Gabe’s mind was still on the King, and he again reasoned with his family why the King had to still be living. Gabe looked at his father with pleading eyes. His father took a deep breath and conceded. “I propose you, Gabe, go on a hike. Climb King’s Hill. See if the King is there. Is that what you want?”
The boy’s eyes brightened and his back straightened. “Yes, sir.”
“Good then. If the King is dead, he won’t be there. Then we’ll know that the law was a nice idea thought up by the King who gave us our village, and he just died before he could do what he wrote there. If the King is there…well, that’s unlikely, as he’s dead, but I understand your need to put the question to rest for yourself.”
“No one goes up King’s Hill. Ever. It’s always been off limits.” Mother’s flustered words revealed her concern over the planned adventure. “It was set apart for the King’s use. I heard Phineas Tract declare that the hill would be kept forever as a monument for the King, and it was to be undisturbed. You know they keep it guarded.”
“If the guard won’t let him past, well, at least he tried,” Father offered as consolation.
“I’ll go in the morning.” It was decided.
Gabe was awake before dawn, trying to decide what qualified as morning so that he could get up and begin his expedition. He napped fitfully, listening for the sounds that would announce the day, but it was a smell that roused him. Mother’s sleep had flitted away as well, and she rose extra early to prepare a raisin loaf for her son. She didn’t like the idea of her son going off into the unknown. She always felt best when her family was all under the protective roof of their inn. She wrestled with her thoughts as she wrestled with the dough. “Worrying won’t help a thing,” she kept telling herself, the repetition soothing her.
Gabe followed the scent trail to the kitchen and eagerly gathered up the warm bread and hard cheese his mother set before him. “I’ll eat on the path. I need to get going.” His mother made no response, a statue gracing their kitchen. “I won’t be long. I can be to the top in an hour if I go quickly,” he added, trying to assuage her concerns. She nodded, slightly. He nodded back.
Gabe struck out east on the dirt road that ran from the Village Square to King’s Hill. Even though the hill was just a few stone throws away from the inn, he felt like a pioneer—adventurous and alone. He had been alone before, but it felt different this time; it felt brave and unsure. Overriding his paradoxical emotions was just one thought, If I see the King, what will I say to him?
He reached the foot of the hill without having prepared an opening line. A toad landed on his left foot, distracting him from his thoughts. The toad hopped off just beyond him, and the natural impulse of a ten-year-old boy to try and catch it overpowered him. He lunged for it. Missed. Again. Drat. He crouched down low like a lioness ready to pounce. He waited until the toad was least suspecting. Gotcha!
“King’s Hill is off limits. What are you doing here?” The guard demanded answers from the boy sprawled on the ground. Gabe held up the toad.
“Just trying to catch my toad.” The reply slipped off his tongue. Well, it is my toad now. I caught him. He assured himself of the truth of the statement. The toad, without a sound, made a desperate attempt for escape and leapt to freedom. As if by reflex, Gabe again launched himself toward the toad. The guard snorted and retreated to his post. Gabe kept up the maneuvers until the guard was safely settled back in his guard box, comfortably seated on his stool. Gabe thanked the toad for his help and made his way into the cover of the pines.
The encounter with the toad had relaxed him, and instead of trying to figure out what to say to the King, he explored his surroundings. Hidden among the dense needles of the pines, Gabe felt safe. He crouched and examined mushrooms, pine cones, rocks and beetles. Finding himself at the foot of an evergreen with low sweeping branches, he ducked underneath. Next to the trunk, he was able to stand up and move around. Imagining himself barricaded inside a fort, he opened his pack and dug into his rations.
Tasting the sweet raisins his mother had folded into his bread—a special treat for a special occasion—reminded him of his word to her that he wouldn’t be long. He refocused on his task. Climb the hill. Find the King’s home. And…He didn’t know what came next. Okay. One step at a time. On his feet again, he raised his eyes and started to climb purposefully.
