Fired up with enthusiasm, I hurried back to the castle, my imagination running wild with all the possibilities my new-found gift had just opened up.
I pictured myself as a bird, soaring in the sky like in my dream. Or a frog, jumping from lily pad to lily pad on the pond in the castle gardens, a squirrel, scampering up a tree trunk, a fox, burrowing under the ground, a horse, racing through the fields, the wind in my ears, my hooves thundering on the ground. Excitement bubbled up inside me as I dashed through the castle gates. I couldn't wait to share my secret with Poppy, Annifer and Mum. But that would have to wait. Now I was needed below stairs.
When I entered the kitchen, Cook was brandishing an egg whisk. I could practically see the steam coming out of her ears.
"Daisy, where have you been? Do you expect me to do all the work myself? I looked round at the dozen or so kitchen girls hard at work around her.
"But . . ."
"No buts Daisy! Get to work on those pumpkins! Oh the irresponsibility of youth!"
I spent the rest of the day hacking at pumpkins, dicing and slicing vegetables, rolling pastry and stirring sauces, my ears ringing from Cook's shouting.
"No, not like that! I wanted carrot juliennes not carrot batons!"
"No, no no, Daisy! I said roll the pastry to four millimetres thick, that's at least five and a half!"
She became more and more frantic as the afternoon wore on. Her voice got so high pitched I was surprised the glasses didn't break. But finally it was over and I was free to go back to our room to wash and change.
Poppy wasn't there. She worked as Annifer's maid and was probably helping her dress for dinner; I grinned to myself, imagining my sister cajoling the reluctant princess into a beautiful but uncomfortable dress and proffering a pair of fancy shoes.
"Can't I wear my green slippers?" Annifer would be grumbling, nose turned up. "They're so much more comfy."
"Princess Annifer! How could you even think of wearing those scuffed, torn, stained monstrosities that belong in the rubbish cart with this exquisite dress!" Poppy would be protesting outraged.
I wriggled into the dinner server's uniform — a smart purple tunic with silver edging. My secret would have to wait till after dinner.
At seven o'clock all the servants were ready to welcome the Quaini representatives. We stood in line in the front courtyard on either side of the path that led from the main gates to the castle steps. Butterflies fluttered in my stomach. So much depended on this meeting. If all went well, fighting would be avoided but if not, tomorrow the men of Frailing would ride to war. Who knew how many would return? My heart constricted at the thought.
Hooves thundered outside the gates. The musicians blew their trumpets. Men rode in on great battle horses, dressed in the red and gold of the kingdom of Quain. I shrank back. They were an intimidating sight. Morwain rode in front on a huge black horse, his long red hair and red velvet cape flying out behind him. His mouth was set in a straight line above his red beard. His nostrils flared and his green eyes blazed so fiercely, I had to look away for fear they'd burn holes in my head. His golden tunic was embroidered with a red letter M.
At the gates, the Quaini representatives dismounted. The stable hands took their horses to be fed and watered and the men strode up the path between the two lines of purple-clad servants. As Morwain walked past, a shiver went through me. There was something about him that troubled me greatly, an intuition of terrible danger.
"Goddess protect us," I whispered quietly.
The last of the Quaini party was a giant of a man, the tallest man I'd ever seen, with huge broad shoulders and legs like tree trunks. He was carrying an ornately carved wooden chest, inlaid with gold. Despite his bulk he was struggling under its weight. We followed them up the steps into the Grand Entrance Hall to meet our King and Princess. Led by Morwain, the Quaini men knelt and laid down their swords to show they came in peace. All except the giant, who held tight to the chest, muscles bulging, sweat beading on his brow.
The Quaini party dwarfed our royal siblings — Annifer was a teenager and Kriston was still a child after all. But they both looked the part. My sister Poppy had done a great job. Annifer was resplendent in a royal blue velvet and silver brocade gown, her dark hair braided with silver ribbons and a diamond tiara on her head. Kriston looked suitably regal in his burgundy, fur-trimmed robes of state and a gold crown, decorated with many rare and precious jewels. They both smiled widely and bowed low. I wondered how much Kriston had had to practice bowing with that heavy crown. It was a mystery to me how it didn't fall off. The boy king spread his arms in a gesture of welcome.
"Prince Morwain of Quain, you are most welcome in our humble kingdom. My sister, Princess Annifer, and I are extremely grateful to you for accepting our invitation. We send our best wishes to your brother, King Edmund, and all the members of the Quaini royal family." Morwain nodded curtly but didn't return their smiles.
"Please follow us into the Banqueting Hall where we have prepared a feast for you," Annifer said, her voice full of kindness. The court musicians played their lutes and harps as the royal siblings led the way. Among the crowd, only I noticed Annifer wince a little as she walked. I knew from Poppy how much the princess hated "high-heeled, pointy-toed, foot-squishing ladies' torture shoes." Morwain sat with them at the Royal Table while the rest of the party took their seats on the left hand side of the room with the Frailing noblemen.
"Let the feast be served!" Kriston announced.
My job was to serve the Royal Table, a job I had performed many times before. The first course was pumpkin soup. One of the boy kitchen hands stood next to me holding the soup tureen and I had to ladle it into a bowl and place it in front of each of the diners. Morwain, as the royal guest, would be served first. Annifer shot me a worried look as I stepped forwards and walked towards him. As I got closer, my heart started beating ten to the dozen and my hands began to shake. I gulped. It was all I could do to hold the bowl without spilling it. My head spun. My stomach heaved. As I bent to put the bowl in front of him, his eyes met mine.
Close up, his piercing green eyes were ice cold. Under the intensity of their terrifying glare I felt all my energy drain away. Inside I was screaming, fighting to keep from falling unconscious. I gritted my teeth and straightened up, my fists clenched, my fingernails digging into my palms. I wrenched my gaze away from his. A wave of nausea passed over me. Concentrating on not being sick, I put one foot in front of the other, picked up the next bowl, filled it with soup and replaced it on the table. Bowl, soup, table. Bowl, soup, table. As I got further away from him the sick-feeling passed and I felt my energy return.
Panting, my limbs trembling I took my place with the rest of the servers, backs to the wall.
"Are you okay?" the kitchen hand whispered, his young forehead creased with concern.
"No," I breathed deeply. "But I will be."
Somehow instinctively I knew what to do. Engaging my Wise Woman training, I concentrated on the flame in my heart. I willed it to burn brightly again and soon it was a blazing, white hot flame. I closed my eyes and sent the heart-energy out to the rest of my body. I imagined it suffusing my cells, radiating out beyond the outline of my body, forming a protective shield all around me. Inside my shell of light, I felt currents of heart-energy coursing through my veins, healing my body, making it strong again.
When the last diner had laid down their spoon in their empty bowl, another set of servants cleared away their bowls. I took a deep breath and stepped forward to serve Morwain the next course: roast boar with fig and walnut stuffing. I whispered "Goddess protect me," and kept my concentration centred on my heart-flame while I placed slices of meat on his silver plate. I kept my eyes down, avoiding his gaze. This time I felt no ill effects. Annifer saw my changed demeanour when I served her and her frown softened into a smile. Heaving a sigh of relief, I leant my back against the wall again. When it came to serving the dessert course: hot blackberry and apple pie with cream, I adopted the same technique.
Thank the Goddess. I'd found a way of defending myself against him.
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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...