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.

The Francine Odysseys – Chapter 5, Pt. II

Although Francine wished that she could have lain in the meadows all afternoon, she soon forced herself to stand up and begin walking back towards the village. As much as she thought that Owen was a whiny worrywart who couldn’t seem to mind his own business, Francine knew that he was right – Mother would have wanted her to return with her brothers after they’d seen the queen’s men riding into the village. She knew, too, that it was wrong to deliberately upset her mother like this, especially when it could be so easily avoided. She couldn’t seem to help it, though; there was an angry, defiant feeling that boiled up in Francine whenever people like Owen started using words like should or have to when it came to how she behaved and what she did. Even when she knew that the other person was right, this contrary streak made Francine want to do the exact opposite of whatever it was they said.

This rarely worked out well for her, but she never seemed to remember that when her cheeks flushed and her ears filled with the sound of her own pulse and all she wanted to do was kick the person who thought that they knew how Francine should act better than she herself did.

Francine spent the entire walk back to her family’s cottage thinking up explanations, and, in case those failed, angry retorts for the lecture that she was sure to face there. As she walked up the path to the door, however, she realized that something was wrong. The air was still and quiet, much too quiet for a cottage where she expect to find eight people. As Francine pushed the rough wooden door inward and looked around the dim, empty interior, she felt her stomach clench with fear.

“Hello?” she called out, knowing that there was no one there to answer. “Hello, is anyone there?”

Her disquiet grew as she backed out of the cottage and walked next door to the baker’s home, only to discover that neither he nor his lovely young wife were home. As Francine walked along the road, peering into cottage after cottage, only to discover that everyone seemed to have disappeared. Francine felt herself beginning to panic – where was everyone? What had happened? Could the queen’s men have caused everyone to vanish, like they did in the stories?

Soon, however, Francine realized that the truth was much more mundane than that; everyone had gathered in the village square to listen to some sort of proclamation that the queen’s men were making. She hurried to join her family, trying not to let her relief show on her face. The last thing that she wanted was for her brothers to know that she’d been afraid that they’d disappeared; she knew that they’d laugh at her, and she would never hear the last of it. She could just imagine one of the twins bringing it up every time she got in trouble, saying something like, I bet Francine’s wishing right now that we’d all vanished just like she thought we did. If there was one thing that Francine hated, it was being laughed at.

As Francine sidled up next to Eli, hoping not to draw too much attention to herself, mother leaned over and whispered,

“Where have you been? I was worried.”

“I was in the fields; I told Adam to tell you I’d be home soon.”

“It’s not safe for you to be out in the meadow alone; you could have been hurt, you could have been in danger, and no one would have known.”

Mother,” Francine said impatiently, “I’ve been going to the meadow on my own since I was a little girl, and I – ”

Francine broke off suddenly, distracted by a sound at the front of the crowd.

“That horse is sick,” she said, more loudly than she’d intended.

Francine,” hissed her mother.

“It is, it’s sick. I hear him say so. He says his chest hurts and it’s hard to breathe.”

Suddenly, everything grew quiet. Francine looked around herself, her uneasiness returning. The crowd began to part in front of her, and she saw one of the queen’s men, his armour gleaming and polished in the sun, walking along the path created there.

Francine felt herself shrinking back, trying to hide herself behind her mother. Eli stepped up, putting himself between Francine and the queen’s man.

“Now,” said the queen’s man, smiling. “You don’t want to cause any trouble, do you? Stand aside and let me see the girl. I just want to ask her about my sick horse. I promise not to bite.”

The man had his helm tucked under his arm, and Francine could see that his hair and beard were fair, so blond they were nearly white. His teeth were very even, and his smile was lovely. Lovely but dangerous.

Francine shivered as she spoke Eli, never taking her eyes off the fair man’s face, “It’s all right. He won’t hurt me. Stand aside.”

She watched Eli size up the man’s sword in its scabbard before stepping off to the side.

“Now, child,” the fair man said, not ungently, as he crouched down in front of Francine. “Tell me about my horse. Did you really hear him say that he was sick?”

“I … I don’t know. No. Not really. He looks sick, doesn’t he? I didn’t hear him talk, though. It was a sort of joke, I guess.”

