The Secret Prince : Chapter 71 — The Lonely Castle

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Note: Chapter 70 showed Ronduin and Mirabel walking on mud skis ahead of the rest of the group as they crossed the muddy fields from the castle to barn hill. At the end of the chapter they stopped on a grassy mound to have a conversation.  

Ronduin and Mirabel waited for the rest of the mud skiers and Cook Agnes, riding in the sled, to reach the low, grassy mound. Here Viola and Rosamund handed their sled-pulling ropes to Peter and Peyton as they had planned. 

Now the Queen asked Ellyn and they King whether they, too, needed a break from pulling. 

“I’m fine,” said the King.

“I still feel strong,” said Ellyn.

“Should we stop at the second grassy mound?” asked Ellyn. 

“Straight to barn hill!” called out Rosamund. “Who agrees?”

Everyone smiled and nodded and called out with enthusiasm, ” Aye!” 

Aye Aye! 

Onward!

Barn hill it is! 

Mirabel and Ronduin surged to the front of the group then slowed to stay close so they would all arrive at barn hill together. As the rescuers and the rescued moved forward, the long green hill appeared larger and larger. Ronduin’s eyes feasted on the hillside of grass which had grown back thickly since the animals had moved to the foothills. 

“It’s been so long since I’ve seen grass,” thought Ronduin, feeling that the grass pulled him forward with great invisible power. 

Now, Sir Andrew and Rowan began waving happily. Ellyn stopped to wave back, as it’s hard to wave when using skiing poles. Then the entire team of mud skiers stopped and they all waved. For a moment, Ronduin was overcome with joy because it was clear that they would soon arrive on dry land, that their days of seclusion in the castle were behind them. 

But, then, looking across the mud at Rowan who waited with Sir Andrew at the bottom of the hill, his joy evaporated as he realized that, just as he had to explain to Mirabel that he had kept his identity a secret, now he would have to have the same conversation with Rowan. And that was just the beginning of his dreaded confessions. Soon he would have to reveal to all his classmates and the entire kingdom that he had hidden the truth. 

All this worry caused Ronduin to move more slowly. He found himself next to Ellyn who was beginning to look tired as she strained against a rope attached to the sled. 

“Ellyn, I can take a turn pulling,” said Ronduin. 

“This is a good idea,” said the King.

The sled pullers stopped so Ellyn could hand her rope to Ronduin. Ronduin stepped into place and, grasping the rope, said, “I’m ready.” 

Ellyn stayed close to Ronduin as they moved forward. 

“You are a strong lad,” she said, “in spite of your long time stuck in the castle”  

“I have been jumping rope everyday,” he said. “I think it helped me keep my strength.” 

“Sir Andrew promised me he would tell Rowan your story,” said Ellyn. “He has already told him that everyone at school knows you as a farm boy, but that, in fact, you are the Prince. So, when you arrive at the hill, Rowan will not be surprised when he sees that his schoolmate is also a Prince.”

“I was worried about what I would say to him,” said Ronduin. “I am grateful to you and Sir Andrew for helping.” 

Now they moved into shouting distance of Barn Hill. Rowan called out, “Welcome! Welcome to the Royal Family!” Sir Andrew called out “Welcome to Cook Agnes!” 

Cook Agnes kept a tight grip on the kitchen cat and waved cheerfully with her other hand. She spoke in a soft yet determined voice. “Ronduin, as soon as we arrive, can you help me up the hill so I can get right to work in the kitchen.” 

Before Ronduin could answer, Ellyn said, “Rowan told me he would have food ready for everyone. He has become both a cook and a baker and has been bringing many loaves of bread to the workers in the fields. Sir Andrew told me that you will not need to cook at barn hill, but that Rowan would very much appreciate it if you could teach him what you know about cooking and baking, just as you were teaching me when I worked with you in the castle kitchen.” 

Cook Agnes smiled. “I would love to teach Rowan to cook,” she said. “And I hope, Ellyn, that you too will soon come back to cook with me.” 

“I would like that,” said Ellyn. 

Now they were close enough to see Rowan and Sir Andrew’s great welcoming smiles. As they grew even closer their happiness powered them to greater speed and soon they stepped onto the great green hill. Sir Andrew helped Cook Agnes out of the sled while the skiers removed their skis. 

Ronduin reached into the sled and lifted the two baskets carrying his chickens, Sunrise and Sunset. 

Opening the baskets, he said, “Off you go to be with your friends.” 

Sunrise and Sunset fluttered up into the lowest branches of the chicken tree where they were met with a great hullabaloo as the roosters burst into a fit of crowing and the hens clucked madly.  

