I followed the slave girls down a steep staircase, clutching the sack to my chest with one hand and holding onto the wooden bannister with the other to keep from falling.
The staircase snaked round and round, the air getting colder and mustier as we went deeper and deeper underground. By the time we got to the bottom I was breathing so fast I thought I might pass out and my legs were jelly.
The dungeons were set out like a labyrinth: vaulted corridors cut into the stone stretched in all directions with hundreds of small barred cells coming off them. There were dimly lit by torches in brackets on the wall. I shivered and wrinkled my nose at the smell of damp straw.
"Dump 'em in that corner and get back to the kitchens," growled the guard. As he led us along one of the corridors a small greyhound who didn't reach much higher than my knee, came up to sniff me, his tail wagging enthusiastically. I didn't dare pat him.
I peered through the bars into the cells we passed. Some prisoners were sat slumped on the straw, heads hung down, others lay on their sides, their backs to us.
Somewhere in here is Ilfred, I thought, straining my eyes in the dark, hoping to catch sight of an old man with a long white beard. Just then we turned a corner and trudged up another long flight of stairs. This one came out in the kitchens on the ground floor. After the dinginess of the dungeons, the light made me blink. The guard shoved me in front of a red-faced, stern-looking woman with pursed lips. Her red hair was scraped back in a bun and she wore a crisp, white apron.
"Watch out for this one," he snarled. "Tried to escape."
The Cook sneered at me.
"You can get to work peeling that lot," she handed me a small, almost blunt knife and pushed me towards a pile of potatoes, almost as big as I was. Several other black-tuniced slaves were kneeling on the floor, peeling the potatoes and throwing them into pans of salted water as big as bathtubs. As I knelt down to join them, the guard shoved Meghan down next to me. She gave me a sneaky wink, I smiled back and we got to work.
We peeled those potatoes for hours, until my knees were numb, my hands ached and my fingers were puckered and black. At last a bell rang and we hobbled to our feet. One by one, the slaves washed their hands and faces in a stone sink in the corner. Then we stood in a line while the Cook's helpers handed us each a bowl of weak vegetable broth and a hunk of stale bread.
We ate cross-legged on the kitchen floor. Meghan sat next to me.
"No talking, slaves!" boomed the guard. The bread was rock solid and had to be dipped in the broth until it was soft enough to chew. In silence we finished our meagre portions and queued up once again to wash our bowls in the stone sink. As I waited in line the Cook announced:
"Princess Jemima is taking luncheon in her room today. Her dog's ill and she won't leave him. You!" she pointed a fat finger at me. "Straighten your hair and take this tray up to her. The guard will show you the way." I was relieved to have a break from potato peeling. After tidying my hair and scrubbing my hands as clean as I could get them, I picked the tray up from the table. The smell wafted up my nose. Mmm . . . Delicious! I thought. There was a bowl of spicy stew, a slice of soft white buttered bread with two kinds of cheese, a small bowl of grapes and figs and a seed cake. My stomach rumbled and my mouth watered.
The guard jerked his head for me to follow him and set off up a long windy wooden staircase. Flight after flight we climbed. Holding the tray meant I couldn't use the bannister and soon my leg muscles were on fire and I was panting like my lungs would explode.
Just when I thought I'd have to stop, we emerged into a magnificent marble corridor flanked with pillars as tall as cedar trees and carpeted with fine rugs embroidered in purples, browns and greens. On the walls in between the pillars hung exquisite portraits of what I assumed must have been the Quaini royal family, past and present. Jaws agape, I tilted back my head to admire the distant ceiling which was painted deep blue and picked out with golden stars. The corridor ended in a tall double door with a peacock painted on each side in mirror image. Another guard stood in front of it, both hands on the hilt of the sword he wore at his waist.
The guard I'd been following bent down so his face was inches from mine. Close up his skin was pocked and his breath stank of garlic, I cringed.
"Take in the tray, serve the princess her lunch and come back here. Don't speak to her and don't waste time."
He turned and nodded to the guard on the door who opened it just wide enough to let me through. I stepped inside and my jaw dropped again. The room was colossal. Just the wardrobe that stood on the left was bigger than the bedroom Poppy and I shared in Frailing. Directly in front of me, at the other end of the room, an archway hung with green velvet curtains. It led onto a rectangular balcony surrounded by a low balustrade with palm trees and camellias in pots and a red and gold swing seat. On the right was an enormous four-poster bed, with curtains of green and gold brocade pulled aside and a short mahogany bedside table.
Hunched on the bed sat a girl, a little younger than me with long curly red hair and big red-rimmed green eyes. Her feet were bare and she wore a silver velvet dress and a pearl necklace. I carried the tray towards her. She sniffed and wiped a tear from her chin with the back of her hand. On her lap she held a tiny Chihuahua puppy that wasn't moving. Without thinking, I set the tray down on the table, sat down next to her and took the puppy on my lap. He was limp and unnaturally cold but he was still breathing very faintly.
I stilled my mind, brought my hands to my chest and felt the healing fire burning in my heart. Whispering the prayer of healing under my breath, I sent the fire to my hands and touched them to the dog. The healing energy flowed into him and his little body started to vibrate.
But still he didn't move.
I took a deep breath, bent my head forward and concentrated harder, focusing on powerful white light filling his body, burning up the disease. Soon the puppy's body was a ball of pulsating white energy. But even now there was no sign of life in him.
I gritted my teeth and tried to hang on, light cascading down my arms in torrents. I felt like I would lose consciousness any second. It's no use, I thought. I was sure that his spirit had travelled too far away to be called back. Just when I was about to give up, I saw his nose give the faintest of twitches. Then his paw moved slightly, then his tail flicked and suddenly he opened his eyes, sat up on my lap and sneezed. Relief flooded me and I stroked his tiny head as I breathed out the prayer of gratitude.
At that moment I remembered Gerda's instructions about not healing in front of anyone in Quain. Horrorstruck at what I had done, I turned my head nervously to look at the princess. Her mouth was wide open and her striking green eyes were staring as if they would pop out of her head.
Was she about to call the guard and denounce me for a witch? Would I be tried and burned on the Witches' Pyre?
I held my breath, trembling with exhaustion and trepidation as I handed her the puppy back. He nuzzled her face and licked her cheek. Instantly her face broke into a smile and she giggled with delight. I let out the breath I'd been holding and, remembering the guard's instructions, I got up to go.
"Wait!" Jemima reached up to unclasp her necklace. Then she thought better of it. What would a slave do with a pearl necklace? "Take the food!" She pointed at the tray I'd brought. I gaped at her, taken aback. "Please, the stew will be more than enough for me."
She put the dog on the bed and wrapped the bread and cheese in one napkin and the fruit and seed cake in another. Then she stuffed both napkins into the big pockets of my tunic. Just at that moment the guard rapped on the door.
"She's coming!" Jemima shouted, grasping my hand in hers and twinkling a teary-eyed smile at me. Squeezing her hand, I smiled back and ran to the door, pockets jiggling with food I could hardly wait to eat.
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