Chapter 20: King Edmund

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When I woke the next morning, my dress and blanket were damp with dew. I shivered and wrapped the shawl around my shoulders. Folding the blanket to make a cushion, I sat cross-legged next to Gerda who was cutting bread, cheese and fruit for breakfast.

In the excitement of yesterday, I'd almost forgotten our purpose in coming here. I realised now, I had no idea what Gerda had planned. I tried to ask her.

"It's best you don't know." She turned her piercing blue eyes on me. "Do you trust me?"

"Of course I do."

"Good. The first thing we do is wait." Gerda brushed the crumbs from her skirt and stood up. "We can carry on with your lessons here."

Lessons? At a time like this? My forehead wrinkled in bemusement. All I could think to say was, "Here? In the forest?"

"What better place! I can teach you all about the healing properties of Quaini woodland plants. Come on. Follow me."

I wandered behind her listening distractedly as she enthused about the various barks, leaves and toadstools we found and instructed me carefully on how to collect, store and make remedies from them.

When the sun was high in the sky, we broke to eat. My teacher and I retraced our steps back to the wagon and I hopped on board to fetch us some lunch. I was just reaching into the food basket to extract one of Cook's famous wild mushroom and thyme pies when my hand stopped. Something was missing. The wooden crate was still in its place but the chest of plague-poisoned treasure was gone.

It must have been stolen in the night.

My mouth dropped open. I suddenly had an inkling of what Gerda's plan might be.

After lunch Gerda gave me a lesson in Quaini history — from the kingdom's founding many centuries ago, through the planting of the Secret Garden by Edward the Generous, through the many skirmishes with its Tarthian neighbours: Frailing, Moonrun and Skaliff to the modern day persecution of the Wise Women initiated by King Edwin the Bold. That night I lay down on the grass and pulled the blanket up to my chin, my stomach tense with anticipation.

Next morning, we ate breakfast in silence. The air seemed charged with electricity as if a storm was about to break. Afterwards Gerda got to her feet and fastened her cloak around her shoulders.

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

She strode back to the wagon with me behind marking her footsteps. While I'd slept, Gerda had been to the stables outside the city gates, hired two grey horses and hitched them
to the wagon. We climbed on board and lurched off in the direction of the city gates. It felt like all my senses were on hyper alert. I sat next to Gerda, tense as a coiled spring, watching the traffic on the road. There were many carts and wagons travelling towards the city but none going in the opposite direction.

As we drew closer we heard a great commotion taking place. The gates were closed and a large crowd of people were waiting outside, many of them gesturing wildly and waving their arms in the air.

Gerda drew up the wagon and addressed a man on horseback wearing the red and gold uniform of the Quaini army.

"What's going on?"

"Plague!" he exclaimed. "There's plague in the city. They've locked the gates and nobody's allowed in or out. I've come back from the battle on leave to see my family in Jamain and they won't let me in!"

With difficulty Gerda manoeuvred the wagon to the front of the crowd. I wrapped the shawl around my head and kept my eyes down, hoping none of the guards would recognise me from before. My hands were trembling. A harassed-looking guard shouted at Gerda.

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