Chapter 7 pt. II

The knight helped Francine back up onto the horse, and soon they were off again, this time at a slower pace. Francine found herself beginning to nod off before long, the swaying of the horse and the warm evening air conspiring to make her feel comfortable and sleepy on what was almost certainly the most exciting night of her life. In order to keep herself awake, Francine began asking the queen’s man questions.

“What’s your name?”

“Aldric,” he grunted.

“Are you a knight? Should I call you Sir Aldric?”

“What do you think?”

“I think if you cared, you’d have already asked me to call you that by now.”

“True enough.”

“Do you live at Castle Hibernum?”

“I do, yes.”

“Do you like it there?”

“Well enough.”

“What’s it like?”

“Like any house, only bigger and draughtier.”

“That’s not really true, though, is it? A castle isn’t the same as a house, is it?”

“Well, you’ll find out soon enough, won’t you?”

“How far is it?”

“Far enough.”

“Have you traveled this way often?”

“Often enough.”

Briefly discouraged by the knight’s taciturn replies, Francine was silent for a moment, then asked,

“What’s your horse’s name?”

“Gods be good, girl, I don’t know. I only just got the damn animal today, now, didn’t I?”

“I thought that maybe the smith had told you his name.”

“Well, he didn’t. You’re the one with The Gift, why don’t you ask him?”

It wasn’t until Sir Aldric had said that that Francine had realized that she could now openly talk to animals. It didn’t matter if anyone caught her now, because the Winter Queen and her men already knew Francine’s secret. The worst had already happened. Francine laughed suddenly, feeling oddly free.

“That wasn’t meant to be funny,” said the knight.

“I know, I know, it’s just – ” Francine realized that she couldn’t explain exactly what she was feeling, nor did she especially want to, so she just shook her head and smiled.

She leaned forward and whispered into the horse’s ear, listened for a moment, then sat up and said to Sir Aldric,

“His name is too strange and complicated for our tongues, and he didn’t like the name the smith gave him. He says you should give him a new one.”

“I’ll leave that task up to you. You’ll be talking to him more than I will, I suspect.”

“All right,” said Francine happily; she’d been hoping that he’d ask her to choose the horse’s name. “I’ll name him Ivan, after my brother who’s lame. He’s always wanted to be able to run like a horse.”

“Ivan isn’t a horse’s name,” the knight said disparagingly, “Horses have names like Dark Wind or Shadow or Champion, not Ivan.”

“He says he likes it, though,” frowned Francine, “The horse, I mean. He wants his name to be Ivan.”

“Fine,” sighed Sir Aldric, “His name is Ivan, then. I don’t care enough to change it.”

Francine was silent a moment, her head cocked, listening.

“He says thank you!”

The knight just grunted.

After that, Francine ran out of things to say. She tried to ward off sleep by counting the stars, by singing quietly to herself, and finally by pinching herself, but none of it did much good. Her eyes kept drifting shut, and eventually she stopped trying to keep them open. She slept, then, though for how long she wasn’t sure.

When she awoke, it was still quite dark, although the moon and stars had shifted position overhead. She sat in the saddle for a moment, totally disoriented, trying to figure out what had woken her, when suddenly she realized that Ivan was no longer moving.

“We’ve stopped,” she mumbled. “Where are we?”

“The where doesn’t matter,” said the knight, dismounting and then lifting Francine after him. “The when is more important. It’s an hour or so before dawn, which means that we’ve been traveling near nine hours. Your friend Ivan needs to rest, and I suspect you’ll be more comfortable on the ground than in the saddle.”

Sir Aldric lead Ivan a fair ways away from the high road, through a small copse of birch trees to a clearing by a stream. Francine stumbled along behind them, the darkness and her exhaustion making it difficult for her to walk. By the time she’d reached the knight, he’d already built a small fire and hobbled his horse. Ignoring him, Francine lay down in the cool grass by the water’s edge, wrapped herself in her cloak and promptly fell asleep again. The night time she woke, the sun was high overhead and the knight was nowhere to be seen.

