The King of the Land in the Middle

ONCE UPON A TIME, not so long ago but that the dragons had already become legendary and the last unicorn had vanished into the forests, and one could no longer go into the world to seek one’s fortune with some likelihood of finding it, there was a king of a certain kingdom. Now this kingdom was neither north nor south, east nor west, but more or less in the middle of things. And this king was neither tall nor short, dark nor fair, thin nor stout, wise nor foolish, wicked nor good, but just about middling in all of these qualities. He had about the ordinary amount of courage, humor, agility, intelligence, greed, unselfishness, and anything else one might think of.

Now this was a period in the childhood of the world when the time of fairy tales was drawing imperceptibly to a close. If we are living in a time of change we seldom know it – unless we are extraordinarily wise and gifted, as this king was not. It is only later, when the path already trod is all laid out behind us, that the historians look back and nod their heads sagely, and set names to this stretch or that. When this king lived, the kind of magic the fairy tales tell us of had all but faded away – no touch of a wand could transform a loathsome frog into a handsome prince, no secret chant open an unknown cave in a mountainside where treasure gleamed. What spells there were, were of a more subtle nature, and treasure could go unrecognized.

Our king had a pleasant castle, with no luxury but no discomfort either, set on a middling-sized outcropping of rock by a middling-sized river, across from which lay pleasant and adequate fields. These yielded him a decent living, along with all his people. There was also a nice, comfortable amount of mineral deposits in the neighborhood, to be mined by comfortably paid miners who delved into the hillsides with a minimum of danger or discomfort.

The king had a pleasant-enough wife and four sturdy children, two of each kind, not exceptionally bright or dull, naughty or good. They lived a bit aloof from the other folk of that little land, as was right and proper. There were no great feasts, as nothing happened to celebrate. Birthdays were everyday affairs, and death, when it visited, came at the end of one’s period of usefulness. Life was so well-ordered and calm none grew weary before their time or bent under stress and died too young; disease was scarcely known, so held no fear. Winters were mild and pleasant. Spring came gradually and in no glorious burst. Summers were warm and long but never hot, and autumn was a gradual fading away into the first snowfalls. Of wild and dangerous beasts there were none, only the harmless rabbit and here and there a herd of brown deer. The birds that flitted in the hedges had soft colors and pleasant songs but nothing that stopped one’s breath and held one wonder-struck. The flowers were plentiful but mild of hue, and the bees were busy as usual but not frantic and dizzy with the ravishing scent and sight of blossoms, and so unmolested they had quite forgotten how to sting.

So little happened that there was no history taught in the schools, and sums were so simple as to be no pain to anyone even had there been an exceptionally dull scholar (which of course there was not). There were no ballads, since there was no history to sing of, and no odes, as there was nothing to write them about, and no elegies, as there was no great sorrow, and no songs of praise, for what could be praised in that unexceptional, peaceful existence?

Now it so happened, one spring morning, that the king awoke at his usual time, seven o’clock or so, and in due course rang his little bell for breakfast. Breakfast was always a beaker of fresh milk, two eggs, two rolls, and a mug of coffee. The page brought it all in on a tray, set it before the king, bowed, and retired. And the king, as usual, took up his coffee first of all for a swallow or two.

Then, for the first time in his experience, an extraordinary thing happened. The coffee was boiling hot! He spat out his swallow and sat gasping, with his mouth open, fanning his burning tongue, his eyes watering, and a most peculiar feeling creeping all over him. He had wits enough soon to take a long drink of cool milk, and then he sat back, staring before him out of the window over the green fields, this same strange feeling tingling at the roots of his hair and curling along his spine. There was no word for that feeling in their language, since there had been no need for it, but we know it as astonishment.

The king sat there, filled with astonishment. Something was the matter with his coffee. And then into his mind crept another feeling, a pushing little feeling that left him restless. It was, if he could have put a word to it, curiosity. What was the matter with his coffee, and why?

At last, when he had sat still for a while and aired his sore tongue, he slowly reached out his hand again to his little bell, and rang. The page below, in the kitchen, felt a little quiver of something (astonishment, we know it to be) when he heard the king’s bell so soon again, but up he went and stood before his monarch, who simply looked at him and said:

“Who prepared the coffee this morning?”

“A lad came in from the highway yesterday, sire, and asked for a night’s lodging, and said he would pay for it in labor. Steward didn’t know what to say, so said yes. He helped Cook this morning and fixed the coffee, sire.”

“He fixed it all right,” said the king, feeling his sore tongue. “What did he do to it?”

