Spring thawed the patches of snow remaining around the village but not the hate that had begun to permeate the hearts of everyone who bore Vulpine’s “V”—hate directed at everyone who didn’t.
Marked villagers began refusing to sell anything to the servants, the bare backs of their hands showing their disloyalty to Vulpine. Many of the servants were farmers and were thankful they still could provide food for their families and the other servants, but they were no longer allowed to sell their produce in the market.
The servants who had once bought and sold now gave and received. They borrowed from each other freely and offered to each other everything they could spare and some things they couldn’t.
When there was a need that couldn’t be met among them, there were still plenty of Vulpine loyalists who were willing to make an unfair trade for the item, and one of the servants would find something of value to sacrifice in order to help out their family, as that’s what the servants considered each other.
Too many, like Gabe, had flesh and blood family members that mocked or scolded them for their disloyalty to Vulpine. Others, like Caleb, had the joy of living in a home where everyone served the King together.
Although the servants were quick to help and were learning to put each other first, they were still sure the King was helping in many ways as well. One older man with wispy white hair whose cheeks folded over themselves when he smiled loved to tell the others of the time the King had brought his wife dinner. He had been in prison and his wife had been left home alone. One day, she had run out of food but decided to sit down at the table at mealtime just the same. When she went to sit down, she heard a knock at the door. She opened it to find a roast chicken, as plump and savory as she had ever tasted, just sitting there on a platter in front of the door with not a soul in sight. Whenever he told the story, he ended it with a belly laugh and a slap on the thigh.
Some abandoned the meetings for fear of reprisal—they were being bullied, or worse, bloodied. Those servants who remained, grew daily in their understanding of the King’s watchful eye and ever caring heart towards them. They also grew in their understanding of the King’s law and followed it more closely than ever, always encouraging each other with their stories of failure and restoration as the King had made a way for them.
Gabe’s father was always ready to share his story of how he had tried to fight back for the King and had almost lost his life. He never hesitated to share the lesson he learned and to embolden others not to take revenge.
Father had his new conviction tested one day walking home at sunset when it still was cold enough to see your breath. A few teenage boys were skulking behind a stone wall, lying in wait for one of the servants to pass. Father was the unfortunate one to walk past first. A rock pelted him behind his left ear and laughter erupted from behind the stones. Father paused momentarily, putting his hand on the wound. There was blood on his hand when he pulled it away. He kept walking without trying to see who had done it. The boys wanted to get a reaction out of him and weren’t going to stop until they had had their thrill. More stones pegged their target, but Father just walked steadily on, not allowing the urge to retaliate to come over him. He had learned his lesson well.
Slowly, it seemed everyone was turning against the servants. The door guard at the jail, when faced with losing his job, took Vulpine’s mark. He told Gabe that he was no longer allowed to visit the prisoners, which included Father that week. He also told Gabe and John that the prisoners would not be released until they received Vulpine’s mark. Gabe told the other servants the news during the meetings that evening. He played the messenger going from house to house, bringing one more piece of bad news to the weary servants.
John’s house was his last destination. He came upon Mrs. Bollix’s brother-in-law on his way to the meeting. They walked together until Gabe noticed a “V” blazoned on the back of his right hand. Gabe froze like a deer listening for danger in the woods.
“You have Vulpine’s mark,” he blurted out, not taking his eyes off the tattoo.
“I had to take it. How was I supposed to carry on with my business if no one would buy from me or sell to me?” the man answered in a defensive tone.
Gabe peeled his eyes off his hand and was speechless at first. He shook his head and said, “The King would have made a way. You can’t join us tonight at the meeting.”
The man was offended. “This mark doesn’t mean I don’t serve the King.”
Gabe spoke with a firm voice and sorrowful eyes. “Yes, it does. It means you serve Vulpine. You have chosen to serve the wrong king. Only servants of the true King can come to the meetings and gather around the table.”
