My white wings outspread, the breeze lifts me gently and I soar effortlessly through the air. I look down and see my home city of Merlax disappearing behind me. I'm flying over patchwork fields of crops, of cows and sheep, the little farmhouses dotted between them as small as children's toys. I fly on. Ahead of me, I see the kingdom of Quain with the fabled Palace of Jamain, standing on its hill, domes glinting gold in the bright sunlight. Beyond, in the far distance, the sea shines blue like the sapphires in Annifer's necklace.
"Achoo!" Poppy's sneeze jolted me from my sleep. "Hells teeth, Daisy! There are even more of them this time!"
I cracked open one eye to see my elder sister, Poppy, sitting up in the bed we shared, staring round the room in amazement. On the bed, curled up and sleeping peacefully were three of the castle cats – one tabby, one jet black and one ragged ginger. I sat up, dislodging the ginger, and followed Poppy's gaze. Two fat wood pigeons perched lazily on our wash basin and on the floor lay an assortment of the castle dogs – a greyhound, a spaniel and two identical sheepdogs – snoring softly and filling the room with their doggy smell. Poppy started clapping her hands and bouncing up and down on the bed.
"Shoo! Shoo, you lot! Out of here!" The ginger lifted its tail with an offended mew and darted off through the open door with the other cats. The dogs scampered to their feet, claws scratching on the stone floor, and trotted off behind them. With a loud flapping noise, the enormous wood pigeons took wing and flew out through the window leaving a single feather floating in the air.
"Achoo!" Poppy sneezed as she got out of bed and crossed to the wash basin. "You're an animal magnet all of a sudden, Daisy." I pulled the sheets back over me and closed my eyes, hoping to get back to the flying dream. "If we have to share our room with all the castle's wildlife now, maybe Gerda could give me something to stop the sneezing . . ."
Gerda! Today's Wednesday! I threw the covers off, shot out of bed and ran to the basin, knocking Poppy out of the way, to splash water on my bleary-eyed face.
"Daisy! Honestly! I wish I had your enthusiasm for lessons!"
"If you had my lessons, you'd have my enthusiasm." I rummaged through the drawer looking for my navy blue tunic. Wednesday was my morning off from kitchen duties and for the last year I'd been spending it learning from Gerda, Frailing's Head Wise Woman. She'd been teaching me all the skills required of a good Wise Woman: how to grow the herbs and make remedies from them and how to still my mind and body and let the healing energy flow from my heart into my hands.
"Ouch!" My head jerked backwards as Poppy tried to pull a brush through my tangled black hair.
"Keep still, Daisy! Your hair's messier than the princess's and that's saying something!"
I wriggled away and pulled on the tunic. Undeterred, Poppy came at me with a length of navy velvet ribbon. "At least let me tie a ribb . . ."
"See you later, Pops!" I ducked and made for the door, jamming my feet into a pair of sandals on the way.
"Aren't you forgetting something, Little Miss Keen as Mustard?"
I turned just in time to catch the heavy backpack she'd hurled at me, full of the books Gerda had given me to study. I slung it over my shoulders and raced out of the door.
The servants' quarters were on the ground floor along the northern wall of the castle. No one was up yet. My footsteps echoing through the empty corridors, I raced towards the east door and out into the rose garden. As I approached the main castle gates, I saw Cook overseeing the deliveries for tonight's great feast. She was a big red-faced woman and right now she looked like she was dangerously close to exploding.
"I wanted garden peas not cottage cheese!" she was yelling at a terrified farmer's boy. I tried to duck behind a cartload of vegetables but it was too late. She'd already seen me.
"Daiseee!! Daiseee!! Mind you're back by noon, my girl! There's lots to be done! The future of Frailing itself depends on tonight's meal and don't you forget it!" She waved a stubby pink finger in the air.
"Yes, Maam," I nodded and dodging between the merchants and the kitchen lads, I made my exit.
Outside the castle gates the citizens were going about their daily business. The smell of freshly baked bread wafting out from the bakery entered my nostrils. Unable to resist, I darted through the doorway into the warm fug of Gretchen's bakery. Instantly I noticed something was different. Archie, Gretchen's hulking great teenage son, always ready with a cheeky grin and a sarcastic comment, was conspicuous by his absence.
"Where's Archie?" I asked Gretchen's floury behind as she bent over and pulled a tray of buns out of the oven. She turned to face me and her tear-stained face gave me my answer immediately.
"Ridden south to join King Kriston's army on the Quaini border." She sniffed and wiped her face with a corner of her apron. "Begged him not to go, I did. 'I need you here,' I said. 'Besides, you're much too young to fight in a battle,' I said. 'King Kriston fought a battle when he was ten years old,' he said to me. What could I say to that? I didn't have nothing. So he's gone, he has. Left me alone, he has."
I stood there awkwardly, holding out my coin, poised for a tirade of anti-Wise Women rhetoric. It was because of the Wise Women that Frailing was on the verge of war with Quain today.
A week ago, King Edmund of Quain, the warm and prosperous kingdom to our south, had sent raiding parties across the border. The soldiers had attacked several of our villages, killing the menfolk and taking the women and girls as slaves to work in his huge, legendary palace in Jamain, the capital of Quain.
When word had reached Kriston, our king, he had mobilized his army and rode south to defend his territories. The Frailing army was now waiting in camps by the border, ready to ride into battle and the much larger and better equipped Quaini forces were waiting on the other side. Tonight was the last chance to avoid all-out war.
At his sister, Princess Annifer's suggestion, Kriston had invited King Edmund to Castle Merlax for negotiations. They planned to treat him to the best of Frailing hospitality and afterwards, they'd try to persuade him to withdraw his troops before more lives were lost. He had refused to come but was sending his brother Morwain in his place. Morwain had a reputation for being even harder-headed than his brother and they were not hopeful for a favourable outcome.
Gretchen looked at me and her face softened into a smile.
"Keep your coin, Daisy, my lass," she thrust a warm currant bun into my outstretched hand. "And hurry off to your lessons, now. We'll need all the healers we can get if there's a war on the horizon." She dismissed me with a flick of her cloth and I ran out of the door, relief flooding my chest.
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'Daisy is our only hope!' Red Plague has broken out in the kingdom of Frailing, introduced by dark sorcerer and Wise Woman hater, Morwain. The only cure is the Plaguesbane fruit that grows in a forbidden garden in the heart of enemy territory. Tra...