The Francine Odysseys – Chapter 5, Pt. II

Although Francine wished that she could have lain in the meadows all afternoon, she soon forced herself to stand up and begin walking back towards the village. As much as she thought that Owen was a whiny worrywart who couldn’t seem to mind his own business, Francine knew that he was right – Mother would have wanted her to return with her brothers after they’d seen the queen’s men riding into the village. She knew, too, that it was wrong to deliberately upset her mother like this, especially when it could be so easily avoided. She couldn’t seem to help it, though; there was an angry, defiant feeling that boiled up in Francine whenever people like Owen started using words like should or have to when it came to how she behaved and what she did. Even when she knew that the other person was right, this contrary streak made Francine want to do the exact opposite of whatever it was they said.

This rarely worked out well for her, but she never seemed to remember that when her cheeks flushed and her ears filled with the sound of her own pulse and all she wanted to do was kick the person who thought that they knew how Francine should act better than she herself did.

Francine spent the entire walk back to her family’s cottage thinking up explanations, and, in case those failed, angry retorts for the lecture that she was sure to face there. As she walked up the path to the door, however, she realized that something was wrong. The air was still and quiet, much too quiet for a cottage where she expect to find eight people. As Francine pushed the rough wooden door inward and looked around the dim, empty interior, she felt her stomach clench with fear.

“Hello?” she called out, knowing that there was no one there to answer. “Hello, is anyone there?”

Her disquiet grew as she backed out of the cottage and walked next door to the baker’s home, only to discover that neither he nor his lovely young wife were home. As Francine walked along the road, peering into cottage after cottage, only to discover that everyone seemed to have disappeared. Francine felt herself beginning to panic – where was everyone? What had happened? Could the queen’s men have caused everyone to vanish, like they did in the stories?

Soon, however, Francine realized that the truth was much more mundane than that; everyone had gathered in the village square to listen to some sort of proclamation that the queen’s men were making. She hurried to join her family, trying not to let her relief show on her face. The last thing that she wanted was for her brothers to know that she’d been afraid that they’d disappeared; she knew that they’d laugh at her, and she would never hear the last of it. She could just imagine one of the twins bringing it up every time she got in trouble, saying something like, I bet Francine’s wishing right now that we’d all vanished just like she thought we did. If there was one thing that Francine hated, it was being laughed at.

As Francine sidled up next to Eli, hoping not to draw too much attention to herself, mother leaned over and whispered,

“Where have you been? I was worried.”

“I was in the fields; I told Adam to tell you I’d be home soon.”

“It’s not safe for you to be out in the meadow alone; you could have been hurt, you could have been in danger, and no one would have known.”

Mother,” Francine said impatiently, “I’ve been going to the meadow on my own since I was a little girl, and I – ”

Francine broke off suddenly, distracted by a sound at the front of the crowd.

“That horse is sick,” she said, more loudly than she’d intended.

Francine,” hissed her mother.

“It is, it’s sick. I hear him say so. He says his chest hurts and it’s hard to breathe.”

Suddenly, everything grew quiet. Francine looked around herself, her uneasiness returning. The crowd began to part in front of her, and she saw one of the queen’s men, his armour gleaming and polished in the sun, walking along the path created there.

Francine felt herself shrinking back, trying to hide herself behind her mother. Eli stepped up, putting himself between Francine and the queen’s man.

“Now,” said the queen’s man, smiling. “You don’t want to cause any trouble, do you? Stand aside and let me see the girl. I just want to ask her about my sick horse. I promise not to bite.”

The man had his helm tucked under his arm, and Francine could see that his hair and beard were fair, so blond they were nearly white. His teeth were very even, and his smile was lovely. Lovely but dangerous.

Francine shivered as she spoke Eli, never taking her eyes off the fair man’s face, “It’s all right. He won’t hurt me. Stand aside.”

She watched Eli size up the man’s sword in its scabbard before stepping off to the side.

“Now, child,” the fair man said, not ungently, as he crouched down in front of Francine. “Tell me about my horse. Did you really hear him say that he was sick?”

“I … I don’t know. No. Not really. He looks sick, doesn’t he? I didn’t hear him talk, though. It was a sort of joke, I guess.”

“Bollocks!” said a voice behind her. “She has The Gift. Everyone knows it.”

“She never eats meat!” said another, “And that pig of hers follows her everywhere and obeys her commands.”

“She goes to hide in the meadow during slaughter time, because she can’t bear to hear the animals screaming!”

“It’s her, it’s the miller’s daughter, she’s the one!”

“She talks to animals, I’ve seen her! She speaks in their tongue and they answer back.”

Francine pressed her face against her mother’s side  as more and more voices joined in. She recognized nearly all of them; they belonged to people she’d known her whole life, people she’d thought had loved, or at the very least cared for, her.

