Robert was obviously nervous, watching over his shoulder and hunching into his cloak. Gabe tried to point out the sun reflecting off the water which shone in the waning afternoon sun, but Robert didn’t seem to hear or notice. Gabe whispered to John, asking him to take the food in alone. John nodded and left Gabe and Robert by the lake.
The day was sunny and without wind, though winter’s chill still found its way under their skin as they sat watching the light on the still lake. It was too cold for the children to play by its shores now, and the men, young and old, were alone.
Gabe knew the King could relieve Robert of whatever heavy burden he was obviously carrying, so Gabe broke the silence with talk of the King. He talked on his favorite subject, the King’s love. Gabe was watching the lake slowly change from silver to gold as he told about the King’s ability to take away burdens and didn’t even glance toward Robert until he heard him softly say no.
He was shaking his head. “No, you’re wrong. There is no love for me. I worked for Hate and Selfishness himself. There is no love for me. I deserve to die, and I will die. No, I don’t deserve love.”
Gabe wished he knew what Robert was talking about. He was sure that the King could remove any burden, so he told Robert again of the King’s great love.
Robert listened intently and wanted to believe him. “Tell me. Tell me everything from the beginning. Tell me everything about the King. I don’t have much time. This is my last chance to know.”
John walked up to the two and felt like he was interrupting something, even though the two sat for the moment in silence. Looking up at John, Gabe took a deep breath and said, “We should get going before the sun is down.” He rose to his feet and helped Robert up. “It all started with a toad.”
John laughed to himself, remembering Gabe giving him the same talk in the same place. Robert kept his head down as they walked and instead of acting distracted and agitated, he kept his attention on Gabe’s words.
Gabe continued talking with Robert when they reached John’s house. The time slipped by and soon Angela had joined them for the evening meeting. John took a seat next to her at the table. Other servants arrived, and Gabe introduced Robert to everyone, though he couldn’t bring himself to use his name. He was warmly welcomed by all the servants until Caleb entered and froze at the table’s edge.
Gabe stood uneasily when he noticed Caleb’s grim expression. “Caleb, why are you here? Is everything okay?”
Gabe was wondering why Caleb had left the meeting in his home to come and stare at Robert.
Caleb broke his stare and answered Gabe. “Okay? Thanks to the King everything is okay. But thanks to him,” Caleb said and pointed at Robert, who had no idea who this man was, “my youngest son could have died today. Why are you here? Do you even know who I am?” Caleb wasn’t yelling, but the usual lightness in his voice had faded to black.
Robert’s confusion lifted, and he asked, “Are you the man Phineas refused entrance?” The servants looked at each other with raised eyebrows, asking each other if they knew what had happened. They shrugged their shoulders and shook their heads and waited to see how the drama would unfold.
“That was me. Weren’t you there?”
“I was there. I’m sorry he locked you out. I wanted to help. I…I’m sorry. I was too consumed in my troubles to fight Phineas for your sake. Your son’s okay?”
Caleb released his frustration and let the King remove its weight. He hung his head.
“I’m sorry too. I am glad to see you here. Are you really here to seek the King?”
Robert’s heart leapt with joy. “I am. And I can’t believe you are welcoming me here. Then it’s really true. Everything Gabe told me about the King is true if you can stand there and forgive me just like that. The boy. Your boy. Tell me what happened.”
The servants’ hearts rejoiced as they watched Robert welcomed into their number and as they heard Caleb’s remarkable tale.
“He’s our youngest. He was playing in the barn and fell and cut his head open on a plowshare. He screamed, and I came running to find him bleeding badly from the head. I could see the deep opening in his forehead. I scooped him up and started running. My wife is in prison this week along with my eldest son, but I called out to my other children that I was going to the doctor and would be back. I didn’t stop to tell them. I just hollered over my shoulder as I was running past the house.
“My boy stopped screaming, but he looked so scared that it scared me. I got to the doctor’s, and it was locked. I just started crazy-like kicking at the door. It opens and who comes out but Phineas. I was startled by that and stepped back instead of trying to just push my way in the open door. He asked me if I was loyal to Vulpine and asked to see my mark. When I had to tell him I didn’t have a mark, he said nothing, just slipped back in the door and locked it.
“I was stunned. I was really stunned. I didn’t know what to do. My arms were so heavy from carrying my boy, but he looked asleep at that point. So I just headed home, the whole time saying, ‘The King will make a way,” over and over to myself. Halfway back, I noticed his head wasn’t bleeding anymore. When I got home, he still looked asleep. I got a wet rag and wiped away the blood on his forehead. It startled him awake, but I was even more surprised because the wound was gone. There wasn’t any cut. There wasn’t anything on his forehead.”
Everyone was in awe.
“I don’t know how, but I know the King did it. He made the way for my son to heal when the doctor didn’t.” Caleb looked at Robert when he spoke but showed no signs of being upset. “And why did he turn me away for not having Vulpine’s mark? Is that a new law?”
