“We’re not deterring them. Their numbers remain steady. Maybe we’ve encouraged some to defect, but it’s not enough!” Vulpine railed at Phineas and Writ, who stood at attention before the throne. “Have you seen these?” He grabbed a page of the King’s law and crumpled it in his hand. His eyes were fixed on the paper and flared red hot. He contorted his face like the thing was putrid and dropped it like it was diseased.
“We’ve tried to control them through their money.” He spoke calmly now, his eyes fixed. “We’ve tried imprisonment, even death. Those bishops,” he snarled, “are loyal to the wrong king, and I won’t stand for it.”
He blinked and the life came back to his eyes. He scanned the men before him and steadied his focus on General Writ. “Send your men in as spies. You saved some loyal guards to remain without the mark, right?” The General gave a crisp nod.
“Have them find the meetings under the pretense of wanting to be a follower of that ancient man. They are to watch the meetings carefully and arrest the leaders. They are to be taken to the Square. We’ll have ourselves a bonfire.” Vulpine turned his attention to Phineas and nodded, setting him to action as if he had wound up his mechanical doll.
The servants were in action too. In the morning, John made his way to the inn to meet Gabe and Angela. Together they traversed the length of the village to Widow Jenkins’ house. Angela worked on cleaning the house while John made some repairs. Gabe sat by her side and read to her from the King’s law.
“Thank you,” she said to the three before they left. “I know my old body won’t last much longer, but I am thankful I lived long enough to hear those words and experience your kindness. Thank you.” Angela gave her a warm embrace before they left. She felt satisfied and wished the good feeling would remain.
Before heading home, they stopped by the lake to cool off. Splashing the water and laughing, the teens felt as free as children again. It was in this brightened moment that John had the impulse to try again to visit the prisoners. The jail was in sight but a distance away. Gabe and Angela agreed, with a flicker of hope that they might get the chance to see Father after a year and a half.
They chased each other along the bank of the lake and stumbled into each other as they reached the prison door. The guard who had at one time wanted to hear the King’s song was standing in front of the door.
Angela decided to ask the question. “Sir, do you think you could allow us, just this once, to visit with the prisoners?”
The guard looked forward and unblinkingly responded, “There are no prisoners.”
“My father’s in there,” Angela countered.
“There are no prisoners,” the unflinching guard repeated. Gabe tried. “Our father was arrested two winters ago. We know he hasn’t been released. There were at least a dozen others with him.” The guard didn’t answer.
Angela started to softly sing the King’s song. Quickly the guard turned to her. “Be silent. Your father and fourteen other prisoners were executed for refusing Vulpine’s mark. Their heads were chopped off and their bodies buried in a heap behind the prison. Now go from here quickly and don’t return.”
But they didn’t move at all. Their feet had turned leaden and their minds lost their direction. Angela suddenly felt like maybe she was dreaming, but a sharp “Go” from the guard made her bolt like a frightened kitten, just wanting to run to the nearest place to hide. She found it at the well and sat propped up against it, with her arms wrapped tightly around her knees. She buried her tear-streaked face in her arms.
The boys chased after her and slid down the well wall along with her, and sat on the dirt, dry and dusty from the scorching summer sun. No one spoke, but their thoughts were racing, tripping over each other, piling up like in a race when the lead runner goes down. The doubts, the fears, the unknowns, the realities came at them with a feverish pace. They were helpless, unable to just dig in their heels and make it all stop before it ended in tragedy.
As if to confirm every dark suspicion of what was to come, across the square, they spotted a large metal cage, three times the size Caleb’s had been. Two horses pulled the unsteady cart while four of Vulpine’s guards walked alongside, balancing the cage. When they reached the platform, the guards took axes to it and to the wooden frames as well, reducing it all to kindling. With great strain, the guards placed the bottomless cage over the pile of wood, its metal bars striping the sky beyond them. Satisfied with their job, the guards left, leading the horses and cart behind them.
John, Gabe and Angela stared at the oversized cage, its bars a web built to hold its prey. They moved toward it haltingly, like in a nightmare when you want to run but somehow you can only move slowly.
“How many people do you think they expect to round up in there?” Angela wished she hadn’t spoken.
