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.
“We’re taking it back where it came from.” She raised an eyebrow.
Something else was strange. The wagon was designed to be pulled by two horses but only one had been hitched up.
“Don’t we need another horse?” I asked. Gerda smiled and narrowed her eyes. In a flash I understood what she wanted me to do and my jaw dropped. I’d just recovered from nearly dying. Did she really expect me to shift into a horse and drag a wagon all the way from here to Jamain? I stared at her in disbelief. She chuckled and stroked the other horse’s head. Instantly I recognised him. This was no ordinary horse. This was the unicorn that had borne Kriston to victory in the battle last year. I remembered Gerda’s words at the time. When the cause is just and the battle righteous then the unicorns will fight on the side of the good.
Once again he’d disguised himself as an ordinary horse but his magical energy was undisguisable. He stood still and silent, his white coat shining in the early morning sunlight, his mane and tail lifting gently in the breeze. I gazed dumbstruck, in awe of the wonderful presence before me. The power he radiated was palpable. If I transformed into a magical creature, his energy would run in my veins and I felt certain it would speed up the healing process. I thrilled with excitement.
Shaking myself out of my trance-like state, I giggled back at Gerda, kicked off the slippers, dropped the shawl and wriggled out of the dress. My heart swollen with delight, I stilled my mind and reached out to touch the unicorn.
This time the wave that rippled through me was different. Every cell in my body tingled as if it was expanding and filling up with light, joy and power. When I was completely transformed, my head spun, not with dizziness but with elation. Every part of my body shone as if lit from within with white hot fire. Gerda blinked, dazzled by my radiance and harnessed me to the front of the wagon, beside the unicorn. I felt the energy between us spark as he rubbed his face against mine. Gerda picked up my clothes and slippers, threw them into the wagon and climbed on board.
“Off we go!” shouted Gerda and with a clatter of hooves we took off through the castle gates. My muscles, my lungs and my heart hummed with white hot energy. I felt stronger and more powerful than ever before. Quick as lightning we ran together through the streets of Merlax, our hearts and hooves beating in perfect rhythm.
We had to ride east to skirt the battlefield. By midday we were in the foothills of the mountains of Skaliff. Gerda flicked the reins to indicate we should stop for a break. We’d been galloping so fast I was amazed the wagon hadn’t fallen apart. Gerda unhitched us and the unicorn walked slowly round the wagon, nuzzling each wheel. I understood he was keeping the wagon together by some magical means.
Gerda ate a sandwich and the unicorn and I grazed on the sweet green grass and drank the crystal clear water from a mountain stream. After lunch Gerda hitched us up again and once again we were off, the unicorn and I galloping in synchronicity — one body with eight legs, our manes blowing out behind us. This time we were travelling through the fruitful fields and orchards of Quain, a light breeze caressing us, bearing sweet scents towards our nostrils. It was almost dusk by the time we got to the bottom of the hill that led up to the city of Jamain. Even after a day’s racing at full tilt my body was fresh and alive and I was bursting with energy. As we galloped up the hill, I felt a twinge of sadness that this would be my last unicorn gallop and my magical experience would soon be coming to an end.
When we neared the top of the hill, we turned off the road into the cool forest and parked the wagon in a clearing. Gerda unharnessed us both. The sun had almost set so reluctantly I changed back into my ordinary human body and pulled on Annifer’s dress again. With a lump in my throat, I hugged the unicorn goodbye. He nuzzled my cheek then turned and galloped off into the forest. My heart full, my eyes swimming with tears, I stared after him and soon, through a break in the forest canopy, I saw the silhouette of a winged, one-horned horse flying up into the moonlit sky, disappearing into the distance.
Gerda lifted the cloth bag from the wagon and we trekked further into the forest where we found a stream to wash in and drink from.
“We’ll sleep here.” Gerda handed me a blanket.
“Not in the wagon?” I asked confused.
“No. Here will be fine,” she replied, a mysterious tone in her voice. The clearing where we’d left the wagon was clearly visible from the road. I wasn’t sure our possessions would be safe but I knew better than to argue with my teacher. I lay down on the soft grass and covered myself with the blanket.
With each of my previous shifts, when I’d become human again, I’d been exhausted. But this time I was revitalised, bursting with joy and enthusiasm, my body vibrating with magical energy. I didn’t think I’d ever sleep. I folded my hands behind my head and watched the stars through the tress, a huge smile spread across my face.
Eventually the trickling of the stream lulled me into a peaceful sleep.