My chapter 5
No one but Alwena dared to live on the border of the Dog-Head lands. Her home was buried deep beneath the knotted roots of an ancient oak. It was the only tree that remained standing for miles. A deep ravine split the land between Gacgon’s castle and the Ispolin Moutains, channelling the malevolent winds from the northern glaciers that flattened everything in their path.
A white horse galloped up to the oak, its muscles bulging as it struggled against the force of the wind. Lying almost vertical on its back, Mrs. Ratleigh cautiously lifted her face from its mane. The wind ripped at her hair, threatening to tear it from her scalp. She dismounted and quickly wrapped the reins five times around a branch. Pressing her hands against the trunk, she found two of its biggest wrinkles with her thumb. As she murmured the magic password, a portal in the trunk slid open, revealing a spiral staircase.
As Mrs. Ratleigh descended, the door shut behind her. She waited. Usually, the way was lit by dozens of glow worms. Today, there was only darkness, followed by a sulphurous stench, like rotten eggs.
Tendrils of luminous green smoke curled up the staircase.
Mrs. Ratleigh took the stairs two at a time. She hurried into the main chamber, coughing and reaching for the lantern on the mantelpiece.
But even before she had lit it, she saw the dark shape of the overturned cauldron, its contents foaming over the earthy floor, and she knew.
A cantrip. The Dog-Heads had got there first.
An Ispolin fang was embedded in the nearest door, a symbol of their supreme spell which could rob sorcerors and witches of their powers. A spotted parchment hung from its tip, laying out their terms:
You have until moonrise. Bring the femdrake to Mendril Peak or the crone dies.
Mrs. Ratleigh’s heart fluttered and flapped in her chest like a bat trying to get out. Mendril Peak was halfway up the Ispolin Mountains and the sun was already high in the sky.
Her thoughts were interrupted by a loud squawk from the next cave. Wiles, Alwena’s falcon, was circling his cage.
There was no time to return and seek Gacgon’s advice or permission. Her friend Alwena was in danger and no one could get there with greater haste than she could.
She tied the Ispolin parchment around Wiles’ leg, hurried back outside and tossed him into the wind. He gave another loud squawk as he lost his balance for a moment, before catching the current to Gacgon’s castle. Mrs. Ratleigh leapt onto the white horse, ignoring the ache in her arthritic knee.
High above on Mendril Peak, a damp, pointed snout appeared between two boulders. A pair of dark, lidless eyes peered down into the ravine. Without blinking, they watched the dust rising from the hooves of the white horse as it galloped through the ravine and vanished from view into the dense forest at the foot of the Ispolin Mountains.
To be continued…