Robert was the best qualified to answer. “It’s not law yet, but it will be. Right now, certain people have been told to discriminate against those without the mark in order to encourage more people to take it.”
“Why do they want people to have the mark? Why is it important?” Caleb asked Robert, who everyone had now realized had a lot more knowledge about what Vulpine was doing than the rest of them.
Robert sighed. “Eventually, everyone will be marked, either by showing their allegiance by wearing the ‘V’ tattoo, or by showing their disloyalty by not. Then Vulpine can move to rid the village of all traitors.”
John saw Angela’s face crease with concern. He reached over and laid his hand on top of hers to reassure her. She held her breath until he took his hand away. She let her eyes wander to look at him. His gentle, kind eyes smoothed the lines on her face, but she quickly put her focus back on Robert. John was still looking at Angela when Robert added, “And I will be the first to go.”
John turned sharply at the comment to look at Robert. “Why?”
Robert looked weary, his eyes still showing the burden he was carrying. “Let’s eat. Maybe later I can answer your question.”
Everyone agreed, and Caleb finally returned to his home where other servants were gathered for a meeting.
Robert didn’t have much appetite and several around the table noticed he had barely touched his food. No one pushed him to have more. They could all see he was troubled.
After the meal, Gabe spoke, as always, about the King’s love for the villagers and shared about the King’s law of forgiveness. “No matter how many times your friend has to come to you to say he’s sorry, you are to forgive him. Think of all the King has forgiven us. We deserve to die according to his law because we all spent years not obeying any of it, but he pardoned each of us when we began following him. He is so merciful and understanding of our failings. As long as we are still seeking him and desiring to live by his law, he will help us to know his law and will help us follow it. If he can do all that for us, we can forgive each other for any wrong.”
Robert’s heart burned within him at Gabe’s words. He had believed him about the King’s love, and now forgiveness? Yes, he decided he could believe the King would forgive him, especially as he was prepared to give his life instead of following Vulpine. But he wondered if these people could forgive him? It would be the ultimate test of the truth of their words.
When Gabe finished, he looked at Robert and raised his eyebrows. Robert nodded and stood before the group. “Can you forgive? That’s the question I want to ask you. I was asked why I believed I was going to be the first from among you to be killed for not taking the mark. Phineas was in my office today giving me an ultimatum, take the mark or die. He could do that because I am part of a group of villagers who had pledged themselves to serve Vulpine. We have met for years to scheme to place him on the throne. And at his bidding, I have participated in much evil.” The shock of the confession sent whispers around the room.
“I couldn’t bear his ways any longer and refused the mark. I know Vulpine will see to it that I don’t live out the week, if not the day. I know the man well.”
Gabe looked around the room trying to catch everyone’s eyes and finally spoke for the group. “We forgive you for your part in helping Vulpine. We are so happy you have realized your error and have come to learn about the King. He teaches us to love our enemies, so we welcome you here, though we don’t consider you an enemy now.”
Gabe had hoped to see light come into the haunted eyes, but they remained darkened. Robert shook his head. “You don’t understand what I’ve done. You don’t know or you wouldn’t be so quick to forgive, and you could never forget.”
Gabe looked at the other servants, all equally unaware of what the doctor was hiding. He sat down and waited for Robert to speak.
“The virus.” Robert spoke the words looking straight at Gabe. Again, confused looks shot around the room. The servants shook their heads, not understanding. “The virus that killed close to two hundred people last winter. I created it.”
The servants still weren’t understanding and looked intently at Robert to uncover his meaning. He continued to speak, now with his head down, surprising everyone by his display of weakness.
“Vulpine wanted to create fear in the village so that the villagers would want a leader, a king that they could look to for protection. He asked me if I could create a virus that would spread through the village and kill many in order to create the fear he needed to become king. I had pledged to serve him and unthinkingly unleashed the destroyer on all of you last winter.”
In the silence that followed, realization began to dawn among the servants. It was hard for any of them to fathom his story to be true, yet there was no reason to doubt him. Gabe quickly looked around the room. Was anyone angry? Was anyone ready to strike out at Robert?
John’s father was the first to speak. “This is my home you’ve been welcomed into.” His voice was calm, betraying no emotion. “Last winter, I lost a son to that virus. He died in this very home. But I still welcome you.”
Tears sprang into Robert’s eyes as he looked up, disbelieving the grace just offered him.
John saw the good doctor’s brokenness and wanted to help in mending it. “I lost a brother to the virus, and I welcome you here with us.”
John’s mother, Emily, spoke quietly. “I lost a son, and I welcome you.”
An elderly man spoke. “I lost my wife, and I welcome you.”
A young lady spoke. “I lost a friend, and I welcome you.”
Each servant took a turn, helping to restore the fragile figure before them. When everyone had spoken, Gabe took the last turn. “You’ve been forgiven, Robert.” Gabe had called him by name. Robert looked Gabe in the eyes, and Gabe saw that light had replaced the darkness and peace had replaced the burden. He had found what he had been searching for.