“We’ll tell them the King is dead.”
“But the people will still remember him.”
“We’ll make them forget, simply stop mentioning him. He won’t exist to the children. He just stays up there on that hill of his, never to be seen. It will be easy.”
The discussion was one of hushed excitement, rather than heated debate. Vulpine, the elected leader of the village Assembly and the self-appointed leader of the Brothers and Sons secret society, answered everyone’s qualms. He spoke with such certitude that those around him often quickly acquiesced, though he considered it a bother to always have to explain himself. Tall and dark, he used his size to stare down competitors and his quick mind to silence them. His piercing eyes appeared black against the contrasting whites, which lent themselves to the aura of the man.
“Good doctor, would you be obliged to help us in the matter?” Vulpine turned everyone’s attention toward the village physician.
“You mean something along the lines of….” The good doctor cleared his throat. “Upon examination it is my conclusion that the King died peacefully in his sleep from nothing other than ripe old age.” He practiced the diagnosis in his most professional voice.
“Something along those lines would do splendidly.” Vulpine smirked and suggested a drink.
“Gabe!” Vulpine bellowed, pausing the clandestine meeting. “Why does a guest have to holler for a drink?” he growled toward the kitchen.
Gabe, a small boy for ten, came out cautiously with a tray of drinks, taking one step at a time as if checking to make sure the floorboards were solid before putting his weight down. The windowless kitchen door swung back and forth behind him while he made his way across the wooden floor without a misstep, even though his golden hair threatened to block his view and cause a catastrophe. He relieved himself of his load, transferring the burden to the heavy oak table. Gabe made an about-face as if under a general’s orders and headed straight back to the kitchen.
Behind closed doors he asked his mother again why Father let those men use their family’s inn for meetings. “I’ve answered you already” was all she responded without taking her eyes off the pie crust she was rolling out. She was always at work, an ant in an apron. This is where Gabe saw her most often, in the kitchen. The room showed signs of her handiwork: the drying herbs hanging from the rafters, the pot of stew bubbling on the hearth, and, of course, the round pie dough growing ever thinner. Gabe watched her pause to brush brown wisps of hair from her face. People often teased her that her food must not be any good since she was so slender, but she never took offense because it was widely known no one could bake a pie or season a stew like Mother. Wiping the flour off her hands, she looked at Gabe, who seemed to hang there as if out to dry. She sighed and smiled. “Why don’t you ask your father?” she suggested and set back to work.
Gabe knew just where to find his father in the evenings and from the kitchen he climbed the creaky stairs that led to the bed chambers. The largest was their family quarters. There were two beds in it—as long as the inn wasn’t crowded and an extra bed wasn’t needed elsewhere. The room also held Father’s small table and chair. Here he sat with the inn’s books and recorded the day’s accounts, meticulously adding and subtracting, keeping the inn prospering, if modestly.
Gabe was often told he looked like his father, but Gabe didn’t believe that. Apart from their shared heritage of golden hair and green eyes with flecks of brown, Gabe didn’t think it was possible that he could grow into his father’s image.
“Father?” Gabe’s father turned his head to see his son standing inside the door. Father straightened and warmly welcomed Gabe to his side. Gabe repeated the question he had just asked Mother.
“Because I love you,” his father began, “and because I love your mother and your sisters. I want to take care of you all the best I can. I know you aren’t used to serving in the dining hall, but they want you to be the only one to come into the room during their meetings. Gabe, they are paying customers. The inn is mostly empty now that it is fall. You understand, right?” Gabe nodded. With a smile and a pat, his father turned back to his books under the flicker of the candle’s flame.
Gabe flopped down the stairs, and seeing he wasn’t in demand in the kitchen, he slipped out of the inn into the cool night air. He knew he might be needed inside, but he made a roaming retreat back to the kitchen, circling first around the inn. Shuffling his feet, he paused to look at the well-weathered sign in front of their two-story inn. It simply read, “There Is Always Room.”
There was plenty of room now that traveling season was over and fall had arrived. Gabe wondered if there was another way he could help make money for the family so those brusque men wouldn’t have to be welcomed anymore. Gabe leaned against the wooden frame of the inn and looked at the hill, which was their nearest neighbor to the east. He stood there wondering how one went about finding work and shrunk back as he realized he’d have to ask someone if they needed a boy. He imagined himself frozen in front of someone’s stables while a man stood before him demanding to know why he’d come. He pictured his mouth ajar, the words caught in his throat. A croakless toad, that’s what I am. Why is it so hard to spit out that first word? He shook his head as if to knock the thoughts out of his mind, wanting to leave them out there in the dirt to be trampled on, and entered through the side door back to safety at his mother’s side.
