Mirabel woke when it was no longer dark, but not yet light. She heard whispering. It was Sir Andrew’s voice for sure. She was almost sure the other voice was Ellyn’s.
“It’s best to not say anything,” said Sir Andrew. “After all, we did promise to keep the secret.”
“I agree,” said the other voice.
“Rowan will have the porridge ready by now.” said Sir Andrew, now speaking in a normal voice.
Mirabel heard the creaking of the barn door opening and then the sound of a rooster crowing.
“We are lucky that the rain has stopped,” said Sir Andrew.
“I’ll go wake my cousins and Mirabel,” said the other voice. Now Mirabel knew it was Ellyn’s voice for sure.
“I’m already awake,” called Mirabel from the loft.
The rescuers along with Rowan and Sir Andrew ate their porridge in the the barn kitchen as the day grew steadily brighter.
“The castle is very big,” said Mirabel. “Where do you think we will find Cook Agnes and the royal family?”
“Cook Agnes is almost always in the kitchen,” said Ellyn. “And she will probably know where to find everyone. Before I left the castle, they had made a new kitchen on the second floor, because the big kitchen had been flooded.”
“The water has receded, except for the mud,” said Sir Andrew. “Cook Agnes may have returned to the old kitchen. Perhaps you should check there first.”
“Then we have a plan,” said Ellyn. “The sled is packed. All we have to do now is carry the skis and the sled down the hill and then march across the mud to the castle.”
“Here, add this to the sled,” said Rowan, who held a large cake in his hands. “When you arrive, you can share this sweet honey cake with with the royal family and Cook Agnes before you bring them back to barn hill.” He wrapped the cake in a cloth and handed it to Ellyn.
In the first floor kitchen of the castle, the royal family checked and double checked the items in their travel baskets as Cook Agnes stirred a pot of porridge.
“I’m sorry we can’t fit the bag of juggling items,” said the King.
“I’m sad we can’t bring all of it,” said the Queen. “We’ve tucked a few things into our travel baskets, but we can’t take the chance that carrying that big bag will make our travel impossible. Walking across the mud on skis is already risky enough.”
“Then I think our pack baskets are ready to travel,” said the King.
“Almost ready,”said the Queen. “We’ve been dressing like peasants all these weeks as we’ve carried wood and water. We had best ski across the mud in peasant clothing. But, when we leave barn hill and travel to the foothills, everyone will expect to see us in royal garb.”
“I haven’t packed anything like that,” said Ronduin.
“We don’t have room in our baskets for much more,” said the King. “But, we could each fit one item of royal clothing in our baskets.”
“Ronduin, your purple velvet jacket with the gold braid would be perfect. “But, some of the braid is loose and needs to be stitched.”
“I can stitch that, mother,” said Ronduin.
“After eating, let’s bring the first round of buckets of water to the kitchen,” said the king, then pour the water into jugs. We have enough jugs to go to the well four times with buckets.” After we do two trips to the well, we will need to rest. That will be a good time to find the clothing we plan to bring and do any mending.”
“And then our baskets will be ready to go and we will have only one more sleep until the day we walk on skis to barn hill!” said Ronduin. He felt tremendous excitement that sank suddenly into dismay as he remembered that he still had not figured out what to say to Mirabel and Rowan.
“Porridge is on the table,” announced Cook Agnes.
As usual, chickens bedecked the the tree at the bottom of barn hill. This morning, as the rescue team along with Sir Andrew, gathered at the edge of the mud, their clucking was louder than usual. When Mirabel looked up she saw Rowan perched at the very top of the tree, gazing toward the castle.
“What can you see?” asked called Mirabel in a strong voice.
“I’ve got a good view of those two long, narrow islands between here and the castle,” called Rowan. “They are covered with thick grass and I think that’s a good sign they are solid enough for walking. I think they will be good places for the sickly prince to walk for a bit. That will help the sled pullers.”
“Thank you!” said Ellyn. That will make our journeys there and back much easier.”
“Those islands are meant to be the start of a road,” said Sir Andrew. The gardeners have been piling up layers of rocks covered with layers of weeds and sods. They have been making these piles alongside the path along the path for many years. Progress is slow though. The idea is to eventually build up a high road like the causeway to the foothills. The road is far from finished, but those two low islands will help a bit today.”