The page wasn’t used to questions and didn’t know what to say. He stammered, for once at a loss for words.

“I – I don’t know, sire. What was wrong with it?”

The king sat and thought. What was wrong with it, anyway? At last he said, “It was more than enough hot.”

“Oh,” said the page, who had never heard of such a thing.  “Where did the lad come from?”

“I do not know, sire. He came by on the highway.”

There was another puzzled silence. Finally the king spoke again, and who’s to say what event was more fateful for him – the coming of the strange lad to the kitchen, the swallow of the boiling coffee, or the next words he spoke:

“Send him in to me.”

And so the lad came before the king, and again the king felt the tingle in his hair and the pushing questions in his mind as he looked at him; for the lad was very tall, and dressed in bright green, with a brooch like a dark green leaf fastening his tunic. He had black hair and a lively eye, and looked at the king with a smile.

“You asked for me, sire?”

“Yes.” And they looked at each other.

At last the lad said, “What did you wish of me, sire?”

“You fixed my coffee this morning?” And the king gestured to the tray still before him.

“Yes, sire, I was so privileged. What was amiss with it?”

The king frowned, hunting for the right word to express it.

“It was more than enough hot.”

“Too hot, was it too hot?” Then the lad slapped his thigh and laughed. “Is that all, sire? A thousand pardons! In my land we like it so hot it warms one all the way down to the toes and to the tips of the ears. On a frigid winter morning when the gale is blowing in great blasts and snow drives in the cracks of the windows, what gives a man courage like a mug of coffee right off the fire! On a mild spring morning like this I should have used my wits and been more temperate.”

Then the king sat and stared with his mouth open, and not for a burning tongue. Such gales and snows he’d never heard of, and to be warmed to the tips of one’s ears! And what did the word “temperate” mean to one who had not known extremes?

“Where did you come from?” he managed at last to say.

The lad put one foot up comfortably on a bench then, and rested his elbow on his knee.

“Away up north,” he said. “I’m a forester. Our ancient maples have a blight. Some leaves curl and drop before the flaming fall comes, and branches die here and there. We dared not tap the trees for their sweet sap for three seasons now for fear of weakening them, and we lack sugar badly. I’m traveling south to where there are great forests, to seek out those foresters and learn if they know of such a blight, and its cure. They are noble trees, and make all the land golden before the winter storms break. They nourish us in our need, and shade us from the blazing summer suns. If they can be saved, we would like to know. I saw no such trees hereabouts, sire. Do you not know them?”

“No,” said the king, faintly. “I know them not.”

“I saw no peach trees, either – orchards that lie pink and fragrant in the spring, and the bees go fair wild with it, and one can scarce get to one’s work with gazing! Spring comes late in our land, later than here – but it seems more fair. I know not…” and he looked out the window in a puzzled way, “this land seems lackluster, lifeless.” He looked back at the king. “Nor have I heard any singing, only a tuneless humming now and then. Is the land in mourning? I saw no signs of grief. But no joy, either.”

“No,” said the king. “For what would we mourn? Why should we sing?”

The forester straightened up then and looked at the king a long moment. Then he sat down on the bench and leaned forward earnestly.

“Did you never lose anyone by death?”

“My mother, and my father. But they were growing old, and I was grown, and their time had come.”

“Were you never given children, sire, to bring grace to your days?”

“Yes, two sons and two daughters.”

“Did you never lose a child, a little one?”

“No. I do not remember such a happening in all the kingdom.”

“Truly you have been blessed,” said the forester in a hushed voice. Then after a little

silence, “My small sister died, two years old, as bright and lovely as a meadowlark – gone, just like that. When we laid her away, my mother’s heart near broke with grief. Her greatest joy now is to tend all the sick ones in the village, and if death comes, the first one turned to is my mother, so steadfast is her courage now. And no one rejoices more in the children that are given. Truly, one must suffer loss to know what it is to receive a gift.”

The king put his elbows on the table and his head in his hands. His ears seemed to pound and his wits seemed scattered. He closed his eyes and felt his world whirling. The silence deepened between them, and then the lad jumped up.

“I rattle on too much, sire! I am always told I talk too much. Forgive me. I tire you, and keep you from your labors for your kingdom, and tell you all about myself, and your breakfast sits there, and your coffee cools. But it was too hot, remember, which was why you summoned me. I’ll run fetch another cup now, which shall be neither hot nor cold…” and he made to leave.

