Mirabel and Rowan and Adelaide and Merek and their parents sat in the shade between the stable and Disappearing Brook. Mirabel leaned against her mother who pulled a comb from her pocket and gently nudged Mirabel forward so she could comb her hair.
“I didn’t bring a comb with me,” said Mirabel, “so my hair is full of tangles.”
“I’ll send this comb with you,” said her mother. “I’m sure I won’t finish combing all of your hair before it’s time for you to head back to barn hill. You are about to meet the royal family and you will want to look tidy.”
Mirabel blinked, almost stunned to realize that, she would soon step into the great castle and stand before the royal family. She would meet the sickly prince, a boy near her own age. And she would do her best to help all the royal family and Cook Agnes escape from the castle that had become a luxury prison. But all she said was, “Mother, I will try to be tidy, but I’m guessing I will be spattered with mud when we arrive at the castle.”
Everyone laughed. Then the family talked about the time when they were apart. Mirabel and Rowan pointed to Patience and Giselle, who were grazing in the distance with the herd. They spoke about caring for these gentle creatures on their own after Roland and the rest of the cows and sheep walked to the foothills.
Rowan talked about baking bread and about cooking meals. Their mother spoke about her lonely time at their home with no other adults or older children. “Adelaide and Merek have become fantastic helpers,” she said, smiling at her two youngest children.
“I can milk a goat all by myself,” said Merek.
Their father told everyone about the team of villagers who plowed and planted field after field. “We never could have done this without the plows and the workers from the Mountain Kingdom,” he said. “In truth, if they had not helped, we would not be growing enough food to carry us through next winter,” he said.
Then they were quiet for some time as they simply enjoyed being together. A gentle breeze stirred the trees overhead. Adelaide and Merek waded in the brook. Mirabel watched the dancing shadows of the leaves. She smiled in spite of the occasional hard pull of the comb.
“There, the entire back of your head is combed out. That leaves the sides for you to finish,” said her mother. Mirabel leaned back against her mother who put her arms around her.
“I missed you so much,” said Mirabel.
“Me too,” said Rowan.
“And I missed you immensely,” said their mother. “I thought about you both so often.”
“We have one more short time apart” said Mirabel’s father. “Then, soon after the rescue of the royal family, you two can join us in the foothills. We will stay for the festival and then find our way home once we can borrow some skis so we can travel through the sign forest.”
“Who is caring for the goats and the cat?” asked Rowan.
“We brought them with us,” said their mother. “The goats have joined Roland and the cows and sheep and the cat is living in the stable with the other cats.”
“Since we have no animals to care for at home, perhaps it makes more sense for the whole family to live at barn hill for a time,” said Rowan. “The chickens and Robere the cat need care until Roland returns with the cows and the sheep. And it is still not an easy journey back to our home.”
“I will ask Roland and Sir Andrew what they think of that idea,” said their father.
“What did you want to ask me?” The voice came from the bushes. Then Sir Andrew stepped out into the little clearing followed by Ellyn and her cousins.
“I was thinking that, after the rescue, instead of returning home right away, perhaps my parents and Adelaide and Merek could come stay with Mirabel and me at barn hill until Roland returns,” said Rowan.
“Excellent plan,” said Sir Andrew. “But now we must talk about the rescue.”
Sir Andrew sat himself on a rock and Ellyn and her cousins joined Mirabel and her family sitting beneath the trees.
“First, Mirabel, this is for you to bring to the King and Queen,” said Sir Andrew, holding up a satchel. You need not carry it to barn hill, for I will go with you to help you set out in the morning and to be ready to support the royal family when they arrive. I show you this now because I hope you will help me remember to put it in the sled in the morning. It contains a report about how the people of the village fared during the flood. It includes an account of planting in the foot hills, about the king’s cows, sheep and horses, and about plans for the festival.
