When the man intruded into the forest clearing and taunted them, it was the calf-shifter who responded first. “Leave my parents alone.” Vera’s voice was frail but firm, and her blue eyes sparked with fury.
The man was none other than Lance, the dragon shifter brother of Demiel. His malicious smile never left his face as he said, “Oh, Mildred, your daughter is a feisty one, isn’t she? It’s a shame that she might die before morning.”
Anastasia, from zir hiding place, barely refrained from springing out and smacking the callous man to the ground.
But Clive could not resist. He flung himself at Lance, his fists swinging like hammers. Normally, even a dragon shifter in human form would have to watch out, as Clive was a bull shifter. But Clive was worn down and weakened, so his strikes were too slow; Lance just dodged to the side with a laugh.
“You’re lucky that I’m in a good mood, old man,” Lance uttered in an airy voice. “Or you would pay for your impudence.”
Mildred got up from the ground, with Vera clutched to her stomach. With her free arm, the cow shifter held onto her husband. She murmured, “Don’t let him get to you, Clive.” To Lance, she hollered, “How dare you speak that way? Vera may be ailing but she has a lot longer to live than that!”
Lance spread his palms, the mirth in his eyes still apparent. “Oh, you poor milkmaid! You think giving your daughter some cow shifter milk would extend her life? If you don’t believe me, you are absolutely free to wait till dawn and see what happens to her.”
Mildred stood up straighter. At her full height, she was almost as tall as Lance. “How would you know? You’ve only just met Vera. And you have no right — ”
“Actually I do,” the dragon shifter said with a gloating drawl. “In fact, Queen Freya herself sent me to find you. You may be a pathetic specimen of a cow, Mildred, despite your seemingly healthy and blooming looks, but our Queen has mercy on you. She knows what will befall your dear daughter, and she asked me to bring you this.” He reached into a pocket and drew out a small bottle. A mysterious green liquid sloshed inside.
Mildred gritted her teeth. “Why should I believe such nonsense? And what is that solution?”
“Oh, it’s a solution, all right,” Lance said. He grinned down at the liquid in his grasp. “A solution to extend poor Vera’s life by another few months or so.”
The cow shifter scowled. “I don’t need ‘help’ from you dragons. Our healers said that Vera had at least a few months left. What you’re offering me would make her suffer worse.”
Clive reached over to take Vera in his arms. He stroked his daughter’s hair, and she squeezed her eyes shut as all these frightful predictions were made about her. Clive spoke up. “Stop threatening my family, dragon. I don’t know what beef you have against my wife, let alone Vera, who has never hurt a single soul.
“But Mildred is right that you’re a dirty scum with nothing but malice in your heart. Why, I recognize that potion by its smell. It’s the one that Queen Freya and her daughters drink. The plant used to make this concoction is normally toxic, but in small doses and mixed with the right ingredients, it can stave off most toxins already in the body, at least for a little while.”
Lance frowned, confusion filling his face. “If you already know this, then why do you still reject our Queen’s help?”
Clint’s stare at Lance was severe. “Because what Vera suffers from is not the same as the queen’s and princesses’ ailment. She is not poisoned.”
Anastasia was startled by Clive’s announcement. By the look of Lance’s dumbstruck face, he hadn’t known, either. Mildred was withdrawn and miserable, with her head tilted down.
Clive continued, “She may look like she is poisoned. But the truth is, Vera has had a frail constitution even from birth, and gets sick easily. With a lot of care and diligence on our parts, she managed to recover from each one, except for her latest flu. So she’s going through a tough time, but it’s not poison, and she will not die by morning.”
For once, Lance was speechless. When he spoke again, it was in a quieter voice. “Then why…”
“Why did we bring her here to the forest?” Clive asked. “My wife sent me an urgent message to bring her here, in the palace wood where most dragons would at least not be able to shift and eat us.”
Mildred nodded. “I knew that Ana and my aunt wouldn’t be able to hold off flying to the palace with you and your brother, so I quickly sent my husband a message on my phone. You were so busy gloating that you didn’t notice. Ana and the others were also too busy watching your and your brother’s antics.”
Indeed, Ana hadn’t paid that much attention to Mildred back at the farm, except when ze gave her back the bottle of milk.
Lance was strangely agitated, as if disappointed that he lost the chance to humiliate an innocent family. Ana wondered too how Lance managed to track them down. Perhaps by scent?
The awful man sulked, and made movements like he wanted to smash the bottle of potion.
With a cold chuckle, Mildred said, “Go ahead. You can dunk that precious juice of yours. We don’t need you dragons interfering. We already have enough problems.” She gripped Clive’s arm more tightly. The couple glared so hard at the dragon that they could have turned him to stone.
Lance pressed his lips together. Then he narrowed his eyes at the calf shifter. “So, you suffer from a weak constitution, eh? You poor thing.” But there was no sympathy in his voice. “Don’t you also have a younger sibling? How are they doing?”
The couple tensed up, while Vera hid her face in her father’s chest. Mildred replied hotly, “That’s none of your business. Our younger child is somewhere safe and out of your reach.”
A sly smile slashed across Lance’s lips. “What? Mildred, since I did let you ride me, I thought we would be on warmer terms. Why are you so harsh? And why do you think I would have anything personal against you or your children?”
Clive looked uncomfortable as he shifted his eyes from his wife to Lance.
Mildred murmured to her husband, “Think nothing of it. He’s just trying to rile us up. Auntie Lucille and I rode on his back to come to the palace. Just as Uncle Mateo rode on Lance’s brother, Demiel’s back, while Ero rode on Anastasia’s back. That was all.”
Anastasia was sure that really had been all, but by the bizarre energy Lance was giving off, Mildred’s oddly evasive manner, and Clive’s continual discomfiture, Ana thought there might be something else going on. But ze couldn’t tell what exactly.
The bull shifter sighed and gazed down at his daughter. “Regardless, Vera deserves some peace and rest. We have no interest in dealing with numbskulls such as you, Lance.”
At that, Mildred gave a brisk nod and hauled her husband to leave the clearing together. In fact, they were moving towards Anastasia’s hiding spot.
If ze really wanted to, ze could slip off elsewhere, but with Lance around, there was a smaller chance of getting away unnoticed, if Lance hadn’t detected zir already.
Ana had run out of patience, however, and in a split second, ze leapt out of the bushes. Mildred and Clive gasped in shock, while Lance was aghast and infuriated. Mildred said, “Ana, I know you’re one of the good dragons and you mean well. But we’ll be okay. Don’t try to intercede for us, please.”
Anastasia huffed and stood zir ground. “Is it really true that all Vera has is a common flu?”
Clive bristled. “Are you accusing me of lying?”
The red dragon peered at Mildred’s husband with cool eyes. “No. I just wonder if there’s anything else happening to Vera that you’re not aware of. No matter what you think of the dragons, Ero is my cousin, which makes Mildred and her daughter a part of my family. So I will help Vera whether you like it or not.”
It was time to stand strong, no matter how much the others doubted Ana. Ze would be a useless sovereign if ze couldn’t even save a child from death.