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.”