"I can shift into a bird, fly there, find the Plaguesbane fruit and bring it back here."
"But the Imperial Garden is vast," Matilda protested. "How would you know where to find the Plague Tree?"
"First I'd have to get into the dungeons and find Ilfred. I'm sure he'd tell me where I can find it."
The Throne Room fell silent. Gerda and Annifer looked intently at each other.
"It would be very dangerous, Daisy," Gerda's voice was grave, "and you'd be completely alone."
"Now that I've left, there are no more Wise Women in Quain," Matilda shook her head. "The others all moved to Frailing when Kriston repealed the Old Law. There'd be no one to help you."
"I can do it," I repeated.
Annifer gazed at me with her penetrating sapphire eyes. "I'll only let you go if your mother and Poppy agree to it." She turned to the maid in attendance by the Great Doors. "Kindly bring Abigail and Poppy here straightaway." The maid bowed and exited. I was already preparing myself in my mind.
"How do I get to Jamain? And then when I get there, how will I find the garden?"
"From here you'd fly south, keeping the mountains of Skaliff on your left and the Great Forest on your right." Matilda answered. "Keep flying over the fields and villages of Frailing till you see the battlefield beneath you. When you've flown over the battlefield keep going but turn slightly to your right. You'll see Jamain from there. It's built on a big hill, not far from the sea. It's a colossal city, five times the size of Merlax. You'll see the white marble tower of the Ancient Library; it's the tallest building in the city. The Palace of Jamain is south of that, you'll recognize it by its golden domes, and the Imperial Garden is behind the palace, facing the sea."
"Remember, when you change back to your human form, you won't have your clothes anymore," Gerda pointed her index finger at me. "So you'll have to find something to wear."
At this point the Throne Room door opened and Mum came in. She was alone. Poppy wasn't with her. My heart jumped into my mouth. "Where's Poppy?" I asked, my stomach turning somersaults.
"Daisy, dear," she gulped and reached for my hand. "She . . . she's running a very high temperature. She's in the infirmary with Doctor Hosta now. The Wise Women are starting to arrive. They're doing everything they can for her."
She sat next to me and put her arm around my shoulder.My heart was beating fit to burst, my breath was coming thick and fast. I felt like I was going to faint. Annifer told Mum what I wanted to do. Mum hesitated. Faced with the prospect of losing one daughter she was reluctant to send her other one into an almost impossibly dangerous situation.
"She's only twelve, Annie," Mum said, a catch in her voice. I squeezed her hand.
"Mum, the Plaguesbane fruit is the only cure. You have to let me try." She looked me in the eye and saw my determination. I knew she had faith in me but at the same time I knew how uncertain this mission was. She held my eyes for a while longer, the pain and desperation in her face was almost too much to bear. Then she took a deep breath and brushed a strand of hair off my forehead. Her eyes were filling with tears.
"If anyone can do it you can, Daisy. Go with my blessings and Goddess protect you." She wrapped me in her arms.
"Sorry to hurry you, Daisy," interrupted Matilda, "but time is of the essence. The full moon's three nights away and Jamain is far from here. Who knows how long it will take you to locate Ilfred. If you leave straightaway, you'll get there by nightfall when you have to change back."
I rose from my chair. There was no point in packing anything. As a bird, I wouldn't be able to carry it.
"I'll shift on Annifer's balcony. There are always doves up there and I can see as far as Quain so I'll know which direction to go in."
"Let's go," Annifer got up and strode towards the Throne Room door. Mum held my one hand and Gerda held the other as we walked through the Banqueting Hall. I felt their strength flowing into me. Gerda inclined her head towards me and spoke softly.
"Daisy, remember the rules: only one shift in twenty-four hours and you must be human again by the time the sun comes up or goes down. Quain is a very dangerous place for Wise Women. You mustn't let anyone suspect. Don't shift or heal anywhere you might be observed and most of all, promise me you'll come back safely."
"I promise," I smiled through my nervousness. When we got to the top of the tower Matilda spoke.
"Gerda and I will surround you with a circle of protection. It will last for the journey to Quain but from then on you'll need to be extra careful."
Mum hugged me one last time and I tried not to be distracted by the tears in her eyes. Annifer clasped me by the shoulders and smiled though her eyebrows were knitted with worry. Matilda and Gerda stood on either side of me and pressed their hands together, forming a circle around me. I closed my eyes and they started to chant in the old language: a prayer of protection to the Goddess. I felt a vibrant energy surrounding me, the resonance of the chant was entering into my body, strengthening every muscle and nerve. My heart lifted, I felt as if pure white light were running through my veins, emboldening me, protecting me. Every fibre of my being was buzzing with energy.
The chant finished with one long note and the Wise Women parted their hands. I stepped out onto the balcony. I heard Mum and Annifer's voices behind me.
"Goddess protect you," they said together. I didn't look back. I was already silencing my mind and body, focusing on the white dove sitting on the wall in front of me, imagining my wide wing span, the lightness of my body, my feathers, my small beak, my bird's feet.
I reached out and touched the dove. Instantly the wave passed through me. My body shrank, white feathers pushed out from my skin, my arms morphed into white wings and my legs and feet shrank to skinny bird's legs with tiny claws. I took a step on these new feet, then another. I cooed to test out my new voice. Then lowered my body, opened my wings and fluttered up onto the wall. My new eyes could see further than my human ones, I could even see as far as the sea beyond Quain. I turned my head and looked around. Colours were brighter, lines sharper, shapes clearer.
Without looking back, I breathed in, filling my little lungs. I spread my new wings to their full extent, pushed off from the balcony wall and launched myself into the sky.
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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...