Disclaimer: The Princess and the Goblin, all characters, places, and related terms belong to George MacDonald.
Dedicated: Christmas present for Eilonwy.
It is summer again. A cool wind wanders down the tall mountain, passing children playing tag and women gossiping. It notices a figure farther down the mountain, sitting on a rock. Feeling mischievous, the wind circles the boy several times, blowing his curls in his face. But the boy does not even brush the hair back; he solemnly stares down the mountain at the crumbling farm far below. Bored, the wind moves on, leaving the boy alone with his thoughts.
"Curdie! Curdie!" a voices calls.
The called boy turns his attention away from the farm and slowly looks about him to see a girl rushing towards him.
"Do not hurt yourself," he cautions his cousin, Rose.
Soon the girl reaches his side, breathless and filled with excitement. "Oh, come and see!"
"See what?" Curdie asks quietly, looking down the mountain once more.
"He! The king has returned!" Rose says.
The boy whips his head back to his cousin. "The king?" he says almost soundlessly, eyes wide with disbelief.
Curdie shakes his head slowly. A wild, deseparate thought, hope, like a flame, bursts into bloom in his mind. Yet he lacks the courage to ask it. It has been a year since he saw the king and… A long and uncertain year.
"Do come! Come and see, Curdie!" the girl exclaims.
Rose grabs her cousin by the hand and pulls. Slowly the boy gets to his feet and works to keep up with the girl's brisk pace despite his longer legs. He feels caught between a rock and a hard place.
"Only the king has come?" he asks at length.
"Oh, no! He has a whole company with him!" Rose answers over her shoulder.
The boy remains silent as he is dragged along, pondering. The two children go by the semicircle of huts that serve as the miners' homes and on to the plain beyond. Curdie frees his hand from Rose's when he catches sight of the many magnificent horses. Men in shining armor and rich clothing dismount, greeting the miners that have come to welcome them. A great clamour fills the air.
Curdie's attention is drawn to a man remaining on his horse. There is a tired yet joyful look in his face as he gazes on the miners; silver mixes in his gold beard and hair. The king has returned.
Half-relieved, Curdie takes in the rest of the crowd. His gaze lingers on a group of children gathered near the king. He is startled when several of them turn and point in his direction, at him. His puzzlement lasts only an instant until the children part and Irene's eyes meet his own, his name on her lips, and she hurries toward him, hugging a brown-wrapped package to her chest.
He can only stare. When the princess comes to a halt before him, he realizes she has grown and her hair is longer.
"Hallo, Curdie!" she says sweetly.
He cannot return her cheerful smile and simply nods. "Your Highness," he finds his tongue.
"You may call me 'Irene,'" she reminds him, her eyes twinkling.
Again he nods. He knows he is being terribly rude with staring at her so, but he cannot help himself.
Irene holds out the package to him. Curdie takes it slowly, looking between it and the princess blankly.
"It is the red petticoat for your mother," she explains.
The boy's eyes widen, and he glances at the package with new interest. A great weight falls from Curdie's shoulders. The king is here, Irene is here, and they had not forgotten his mother. The princess's voice draws his attention back to her.
"I'm sorry it was not sent sooner," she adds; her face becomes somber, and she looks away from her friend's gaze to glance over her shoulder at the company. "Father fell dreadfully ill soon after we left here and has just recently recovered." She swallows thickly.
"I'm sorry, I did not know…," the boy whispers, filled with pity and at last understanding.
"He is much better, but I still worry about him." Irene faces him again. Slowly, a slight frown settles on her brow. "Are you well, Curdie? You look a little pale," she says, looking at him closely, concerned.
"Aye, Your—Irene, I am fine. I'm just glad you and your father are all right."
Maybe it is something in his voice, face, or manner that hints to the princess of the great distress he had experienced these many months.
Her eyes light with comprehension. "Oh, Curdie!" and she opens her arms.
The wrapped petticoat tumbles to the ground, and the boy gratefully steps into the princess's embrace, wrapping his arms around her. He wills away the mositure that wells behind his eyelids. Before releasing her, he unconsciously kisses the top of her head. They gaze at each other for a long moment.
"I missed you," the princess says quietly.
"And I you, princess."
"Will you come and see my father?"
Curdie smiles at her, a genuine smile, one lacking shadows. "Aye, I will." And he rescues the package from the ground.
Hand in hand, the two join the company.