The queen’s man stood, his armour creaking and clanking as he did so, and looked around at the villagers.

“SILENCE,” his voice boomed out, and immediately the voices stopped.

“Child,” he said to Francine, less gently this time, “I came to this village after the queen received reports that a young girl here had The Gift. My orders are to find that girl and bring her back to Her Grace. If I should be unable to find that girl, well, it may happen that the whole village could vanish. It’s certainly happened before. Now I ask you again, did you hear my horse speak?”

Francine took a deep breath, taking comfort from the familiarly earthy scent of her mother’s thin woollen kirtle, and then raised her head. She looked around, first at her mother, then her brothers, her father, the rest of the villagers, and finally at the fair man in front of her. Her chest felt so tight that she could barely breathe, and her voice, which she had hoped would come out sounding strong and fearless, was a little girl’s breathy squeak.

“Yes,” she said, looking the queen’s man straight in the eye, “I heard him. He says he feels ill. You should let him rest.”

The man nodded and smiled.

“Thank you for making this easier on yourself and the rest of us. Now go home and collect whatever you need to bring with you to Castle Hibernum. We will meet back here at sunset time and depart then; if you choose to hide or run, I will kill anyone I suspect of helping you, and I will hunt you down. My orders are to bring you to the queen alive, but she said nothing about unharmed. Is that understood?”

Saul came forward then, and pushed himself between Francine and the queen’s man.

“This cannot be legal. Show me where, in the law books, it says that you can take a child from her parents just because she has The Gift. Show me where it says that the queen is allowed to treat her subjects like chattel. What right do you have to come here and threaten my child, my family and my neighbours?”

The man barked out a laugh, his mouth smiling, but his eyes cold.

“And what good would it do even if I had any books of law with me, to show them to you? Can you read, miller? Can anyone here?”

Saul’s face hardened, and he sullenly shook his head.

“And as to what right I have to come here,” continued the fair man, “why, I come by the orders of the Winter Queen, who was set on her throne by the grace of the gods. Who are you, miller, to question the work of the gods?”

The man turned and began to walk away from Francine, back towards his horse.

“Bring your daughter here at sunset, miller, or else suffer the consequences.”

Then, mounting his horse, the queen’s man rounded on the rest of the villagers,

“Disperse, the rest of you. The show is over, and there’s nothing else to see. Go home and thank the gods that I’m not here for you; next time, you might not be so lucky.”

The Francine Odysseys – Chapter 5 pt I

MYNAR

Mynar had been travelling for days, following what few signs he could find of the men who had decimated his kingdom. Early on in his journey he’d discovered faint parallel ruts in the dusty ground leading northward from his kingdom. In some places the ruts had been almost completely washed away by the rain, but so far Mynar had always been able to pick up the trail again. It helps that the ruts were accompanied by the distinct smell of humans, a sharp, pungent sweaty scent that was easy enough to track.

There were other signs along the trail as well. One morning Mynar came across a large pile of dung, not more than a week old, that he knew had come from his pride. A few days later he found a pile of wildebeest bones, and one sniff told him that they’d been gnawed on by his friends and family. The biggest find of all, however, came more than three weeks into his journey when, after having lost the trail for nearly a day and a half and very nearly starting back for the last point when he’d been sure that he was going the right way, Mynar suddenly saw something glinting dully in the brush.

After sniffing at the air to make sure that there was no danger nearby, Mynar stalked over to the bush and gingerly nudged at the object with his paw. It rolled out onto the path, and he was suddenly able to see it for what it was: his crown.

Lions cannot weep, of course, but had they been able to, Mynar would have wept at that moment, although whether out of joy or sadness he could not have said. Kneeling in the dirt, he placed his crown on his head, and then rose to his full height. He did not believe that he deserved to be called king anymore, but the crown would serve as a reminder of the duty that he owed to his people. He knew that he must not let himself be claimed by despair and the desire to give up; although he had failed his people once and had proven that he was no true king, he was now they only hope that they had.

Mynar walked until his paws were blistered and his haunches ached with every step. He had been travelling day and night for over a month, pausing only briefly to hunt, sleeping only for an hour or two at a time during the hottest part of the day. He knew that he needed a proper rest, but he didn’t want to let the men who had taken his people get even further ahead of him. Truly, he was loathe to even take the time to eat or sleep, and he told himself that if he did not come upon the men and his pride soon, then he would only allow himself to hunt and rest every second day. When he came upon a great green lake near the edge of the Darkest Forest, though, he could not resist the cool shade of the trees or the quiet rippling of the water. There, he allowed himself to sit and take a brief respite from his journey.

