Chapter 11: Ilfred

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I followed the guard back down to the kitchens. I was conscious of my bulging pockets but he didn't seem to notice.

"Took your time, didn't you?" barked the Cook. "Now get back to those potatoes before I give you the beating you deserve!" She jabbed one of the profiteroles she'd been filling with cream threateningly in my direction.

Healing always took it out of me and I had to exercise a great deal of will power to stop my hands from shaking as I peeled with the other slaves until the pile was done. Next the kitchen hands brought baskets of apples for us to peel. My eyelids were getting heavier, I had to grip the apples hard to stop them slipping out of my tired hands. When we'd finished one basket, the kitchen hands would bring another. Just when I was beginning to think it would never end, the bell rang for dinner.

Dinner, it turned out, was the same vegetable broth as lunch but watered down now and without the bread. I thought of the food in my pockets and looked forward to the time when I would be unobserved for long enough to eat it.

The guard from outside Jemima's room barrelled down the stairs, came up behind the cook and slipped his arms around her waist.

"Get off me you soppy so and so!" She giggled and batted him away. "If the Head Cook catches you down here, he'll have your guts for garters."

"Like to see him try," he snatched a profiterole from the tray Cook was working on and stuffed it into his mouth. "Dog's better," he mumbled through a mouthful of pastry.

"Is it now? I thought that mutt was a goner."

"It looked that way, that's for sure. But you should see it now, running around in circles and jumping up and down. Princess Jemima says he must've just been tired."

I smiled to myself.

After dinner we were led to a big stone trough full of water and an enormous pile of dirty pots and pans.

"I want that lot so shiny I can see my face in 'em," snarled the cook and threw a wooden brush at each if us. We scrubbed till well after nightfall and by the time we'd finished my fingers were raw, my whole body ached and I was soaked in dishwater and sweat.

We traipsed wearily behind the guards into the courtyard, where barrels of water had been set out for us to wash in. I cupped my hands and splashed my face. It felt so good to wash away the caked on salt and soothe my sore arms in the cold water. I collapsed down on the grass and lay spread eagled on my back to dry off, all my muscles aching, taking in great gulps of fresh air. Just as I was about to doze off the guard shouted, "Alright, that's enough. Back down into the dungeons with you." They herded us back through the kitchens and down the steps into the mouldy-smelling dungeons.

"Two to a cell. No talking." The guard's voice echoed through the cavernous space and Meghan took me by the arm and led me into one of the cells. There were no beds; just a pile of straw on the floor and the ceiling was too low to stand, so we sat down. The guard's key rattled as he locked the barred door behind us. It was too dark in here for the guard to see us so I took the napkins out of my pocket and silently shared the food with Meghan. We gulped it down, filling out empty stomachs. Food had never tasted so good.

When we'd finished every last crumb, I wiped my mouth on my napkin and leaned in close.

"Meghan," I whispered. "Something bad's happened back home." She cocked her head towards me and listened intently while I told her all about the plague in Merlax and how I'd come to get the Plaguesbane fruit from the Imperial Garden but I needed the Head Gardener, Ilfred, to tell me where to find it.

"This Ilfred — does he have a long white beard?"

"Yes."

"His cell's that way," she whispered, pointing along the corridor in the opposite direction from the stairs. "Only yesterday, I saw Morwain striding off down there with a couple of guards. A few minutes later he came back and the guards were dragging an old man with a long white beard. That must be Ilfred. He looks very frail. How will you get to him though? We're watched all day and at night we're locked up."

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