“Who are you to say?” The angry response came, but he didn’t try and follow Gabe. He turned around in a huff and walked away.
Gabe let out a deep breath and slipped quietly in the door when he arrived at John’s house. He sat down with the others and listened in as they talked about the new developments at the jail. Gabe was thankful John had already delivered the news. He knew the changes at the prison would be a devastating blow to the morale of the servants, and he would much rather bring encouragement.
“How many of you had only the visits and the reading of the King’s law to look forward to each day in prison?” asked a teenage boy. “Now they’re gone. What will keep them from going crazy in that black pit?”
“They have each other,” Emily responded. “They’ll encourage each other. Do we know who’s in there this week?”
“My wife is in there,” said a young man at the table. “When she was arrested, I wasn’t even that upset. It wasn’t the first time, and we had always been able to count on Saturday releases, even if Sunday they just arrested more. Now, I don’t know if I’ll ever see my wife again.”
Gabe was empathetic. “My father is in prison now too.” Then Gabe added his familiar encouragement, “The King will make a way.” John’s father spoke to the group at his home that night. He read a portion of the King’s law: “The King is a refuge and a shield to those who trust him. He will save them from harm, and they will not fear the terrors of night, the arrow by day, nor pestilence or plague. He will send his punishment on the village, but he will protect those who love him.”
John’s father laid down his copy of the law and looked at each face before him.
“Do you love the King? He tells us that we love him by obeying the commands he gave us. If you are obeying the commands you know, then you can know you are protected. Do you trust the King? Then you won’t let fear into your hearts. It doesn’t matter what happens. Vulpine could order us all arrested, or killed. Vulpine could order another sickness from the new doctor. It doesn’t matter. Above it all, the King is in control and can save us from harm as the law says.
“I remember John telling me how Gabe first tried to explain these things to him. They had just been to visit the prison. It had been John’s first experience of the dark and the smell and the feeling of finality when the door locked shut. Afterwards, Gabe taught John about how the King makes a way for his servants. He said that didn’t mean never being arrested. He pointed out how he had seen joy on the faces of the prisoners. The King had made a way for them to be okay. We may want to see it as harm to be arrested, or whatever else we’ll have to face, but knowing that the King gives us peace and joy takes the sting out of whatever they can try to do to us.
“Remember that the true harm is what those with Vulpine’s mark face every day. Don’t you see it? How their hearts are turning to stone? It’s like their hearts and minds have been poisoned. That’s true harm, and I am thankful I have been saved from it.”
Angela smiled at his calm reassurance. John’s heart grew full to see her at peace like that. The spring months had gone by in a blur of early mornings and late nights for Angela. As Tabitha grew more proficient at the work around the inn, Angela was able to spend more time helping Gabe and the other servants. She worked from dawn to dusk and in the evenings joined the other servants to gain strength for the next day.
The only break in the routine came at the beginning of summer on a warm June day when Sally Bollix married. Angela, at fifteen, was just a year younger than Sally. Angela didn’t join in the festive spirit of the celebration. Feeling pensive, she kept to herself. Standing alone and watching the ceremony with its music and dancing, flowers and laughter, she thought of John. She had heard his mother make a comment or two about Angela turning sixteen in the coming winter. She was thinking Angela and John would marry. Angela watched Sally’s groom take her away and pondered what she would have to give up if she had a groom come and take her away.
The days flashed by seemingly without beginning or end. No more arrests were made. Vulpine just left the pressure on those remaining in the prison to take the mark or rot in the dank jail. The rest of the servants had the heavy burden of living in a place where each day, someone new turned against them.
Over the winter, Gabe and Angela celebrated their sixteenth birthdays together. In the spring, John spent a week helping Mother with repairs around the inn since Father was still in prison indefinitely. Mother told Angela that John was “a fine man.” Angela couldn’t keep her face from flushing at the mention of his name. Yet from time to time, Angela would look at him and ponder the same question, What would I have to give up if I let him take me away?