It took almost half an hour for the drunken man to plunge into a stupor. The village lay deathly still. Taking Tabitha by the hand, Father led the way outside, removing his family from the protection of the inn. They were aghast. The village looked like a forest after loggers had come through. It had been ripped, torn, tossed, tumbled, shaken, crushed, knocked down, as if it had been the pins and the hail had rolled a strike.
“I’m going to take a look around the inn. You three just stay here.” Father began inspecting their property and disappeared around a corner of the inn.
“Where’s Mother?” Tabitha whined.
“She’ll be home in a minute.” Angela tried to sound confident.
A woman screamed. Three heads snapped in the direction of their neighbors. “I’m going to help.” Gabe sprinted past the edge of the inn and leapt over the wood pile which had been a fence surrounding the Bollix property. The fence had been built to keep out danger, but it had failed to thwart the storm.
“Mrs. Bollix? Where are you? What’s wrong?” He stopped to listen. Sobs. Gabe took off toward the barn. One glance through the open door told the story. He went numb. Mrs. Bollix rocked back and forth; her body convulsed with sobbing. Mr. Bollix lay motionless under heavy rafters, a portion of the barn roof now missing where it had once used its strength to shelter. Light poured in from the collapsed roof; the sun went on shining, acting as if nothing had happened.
“Mrs. Bollix, I…” Gabe’s words caught in his throat. What could he say? “I’m sorry” was all he could manage. Some help I’m being.
Mrs. Bollix slowed her rocking and for the first time acknowledged her company. “There’s nothing you could have done to help. He was dead by the time I found him.” A torrent of tears started up again.
Gabe was at a loss. What can I do? What could I have done? I warned him it would be a bad storm and told him to stay inside. Guilt crept up from the base of his spine until the weight of it caused his head to hang in shame. He could have told him about the King and his words.
“Mrs. Bollix?” She didn’t respond. Gabe went to her and knelt at her side. “Mrs. Bollix?” She slowly calmed herself again and turned and looked at him with vacant eyes.
“Mrs. Bollix, I’m sorry because I knew the storm was coming, and I knew it would be bad, and I didn’t tell your husband and warn him ahead of time. It’s my fault.”
“What are you talking about? No one knew a hailstorm was coming. You saw how fast it came on. You couldn’t have done anything.”
“I did know. The King told me. The King, the King of our village is alive, and he knew, and he told me.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. Leave me in peace here. My head is throbbing, and you’re talking like a madman.”
Unsure of what to say or do, he started toward the door. “I’ll ask my father to come help.” He spoke to the hay and ducked outside. He ran back to the inn. No one waited out front anymore. He went inside trying to find someone. Betty was no longer in the dining hall. He heard a voice in the kitchen. Mother?
He pushed forcefully on the door causing it to slap back hard in the opposite direction. His mother was at the table pouring out her story.
“The wind was blowing strong, and I had my bag full of vegetables. I thought of Gabe and decided to come right home. But I wasn’t fast enough, and hail started to rain down while I was still in the Square. Did you see the hail? They were huge balls. I was running and running to get to the Hall. I saw the wind rip the banner right off the roof before I ducked inside. I waited there for the storm to end, but after a bit, a hail stone the size of a melon came crashing through the roof! I’m not exaggerating. It’s the truth. It broke through the roof, but not only that, it landed right on the glass case that holds the King’s law book. It shattered the case, completely destroyed it. Lord Vulpine was there, and he picked up the law book right away, which I thought showed a lot of care, and he told me to have the inn ready for another meeting tonight.”
Gabe shot his father a distressed look. Father spoke up. “They can’t have their meetings here anymore. Something has come up. I’ll explain later. I’ll go tell him myself. You stay here and recover.”
Gabe and Angela excused themselves with Father, leaving Tabitha behind to keep Mother company.
“Father, I know you are on an errand, but I told Mrs. Bollix that you would help her. Mr. Bollix was killed by the storm. Part of his barn roof fell on him.” Angela gasped in disbelief.
Father looked at the ground, shaking his head. “I wonder what else has happened. I’ll send his brother over. I don’t know what else has happened out there. Maybe you two should stay home.”
Angela was distraught over her friend’s loss and requested, “Please let me go check on Sally and stay with her and Mrs. Bollix until her uncle comes.”
Gabe asked too, “Please let me go and see who needs help. What if we are the only ones who were safe?”
“Not only safe, but the inn didn’t really suffer much damage. I don’t know how, but the King really took care of us. Okay you two, go see if you can help.”
