The woman smiled a twinkly smile and instantly my heart warmed.
"Come in. I bet you're starving." She beckoned me inside. "I was just making scrambled eggs." As soon as she said it I realised how long it was since I'd last eaten, how much had happened and how truly ravenous I was.
Leaving the animals outside, I stepped into a bright, cosy room with big windows. My first impression was that the room was quite crowded but a second glance told me otherwise. At the far end of the room stood a dozen tailor's dummies. Every one of them was draped in an exquisite dress. Each dress was at a different stage of development. Some were no more than pieces of material pinned together, some hadn't had the sleeves sewn on yet, some were beaded and embroidered, some decorated with lace and gold thread. The colours ranged from aquamarine to plum to emerald green to scarlet to sunflower yellow. They were breathtakingly beautiful. I stared wonderstruck. The woman chuckled.
"My name's Eleanor; I'm a seamstress," she dished the scrambled eggs onto two plates.
"I'm Daisy," was all I could manage.
At this end of the room there was a stove on one side and a bed covered with a patchwork quilt on the other. In the middle there was a long table. The far end of the table was covered with pin cushions, spools of coloured thread, scraps of material, boxes of beads, scissors and dress patterns. The end nearer to us was clear. She set the plates down at this end and pulled up two stools. I fell on the food, devouring it as I listened to her talk.
"I make dresses for the royal household. I made the one you're wearing now," she grinned. I paused in my food-shovelling, swallowed my mouthful and tried to speak. Eleanor held up her hand. "No need to explain." She poured me a glass of pear juice. I gulped it down thirstily, hoping my gratitude showed through my eyes. It tasted like nectar.
"I saw you coming down the hill with all those animals following you. You reminded me of my friend Karin. She used to live next door. Animals followed her everywhere too."
"Karin?" I mumbled, through a mouthful of egg. I suddenly remembered what Gerda had told me about the Quaini Wise Woman who had turned into an eagle on the pyre when they'd tried to burn her. "Gerda told me about her."
"And Karin told me about Gerda. She was very fond of her. Karin comes to visit me sometimes in her eagle form. She sits on that window ledge there and I feed her pieces of meat." Eleanor looked out of the window and sighed. "It's getting more and more dangerous here. The king gets more paranoid every day. He used to blame the Wise Women for everything that went wrong in the kingdom. Now they're all gone, Morwain's convinced him to blame their families and friends. Anyone who was associated with them is at risk now. It's only a matter of time before they come and arrest me just for having been friends with Karin."
Hearing this was enough to make me trust her completely and between mouthfuls I poured out my story. She listened attentively, nodding her understanding, eyes full of sympathy.
"So now I'm stuck," I finished, mopping my plate with a piece of bread. "I've no way of finding the Plaguesbane and I don't know what I can do to save my sister and all the other sick people in Frailing." She was silent. I looked up from my plate to see her eyes were wide and shining and her mouth had dropped open.
"I might be able to help."
"You?. . . How?"
She snatched up a pair of scissors, leapt to her feet and hurried over the tailor's dummies.
"Let me see, which one was it? Ah yes!" She stopped in front of one which was draped in a royal blue silk gown with a long billowing skirt and puffy sleeves with lacy cuffs, the kind of dress Princess Annifer would have hated. She spun it round and unlaced the dress at the back. Using the scissors, she prised open a panel in the wooden dummy's back, reached inside and pulled out a scroll of yellowing paper, tied with a red ribbon.
"Here it is!" She undid the ribbon and laid the scroll on the table in front of me.
"Ilfred and Karin were close friends. When Morwain had Karin arrested, Ilfred was worried. Morwain had started taking books about black magic out of the restricted section of the library. He was becoming increasingly interested in the Imperial Garden and its secrets. Ilfred knew he was up to no good. The night before he was arrested, Ilfred came here and gave me this scroll. He said I was the only one he could trust and I should guard it with my life."
She unrolled it on the table in front of me and weighted the four corners down with pin cushions. I took one look at it.
"Good Goddess!" My hands shot to my face in surprise. "It's a map of the Imperial Garden!" I bent to look closer. Each plant was carefully drawn and labelled. The Garden itself was shaped like a wheel. Twelve pathways leading into the centre formed the wheel's spokes. Between the spokes the plants were collected into beds according to their uses. Each bed was labelled in neat capital letters. The bed at the top, nearest to the Palace, was labelled 'The Mind'. I recognized some of the names of these herbs from my lessons with Gerda; they were all used to treat headaches, insomnia, anxiety and other problems of the mind. Going clockwise, the next bed around was labelled 'The Eyes', then, 'The Ears', 'The Nose', 'The Throat', 'The Lungs', 'The Heart', 'The Stomach', 'The Liver', 'The Kidneys', 'The Spleen', and lastly 'The Bowels'.
The pathways all led to a round bed in the centre, shaped like a smaller wheel within the big wheel. The letters that labelled this bed were bigger than the others and read 'The Plants of Stupendous Power.' Right in the middle, one tree stood alone. My heart constricted when I recognised the gold heart-shaped leaves and small red fruit. The curly handwriting underneath read 'Plague Tree'.
"Look!" I pointed at it. "This is where I need to go."
"You'll need to memorize where it is. You can't take the map with you. If the guards catch you with it you'll be in deep trouble and so will Ilfred. You're a Shifter, right, like Karin?"
"Yes." The animal following must have given me away.
"When can you shift again?"
"Nightfall," I replied
"That will be soon. From here, if you walk towards the Palace, you'll come to the Garden's West Wall. Turn right and walk alongside it until you get to a wood. You can shift safely there. I won't come with you. If the guards see you with me, you'll come under suspicion too. Better leave straight away, it's quite a walk. You can't wear that dress of Jemima's, someone might recognize you," she took a plain brown riding dress out of her wardrobe. "Here, put this on, you'll be less conspicuous."
I slipped out of the silver velvet and pulled the riding dress over my head. "The king's imposed a curfew," she laced the dress from behind. "Anyone caught out after dark gets arrested and thrown into the dungeons. When you've got the Plaguesbane you'll need to come back here in your animal form so the guards don't see you. Then we can plan our next move."
I took a last swig of pear juice and wiped my mouth on the back of my hand.
"Good luck, Daisy. Goddess protect you," she stroked my hair and gave me a warm smile.
I walked briskly through the streets in the direction of the palace, my heart full of hope and my stomach full of butterflies. Soon a couple of pugs and a Siamese cat were trotting along beside me. Somehow their presence calmed my nerves and by the time I reached the wood I felt confident again. I looked up at the wall in the fading light. It was very high. Maybe it would be best to change into a burrowing animal and tunnel underneath it. But then who knew how deep the foundations were? No, I'd need to be an animal that could get over the wall and once inside I'd have to be able to find the fruit up in the treetop, pick it, then carry it back to Eleanor's house. A bird, maybe? I remembered what the library book had said about having to cut the stems with a sharp knife. No, a bird wouldn't do.
Something with sharp teeth would be better. I racked my brains.
What animal do you think Daisy will shift into?
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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...