“Bollocks!” said a voice behind her. “She has The Gift. Everyone knows it.”

“She never eats meat!” said another, “And that pig of hers follows her everywhere and obeys her commands.”

“She goes to hide in the meadow during slaughter time, because she can’t bear to hear the animals screaming!”

“It’s her, it’s the miller’s daughter, she’s the one!”

“She talks to animals, I’ve seen her! She speaks in their tongue and they answer back.”

Francine pressed her face against her mother’s side  as more and more voices joined in. She recognized nearly all of them; they belonged to people she’d known her whole life, people she’d thought had loved, or at the very least cared for, her.

The queen’s man stood, his armour creaking and clanking as he did so, and looked around at the villagers.

“SILENCE,” his voice boomed out, and immediately the voices stopped.

“Child,” he said to Francine, less gently this time, “I came to this village after the queen received reports that a young girl here had The Gift. My orders are to find that girl and bring her back to Her Grace. If I should be unable to find that girl, well, it may happen that the whole village could vanish. It’s certainly happened before. Now I ask you again, did you hear my horse speak?”

Francine took a deep breath, taking comfort from the familiarly earthy scent of her mother’s thin woollen kirtle, and then raised her head. She looked around, first at her mother, then her brothers, her father, the rest of the villagers, and finally at the fair man in front of her. Her chest felt so tight that she could barely breathe, and her voice, which she had hoped would come out sounding strong and fearless, was a little girl’s breathy squeak.

“Yes,” she said, looking the queen’s man straight in the eye, “I heard him. He says he feels ill. You should let him rest.”

The man nodded and smiled.

“Thank you for making this easier on yourself and the rest of us. Now go home and collect whatever you need to bring with you to Castle Hibernum. We will meet back here at sunset time and depart then; if you choose to hide or run, I will kill anyone I suspect of helping you, and I will hunt you down. My orders are to bring you to the queen alive, but she said nothing about unharmed. Is that understood?”

Saul came forward then, and pushed himself between Francine and the queen’s man.

“This cannot be legal. Show me where, in the law books, it says that you can take a child from her parents just because she has The Gift. Show me where it says that the queen is allowed to treat her subjects like chattel. What right do you have to come here and threaten my child, my family and my neighbours?”

The man barked out a laugh, his mouth smiling, but his eyes cold.

“And what good would it do even if I had any books of law with me, to show them to you? Can you read, miller? Can anyone here?”

Saul’s face hardened, and he sullenly shook his head.

“And as to what right I have to come here,” continued the fair man, “why, I come by the orders of the Winter Queen, who was set on her throne by the grace of the gods. Who are you, miller, to question the work of the gods?”

The man turned and began to walk away from Francine, back towards his horse.

“Bring your daughter here at sunset, miller, or else suffer the consequences.”

Then, mounting his horse, the queen’s man rounded on the rest of the villagers,

“Disperse, the rest of you. The show is over, and there’s nothing else to see. Go home and thank the gods that I’m not here for you; next time, you might not be so lucky.”

The Francine Odysseys – Chapter 5 pt I

MYNAR

Mynar had been travelling for days, following what few signs he could find of the men who had decimated his kingdom. Early on in his journey he’d discovered faint parallel ruts in the dusty ground leading northward from his kingdom. In some places the ruts had been almost completely washed away by the rain, but so far Mynar had always been able to pick up the trail again. It helps that the ruts were accompanied by the distinct smell of humans, a sharp, pungent sweaty scent that was easy enough to track.

There were other signs along the trail as well. One morning Mynar came across a large pile of dung, not more than a week old, that he knew had come from his pride. A few days later he found a pile of wildebeest bones, and one sniff told him that they’d been gnawed on by his friends and family. The biggest find of all, however, came more than three weeks into his journey when, after having lost the trail for nearly a day and a half and very nearly starting back for the last point when he’d been sure that he was going the right way, Mynar suddenly saw something glinting dully in the brush.

After sniffing at the air to make sure that there was no danger nearby, Mynar stalked over to the bush and gingerly nudged at the object with his paw. It rolled out onto the path, and he was suddenly able to see it for what it was: his crown.

