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.