My heart drummed against my chest, shaking my body with each beat. I took a deep breath, steeled my nerves and concentrated on the journey ahead.
On the dusk-lit horizon, I could just make out the mountains of Skaliff to the right and the Great Forest of Moonrun to the left. In between them lay the kingdom of Frailing. I pointed my beak towards it and flapped my wings. If I kept going straight, eventually I'd get back to the castle in Merlax.
The full moon rose, bright white against the deep blue sky, and the stars began to twinkle. After all the drama, it was peaceful flying so high above the earth, in the cool quiet of the twilight. In spite of my worries for Eleanor, I started to feel calm again.
Without warning, an ear-splitting screech behind me shattered the silence. I let out an involuntary squawk and jerked my head around. A giant hawk was swooping towards me, its enormous tawny wings spread wide, its hooked claws outstretched. My eyes widened in terror. I whipped my head back to the front and beat my wings frantically. Panic electrified my little body. Every muscle within me strained as I desperately raced to escape the predator.
But I wasn't fast enough. Sharp claws dug into the back of my neck. Pain shot through me, engulfing my senses. An agonised caw escaped from my throat. My head was forced back until I was looking into the hawk's terrifying yellow eyes, my face inches away from his curved open beak.
Out of nowhere came an even louder screech. Something heavy hit my attacker, the impact jolting my body. From below, I saw the golden colour of an eagle's huge wings outspread above the hawk. The eagle's talons were sunk into the hawk's back just as the hawk's were sunk into mine. She tore at the hawk's head with her hooked beak. Feathers soaking with blood, the hawk shrieked in pain and thrashed from side to side, each movement gashing open bigger wounds in my back. The eagle attacked again, eyes flashing like polished gold, bloody beak gouging flesh from the hawk's neck. The hawk unclenched his claws to fight back at the eagle and I was free. As I fell I looked up at the two raptors struggling violently in midair. Around the hawk's leg I glimpsed a gold ring. A gold ring marked with a red M — Morwain's symbol. This is Morwain's hawk.
I spread my wings and tried to fly but only one of them worked. The other hung down, limp and useless, broken by the hawk's grip. I flapped desperately with my one working wing but it was no use. I was plummeting to the ground, the wind rushing past me.
O Goddess, help me!
Just as I was giving up hope, a flash of gold streaked downwards past me. The eagle banked round and positioned herself directly underneath my falling body. I landed with a soft thump on her strong broad back, rolled over and gripped on with my feet. The eagle soared upwards, her magnificent wings spread wide and turned her golden head towards Frailing.
Delicately I pulled in the wing that worked and crouched on the eagle's back, sheltered from the wind. My tiny heart beating ten to the dozen, pain coursing through my body, I tried to slow my breathing and organise my thoughts. This eagle had saved me and now she seemed to be carrying me home. Slowly it dawned. This was no ordinary eagle. This was Karin, the Wise Woman Shifter. Gratitude flooded my heart. I closed my eyes and nuzzled my tiny head against her feathered back. I felt her share her energy with me, giving me the strength to hold on. The flame in my heart burnt brighter, its warmth spreading through my chest. I ruffled my feathers and settled in for the ride.
With her massive wingspan Karin flew much faster than I could have and in no time we'd covered a tremendous distance. We'd flown over the battlefields and the soldiers' camps, their campfires glowing orange in the darkness, and left the sunflower fields behind us. Within a few hours I could see the castle up ahead, silhouetted in the lightening sky. Soon I'd see my mother and sister again. My heart swelled. I was dizzy with emotion but looking down at Karin's back beneath me, I saw there was another reason for my dizziness. Her feathers were dark with blood. My blood. My wounds were bleeding heavily and I was losing my grip on Karin.
The eagle felt my claws loosening and sped up her flight, diving towards Annifer's balcony on the castle's east tower. I saw Annifer and Gerda, leaning on the wall, ready to watch the sun rise over the mountains of Skaliff. Catching sight of us, Gerda straightened up and raised her hands above her head. It was then that I lost hold of the eagle and tumbled down towards Gerda's waiting hands.
Down I plummeted once again. Karin wheeled round and flew off with a screech. Gerda caught my bloody-feathered body with both hands.
"Daisy!" The Wise Woman's voice sounded like it was coming from very far away As if through a gauze, I saw her examine my wounds, her eyes widening, her mouth falling open in horror.
I was struggling to stay conscious. I knew I had to change back soon. The sun would rise any minute. But I was so weak. I'd lost so much blood.
"Annie, get Abigail now!" Gerda ordered and Annifer ran to obey, her face white as milk. Gerda untied the Plaguesbane bag and laid me down gently on Annifer's bed where I huddled, feathers ruffled, blood blossoming out on the sheets beneath me. I tried desperately to visualize my favourite place, to remember how it felt to be human but my mind was full of fog. The more I tried, the more it seemed I'd forgotten. Being human was nothing but a dim, distant memory. Just as I was admitting defeat, surrendering myself to the deep sleep that once again beckoned me, the door flew open and in burst my mother.
"Daisy!" she cried and ran over to me. My heart leapt with joy at seeing her and at last I felt the familiar wave ripple through my body. As my feathers disappeared, my flesh grew back and my body reshaped itself, the pain intensified. I heard a scream coming from my throat and next thing I knew I was lying on the bloodied bed in my human form. Mum's eyes stretched and her hand shot to her mouth when she saw the wounds on my back and the blood pouring from them.
That was the last thing I saw before I passed out.
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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...