Morwain’s head disappeared inside again.
The two of us lay sprawled on the ground. My breath was coming in quick pants. Jemima was trembling with terror. Suddenly a wild idea flashed across my mind. I scrambled to my feet, grabbed Jemima by both arms and heaved her up. I guided her round to the front of the wagon, supporting her as she hobbled.
“Quick, get up on the seat.’ I lifted her a little way, she hoisted herself up and dragged herself onto the wagon’s wooden seat. The horse’s harness was hanging over the horizontal wooden shaft that stuck out at the front. I picked it up by the neck collar and examined the straps that go over the horse’s head. There, caught in one of the buckles, I found what I was looking for. A single grey hair from the mane of one of the horses that had brought us into Jamain.
If I’d managed to transform into a bird from holding a feather, surely I could become a horse from a single mane hair. I slipped off the dressing gown, closed my eyes and quietened my mind.
It was then that it struck me. My eyes flew open and my stomach swooped like I was falling.
I’d just shifted back from being a greyhound. This would be my second shift in twenty-four hours. Once a horse I wouldn’t have the strength to change back again. I’d have to remain a horse for the rest of my life. I hesitated, heart racing, the mane hair clasped to my chest. Loud footsteps on the tower’s stairs. Jemima screamed. I had no choice.
I screwed my eyes shut and concentrated. The wave rippled over me. My shoulders rounded, my torso widened, my tailbone lengthened. My fingers fused together, my hands hardened into hooves and clattered down on the marble paving stones. My face grew longer, my eyes separated, my ears shifted to the top of my head.
When the transformation was complete, my head was spinning. I stayed very still for a breath, waiting for the vertigo to pass, listening to the air rush in through my nostrils and my tremendous heart beat in its cavernous chest. Then I shook my head from left to right, let out a snort and flicked my tail. I picked up my hooves and took a few steps backward, positioning my hind quarters right in front of the wagon seat.
Jemima didn’t move. Shock had frozen her to the seat. There was no time to lose. I neighed and pawed the ground impatiently. The Princess snapped into action. I felt her crawl onto my back and grip my flanks with her knees. She was just taking hold of my mane when Morwain burst out of the tower. On the threshold, he paused briefly, his forehead creasing in surprise when he saw a girl and a horse where he’d expected to see two girls. Then he bared his teeth, his eyes flashing with rage and lunged towards us, roaring and cursing.
I threw my head back and leapt forward, galloping away from his reach. He caught me by the tail as he fell forward. I galloped faster, pounding the ground with my hooves until I felt his grip loosen, then release. There was a thump as he hit the ground. I heard him swear, then seconds later, the sound of running footsteps chasing after us.
But we were too fast. We sped across the courtyard, round the side of the palace and past the palace’s pillared entrance. I pulled up sharply in front of the West Tower as Jemima shouted to the guard, “I need to see my father, the king, immediately.” The guard’s jaw dropped, his eyes bulged. He tore the door open and sprinted up the stairs. My flanks heaved as I caught my breath; Jemima reached down and patted my neck. Horses’ ears were nearly as sharp as dogs’ ears, it seemed. From inside the tower I heard,
“What is it, man?”
“Your Majesty . . .” the guard panted. “Princess Jemima . . . it’s urgent!”
There were hurried footsteps and the king appeared at the bottom of the stairs, wrapped in a purple velvet robe, eyebrows furrowed in confusion.
“Jemima! What. . .”
“Father!” she shouted, interrupting him. “Morwain’s planning to have you poisoned. He’s given the poison and five hundred gold coins to your cook with a note saying he’ll give him five hundred more after he’s poisoned you and Alexander.”
The crease in the king’s forehead deepened. He lowered his chin, his nostrils flaring.
“Take me to the cook’s room,” he ordered his guard. “Jemima, go inside and wait for me.” He strode off after the guard, his robe billowing out behind him, around the west side of the palace towards the servant’s quarters.
All of a sudden, my ear twitched. Hooves thundered on paving stones. I swung my head around to see Morwain astride a black horse, galloping towards the main palace gates.
“Open the gates!” he screamed and the guards on duty scrambled to obey.
“He’s getting away!” Jemima shrieked and nudged me in the ribs with her one good leg. I galloped after him. Suddenly Morwain yanked his horse round to face me. His eyes gleamed with anger and hatred. Snarling, he lifted a bow off his shoulder. Jemima gasped. Morwain reached into the quiver behind him, pulled out an arrow and fitted it to the notch. With a cry of fury he let it fly. I jolted backwards as it buried itself in my left shoulder. Pain seared through my body and my legs crumpled beneath me. I fell heavily to the ground. Jemima rolled away, just in time to avoid being crushed by my weight.
The gates were open now. Morwain let out an evil laugh, turned his horse and galloped through them, his cloak billowing out behind him. He’d got away.
Jemima crawled over to me on her hands and knees. Her eyes widened with horror when she saw the arrow and the pool of dark blood spreading out on the paving stones beneath me.
One of the guards from the gate ran towards us.
“Help!” Jemima shouted to him. “Go to the dungeons and bring the Wise Woman who was arrested yesterday,” she commanded. As he raced off Jemima knelt on the ground and pulled my head into her lap. She stroked my face and made soft soothing sounds. My vision was blurring and my body throbbed with pain. I could feel the life energy draining out of me.
