[Thanks to everyone who has been following along on this long co-operative story. I hope you’ve enjoyed it so far and I’m thrilled to be able to bring you the conclusion TODAY!!! If you need a refresher please go back and re-read PART 1, PART 2, PART 3, PART 4 and Part 5.]
Rock rose in twisted shapes above them. The whole mountain looked as if it had been a giant black candle, melted down to a series of drips at its base. Jeffry could see clouds before the pointed tops of those drips.
“What now?” he asked Mary-Kate, who was tucking the crochet hook into it’s sheaf beside her. His voice was less exasperated than resigned.
“We climb.” she handed him a pair of long poles with very sharp ends. They didn’t need them for the first mile or so, but by the second mile the path of the mountain had grown steep, and by the third mile the climb was almost vertical. They didn’t speak.
Jeffry started to feel tired, and he began to ponder the events of the past day. What on earth was happening to him? Yesterday morning, less than twenty-four hours earlier, he had been a cowherd in a sheep town and he had been counting his luck to get up with enough time to make a breakfast sandwich before his bigger brothers could take all the bread. What had they said when he didn’t come home last night? Had they said anything? Had they gone looking for him?
Not that it would matter. They’d never find him here — wherever here was. He could only hope that Mary-Kate had a plan to catch up with the others (preferably a plan that didn’t involve more mountains.)
They reached a small platform halfway up the mountain where the waxy rock had melted flat for a few yards wide and a few feet deep.
To his surprise Mary-Kate reached out to the stone side and knocked. A door opened — though no door had been visible before — and she stepped inside. Jeffry followed.
They were on a small platform, identical in dimensions to the one outside the door. But now they were inside the mountain. A set of stairs led from the platform down to the base of the mountain. The stairs went around and around the inside of the outer wall. A low thick stone wall guarded the inner, inner edge, separating the stairs from the cavity at the center of the mountain. Jeffry could not see to the stairs bottom. They had climbed a long way up, and these stairs went a long way down.
They rested their poles against the side wall and Mary-Kate lifted what looked like a pair of saddles from a hook on the wall. “I had better tie ours together in case you get stuck. I take it you’ve never banistered before?”
“Don’t worry, you can just hold on to me, and you’ll be roped on anyway.” She put the saddles on the stone edge and tied the back handles of one to the front handles of the other. Then she tied a rope around Jeffry’s waist, and through all the handles. “Now sit, like this.” she sat side saddle on the first and he imitated on the second, “Hold on!”
He was not quite sure what to hold on to, so he grabbed a handle with one hand and put his other arm around her middle. Then she kicked off along the stone edge and the saddles moved along the stone wall. They accelerated, zooming down the stone edge of the stairs, around and around the mountain’s hollow interior, narrowly avoiding stalagmites and stalagtites.
The air wizzed by him so fast that he couldn’t catch his breath and he wondered what would happen when they hit the bottom. His hand on the saddle handle had turned white at the knuckles and the rope cut into his waist. They rode, going faster with each passing second, then after about five minutes they began to slow. He could just catch his breath again when they slammed into a pile of dusty old pillows and the ride was over.
It took as much time for Jeffry to get over his own shock that it did for Mary-Kate to get them untangled. “Couldn’t we have gone around the mountains another way?” he asked.
“There is no other way, boy.” a voice crackled in the darkness.
Three figured loomed out of the darkness, though technically speaking they were only able to loom because Jeffry and Mary-Kate were on the ground. In reality the three old women were much shorter than both travelers, but very intimidating. They all wore odd poncho-like garments that seemed to be made of shimmering light and shadow woven together. This fell to their knees, but Jeffry didn’t want to look further down. Two had seized Mary-Kate for examination while the other seized up Jeffry.
“She’s one of our’s.” crackled the taller of the paired examiners.
“He’s not.” reported Jeffry’s voyeur.
“He’s with me, and he doesn’t have weapons,” said Mary-Kate, “Grannies, we are on our way to the groundless castle-”
“You will stay for tea.” interrupted one of the grandmothers.
“Yes ma’am.” They were seated on slightly slimy rocks, and handed cups of a smelly congealed liquid. Mary-Kate didn’t drink much because the grannies were quizzing her intently on every aspect of her life since they had last seen her (a few months before). Jeffry didn’t drink much because he was pretty sure they had just scraped the cups against the slimier rocks and added hot water.
“So, where is it?” one of the grannies had asked him an unexpected question.
“I’m sorry, what, ma’am?”
“Where is the groundless castle?”
“Ummm… the what?” He had a foggy sense of hearing the word before, but he didn’t know why he should know where it was. To make matters worse, Mary-Kate was looking at him with a mixture of shock and horror.