Everything was in place. Sir Andrew had placed nine sets of skis at the bottom of the hill in a long line parallel to the shore of the area that had once been a flooded field and was now a muddy field. The sled (loaded with the satchel, the chicken cages and the honey cake) already rested on the mud. Ellyn, the twins, Peter and Peyton along with Mirabel, Rosamund and Viola, now lined up next to their skis. Sir Andrew moved three of the sets of skis into the sled saying, “I’m sure that the King and Queen will quickly learn how to walk on skis. I’m not so sure about Cook Agnes. She’s not as strong as she once was. She may have to travel in the sled.”
Mirabel looked at Sir Andrew with a confused expression and was about to say, “but the sickly prince will be in the sled,” when Sir Andrew said, “we can send a second rescue party back for her if necessary. But, I’m sending skis just in case she is able.”
Mirabel looked across the mud toward the great castle. The morning sun peering through the last of the storm clouds that had brought the evening rain made the castle wall appear to shine brightly in the distance. Mirabel had a vague memory of walking along the the dusty path between the castle and barn hill when she came to barn hill with her father to get her kitten. She had been very small then and had walked slowly.
But today she was no longer small, nor slow. Today, she attached her skis to her feet, and stood facing the castle, full of a great energy and a resolve that would carry her across the mud to the castle and the royal family and Cook Agnes who had been stuck there for a long, long time.
“Ready?” called Ellyn looking down the line of her fellow rescuers.
“Ready!” called Peter and Peyton, the ropes to the sled attached to the halters on their shoulders.
“Ready!” called Rosamund and Viola, who shouted from the far end of the line.
“Ready,” said Mirabel, smiling at Ellyn who stood next to her.
“Fare thee well,” shouted Sir Andrew.
“I’ll have a great feast waiting for the rescuers and the rescued,” called Rowan from his perch in the tree.
“Cocka doodle doo,” trumpeted a rooster.
The rescuers moved out together, stepping onto the mud and then advancing forward. As expected, their skis stuck to the mud and the skiers had to pull hard with each step to free them. The sound this made was “thwack, thwack, thwack, thwack,”
Right away, Mirabel moved ahead of the rest of the skiers. She wasn’t trying to race. She was simply a practiced runner who was now using her running energy on skis.
“I see you’re faster than the rest of us,” said Ellyn. “That means you can be the scout. When you get to the first island, step on it carefully to see if it is a good place to walk. If all is well, hold up your arm and we will head to the closest end of the island so we can walk easily for a stretch without sticking in the mud.”
Smiling with that encouragement, Mirabel took off at full speed.The speed of her thwack, thwack, thwack, thwack picked up and, while Mirabel was walking on skis, she had the same feeling she always had when running with Ronduin. The scenery was different of course. Ronduin and Mirabel always ran under trees and by a lake, but, today Mirabel moved quickly across sticky mud under a mottled sky where the sun peeked through windows between gray and white clouds.
“What is Ronduin doing right now,” she wondered.
Ronduin was, at that moment, pouring water from a bucket through a funnel into a big brown jug. While Mirabel’s effort sounded like thwack, thwack, thwack. thwack, Ronduin’s effort sounded like glug, glug, glug, glug.”
The first island grew closer and closer. It looked good to Mirabel, with it’s knee-high grass swaying slowly in the light breeze. “The cows and sheep would love this grass,” she thought. “And I think we will all enjoy a break from the sticky mud.”
Reaching the long, grassy mound, Mirabel took a step up into the grass, then took three steps ahead through the grass. Instead of thwack, thwack, thwack, she heard swish, swish, swish. Now she turned her skis so she could see the rest of the rescuers and she held up her arm. Peter, Peyton, Rosamund, Viola and Ellyn all raised their arms in response. Mirabel noticed that Sir Andrew still stood at the bottom of barn hill. He too raised his arm.