My eyes closed involuntarily. Silence engulfed me. Next thing I knew I was rising up from my body, drifting into the night sky. I lifted my hands in front of my face. They were human hands but translucent, ethereal. I was insubstantial, as if made of silver mist. I floated upwards effortlessly. It was like being a bird again, completely free. The moon and stars were beckoning me. My heart exploded with joy as I drifted towards them, higher and higher, my arms spread out to embrace the beyond. I’m coming home, I thought.
I was level with Jemima’s balcony on the top floor of the palace when an agonized cry from below made me turn back and look down. There on the ground I saw a horse with an arrow sticking out of its shoulder, lying in a pool of blood, its head on the lap of a small red-haired girl in pink pyjamas.
A dark haired woman in a blue cloak ran towards it, knelt down and placed her hands on its flanks. She closed her eyes and raised her face to the sky. The woman mouthed some words and white energy flowed from her hands into the horse’s body. The horse began to glow with an ethereal white light. I watched its ribs rise and fall with each laboured breath, the muscles in its neck straining beneath the red-haired girl’s caressing fingers. Her pyjama trousers were soaked red now.
Pure white energy poured from the woman’s palms into the fallen horse, illuminating its bleeding body. But I could see the light was gradually growing dimmer. The woman started to tremble. She wouldn’t last much longer now. Any second she would topple over, exhausted.
Out of nowhere a huge pair of golden wings came into view. A golden eagle swooped down, legs extended and perched on the horse’s neck, near to where the arrow stuck out. It folded its wings, lifted its hooked beak to the sky and closed its yellow eyes. The woman straightened up. Instantly the white light around the horse’s body surged brightly, illuminating girl, woman and eagle in its powerful glow.
I was hovering in the air, watching the scene play out beneath me, when I felt something brush my cheek. I turned my head and looked into the deep liquid eyes of a white horse with a single twisted silver horn spiralling out from his forehead. The horse’s immense white wings were outspread, his white coat shimmered in the moonlight and the breeze ruffled his mane and tail. He nuzzled me again and lowered his head. I knew what he wanted me to do. I climbed onto his back and grasped his mane in my gossamer hands.
The unicorn tossed his head and dived downwards towards the courtyard, the wind rushed past my face. He landed with a clattering of hooves on the marble paving stones. No one seemed to hear. I dismounted and walked towards the horse on see-through silver feet. As I moved closer I felt a magnetic force, drawing me back into its body. There was a jolt, pain seared through me and I felt the arrow being pulled from my shoulder. I let out an agonized whinny, which changed halfway through into a human scream. And there I was, lying on the marble in my human body, my head on Jemima’slap, a golden eagle perched on my shoulder and Gerda standing above me, the arrow dripping blood from her hands.
Jemima laid her hand over the wound. The bleeding was only a small trickle now. The eagle rubbed her head against my cheek affectionately, spread her wings and took off into the night sky, blowing our hair back with the wind she created. Gerda took off her cloak, knelt down and laid it over me. Her eyes were full of tears.
“I thought we’d lost you,” she choked, the tears spilling onto my face. I smiled weakly.
Running footsteps approached and Edmund loomed into view, his face contorting with shock at the scene before him.
“We found the note. The cook’s been arrested,” he told Jemima. “Morwain?”
“Escaped,” she replied. “Father, you owe your life to these two.” Edmund hesitated, torn between fear and gratitude. His eyes moved from Gerda to me and back to his daughter again. His heart seemed to melt as he looked at her and at last gratitude won. He knelt down beside Gerda.
“Forgive me,” he touched her arm. “I’ll do all you ask but first. . . please. . . my son. . .”
Gerda shot to her feet.
“I’ll get the remedy from the Throne Room then the guard can take me to the Prince’s room. Have the slaves, Eleanor and Ilfred released. Tell Ilfred to prepare the antidote to the Long Sleep draft and wake the Secret Gardeners up. We’ll need all their help if we’re going to treat all the sick people in Jamain.
“And find a room for Daisy, she needs to recover.”
With that she was off, striding towards the Throne Room, Edmund hurrying off to the dungeons. Jemima smiled down at me, brushing my hair away from my forehead. I smiled back. That was the last thing I remember.
Days passed. Jemima had insisted I have her bedroom. Gerda had healed her ankle but she still walked with a slight limp. She brought me food and medicine and changed the dressings on my arrow wound. Gerda popped in regularly to check I was healing properly and fill me in on what was happening. With the help of the slaves, Eleanor and the Secret Gardeners, all the plague victims had been treated and they were all recovering well.
True to his word, King Edmund had withdrawn his troops from the Frailing border and ended the war. Kriston and his men had marched back to Castle Merlax where they’d been given a hearty welcome. Ilfred was now Head Gardener again.
Edmund had issued a royal proclamation declaring that the Old Law was no longer valid and the Wise Women were free to practise in Quain again without fear of persecution. The Witches Pyre was dismantled and many of the Quaini Wise Women who’d fled to Frailing were now moving back. Finally, the future looked bright.
One day Gerda was sitting by my bed, reading out a letter from Poppy and Mum. Jemima came in with a tray of spicy stew, bread, fruit and seedcake. She was followed by her Chihuahua, Sparkle, the dungeon greyhound, three Siamese cats and a white rat. Brows bunched in confusion, she set the tray on the table next to me.
“I really don’t understand,” she tucked a lock of ginger hair behind her ear. “Everywhere I go these days, I’m followed by a whole menagerie of animals. It’s like they just want to be close to me. I honestly don’t know what’s going on.”
Gerda and I looked at each other and smiled.