Chapter 19: Unicorn

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The next few days passed in a blur.

I drifted in and out of consciousness, my body felt heavy as lead and the pain from my back was excruciating. Gerda and Matilda took turns treating my wounds and Mum divided her time between my sickbed and my sister's. I was too weak to speak or even open my eyes but I heard when they spoke to me. Mum told me that Gerda had made the Plaguesbane remedy and the Wise Women were treating all the Red Plague sufferers in the kingdom. Poppy was on the road to recovery. Relief flooded me. My body shook with sobs and tears escaped from my closed eyes.

But I knew this story wasn't over yet.

When I was strong enough to speak, I waited till I had Gerda alone and seized the opportunity.

"Eleanor!" I whispered, grabbing Gerda's arm. "She's been arrested."

"Eleanor? Karin's friend, Eleanor?"

She sat beside me on the bed and in my weak voice I told her all about what had happened in Quain: about how the guards had seized Eleanor, about Meghan and the other slaves from Frailing who I'd promised to free and the Secret Gardeners, put to sleep indefinitely by Morwain's potion. Gerda nodded, her eyebrows knitted in a worried frown. She stared silently at the wall, eyes unfocused, lost in thought. Then she turned to me and laid her hand on mine. "We'll go there, Daisy. As soon as you're well enough. We'll help them, I promise."

The effort of talking had exhausted me. I slumped back on the pillow and fell asleep.

Over the next few days I concentrated on getting better. Poppy came to see me every day. The first time she came I wept so hard Gerda sent her away, worried my wounds would open again but after that I managed to control my emotions. After all the life or death situations I'd been in recently, it was relaxing to hear her chatter about the trivialities of court life.

"Orange is very fashionable at the moment," She knelt behind me on the bed, teasing a brush through my tangled hair. "Ever since Queen Lucinda wore that orange taffeta gown to King Artem's birthday celebrations but do you think I can get Annifer to wear orange? Oh no! Honestly, that Princess has as much fashion sense as a dung beetle . . ."

Cook's son had been cured by the Plaguesbane remedy and she was beside herself with gratitude. She sent up tray after tray of delicious food, she'd prepared specially. Since I'd been able to shift into animals I hadn't been able to eat meat so she used all her talent to devise delicious meat-free feasts for me: fragrant soups, hearty stews, colourful salads, tasty pies and mouth-watering desserts. I grew stronger every day.

Early one morning, a hand on my shoulder shook me awake. I surfaced to consciousness and opened my eyes to see a figure in a dark blue cloak standing over me. With the other hand, the figure pushed back the cloak's hood and Gerda's piercing blue eyes bored into me. Her lips were pursed, her nostrils flared in an intense expression.

"Come on, Daisy. It's time."

Instantly I understood what she intended. We were going to sneak away in secret while everyone else slept. Having seen the state of me when I came back from my last mission, there was no way Mum was going to agree to me going on another one. I crept out of bed and pulled on a old green dress and a pair of slippers that used to belong to Annifer. I wrapped a shawl around my shoulder and tiptoed behind Gerda down the steps and through the castle towards the stables.

Parked in the courtyard was a wooden wagon with an arched cloth covering to provide protection from sun and rain. There were two seats in front and the back had been packed with luggage: a cloth bag that looked like it held clothes, a basket of food and a large wooden crate. When I saw the final item of luggage, I gasped. In the corner sat the ornately carved chest of plague-infected treasure that Morwain had brought to the negotiations. A shiver went down my spine. I shot Gerda a quizzical glance.

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