Father set off to speak with Vulpine and Mrs. Bollix’s brother-in-law. Angela retraced Gabe’s steps to their neighbors. Gabe remained a moment surveying the scene; the backdrop was the same, but the props were all different. The road was littered with branches and fence posts. Trees were now stumps, fences kindling, roofs floors. The hail had been cannonballs fired upon an unsuspecting enemy. Several shots struck down animals left out to pasture.
Gabe headed across the road, picking up debris as he went and calling out to see if anyone needed help. Gabe worked cleaning up yards the rest of the day. In the evening, Father sat with a block of wood whittling while Gabe told him about the King. Father now joined Angela as a disciple, learning everything the King had told Gabe.
Gabe asked his father, “Do you want to come up and meet the King?”
Father took a deep breath and looked up at the ceiling. He shook his head slowly one time left then right. “No, Gabe. I couldn’t. I don’t know. Honestly, I feel almost scared to meet him. It doesn’t seem my place. We can learn from you. The King gave you an invitation to come whenever you wanted. You should be the one going.”
Gabe nodded. He loved having an invitation to visit the King, but now he began to realize the responsibility that came with it.
Mother came into the dining hall where they were sitting together. “What are you doing lollygagging around? Doesn’t anyone have work to do?”
Father answered her, “We are working. We are learning. Why don’t you sit and listen to Gabe tell us about his visits with the King?”
“Nonsense. Someone has to work around here. There’s always work to be done.” Mother was off in a huff.
The three looked at each other but didn’t speak until Gabe continued teaching about the King. The scene repeated the next day.
“Why are you pretending to work at that whittling? You use that as an excuse to sit around. We have enough of your creations gathering dust. Do we really need more?”
Father patiently responded, “You never know. Maybe someday we’ll sell them, and they will be valuable to us. Why don’t you take a break and sit with us? Gabe has some fascinating lessons to teach us.”
“I don’t need my son teaching me lessons. Where’s the dignity in having your son for a teacher?” Father didn’t take offense at Mother’s words because he knew it wasn’t really him that she was upset with, just the talk of the King. Mother’s frustration grew as the days passed.
The spring rain showered. The summer heat scorched. The fall apples ripened. The lake froze. The flowers bloomed. The corn was knee high. The harvest was gathered. Snow drifted; eggs hatched; bees buzzed; leaves tumbled. The seasons and years flew by as Gabe faithfully visited the King. Angela was well versed in the King’s law and was becoming a lady.
For three years Gabe sat still at the King’s feet, but Vulpine was on the move. He prowled around the village, watching, observing, making sure he had his finger on the pulse of the villagers in order to steer them in the direction of his choosing. He was certain the key to controlling the villagers was to direct their gossip, the talk of the village, what was on everyone’s mind.
To achieve this end, he often fed words to Phineas which he then regurgitated in the Square. “Lord Vulpine won a great victory for our village in the Assembly yesterday.” “Lord Vulpine makes sure the prices are fair at the market.” “Lord Vulpine is always working for what’s best for our village.” The members of the Brothers and Sons secret society would repeat Phineas’ words, or more accurately Vulpine’s, as they milled about the well, while they shopped in the market and when they welcomed guests into their homes. Most villagers were unwittingly dutiful in repeating the platitudes until they were branded onto their minds, and at that point they became truth no matter their accuracy.
One day Phineas carefully left out Vulpine’s name from the announcement. Vulpine had easily convinced the other elected village leaders that elections weren’t in the best interest of the village. Assemblyman Stone, never without his pipe, was the first to shake Vulpine’s hand to congratulate him on the new law. Phineas explained the ruling to the villagers from the porch that ran the front length of the Hall. “Today the Assembly has voted to end the village’s annual elections. In order to maintain continuity within the village, your current elected leaders will serve until death.” He assured the crowd gathered in the Square that this was for peace and unity within the village. Everyone agreed that peace and unity were desirable and welcomed the new law.
Percy Katrid, a friend of Gabe’s father, took notice of Vulpine’s maneuvers. A handsome man, tall and broad, he won the admiration of many just by standing there. He may have been past his prime in strength and agility, but his physique maintained its powerful presence.
His mind hadn’t lost its edge either. It didn’t escape Percy how Vulpine always managed to find a way for his name to be mentioned, or how Vulpine always took credit for any positive change in the village. Vulpine seemed to be praised even for the weather, when it was good. When the weather turned sour, or just plain strange as it often did over those few years, Phineas would keep force feeding lines to the villagers. “Lord Vulpine wants to see the drought end quickly!” The crowd would cheer their agreement. Percy Katrid thought the comment and the crowd’s reaction inane. “Imbeciles, everyone wants the drought to end,” he would mutter to no one. By seeding comments here and there, he found others similarly disaffected. But none of them, not even Percy, had an inkling of what Vulpine was planning for the coming winter.