It wasn’t long before Mynar fell into a deep sleep. When he awoke, the sun was slanting low across the lake, and the shadows had grown long. Mynar rose to his feet and gave his body a great shake, then, without quite knowing why, began to walk towards to water. He reached the lake’s edge and, gazing into the depths of the lake, suddenly felt himself overcome with fresh grief for everything he had lost.

His eyes downcast, his kingdom in ruins, Mynar pressed his heavy paw through the rippling surface of the cool shallows and down to its stone floor.

‘My people were once lead my a great and noble beast, and I no longer see his face in this reflection.’

Meanwhile, on the plains of Tabitha, Francine rested. There would be another time for war, she hoped; surely this couldn’t have been the last few hours of childish play that she and her brothers would have together. Surely they would run and scream and laugh in this field again before Adam married, and Owen left for Auldtown and Francine was expected to begin behaving like a proper young woman instead of a hoyden girl.

The Francine Odysseys – Chapter 4 Pt. II

Adam was the best shot among all of them, and Francine preferred to stand next to him, mimicking the placement of his feet and the sure angle of his head. She was so busy watching her oldest brother that she didn’t notice that the twins, Samuel and Jonas, had stopped loosing arrows at the targets and instead had begun using their bows to shoot sticks and pieces of dried animal dung. Francine’s focus was so intense that she didn’t realize that anything was amiss until she heard Adam’s quietly powerful voice say,

“Stop it, both of you.”

“Stop what?” asked Samuel, lobbing a clod of dirt at Adam’s head.

“Stop whatever it is you’re doing,” replied Adam, ducking just in time. “Stop being foolish and get back to using your bows for what you’re meant to use them for.”

“Sorry, but we can’t,” said Jonas, drawing his bowstring back and aiming another stick at his twin. “We’re at war. He’s a Bathshebite and I have to defeat him.”

“Sorry is what you’ll be if we ever do go to war and you don’t know how to shoot a longbow,” said Adam, rolling his eyes.

That earned him a piece of dung in the centre of his chest.

“Take care,” Jonas said to Samuel, “that’s my queen he’s standing next to.”

“So Francine is the Winter Queen, is she?” asked Adam. “She doesn’t look much like a queen, but I guess I’ll have to take your word for it.”

With that, Adam hoisted Francine over his shoulder and began running towards the nearby thicket.

“Looks like you’ve just lost your queen,” he called back to Jonas.

Francine screamed with delight as Adam ran along, her head bouncing against his back and her long, wheat-coloured hair streaming down towards the ground.

“Put me down,” she cried, hammering her fists against him. “I’m the queen, you can’t treat me like this!”

“You’re not my queen, you’re my enemy.”

By the time they reached the thicket, both were out of breath from laughter. Adam recovered first, and used this advantage to place Francine on a low-hanging branch just above his head.

“No one will dare steal my prize while I stand guard,” he said, leaning back against the rough, moss-covered trunk.

But someone did dare, of course. Soon everyone was involved, and the meadow became the scene of battles, sorties, parleys, and more battles. It had been years since they’d had a proper game of war, and if you’d asked, most of Francine’s brothers would’ve said that they were too old for it. They didn’t seem to feel too old, though, as they ran through the long grass in the late afternoon sunlight, clashing makeshift swords together, crying out things like, that was your heart, you’re dead now, you scoundrel.

Francine thought that her heart would burst with joy as she jumped about and slashed with her stick, screaming until her throat felt scratchy. Her cheeks were flushed and her hair lay tangled down her back, but she didn’t care. For the time being she didn’t care about anything other than defeating the Bathshebites, and so she lunged and parried and stabbed at her brothers, her eyes bright and her mouth laughing. She didn’t think about The Gift, or her parents worry, or anything other than the sun on her face and the wind on her skin and the way her body seemed to sing as she leapt and ran.

The battle culminated with the four Tabithans, wiry Jonas, limping Ivan and steady Eli with Francine riding on his broad shoulders, facing off against the three Bathshebites, Samuel, a near-perfect mirror for Jonas, Adam, nearly as broad and taller still than Eli, and scrawny Owen.

DEATH TO THE TRAITORS!” screamed Francine as Eli raced towards the enemy line. Suddenly, he skidded to a stop, stumbling and nearly sending Francine flying over his head.

“What did you do that for?” asked Francine. “I could have fallen. I almost did fall!”

“Quiet,” said Eli softly, then, as his brothers continued to talk around him, “I said QUIET.”

“Horses,” said Adam, his face suddenly serious. “On the high road. With riders wearing armour.”

They could all hear it then, the sound of hoofbeats and the heavy clink of riders wearing mail. Soon they were in sight, and since the high road was quite close to where Francine and her brothers were standing, they could see the enamelled white stag on each of their breast plates.

