Sacred Mountain

Chapter 24: Sacred Mountain

‘I don’t like it, Daisy. It’s too dangerous,’ Annifer whispered from her crouched position behind a hillock.

‘We don’t have a choice,’ Daisy hissed. ‘If you’re going to get inside and heal the dragon, we’ll need to distract Morwain and get him away.’

They had travelled the whole day previously, Daisy and Jemima as shire horses, taking turns to carry Annifer on their backs. They’d followed the deep ruts and patches of blood in the snow left by Morwain’s giant wolf-powered sled. On the way, there had been several fallen wolves that had needed their healing capacities.

When darkness had fallen, the horses had become girls again. Jemima had expertly fashioned a shelter from fir branches and they’d taken it in turns to sleep. Then, at dawn, they’d set off again. They were in the shadow of Sacred Mountain now, trudging towards its great looming mass, apprehension gnawing at their insides, their cloaks wrapped tightly around them, snow crunching beneath their boots. Neither Daisy nor Jemima had dared to shift, knowing they’d reach their destination later that day. They were saving the day’s shift for their confrontation with Morwain.

The three of them had veered off the road and walked the final part through the forest until, with increasing dread, they had come to the place where forest ended and mountain began. There, at the forest’s edge, they had found a small hill, crouched behind it and peeked over the top.

In front of them was the entrance to the tunnel under the mountain that Cressida had shown Daisy and Jemima in the fire. And just as they had seen in the fire, sitting cross-legged at the cave’s mouth, bedraggled red hair and beard matted with twigs and dead leaves, was Morwain. A wave of nausea passed over Daisy when she set eyes on him. The last time she had seen him, he had shot her with an arrow, nearly killing her. Jemima’s face was unreadable even to Daisy, as she looked at the man she had called uncle, the man who had tried to murder her father and her younger brother.

‘You two stay here. I’ll be back soon,’ Jemima whispered and scurried off into the forest.

In the silence, Annifer and Daisy could hear Morwain muttering dark curses into the tunnel. The sound sent shivers down their spines. He held his hands out in front of him, palms facing downwards into what was left of the Wise Woman’s crystal. That magnificent clear stone, as big as a giant pumpkin, which Daisy had seen sparkling in the Wise Woman’s Temple, was now no bigger than her head. It looked cloudy and gave off a weak greenish glow. It rested in a pile of flakes that had fallen from its own surface and collected on the ground like a nest.

The crystal’s dying! Daisy thought, a pang shooting through her heart.

A little way inside the tunnel, the unconscious gorgon lay face down on the ground, scaled and taloned hands and feet bound behind its back, snake hair lifeless like so many discarded pieces of rope.

A few feet away from where Morwain sat, the surviving members of the wolf pack lay on their sides in the snow, beside the sled. They had been released from their harnesses which had left weeping sores on their bodies. The wolves eyes were frozen open, unblinking, their breathing shallow. Daisy could tell they were still enchanted, under the control of Morwain’s black magic. He would keep them trance-bound like this until he needed them to do his bidding again.

Annifer and Daisy turned in unison when they heard Jemima crawling back towards them and kneeling beside them behind the hillock. She pointed to a pathway through the forest a little further off.

‘Run down that path, Daisy. It joins up with a road that leads directly to Castle Loska. If you keep to that road and don’t turn off, we’ll come and find you when we’re finished in the tunnel.’

‘No!’ Annifer whispered in protest. ‘We can’t use Daisy as bait. I won’t allow it!’

Daisy grabbed Annifer by both shoulders. ‘Annie, I can feel the dragon’s energy. He’s so weak now. He’s in so much pain. We have to get in there and heal him before it’s too late.’

Jemima reached into a pocket of her belt and pulled out a pinch of grey fur which she placed into Daisy’s waiting palm. She pulled her best friend into a hug, then held her at arm’s length, her green eyes gazing into Daisy’s brilliant blue ones.

‘Goddess protect you, Daisy,’ she said squeezing Daisy’s upper arms.

Annifer gulped and hugged Daisy in turn. ‘Goddess protect you,’ she repeated.

‘Heal the dragon and come out of there safe. I’ll see you on the road to Loska,’ Daisy’s eyes gleamed, her features were set in a determined expression. ‘Goddess protect you, both.’

With that, she closed her eyes, bowed her head and intoned the reclothing spell under her breath. Keeping her head down, she crept away through the trees, towards the path Jemima had indicated. When she got there she flattened herself against an oak at the very edge of the forest. Jemima watched, concern constricting her heart as Daisy steeled herself and took a deep breath.

Suddenly she stepped out from the cover of the trees and stood facing Morwain, feet apart, hands balled into fists.

‘Morwain!’ she shouted, her voice echoing back off the mountain.

Annifer and Jemima watched his terrible head slowly turn towards the sound. The black hollows of his eye sockets trained in her direction, their lids gradually opening to reveal livid green eyes, eyes that had no trace of humanity left in them. The moment he saw who had called his name, his face contorted into a maniacal grimace of anger and hatred, his lips curled into an animal snarl. Daisy’s heart leapt into her mouth. She knew exactly what he was thinking. There, in front of him, helpless and unarmed, stood the very girl who had thwarted him three years earlier, who had foiled his plan to seize his brother’s throne for himself. The one whose demise he had plotted every day since, the one on whom he had sworn to avenge himself.

Daisy closed her eyes, concentrated on the wolf fur in her palm, imagined herself into wolf form. Quick as a flash, the change came over her. She dropped to all fours, her body increasing in size, muscles thickening, fur sprouting over her skin, ears sharpening to a point, snout lengthening, eyes turning yellow. Transformation complete, she growled – a low, menacing sound – and lifted her black lip to reveal vicious pointed fangs.

Morwain sprang to his feet. Wolf Daisy turned on her heels and ran like the wind down the path into the forest.

Morwain raised his arms above his head, chanted a spell the sound of which chilled Jemima to the core, let out a blood-curdling shriek, and threw himself forward, his bloodshot eyes flashing with fury.

And then Jemima and Annifer’s jaws dropped open in astonishment. Right in midair, he morphed into a giant wolf even bigger than Daisy. They gasped in horror. Landing on all four paws, he shook his dreadful new body, quirked one nostril in a ferocious snarl and tore off down the path after their friend.

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