It was cold in the cover of the forest, the sun still low in the sky as Gabe walked through the trees. His eyes leapt to each movement in the forest. The animals, not accustomed to humans, bolted before Gabe, who couldn’t catch a glimpse of any of them. He saw branches bend, heard leaves rustle, but the animals remained hidden.
The sun climbed higher, matching Gabe’s achievement. Gabe soon came out of the pine forest and for the first time laid eyes on the summit. He wasn’t sure what he thought. He realized he had no idea what to expect. He had heard the King lived in a golden palace.
A deer appeared from among the pines, and Gabe froze, hoping not to scare it away so he could watch it. The forest animals never dared to visit the village, and he was fascinated by this unusual sight. Gabe, with minute movements, slowly slipped down onto one knee in the dewy grass. The buck moved regally toward Gabe. Closer. Closer. Gabe was astonished, electrified by this steadily approaching creature. Closer. Closer. He wasn’t sure if he should be scared, except that he didn’t feel fear. He felt awe. The buck stopped next to him, his powerful antlers declaring his dominance on the hill. Gabe gradually stretched his legs and straightened until he reached his full height and found himself looking into the eyes of the buck.
The magnificent creature turned and advanced across the hill. He paused. His towering trophy turned, and the buck looked again into the boy’s eyes. He gave his antlers a shake and was off again, crossing and climbing the hillside. Gabe began to follow. Is this buck escorting me? The procession led in and out of bushes and other trees, but this time the animals didn’t run. Rabbits, foxes, squirrels, mice, beavers, badgers…the animals came out from hiding and lined the parade route. A hawk settled on a tree. A cardinal in another. A nightingale. The boy gaped as a great brown bear lumbered out.
Gabe, the pioneer, the adventurer, the explorer, was certainly in uncharted waters now. He wasn’t afraid though. It was exhilarating. Some of the animals began to fall in line and trail behind Gabe. With each step Gabe grew taller, more confident; he felt like he was king of the forest, king of the hill.
All at once the procession halted. Gabe tripped on the buck’s left hind leg and fell. No matter. All of the animals had their heads on the ground—bowing. What is happening? Gabe peeled his face off the ground and looked up. The King stood before him.
Gabe scrambled to his feet and then froze. The King. The King. They were the only words spinning through his mind. The King. The King. Only seconds passed before the magnitude of the moment struck him. He sank to the ground and bowed, following the animals’ example, and trembled.
“Welcome, Gabe. I’ve been waiting for you. I’m glad to see the toad and buck have done their jobs well.” The King’s voice was strong and calm, a kind voice but one that demanded respect. Gabe’s body remained unmoving, but his mind raced. He knows my name. The toad and buck did their jobs? The toad from this morning? What job?
The King smiled and turned his back to Gabe. The animals raised themselves and frolicked and frisked their way back to their homes. “Join me.” Gabe recognized the King’s invitation as a command. He lifted his head and saw the King moving steadily toward a cave. Gabe jumped to his feet and walked in the King’s footsteps.
Gabe gawked as they approached the King’s home, amazed the King lived in a cave, but as he entered, his surprise grew further. The King took his place on the throne, and Gabe stood before him, twisting and turning to take in the glittering eyeful. The King sat quietly and let the boy have his fill of the room. Gabe’s gaze found its way back to the King, and he hung his head in shame for staring so intently at everything. He could hear his mother scolding him for being so nosy.
“Why don’t you look around? Feel free to touch anything you like and to ask questions if you find something interesting.” The King seemed to know just what Gabe had been feeling and lifted his shame. Gabe moved uneasily at first, afraid he’d be clumsy and break something, but soon his worries evaporated like the morning dew on the hill, and he freely explored the cave.
It didn’t seem like a cave, though. Gabe touched the wall. This isn’t rock. It looks like gold. “The walls of the cave are covered with gold,” the King responded to his ponderings. Gabe nodded, astonished again at the King’s ability to know just what he was thinking. Fixed in the wall were twelve jewels, forming a semi-circle around the throne, which stood in the center of the room. Gabe fingered one. I might as well ask. He probably already knows I want to. Gabe cleared his throat. The King patiently waited. Gabe cleared his throat again.
