Sacred Mountain

Chapter 29: The Real Annifer



As they travelled south to Loska, it seemed they were leaving winter behind and entering into spring. The snow had melted so much that they had to stop at the first waystation they came to, to exchange their sled for a carriage. The innkeeperess screamed and dropped her tea towel when she opened her door to see three girls unharnessing a pack of giant wolves from their sled.

‘It’s alright, they’re quite friendly really,’ Jemima giggled as two of them jumped up to lick her face. The woman watched open-mouthed as Jemima trotted off into the forest, wolves following behind, tails wagging. When they were out of sight of the inn, she spoke a few words in the old language, snapped her fingers and they all bolted off into the undergrowth.

Meanwhile, Annifer negotiated a deal with the wary inkeeperess for a green painted carriage and two black and white shire horses. They took it in turns to drive the rest of the way along the cobbled streets of Loska, towards the unwelcoming, spike-topped wall that surrounded the grey stone turrets of Castle Loska.

‘Poor Poppy,’ Daisy’s face fell when the forbidding castle first loomed into sight, ‘I hope she’s been alright in there.’

‘I hope so too,’ Annifer’s brow wrinkled in concern.

They pulled up in front of a tall wooden gate in the wall with a sentry box next to it. Annifer leaned out of the window and looked at Jemima, who was driving.

‘Should we knock?’

‘I suppose so,’ Jemima replied. Annifer jumped out and rapped at the sentry box door. Nothing happened. She knocked again, harder this time and the door creaked open. A bent old man with a long straggly grey beard and an unfriendly scowl peered out.

‘What do you lot want?’ he shouted in a thick Crosstainian accent. Annifer tipped her head back as she had seen servants do when a royal visitor came to Frailing,

‘Announcing the arrival of Princess Ann . . .’ she trailed off, suddenly realizing the guard would have seen Poppy pretending to be Annifer and not wanting to have to explain,

‘Jemima of Quain,’ Jemima finished the sentence for her, hopping down from the carriage to join her friend.

‘Whassat? The miner of pain?’ the guard shouted, cupping his ear.

‘Jemima of Quain,’ she boomed in reply and both princesses pursed their lips in matching you-will-do-as-I-command expressions. The old man tutted and grumbled something about, ‘more bloody princesses’ as he sorted through his enormous bunch of keys and shuffled off to unlock the gate.

When they rode through the gate, an unexpected sight met their eyes. The courtyard was packed with armour-clad soldiers on horseback, carrying weapons – archers on one side, swordsmen on the other. At the head of the army, astride a powerful black stallion, sat a thickset youth with wavy brown hair which hung to his shoulders. Facing them, stood a stooped older man – white haired and bearded, wearing a golden crown. Annifer recognized Larnick and Fenwick straightaway. Behind the king were gathered the ladies of the court, all sniffling and weeping into their handkerchiefs.

Jemima halted the carriage. They stepped down and strode up to the king, all eyes turning in their direction. A pale, red-headed young girl wearing servants’ clothes, her hair tied up in a bun, stood on the king’s left. On his right stood a tall, dark-haired girl in a sky blue velvet gown with a sapphire tiara and necklace.

‘Poppy!’ Daisy cried and ran towards her sister, arms wide.

‘Daisy!’ Poppy called back and ran into her open arms.

‘That’s Princess Annifer! I recognize her from her sixteenth birthday celebrations,’ Larnick shouted, swinging off his horse and jabbing a finger towards the real Annifer, ‘and that’s Princess Jemima of Quain next to her!’

‘If that’s Princess Annifer,’ King Fenwick’s voice was a low menacing growl, ‘who is that?’ he pointed at Poppy who let her sister go and looked down at the ground sheepishly. Murmurings and intakes of breath sounded all around them.

‘Forgive our deception, King Fenwick. I swapped places with my maid, Poppy,’ Annifer clasped her hands together and dropped to her knees. Jemima, Poppy and Daisy knelt beside her.

‘The Wise Women sent us on a secret mission to save the dragon under Sacred Mountain from a dark wizard.’

‘The dragon under Sacred Mountain?’ King Fenwick snapped. ‘The dragon under Sacred Mountain is a legend that no one’s believed for generations.’