High above the muddy fields, clouds sailed slowly across the sky. Mirabel watched the cloud shadows gliding across the mud. Ducks flew overhead and landed in a distant puddle. Mirabel slowly stepped her skis in a circle so she could face in the direction of the town. The tall trees at the end of barn hill hid the town, but she had come far enough that the forest near the town was now visible. She watched a narrow plume of smoke rising from the forest. “That must be the smoke from our neighbor’s cooking fire,” she thought.
Now Ellyn and her cousins were close enough that Mirabel could hear the sounds of their voices. She turned and shouted, “Should I scout the next hill?”
“Yes,” shouted Ellyn.
Mirabel waved to show that she had heard Ellyn’s answer and then she walked the length of the long, low grassy hill, listening to the swish of the grass. And then it was two side steps down to the mud where it took more effort to walk. Still, Mirabel felt strong and now even more eager than ever to press ahead toward the castle.
The second hill was even longer that the first. Again, Mirabel stepped up off the mud and held up her arm to tell her fellow rescuers that this hill was good for walking. Now Mirabel was more than halfway across the muddy fields. This meant that when she turned to face the town, she could see the church steeple and the bell tower peeking out above the trees. Looking toward the bell tower, Mirabel remembered the day when she had stood watch for the signal fire at barn hill, the signal that never came.
She remembered looking out from the top of the tower across what seemed like a great lake with seven small islands. “These two islands must have been among them,” she thought. She remembered sharing her bread with a gray pigeon and the powerful clanging of the noon bell that was her signal that she would, in fact, ride the green boat up the river and then run with Rowan to barn hill. How her life had changed since that day. And now it would change again. Soon she would meet the royal family including the sickly prince, a child she thought to be near her own age.
In the castle Ronduin poured the last of the water they had hauled from the well into the last jug. As he did so, his mother walked into the kitchen carrying clothing draped over one arm, a lovely blue dress, and two velvet jackets, one deep purple with gold braid and the other smaller one, light purple with gold braid.
“Here Ronduin, try this on,” said the Queen. “I hope you haven’t grown out of it.”
Ronduin put on the soft velvet jacket. It had once been a bit loose through the chest and shoulders, but now fit perfectly over his linen shirt. It was in a long style, so even though it was now shorter on him than it had been, it still hung to the top of his legs.”
“It’s perfect,” said his mother, “Except for the loose gold braid. You’ll have to re-sew the entire front edge. You can find gold thread and a needle in my sewing kit in the sitting room.
When Ronduin returned to the kitchen, he found his mother stitching a loose sleeve on her dress and his father sitting at the table polishing his wooden flute using beeswax and a cloth.
“I’m glad I planned to play the flute, and not a harp, for your performance at the festival,” he said, “This small instrument can travel in my pack basket.”
Ronduin had left his stool near the corner of the kitchen where his pack basket stood. He sat down on the stool facing the corner, and, leaving his jacket on, he lifted the hem and began stitching the loose gold braid.
“Mother, the stitches where the braid secure around the sleeves are so tiny they are almost invisible. Can you show me how to stitch like that?”
“I’d be happy to show you that,” said the Queen, lifting her chair and bringing it next to Ronduin’s stool.
The kitchen was quiet for some time, except for the sounds of cook Agnes stirring a pot of pea soup.
And then a merry tune lit up the room. Ronduin smiled as his father played a tune on the flute. As soon as he finished playing this short tune, the King announced, “I must become better at walking while playing. I need to check all the rooms in the castle to be sure everything is ready for our departure tomorrow. I will play while I walk from room to room.” As he walked out to begin his inspection, the sound of the flute trailed behind.
Mirabel waited on the second hill for the rest of the rescuers. Then she walked with them at their speed toward the castle. “I don’t want to arrive alone at the great doors to the castle,” thought Mirabel as she fell into the slower gait of Ellyn and her cousins.
The castle seemed to grow large, then larger, then gigantic as they approached the main door. And then, they stood before the great castle, before the partly opened door that had once been a portal for the green boat that Sir Andrew rowed out of the castle and across the flooded fields. The majesty of the tall, stone facade caused Mirabel to gaze in awe. Mirabel was not the only one in the rescue party who was awestruck. Mirabel’s cousins looked up, incredulous, at the tall towers on each side of the great wooden doors. They had never seen a building so tall.
