The harvest had been gathered and stored, and the time Vulpine had been patiently waiting for was fast approaching. He knew the rewards of delaying gratification and took pains not to move too soon.
The Brothers and Sons had gathered and heard Vulpine’s instructions. They were each to store up in their homes one month’s worth of food and supplies by midwinter. The rain had been sparse that summer, so the harvest was as well, and they were to all buy their bulk now while the farmers still felt amply supplied. They were told to anticipate the markets being closed during the winter, so they wouldn’t be able to rely, as they normally would, on the farmers selling food in the stalls. Although there were men of many trades among the Brothers and Sons, including other Assemblymen, not one was a farmer, and so none had their own stores of food.
They weren’t told why the market would close. In the whispered sessions, only the broad aspects of Vulpine’s plans were shared. The details were told only to those who needed to know. This time it would again be the village doctor who would be assisting Vulpine. As a member of the Brothers and Sons, he was obliged to use all that was in his power to serve Vulpine and help him become king. Years of work had gone into the planning and maneuvering. The doctor’s help would now bring him one step closer to what he had long desired.
Vulpine had asked the doctor if he could prepare a plague. Vulpine explained the practicality of the request. The villagers needed to feel weak and scared so they would embrace a leader—a king. The summer drought had helped but hadn’t been enough.
He wanted a sickness that would spread easily and be serious enough to kill, not the entire village, just enough to create the fear he needed to harness for his own ends. The village doctor, though employed to save lives, fulfilled the request.
He figured he could meet Vulpine’s requirements by dipping an arrow into decomposing bodies of villagers who had died of their illnesses and then causing someone to be “accidentally” shot with the poisoned arrow. It was planned that the virus would be unleashed midwinter.
Phineas crunched through the autumn leaves on his way to the Square and from the Hall announced that over the winter months, when the farm work was slow, the men of the village were to take part in military training. The village had never before had any sort of army, nor had they ever been attacked by enemies, but Vulpine had convinced the Assembly of the need for a trained force.
Gabe would turn fourteen over the winter and was too young to be considered man enough to join in the training. His father, however, took part in the daily drills. He marched, practiced sword play, shot arrows and learned to fire a cannon. Percy Katrid also trained with the others and played the part of a submitted soldier. While he felt devotion to the village in which he was born and raised, he felt none towards Vulpine, who presided over the training exercises.
As lord of the Assembly, Vulpine took it upon himself to name a general for the village defenses. He named a Jeremy Writ, one of the members of the Brothers and Sons. He was a lanky man, an intellectual who saw the profit in serving Vulpine. General Writ was appointed not for his expertise but for quite another reason. He would do Vulpine’s bidding without question.
Vulpine was pleased with how this new phase of his plan was progressing and gave the doctor the nod in midwinter. Just as had been planned, one of the Brothers and Sons accidently shot one of his fellow soldiers in the leg with an infected arrow. Soon a virus began to spread. Men were falling ill, experiencing delirium from unusually high fevers and weakness from vomiting. The illness was lasting five whole days at a time. The drills were halted after one of the sick soldiers died, and the men were sent home to rest, which resulted in bringing the virus to their families. As a result, the village effectually shut down as the villagers fell prey to the sickness. The virus made its way through the village like locusts, devouring all the life in its path. Panic started to set in as several children died from the sudden illness. Vulpine suspended the regular meetings of the Assembly and went into hiding.
Gabe’s father had returned home sick, and Tabitha and Angela had taken ill along with him. Gabe nursed them back to health. Mother stayed away but prepared broths for them to sip while they still lay in bed. Gabe constantly toted water from the well behind the inn, through the kitchen, up the stairs and into the family quarters in order to sponge the victims with cool water to bring down their temperatures and to wash their clothes and bedding after their stomachs wretched violently. Gabe had never seen Angela so quietly submissive as during those days when he would ask her to sit or roll over or whatever was necessary for his nursing care.
Gabe still sneaked away each day in the quiet of the morning when everyone was finally settled and sleeping peacefully. The King had reassured him that his father and sisters would all live through the sickness and that he and his mother would not succumb to it. He believed the King, and he never hesitated to be at their sick beds, ready to help in any way he could. In a week’s time they had come through safely, and in another week’s time they were out of bed, fully recovered.