Lions cannot weep, of course, but had they been able to, Mynar would have wept at that moment, although whether out of joy or sadness he could not have said. Kneeling in the dirt, he placed his crown on his head, and then rose to his full height. He did not believe that he deserved to be called king anymore, but the crown would serve as a reminder of the duty that he owed to his people. He knew that he must not let himself be claimed by despair and the desire to give up; although he had failed his people once and had proven that he was no true king, he was now they only hope that they had.

Mynar walked until his paws were blistered and his haunches ached with every step. He had been travelling day and night for over a month, pausing only briefly to hunt, sleeping only for an hour or two at a time during the hottest part of the day. He knew that he needed a proper rest, but he didn’t want to let the men who had taken his people get even further ahead of him. Truly, he was loathe to even take the time to eat or sleep, and he told himself that if he did not come upon the men and his pride soon, then he would only allow himself to hunt and rest every second day. When he came upon a great green lake near the edge of the Darkest Forest, though, he could not resist the cool shade of the trees or the quiet rippling of the water. There, he allowed himself to sit and take a brief respite from his journey.

It wasn’t long before Mynar fell into a deep sleep. When he awoke, the sun was slanting low across the lake, and the shadows had grown long. Mynar rose to his feet and gave his body a great shake, then, without quite knowing why, began to walk towards to water. He reached the lake’s edge and, gazing into the depths of the lake, suddenly felt himself overcome with fresh grief for everything he had lost.

His eyes downcast, his kingdom in ruins, Mynar pressed his heavy paw through the rippling surface of the cool shallows and down to its stone floor.

‘My people were once lead my a great and noble beast, and I no longer see his face in this reflection.’

Meanwhile, on the plains of Tabitha, Francine rested. There would be another time for war, she hoped; surely this couldn’t have been the last few hours of childish play that she and her brothers would have together. Surely they would run and scream and laugh in this field again before Adam married, and Owen left for Auldtown and Francine was expected to begin behaving like a proper young woman instead of a hoyden girl.

The Francine Odysseys – Chapter 4 Pt. II

Adam was the best shot among all of them, and Francine preferred to stand next to him, mimicking the placement of his feet and the sure angle of his head. She was so busy watching her oldest brother that she didn’t notice that the twins, Samuel and Jonas, had stopped loosing arrows at the targets and instead had begun using their bows to shoot sticks and pieces of dried animal dung. Francine’s focus was so intense that she didn’t realize that anything was amiss until she heard Adam’s quietly powerful voice say,

“Stop it, both of you.”

“Stop what?” asked Samuel, lobbing a clod of dirt at Adam’s head.

“Stop whatever it is you’re doing,” replied Adam, ducking just in time. “Stop being foolish and get back to using your bows for what you’re meant to use them for.”

“Sorry, but we can’t,” said Jonas, drawing his bowstring back and aiming another stick at his twin. “We’re at war. He’s a Bathshebite and I have to defeat him.”

“Sorry is what you’ll be if we ever do go to war and you don’t know how to shoot a longbow,” said Adam, rolling his eyes.

That earned him a piece of dung in the centre of his chest.

“Take care,” Jonas said to Samuel, “that’s my queen he’s standing next to.”

“So Francine is the Winter Queen, is she?” asked Adam. “She doesn’t look much like a queen, but I guess I’ll have to take your word for it.”

With that, Adam hoisted Francine over his shoulder and began running towards the nearby thicket.

“Looks like you’ve just lost your queen,” he called back to Jonas.

Francine screamed with delight as Adam ran along, her head bouncing against his back and her long, wheat-coloured hair streaming down towards the ground.

“Put me down,” she cried, hammering her fists against him. “I’m the queen, you can’t treat me like this!”

“You’re not my queen, you’re my enemy.”

By the time they reached the thicket, both were out of breath from laughter. Adam recovered first, and used this advantage to place Francine on a low-hanging branch just above his head.

“No one will dare steal my prize while I stand guard,” he said, leaning back against the rough, moss-covered trunk.

