Gabe was dozing and Angela was singing softly to herself when a sparrow alighted on Gabe’s hand. Gabe twitched and sat up with a start. The bird didn’t budge. Angela propped herself up on her elbows. “I thought you might sleep all—” She caught sight of the bird on Gabe’s hand, and whispered, “How long has that been there?”
“It just landed, but it doesn’t seem to want to go anywhere.”
Gabe wasn’t quite right about that. The bird pecked gently at Gabe’s wrist.
“What do I do, Angela?”
“Gabe, remember your first trip up King’s Hill?” “Yes, so? Help Angela, it’s pecking me!”
“Gabe; the toad, the deer! This is not a normal bird. It should be scared of you instead of you being scared of it. Do you think the King sent him?”
“I do. You’re right.” Gabe spoke quietly, as if afraid his voice would startle the bird and scare it away. “Angela, maybe this means Father is okay.” The sparrow stopped pecking as if it knew its message had been understood. Immediately, it flew up to a branch and then out of the pine tree fort. “I guess we’d better follow him,” Gabe said as he scrambled to his feet and ducked out of the hiding place.
The sparrow flitted from limb to limb, tree to tree. Gabe and Angela floated along after it. Their heartache had been lifted from them. That’s how Gabe knew for sure the King was there, somewhere. Are we about to see the King? They both tingled with excitement at the thought. They wore bright smiles and almost laughed as they climbed. They refreshed themselves slurping cool, clean water from a stream. They nearly skipped along after the sparrow, their hearts suddenly so light. Angela looked at Gabe with sparkling, dancing eyes. Then she looked around to find the sparrow and screamed in horror.
Shaking, stammering, she dropped to her knees and covered her face with her hands. Gabe froze in dismay. An icy cold shot down his spine. Whatever made her scream is behind me right now. He wanted to bolt, hide, anything but turn and see what had brought his sister to hysteria. He had that ten-year-old feeling again. Be a man, Gabe. The self-pep talk was short and to the point. He was the man here now, the only one his sister could count on.
Muscle by muscle, he slowly turned. First, his knees swiveled. Then his hips. Next his torso. Shoulders. Be a man, Gabe. As his neck inched his head around the bend, his eyes squinted closed. Be a man, Gabe. He lifted his lashes to peek, pulling in his shoulders, flinching at the air.
He saw. Everything drooped. His eyes relaxed and opened. His jaw hung loose. His arms weighed down his shoulders. He, too, sank to his knees. It was the pile of discarded bodies. The rebels crushed under Vulpine’s iron fist.
The sparrow had landed on the mound. Gabe didn’t understand all that he was feeling as he looked at the pile. The tumult of emotion inside of him brewed and boiled over, spewing out at the innocent sparrow. “Why did you bring us here?” He screamed it as loud as he could, his face crimson. “I don’t want to be here. I don’t want to see this! Get away from us! Go!”
Despair circled Gabe like a vulture, taunting, laughing. “He’s dead. He’s dead. They’re all dead. Lifeless bodies left for the birds. You might as well join them. Vulpine will be after you next.” Gabe pounded the ground, sure he was going mad. The sparrow landed in front of him then lifted off again and back to the stack of bodies.
“I said go!” Gabe grabbed up a stone and heaved it at the bird. The sparrow escaped, and the stone landed with a moan.
A moan? “Angela, someone’s still alive!”
She picked up her head. “What?”
“Didn’t you hear that? Someone moaned. Someone’s alive.”
“Alive?” Angela was shaking her head, her body still trembling too much to move. “Gabe, I can’t. I can’t go over there. Don’t make me go over there.” The thought of those bodies sent a new ripple of tremors through her.
“Okay. Okay. It’s okay. You don’t have to do anything. I’ll do it. It’s okay.” The sight of his sister so frail unnerved him.
Be a man, Gabe. He drew in a quick breath and held it as he launched out toward the pile. He was there in four long strides. Standing there close to it, he didn’t see a pile—he saw men. Familiar faces with blank stares. He vomited. Another moan emitted from one of the men.
“Father?” The word slipped out. Could it be him? As he made his way around them, his eyes scanned the men frantically until they rested on his father’s face. Gabe moved over to him and knelt gently by his head. “I’m here, Father. It’s okay.” His father let out a gasp of air that carried Gabe’s name.
Gabe exhaled, and with the release his tears flowed. The dam had broken and everything he had felt and experienced that day came flooding out. He cried for his father. He cried for the rebellion. He cried over thinking his father was dead. He cried knowing he still might die. He cried for his mother and Tabitha in the Square. He cried for the terror Angela went through. He cried for the King.
Finally, Gabe’s river of tears ran dry. It had washed away all his strength. He was drained, empty. “Father, I don’t know what to do. I don’t know how I could possibly help you.” The sparrow returned and landed on his father’s hand. It flitted up and then returned to rest on his father’s hand. Again and again.
“You want to lead my father somewhere?” Gabe was too worn to concern himself over talking to an animal. “He can’t even move!” Despair started cackling in his ear.
Angela thought of the King and the tremors stilled. “The King.” Angela’s voice broke Despair’s spell.
Gabe shivered and shook off his enemy. “What? The King?”
“Gabe, the King is here. I don’t know where, but he is here. There’s no doubt he sent that bird to lead us to Father.” Her voice broke off at his name. She hadn’t gotten up the nerve to go look at him, but she called to him now. “Father, I’m here with Gabe. You’re going to be fine. We’re going to take care of you. I love you!” She grew quiet and reflective.
“Angela, the King? I don’t know what you’re thinking yet.”
“Sorry. The sparrow led us to Father. We know the King must have sent him. That bird isn’t that smart or that caring on his own. So, somehow the King knows what’s going on. He sees us somehow. If that sparrow wants to lead Father somewhere, then it’s the King wanting to lead him somewhere.”
“Angela, I believe the King sent the sparrow. I truly, truly do.” He came next to her and sat down beside her. Holding her arm, he leaned into her ear. “Father can’t even speak. He has no strength, barely any life in him. He can’t move or even be moved.”
“Gabe, listen. Think. If the King wants us to move Father, then he will make a way. He has to. He always has made a way.”
The memories flashed before his eyes. The thousand times he slipped past the guard. The nightmare before the hailstorm. The inn and his family kept from harm. The words and boldness to speak out. The guilt removed and burdens lifted.
“He always makes a way. You’re right. There’s a way here. He’s made a way somehow.”
“Gabe!” A weak voice called to him. He jumped to his feet and ran to his father’s side. “I can do it. Help me up.” Gabe and his father both winced as Gabe lifted Father to help him sit, then stand.
Angela came along Father’s right side. Gabe held him up on his left. One step. Two steps. Three steps. Four steps. They had hobbled about a foot’s length. Their father was breathing like he had just finished a marathon. Gabe looked at Angela and shook his head.
Angela’s face lit up. With her chin, she pointed to beyond Gabe. “The King!” He swung around, longing to see the King again! But it wasn’t the King. A small but sturdy horse was coming their way. The golden mare walked slowly with her head held high as if in a royal parade. Her hair was a white diamond between her eyes, adding to her majestic airs.
Gabe swallowed down his longing for the King and explained to his father that the horse had come to carry him down the mountain. Before they could worry about how he was to mount her, she lay down. They helped their father onto her back and laid him down against her mane. She lifted him effortlessly, and they began their descent. Before they reached the road home, while still under the cover of the pines, they heard someone walking past. Gabe peeked through the branches and saw Phineas Tract heading up the hill—whistling a happy tune.