“Let’s not talk about it,” Gabe replied with sadness in his voice. “Let’s be about the King’s business.” His eyes grew steady and his posture more confident.
Not a minute had passed when the bell resounded. “Now what’s going on?” Angela’s stomach was starting to feel like Gabe’s at Vulpine’s unveiling.
They found a shady place to sit and waited for the rest of the villagers to gather. The sun was high, promising another sweltering day. The three teens sat together in silence. Gabe once opened his mouth but shut it again without uttering a sound. John dozed off, physically and emotionally exhausted. Phineas’ raised voice woke him.
“My friends,” Phineas opened his arms to the awaiting crowd, “we have called you out this morning for an important reason. We need your help again. Traitors to the crown have been on the prowl. There are rumors of another attempt on Vulpine’s life.” Some in the audience gasped. John quickly turned to Gabe and mouthed, “Have you heard anything?” Gabe shook his head and formed a rounded “No” with his lips.
“I know it is the utmost concern of all our good and upright citizens to maintain the peace and unity of our village. These rascals want to steal these treasures from us. We won’t let them, will we?” Deep huts and huzzahs bellowed out from the pits of the men’s bellies.
“Once again we ask your help. Anyone refusing to attend the singing ceremony is a rebel! Tell us where the rebels meet. Also, his royal majesty King Vulpine has forbidden the production and distribution of literature. These thieving scoundrels have been spreading lies about our wise and noble king with their papers. Please gather any of these papers you find and throw them in there.” He pointed directly to the cage in the Square. “Tonight we’ll have a bonfire to celebrate our victory over these inferior weaklings who dare to consider standing up to our powerful king.”
The majority cheered as victors. The remainder, though scattered, spoke with one small voice in that moment. “The King will make a way.”
John, Angela and Gabe set off at a hectic pace. They stopped to talk with all of the servants, encouraging them to remember the King. They went from house to house, talked across fence rails, walked arm in arm. Everyone they could get a hold of they did, and their message was always the same—the King will make a way. At the same time, other villagers were giving names and locations to Vulpine’s guards, reporting on family members and neighbors. Mother was among them.
At the evening meeting, Gabe finally shared the news of the prisoners’ execution. The servants rallied around the newly widowed and fatherless. There were tears and laughter. There was a new man in attendance that was discomforted by the sight of their love and joy in the midst of pain and loss.
He listened as different servants shared lessons they had learned from the lives of those who had remained loyal to the King to their death. Gabe was proud that his father’s testimony of learning not to pay back evil with evil had had such an impact on others.
After the meeting, Gabe shook hands with the new man in attendance and welcomed him. He just shook Gabe’s hand, gave a nod and left. Gabe asked John if he knew who he was and where he had come from. John didn’t have a clue.
The man, Todd, shuffled down the dirt path. He had followed orders and found the meeting, but it wasn’t anything like he expected. There was no plotting to overturn Vulpine. It sounded like they wouldn’t swat a fly if it landed on their noses. He couldn’t figure out who the leader had been. They all had spoken in turn.
On the road ahead, he saw his colleagues escorting bound prisoners down the road. No one was fighting. He broke into a jog and caught up with a guard leading John’s father from Caleb’s home.
“Need any help?” Todd was eager to look like he was accomplishing something.
“Help? Does it look like it? Where’s your man?”
“I couldn’t make out a leader.”
The other guard laughed. “Did you forget our orders? Make an arrest. They want bodies. Don’t show yourself to the General without one.”
Like a cat pouncing, reality hit. He remembered the “do or die” way the order had been given. He had been sent to arrest the leader and had left without making an arrest. He became resolute that he couldn’t lose his job, or his head, no matter how nice these people were. Running back to the house, he saw Gabe and Angela walking home but decided he’d have to get someone who lived at the meeting house in order to be confident that he had someone worthwhile.
Breaking into a sprint, he tore up the path and with full force banged in through the front door, not stopping until he had shoved John to the ground. With a heavy boot pinning John to the floor, he bound John’s hands behind his back.
He hoisted John to his feet. “Are you taking me to the prison?” John asked stoically.
“No,” Todd said coolly. “I’m taking you to the Square.” He broke out in a nervous laugh, knowing John didn’t comprehend what was about to happen. As he led his captive out the door, he told him, “You’re going to the bonfire.”