“Queen’s men,” breathed Eli, his skin turning the colour of curdled milk. “And they’re turning … ”

He was right, the rest of the saw. The men slowed as they approached the road that led to Miller’s Holding and, pulling back on their reins, turned towards the town.

“But it’s not harvest time yet,” said Ivan. “It’s not time for taxes.”

“No,” said Adam quietly. “No it’s not.”

Eli gently lowered Francine to the ground.

“We should return home. Mother will want to know that we’re safe. She always likes to know that we’re safe when the queen’s men are nearby.”

Francine watched her brothers begin to walk across the meadow towards home, but instead of following them she sat down in the warm grass.

“Francine, aren’t you coming?” asked Samuel.

“Not just yet,” she said. “I’ll be there soon. Tell mother that I’m safe.”

“Sam, you should make her come,” complained Owen. “Mother will be upset if we leave her here.”

Sam just shrugged and said, “She can stay if she wants. She’ll be well enough here.”

Once her brothers were gone, Francine lay back in the grass. She knew that she should have walked home with them, but the afternoon had been so lovely that she hadn’t wanted to let go of it, not just yet. She had a funny feeling like this was the end of something; perhaps their mock war had been their last few hours of play together as children. Adam was nearly a man, as was Eli, and the twins weren’t far behind. Francine sometimes felt that by growing up they were all abandoning her, leaving her stuck in childhood as they made their way in the world of men. That wasn’t strictly true, of course, because Francine would someday grow up herself, but lately she was keenly aware of the fact that she was growing into a woman, not a man, which made her future seem darker, more daunting.

Pushing that thought out of her mind, Francine lay back on soft earth and let the sun soak her linen shift and warm her body. For now, she told herself, she would be happy.

The Francine Odysseys – Chapter 4, pt I

FRANCINE

Far to the west of Miller’s Holding, past where the Darkest Forest met the Plains of Tabitha, deep in the Haunted Mountains lay the Elk River Pass. There, cradled between two great, craggy peaks was Castle Hibernum, the seat of the Winter Queen.

The Tabithians knew little and less about their queen. They didn’t know her true name, or if, indeed, she had one, nor how long her reign had lasted, although no one, not even the oldest among them could remember a time when she wasn’t queen. They couldn’t say for certain what the boundaries of her kingdom were; some thought that she ruled only over the Plains of Tabitha, some thought that she was queen of the Haunted Mountains and the Darkest Forest, and some thought that her kingdom was the entire known world, from the sea that lay leagues away in the east, to the western wastelands that lay far beyond the mountains and the forest.

What the Tabithians knew for certain was that the queen exacted a heavy tax on them come harvest time, and that those who could or would not pay the tax were dealt with swiftly and brutally by the royal knights and men at arms. Although Miller’s Holding was generally a prosperous village, Francine could nonetheless remember several hangings in its main square, the only crime committed by the hanged men being unpaid taxes. Miller’s Holding sat in a small hollow of land not far from the high road, which made its way down from Elk River Pass, through the Darkest Forest and across the breadth of the Plains of Tabitha. It was possible to see the high road from the field behind the miller’s house, and it wasn’t uncommon to see the queen’s men, their shields, tunics and banners emblazoned with the royal sigil of the white stag, riding singly or in pairs. Francine rarely took notice of them, unless they turned down the rutted dirt road that lead to Miller’s Holding.

The queen’s men were responsible for collecting taxes, which meant that naturally they organized the public hangings as well, but it was rumoured, quietly, in whispers, that they were also used to commit darker deeds in the royal name. It seemed like the queen must have spies everywhere; anyone who even breathed a word of treason soon disappeared. When Francine had been much younger, an entire village, whose inhabitants had apparently been planning an uprising, vanished overnight. All that was left were the smoking remains of burned-out cottages and a few frightened cows, lowing in distress and confusion, searching for their missing owners.

Others vanished, too, sometimes on their own or with their entire family, often for no reason that could be discovered. There seemed to be a few patterns for who disappeared and why, but what those patterns meant was unclear. People with The Gift, few though they were, seemed to vanish at an alarming rate. No one could say for certain why this was; some believed that the queen had The Gift herself and was collecting others like her, while others thought that the queen hated The Gift and wanted to rid her kingdom of it. A third theory held that the queen had once had The Gift but had lost it, and now resented all of those who still had it. What was known was that those with The Gift often disappeared; what might have happened to those who had vanished was a mystery which most thought was best left unsolved.