But someone did dare, of course. Soon everyone was involved, and the meadow became the scene of battles, sorties, parleys, and more battles. It had been years since they’d had a proper game of war, and if you’d asked, most of Francine’s brothers would’ve said that they were too old for it. They didn’t seem to feel too old, though, as they ran through the long grass in the late afternoon sunlight, clashing makeshift swords together, crying out things like, that was your heart, you’re dead now, you scoundrel.

Francine thought that her heart would burst with joy as she jumped about and slashed with her stick, screaming until her throat felt scratchy. Her cheeks were flushed and her hair lay tangled down her back, but she didn’t care. For the time being she didn’t care about anything other than defeating the Bathshebites, and so she lunged and parried and stabbed at her brothers, her eyes bright and her mouth laughing. She didn’t think about The Gift, or her parents worry, or anything other than the sun on her face and the wind on her skin and the way her body seemed to sing as she leapt and ran.

The battle culminated with the four Tabithans, wiry Jonas, limping Ivan and steady Eli with Francine riding on his broad shoulders, facing off against the three Bathshebites, Samuel, a near-perfect mirror for Jonas, Adam, nearly as broad and taller still than Eli, and scrawny Owen.

DEATH TO THE TRAITORS!” screamed Francine as Eli raced towards the enemy line. Suddenly, he skidded to a stop, stumbling and nearly sending Francine flying over his head.

“What did you do that for?” asked Francine. “I could have fallen. I almost did fall!”

“Quiet,” said Eli softly, then, as his brothers continued to talk around him, “I said QUIET.”

“Horses,” said Adam, his face suddenly serious. “On the high road. With riders wearing armour.”

They could all hear it then, the sound of hoofbeats and the heavy clink of riders wearing mail. Soon they were in sight, and since the high road was quite close to where Francine and her brothers were standing, they could see the enamelled white stag on each of their breast plates.

“Queen’s men,” breathed Eli, his skin turning the colour of curdled milk. “And they’re turning … ”

He was right, the rest of the saw. The men slowed as they approached the road that led to Miller’s Holding and, pulling back on their reins, turned towards the town.

“But it’s not harvest time yet,” said Ivan. “It’s not time for taxes.”

“No,” said Adam quietly. “No it’s not.”

Eli gently lowered Francine to the ground.

“We should return home. Mother will want to know that we’re safe. She always likes to know that we’re safe when the queen’s men are nearby.”

Francine watched her brothers begin to walk across the meadow towards home, but instead of following them she sat down in the warm grass.

“Francine, aren’t you coming?” asked Samuel.

“Not just yet,” she said. “I’ll be there soon. Tell mother that I’m safe.”

“Sam, you should make her come,” complained Owen. “Mother will be upset if we leave her here.”

Sam just shrugged and said, “She can stay if she wants. She’ll be well enough here.”

Once her brothers were gone, Francine lay back in the grass. She knew that she should have walked home with them, but the afternoon had been so lovely that she hadn’t wanted to let go of it, not just yet. She had a funny feeling like this was the end of something; perhaps their mock war had been their last few hours of play together as children. Adam was nearly a man, as was Eli, and the twins weren’t far behind. Francine sometimes felt that by growing up they were all abandoning her, leaving her stuck in childhood as they made their way in the world of men. That wasn’t strictly true, of course, because Francine would someday grow up herself, but lately she was keenly aware of the fact that she was growing into a woman, not a man, which made her future seem darker, more daunting.

Pushing that thought out of her mind, Francine lay back on soft earth and let the sun soak her linen shift and warm her body. For now, she told herself, she would be happy.

The Francine Odysseys – Chapter 4, pt I

FRANCINE

Far to the west of Miller’s Holding, past where the Darkest Forest met the Plains of Tabitha, deep in the Haunted Mountains lay the Elk River Pass. There, cradled between two great, craggy peaks was Castle Hibernum, the seat of the Winter Queen.

The Tabithians knew little and less about their queen. They didn’t know her true name, or if, indeed, she had one, nor how long her reign had lasted, although no one, not even the oldest among them could remember a time when she wasn’t queen. They couldn’t say for certain what the boundaries of her kingdom were; some thought that she ruled only over the Plains of Tabitha, some thought that she was queen of the Haunted Mountains and the Darkest Forest, and some thought that her kingdom was the entire known world, from the sea that lay leagues away in the east, to the western wastelands that lay far beyond the mountains and the forest.

