Far to the northeast of Mynar’s kingdom, past the Swamplands and the Darkest Forest, lay the Plains of Tabitha. They were bordered by the forest, which marked the southern and western boundaries, the Haunted Mountains in the north, and the Swiftflow River in the east. On the other side of the Swiftflow lay the Plains of Bathsheba whose people, though geographically quite close to the Plains of Tabitha, nevertheless differed greatly in their language and cultural traditions. The Bathsebites and Tabithians had a long history of enmity and war, although in the time of Mynar’s reign they enjoyed an uneasy peace.
There were several towns and villages that dotted the landscape of the Plains of Tabitha, the largest of which, Auldville, was the seat of the local lord. The smallest village, Miller’s Holding, lay to the north, in the shadow of the Haunted Mountains’ foothills. The village drew its name from the small gristmill that stood on the banks of the Coldwater Creek, whose icy flow found its origins high up in the snowy peaks above. In the days when Mynar was king of the Southern Grasslands, the miller was a man named Saul. He and his wife Elinor had seven children; the oldest six were boys, and the youngest a girl. Adam, at 19, was nearly a man grown and did nearly half the work at the mill. Eli, aged 17, was apprenticed to the childless blacksmith down the road. Samuel and Jonas, aged 16, were identical twins who spent their days driving the family wagon to outlying farms in order to haul back the bushels of grain that needed to be ground. Owen, aged 14, was quiet and bookish, and hoped to someday travel to Auldtown and study at the great schools there. Ivan, aged 13, walked with a limp after a childhood ailment had shrivelled the muscles in his left leg; he did what he could to help out at the mill, but, as he could not lift anything heavy and had trouble climbing even the thickest and sturdiest of ladders, what help he could offer was meagre. In spite of this, or perhaps because of it, he was petted and doted on by everyone, and almost never heard a harsh word. What strength and ability Ivan lacked in his legs he made up for with his hands; from a young age, he’s been a skilled woodcarver, and evening almost always found him curled up on the rug by his father’s chair, whittling a fox or a flower or a face out of a blank piece of wood.
Saul and Elinor’s youngest child and only daughter, Francine, aged 12, had grown up with the rough and tumble of six boys. It was perhaps for this reason that she was more comfortable wrestling with her brothers, playing at swords or running around all day in the hot sun than she was sitting quietly and learning the arts of cooking, cleaning and sewing with the other girls her age.
There was something else that set Francine apart, though, not just from the girls, but from the boys as well. Francine had The Gift.
The Gift was the ability to understand the speech of the animals, and to speak back to them in their own tongue. People said that The Gift had once been common on the Plains of Tabitha, but if that was true, it was a time so long ago that not even the oldest among them could remember it. Now The Gift appeared maybe once a generation, if that. Francine was the first person born with The Gift for nearly fifty years in Miller’s Holding.
She hadn’t always been able to understand the language of the animals. As a very small child, the household cat and work animals had seemed drawn to her, it was true, but her parents hadn’t really thought that it was anything out of the ordinary. As she grew older, she began to hear what she called a “murmur” from animals, not distinct enough to be called speech, but strong enough that she could understand its meaning, even if she couldn’t hear individual words. Saul noticed that the chickens grew very calm when Francine entered their coop, and seemed to understand what she was saying when she told them that she meant them no harm, she just wanted to collect their eggs. A few of them would even lead her over to eggs that they’d buried beneath the straw, and then hang their heads contritely, ashamed to have tried to hide what their small mistress was looking for.
Elinor and Saul began to watch their daughter more closely. They saw her stand up one evening, walk over to the knitting basket and pull out a ball of yarn for the new litter of kittens, almost as if she’d been asked. They noticed that Francine always managed to coax more milk out of the family goat, and that she never had to endure being kicked, something no one else could boast of. They watched her climb onto the low wooden fence in the yard and spend hours talking to the pig that they were fattening up for winter.
It was from that very pig that Francine heard her first clear words in the animal tongue.
In the fall of that year Saul began preparing to slaughter his pig. He drove the wagon to the Darkest Forest and found a hollow tree, which he planned to use to smoke the ham and pork shoulders. He gathered a small pile of green wood that he could burn to create a nice, thick smoke. He began to sharpen his knife.
On the day that he chose to slaughter and butcher the hog, he and Adam went out to the small pen in the yard where the pig was kept. It would be Adam’s job to hold the hog still while Saul drew the knife across his throat. Adam was able to get a hold of the pig easily enough, but as soon as the beast saw sunlight flashing on Saul’s blade, he began to squeal with fright.
Francine burst out of the house, pelted across the yard, leapt over the fence and threw her arms around the pig.
“Father, please, no!” she cried. “He’s begging you to stop. I heard him.”
“Don’t be foolish, child,” Saul said, not ungently. “All pigs squeal this way. Go back into the house and stop your ears until it’s done. It’ll all be over soon, I promise.”
“But he’s scared, Father. He says that last year, when he was just a piglet, he watched you kill his mother. He said that she got away after you’d stuck her the first time, and she bled just everywhere, and it took you ages to catch her. He’s scared it’ll be the same way for him.”
A strange look passed over Saul’s face, which he quickly replaced with a stiff smile.
“Go back into the house, ducky. I’ll be in shortly to talk to you. I promise not to kill him today.”
After Francine had reluctantly left, Saul had turned to Adam and said,
“There’s no way she could have known that. You were all visiting Auntie Marian with Mother the day we slaughtered the pig last year. No one but the pigs and I should know what happened.”
Adam’s face was serious, even a little frightened, when he asked,
“Do you think she has The Gift?”
“Might be,” said Saul. “She’d be the first in years if she does. We’ll find out more tonight, once the day’s work is done and I’ve had the chance to speak to Mother.”
That night, after much questioning, Saul decided that his youngest child did indeed have The Gift. He sat all of his children down and spoke to them quite seriously about Francine, and warned them not to tell any of their neighbours about her newfound ability. He knew that it was a cause for celebration, yes, but he also realized that they were living in troubled times. The less that could be said about Francine’s Gift, the better.
Although the other villagers may not have known with certainty that Francine could speak to animals, they most likely guessed that this was so.
It probably didn’t help that she kept her family’s pig as a pet, named him Percival, tied a red ribbon around his neck and let him follow her everywhere she went.