Just like in my dream, flying was surprisingly easy.
I flapped my outstretched wings and then let go, surrendering to the air currents. I let them carry me along, gently lifting and lowering my streamlined body. Below me the red-roofed houses of Merlax looked like a child's toys. I banked and glided, enjoying the freedom of the skies, soaring into the blue, leaving the human world far behind me. The sun shone on my feathers, warming me. I pointed my beak towards the sea and flew on. Occasionally I passed another bird that turned its head to acknowledge me and then continued on its way.
Soon I had left the city behind and was soaring over patchwork fields, squat farmsteads and tangled hedgerows. I felt a pang of hunger and looked down to see a field of sunflowers beneath me. The petals had wilted and I could see the rows of seeds at their centre. They made my little stomach rumble. I dipped my head and swooped down, my wings flattened behind me. I landed on one of the tall plants making it sway back and forth. Gripping its stem with my feet, I pecked at the seeds and crunched them with my beak. The taste was rich and delicious. I gorged hungrily before leaping into the air once more.
I flew on until the sun was at its zenith, stopping now and again to eat from the sunflower heads, or drink pure crystal clear water from the streams that flowed down towards Quain. Then I came to the battlefields.
Below me the armies sprawled out in all directions. On the Frailing side were simple canvas tents, where the soldiers could rest and have their wounds tended. They flew the purple flag of Frailing with its seven gold stars. On the Quain side were great marquees, hung with pennants and decorated in the red and gold colours of Quain, flying its red flag with a golden sun. Men milled about between the tents, tending their horses, sharpening their swords, fletching their arrows, all waiting for Kriston and Morwain to arrive, waiting for the battle to begin.
I wondered where Archie, the baker's son, was amongst them. From this vantage point, it was clear that the Quaini soldiers far outnumbered our men. They had more horses and better weapons and armour. My heart constricted in fear as I wondered how long we could hold out against them.
Goddess protect them, I thought as I flew over and left them behind.
I had never been to Quain before. I had never been beyond the borders of Frailing even though my mother and long-dead father were both from Moonrun. I had never seen anything like it. The countryside was rich and fertile. Fields of burgeoning wheat, corn and barley, ready for harvesting, lush green pastures where goats, cows and sheep grazed lazily in the sunshine, extensive orchards of ripe pears and plums with streams of sparkling water flowing between them. As I flew further south, the air grew warmer and I could taste the salty tang of the sea in my beak. Down below I could see vineyards and olive groves, orchards of orange, fig and pink apple trees. Quain was vast, much bigger than Frailing. It stretched out in every direction for miles and miles.
Eventually my sharp eyes caught sight of the city of Jamain, perched on its hill, ahead of me and slightly to the west. Just like Matilda had told me, the white marble tower of the Ancient Library rose high into the sky and the golden domes of the palace glinted in the sun. Jamain was so much grander than Merlax, its buildings taller, grander and more brightly coloured. It was surrounded by a high stone wall which made it look like a crown, decorated with precious gemstones, shining magnificently on top of its hill. The turquoise of the Shining Sea shimmered behind it. It took my breath away.
I was entranced but as I gazed, mesmerised by its beauty, I saw that the sky was beginning to show tinges of pink and orange and the sun was getting dangerously close to the horizon. It wouldn't be long before sunset and I was still far away. I flapped my wings and focused on my goal, resolving not to take any more food breaks. With one-pointed determination I flew towards the glittering city.
The sun set more quickly here. In Frailing we always had a few hours of dusk while it sank slowly behind the Great Forest. Here it was a burning orange ball plunging into the sea so swiftly it made me gasp. I flapped my wings hard, my little heart beating a tattoo on my rib cage. I knew I had to turn back to my human form before the light faded completely. This side of the hill leading up to Jamain was covered in forest with a great river cascading down it.
I suddenly remembered I'd left my clothes far behind me and scanned the area for something that might help me. Halfway down the hill, on the banks of the river was a cluster of wooden huts. On a grassy clearing next to the huts, stood rows and rows of washing lines on which hung hundreds of plain black tunics of all sizes. I turned my head towards them and dived down. Darkness was stealing over the land. I panicked. Before I'd even landed I started to imagine myself back in my human body with its fingers and toes, ears and nose.
That's how I ended up hitting the ground with a bump, knocking the wind out of myself and lying bruised on the grass, naked and trying to catch my breath. Luckily Quain was much warmer than Frailing so I didn't feel cold, but all the same, as soon as I could stand I clambered up the hill to the washing lines. I soon found a tunic the right size, unpegged it and slipped it on. I pulled off a bigger one too and wrapped it round my shoulders in case it got cold in the night. Every muscle in my body ached and a tiredness the like of which I'd never known descended on me. I'd find the entrance to the city tomorrow. Now all I wanted to do was sleep.
I traipsed into the forest until I was out of sight of the huts and curled up at the foot of an apple tree, the other tunic wrapped around me like a blanket. I was about to lay my weary head down and close my eyes, when I heard a high pitched chattering coming from the other side of the tree. Whatever animal was making that noise sounded distressed.
Painfully, I pulled myself to my knees and crawled around the tree. There I saw two red squirrels. The bigger one was jumping around, chattering frantically and twitching its fluffy tail in agitation. The other one was much smaller; it must have been the first squirrel's baby. The little one was just lying on its back, not moving at all. It looked like it had fallen out of the nest and broken its back. I was dog-tired but the mother squirrel's pain was too much to bear. I made some soothing noises, crawled over to the baby and sat back on my haunches.
"Don't worry, little one. I can fix you." Stilling my mind, I placed my hand on my heart and felt it beating. I heard Gerda's voice in my head, Inside your heart, there's a flame which will cure all illness. See the flame in your mind's eye. Feel its heat.
I saw the bright flame and felt it burning strongly in my heart — hotter and hotter until my hand was burning and I had to take it away. Now feel the energy from your heart-fire flowing down your arms into the palms of your hands. I could hear the mother chirruping more and more hysterically. I whispered the prayer of healing and sent the fire to my hands. They grew warmer and warmer and soon they were tingling with healing energy. I reached down and touched them to the baby squirrel.
The energy rushed out of me and into its tiny furry body. It jolted and flipped over onto its feet. It paused for a second, blinking, stunned into stillness, and then hopped over to its mother. She nuzzled it and stroked its auburn face, shrieking with delight. The two of them bounced around in circles, chattering excitedly before jumping onto my lap and nibbling my black tunic affectionately until I gently brushed them off.
"You're welcome," I giggled before whispering the prayer of gratitude to the Goddess and settling down to sleep again. As I lay down on the soft moss-covered ground, rested my head on my folded hands and closed my eyes, Poppy's dear face appeared in my mind. Sadness squeezed my heart painfully and tears seeped out from behind my eyelids, dripped over my hands and soaked into the ground.
And then I fell into a deep sleep.
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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...