Jemima heard the thief before she saw it: a whole pack of giant wolves barking ferociously, the cracking of a whip and a wild, barely human voice screaming, ‘Yar! Yar!’
Fear rose in her throat. Her pulse raced. She knew who it was even before the towering black-cloaked figure with his unkempt flame-coloured hair came into view on the road up ahead.
Morwain! Sworn enemy of the Wise Women, ruthless dark wizard, the twisted mind behind the plot to kill her father and brother three years earlier. And, though it pained her to think it, her uncle.
He stood at the front of an open sled, long matted hair blown back in the wind, cloak swirling behind him, whip raised above his head. The wolves he was driving were running so fast their legs were a blur. One look at them told Jemima they had been enchanted, no ordinary animal could run at such speed. As she flew closer, one of them crumpled, its legs giving way beneath it, and fell to the ground. In one seamless movement, Morwain drew his sword, sliced through the reins that attached it to the sled and left it behind to die on the road just like the one they’d healed earlier.
In spite of her terror, Jemima’s curiosity compelled her to get a closer look. She flew over his head until she was level with the leading wolves, then circled round and looked down at his face. The sight chilled her to the bone. That face, so familiar, so like her own dear father’s but how different! Gaunt and sallow-skinned, yellow teeth bared, features contorted with rage and hatred. Unblinking bloodshot green eyes stared wildly out of dark hollows. His long dirty beard was flecked with spit.
Goddess protect us!
Jemima swooped back over him and perched on the open sled’s wooden side. Its cargo had been covered loosely with a tarpaulin but Jemima knew what must be underneath. She hesitated, Daisy had warned her about the gorgon. She knew its gaze was lethal, did she dare risk pulling the tarpaulin aside? Just then the sled hit a bump in the road which sent her flying into the air. As she landed again, a glass phial rolled out from under the tarpaulin, a small amount of a dark red liquid sloshing inside. She recognized it straight away. After Morwain fled when his plot to usurp her father’s throne had been exposed, they had found hundreds of such phials in his tower. They had contained the Long Sleep Draft which Morwain had used to keep his enemies in a comatose state. If he’d given it to the gorgon, nothing would wake her until she received the antidote.
Jemima flew down onto the tarpaulin, grasped the material in her beak and hopped backwards pulling it with her. It slipped back and there was a flash as the sun glinted on the surface of the crystal. Jemima’s heart contracted painfully. The Wise Women’s crystal, so precious and sacred to their tribe had been thrown unceremoniously into the back of the sled.
She hopped back again, uncovering what looked at first sight like a pile of ropes. A closer look revealed lithe scaled bodies, flat heads with bulbous closed eyes — sleeping snakes. A shiver shook her feathered body. One more hop revealed a pair of green scaled hands with yellow taloned fingers that had been tied together at the wrist.
Jemima didn’t need to see any more. She dropped the tarp, spread her wings and took off in the direction she had come, flying as fast as her trembling wings would allow her.
‘Morwain’s planning to use the gorgon to kill the dragon.’ Cressida’s voice was low and serious, her white hair pale in the moonlight.
When the eagles weren’t back by nightfall, Cressida and Gerda had saddled up and ridden out into the Forest to look for them. They’d met Daisy and Jemima who had shifted back into their human forms at dusk, trudging towards them, hunched with exhaustion, Karin perched on Daisy’s shoulder. Now they were riding back to the Wise Women’s Village, the full moon casting shadows across their path. Jemima was mounted behind Cressida and Daisy and Karin behind Gerda.
‘But how can he?’ Jemima’s forehead wrinkled. ‘Dragons are immune to the gorgon’s poisonous glare.’
‘Yes, that’s true but a gorgon’s bite will kill any creature, even an immortal one.’ Cressida replied, unconsciously fingering the bite scar on the back of her neck.
‘But even so,’ Daisy chimed in, ‘the dragon’s three times bigger than the gorgon and he breathes fire. How would he ever get her close enough?’ Cressida was silent for a moment.
‘I don’t know but we must not underestimate him, He’ll stop at nothing to bring us down. When we get back to the village, I’ll contact the dragon. Gerda, gather the others and tell them to meet in the stone circle at midnight.’ Gerda saw the questioning look on Jemima’s face and realized this needed some explaining.
‘The Fire Ceremony creates a mind link between the Burned One and the dragon. If we need to communicate with him, we light a fire in the stone circle and the dragon transmits his thoughts to the Burned One through the flames.’
‘It takes a tremendous amount of heart-energy though,’ Cressida added with a sigh. ‘That’s why I need you all there.’
As midnight approached, Daisy watched thirty cloaked figures drift into the stone circle and sit cross-legged on the grass. The moonlight rendered colours indistinguishable but she knew the girls her own age, who moved in pairs whispering excitedly, wore the green cloak of the acolyte just as she did. The others wore the blue cloak — working Wise Women, who’d taken a break from their everyday lives to visit their spiritual home, spend time with their sisters and recharge their spiritual energy. And older women who sat with difficulty, helped to the ground by younger hands — Wise Women who’d retired to the Forest after serving the Goddess in the towns and villages of Tarth for many years.