“Stay,” said the king. “Sit, please, and talk with me more. Tell me. I know nothing of all you speak about. I know nothing except this little land of mine, and here it seems – it seems – nothing touches us. All the things you speak of – I know nothing of them. They sink in my heart, where I feel a great hollowness. How could I learn about it all? What you speak of – grief – what is that? And that one must know it if one would also rejoice, and what is it to rejoice? I know nothing. And this land of mine that you found so – what was it you called it – lackluster, lifeless – what is it that makes it so? What must I do for my land? Can you tell me?”

The forester then sat down with a troubled face. He laced his fingers together and frowned at them, pondering, and then shook his head.

“I am a poor, simple man, sire, hardly a man even, but almost yet a boy. I would not pretend to give counsel to a king. Yet I will tell you what I feel.” He looked up eagerly. “This land seems like one under a spell, not an evil enchantment, where dark things happen, but somehow as if there were a line on either side beyond which one could not go, either for joy or sorrow, beauty or ugliness, good or evil, but was always between, in the middle, neither hot nor cold. I would not know how to break that spell. It is not for me to do, nor for one man to do. Perhaps it waits for God to do. Or God waits the hour to do it.”

When the king still sat silent, the forester spoke again. “At least you could see for yourself some of the things of which I have told. You could make a journey. That at least you can do. You could at least come back with a pack of stories to tell your people, who seem about as quiet a lot as any I’ve ever met up with.”

The king sighed. “Where should I go? Where should I start out?”

The forester laughed. “That is easy,” he said. “Since this is the land in the middle, the highway north and south, or the highway east and west will at least take you somewhere else.”

The king rose then, and the lad stood up, searching his face. The king drew his hand across his forehead. Then he straightened and smiled at the boy in green. It was a warm smile, though the face was tired, and if his own people had seen him then they would scarce have known him.

“It was good you came, my lad. If you return this way, come again to my castle, and perchance you will find a bit of difference. Now when you go down, would you ask the steward to come to me? I will prepare for this journey. And if there is aught you need, take it. And I wish you well.”

He laid his hand on the boy’s shoulder. Then he turned to the window, and when the steward came he found his king standing, arms laid across the sill, gazing over the fields to the far mountains. The steward did not know it yet, and the king only dimly sensed it, but the old time had ended.

 

THE KING TRAVELED as a stonemason, the craft in which he had been trained as a boy. He set out a week after the young forester had gone. First he put the affairs of the kingdom in order – what little needed to be done in that orderly realm – and he tried to explain to the queen. If she had ever known that there was such a thing as madness, she would have called him mad. It was her turn to know astonishment, and of a deeper kind than that of having one’s coffee boiling for the first time in one’s experience. Finally she looked at him for a long time, and something strange hurt in her chest. At last she put her hand on his and said in a puzzled way, “But I cannot think how each day will be if you are not here.” And a little prickle came behind her eyes. “Nor do I understand all that you tell me. But I will try, and I will wait for your return.”

Then she stood on the ramparts and watched him go. He traveled west, first riding with a wagoner taking pens of ducks to a farm on the outlying districts of the realm, a pleasant ride through sunny days and cool evenings – not much talk except the prattle of the ducks and now and then a comment from the wagoner, who did not know his passenger. They put up at quiet inns, and at the dawn of the third day they were at the border. The king, all unknown, left the road and disappeared through the hedge, not to be seen again for many weeks by his own subjects.

The mountains there were very steep and sudden, with thick evergreen forests on their slopes. He wondered at himself that he had never wondered before what lay beyond them. It was a stiff climb, and he, while strong, was unused to such, and when he camped for the night his bones ached so he could hardly sleep. He finally stirred himself before dawn, ate a frugal breakfast, not knowing how long it would be before he could replenish his pack, and then climbed on. At daybreak he neared the top, and reached a great rock, gray with age and flecked here and there with bearded lichen and little ferns clutching the cracks. Here he stopped and looked back across the valley of his land, just as the sun rose. The sky was all afire, the deep blue of night driven back to green, to gold, to pale yellow, and to rose; and the stars went out as he watched, and all about him birds sang, pealing melodies clear and sweet. Below, the valley lay in soft mist with the river winding dark and small, and the road a tiny white track. His heart swelled with the beauty of the world. At last he spoke aloud.

“Farewell, my little land. I wish that you could see the beauty of this dawning or that I might find words to tell you of it. Perhaps even there the day will come when the sun will rise with such…with such…” and then words failed him, and he could only stand silent with tears on his cheeks, before going on.