“You don’t know, do you.” The old woman’s voice had an odd mixture of contempt, annoyance, and satisfaction.
“Why should I know? Isn’t it on a map?”
“No, it’s groundless! That’s the point! Only someone who knows its travel schedule will be able to get to it!” Mary-Kate was now on her feet, “I thought she told you! She must have! All those jumps, and you had no idea?”
“Is the groundless castle where Constance is?” Mary-Kate answered with a sound of derision and smacked her head with the palm of her hand.
“You had better think hard, boy. If you don’t remember some directions you aren’t going to find your princess, and I won’t be so forgiving that you didn’t finish my tea,” Snarled one of her grandmothers.
“Leave him alone. You have trouble thinking under pressure too, and sometimes with no pressure at all.” Another of the crones defended him.
“I do not!” The two began squabbling and carried it over to a fire pit where they began to poke the glowing green coals with sticks. Jeffry took the moment to huddle in a shadowy corner. He was so tired, and he had run out of ideas. He thought about his home and he thought about his darling cow so far away. She was probably scared and definitely in danger. He wanted to cry, but he was just too exhausted. He leaned into his pack trying to pretend it was Sweet Flower’s side. He wanted his cow so he could get some sleep, but his pack was so lumpy, and so glowing.
Glowing? He sat up and looked it closely. It wasn’t the pack that was glowing, but something inside. He dug through it and pulled out some slightly rumpled paper that was definitely glowing and tried to smooth it out. A sketch of Sweet Flower made by one of the Glossys stared back at him… then blinked.
The cow’s tail flicked and she turned sideways then walked her glowing waxy self off the page. The sketch floated in the air before him and walked towards the still cranky voices.
Real Jeffry and sketch Sweet Flower were a few yards away from them when Mary-Kate and the grannies when they looked up and saw the boy and his floating, glowing, cartoon companion.
“Well, well, well I do believe the boy has remembered something.” The cow wagged its tail at the oldest granny in response. The three old women flew into action, adding odd things to a cauldron which was settled over the now roaring fire. As they worked, sketch cow nuzzled Jeffry as he sat with his back against yet another rock. He must have dozed off because he woke when Mary-Kate whispered his name into his ear in a silly sing-song voice he’d heard women use for babies.
“We’re ready.” crackled the shortest granny who then added to the glowing sketch cow, “If you would be so kind, lady cow.”
The sketch leaped forward, and to Jeffry’s horror, into the cauldron. The floor beneath then shook and began to spin. The land leaps felt like calm walks compared to this stomach wrenching method of travel. He quaked along with the floor and thanked his lucky stars he hadn’t had very much of that tea after all. A few sickeningly shaky seconds later they landed on a set of stone stairs in front of a towering oak door.
This time Jeffry knew he was going to be sick, and he wished the grannies would get out-of-the-way so he could vomit off the side of the steps and not on them. One had hold of his arm and another poked his forehead, “Hold still!” she said bossily. He was going to try to push them out-of-the-way when a wave of blue calm burst through her finger and into him, settling both his stomach and his nerves. “That would have been easier if you hadn’t been wriggling like a fish. It wouldn’t hurt if you were all man or all boy, and not something of a mix of the two, but I suppose you can’t help that.”
The granny who had ahold of his arm now patted his shoulder, “Well done boy.” The wax cartoon cow that had preceded them snorted and tried to get back into the backpack.
“Speaking of which,” Mary-Kate raised an eyebrow, ”Do you want to knock, or shall I?”
Jeffry inhaled deeply, thankful that he wouldn’t be meeting the princess with sick-breath, reach up to the door’s elaborate gold knocker and pounded it twice. The two door halves creaked open to the largest hall any of them had ever seen. The room had plenty of light, windows the size of the front of Jeffry’s house stretched from floor to ceiling edge, connected by pillars that blossomed into arches so far above them that he had to squint to see the top. The ceiling was painted gold and vibrant scarlet to match the slightly worn scarlet carpet beneath their feet. The floor adornment traveled out before them to the edge of an elegantly carved wooden platform at the other end of the room.
There were a few figures on the distant raised surface, but two stood out. One looked a little familiar to Jeffry, but to his still tired brain seemed to be the wrong color.
The other was definitely familiar because it was his cow!
Both princess and bovine towards the boy — the cow with more difficulty because cows are too dignified to run.
Constance threw her arms around him, knocking out the wind he had so recently taken in. She had appeared to be the wrong color because she was now wearing a fluffy golden princess dress that ruffled over her amber skin. She looked much more princessy and cleaner, as did the soon embraced Sweet Flower, now wearing a matching gold bow.