The stones were irregularly shaped grey slabs which stood upright, the tallest of them reaching as high as Daisy’s waist. Gerda had brought her here on her first day in the Village. ‘These stones were placed here by the very first Wise Women when the world was new,’ she had said walking reverently between them, ‘to concentrate the energies of the land and intensify any magic performed within them.’
Cressida knelt in the middle, a pile of sticks and dried leaves before her. Slowly she raised her palms to the heavens. The circle fell silent, all eyes fixed on her. Lifting her chin, she intoned a prayer to the Goddess in the Old Language. In a mumble, the Wise Women repeated it after her. Gradually, Daisy felt their collective energy increase until her whole body tingled with it.
The Burned One’s eyes flashed emerald green, her upturned palms began to glow white hot. She lowered them in front of her and touched the pile of kindling. Daisy jumped as it burst into flame, sparks shooting high into the night sky. The fire popped and crackled, filling the night air with a sweet-smelling smoke that made Daisy feel light-headed. Cressida blinked the smoke away and gazed deep into the fire, half-closing her eyes, feeling for the dragon’s presence.
Time stood still. It felt like all the women were holding their breath.
Cressida’s voice cut through the silence.
‘Dragon! Dragon, are you . . .’ she gasped and broke off, clasping her hands to her face.
‘What is it?’ Gerda’s urgent voice came from the opposite side of the fire to Daisy.
‘He’s trapped! Trapped in the tunnels and caves under Sacred Mountain. Morwain’s blocked off all the exits with stones and placed curses on each one of them. He can’t even go near them. If he tries it. . .’ she winced, balling her hands into fists, ‘it hurts him. Oh, how it hurts him!’ Cressida’s face contorted in agony. Around the circle, each of the women mirrored her pained expression.
‘There’s only one exit left unblocked and . . . Daisy and Jemima, you need to see this. Come and sit beside me. I’ll touch your heads and share the mind link with you.’ The two girls rushed in breathlessly and knelt either side of her. The heat this close to the fire was searing ‘Are you ready?’ Eyes wide with anticipation, they nodded. Cressida reached up and laid a hand on each of their heads. Daisy felt a force like an explosion in the crown of her head, as if her skull had been blown open. She jammed her eyes shut against the impact. When she opened them again the fire was a yellow orange blur which slowly cleared and sharpened into lines and shapes – images in the flames.
Through the eyes of the dragon, she saw a long tunnel carved out of the rock, if not for the phosphorescent glow the walls were giving off, it would have been pitch black. Inch by inch, the dragon crept forward along the tunnel. He moved haltingly, apprehensively, Daisy could sense his fear and knew it was an emotion he had never felt before. As he crawled, the tunnel opened up on one side and Daisy got a glimpse of a vast cavern, on the floor of which charred bones were scattered, bigger than any she’d ever seen before. One thigh bone was as long as Daisy was tall. Huge blackened skulls and ribcages littered the cave floor. The dragon slithered on and Daisy lost sight of the cave. Soon everything became clearer as a patch of daylight appeared at the tunnel’s end.
Suddenly they were seeing the tunnel’s roof as the dragon’s head jerked back. Pain ripped through Daisy’s body, excruciating pain that coursed through her from the crown of her head to the soles of her feet, making every nerve, every muscle, every sinew sing with agony. She retched and dug her nails into her palms, suppressing the urge to vomit.
Goddess help me!
Calling on all her reserves of strength, she willed herself to focus on the image in the flame.
The patch of daylight was bigger now. At the mouth of the cave, she saw the body of the gorgon, lying on its side in a drugged slumber, hands and feet tied behind its back. Behind the gorgon sat the imposing figure of Morwain, his red hair a wild halo around his head, the crystal on the ground in front of him. His eyes were closed, his brows furrowed in concentration, his hands raised, palms facing down towards the crystal. Daisy saw his lips move and heard him mumble darkly, words in the ancient language. She didn’t know their meaning but the very sound sent shivers up her spine. It was the most threatening sound she had ever heard.
The crystal was glowing but not like she’d seen it glow during Cressida’s healing ceremony. The light was a pale, sickly green and the pulsing was irregular like the heartbeat of a dying man. Daisy sensed waves of dark energy emanating from the crystal, rippling down the tunnel towards the dragon. Each time a wave hit, pain racked the dragon’s body, overwhelming pain, a thousand burning needles. As if from a distance, Daisy heard Jemima’s voice,
‘That’s not our crystal. It’s smaller.’
‘It’s diminishing,’ Cressida’s voice now. ‘When you send dark energy through the crystal, it dies from the outside in. The outer layer clouds over and becomes brittle.’ Before their eyes, a piece of the crystal flaked and fell off, joining a pile of similar flakes on the ground next to it.
Daisy tried in vain to suppress the scream that was building inside her but to no avail. It tore violently from her body, making the forest echo with the fearful sound. She felt the contact with Cressida’s hand break as she fell to the ground.
And then everything went dark.