Chapter 7 pt I

The queen’s man appeared at sunset, this time leading a different horse.

“I sold Rowan to your smith and bought this one for the journey home,” he said, catching Francine’s glance. “Since you said Rowan was ill and all.”

“That was kind of you,” Francine said uncertainly.

“Kind nothing. I didn’t want to be left in the middle of the woods with a dead horse and a troublesome girl.”

Francine shifted her weight to her other foot to the other, unsure of what to say. The queen’s man placed his foot in the stirrup and swung himself up into the saddle.

“Is that all you’ve got to bring with you?” he asked, peering down at her.

“Yes,” said Francine quietly, looking over at her father.

Then, more loudly,

“Yes, I only had a few things to pack.”

“Give it here, then,” he said, reaching down to grab her sack.

Francine watched forlornly as he opened one of his saddlebags and dumped her belongings inside.

“Said your goodbyes, have you?”

“Yes.”

“Well, then, let’s get on with it. The sooner we leave, the better.”

Francine’s father reached over and gave her hand one last squeeze.

“Be brave, my girl,” he said under his breath.

The queen’s man reached down, grabbed Francine and lifted her up onto the saddle in front of him as if she weighed nothing. Francine’s kirtle and shift caught under her in a funny way, so wriggled around until she could find a more comfortable position. Then, she took a moment too look around one last time at the village, sleepy and warm in the glow of the setting sun. The streets were quiet, and smoke was rising gently from the cottages’ chimneys. She thought about how the villagers would be preparing for the coming night, the tallow candles that were being lit, the babies being swaddled, the stories being told.

She looked down at her father, her mouth set in a firm line, determined not to cry.

“Goodbye,” she said.

Before Saul had the chance to reply, the queen’s man had swung the horse around and begun walking him towards the high road.

Francine thought she heard her father say something, but, with the clatter of hooves and the clank of the knight’s armour, it was impossible to tell.

Once they reached the high road, the queen’s man set the horse going at a swift trot. Francine clung to the edge of the saddle, trying to adjust her body to the horse’s rhythm as his gait gained speed. She felt herself sliding first one way, then the other and it was several moments before she was able to move comfortably with the horse’s rhythm. By the time she felt safe enough to look up, the village was behind them, and the landscape was beginning to grow unfamiliar.

Francine sat in silence for a while, watching the last light of the day stretch across the fields of barley, wheat and rye. Although the sun was very nearly gone from the sky, the coming night brought none of its promised coolness. The air was still and close, and Francine’s layers of clothing were beginning to seem hot and oppressive. She could feel the sweat beading on her forehead and the back of her neck, and Owen’s rough woollen breeches were chafing at her thighs.

Francine wiped the back of her hand across her forehead, then tried rolling up the sleeves of her shift. Neither action seemed to help much. Finally, she said,

“Can we stop?”

“Why?” grunted the queen’s man.

“I have to take a piss,” said Francine, glad that he couldn’t see the blush creeping across her face.

She was hoping that by using her brothers’ vulgarities, the queen’s man wouldn’t realize how frightened and intimidated she really was.

He just grunted and slowed the horse to a walk. Once they reached a clump of trees by the side of the road, he helped her down and said,

“Be quick about it.”

“Can I have my bag?” Francine asked, thinking she would want to stuff her breeches and kirtle inside.

“Why?” growled the knight.

Not wanting to admit that she was about to shed her kirtle and breeches, Francine thought quickly and said,

“I need something out of it. I want my cloak.”

“Fine,” he said, tossing her bag down to her.

As Francine turned and began walking towards the trees, it occurred to her that this might be the only chance she’d get to escape. The trees would give her cover as she ran across the field behind them, then she could find a hedge to sleep under until morning. Once the sun was up…

“Don’t,” said the queen’s man.

