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.
“Haven’t you heard? There’s plague in Jamain. No one’s getting in!”
“I’ve come from Frailing where we’ve had the same plague. In this wagon I carry the remedy. Let me in. I need to see the king.” The guard narrowed his eyes suspiciously but there was an authority in her tone which you didn’t argue with. He muttered something to the other guards and they cracked the gates open just enough for the wagon to pass through.
Inside Jamain was like a ghost town. I clutched the shawl to my chest and looked around nervously. Gerda was still beside me, her features set in a resolute expression. The horses’ clip clops echoed through the empty streets. Only cats and dogs went about their business as usual. We rode directly to the palace. At the gates Gerda told the same story.
“I have the remedy. Let me see the king.”
Again they opened the gates and let us in. We parked the wagon in front of the main entrance and jumped down.
“Bring the wooden crate!” Gerda commanded the guard. One of them climbed up and heaved the crate into the other’s waiting arms. He staggered beneath its weight, the muscles in his neck cording. We followed behind as they lugged it between them through the huge marble archways, into the grand entrance hall with is smooth pillars and shiny tiled floors. An enormous chandelier hung down from the high ceiling, casting rainbow lights all around.
We stopped in front of a colossal double door. By now my knees were knocking together; I was glad Gerda was there to give me strength. I heard her slow steady breathing and tried to match mine to it. Each side of the door in front of us was painted with a roaring lion. Beside it stood red and gold uniformed soldiers armed with spears.
“Open!” shouted the guards through gritted teeth, sweat glistening on their foreheads. The soldiers swung the doors open with an almighty creak.
As they opened I glimpsed the splendour of the Quaini throne room. My eyes stretched wide with astonishment. Richly woven tapestries depicting scenes from Quaini history: battles and conquests, weddings and coronations, hung on the wall. Immense marble pillars rose up to meet the high ceiling which was painted with bright flowers and luscious fruits. Several more crystal chandeliers glittered with reflected light. It took my breath away.
At the far end of the room red-carpeted steps rose to a platform on which stood two golden thrones, studded with precious jewels and upholstered in red velvet. Only one of them was occupied. As we drew closer, following the grunting and puffing guards down the middle of the room, I got a better view. King Edmund sat slumped on the throne. He had the same long red hair and beard as his brother Morwain but his expression was less fierce. He was older and his lined face, more careworn.
The Throne Room’s walls were lined with exquisitely carved wooden chairs on which sat the members of the royal family and other noblemen. I spotted Jemima on the left hand side, her Chihuahua in her lap. She gaped in astonishment when she saw me but then her face broke into a delighted smile. She quickly buried her face in her dog’s fur so nobody would see.
The guards set the crate down in front of the red steps and sighed with relief. One of them mounted the steps and whispered in Edmund’s ear. He sat up and clutched the arms of the throne, his knuckles white, his tear- stained face creased into a tormented frown. He spoke in a trembling voice.
“My only son is sick with the Red Plague . . . My wife is at his bedside . . . You bring the remedy?”
“I do, Your Majesty . . .”
There was a crash as the doors were flung open. A shiver went down my spine. I knew who it was even without turning round. Morwain strode past us and up the steps, bristling with anger. I watched as the king recoiled into his throne, his eyes wide with terror. He’s scared of his own brother, I thought. Morwain planted himself, hands on hips, in front of the king and rounded on Gerda.
“You dare come here, Witch!” he spat, green eyes blazing.
“Morwain, please!” Edmund pleaded. “For Alexander’s sake, for the sake of all the other plague-sufferers in Jamain, let her speak!”
Seething, Morwain sat down on the throne next to Edmund’s.
Unruffled, Gerda lifted her chin. She radiated poise and a quiet determination. She unlatched the wooden crate and pulled back the lid. Inside, packed in sheep’s wool were row upon row of small glass bottles, stoppered with corks.
“In this crate there are one hundred glass bottles, each labelled with a different symbol. Ninety nine of these bottles contain a poison so strong, just one drop would kill the strongest soldier in your army instantly.
“One of these bottles contains the remedy for the Red Plague. One drop of that will bring a plague-sufferer back from death’s door. Only I know which bottle contains the remedy.”
Morwain shot to his feet, his face scarlet with fury, the veins pulsing in his temples. Features contorted in a vicious snarl, he pointed a long finger at me.
“You will give us the remedy, Witch or I’ll have this child torn limb from limb.”
“I will give you the remedy,” Gerda continued in the same even tone, ignoring this outburst. “But I have conditions.”
“You dare . . .”
Edmund did not allow him to finish.
“What are your conditions?” he asked.
“Withdraw your troops from the Frailing border and end the war. Free all the Frailing women you’ve taken as slaves and give them safe passage back to their country. Release Ilfred and the Secret Gardeners from the dungeons and give them charge of the Imperial Garden again. Release the seamstress Eleanor whom you imprisoned for being a Wise Woman’s friend. Repeal the Old Law and allow the Wise Women to practise freely in Quain as they do in Frailing.” Morwain stayed still this time but his voice held more menace than any gesture could and his twisted smile filled me with dread.
“Well, you see, Witch,” he wheedled dangerously. “We could do all those things you ask but I have a better idea. Tomorrow morning, we’ll bring one hundred slaves here, give each of them one of your little bottles and make them drink a few drops from it. The slave that doesn’t die will be the one holding the remedy.” He threw his head back and roared with laughter. In my mind I saw Meghan’s sweet round face, I heard myself promising to come back and rescue her.
“You can’t!” I screamed.
“Why, little girl, if you don’t believe I can, why don’t you come and watch? Guards! Bring me one hundred slaves tomorrow morning and bring these two in chains so they can see what happens when you try to defy Morwain of Quain.
“Take them to the dungeons!”