Chapter 6: Matilda

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In the morning there was less wildlife than usual because I'd jammed the door shut.

A couple of the more agile cats had got in through the window. The window ledge was crowded with birds and there was a little brown mouse curled up under my chin. I cupped him in my hands, slipped out of bed, kicked the chair away from the door as quietly as I could and let him go in the corridor. If Poppy had seen him she'd have screamed. The noise woke her up.

"What you doing?"

"Just. . . er. . . letting the cats out," I replied, shooing them out of the door as I did so.

"You have to go," she threw off the covers and swung her legs off the bed. "You wash and get dressed. I'll go to the kitchen and get you some breakfast."

A few minutes later I was sitting at the table in my blue tunic, eating a plate of scrambled eggs while Poppy teased the tangles out of my hair with a brush.

"Mum'll be here soon with our clean clothes. Tell her everything I told you," I said through a mouthful of eggs. "Gerda said you two and Annifer should know but no one else." She didn't respond. I realised the brushing had stopped. "Poppy? Did you hear what I just said?" I turned around. She was staring straight ahead, her usually rosy cheeks were pale and her forehead was sweaty. "Poppy, are you feeling alright?"

"What?" She came back to life with a shake of her head. "Of course, I'm alright. Never better. Nothing wrong. Nothing at all. Here!" She lifted my cloak off its peg by the door and wrapped it round my shoulders. "The temperature's dropped, you'd better wear this." She shivered and forced a smile. I hesitated. She didn't look fine and I could feel no difference in the temperature but I really had to go. I was glad Mum was on her way. Her skin felt unnaturally cold when I kissed her goodbye.

As I pulled the door closed I heard her start to cough. I paused with my hand on the door handle. I'll ask Gerda to have a look at her later, I thought as I turned and ran to the stables. When I asked the stable boy to lend me a horse, he led out a grey stallion called Quicksilver. I swung myself on and galloped off through the castle gates.

There was a chestnut horse I'd never seen before, tethered in the front garden of Gerda's house. I swung off Quicksilver and led him through the gate. As I tied him next to the other horse, he rubbed his muzzle against my face with a whinny of pleasure. I patted his nose and went and knocked at the door. Gerda opened it seconds later, her forehead creased with worry. Looking over her shoulder, I saw she had company. A severe-looking woman with freckles and long red hair tied back in a tight ponytail sat at the kitchen table. When she rose to greet me and shook my hand, however, her sharp features broke into a warm smile. Bunches of herbs hung to dry from the kitchen ceiling and a pot heating, on the fire, filled the room with a sweet fragrance.

"This is Matilda," Gerda ladled the liquid into three earthenware mugs." She's a Wise Woman who's been practising secretly in Quain. Matilda, this is Daisy, my student." I felt a tingle of pride at being introduced as Gerda's student. "Matilda brings troubling news but by the look of things, you have some yourself."

"Yes, I do. Something happened at the feast." I told them everything as quickly as I could. When I got to the part about the red cloud, Matilda gasped, made a circle with her thumb and forefinger and held it to her heart. Gerda had taught me that the full moon was the symbol of the Goddess and this gesture was a secret Wise Women's sign meaning 'Goddess protect us.' I finished with, "Annifer said she wants you to come to the castle straightaway."

"You'll come too, Matilda." Gerda drained her cup and stood up. "I'll ride with Daisy." A short while later, we were galloping through the castle gates and handing our horses over to the stable boy. Matilda and I followed Gerda as she strode through the Grand Entrance Hall. Brought up a princess, she had a noble bearing. Now a Wise Woman, her every gesture hinted at great wisdom and depth. When I was with her, I sometimes had the feeling I was beside someone who'd lived for a thousand years. She was always poised, never flustered, but today her features were set and there was a fierce determination in her face. That told me the trouble we were in was really very serious.

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