Mother stumbled back a bit when she first saw Father— the sight was awful but the smell was worse. Spending part of the day among corpses brought home an unwelcome perfume. Mother regained her composure and managed to strip and bathe her loved one, getting a glimpse of where the sword had pierced his side. The children helped her get him settled comfortably in bed. He smiled faintly and slept.
Back in the kitchen, Mother dished up stew for all of them. Tabitha was in bed already, exhausted by the trauma of the day. Mother listened to the children’s story, and then she shared her own. Gabe remembered seeing smoke, but he had been too consumed with himself to stop and consider what it had meant.
“I want to go see what’s happening in the Square.” Gabe was resolute. “If the fire is still going, maybe I can help. I need to see if everyone’s been killed but Father. And Vulpine, did he die in the fire?”
Mother shook her head. “I don’t see how anyone who had been inside could have survived.”
“Mother, do you want me to stay with you?” Angela asked. Relief swept across her mother’s face. “All right, I’ll stay and help you.”
“You don’t need to help. Just stay here with me. My heart can’t take any more separation today. Gabe, you stay away from any trouble. It’ll be dark in an hour. Please try and be home.”
Gabe was in the square in minutes. The fire was down to embers. The Assembly Hall had been reduced to ashes. The smell of fire usually brought cozy images of warm milk and porridge, but this smell was choking, nauseating, flesh and bone cooked into the ashy soup stirring before him as embers popped. The King’s pearl plate sat in the ashes, the only thing that had escaped the fire other than the thick black smoke which billowed up into the sky.
Finally taking a good look around the square, he spotted the wooden frames. He had forgotten about them, a year’s worth of events had taken place since the day had begun. He shuffled across to the platform at the other end with only the empty market stalls behind it and saw that the wooden frames had been filled just as Father had described. Heads and hands hung out of the three holes in each frame. One other man was bound hand and foot and tied to one of the posts. Six men had been arrested.
Gabe searched the grounds, littered during the earlier bedlam. He found a bowl of sorts and filled it with water from the well to give each man a drink, returning to the well when the bowl was emptied. None of the men spoke except for murmured thanks. As he tipped the bowl to the last man’s lips, a rock stung him in the back.
“Ow!” He spun around. A white haired woman scowled at him.
“Leave them to die!” she hissed. “One of them your old man or are you one of them? Maybe you deserve to die too!”
She grabbed up the closest thing to her and hurled it at him. He ducked. It had been a vase used earlier by the bucket brigade and then abandoned. Now it was shards. Another casualty.
“I don’t know them!” He spoke forcefully to the old woman and surprised himself. “I’m not a rebel either. I serve the King, the one true King. But there has been enough death today. I don’t want to see another man die.” He was intensely earnest. The woman spat at him then backed away.
Gabe sat on the edge of the platform. What now?
“Who are you?”
Gabe turned around but couldn’t tell which of the men had asked. All of their heads hung weighted with defeat.
“No one. I just wanted to help you.”
“Why? Who are you?” The middle-aged man heaved his head up to see the boy. After a glimpse it flopped back down like week-old parsley, his long, unkempt hair covering his face.
“I’m a servant of the King.”
“If you serve Vulpine, why are you helping us?” There wasn’t any anger in his voice; no fight was left in him. He just thought it dubious that a servant of the king would help them.
“No, I serve the one true King. Vulpine may sit on the throne up on the hill, but he is not the King. He does not really rule us. I know the true King, and I will serve him until I die. You weren’t serving him by fighting today. You were serving yourselves and maybe Percy Katrid and the others, but not the King. I brought you water because I serve the King.”
“My name is Caleb. It’s nice to meet you, servant of the King. Thanks for the water.”
“If you are still here tomorrow night, I will try and come back to give you another drink.” Gabe slipped off the platform and headed home.
When Gabe entered the inn, he was surprised to see people gathered—more than the night before. Everyone was looking to him.
He spoke fervently about the King, his law, his love, his return one day. He urged them to submit to the village leaders except when it would require them to break the King’s law. He reminded them that the two most important laws were to love and serve the King and to love and serve each other.
“There must never again be fighting. It will not accomplish our goal.” His mind flashed wildly. Our goal? What is our goal? “Our goal is to see the King not only sitting on the throne but honored by everyone in the village. The King has been away from the village for decades, but he has never tried to force his way in. He wants the villagers to seek him, to come to him, to learn from him. We need to show people the King. We need to get them to believe he is real and worthy of our honor and obedience. We can show them by our love for each other and by our love for our enemies.”
“Love for our enemies! My husband was burned alive today by Vulpine’s men. My only comfort is that devil burned with him!” Fire was in her eyes and hate was in her voice. Her hands were trembling. “Why should I love those men? Why would I serve a King who loves those hateful men?”
“We don’t have to love them like we love our brothers. But we have to treat them like we would want to be treated. It means if one of them is dying of thirst, we don’t drag him out into the hot sun; we give him a drink of water. It means we welcome them into our meeting if they begin to follow the King. Please, no more hate. No more fighting. Today’s tragedy should be enough for anyone to learn that lesson.”
Gabe looked at Angela. She read from the King’s law and led everyone in singing the King’s song. They sang it over and over. The words washed away their burdens and fears. Tears cascaded from the woman’s eyes, putting out the fire they had contained just minutes before.
Everyone slept deeply that night, exhaustion a friend of sleep. Gabe dreamed the King had returned. All the villagers knelt before him as he stood on a platform in the Square. Gabe was standing next to him, wearing brilliant white. Then the people started shouting, “The King is alive! The King is alive!” He smiled and stirred.
“Gabe, what is it? Gabe, are you awake?” Angela leaned over Gabe trying to get him up. “Gabe, what are they saying? What’s going on?”
Gabe returned to consciousness, still remembering his dream. Or was he still dreaming? It was only the cusp of dawn, but the village bell was tolling. A crier was galloping on horseback through the streets calling out. Turning around past the inn, the rider’s words rang out clearly as he rode back. “The king is alive! The king is alive! Everyone to the Square!”
Gabe and Angela stared dumbly at each other until Mother shooed them out of bed. “Go find out what’s going on! I’ll stay home with Father. And look, Tabitha is sleeping right through it as usual. I couldn’t wake that child if I dropped her on her head.”
Angela and Gabe pulled on clothes. Gabe hopped out the door as his right leg hadn’t yet found the end of its tunnel.
They were out of the inn before Gabe had even spoken a word. All along the road, doors were opening as bewildered people stepped out of their homes. Gabe told Angela about his dream.
“Do you think it could really be him?” Angela asked, afraid to get her hopes up.
“I…I don’t know. My dream about the storm happened, right?” Please let it be you, King. “Let’s hurry.” They were off again, just like the day before.
On the far side of the Square with the sun rising before them, the men, limp on their wooden hangers, cast long shadows. Inside the bell tower, a young boy tugged a tattered rope to rock the bell, and with each rock back, the bell tugged at the boy.
As the villagers arrived in the Square, they gathered in front of the platform. Everyone was trying to decipher the message of the crier. They were bursting with curiosity. Bewilderment gave way to excitement. Gabe’s heart ached with the anticipation.
General Writ and numerous guards stood off to the side, and as Phineas stepped up onto the platform, the bell quieted. The crowd was as silent and still as those mornings when ice has glassed over the world.
He simply said, “May I present to you, your king!” Angela squeezed Gabe’s hand. Could it be?