“What type of stone is this?” Gabe held his breath.
“Emerald. And that’s sapphire. Ruby. Diamond.” The King pointed to the different precious stones and named them all. The throne is made from gold, so are the steps leading up to the throne.”
Gabe just nodded. What could he say? He lived in a wooden house with wooden tables and chairs. He ate out of a wooden bowl with a wooden spoon. Here, his surroundings were surreal.
He made his way around the back of the throne and saw that there was one wooden object there, a cabinet. Examining it up close, Gabe realized the carvings in the wood were scenes from the village. He ran his finger through the crevices, tracing the Square, the Hall, the school yard, the inn. It was all there. Inside the cabinet was a single dish, a plate of pearl circumscribed with gold.
This time it was easier to ask. “Why is there only one plate here?” He all at once felt foolish. Only one person lives here. Why would there be more than one plate? Stupid.
The King answered gently. “That plate has been reserved for a special guest.”
“Oh” was all Gabe responded.
“A guest from the village.” The King was smiling broadly. “Why don’t you take it out and have a closer look?” The King was enjoying himself.
Gabe delicately lifted the latch on the door, and it swung open. With extreme caution, he lifted the brittle looking plate off its stand. It was more elegant than fancy, holding no design apart from its trim. Gabe cautiously turned it over in his hands. Etched in gold on the back was his name, Gabriel. “My name.” The whispered words escaped in his astonishment.
The King began to laugh now. “You’re the special guest. I had the plate prepared for you.”
He cradled the plate in his arms, just as he had Tabitha when she was first born. They both felt smooth and fragile. He gingerly made his way around the throne. He stood again before the King, and then, without being conscious of making a decision, decided to sit and stay awhile. He folded his knees beneath him and sat at the King’s feet. The plate rested in his lap. His eyes rested on the plate. Finally, he blurted out his question, “Why?”
“I’m always prepared to feed those who seek me.” The King’s answer was an enigma to Gabe, but he decided not to ask any further questions. In the wonder of the morning, Gabe had forgotten entirely his original purpose in coming. As he sat silently before the King, it all started to come back to him.
“They said you were dead.” He plunged into his story, and the rest flowed as steady as a river into the sea. The King listened patiently. “And, I don’t know, I just couldn’t rest until I found you. They didn’t think I would find you, but somehow I just knew you would be here. No one else believes you are alive, but I knew you just had to be.” Gabe had been talking to the floor. He looked up and his heart melted. He understands me. He loves me. Unthinking, he flung himself at the King’s feet. The plate crashed to the floor and fractured into three pieces. Gabe wrapped his arms around the King’s legs, and crying, he clung fast, sure he would never let go.
The King let him stay there, wet and clingy. Finally, Gabe, quieted and calmed, released his vice grip and sat up. He stared at the plate and felt ashamed again. The King stood and walked down the steps that led to his throne. He bent and picked up the pieces, held them together for a moment and then handed the plate to Gabe, whole.
This time Gabe was speechless for a whole new reason; he was flabbergasted. Stunned, he stammered, “I…I…I’m sorry I broke the plate.”
“Already fixed and forgotten.” The King’s light remark removed Gabe’s shame. “Now, let me tell you more about this plate.” The King spoke as he took his place again on his throne. Gabe settled in once more at the King’s feet with the plate this time on the floor beside him. “This plate is my invitation to you to come and sup with me, anytime.” Gabe smiled. “Sup with us” was just how his mother would say it, inviting in friends or strangers for a meal. “Come to me whenever you like, and I will see that you are never hungry.”
Gabe felt full. “Could I come back tomorrow?” The King smiled and nodded.
Gabe placed his plate back onto its stand, his sign that he was always welcome to visit the King. He scuttled toward the door but stopped short of it. “Thank you,” he said simply and ducked out the door without saying goodbye. He hadn’t felt a need to. He’d be back tomorrow.