On the other side the shadows fell long, and the new valley that lay before him seemed dark. Such fields as he could see were brown, and the only road a small track by a wide, shallow river, thick with tumbled stones. Far off he could see great smokes rising, and a haze drifting. He could make out, he thought, in the nearer distance, a cluster of houses close to the river, so he went down, through thorns and clinging catbrier, over loose stone, down where it seemed no man had ever been, down to the edges of the nearest fields. And then he could see they had been parched dry. Surely this had been an early bean field, for the withered, half-grown pods lay there, among the crumbled vines. He had never seen a field like this, but it looked like a plant he had once found in a corner of the potting shed that had been forgotten, all dry and withered so the leaves fell to dust.

“Surely,” he said, “it must be there has been no rain. But then how do men live, if the land fails?” And he stood in thought and searched the sky for clouds – but all was clear, except for the haze; the sun, now climbing the sky, smote the earth with heat. He found the road and went on, his feet raising dust at each step. The hedges were withering, now and then a pale flower tried to bloom. And over all there was the taint of smoke – not the cheerful hearth smell of chimney smoke, nor the ingathering smell of autumn leaf piles burning, but the smoke of something lost and dead.

He came at last to the village. A pale, thin child with a smudged face stood by the nearest house and watched him come, then ran inside. A man came out, club in hand, as he drew near.

“What want you?” he growled.

“I am a traveling stonemason,” said the king.

“There is no work here. Where did you come from?”

“Yonder, over the mountains, from the land on the other side.”

The man stared in amazement.

“Do you have rain there this year?”

“What we need, no more, no less. But here…” the king gestured with his hand.

The man came closer. The king could see more clearly now his lined face, his gaunt black eyes.

“Is there food there for all?”

“Yes, all we need.”

“Have they not come to seize it?”

“They? Who are they?”

“The enemy, the destroyers, the cursed ones who take what little a man has and burn what shelter he has left.”

“We know none such as that. I did not know such men lived.”

The man pointed to the distance where the sky was dark with smoke. “Go there, and see for yourself,” he said in a trembling voice.

And the king went.

 

IT WAS A WEEK OR MORE later that the king lay, wounded, in the hut of a peasant on the edge of the town. The face of the woman bending over him, when he opened his eyes at last, seemed to his befuddled mind like the queen’s, only more gentle and more tired. Outside there was the soft sound of rain.

The woman bathed his shoulder, and it stung fearfully, the pain going deep down his arm. She smiled at him.

“It heals well. If we had more food to give, you would be stronger again fast. But now the rains have returned, and we can feel the earth coming alive again under our feet.” She bathed his face and smoothed his pillow. “And now the war is done and the enemy withdrawn, with a new pact between us. Surely God has been good to us in spite of all the death we have wrought upon ourselves.”

The king lay wordless, looking up at her. He began to remember all he had seen – the field of dead, the weeping women, the charred and shattered houses, the hate in the eyes of the men who had attacked him as he walked, all unknowing, into the middle of a foray. Most of all he remembered the wan and frightened children, and he thought of the calm, rosy faces of his own. He was too weak to speak; he closed his eyes, and all the sights that he had seen flashed before him again, a raving, noisy, terrifying succession. Then he saw again the last sunrise over his own land, the golden splendor filling all the sky, the quiet land lying simple and at peace. He opened his eyes. Beside the woman now stood a man, dark and troubled, looking down at him. The man pulled up a stool and sat close to him.

His eyes were kind, but weary and sunken. His hands trembled a bit, so he clasped them together.

“Friend,” he said. “You came unknown amongst us in a dark and fearful hour. Now the wind changes and a new time comes, perhaps, for this seared and sorrowing land. Now you lie here mending, and we will do what we can to strengthen you – though we have lost nearly all. But there is still time for a late harvest – now the gentle rains come. When you are well enough, you will go on. Already many take the road, to find sufficient food until our own fields yield again, or to seek new homes. Those of us who stay will have much work.” He looked at his hands that still trembled. “Nor have we much strength left to labor. But you…” – and he looked long into the king’s face – “where did you journey from, and for what?”

But the woman set a steaming cup into the man’s hands and said, chiding, “Give him a sup first, he is too weak to speak much now.” So the man raised the king’s head, and he sipped the brew and felt it flow all through him. It was hot and strong, seeming to reach down to his toes and to the tips of his ears, and suddenly into his mind came the remembrance of the young forester, and the boiling coffee. He looked up into the man’s face and smiled, saying, “It is hot, it is good. It gives a man courage.”

The man laid him back on the pillow and said, “Now tell us who you are.”