Waiting for his next order, Gabe leaned against the wall just next to the double-hinged door in order to hear the men. This was hardly necessary for though the men spoke mostly in faint tones, they were quick to raise the rafters with their shouts for him. As he rested against the wall soaking in the scent of freshly grated cinnamon, he heard one voice above the others. What he heard made his eyes stretch wide and his mouth pop open as if his chin had just dropped anchor.
“The King is dead!” Vulpine raised his glass in a toast, and the phrase echoed around the plain wooden room.
The King sat in his resplendent hilltop abode, very much alive. King’s Hill, as it was known, lay on the village’s eastern boundary. No one ever set foot on it. For as long as anyone in his family remembered, there had always been a guard on duty at the foot of the hill, and everyone grew up knowing King’s Hill was off limits to the villagers.
Although not by any means an imposing mountain, its name did stretch its definition, and it towered over the village. One side of the hill was always dressed in forest green, ranks of conifers acting as a shield between the King and the village. Luscious green covered the base where the pines didn’t conceal it from the sun, and the meadow grass always danced in the breeze which rolled down the hill like a giggling child. Wild flowers, violet and gold, stood in defiance of the falling temperatures. The trees which filled out the rest of the hill embraced the cool air and were as golden as the sun reflecting off the King’s crown.
Approaching the pinnacle, the greens and golds gave way to gray as the hill became solid rock at its summit. It was there at the peak where the King’s home had been hewn from the side of the hill. In the center of this stony alcove, inlaid with gold, stood the throne. Over the throne a white banner hung, waving its message of the King’s love for the village.
Under the banner the King sat, watching over the village, always knowing everything that happened. He knew exactly what had been said at the meeting and hadn’t been surprised—he was never surprised by anything.
It was there in his throne room at the top of the village that the King listened to his song, which the trees and streams and flowers and even the rocks sang toward his throne continuously. Vulpine had decided it would be sung in the village only once more—at the King’s funeral.
Vulpine’s right-hand man, Phineas Tract, was more than an assistant; he acted as Vulpine’s mouthpiece to the public. Vulpine spoke to Phineas, and Phineas parroted the words to the villagers. He lacked in hair as much as he lacked in height, and he was a good foot shorter than his master. Though not a slave, he was certainly obedient to Vulpine. His gift lay not in an appealing appearance but in his smooth voice that calmed jittery crowds. The friendly, reassuring voice he used when explaining things made people feel as if everything were under control, even if they didn’t understand what he was saying.
To talk with the villagers, he would stroll down to the Square, which was the center of village life. People congregated around the well in the middle of the Square to hear the latest gossip, or they walked along the shops which walled in the Square on two sides. There was the tailor, butcher, shoemaker, doctor and candy man. There was also the metalsmith, who could make metal pour, and the glass blower, who could make glass bend.
While some shops sold cloth, tools and other household wares, there was also a daily market that began where the Square ended. The only dividing marker was a bell tower, which held the copper bell that beckoned the villagers to the Square for important events and announcements. Beyond the tower were brightly painted wooden stalls full of every kind of sight and scent: pies, licorice, rum, pickles, birds, canes, toys, rugs. Any villager in need of something could find it in the market or at least someone willing to make it for them, at a price.
Children would beg a peppermint stick and then run ahead, weaving through the shoppers to play in the lake which formed the western boundary of the village. Each evening the sun dipped into the lake, setting it on fire. The village children, however, didn’t come for its beauty. They liked the cool tickle on their toes as they dangled their feet, sending ripples gliding over its surface. Later, the children returned home in every direction, making muddy footprints along the roads which came out of each corner of the Square, some passing the school where the wealthier families sent their children to study.
It seemed as if everyone visited the Square at least once every day, and Phineas was no exception. Almost every day he sauntered into the Square, and like the Pied Piper, curious villagers would follow him. They trooped together to the east end of the Square where the impressive government building, the Assembly Hall, stood with its pillars proclaiming its importance. Phineas would climb the steps that lined the front of the Hall, as it was commonly known, and positioning himself on its porch, he would deliver the daily digest.
The day the King’s death was announced was no different. Phineas reported how the King had died peacefully in his sleep and announced his funeral would take place the following day. Step by step, everything had been carefully orchestrated—by Vulpine.