Ellyn, however was not in awe. She had worked in the castle for many years and was accustomed to its grandeur. She knew the Queen and the King did not like muddy floors. While the younger members of the rescue party stood stunned by the glory of the castle, Ellyn contemplated their muddy feet.
“Our boots are covered with mud,” she said. “We can step just inside the door with our muddy skis and boots. Then we must take off our shoes and even our socks and enter the castle with our clean, bare feet. Then we will will be ready to walk to the old kitchen.”
Soon they all stood in their bare feet just inside the great doors.The stone floor felt pleasantly cool against Mirabel’s feet. Now, coming from somewhere in the castle, they heard the sound of lovely music. Ellyn, carrying the cake and the satchel under one arm, lead them down a stone hall then through a tall tower. They all stopped at the center of the tower and looked up and up and up. The sun flooded in through the level after level of windows as the distant music seemed to weave a spell of enchantment. Even Ellyn stood transfixed.
Remembering their mission, Ellyn led them down another hall where they stopped, silently, at the open door to the old kitchen.
The Queen and Ronduin had their back to the door and they continued sewing, for they had not heard the approach of the rescue party. Cook Agnes, bent over the fire, stirred the pot of pea soup. The rescue party did not know they were being watched. Mirabel’s eyes riveted on the sickly prince in his purple velvet jacket. “Look how he is hunched over,” thought Mirabel, remembering old people she had seen who were unable to sit or stand upright. “He is young, yet he looks old because he is sickly.”
It was Cook Agnes who turned, then spoke with no hint of surprise, “Why Ellyn,” she said in a kind voice, “How good to see you. I dreamed of you last night.”
Hearing this, the Queen stood fast and turned and, walking fast to the center of the room, spoke fast, shaking her head in absolute disbelief, “Ellyn? How did you get here? And who is with you?”
As she spoke, the Queen stood between Mirabel and the Prince. They could not see each other.
“This is Mirabel, the daughter of Ricard and these are my cousins Peter, Peyton, Rosamund and Viola. We have come across the mud from barn hill on skis to bring you to barn hill and then to the foot hills where we will celebrate the planting of the hill fields. We bring a sled that can carry one person and skis for all who are fit to use them. And we bring this honey cake and this satchel with letters from Sir Andrew.”
“Oh My!” said the Queen in full amazement. “We have made our own skis and planned to use them tomorrow to walk to barn hill. Cook Agnes was to stay here for she is not strong enough to ski on mud.”
“If the Prince is able to ski on mud, Cook Agnes can ride in the sled,” said Ellyn.
“Yes, the Prince can ski on mid and we would be much happier to take our dear cook with us,” said the Queen. “But enough planning for now. The King is checking each room in the castle and will soon return. Once he is back we can read the letters from Sir Andrew and re-make our plans. But now, dear guests, come in and sit down and share our simple meal,” said the Queen. “You must me tired and hungry.”
As the Queen and the rescue party stepped toward the table, Prince Ronduin was again visible to Mirabel. She remained at the door and watched him stand. He did not turn to face her right away, for he felt stunned by her unexpected arrival. He had thought he had another day to figure out what to say to her when she realized that he, Ronduin, was, in fact the Prince.
“I don’t know what I will say,” he thought, but I can’t keep sitting here, looking at the the wall.”
Now Mirabel watched in surprise as the hunched Prince, still facing the corner, rose to his full height.
“Now he doesn’t seem so sickly,” she thought admiring the back of his purple velvet jacket.
And then, slowly, deliberately, he turned. Mirabel and Ronduin locked eyes. While Ellyn and her cousins settled in at the table, Ronduin walked purposely toward Mirabel and spoke to her in a soft voice. “I’m so sorry,” he said, “that I never told you I am the Prince.”
Mirabel did not know what to say. She looked at Ronduin — Prince Ronduin –with a mix of familiarity and amazement. She remembered the dream in which she had followed Ronduin toward the castle through a field of green barley. In the dream they had not reached the castle because she woke up. Now she pinched her leg to be sure she was not inside a continuation of that dream. The pinch hurt. She was awake.