‘No, Your Majesty, it’s true,’ Jemima insisted. ‘We’ve seen him. He lives in the tunnels under the mountain. Everyone on this continent owes their life to him. When the giants that live in the northern wilderness get too close, he drives them back. He saves us from giant attacks.’

‘Giant attacks?’ The king’s words were echoed in whispers through the whole company.

‘You’re saying the dragon protects our people from giant attacks?’

‘Yes, Your Majesty, but until now it was a secret known only to the Wise Women. There was a dark wizard trying to kill the dragon so we had to rescue . . .’ Jemima broke off as the wooden gate behind them crashed open and a lone rider in a mud splattered cloak galloped in. He dismounted and dropped to his knees beside the girls.

‘Your Ma . . . Your Majesty,’ he stammered, wide brown eyes in a soot-blackened face met the king’s. His courage seemed to fail him.

‘What man? Out with it!’

‘The giants . . .’ he continued falteringly. Annifer could see he was shaking.

The giants what?’ King Fenwick thundered.

‘They’ve been defeated by . . . by a dragon.’ Gasps and exclamations burst out in the crowd.

‘I swear it, my King! I’m not lying! Just as the sun was setting last night, it flew down from the sky,’ he lifted his hand above his head and swept it down in front of him to indicate the motion, ‘and breathed fire on them and burnt them to cinders. He killed most of them and the ones he didn’t get, fled to the hills. O please don’t execute me, Your Majesty, it’s the truth, I swear it!’ He fell prostrate before the king.

King Fenwick stared at the five individuals kneeling before him. The hordes gathered in the courtyard fell silent in anticipation, gazes fixed on the king, waiting for his decree. Nobody breathed. You could cut the atmosphere with a knife. At last he spoke.

‘Servants, take this man, clean him up and feed him. Army, the giants are defeated so you are no longer needed. Stand down.’

The crowd erupted in cheers, helmets were tossed in the air, women rushed into the ranks of the army to embrace their loved ones. From the throng, the tall elegant figure of Jess with her long chestnut coloured hair, launched herself at Larnick and hung round his neck sobbing. The servants pulled the relieved messenger to his feet and led him up the steps to the castle. In the midst of the celebration, King Fenwick approached the kneeling Poppy and glared down at her.

‘Impersonating a royal is a treasonable offence. Do you know that, girl?’ His nostrils flared, his brows knitted in a severe expression.

‘Y . . . yes,’ Poppy choked, looking up at him with round, pleading eyes. Larnick hurried to his father’s side, pulling Jess by the hand.

‘But father, Annifer, I mean Poppy, cured your lung fever, she saved your life and it was her idea to put on that play when the bear escaped and it’s thanks to her we’re on good terms again.’

Annifer leapt to her feet, ‘It was I who insisted she take my place. It should be me who receives the punishment.’

‘No, it should be me. It was my idea all along,’ Jemima jumped up to join her.

‘I’m Poppy’s sister and I went along with it. Let me take the punishment,’ Daisy said in turn.

Ivy squeezed in between Annifer and Jemima, ‘Please don’t hurt her, Your Majesty! She’s my friend.’

‘Quiet!’ thundered King Fenwick. ‘Get back, all of you!’ They retreated sheepishly. The king turned to Poppy again, his face softened into a smile and he held out a hand to help her up.

‘I knew you weren’t the Princess of Frailing from the moment I saw you. You’re many things, my dear, but you’re no actress. Poppy, is your name, is it? Well, Poppy, I’m grateful for everything you’ve done for us.’ Poppy squealed and threw her arms around his neck.

‘Thank you thank you thank you thank you.’ The king laughed his booming laugh and gently pushed her away.

‘Now,’ he said, eyes travelling over the group before him. ‘Which one of you is going to marry my son?’

Poppy screwed up her courage.

‘This one,’ she said, taking Jess by the arm and pulling her forward. Larnick grabbed Jess’s other hand.

‘Please, father, I don’t want to marry Annifer. Sorry, Annifer!’

‘It’s alright, Larnick. I don’t want to marry you either.’

‘But we need an alliance with Frailing,’ the king protested.

‘Maybe we don’t need a marriage to form an alliance,’ Annifer suggested. ‘Maybe we could just . . . be friends.’

‘Yes, Larnick agreed. ‘We could visit each other and learn each other’s customs. You could teach us how to hunt giant rabbits, for example.’ Annifer raised a puzzled eyebrow. Poppy’s cheeks flushed red.

