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,
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.