As Father and the girls were gaining back their full strength, the King had some questions for Gabe. “What would you want someone to do for you if you were sick, or if your parents were sick?” The King had a plan and was gently leading Gabe on the right path.
Gabe thought it over. “I would want someone to take care of me, to help me, to do my chores, to cook my meals and to tell me that I was going to be okay.”
In a teacherly fashion the King asked, “What does my law say about the things we would want others to do for us?” Gabe knew the answer. “It says that we should do to others what we would want them to do to us.”
“So what are you going to do?” The King nudged Gabe toward applying his knowledge.
“I’m going to help others.”
“How?” the King asked encouragingly.
“I’ll help people take care of their work in their homes and do my best to comfort them.”
“Good.” The King approved Gabe’s plan, which had been the King’s plan all along, and Gabe grew eager to get started.
He had one big hurdle to overcome before he could follow through on his word to the King; he had to convince his parents to let him go into the homes of the sick. Most people avoided all contact with others and shut themselves into their homes. The Square now echoed in emptiness instead of vibrating with life. The villagers lived in fear and looked out only for themselves. Some villagers even refused to care for their sick family members and quarantined them in rooms in their own homes, leaving them to suffer alone.
Only two weeks had passed since Father had fallen ill and had been sent home to recuperate. The virus had spread like a juicy bit of gossip and had paid a visit to most homes in the village. Shops were closed and the market was bare, both for fear of the contagion and for lack of sellers and shoppers since the majority of the village was sick or had been sick with the violent virus. Only the families of the members of the Brothers and Sons had been conveniently shut safely in their homes at the beginning of the outbreak.
No one else in the village was tending to the sick outside of their own families, but Gabe persuaded his parents that he was immune to the sickness as he had been exposed to it during their family’s bout with the plague and hadn’t caught it. Angela took up the cause and suggested that Gabe might be able to bring home some food other than the family’s stored apples and staples they had been forced to begin living on. Their parents saw both their points and relented to let Gabe go alone. They were unsure of how desperate people were and how they would act, and they wanted to keep Angela safe at home.
Gabe and Angela were bursting with excitement to begin helping. They had decided they would start with their nearest neighbors and work house to house down the road for as long as they were needed. Angela would be in charge of preparing food for Gabe to take to neighbors. It wouldn’t be an easy task as Mother wouldn’t allow Angela to use anything from their stock other than flour and salt for the job. Mother wanted to be sure the family had all they needed to last through the plague, which had no end in sight. It was like an unwelcome houseguest, taking up residence without any mention of when he will be moving on.
Angela tied Mother’s apron around her waist, and taking a wooden cup from the cupboard, she dug it into the flour barrel. Four times she dumped its contents into a large bowl. With her hands she squeezed in a hunk of butter she had made herself. She was thankful for the constant supply of milk, butter and cheese Betty provided the family. She rolled the butter and flour between her fingers until each had disappeared into the other. A little at a time, she added water and stirred it sparingly until the dough would hold together. Dusting the table with flour, she used the surface to roll the dough out as thin as she dared. She sprinkled on salt and slid it into the oven. It would make a crispy cracker, a perfect complement to the soup she was preparing.
Next Angela turned to the pot on the stove. She salted the water and begged a bit of seasoning from Mother. On the stovetop next to the simmering water, Angela heated a pan and poured in a cup of oil, dredged from Mother’s cooking pots. When the oil had been heated, its fragrance wafted through the air, telling Angela it was time to add in a cup of flour. Stirring vigorously, Angela watched the flour bubble in the oil and turn a rich brown, the aroma of roasted wheat filling the kitchen. With one movement she lifted the pan and poured it into bubbling broth. It hissed and spat as the oil and water quarreled. Angela briskly stirred them together and ended the dispute. The flour thickened the broth so that it would cling to the crisping crackers.
Gabe filled two jars with the soup, wrapped a napkin around some crackers and headed out the door. He stood in the chill of the afternoon and let the sun warm his cheeks. How could such a beautiful day hold death in its air?