“Father!” John shouted across the confusion. John was in the square with Todd firmly holding his left arm. His father’s eyes searched until they found their target—his son. His heart stopped. He gasped and gave himself a shake to pull himself together. The guard thought he was trying to escape and struck his stomach. His breath left him. Again he gasped and this time, in stillness, garnered the fortitude to face his son.
Todd stopped in front of the cage, and John stood next to his father. “This thing is what I told you about earlier.” John had to use his chin to point to the menacing cage that loomed behind them. “Do you know what’s going on?” John watched one of the guards throw copies of the King’s law into the cage.
His father hadn’t answered and John kept talking. “So, that’s what this bonfire is about? They’re burning all our copies of the King’s law. Don’t they know we’ll just make more? Why the big show?”
Todd moved to face John. “Listen, the bonfire is for you. They don’t need bars to hold the papers, do they?”
John’s face scrunched in a quizzical expression. He turned to his father who was looking straight at him with a deadly serious expression. Realization dawned. For the longest moment, they just stared at each other. They weren’t blank stares, though. They were expressing to each other a lifetime’s worth of ‘I love you’ and ‘I’m proud of you.’
“Like father, like son, right?” John tried to laugh off the knowledge of his fate.
Gabe and Angela came running across the square. Another one of the servants had rushed to the inn to tell them what was happening. They headed straight for John.
Catching her breath, Angela started bombarding John with questions. “How did you end up here? What’s going on? What are they going to do to you?”
“I was arrested after you left. Go home now, Angela. I’ll be okay. The King will make a way.”
Gabe learned from John’s father what was going on at the bonfire that night, and he told Angela. Shocked, she looked up at John and saw in his eyes that he knew the truth too. “John—”
“Angela, no. It’s okay. I told the King yesterday I was going to serve him until I died. I’m going to keep my promise. I’m at his service, and tomorrow you’ll serve him just as today.” John’s voice was solid, and his eyes showed more concern for Angela than for himself.
Angela tried to speak as she held back her tears. John didn’t need to hear it; he could see it in her eyes. She finally managed to whisper, “I love you.” John took a step toward her but was jerked back by Todd.
Gabe put his arm around Angela and started to lead her away from the scene. With a final glance back at John, Angela was escorted part way across the square. Gabe found a friend to walk with her back to the inn and returned to the cage. He wanted to be there to ensure there would be an honest account of what took place. He spoke to each of the seven men, bound and lined up in front of the dark enclosure, praising them for their bravery, assuring them that their sacrifice was worth the cost and encouraging them to remember the King in their last moments.
One of guards shooed him away like a pesky puppy sniffing at his heels. Gabe retreated into the shadows of the shops. He wanted to run away and hide but determined to stand his ground.
Music began playing. How can you celebrate such an event? Gabe felt queasy. Phineas took his place beside the cage, and shouted out to the gathering, “Bring all the illegal papers you found to help us light the bonfire!”
A line formed, an ever-shifting centipede, a hundred legs taking little steps forward, bringing copies of the King’s law. Everyone took part, children asking their parents if they could be the ones to throw the papers onto the pile. Phineas congratulated them on their successful efforts to end the illegal distribution.
The seven men started quoting the King’s law out loud. Neither the guards, nor those tossing in the papers, recognized their words. With each phrase, peace filled their hearts and minds and strengthened their resolve to face the hour with dignity.
Then one woman heard their words and pointing accusingly, shouted to Phineas, “Those are the filthy words! They are saying what’s on these papers!” Phineas turned to General Writ who issued the orders for the cage to be opened and the prisoners thrown in. Phineas couldn’t risk word getting back to Vulpine that he had allowed the King’s law to be taught at the bonfire!
Two guards leaned over and lifted the front wall of the cage. The hinges screamed with the movement. No one fought their escort as the guards shoved them into their final prison. With a screech, the door was released. It crashed closed, and the heavy bang reverberated back and forth across the square before being swallowed up by the night.
“Light the fire!” Writ’s order sent shivers down Gabe’s spine. He looked at his feet. A torch was thrown into the cage which easily sent the papers into a blaze. Some in the crowd were yelling, urging the flames on, when a soulful note sounded. Gabe knew instantly what was happening. John had begun to sing the King’s song. At first, the others suffering the heat didn’t join in the song, such was the power of those first notes.
Then John looked to his father; he joined in and the others followed. The seven men with deep, full voices sang of their love for the King and the King’s love for them. A woman watching the inferno rage slipped the papers she held into her blouse, grateful Phineas had stopped her before she had abetted this crime. She felt the power of the words and wanted to know them for herself. She excused herself and hurried home, dragging her four-year-old by the wrist.
The men melted like wax to the floor of the cage, hidden in the golden glow of the flames; their song was finished.
Gabe took a detour on his way back to the inn. Thinking of John, he jumped the fence lining his family’s corn field. It was incomprehensible to think only yesterday he had stood here speaking with John. Following John’s example, uninhibited, he spoke to the King.
“Where were you tonight? Where are you ever? Where have you gone?” All the long days, the beatings, the deaths, the imprisonments, the closures, the secrecy, the bonfire; any of it and all of it finally overwhelmed him in that moment of questioning. He roared into the night sky and tears raced each other from both corners of his eyes. They slipped and sledded down his cheeks, streaking his face and dripping steadily off his chin. He ignored it all; his focus was on the King.
“You promised to come back to us down here one day. I know you are coming. Why not now? Why not tonight? What are you doing? Why are you letting all this happen? I want to talk with you! I love your words, your law, but I love you too, and I want to see you again! I want to be at your feet!”
His gut was twisted in knots. He flopped down in the grass and rolled onto his back, spent. He gazed into the starry night sky and started to doze off. He startled himself awake with a jerk of his limbs. Calmed, he struck up his conversation again.
“I’m sorry, King. I know I will see you again. You made the way for me to see you in the first place. You will make a way again. And you made a way tonight for those men. They weren’t afraid. Somehow you kept them at peace. They didn’t cry out in pain. They sang your song. You made a way. You always make a way.”