This, then, was what Francine’s father had meant when he said that they lived in troubled times. This was why he hadn’t wanted his family to tell anyone about Francine’s Gift. By the time Francine was twelve, Saul knew that most of the village must have had an inkling that his daughter was different, but he hoped that none of them were certain enough to say anything. He had warned Francine over and over again not to speak to animals publicly, and not to react when she heard them speaking. She had been successful more often than not, but of course there had been times when she had slipped up. Saul just hoped that her efforts to be discreet had been enough. More than anything, he wanted to keep his youngest child safe.

Francine knew all of this, or at least parts of it, and it weighed heavily on her heart. She wished that she could do something to stop her father from worrying, but there was nothing she could do to stop herself from having The Gift. She had tried not to listen to the animals, but she just couldn’t seem to tune out their voices. She seemed to be stuck with her ability to speak in the language of the animals, even though most days it seemed more like a burden than anything else.

All of this, though, was far from Francine’s mind on one particularly fine summer day that found her and her brothers heading out to the back field for longbow practice. You see, in those days, every man and boy who lived on the Plains of Tabitha was expected to be able to shoot swiftly and accurately. If ever they were to go to war again, either against the Bathshebites or some other enemy, the Tabithians knew that the bulk of their army would be made up of archers and foot soldiers. For this reason, public lands were planted with yew trees, yew wood being the wood of choice for longbows. As well, all men and boys over the age of ten were expected to devote at least a few hours each week to practicing. Many men didn’t, of course, but most did.

Although women were not expected to learn to shoot, a few did, knowing that if the war came to their farm or cottage while the men were away, they would need to find a way to defend themselves. When Francine had turned ten, Adam had made her a small longbow, perfectly suited for someone her height and stature, and every week she delighted in joining her brothers for their practice in the field. Adam was fond of telling neighbours that his sister wasn’t a bad shot, either; not as good as him, of course, but better than the twins, who would rather play the fool than do anything seriously. Francine, for her part, enjoyed the feeling of strength it gave her to pull back the bowstring and loose arrows towards the bales of hay they’d set up as targets.

The Francine Odysseys – Chapter 3

MYNAR

As Mynar drove the herd of antelope towards the grassy ridge that marked the boundary of his kingdom, he imagine the expressions of happiness and relief that would light up the faces of his cubs and mate when they him and his prey come charging towards them. That thought spurred him on, and he welcomed the extra surge of power in his legs. He had been harrying and driving this herd for days now, ever since he’d found them far to the north, near the edge of the Darkest Forest, and he could feel his endurance waning. While he knew that the antelope were likely nearing the end of their stamina as well, he didn’t want to risk losing his prey when he was so close to home.

With one final burst of speed, he chased the antelope over the ridge and into his kingdom, but at that very moment, what should have been his moment of triumph, Mynar stopped short and sank to the ground, his legs giving way beneath him. He didn’t notice that the antelope were quickly escaping, fleeing across the dry, caked mud of the river banks, splashing through what little water remained to freedom on the far shore. He didn’t notice that clouds were gathering above him, signalling the first real rain in weeks and weeks. He didn’t even notice the hunger pains in his belly that had been plaguing him for what seemed like forever. His entire attention was captured by the land that lay in front of him.

Mynar’s kingdom, once the lush, bountiful home to a noble pride of lions, spread out in ruin and desolation before him.

There was nothing, and no one, left.

How long Mynar lay there in the grass he could not say. Looking out across his ravaged kingdom, he felt nothing. Or rather, he felt a cold shadow creeping across his heart, a fear and sadness so overwhelming that he could only begin to try to understand it.

His land was lost. His people were lost.

As the last light began to leave the sky, Mynar struggled shakily to his feet and began to survey the destruction, to look for survivors. The land had been burned; all that remained of his kingdom was charred earth and blackened tree stumps. Even the giant baobab, whose spreading branches had once offered shelter, and whose leaves had shaded the lions during council meetings, social activities, and afternoon naps, was gone.

A few bones were scattered across the earth, although it was difficult to tell if they belonged to his brethren or other beasts. As a soft, warm rain began to fall, Mynar made his way to the river’s edge, where he came across a sight that caused him to bow his head in grief – there, on the hard, dried mud of the bank lay the body of Rauman, his rival and sometime foe, with a spear sticking out of its side.

Pacing around Rauman, and leaning in to sniff at the spear’s shaft, Mynar growled one word:

“Man.”

Man had been here. Man had done this.

With all the tenderness of a mother caressing her newborn cub, Mynar placed a paw on Rauman’s flank, gripped the spear’s shaft in his teeth and slowly pulled it out. He flung the offending weapon into the river and watched as it disappeared downstream. Only then did he feel ready to begin preparing Rauman’s last rites.

