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.