“Don’t what?” asked Francine, unable to control the tremble in her voice.

“Don’t think about running away. If you do, I will find you. If I don’t find you, I will kill your family. If I am lost or killed, one of my brothers will hunt you and your family down. If we don’t reach Castle Hibernum in two moon’s time, the Winter Queen will send out another man to search for you, and if he can’t find you, he will kill your family. You will reach the castle, and you will be handed over to my queen’s possession. Is that perfectly clear?”

“Yes,” whispered Francine.

“And don’t even begin to think of using the knife your father gave you on me. My sword will cut your hand off before your tiny blade even has the chance to scratch my skin.”

“I wasn’t going to!” said Francine indignantly. “And how’d you know about the knife?”

“If I had a daughter being taken away by a strange knight, I’d give her a knife too.”

“Anyway, it wasn’t my father, it was my brother.”

“Makes no difference. Go take your piss and let’s get on with it.”

Although the sun was now long gone, it was somehow cooler in the small clutch of oak trees, and Francine stood there for a moment, breathing in the damp, green smell of the leaves. After a few deep breaths, Francine began digging through her sack, pulling out her cloak, her belt, and the knife in its sheath. Then she skimmed her breeches down, pulled off her kirtle and, balling them both up, shoved them in her bag. Finally, for good measure, she lifted the skirt of her shift and squatted down near the earth, figuring that since she’d said she was going to take a piss, she might as well do so.

Afterwards, she looped the belt around her waist then tucked the knife in the belt. Since the knight now knew about Adam’s knife, she figured that she might as well keep it close at hand. Then she pulled the cloak over her shoulders and, knotting the tie beneath her chin, pulled its folds far enough forward to hide the knife. The cloak was uncomfortably warm, but since she’d given it as the reason why she needed her bag, she figured that she’d better wear it. Anyhow, she reasoned, it would still be more comfortable than Owen’s scratchy, sweaty breeches.

The Francine Odysseys – Chapter 6, Pt II

Too soon, Francine’s father leaned back from his place at the head of the table to look out the door, then pushed his bowl away and stood up.

“It’s getting on sunset. Say your goodbyes here, Francine; you and I will go alone to the village square.”

Francine rose and embraced each of her brothers in turn, the fear that she’d barely felt a few moments ago beginning to spread itself across her chest, making it hard for her to breathe. Ivan squeezed her hand tightly and promised to look after Percival. Owen had tears running down his face, and could barely choke out the word goodbye. Samuel and Jonas ruffled her hair and promised to make bacon out of her pet pig as soon as she was gone, then laughed at her indignant reaction. Eli held her tightly, and, though he was silent, she could tell that he was crying. Adam embraced her last and, as he did so, furtively pressed something hard into her palm.

“It’s my bone-handled knife,” he whispered into her ear. “There’s a belt in your bag to make it easier to wear. Put it somewhere safe for the journey, and don’t take it out of its sheath unless you need to. And be careful, it’s very sharp.”

After he released her, Francine quickly turned away and began rummaging through her travel bag, saying that she wanted to make sure that she wasn’t missing anything. As she did so, she took one quick look at her brother’s knife, the one she’d always coveted, with its freshly sharpened blade and its handle carved with vines and leaves. Then she wrapped it carefully in her winter kirtle and tucked it back in the sack.

Finally, she stood and slowly walked over to her mother. Elinor cupped her daughter’s face in her hands and tilted it to look up at her.

“Be a good lass, Francine, and behave yourself. Just think, soon you’ll be living in a castle, like a princess! You’ll have so many stories to tell us when you come home.”

Elinor wrapped her arms around her daughter and pulled her close. Francine felt her mother’s body shudder and shake as she sobbed, her face pressed against the top of her daughter’s head.