I want to to save your energy for the rescue, so I’ve found some workers to help carry the skis, the sled, the ropes, a special basket for the chickens, and a few jugs of milk to barn hill.
“The prince loves to drink milk,” said Ellyn.
“My mother said milk is good for people who are sickly,” said Viola.
“Ive been thinking about the plan for this evening,” said Sir Andrew.
“Besides the milk, we need not bring any food to barn hill,” said Rowan. “We cooked many quiches for dinner and we have much food that Roland left behind to feed the royal family.”
“Thank you for doing all that preparation,” said Sir Andrew.
“Let’s talk for a moment about your tradition of waving at the royal family just before sunset. Mirabel, Rowan, Ellyn, her cousins and I should be there in time for supper. And the workers will head back to the foothills as soon as they deliver everything.
“We have enough to feed them,” said Rowan.
“Do you have food you can send with them?” asked Sir Andrew. “I want them safely back before dark.
“We can send bread and cheese,” said Rowan.
“Excellent,” said Sir Andrew.
“And then you and Ellyn and her cousins can join us when we wave at the Royal Family,” said Mirabel.
“I’ve been thinking about that,” said Sir Andrew. “If we do that I think the King and Queen might worry about why so many people are at barn hill.They might think we all came here to solve a terrible problem. If only the two of you continue with your evening tradition, then we won’t worry everyone in the castle.”
At the end of the afternoon, the rescue team, along with a line of workers carrying skis and ropes and the sled and four jugs of nice fresh milk, stepped onto the causeway. At the same time, in the castle, cook Agnes and the King sat in chairs facing the area before the fireplace that Ronduin had declared was now a stage. They watched the flicker of the low fire as they waited.
The Queen and Ronduin used the great, empty dining hall as their dressing room. Here, the Queen tossed a bright red velvet cape around her shoulders and Ronduin popped a jester’s cap upon his head. Ronduin lifted a bag full of props and the Queen tucked throwing sacks into pockets hidden inside her cloak.
“You know what we’re missing?” said the Queen? “My Uncle Cedric always stepped onto the stage to the sound of music. Someone played a flute or a lute and drums.”
“But we can’t juggle together and also play an instrument!” said Ronduin.
“You’re right,” said the Queen. “Cook Agnes and your father are waiting now, and we have no time to add music our act. But, if we decide to bring this entertainment to the festival, we should find a musician to join us. But for now, are you ready?”
Ronduin took a deep breath, “Ready,” he said.
They marched into the kitchen to an audience of two, but Ronduin was barely aware of anything besides his throwing sacks. He concentrated even harder as he and his mother became a juggling team that passed the throwing sacks and all manner of objects from his bag of props back and forth between them. Next they juggled some spoons that his mother picked up as if she had suddenly decided to use kitchen utensils their act. They had planned this, of course, but as they walked around the kitchen picking up what seemed to be random items — wooden bowls, candlesticks, candlestick holders, small plates and big plates, it seemed to the small audience that Ronduin and his mother, the Queen, could juggle any random item on a whim.
Their final act began with Ronduin carrying three sticks to the fire, lighting them, them and throwing them, one at a time, to his mother. He was not yet ready to juggle with fire, so as his mother skillfully tossed and caught the flaming sticks, Ronduin was able to look at Cook Agnes and his father. He had never seen such a look on his father’s face, a combination of surprise, joy and astonishment. When the applause began it was Ronduin’s turn to be surprised. Never had an audience of two made so much sound in appreciation of a performance.
Now the King stood. “I am so astonished and so impressed by this performance. I had no idea my dear Queen that you still remembered how to juggle. And, I am completely surprised that my dear son is not only a juggler but a masterful one.”
The King and Cook Agnes began clapping again and the Queen and Ronduin turned toward the door.
“Don’t leave yet,” called out the King as he scooted over to the wall, reached into his packed traveling basket and pulled out a flute.
“You must exit to music!” he said.