What the Tabithians knew for certain was that the queen exacted a heavy tax on them come harvest time, and that those who could or would not pay the tax were dealt with swiftly and brutally by the royal knights and men at arms. Although Miller’s Holding was generally a prosperous village, Francine could nonetheless remember several hangings in its main square, the only crime committed by the hanged men being unpaid taxes. Miller’s Holding sat in a small hollow of land not far from the high road, which made its way down from Elk River Pass, through the Darkest Forest and across the breadth of the Plains of Tabitha. It was possible to see the high road from the field behind the miller’s house, and it wasn’t uncommon to see the queen’s men, their shields, tunics and banners emblazoned with the royal sigil of the white stag, riding singly or in pairs. Francine rarely took notice of them, unless they turned down the rutted dirt road that lead to Miller’s Holding.

The queen’s men were responsible for collecting taxes, which meant that naturally they organized the public hangings as well, but it was rumoured, quietly, in whispers, that they were also used to commit darker deeds in the royal name. It seemed like the queen must have spies everywhere; anyone who even breathed a word of treason soon disappeared. When Francine had been much younger, an entire village, whose inhabitants had apparently been planning an uprising, vanished overnight. All that was left were the smoking remains of burned-out cottages and a few frightened cows, lowing in distress and confusion, searching for their missing owners.

Others vanished, too, sometimes on their own or with their entire family, often for no reason that could be discovered. There seemed to be a few patterns for who disappeared and why, but what those patterns meant was unclear. People with The Gift, few though they were, seemed to vanish at an alarming rate. No one could say for certain why this was; some believed that the queen had The Gift herself and was collecting others like her, while others thought that the queen hated The Gift and wanted to rid her kingdom of it. A third theory held that the queen had once had The Gift but had lost it, and now resented all of those who still had it. What was known was that those with The Gift often disappeared; what might have happened to those who had vanished was a mystery which most thought was best left unsolved.

This, then, was what Francine’s father had meant when he said that they lived in troubled times. This was why he hadn’t wanted his family to tell anyone about Francine’s Gift. By the time Francine was twelve, Saul knew that most of the village must have had an inkling that his daughter was different, but he hoped that none of them were certain enough to say anything. He had warned Francine over and over again not to speak to animals publicly, and not to react when she heard them speaking. She had been successful more often than not, but of course there had been times when she had slipped up. Saul just hoped that her efforts to be discreet had been enough. More than anything, he wanted to keep his youngest child safe.

Francine knew all of this, or at least parts of it, and it weighed heavily on her heart. She wished that she could do something to stop her father from worrying, but there was nothing she could do to stop herself from having The Gift. She had tried not to listen to the animals, but she just couldn’t seem to tune out their voices. She seemed to be stuck with her ability to speak in the language of the animals, even though most days it seemed more like a burden than anything else.

All of this, though, was far from Francine’s mind on one particularly fine summer day that found her and her brothers heading out to the back field for longbow practice. You see, in those days, every man and boy who lived on the Plains of Tabitha was expected to be able to shoot swiftly and accurately. If ever they were to go to war again, either against the Bathshebites or some other enemy, the Tabithians knew that the bulk of their army would be made up of archers and foot soldiers. For this reason, public lands were planted with yew trees, yew wood being the wood of choice for longbows. As well, all men and boys over the age of ten were expected to devote at least a few hours each week to practicing. Many men didn’t, of course, but most did.

Although women were not expected to learn to shoot, a few did, knowing that if the war came to their farm or cottage while the men were away, they would need to find a way to defend themselves. When Francine had turned ten, Adam had made her a small longbow, perfectly suited for someone her height and stature, and every week she delighted in joining her brothers for their practice in the field. Adam was fond of telling neighbours that his sister wasn’t a bad shot, either; not as good as him, of course, but better than the twins, who would rather play the fool than do anything seriously. Francine, for her part, enjoyed the feeling of strength it gave her to pull back the bowstring and loose arrows towards the bales of hay they’d set up as targets.

The Francine Odysseys – Chapter 2

FRANCINE

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.