Chapter 6: The Awkward Return
Taking a deep breath, Irene opened the heavy, front door of the castle and peered out suspiciously. She sighed in relief when she saw that it was only Curdie's mother who was there and looking up at the sky, and not Curdie himself.
When Joan heard the creak of the wooden door, her worried face broke into a smile, and she rushed to embrace the princess. Then she pulled back and with her hands planted firmly on Irene's shoulders, she looked at her very carefully.
"Are you all right, dear?" Joan asked in a low voice and Irene nodded, hoping the moonlight was not showing her red eyes and blotched cheeks to Curdie's mother. Satisfied, Joan took off her blue cloak and put it over the princess's shoulders. Then she put an arm around the girl and began to lead her away from the castle.
Although Joan talked cheerfully all the way up the mountain and to the cottage, Irene could feel her tense fingers on her shoulder and hear the underlying worry in her voice. She wondered how much Curdie had told her, if anything at all. She felt dread swirl in her stomach as she realized she would see Curdie again, and that he would see that she had not gone home, like she had threatened to.
"Here we are," Curdie's mother said brightly, opening the cottage door and gently pulling Irene inside. Peter and Curdie were sitting at the table and they looked up when the two women entered. Irene kept her eyes carefully positioned on the floor, until Curdie's father spoke.
"Are you all right, princess?" he asked her, deeply concerned. "You don't look well."
"I don't feel well," Irene whispered and it was the truth.
"Poor dear," Joan murmured, pushing the princess gently towards the table and sitting her down across from Curdie. "Let me make you some hot tea and then we'll get you straight to bed."
Irene sat stiffly, with her heart positioned uncomfortably in her throat. She disliked awkward moments more than anything and this was, without a doubt, a very awkward moment. Needing something to do, she looked at Curdie's hands, which were gripping the sides of the table. And without meaning to, she suddenly looked up and into Curdie's stare. She couldn't help but feel sad when she saw that there was no trace of liveliness in his eyes; only what seemed like a weary aching.
She narrowed her eyes, not only hoping it would hide the redness, but also hoping it would show him that although she had somehow ended up back in his territory, that she had not surrendered to his reasoning.
Curdie and Irene both jumped slightly and looked over at Joan.
"Tea?" Joan repeated.
"No thank you," Curdie mumbled.
"No thank you, Joan," Peter said, as he got up from the table and kissed his wife gently on the forehead. "I need to attend to something outside. I'll be right back." And with that, it was his turn to disappear out the door.
Curdie's mother held out her hand to Irene, holding the steaming, chipped cup of tea in the other. Irene got up and without another glance at Curdie, followed Joan into his room. She handed Joan back her cloak in exchange for the hot cup of tea and Joan bid her goodnight and sweet dreams, softly closing the door behind her.
Once she was alone, Irene changed into her nightgown and sat in Curdie's bed with her tea. She stared out the window, thinking of her less than perfect day. And when she grew so weary of thinking, she put her empty cup on the bedside table and got as physically comfortable as she could, since she knew it was useless to try to be mentally comfortable at that moment. She lay with the blanket pulled tightly around her as she wished for sleep to come quicker. And for the first time since she arrived there, she felt homesick…homesick for her king-papa and his uncomplicated kingdom.
It did not escape Joan that Curdie and Irene were not speaking to each other. She sat at the table with her son, gently tapping her fingers against the table, until Peter came back. As they all huddled around the table by the light of a tiny lantern, Curdie quietly told them everything that had happened that day. He angrily described Harelip's disguise and plan and how Harelip had deceivingly rescued the princess. He sadly spoke about their argument and admitted that he was not at all certain of what to do about the situation. The tiny family whispered together, wondering how best to protect their dear princess.
And when the discussion was over, Curdie crept out of the cottage, into the night, and to his bedroom window. He didn't look in because he knew Irene was sleeping safely within. Instead, he sat down in the soft grass outside the window. Even if she wouldn't speak to him, at least he could guard her. And that's exactly what he did, from that moment until the sun rose the next day.
That same next day, Irene sat outside by the stream. It was an absolutely beautiful day, but she didn't feel joy sinking into her like the rays of the sun so easily did. She sat alone, running her fingers through the cool water, making waves to amuse herself. And that's when she remembered her rescuer from the day before.
Defiantly, she thought about Curdie, who she had not seen at all yet that day. And she suddenly longed to go back to the meadow from the day before. She didn't see any reason to stay confined to the mountain on such a lovely day. Climbing to her feet and brushing the grass off of her dress, Irene walked through the open door of the cottage.
"Would it be all right if I went to the meadow, and perhaps to the castle, for a little while?" she asked Curdie's mother.
She watched as Curdie's mother paused, as if she were unsure of what to say. And then she smiled. "Of course, Irene."
Irene smiled and thanked her, all though she did not miss how hesitant Curdie's mother had seemed. And that's how she knew Curdie had told her everything. She hurried out of the cottage and began to run down the mountain, feeling free.
Joan immediately rushed to Curdie's room and stuck her head through the open window, to where her son lay sleeping beneath it. "Curdie!" she said urgently. "Curdie!"
Curdie opened his eyes and sat up.
"She's left," Joan explained hurriedly, "to visit the meadow and the castle."
Curdie was on his feet instantly, running towards the stream. He had assumed that this would happen; he knew what he had to do and he knew he had to be careful while he did it, or risk shattering Irene's trust. He would have to follow her secretly, making sure she didn't sense he was there.
With one hand gripping a small dagger that he had hidden in his belt, Curdie ran down the mountain. He knew there would be an encounter with Harelip that day and he was ready for it.
Once Irene arrived at the meadow, she wasn't quite sure what to do. She walked in a tiny circle, before kneeling in the grass to admire the primroses, just like the day before. And just at the moment when she was admiring those primroses, she felt an uncomfortable, burning sensation on ring finger.
Holding her hand up to her face and spreading her fingers, she saw that the golden ring her grandmother had given her was glowing. Or was it just sparkling in the sunlight? Irene wasn't sure, but she couldn't ignore how warm it felt. Deciding that it was a sign, she got to her feet. She would head to the castle.
It was at that exact moment that the large oak tree behind her groaned, much like a human would if they were about to fall over and die. Irene turned and in horror, saw the huge tree begin to fall, right towards her.