And so, Ronduin and the Queen marched toward the door to a lively tune played by the King who stepped into the hallway so they could hear the melody as they walked back to their enormous dressing room.
It was almost sunset when Ronduin and his parents made their way to the castle wall.
“We are first to arrive this evening,” said Ronduin. “Even Cook Agnes is not here yet.”
“So we are,” said the King.
“Father, it seems to me we have made all our preparations,” said Ronduin. Our baskets are packed. Yesterday we finished moving everything from Cook Agnes’ room. We finished that job much sooner than expected. We have practiced walking on mud with skis. We are ready to go! Staying here any longer simply means that we are eating food that should be saved for Cook Agnes.”
“You forget one important job still not done,” said the Queen. “Cook Agnes will need water. Our job tomorrow is to fill as many jugs of water as we possibly can. Hauling water from the well is a heavy job. And she will need lots of water for drinking, cooking and washing.”
Now Cook Agnes appeared on the castle wall. Ronduin noticed that she appeared to be a bit out of breath from climbing the stairs. “You are right,” he said to his mother in a whisper. It is important for us to do that job tomorrow.”
“I arrive just at the right time,” said Cook Agnes. “Look, stepping out from the barn I see our two young friends.”
Mirabel felt odd, waving as if this were a usual evening. She could hear Ellyn and her cousins laughing just behind the barn door. “I feel strange,” she said to Rowan. “It’s like we are hiding something.”
“Well, we are hiding something,” said Rowan. It feels odd to me too, to be on the verge of the rescue and to act as if nothing is happening.”
“But Sir Andrew is correct. Who knows what the royal family might think if they saw six extra people with us.”
“If everything goes right, this will be the last evening we meet at sunset to greet the royal family and Cook Agnes,” said Mirabel
“You are right,” said Rowan, waving more enthusiastically than ever.
Far off, on the castle wall, Prince Ronduin noticed this enthusiasm and he too began to wave energetically, then remembered he was supposed to be the sickly prince.
Mirabel couldn’t sleep. She squeezed her eyes tight and was comforted by the soft breathing and occasional snores of Rowan and Ellyn and her cousins. But still she did not sleep.
The soft glow of candle light from the ground floor reminded her of sleeping in her loft at home when her parents’s candle light would shine up into the loft. Sir Andrew had made his bed on the ground floor in the stall that Gisselle and Patience had once occupied. Mirabel remembered him saying, “This spot is brighter in the morning. I hope to awaken while it is still dark, but, if I sleep too late the sun will wake me. Now I will write a letter to the King and the Queen to add to the satchel. It is possible that the royal family will need a great deal of time to get ready. Perhaps you all will even need to spend the night at the castle. I will tell them that, if you must all spend the night, he should send someone to the castle wall to wave. I will be watching. Also, I will tell them that, if they have any sort of trouble and need help, they should light a fire on the castle wall. I will be ready to walk to the castle, even though I am slow on skis. And I could send Rowan to the foot hills for more skis and more helpers if needed.”
Now the light from the ground floor flicked off.
“Maybe the darkness will help me sleep,” thought Mirabel. After many minutes, still awake, Mirabel turned over. The hard comb in her pocket poked her and she sat up, remembering she had not yet finished combing her hair.
Mirabel sat up, and, grasping section after section of her long hair, tugged out tangle after tangle until finally, all her hair was smooth and tangle free. Then she sat for a few moments remembering her day, from evening until morning. The waving at sunset, supper hearing stories from the happy group of rescuers, the joyful journey from the foothills to the barn, the conversation with Sir Andrew by the brook, the midday meal of bread at the long table in the stable, riding in the sled, meeting Ellyn’s cousins, walking to barn hill with Rowan and a sack of bread. Waking early in this very same spot.
Suddenly, Mirabel felt very tired. She settled into her sleeping place. Just before she fell asleep she thought, “Tomorrow, I will finally meet the sickly prince.”