Grabbing Rauman by the scruff of the neck, Mynar dragged him towards the river. There he let the water rush over the dead lion, washing the blood stains off his pelt. Once that was done, Mynar pulled him out of the river and towards the boundary ridge that he had so hopefully, so happily crossed only a few hours before. Laying Rauman’s body in the charred stubble that remained of grass that had once abundantly covered his land, Mynar, heedless of the rain that still fell, began to dig into the side of the ridge. He dug all night, as the sky began to clear above them and the moon and stars swung overhead in their journey across the sky. Just as the as the eastern sky was beginning to grow pink, Mynar sat back on his haunches and surveyed the grave he had just made. It would serve, he thought to himself; the hole wasn’t as deep as it should have been, but it was the best that he could do under the circumstances.

Mynar grabbed Rauman one last time and gently laid his body in the grave. Following the traditions of their people, Mynar pressed his nose against Rauman’s and then rubbed his cheek along Rauman’s flank. He then turned away from Rauman and lay prone, his front legs reaching east towards the sun.

“May the Lion That Crosses The Sky greet you every morning with the sun on his back, and may his dark sister greet you every night with the moon in her teeth. May the rains fall gently upon our grave, and may the grass grown green above you. May your journey to the Dream Lands be safe and swift, and may we meet again in the great hereafter. Rauman, my brother, I give your body to the Grassland Kingdom, so that you may nourish in the same way that it has loved and nourished you.”

The burial ritual complete, Mynar began to throw all the loose earth he had dug up during the night onto Rauman’s body. By the time the sun had reached its zenith, the burial mound was complete. Only then did Mynar allow himself to rest on his haunches, tip his head back and let out a roar of hopeless desperation to the sky above.

Mynar knew that he should rest; his body was exhausted after days and days spent herding the antelope, and his strength was nearly at an end. But he could not stay here; he could not rest in his desolate kingdom. So, with a stiffness and heaviness that he had never felt before, Mynar rose to his feet and began walking north. He didn’t know where he was going, or how he would get there; he only knew that he had to leave this place.

On the morrow, he decided, he would form a plan to find and save his people.

The Francine Odysseys – Chapter 2

FRANCINE

Far to the northeast of Mynar’s kingdom, past the Swamplands and the Darkest Forest, lay the Plains of Tabitha. They were bordered by the forest, which marked the southern and western boundaries, the Haunted Mountains in the north, and the Swiftflow River in the east. On the other side of the Swiftflow lay the Plains of Bathsheba whose people, though geographically quite close to the Plains of Tabitha, nevertheless differed greatly in their language and cultural traditions. The Bathsebites and Tabithians had a long history of enmity and war, although in the time of Mynar’s reign they enjoyed an uneasy peace.

There were several towns and villages that dotted the landscape of the Plains of Tabitha, the largest of which, Auldville, was the seat of the local lord. The smallest village, Miller’s Holding, lay to the north, in the shadow of the Haunted Mountains’ foothills. The village drew its name from the small gristmill that stood on the banks of the Coldwater Creek, whose icy flow found its origins high up in the snowy peaks above. In the days when Mynar was king of the Southern Grasslands, the miller was a man named Saul. He and his wife Elinor had seven children; the oldest six were boys, and the youngest a girl. Adam, at 19, was nearly a man grown and did nearly half the work at the mill. Eli, aged 17, was apprenticed to the childless blacksmith down the road. Samuel and Jonas, aged 16, were identical twins who spent their days driving the family wagon to outlying farms in order to haul back the bushels of grain that needed to be ground. Owen, aged 14, was quiet and bookish, and hoped to someday travel to Auldtown and study at the great schools there. Ivan, aged 13, walked with a limp after a childhood ailment had shrivelled the muscles in his left leg; he did what he could to help out at the mill, but, as he could not lift anything heavy and had trouble climbing even the thickest and sturdiest of ladders, what help he could offer was meagre. In spite of this, or perhaps because of it, he was petted and doted on by everyone, and almost never heard a harsh word. What strength and ability Ivan lacked in his legs he made up for with his hands; from a young age, he’s been a skilled woodcarver, and evening almost always found him curled up on the rug by his father’s chair, whittling a fox or a flower or a face out of a blank piece of wood.

Saul and Elinor’s youngest child and only daughter, Francine, aged 12, had grown up with the rough and tumble of six boys. It was perhaps for this reason that she was more comfortable wrestling with her brothers, playing at swords or running around all day in the hot sun than she was sitting quietly and learning the arts of cooking, cleaning and sewing with the other girls her age.

There was something else that set Francine apart, though, not just from the girls, but from the boys as well. Francine had The Gift.

The Gift was the ability to understand the speech of the animals, and to speak back to them in their own tongue. People said that The Gift had once been common on the Plains of Tabitha, but if that was true, it was a time so long ago that not even the oldest among them could remember it. Now The Gift appeared maybe once a generation, if that. Francine was the first person born with The Gift for nearly fifty years in Miller’s Holding.