“I come from the land on the other side of the mountains. There I have lived all my life. It is a peaceful little land, where all labor and have enough.” He stopped, not knowing how to continue, how much to tell, how to find words for it. The woman set her hand on her man’s shoulder, and they both looked at him, patient and a bit puzzled.

“But I came to know, one day, that the world must be very different, that we lived only in a kind of dead center, that there was such a thing as grief, and such a thing as joy, and such a thing as great beauty, and great evil, but I knew it not, nor did my people. Nor did I know that there was need in the world, that any others lived except as we lived. So I decided to journey, to see for myself, and to return to my people to tell them if I could. At least to have a tale that would set their minds a-wondering. Now, what I have seen…I can scarcely grasp. And if I, who have seen, can scarcely begin to fathom it, how can I hope to tell my people, to speak of it to them…?” He stopped, exhausted.

The two still looked at him.

“You speak of your people. What were you to them?”

“I was their king,” the king said simply. “Now I must seek the way to reach the hearts of my people, to open their eyes, to show them at least how little we know, how little we feel, how much we must do, and at length how powerless we are – as I lie here.”

The three were silent in the little hut. Outside the soft sound of rain continued, and a cuckoo called insistently and near at hand.

“Tell me,” said the king, “what will touch the small hearts of my people? What will break the spell that binds them?”

“Sire,” said the man, “no man can tell you that. Perhaps it will come to you, as you mend, to find the right way.”

“I wish to mend quickly now, and return. We must give help to this troubled land. We must share with you,” and the king moved to sit up.

“Wait,” said the man. “Perhaps God has brought you low to give your own heart time to understand all that has come to you. Rest now, and take a little time of peace. I am not one to give counsel to a king, yet I know how little man can do, unless God sets the seal.”

“I praise him,” said the king, “that I fell into your hands.”

“Nay, we praise him that you have come.”

So the king stayed and grew stronger bit by bit. On the third day he went out and sat on a bench by the wall and looked at the havoc all around. He watched on the road as the wagons passed, some going south to seek a new home, some carrying the dead for burial, some bringing new-hewn logs for building, some bringing in from outlying farms the ill, the homeless, or the old. Each day he watched, and his heart bore more and more. And on the sixth day he was strong enough to climb into a wagon and go out with the man to a distant farm from which there had been no word.

“He is the beekeeper, and his wife, and one small child. A great, strong man, hardy and brave – but they have suffered much in the drought. And the enemy came that way first. I fear for them.”

And they rode on in silence. By noon they came within sight of the cottage, the beehouse, the neat hives. But all was silent. There was no sign of fire, but the yard was trampled and the gate thrown down. When the man called, the silence only deepened and grew thick. They climbed down over the wagon wheel, pushed through the tumbled yard, and went up to the open door. There they stopped, and their indrawn breath was the only sound. Here death had indeed visited. But as they stared in horror and in grief, they saw the child still lived; he raised a terror-numbed, ashy little face and whimpered. The king gazed long at him, the great black eyes that seemed to look at nothing but fear, the little hands like claws, the sunken temples; then he knelt and gathered him up against his shoulder, and turned with a tear-streaked face to the man.

“Is this not the answer? Will this not melt a heart of stone? Is any heart so small this child cannot find room there?”

And so it was to be.

The next day the king set out for home. He went south on the road to the highway, knowing he could not cross the mountain with his burden and the weakness from his wounds. In two days he reached the highway and turned east. Along the road there had been so many fleeing from the ravage of the war that few had cast more than one pitying glance at the child resting against his shoulder. But on the highway there were many prosperous and well-clad who looked in distaste and dismay at the king and his burden. So he covered the child with a tattered shawl, and sought – also out of his own poverty – the poorest inns, and gave the child all that he could beg or purchase – though the little one would scarcely eat. On the fifth day he came unrecognized into the borders of his own land. At the first farm he stopped. The good wife stood in the door and stared at him. There was something in his face she dimly knew, yet how could she know anyone so soiled and torn and tired, so gaunt of face and sad? She called her man, and he stood at her elbow, for a moment dumbstruck, before he stepped forward suddenly.

“Sire!” he cried. “Dear master, what has befallen you?”

Then the king smiled, and a great relief flooded his heart.

“I am coming home after a long journey. Now I would ask two things of you. First, start the word throughout the realm that the king would speak to the people before this night falls, by the castle ramparts, so all who can will gather. Then I would beg your wagon for the rest of this journey, for my burden, though light, is more than my strength can carry.”

