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.