Annifer propped herself up on her elbow where she had been lying out cold on the sandy cave floor. She rubbed her head, blinked and looked around, taking in the new picture in front of her. The dragon’s ribs rose as he inhaled deeply and let out a great groaning sigh. He stretched his long scaly body and unfurled his huge reptilian wings, letting the life flow back into his long dormant frame. Annifer ducked as a red wing swept over her, grazing the top of her head. She heard Jemima’s footsteps striding towards her.
‘I’ll explain later. We’ve got to get out of here and find Daisy!’ Annifer crawled out from under the wing and took Jemima’s hand. Jemima yanked Annifer to her feet and started hauling her over to the tunnel they had come in through.
‘The dragon’s healed. How did you . . .? Who’s that?’ Annifer stopped dead, jerking Jemima to a halt, and pointed wide-eyed at Isolda’s prostrate form, white hair haloed around her head, eyelids closed, motionless. Jemima’s eyes followed Annifer’s finger. She noticed for the first time that Isolda was wearing the Wise Women’s blue tunic and cloak.
‘She’s a Wise Woman,’ Astonishment accented Annifer’s voice. ‘Who is she? How did she get here?’
‘I promise, I’ll tell you later. We really must get to Daisy. If Morwain got back here to set the gorgon after us, Goddess knows what he’s done with her.’
Annifer jolted back to her senses and bolted after Jemima who was clambering on her hands and knees up the sloping tunnel.
Together, they hurried through the tunnels that led upwards to the entrance. Thank the Goddess Jemima remembers the way, thought Annifer. As they passed the cave of giants’ bones, Annifer caught her breath and spoke.
‘But if Morwain got back here, that means he’ll be waiting for us when we get out. How can we take him on, just the two of us? Why didn’t you stay in dragon form? We might have had a chance.’
‘I don’t know how long we’ve been down here. It’s probably sunset now. If I hadn’t shifted back, I’d have been stuck.’
‘But what can we two girls do against a powerful wizard like Morwain?’
Jemima was silent. She had an inkling, just the smallest of suspicions. As a Shifter, she knew a lot about animal behaviour.
‘You’ll just have to trust me, Annie.’
Reluctantly, Annifer fell silent and carried on jogging alongside her friend.
Just when she was thinking the tunnel would never end, they turned a corner and saw that here the underground walls were lit with a dim orange glow. The cave’s entrance was in sight and Jemima was right, the sun was setting.
‘Can you see him?’ Annifer whispered as they approached cautiously.
‘No, but there’s something on the ground up there. Something dark.’
They tiptoed up to the cave mouth. What they saw confirmed Jemima’s suspicions. The snow was trampled with dozens of paw prints. Morwain’s black cloak lay torn and blood soaked on the ground. The flakes of crystal were scattered around and a thick trail of blood led off to the flat plane where the wolf pack had lain mesmerised earlier.
‘Stay back!’ Jemima pushed Annifer back inside the tunnel while she poked her head out and peered round. A grisly sight met her eyes. She inhaled sharply.
Scraps of black cloth, bloody pieces of flesh and clumps of matted red hair littered the snowy plane. The wolf pack was gathered in a circle around something on the ground which Jemima couldn’t see. They were in a feeding frenzy, tearing at it ferociously. Ripping, squelching sounds filled her ears, she gulped down the nausea that rose in her throat. Every now and again, a wolf would raise its red stained muzzle, its jaws champing on the meat. The pack was completely absorbed in their kill.
Annifer’s head appeared beside Jemima’s. She gasped and her hands flew to her mouth.
‘They killed him . . . and now they’re eating him!’
‘Yes, I knew without the crystal he wouldn’t be able to control them. The way he’d tortured and starved them, they were bound to turn on him. Quick, we need to get after Daisy!’
They turned and darted off along the path through the forest that Daisy had lured Morwain down earlier that day. As fast as their legs would carry them, they ran through the trees, following the enormous paw prints left by the Daisy and Morwain wolves. Panting they stumbled on over roots and stones until the path met the road to Loska. There they skidded to a halt, recoiling and clutching each other in shock as they took in the unexpected sight before them.
Daisy lay unconscious by the side of the road, her head in the lap of a gigantic black bear who sat upright, it’s back against a tree, its eyes closed. There was a thick, bald ring around the bear’s neck where the exposed skin was bloody and raw. Taking care not to make a sound, Jemima took a step closer. She could see that the bloody ring was glowing with a faint white light. She felt Annifer come to stand beside her and they watched as the light pulsed, getting brighter and brighter with every throb.
Slowly the animal’s skin knitted together, the weeping sores gradually closed up and covered over with fresh grey skin. Then the light dimmed and went out. The bear opened its glistening black eyes, wrinkled its nose and blinked twice. It took Daisy’s head between its great clawed paws, lifted it gently and placed it on the snowy ground. Dropping forward onto all fours, it gave itself a shake and lumbered off into the wood.
As soon as it was out of sight, the two girls ran to Daisy’s side and fell to their knees by her head.
‘Daisy! Daisy! Are you alright?’ Blearily, Daisy opened one eye.
