When I opened my eyes the next morning, the first thing I saw made me laugh.
The squirrels had left a little pile of hazelnuts beside my head. My stomach was rumbling with hunger and I sat up and gobbled them down gratefully.
The sun was just coming into view behind the trees, its rays illuminating the early morning mist evaporating off the forest floor. My tunic was damp with dew but the rising sun was already strong. I knew I'd dry off soon. Looking around, I saw several fruit trees growing at the edge of the forest. I plucked some apples and figs to finish off my breakfast. They were sweeter and juicier than any fruits I'd ever tasted.
I could hear the tinkling of a stream. Following the sound I found a little brook running downhill to meet the river. Kneeling down, I cupped my hands and drank its earthy tasting water. I washed in the brook, the cool water, refreshing against my skin. Then headed back to the washing line and replaced the tunic I'd been using as a blanket.
A path led from the huts up the hill towards the city. I started along it, already thinking about what kind of animal I should change into if I wanted to get into the palace and then down into the dungeons. All of a sudden there was the clip clop of hooves behind me and a gruff voice shouting at me in a Quaini accent.
"Hey! Slave! Where do you think you're going?"
I turned to see a two dapple grey horses pulling a cart towards me. The cart was driven by a burly, rough-looking man in a red and gold uniform. It was piled with several large sacks and in the back sat another red and gold uniformed guard and three girls of about my age, wearing the same black tunic as me. Their heads were bowed and they didn't look at me but I could tell by their features that they were from Frailing. The black tunic must be the slave uniform.
The burly man jumped down from the cart and seized me by the arm.
"Thought you could escape, did you?" he barked spraying spit in my face. He dragged me to the back of the cart and lifted me up by the armpits. The other guard grabbed me roughly and pulled me on board.
"I'm taking you back where you belong!" He marched back to the front of the cart, muttering about escaped slaves and how Morwain would have his guts for garters. I sat down cross-legged, next to the other three and the cart lurched into movement. They didn't raise their heads but the one next to me, a round faced, friendly-looking girl with thick black curly hair risked a quick sideways glance at me and a smile.
"Hello, I'm Dais . . ." My whispered introduction was cut short by a clip round the ear from the guard.
"Slaves are not allowed to talk," he yelled, then leaned into my throbbing ear and growled "Keep your head down or there'll be trouble."
I did as I was told, keeping my eyes fixed on my hands folded in my lap as the cart bumped along. Out of the corner of my eye I could see we were passing through the city's tall gates, I was desperate to look up. I'd heard so much about Jamain, its splendour and magnificence but my ear was ringing and I didn't want to risk another blow.
Soon, however, a snoring sound coming from my right told me the guard wasn't paying attention any more. I looked up and gasped. The streets were much wider than in Merlax, paved with shiny white marble and lined with palm trees. The buildings were bigger and more imposing, painted all the colours of the rainbow, some of them six or seven storeys high with balconies, marble balustrades and roof gardens. We rode past mosaic-tiled courtyards with geometric marble fountains and beds of flowers, the likes of which I'd never seen before — many-petalled orange balls, long red trumpets, bunches of tiny fuchsia stars, their fragrance so strong I could smell them from up in the cart.
The people walking past were richly dressed in silks and velvets and bedecked with jewellery. Others travelled in richly decorated carriages or palanquins carried by black-tuniced slaves. I started when a tall elegant-looking man dressed in long white robes, his head wrapped in a white turban, rode past the cart. His skin was bright blue! He twisted the reins of his sleek black horse between his long elegant fingers with their indigo-coloured fingernails and tossed his head haughtily. I had heard of Eritheans before but this was the first time I'd ever seen one. Erith was the setting of many of the stories I'd been told as a child: a mysterious land beyond the Shining Sea, famous for its exquisite gemstones and its proud blue-skinned people. I gazed at him open-mouthed, transfixed with wonder.
The cart rattled round a corner into an enormous square and my heart stopped dead. Right in the middle of the square was a huge pile of logs like a gigantic bonfire. On the top of the pile was a wooden stake. The Witches Pyre! My heart beat fit to burst and my breath came in ragged gasps. A hand reached out and rested gently on mine. The round-faced girl turned her head slightly towards me and gave me a twinkly smile.
"I'm Meghan," she whispered.
"I'm Daisy. Pleased to mee . . ." A grunt from my right warned me that the guard had woken up and I hastily turned my gaze downwards. Not daring to risk further conversation, we jolted along in silence. Hearing Meghan breathing next to me made me think of Poppy and sadness twisted my heart again.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw we had reached the palace gates. Here I couldn't resist stealing a glance. Cautiously I lifted my head. The gates were wrought from gold and stretched up higher than the tallest tree I'd ever seen. I lowered my head quickly before the guard noticed.
"Clean slave uniforms," the front guard announced and there was a grating sound as the gates were pulled open. We rode through. From my right I heard the guard shouting to someone over the side of the cart. I took advantage of this distraction and looked up. My jaw dropped. I had to stretch my eyes wide to take it all in. The palace was bigger than anything, I'd ever seen, bigger probably than the whole city of Merlax.
It was at least thirteen storeys high. Each storey was set a little further back than the one below so it gave the impression of a giant tiered wedding cake. On the very top in the middle the sunlight glinted off a giant golden dome with two smaller domes on either side of it. A massive marble archway formed the grand entrance and smooth marble pillars lined the whole front wall. I dropped my head down again. The cart turned right, heading round the west side of the palace and eventually we came to a halt in the back courtyard.
"Right, get down and start taking these slave uniforms down to the dungeons." The guard unbolted the back panel of the cart and we jumped down one by one. I looked around, taking in the immense courtyard. There was a long, marble-paved walkway down the middle, lined with ornamental trees and flowerbeds and canals with fountains. At the opposite end from the palace was a high wall with a gold-domed tower built into it. That must be the Gardener's Tower, I thought, and behind the wall must be the Imperial Garden.
Just then, something heavy hit me in the back and I toppled to the ground. The guard had thrown a sack of tunics at me. With a sigh, I scrambled up, grabbed it by the top and tried to hoist it over my shoulder. It was almost too heavy to carry.
Bent beneath its weight, I staggered after the other girls who were heading inside through a small marble archway.
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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...