touched and they threw their arms around each other and hugged tightly.
‘Aren’t you hurt?’ Petros asked.
‘No, Ivy healed me. She’s a Wise Woman and she doesn’t even know it.’
Poppy pulled away and put her hands on Petros’ shoulders, ‘I need your help. Get your blacksmith’s hammer and chisel and follow me.’ She kept her hand on his shoulder and walked behind him as he felt his way back to the stall, rummaged in his knapsack and tucked the tools into his belt. Then, following the wall of stall doors with her hand, Poppy guided Petros through the stables and out the door into the front courtyard. The pale moonlight seemed bright to them now.
‘We have to be careful, the Night Patrol might come at any minute,’ Petros whispered. ‘Where are you taking me?’
‘Sh! Just follow me.’ She scurried along the courtyard wall to where it opened up and then turned into the arena. The huge space with its sandy floor and rows of empty seating had an eerie feel at nighttime. The bear was sat hunched over on the ground, its back against the post it was chained to. Its shoulders were rising and falling gently – it looked like it was sleeping. Poppy pointed to the other end of the arena, her eyes shining with excitement.
‘That gate leads to the forest. We need to break it open.’
A light went on in Petros’ head as he suddenly realized what his friend intended to do and he grinned from ear to ear.