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.”
“Do you live at Castle Hibernum?”
“I do, yes.”
“Do you like it there?”
“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?”
“Have you traveled this way often?”
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.