‘Morwain . . .The dragon . . .’
‘The dragon’s healed. Morwain’s dead,’ Jemima told her. ‘Can you stand? I’ll tell you everything on the way back to the mountain.’ Groaning Daisy looped her arms around her two friends’ shoulders and struggled to her feet. ‘We need to get back to the cave to fetch the crystal,’ Jemima continued, ‘and give Isolda a proper burial.’
‘What?’ said Daisy.
‘Who?’ said Annifer.
When, they emerged from the forest at the foot of the mountain, Daisy shuddered at the gory scene in front of her. The satiated wolves were lying on their sides in the red snow, digesting their meal. In the centre of their group, a pile of bones, stripped clean of all flesh, was all that was left of Morwain.
‘Come on, we need to go inside and get the crystal,’ Jemima said. The two princesses supported a nauseous Daisy as she limped in the direction of the cave mouth.
‘Look!’ Daisy shouted and they all froze in astonishment as the most surprising sight of the day hit their eyes.
Out of the mouth of the cave stepped the tall willowy figure of Isolda, her long white hair and blue cloak lifting in the evening breeze. She stopped and looked around, her green eyes wide, her mouth open in an expression of childlike wonder, like a blind woman seeing the world for the first time after having her sight miraculously restored.
In her arms, she carried the Wise Women’s crystal, clear and radiant once again, sparkling with orange lights as it caught the last rays of the fading sun.
Isolda’s head turned, her gaze fell on the three girls and her face split in the widest smile Daisy had ever seen. Tears streamed down her crinkled face.
‘Isolda! You’re alive!’ called Daisy, her heart swooping in her chest. She disentangled herself from her two friends to hobble towards her.
‘I’m alive.’ Isolda echoed, her voice breaking — the first words she’d spoken in decades. As Daisy approached, Isolda stared deeply into her eyes. Instantly Daisy was hit by the force of Isolda’s overwhelming joy; her heart sang with gratitude, every particle of her being vibrated with happiness. She felt Isolda’s emotions as if they were her own and understood what a delight it was for her to look into the face of another human being again after so many years. Annifer and Jemima caught up with Daisy. Isolda gazed at them both in turn. It was as if her eyes were magnetically attracted to theirs.
‘I thought you were dead, Isolda,’ Jemima finally broke the silence. ‘What happened?’
‘The dragon breathed fire on me and I woke up!’ Isolda’s voice was quiet and raspy from lack of use, her face shining like a newborn baby. ‘I am the Burned One’s twin sister. It seems her connection with the dragon extends to me as well. He breathed on the crystal too and purified it. Look!’ she held it up.
At that moment, the enormous red snout, burning orange eyes and horned head of the dragon loomed into view behind her. She raised a hand to stroke his scaly face. The dragon nuzzled her head and she giggled.
‘I can hear him talking in my head!’ she told them with the enthusiasm of a small child sharing a special secret. ‘He wants to take me and the crystal back to the Wise Women’s Village, back to my sister, Cressida. He says I can fly on his back.’
‘Here, you’ll need this,’ Jemima slipped the knapsack off her shoulders and held it open for Isolda to place the crystal inside, then helped her thread her arms through the straps.
‘But first we have to fly north. He says the giants have attacked two villages. He has to drive them back before they do any more damage. You could come too. The dragon’s big enough to carry us all.’
‘We have to go to Castle Loska and get my sister, Poppy,’ Daisy shook her head. ‘I don’t know how we’re going to get there though. Jemima and I can’t shift till tomorrow and it’s a long way on foot.’
‘Why do you need to go on foot?’ Isolda raised an eyebrow. ‘There’s a sled right there and the wolves are waiting to take you.’ She pointed to Morwain’s sled. The wolves had lined up in formation in front of it, ready to be harnessed.
‘Good Goddess, look at that!’ Annifer exclaimed.
‘Some of them still have sores from the harnesses. We’ll have to heal them first.’ Daisy hobbled over and caressed the head of the nearest wolf who nosed her chin, leaving a bloody smear and wagged his tail in response.
‘Well, it’s lucky we know what to do then, isn’t it?’ Isolda chuckled.
The four of them raised their palms to the sky and spoke the prayer of healing in unison. They concentrated on their heart fire — the three girls felt it burn stronger than usual in the presence of an exceptionally powerful Wise Woman like Isolda — and moved among the wolf pack, touching and healing them one by one.
When they had finished, the dragon crawled out of the cave and into the clearing, his long red body taking up most of the space. Daisy expected the wolves to take fright but they sat calmly and watched, instinctively knowing the magical creature willed them no harm. Annifer and Jemima boosted Isolda onto the dragon’s back where she sat between two spines, holding onto the dragon’s giant wing joints.
‘Goddess protect you three,’ she beamed down at them.
‘Goddess protect you too,’ they chorused in reply.
With that, the dragon crouched, spread his wings wide and with a leap and an almighty flap, which almost knocked the girls over, soared into the air.
Annifer, Daisy and Jemima waved as they watched Isolda and the dragon wheel through the air, silhouetted against the setting sun.