“Mother,” began Francine, “Mother, I – ”

She didn’t finish, though, because whatever she’d been about to say (she wasn’t quite sure herself), had caused her throat to tighten and her eyes to sting with tears. Instead, without thinking, she said,

“Mother, my coif is getting wet.”

“Yes, of course,” said Elinor, pulling away. “I was being foolish, I’m sorry.”

“No, Mother, I – ”

“It’s time to go,” interrupted Saul, walking over and taking his daughter’s hand. “We don’t want to keep the queen’s man waiting.”

Francine followed her father out the door and down the path that led away from the cottage. It was easiest not to look back, so she didn’t, though that made her feel a coward.

Francine felt her father squeeze her hand, and she looked up at his face.

“The house’ll be empty without you, duckling,” he said, not taking his eyes off the road in front of him.

“I’ll be plenty full, especially with the twins. You’ve got six other children.”

“Aye, but none of them are you.”

He was silent for a moment. Francine tightened her grip on his hand, then ran her thumb over his rough, callused fingers.

“I’m proud of you, Francie. Truly.”

“Proud? For which part? The part where I stayed too long in the meadow, or perhaps the part where I told everyone that I could hear the horse speaking? Or maybe even the part where I told the queen’s man to his face that I have The Gift? All of this is my fault. I have to go away and it’s all my own doing.”

“I’m proud of you for telling the truth, and I’m proud of you for bearing this so bravely. If it were anyone else being taken off to see the Winter Queen, I’d give them up for dead, but I know you’ll come back. You have to.”

Francine suddenly threw herself at her father’s chest and clung to him.

“I’m not brave, I’m not brave. Don’t make me go,” she sobbed. “Please, I’ll do anything. Please.”

“There, now,” said her father kindly, placing a hand on her shoulder. “Let’s have none of this. You know as well as I do that you must go with the queen’s man.”

“I know,” said Francine, pulling away and rubbing the back of her hand across her face. “I know.”

Her breath was coming in great, hiccupping gasps, and she did her best slow it, breathing deeply and evenly.

“That’s my girl,” said Saul, taking her hand once again.

“But,” said Francine, her tears threatening to spill over again, “Won’t you tell Mother that I love her? I – I didn’t get the chance.”

“Of course I will. But I don’t think I need to. I suspect she knows it already.”

By this time they’d made it to the empty village square. Now they had only to wait for the queen’s man to appear.

The Francine Odysseys – Chapter 6 Pt I

Back at the miller’s cottage, Francine’s mother began preparing for her daughter’s journey into the mountains. She pulled out a roughspun cloth sack and began to fill it, first with Francine’s stiff leather shoes, then her woollen winter shift kirtle and stockings, and finally with a loaf of hard brown bread and a wheel of cheese. Once that was done, Elinor turned to her daughter and said,

“Put your linen kirtle on over your shift; you’re nearly a woman, you can’t run around half-naked anymore. And put on Owen’s breeches under your skirt, as they’ll make riding easier.”

“But mother, I – ”

“Do as I say, Francine. Please.”

Elinor’s voice was hard and quiet. Francine suddenly noticed that there were tears running down her mother’s face, though the smoky dimness inside the cottage made them hard to see.

“I’m sorry, mother,” whispered Francine, bowing her head.

“We don’t have time for apologies,” said Elinor, “Nor for arguments. Please Francine, just do as I say.”

Soon enough Francine was ready, her hair messily tucked under one of her mother’s old coifs and her brother’s itchy woollen breeches pulled up under her shift. She didn’t have much to take with her, just her winter clothing and the food. Elinor looked Francine over twice, inventoried the contents of her bag three times, and then said,

“Wait.”

She began rummaging around in the family’s large wooden chest, its surface worn smooth and darkened with age, and finally pulled something bright red out of it.

“Here,” she said, thrusting the article at Francine, “I was saving this for your wedding, but I – I – you should have it now.”

Francine shook it out and discovered that it was a long, red, hooded woollen cloak. In spite of the day’s heat, she put it on, even tying the thick cord at the neck and pulling the hood up over her head.