‘We could have sports tournaments together,’ Larnick continued. ‘Our two kingdoms could help each other when they’re in need.’

‘And the very first way we can help you is to train your first Wise Woman.’ Poppy clapped her hands, bouncing up and down on the spot. All faces looked at her confused. She took Ivy by the shoulders. ‘Ivy’s a Wise Woman, a powerful one too. If you let us take her to the Wise Women’s Village, they could train her and she could come back and heal your sick people. She could start a Wise Woman’s school here. Wouldn’t that be good?’

Daisy turned to the flabbergasted Ivy, ‘You’re really a Wise Woman?’

‘I’m really a Wise Woman?’ Ivy asked back.

‘She is, Daisy,’ Poppy insisted. ‘A really good one.’

‘I . . . I can come to the Wise Women’s Village and train with you?’ Ivy asked Daisy, her eyes wide, her face lit up with excitement.

‘Yes, you can,’ Daisy nodded enthusiastically.

‘Yes, come with us,’ Jemima added, patting her on the shoulder. Ivy stared into the middle distance, mouth agape, lost for words.

‘I always knew Ivy was special,’ the king smiled. ‘Well, let’s start this friendship with a mammoth feast!’ He clapped his hands.

‘Thank you, You Majesty but we can’t,’ Jemima replied.

‘Why ever not?’ Poppy asked.

‘Daisy’s Cloaking Ceremony’s in two days’ time. If we leave now, we’ll just get back in time.’

‘Oh goodness, I’d almost forgotten,’ Daisy’s hands flew to her mouth.

‘But how will we get there? Petros left this morning to take gifts to Kriston in exchange for. . . Larnick’s bride.’ Poppy shot the king a guilty glance.

‘We have this carriage, Poppy.’ Jemima pointed to their green-painted carriage harnessed to the two shire horses, ‘It will fit us all easily.’

‘Tell Kriston to keep the gifts in exchange for our first Wise Woman. Train Ivy well and come back for Larnick and Jess’s wedding,’ King Fenwick said, his smile infusing his voice with warmth. ‘Go with my blessing.’

*****

Two days later as the sun set, Daisy found herself kneeling on the cool grass inside the stone circle. At three points around the circle’s edge, bonfires had been lit. They blazed and crackled, scenting the evening air with the tang of woodsmoke. In the trees songbirds called to one another and a vixen wailed her plaintive cry.

Daisy’s heart swelled as she glanced around at the faces of the Wise Women who had gathered to watch her Cloaking Ceremony. Cressida and Isolda sat cross-legged side by side, their white hair glowing orange in the firelight, so alike nobody could tell them apart. Even their breathing was in time. Every now and then they would turn their heads, relishing every opportunity of looking into each other’s faces after so many years.

Next to Cressida, Daisy’s closest friend and fellow Shifter, Jemima brushed a tear from her cheek while absent-mindedly stroking the fox cub who had nestled in her lap. Beside Jemima, Ivy, the newest member of their family, hugged her knees, mouth slightly open, eyes widening in wonder at every new experience. Annifer knelt beside Ivy, her regal face shining with pride, and next to Annifer sat Poppy, Daisy’s own dear sister, so full of happiness she looked like she might burst at any moment.

The day before, the dragon had breathed fire on Gerda in the Fire Ceremony, marking her as the new Burned One and leader of the Wise Woman’s tribe. Her first act as Burned One had been to declare Poppy an honourary Wise Woman so she could attend Daisy’s Cloaking.

Suddenly Daisy’s attention was caught by a flash of white among the trees just beyond the circle. She narrowed her eyes and peered into the forest. Liquid brown eyes stared back at her beneath a silver spiral horn which gleamed in the firelight. Her heart jumped with excitement. The unicorn flicked his ear, then pawed the forest floor with his hoof, shaking his flowing white mane and dipped his head towards her. The tears spilled from Daisy’s eyes as she bowed back.

Gerda stood before the kneeling Daisy, dressed in the Burned One’s white dress and cloak and beamed a radiant smile down at her.

She bent forward and draped the Wise Woman’s twilight blue cloak around her former pupil’s shoulders. Her voice shaking with emotion, Daisy recited:

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.


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