Then the man called his sons and sent them out with the word, and he fetched his wagon, and the king climbed in while the man leaped into the seat and took the reins himself. But the good wife ran out with a bowl of milk, and would not let them go until she had placed it in the king’s hands and seen him drink. He handed it back empty and said, “That was a blessed draught, for which I give you thanks.” Then he gathered his burden more closely to him, and the wagon started on.

In the long late spring twilight they drew near the castle. Behind them on the road there were many people and wagons, and down the lanes more gathering. But there was little noise and no confusion, and in all a wonder grew and grew. On the ramparts the queen waited. She ran down as the first wagon came. With haste and a beating heart she ran up to it, and looked in the king’s face, laying a hand on his knee. He looked down at her.

“Do not be afraid, though all things now change for us.”

Then he stood up, holding his burden against his shoulder, and gazed out over the people that gathered closer, wondering and still.

At last he spoke, his voice clear and strong.

“Dear people, dwellers in this sheltered little land. Many days ago I set forth, clear to the borders and straight over the mountain into the unknown beyond. This I did, as your king, because of a simple traveler who, all unknowing, spoke words that shook my heart. He spoke of weather I had not known, of needs I had never seen, of death coming to the young and fair, of flowering trees, of great joy that filled the heart. All this was so strange to me, the words were like another language. What lay beyond this quiet little land? What lay over us like a smothering mist to keep our hearts unquestioning, unquesting, our days so small and mild? So I set out. And I went indeed into need, and where the hand of love reached out to me also.” And in slow words plain and bare, he told them of the drought, the hate, the war; destruction, death, and pain. He told them of his wound, and of the peasant who had succored him. And how he searched for a way to tell them, his people, to clear their eyes, to help them find with him the way for them now.

“And then, in the last farm, I found this child, orphaned, starving, stiff with fear. He has come to us, the first from beyond our borders that have stood too long.”

Then he drew back the tattered shawl. The child lay with his cheeks against the kings

shoulder, the thin little hands clasped about his neck. The king turned slowly and the child raised his head and looked out over all the people to the setting sun. And in the west the rosy light grew until the air glowed and they seemed to be standing in the midst of the light. But the people looked only at the child, no movement except that here and there a mother put her arms around her own young and drew them suddenly close; and hands were pressed to hearts that suddenly pained. And a sound grew, very soft and low, that had not been heard before in all that land – the sound of many people weeping.

So it was that a new time came. For as there was the sound of weeping then, so also there came the sound of singing – not a tuneless humming but songs of praise, songs of joy, songs of courage. They seemed to spring up out of the earth. And men labored long, and great wains rolled out with food for the hungry. Looms hummed late in the night by lamplight, and the wagons carried coverlets and clothes. The sick came to be healed, and some to die. Homeless children found father and mother again. And north, south, east, and west the king sent travelers to come back with knowledge of the world – and the map makers tore up the old maps and started out afresh.

The people dared much, and some suffered for it. They knew what it was to be tired to the bone, sick, beaten, yet not for anything would they go back to the old way. Winters grew longer, cold, and the snows more wild – but spring also became a time of bursting blossom, of burgeoning earth; summers were hot, but the cool of evening more blessed; and the harvests so heavy there were hardly hands enough to gather them in, while the trees flamed on every side.

And the children grew more naughty, but also more warm of heart and full of joy. While a father now and then had to lay a hand to his son, he could also look more deeply into his eyes, and trust grew.

And it was a time when grief came, more than a word, an actual thing. But then came joy as well. And the greatest pain was the cold heart, the offered help that was spurned, the hand held out that met no answering clasp; that, and the sense that neither they, for all their labors, nor any man, could heal all the hurts of the world, until the new time came for every heart.

And some may ask, what became of the child? In a certain way it would make a happier story to be able to write that the child thrived and grew bonny and strong and lived long. But such was not to be. Perhaps by all the hunger and need some deep hurt had been done to his little body that no broth and coddled eggs and loving words could mend. The little one died after many days, but first his small face had come to smile, and the great eyes to grow alight, and he laughed and sang even as he faded away. Then the women wept and the men stood with grief-stricken faces, helpless, and the children stood beside the little bier with flowers in their hands and tears on their cheeks, and understood best of all, perhaps, that God had sent the child for a purpose, and for his own purpose had called him home.

They laid him in a little grave set round by birches, at the roadside, and on the stone the king himself graved the words:

 

In memory of the child, who led us

from the land that was neither hot

nor cold, into God’s wind and weather.