“Let’s not let the kitchen cat loose just yet,” said Ellyn. “We will introduce her to Robere when we can find him.”

Then a wild flurry of hugging began the celebration of the arrival of the Royal Family at barn hill.  

Suddenly, Rowan took off running up the hill. 

“We promised to light a signal fire upon your arrival,” said Sir Andrew. 

Mirabel’s eyes followed Rowan up the hill. Looking toward his destination, she saw something she had not noticed before, a great pile of dead branches some distance from the barn. 

“That must be the pile of wood that Roland made but never used as a signal fire,” said Mirabel. Many weeks ago, I watched from the bell tower in town for a fire that was never lit. When Roland did not light the signal fire, Rowan and I had the job of running to barn hill to help him.” 

“What sort of help did Roland need?” asked the Queen, remembering how everyone at the castle had wondered why Roland could not go to the foothills.

“When we arrived at barn hill, the cow named Giselle had just birthed a calf. Roland told us she was worn out from the birth and not strong enough to walk to the foothills. So, we stayed with her and the calf until they were both ready to travel.” 

“We were guessing Roland needed help with a cow that was unable to walk very far,” said the King. 

“Rowan left a pan of embers in a covered pot behind the heap of wood,” said Sir Andrew. “It won’t take him long to start the signal fire. It was Roland’s suggestion to light the signal fire when everyone from the castle arrived. He is eager to know that Agnes is at barn hill.”

“Let’s join Rowan,” said the King, starting to walk up the grassy hill.

Ellyn found the poles she had used when skiing across the mud. She took the kitchen cat from Cook Agnes and handed her the poles. “These will help you climb,” she said. “My cousins and I will walk with you in case you need help getting up the hill, she said.” 

Halfway up the rise, Ronduin stopped and turned to look across the sea of mud at the castle. “These are strange times,” he thought.”It seems odd that I should feel overjoyed to leave my beautiful home, with my own soft bed, in my own lovely bedroom, to sleep with a gaggle of people on a hard floor in a barn.”

Now the faster hill climbers all stopped and turned to look across the mud toward the lonely castle. They waited for Cook Agnes and her helpers to catch up to them, and then the Queen said, “We are very grateful to you, Ellyn and to your cousins and to Mirabel for rescuing us from the castle.”

“Thank you so much,” said the King, “for helping us end our time of solitude.”  

“We are happy to help,” said Ellyn. 

And so it was that a parade of rescuers and the rescued, along with Sir Andrew, slowed to the speed of Cook Agnes so they would all reach the their destination together. Just as they arrived at the top of the hill, the entire heap of wood burst into bright flames and a coil of smoke lifted toward the sky. Rowan was the first to raise his voice in a loud cheer. Then Ellen and her cousins joined in and soon Ronduin, Mirabel, Cook Agnes, Sir Andrew and the Queen and the King joined in whooping and hollering as the flames leaped and the smoke rose ever higher.

***

At the foothills, the last of the planting had been completed just that morning and now everyone had gathered between the barn and Disappearing Brook, hoping to learn that the rescuers and the rescued  had reached barn hill. Some, including Roland, sat leaning against the barn wall. For awhile they chatted about plans for the festival. And then they grew quiet, for they were exhausted from the weeks of planting. Eyes closed and an occasional snore was heard. 

The children had worked hard too, yet they were not sleepy. Some sat in the small meadow downhill from the barn weaving bright meadow flowers into garlands. Others waded in the brook in search of frogs. 

Now a girl, sitting with her skirt laden with orange flowers, jumped to her feet, the bright blossoms tumbling to the ground.

“Look, look,” she shouted, pointing toward the sky. “It’s smoke rising from barn hill!”

Everyone ran to the meadow for a good view and, as the smoke spiraled into the blue sky, they began to cheer, shouting joyfully in celebration of the rescue. 

Roland, however, was quiet and thoughtful by nature. While he did not shout, he smiled, a warm, grateful smile. He looked out across the muddy fields and knew that the kingdom still faced challenges. Yet so much had been accomplished. The fields had been planted. They would have food for the winter.The Royal family had been rescued. And his sister Agnes was no longer stuck in a castle surrounded by a sea of mud. 

For a moment, Roland watched the plume of smoke, swirling ever upwards, his heart feeling that it could burst with relief and gratitude. And then he thought, ” tomorrow I will leave my animals under the care of a few of these good children and I will make a joyful journey back to the barn to see my sister with my own eyes.” 

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