“It’s beautiful,” she said, running her hand over the bright fabric. “And the weaving is so fine, I’ve never seen anything like it.”

“It was mine, once,” her mother said stiffly. “My father gave it to me when I came of age. That was long ago.”

Although Elinor rarely spoke of her childhood, Francine knew that her mother’s family had once been wealthy. She even knew her letters, although she didn’t know how to read, and had taught them to her children by writing them in the cooking fire soot with her finger.

“Thank you, Mother,” she whispered.

Elinor just turned away, but Francine could tell that she was crying by the way her shoulders were shaking.

Unsure of how else to pass the time until she left, Francine sat down on one of the long benches at the family table. Her mother was busy stirring a pot of stew over the fire, and nearly all of her brothers were out, either tending to the animals or helping their father finish up his work at the mill for the day. Only Ivan remained in the cottage, and he soon came over and sat down next to Francine.

“I made you something,” he said, holding out a clenched hand.

Francine reached over and slowly unfolded one grimy finger at a time until she saw a a leather cord with a wooden pendant carved neatly in the shape of a pig sitting in his palm.

“Oh, Ivan,” she breathed, hardly daring to even pick it up, it looked so delicate.

“It’s Percival,” he said, his cheeks reddening.

“I can tell that,” Francine said, her tone sounding offended but her face smiling. “I knew it as soon as I saw it, it looks just like him.”

“I was saving it for your birthday. Here, let me put it on you.”

Francine ducked her head as her brother gently placed the necklace around her neck. Then she reached up, took the pig, and tucked him down the front of her shift.

“Now he’ll always be close to my heart.”

Ivan just nodded, and took her hand.

“You won’t let them eat him, will you, Ivey? Or sell him? Or do anything bad to him?”

“No, of course not,” he said, taking her hand. “Of course not.”

They sat together in silence for what seemed like ages until the rest of the family came in and sat themselves down for dinner.

No one seemed to be able to eat anything except Saul, who gulped back spoonful after spoonful of stew. Finally, noticing that he was the only one eating, he put down his spoon and looked around the table.

“Starving yourselves isn’t going to do anyone any good. It’s certainly not going to help Francine. I expect everyone in this house to continue on as before, with none of this kind of foolishness. Francine will come.”

“But Father,” said Eli, his voice hoarse as if he’d been crying, “what if she doesn’t?”

“And what good will it do to think like that?” said Saul, his voice rising in anger. “I forbid you to mourn for your sister while she’s still alive. She will come back, she – ”

His voice broke, and he looked down at the table. Elinor reached over and placed a hand on his arm.

“We’ll come find you,” said Samuel quietly. “I promise, Francine, Jonas and I will come. We’re not afraid.”

“I’m not afraid, either,” said Francine, and it was close enough to the truth. Nearly the worst thing that she could have imagined had come to pass, and now, facing the idea that she must leave her family and village behind, perhaps forever, she felt almost nothing. There was a small whisper of fear, somewhere deep inside of her, but it hadn’t bloomed into full-fledged panic. Not yet, anyway.

“You’re a fool if you’re not afraid,” Saul said, not looking up from the table. “You don’t know half of the stories about the Winter Queen.”

“And maybe they’re just that – stories,” said Francine sharply. “You were just telling the others not to mourn me while I still live; well, you need not fear for me, either, at least not until we know what Castle Hibernum is truly like. People exaggerate, they embellish, because everyone loves to hear a scary story – but how often do those stories prove to be true? I’m not going to die, I’m just going to go away somewhere for a little while. Just as you said, Father, I will be back.”

“That’s my brave sister,” said Adam, smiling sadly at her.

“And anyway, you have to come back,” said Owen. “You have my only good pair of breeches – the others have a hole in the seat.”

That broke the tension, and soon everyone was eating, although the mood during the meal still tended towards somber.