She hadn’t always been able to understand the language of the animals. As a very small child, the household cat and work animals had seemed drawn to her, it was true, but her parents hadn’t really thought that it was anything out of the ordinary. As she grew older, she began to hear what she called a “murmur” from animals, not distinct enough to be called speech, but strong enough that she could understand its meaning, even if she couldn’t hear individual words. Saul noticed that the chickens grew very calm when Francine entered their coop, and seemed to understand what she was saying when she told them that she meant them no harm, she just wanted to collect their eggs. A few of them would even lead her over to eggs that they’d buried beneath the straw, and then hang their heads contritely, ashamed to have tried to hide what their small mistress was looking for.

Elinor and Saul began to watch their daughter more closely. They saw her stand up one evening, walk over to the knitting basket and pull out a ball of yarn for the new litter of kittens, almost as if she’d been asked. They noticed that Francine always managed to coax more milk out of the family goat, and that she never had to endure being kicked, something no one else could boast of. They watched her climb onto the low wooden fence in the yard and spend hours talking to the pig that they were fattening up for winter.

It was from that very pig that Francine heard her first clear words in the animal tongue.

In the fall of that year Saul began preparing to slaughter his pig. He drove the wagon to the Darkest Forest and found a hollow tree, which he planned to use to smoke the ham and pork shoulders. He gathered a small pile of green wood that he could burn to create a nice, thick smoke. He began to sharpen his knife.

On the day that he chose to slaughter and butcher the hog, he and Adam went out to the small pen in the yard where the pig was kept. It would be Adam’s job to hold the hog still while Saul drew the knife across his throat. Adam was able to get a hold of the pig easily enough, but as soon as the beast saw sunlight flashing on Saul’s blade, he began to squeal with fright.

Francine burst out of the house, pelted across the yard, leapt over the fence and threw her arms around the pig.

“Father, please, no!” she cried. “He’s begging you to stop. I heard him.”

“Don’t be foolish, child,” Saul said, not ungently. “All pigs squeal this way. Go back into the house and stop your ears until it’s done. It’ll all be over soon, I promise.”

“But he’s scared, Father. He says that last year, when he was just a piglet, he watched you kill his mother. He said that she got away after you’d stuck her the first time, and she bled just everywhere, and it took you ages to catch her. He’s scared it’ll be the same way for him.”

A strange look passed over Saul’s face, which he quickly replaced with a stiff smile.

“Go back into the house, ducky. I’ll be in shortly to talk to you. I promise not to kill him today.”

After Francine had reluctantly left, Saul had turned to Adam and said,

“There’s no way she could have known that. You were all visiting Auntie Marian with Mother the day we slaughtered the pig last year. No one but the pigs and I should know what happened.”

Adam’s face was serious, even a little frightened, when he asked,

“Do you think she has The Gift?”

“Might be,” said Saul. “She’d be the first in years if she does. We’ll find out more tonight, once the day’s work is done and I’ve had the chance to speak to Mother.”

That night, after much questioning, Saul decided that his youngest child did indeed have The Gift. He sat all of his children down and spoke to them quite seriously about Francine, and warned them not to tell any of their neighbours about her newfound ability. He knew that it was a cause for celebration, yes, but he also realized that they were living in troubled times. The less that could be said about Francine’s Gift, the better.

Although the other villagers may not have known with certainty that Francine could speak to animals, they most likely guessed that this was so.

It probably didn’t help that she kept her family’s pig as a pet, named him Percival, tied a red ribbon around his neck and let him follow her everywhere she went.

The Francine Oddyseys – Chapter 1

MYNAR

The fifth summer of Mynar’s reign had been a long, hot, brutal season. The grasslands that made up the lions’ kingdom had once been lush and verdant, but now they laid withered and brown. The river had dried up to a trickle, and its banks, whose cool mud the youngest cubs had once loved to roll in, were hot and dry after months of baking in the cruel sun. Worst of all, there was no food.

The gazelles had fled ages ago, loping northward in search of greener pastures. The other beasts had followed, one by one, until only the rabbits were left, sheltered from the sun in their warrens. But the rabbits were gone now, too; although their labyrinthine underground tunnels had spared them from the worst of the heat, they had run out of food too. And so it came to pass that one morning Mynar awoke to total silence – no chirping of birds, or scuttling of mice, or whirring of insects. At that moment, Mynar knew that he and his people were alone on the grasslands.

