‘We’ll go around the edge so as not to wake the bear,’ Poppy whispered. Poppy and Petros jogged noiselessly to the arena’s other side, hugging the wall that separated it from the spectators’area. A low rumbling sound emanated from the bear’s slumped body.
I didn’t know bears snored, thought Poppy to herself. How fascinating!
The gate was sealed with a padlock as big as a man’s fist. Petros didn’t need telling. He set his chisel to the lock’s metal arch, raised his hammer with his other hand and struck. The clang echoed round the arena, deafening in the silence. Poppy cast an anxious glance over her shoulder, worried the Night Patrol would hear them. Nobody came but the bear began to stir.
‘Hurry, Petros!’ she hissed. He lifted his hammer again. Clang! This time the lock broke in two pieces and fell onto the sand covered ground. The bear shook itself awake and staggered to its feet like a drunken man, swinging its head from left to right, sniffing the air and looking around for the source of the disturbance. When it caught sight of the two of them it let out a roar and slashed its claws in their direction.
Poppy pushed the gate until it was completely open, then turned back to Petros, took the bear-handled key from her pocket and held it up. Petros smiled.
‘You know what to do,’ she winked. Petros nodded,
‘You stay back here. I’ll hold up one finger like this when it’s time for you to come,’ he said showing her the gesture.
‘Goddess protect you, Petros.’ Poppy made a circle with her thumb and forefinger and held it to her heart – the sign of the Goddess. Petros did the same and then turned and walked slowly towards the bear.
It was frantic now, straining against its chain, clawing the air and snarling, foam edging of its mouth. But Petros carried on undaunted. He kept on moving closer, gently and cautiously, hands out in front of him, palms downturned, whispering softly and soothingly,
‘Wish wish wish wish . . .’
Poppy stood rooted to the spot, heart thudding in her chest, hands over her mouth repeating over and over,
‘Goddess protect him. Goddess protect him, Goddess protect him.’
The bear’s fury seemed to reach a frenzy. It let out a high-pitched howl and shook its head violently from side to side, tearing at the metal collar around its neck.
‘Wish wish wish wish . . .’ Petros drew nearer, his whispering getting louder all the time.
Suddenly the bear stopped howling and took a big gulp of air. Its arms dropped to its sides and it stood staring at Petros, swaying slightly, shoulders rising and falling with its heavy breaths. Petros was right in front of the bear now. He quietened his whispers, raised his hands to shoulder height and rocked back and forth in time with the bear’s breathing. It made a grunting noise and half closed its eyes before falling silent. Spellbound, it swayed in time with Petros movements, calm at last, docile as a little puppy. Poppy let out the breath she had been holding in as she watched their strange moonlit dance.
Without taking his eyes off the bear, Petros held up a finger in Poppy’s direction and she ran stealthily towards them. As she got closer, fear made her heart thump in her chest. The bear was colossal, taller than the tallest man she’d ever seen. Its open mouth revealed long vicious-looking fangs. She tried not to imagine them burying into her flesh. The arms that hung loosely ended in claws more deadly than any weapon. Petros didn’t break eye contact for a second and the bear stared back, mesmerized, through unfocused eyes.
Poppy had to stand on tiptoe to reach the collar around its neck. Her legs were shaking so much she thought she might collapse. It was so close, she could feel its warm breath on the side of her face; its animal smell filled her nostrils. Holding her own breath and as softly as her trembling hands would allow, she fitted the key into the lock on the bear’s collar, its wiry fur tickling her hands as she held it steady. Eyes popping out of their sockets, she gritted her teeth and turned the key once to the right. The collar snapped open and, as delicately as she could, she lifted it away from the bear’s neck.
She suppressed a gasp of horror as she saw how the collar had rubbed away the fur and left a bloody raw ring around the animal’s throat.
As soon as it was free, Petros changed the tone of his song. It was higher now and faster, more encouraging. He made little chirping noises and rubbed his thumb and forefinger together as he gradually backed away towards the open gate. The bear fell forward onto all fours. Dreamily lifting its heavy feet, it took a step forward, its muscular shoulders rolling with the motion, following Petros’ chirping.
Like this, Petros led the bear through the arena and out of the gate. Then Poppy heard Petros clap his hands followed by the sound of padded feet running away. Petros ran back in, beaming all over his face.
‘Quick!’ Poppy held up the collar, ‘Break it with your chisel so it looks like he broke free by himself.’ Clang! Petros smashed the lock mechanism, dropped it in the sand and together they ran back towards the courtyard.
Just then, they heard footsteps coming from the direction of the main castle gates.
‘The Night Patrol! They must have heard us,’ Petros whispered. ‘Come on, let’s hide in the seats!’ The arena’s wall was punctuated at regular intervals with gates which opened onto steps leading up to rows of tiered wooden benches. They hastily unlatched one of the gates and crouched behind it, pulling it shut just in time.
They held their breath and listened. The footsteps were muffled now by the arena’s sand. A young man’s voice spoke.
‘I did, I’m telling you. I heard a noise! Metallic it was, like a bell ringing.’
‘Well, I didn’t hear nothin’!’ This was a gravelly voice which Poppy recognized as belonging to the old man who’d been guarding the main gate when she and Petros first arrived at the castle.
‘That’s coz you’re deaf as a post . . . Hello! Where’s the bear?’ There was a chink of metal, a chain being lifted. ‘Look at that! His collar’s broken!’
‘Whassat? Broken, is it?’
‘Yes, he must have torn it clean off. . . and look there! The gate’s been broken open too! Hell’s teeth! Who’d have thought that bear would have the strength?’
‘Hmmph!’ the old man grunted. ‘Looks to me like the bear’s gone and escaped. Prince Larnick ain’t gonna be happy, that’s for sure!’
‘Is he ever? I’m not happy either. I had a shilling on the bear to beat the dogs tomorrow.’
‘Whassat? Eat the frogs of sorrow?’
‘BEAT THE DOGS TOMORROW, YOU CLOTH-EARED TURNIP!’
‘No need to shout! I ain’t deaf, you know!’
‘Come on. We’d better get another padlock for the gate.’
‘Aye and we’d better get another padlock for the gate, too.’
The young man sucked his teeth, ‘You can tell the king about the bear running off in the morning.’
‘You can tell ‘im, you mean.’
‘Huh! You heard that alright, didn’t you? No, you can tell him.’
‘You can tell ‘im.’ The sound of voices receded and soon they heard footsteps on the courtyard cobblestones again.
Petros and Poppy cracked the gate open and peaked through. When they saw the coast was clear, they raced out of the arena, through the courtyard and back into the stables’ darkness.
‘Good work, Poppy!’ They hugged each other breathlessly.
‘Couldn’t have done it without you, Petros. Goddess protect you.’
With a smile on her face and a lightness in her heart, Poppy felt her way out of the stables and ran back to her room the way she had come.