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.