Mynar was a good king, and he knew that he must feed his pride or else die trying. That morning, when he realized how utterly desolated his kingdom was, he made a decision: he would journey as far as he needed to in order to find prey to hunt, and he would drive that prey back to his kingdom. Although he knew that what he was doing was dangerous, and not something to lightly undertaken, he also knew that it was his duty. He had spent five years living a life of royal ease, and now it was time to prove what he was made of. Now it was time to prove why he was king. He knew that if he did not venture out past the boundaries of his kingdom in search of food his people, his crown would grow too heavy to wear. If Mynar did nothing, he knew that he would have to give up the title of king to a better, more worthier lion.

He called his pride to an assembly beneath the massive baobab tree, and there, pacing regally before them, he told them of his plan. Most of them looked hopeful; some of them looked doubtful, and a few seemed downright disbelieving that he could ever succeed. Rauman, his oldest rival, had a mutinous glint in his eye, and Mynar knew that if he lingered too long away from his people, Rauman would try to usurp his position. Still, the face that held his attention the longest was that of his mate, Yvora. He could tell that she was trying to keep her composure, if not for him, then for their cubs, but fear and sadness were plain on her face in spite of the calm facade she wanted so desperately to maintain.

Later, when Mynar and Yvora were alone, he nuzzled the side of her face and then gently took the scruff of her neck between his great, sharp teeth, shaking his head softly from side to side.

“I know that you must go,” she sighed. “But that doesn’t mean that it must be easy for me.”

Mynar released her and gently butted his head against her side.

“It will not be easy for me either,” he murmured. “I will miss my mate and my children. But I know that if we do not find food soon, I may no longer have a mate and children.”

Wordlessly, Yvora sank to the ground and lay her head on her paws. Mynar stretched out beside her, and together they sat in silence for some minutes.

As the parents of young ones know, it is rare for a mother and father to be afforded time alone together. This is as true for lions as it is for humans, and it wasn’t long before the hazy afternoon quiet was broken by the sound of their two young cubs bounding towards them.

“Bring me back a whole antelope, father!” cried Kaura, ever the louder, more rambunctious sister, as she leapt onto Mynar’s back.

Mynar jumped to his feet, let out a low growl, and began to playfully thrash from side to side, trying to shake Kaura off.

“Do you really think that you could eat an entire antelope? Such a little thing as you? What a greedy cub you are!” he said, laughing as Kaura dug her claws in and gamely kept her seat.

“I do! I do think that I could eat an entire antelope, father!” laughed Kaura, finally releasing her grip and letting herself tumble to the ground. “At least, I could eat a very small antelope by myself.”

“And you, Teva,” Mynar said, turning to his younger daughter. “Is there anything that I should bring back for you?”

“Only yourself, father,” she said, her small face serious. “For how would we ever live with out you?”

“You could live without me more easily than you could live without food,” said Mynar, gently cuffing the back of his daughter’s head and making her smile. “But since you won’t choose for yourself, I will choose for you. A fat rabbit will make a fine meal for my sweet Teva, so that is what I will bring her.”

“Yes, please, father!” said Teva, her smile broadening into a grin. “A nice fat young rabbit with plenty of meat on its bones.”

It wasn’t long before the sky was growing pink and evening was creeping across the land. Mynar made the rounds of his pride, bidding each of his subjects, even Rauman, a fond farewell. Finally, he gave Yvora one last nuzzle and licked both Kaura and Teva on the tops of their small, fuzzy heads.

“Goodbye, my girls,” he said gravely. “Be kind to each other and care for your mother. Remember that you are the king’s daughters, and that it is your duty to help look after the pride. Remember that I love you.”

“We will, father,” they said in unison. Teva looked as if she might cry, and even Kaura’s face was serious, all traces of laughter gone from her eyes.

“Farewell, my king,” said Yvora, bowing low to her mate.

“Farewell, my queen,” responded Mynar, sinking into his own bow.

Their formal goodbyes done, Mynar drew himself up to his full height and, reaching a paw up to his head, knocked his crown to the ground. He watched it roll in the dust before settling near Yvora’s feet.

“My crown will only be a hindrance to me out there in the wild,” he told his family. “Keep it safe for me until I return.”

“Of course,” murmured his mate, bending down and delicately taking the crown with her teeth. “No lion shall wear this crown until our king returns.”

Mynar nodded once, then turned his back on his family and walked off into the deepening night.

The Francine Odysseys – Prologue

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Project: to write the books that Suzy, the heroine of Moonrise Kingdom, brought with her when she ran away.

The books are described in the video below.

Our first book will be The Francine Odysseys, by Gertrude Price

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His eyes downcast, his kingdom in ruins, Mynar pressed his heavy paw through the rippling surface of the cool shallows and down to its stone floor.

‘My people were once lead my a great and noble beast and I no longer see his face in this reflection.’ 

Meanwhile, on the plains of Tabitha, Francine rested. There would be another time for war.

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