The man's hood fell around his shoulders. Joe drew a sharp breath. It was the same face he had seen on that dark night in the street--the same beard, the same bright, kind eyes, and the same wise turn of a smile at the corners of his mouth.
Sir Kobi immediately dropped to one knee. "My liege!" he said.
Sim drew a coin from his pocket, the same coin he and Joe had looked at on the morning their adventure began. He held it up so that the profile engraved on its face was right beside his view of the stranger's visage.
"He sure looks like the same guy to me."
Mack stepped forward and inclined his head. "Forgive my needing to ask, my lord. We suspect that you are Prince Halbrinnon. Are we right?"
The man held the old knight's gaze for a long moment, his mysterious and dignified smile still lingering on his lips. Then he spoke.
All at once, the whole crew of the ship fell to their knees in humble submission. Mack bent his own aged legs and bowed his head. The children followed his example.
"Rise, my friends," said the Prince. There was a tenor of delight in his voice that made a thrill run through Joe's heart when he heard it.
After they were all standing again, Halbrinnon took a long look around. "How is it that you're here?" he asked. "Why do you seek me?"
Joe swallowed nervously and then spoke up. "I...I saw you in the street the night you left Arrens, my lord."
"Ah, yes. I remember you."
"Well, we heard the news the next morning that you had died at the palace during the night, and I knew it wasn't true, because I had seen you, so we decided to follow you."
"To ask you to come back," Sim added.
"And," said Lady, "we had to go through floods and wolves and captures and fires to get to you. So I think maybe you'd better come back."
The Prince laughed. "You brave souls! Have you truly dared all these things just to find me?"
The children nodded.
"Well, in the face of such sacrifice, duty constrains me! Not the noblest knights in the land have ever undertaken a greater quest!"
"Will you come back, then?" asked Sir Mack.
The Prince turned his kind eyes on the knight. Rather than answering him, he responded with a question of his own. "Did you think I was running away?"
"We didn't know what to think, to tell the truth. We just wanted to prove you weren't dead. I...I guess I feared that maybe with the Steward's coup at the palace, you had decided to return permanently to your father's lands."
The Prince gave a wide, beaming smile, his eyes flashing with the light of courage and joy. "My friends," he said, "my leaving is always only a preparation for my coming. This is no flight away from trouble. No, this is the moment we retake the world."
And as he spoke those words, the Wellspring sailed around a jutting headland of the approaching coast and saw gathered in the harbor on the far side a war-fleet so vast that it blanketed the waves from one shore to the other. There were ships without number floating at anchor there, high-sided ships with shining white sails drawn up against the spars of tall, soaring masts.
The children's jaws dropped.
"What are those for?" Sim wondered aloud.
"Those," said the Prince, "are what I came over here to get. You see, I would never submit to giving my people over to Steward Presten's rule. My plan has always been to come back again and set them free."
"So you came here to get ready for a return," Joe summed up. "To come back in a way that the Steward wouldn't be able to stand against."
"Exactly. And you, my friends, will come with me. Together we'll cross back over, make our landing, and restore our country to what it was always meant to be."
Lady put her hands on her hips and set her jaw, striking the most courageous pose she could think of.
"Let's do it!" she said.