The grannies were giving Sweet Flower a strange look, which gave Jeffry the creeps but didn’t seem to bother her as she told him, “We get to stay in the castle until they figure out a way to get the shoe out — or as long as we like — as guests of the King. You should taste some of the clover they have in the kitchen!” Then she turned as sheepish as a cow can look, “I’m sorry we left you at the campsite, but I knew you’d be able to find us with picture me.”
“Yeah, that picture was brilliant.” Jeffry told her. “But what about the Knights?” He asked Constance. “We should go back and help them!”
Constance nodded to a trail of yarn which led to a small circle of people happily knitting by the fire. “No need. They came to us.”
“The dead traitors back at the knitted castle were more interested in following the Princess and the cow than fighting the Knitworthy Knights.” Mary-Kate explained. “They would have loved to have gotten their hands on you for ransom, or in hopes that you could lead them to Constance, but once you were gone too they put away their screaming blue arrows, gave up the battle and followed her on their two-mile shoes.”
“But won’t they be able to catch up? Won’t they find us here?’
Mary-Kate touched his nose gently with the tip of her knitting needle. “But where is here? You can’t find it on a map, and they wont be able to follow us with their two-mile shoes.” She picked up the end of the yarn trail and bound on. “This is a MAGIC castle.” She started a simple garter stitch scarf. “It moves about as it pleases, and those old gits will never find us here!” She smiled at him and began to knit in earnest, happy that each stitch brought her closer to her troop.
Constance scratched Sweet Flower behind her ears, “we called for a veterinarian, but she said just to wait and see and that the shoe will come out eventually and we can take you both home.” Constance told him, “And you really should try the clover, they have candied clover from Highlandia, it’s delicious!”
“Say, boy,” cut in one of the grannies, “How long have you owned this cow?”
“I beg your pardon! Owned?!” Sweet Flower snorted indignantly.
“It’s more of the other way around, ma’am. I’m her human.” Jeffry said before Sweet Flower’s temper reached its full swing, “We’ve been together for about two years.”
“Two years, eh?” the grannies fell into intent whispered conversation while Constance pulled Jeffry and Mary-Kate to the platform to meet her parents and sisters. King and Queen Middlelaine were very nice and thanked him again and again for helping Constance, while her older sister, Morning Middlelaine, just giggled and her little sister, Hawlie, hid behind her mother’s skirts. Constance seemed oddly embarrassed by her relatives, but Jeffry thought that shy and giggly siblings were better than grumpy big ones that stole his food. The King and Queen were just mentioning something about dinner when the shortest Granny poked Jeffry’s arm.
“What’s your cow’s name, boy?”
“Sweet Flower. She told me- well she wasn’t talking then exactly- but I knew somehow.”
“Ha! Didn’t I tell you!” she cackled to the other two, “It’s the girl!” She flicked her fingers at Sweet Flower and at once she was surrounded by emerald and gold sparks. Her body began to change, became taller and less wide and deep. In a few moments a girl of around his and Constance’s age stood before them in a rather beaten up brown dress the colors of the cows spots and a dirty white apron. A second later Sweet Flower the human doubled over with pain, clutching her stomach.
“The shoe!” cried Constance, “the shoe was in her cow stomach, but they’re too much for her human form!”
“Quick! Get it out!” shouted Jeffry.
“Woops,” said the granny and she flicked her fingers at Sweet Flower again, who gave a belch and spat out a pink satin shoe.
The Villagers of Sheepston were surprised when the castle suddenly appeared on the northern hills above their valley, but they didn’t say anything, just as they didn’t when that odd boy who had kept a cow came home with a girl with the same name. The girl was odd too, she ate clover more than was decent in a salad and wore no shoes. When she was asked about the footwear she told the villagers that she had tried them once but they were too chewy. They had shrugged their shoulders and went back to life, because it was no use worrying about it and it didn’t affect them.
When Jeffry’s big brothers tried to steal his food, they would find that tiny knitting needles pinned their sleeves to the table an inch away, or that their knives had been replaced with crochet hooks. Eventually they stopped trying to steal and began conversing about sheep at the table.
The castle would appear for a few months at a time, mostly in summer, then vanish again. The villagers agreed that strange things happened more often when it was there than when it wasn’t, but the family who lived there were nice enough and they were relatively interested in sheep. Occasionally an odd thing would pop up on its own, a tall clanky stranger would wander through, a troop of knit obsessed knights would buy out the entire village’s yield of fleece or a bird man would fly by on his way to a corn field.
The most common odd visitor, though, was the middle daughter from the castle, the one with the dark braid. When she arrived it wasn’t long before she, the boy and the girl would disappear for another adventure.