I tore the soft bun with my teeth as I hurried through the narrow streets, the ramshackle, red-roofed houses on either side looking like they might fall in on me at any moment.
In my mind, I mulled over the question that had been troubling me for weeks. The Wise Women were the kindest, most useful people you could imagine. All they did was help people. Yet for a generation they had been outlawed, not just in Frailing but in all the kingdoms of Tarth. Condemned by the Old Law, an ancient law which had been revived when my mother was a little girl. Under the Old Law, the penalty for conducting a healing ceremony, or even saying the name of the Goddess they worshipped, was death by burning. Demonised and feared by the people they wanted to help, they had been forced underground, only able to practise in secret.
Until a year ago, when Gerda had helped to save Crown Prince Kriston's life and restore his throne after it had been seized by usurpers. Out of gratitude Kriston had overturned the Old Law and allowed the Wise Women to practise freely in Frailing again. Edmund, King of Quain, who hated the Wise Women, had become furious and attacked our southern border. Now we were on the brink of war. The thought made my stomach clench in fear. I pushed it aside and jogged on.
The streets were wider now. The houses on either side looked friendlier and more welcoming. Gerda's cottage was on the edge of the Great Forest, which separated our kingdom from Moonrun. It was a simple home with a well-tended front garden. Sweet-smelling roses, marigolds, geraniums and lavender bordered the stone path that led to the front door. Left of the path stood a dovecot; white doves ruffled their feathers and cooed gently perched outside their little house. By now I had the usual small animal following of stray dogs and cats. As I opened the gate I turned and smiled down at them, their wagging tails and adoring up-turned faces.
"You'll have to stay outside now, I'm afraid."
Gerda's white terrier, Blanco and her white cat, Perdita trotted towards me as I closed the gate behind me; two white doves fluttered down and perched on each of my shoulders. I clicked my tongue in greeting, then shooed them away and rounded the cottage to the herb garden at the back. Gerda was bent over cutting sprigs of rosemary with a small silver knife. She wore a long white dress and her dark hair fell loose over her shoulders. Her eyebrows were pulled together and her deep blue eyes were full of concern. It was clear she felt responsible for Frailing's current situation.
Catching sight of me, Gerda's features stretched into a warm smile. She set down her herb basket and knife.
"Daisy, dear! So lovely to see you!"
My heart swelled as she took my arm and we walked in silence to the patch of grass under the oak tree at the bottom of the garden. Gerda was the wisest and most generous person I had ever met. The question came tumbling out of me.
"How did it happen, Gerda? Why was the Old Law passed in the first place? Who would want to ban the Wise Women? It doesn't make any sense." Gerda sighed and shook her head.
"Fear is a powerful thing, Daisy. When I was a girl, growing up in the castle in Moonrun, the Wise Women were part of society. If I had a headache, my father would summon the Wise Woman. She'd give me herbs to drink and put her hands on my head. I'd hear her chant mysterious words in a strange language and my whole body would fill up with warmth and light. I'd feel this other-worldly peace come over me. Afterwards my headache would be gone and I'd feel happy and tingly for days.
"Sometimes I would pretend to be ill just so Father would bring her. All my childhood I longed to follow in her footsteps, to learn the language of the herbs and how to make the heart-energy flow through my hands. But things changed when I was thirteen and Edmund's father, King Edwin of Quain ascended the throne.
"He was greedy and cruel and cared nothing for his subjects. To pay for his extravagant lifestyle, he taxed the people of Quain so hard they didn't have enough to eat themselves. The Quaini Wise Women banded together and went to the king, demanding he ease the tax burden. He threw them out of court unceremoniously but from then on, he was afraid. The people loved and respected the Wise Women. If they weren't on his side he'd have to destroy them.
"Rumours started about how the Wise Women were using their powers for evil and the people grew afraid of them. Soon afterwards he brought back the Old Law — a law from olden times that made Goddess worship illegal and punishable by death. Then he started rounding them up. Those that escaped tried to flee to the other kingdoms of Tarth but their kings were terrified of Edwin so they passed the same law.
"The captured Wise Women were condemned without trial and burnt at the stake. From then on the Wise Women that were lucky enough to escape the purge hid themselves away.
"At home, in the castle, we were never allowed to mention them again."
"So how did you manage to become one, then?"
"One day, when I was wandering in the Great Forest, hoping to catch a glimpse of a unicorn, I came across a group of Wise Women living in hiding there. They welcomed me and in their company, for the first time in my life, I felt at home. I knew I'd found where I belonged.
"My parents had planned my wedding to the prince of Frailing on my sixteenth birthday. We were due to travel to Castle Merlax a week before the ceremony. The wagons were packed with splendid gowns and jewellery and gifts for the royal family. But when the morning of the departure day dawned, my mother went to my room to wake me and found I'd gone. On my pillow was a note saying I'd left to join the Wise Women.
"My parents were livid; they disowned me completely. My name was expunged from the royal records and they lived the rest of their lives as if I'd never existed." She stared into the distance, her strained face betraying the pain this memory still brought her. My heart ached for her.
We were sitting on the grass beneath the oak tree now, my backpack on the ground beside me. Suddenly Gerda snapped back to the present. Her eyes widened in amusement and her face broke into a surprised smile. "Daisy, who are all your new friends?"
I looked around and saw the grass was covered with small animals, Blanco and Perdita lay stretched out in the sunshine, between them several brown rabbits munched the grass and a harvest mouse nestled by my knee. From behind the oak tree a young deer peeped timidly and the tree's lower branches were laden with birds of all kinds - doves, sparrows, robins, blackbirds, thrushes, even a pair of emerald green woodpeckers. They all seemed content, happy just to be in my company.
"My animal magnetism seems to be increasing," I explained with a giggle. "It's starting to get on Poppy's nerves. That reminds me . . ." I told her about my flying dream. She listened, a faraway look in her eyes, her head tilted to one side.
When I'd finished she was silent for a while. Then she took my hand and looked me in the eye. I flinched slightly at the intensity of her gaze.
"I've suspected this for a long time but your dream has confirmed it. Daisy, you have a special power which is very rare among Wise Women:
You're a Shifter."
Thank you for reading this chapter.
There's a lot of backstory here which people who've read Annifer will already know so sorry to repeat myself but I needed to put it in to make Plaguesbane a standalone book.
Please vote or leave a comment if you'd like to. I love reading your comments.
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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...