“Once there was a land ruled by a gracious queen. As much as has ever been possible, she loved her people and they in turn loved her. Rather than lording over them, she found joy in mingling among the commoners, for she believed if she knew their problems, her edicts would help and not harm her subjects. And so this kingdom flourished for many years.
“There came a day when, as the queen visited with merchants in the market, a disturbance interrupted her conversation. A merchant held tightly to the ear of a grimy young urchin, dragging him toward her. He complained, ‘This lad stole two mince pies from me, Your Majesty. What shall I do with him?’ All in the crowd saw the contents smeared across the boy’s face. The lad knew he had no defense and hung his head awaiting judgment.
“The queen scrutinized the boy. ‘Judging by your clothing, you’re not from around here.’
“The lad lifted his head and stood straight before replying, ‘I’m from a land far away. My family was killed in a war and I alone survive. I came here looking for work. I never meant to steal. I usually do odd jobs to pay my way, but I was hungry and no one had work for me. I’m sorry.’ At hearing this honest reply, the queen’s spirit felt compassion for the youth and she took him into her home to raise as her own.
“The lad received a lukewarm reception from her husband and their three children, however, for while the queen’s heart overflowed with love, her husband did not share compassion in the same measure. And while the queen held out hope her children would one day adopt her ways, at present they chose to follow the path of their father steadfastly.
“Thus the boy loved the queen. He grew and profited from the education and luxuries of royalty, but the three children became increasingly jealous. They took to tormenting the lad at every opportunity as their hearts hardened. Until one day when the child, now nearly a man, could endure their harassment no longer. He left the castle, his once loving heart broken. Love for the queen and a broken spirit could not coexist. Try as he might, his wounded spirit won.
“He returned to the streets and eked out a subsistence living. Whenever he saw the queen searching for him, he hid, unwilling to endure more from her vulturous children. Then one day a group of merciless traders raided the kingdom, taking with them all the street urchins they could capture. Parasites they called them.”
A little girl Andy judged to be no more than five yelped and buried her head in her mama’s lap. Several adults glanced over and smiled. The storyteller took another sip of his ale and waited for the eyes of his audience to return to him.
“The traders sold the penniless young man into a life of cruel slavery. When he could not meet the demands of his owners, they beat him until he was barely conscious. Despite his harsh situation, his thoughts fixated not on himself but on taking vengeance on his former siblings for the pain they had caused him. ‘I will gain my revenge,’ he vowed daily. His broken heart hardened and became as a stone: inflexible, cold, and unbending.
“One day the young man learned the queen and her husband had died. ‘It is time,’ he declared. ‘I loved the queen and would never have touched even a hair of her children while she lived lest the pain of it consume her. But her presence no longer protects them.’ He cut down his owner and escaped with not so much as a pang of guilt or remorse. His sense of mission crowded all other thoughts from of his mind.
“He found passage back to the land, and not long after the young man entered the castle and slew the heir and his two siblings, usurping power. Having no love in his heart for anyone, himself included, he enacted harsh edicts on the people. The citizens quickly rose up, seeking his demise. And so, his mission of revenge fulfilled, he found himself drifting without purpose or meaning. He reflected over his life—he remembered his family being killed and the cruelty of his life in the streets. He thought of the mutual love he and the queen had shared. He remembered how his heart had been warm and pliable. He reminisced over the outings they would take, just the two of them, when the queen made him feel loved, despite the other children. He reflected on the words she imparted to him, words he could barely remember, so long had he pushed them to the back of his mind: ‘While man seeks advantage over his fellows, no one controls love. It is your freedom. It is your choice.’
“He continued thinking through the transformative moments of his life. ‘When did my heart become stone?’ he asked himself at last. After a long while, he finally offered an answer: ‘When I stopped choosing to love.’”
A man in the back blurted out, “Are you tellin’ me yer whole tale is about nothin’ other than bein’ lovey-dovey? Bah! And I s’pose you’re gonna tell us the guy apologized to the citizens and they lived happily ever after. What a crock of manure!”
Another patron stood up wagging his finger at the storyteller. He glanced down at a vulture-woman seated next to him and yelled, “They just turned my wife! You expect me to be lovey-dovey with whoever did this to her? They should be hanged!”
The situation worsened as listeners hurled insults at Asher Dain.
Finally, a burly farmer stood. Next to him sat his wife, who dabbed tears with a hanky, and their two vulture-kids. “If you’d all be quiet, I’d like to hear how it turned out.”
The crowd quieted and refocused on the storyteller, who took another sip of his ale and another draw on his pipe. He straightened his tunic and readjusted himself in the leather chair. At last he continued.
“The young man did not have the opportunity to apologize and make things right. The citizens overran the castle, dragged him out, and beat him to within an inch of his life. Had the youth’s heart remained stone, he would have succumbed. But as he lay there, discarded, what he learned in his childhood took on new and deeper meaning and his heart melted.”
“Did you make this whole thing up or did you see it happen?” a woman in the front interrupted.
Asher smiled. “Dear madam, I saw it happen, for I am the boy.”
Murmurs rumbled through the room.
“So what’s the point of your tale?” another patron interjected.
“We’re supposed to love no matter what happens to us? That’s a load of rubbish!” someone in back shot out.
“No, we’re supposed to love having our family turned into vulture-people!” another heckler crowed.
The crowd tossed out other suggestions, arguing over the meaning of the narrative. Andy saw two children, eyes wide, leave their seats and run to their mother for reassurance.
Andy couldn’t take anymore and he climbed up on his chair. The King and Mermin both looked up at him, raising their eyebrows. “The point of the story is that we have choice!” Andy yelled above the roar.
Townsfolk paused, looking for the source of the outburst. The crowd observed the King and Mermin giving their attention to a boy standing on a chair and quieted.
“You’re missing the point,” Andy continued. “Our storyteller’s trying to say we have choice. In most areas of our lives, this isn’t the case. But we”— Andy thumped his chest—“we control whether we love or not, no one else. If we choose to love, our hearts stay warm and open to give love. If we choose not to love, our hearts grow cold and we lose the ability to love. But each of us has the choice! When so many have been attacked and everyone’s nervous, wondering when it might be them, now is not the time to be fighting. Now is the time to come together and choose to love. We are as strong as the love we choose to share.”
Silence grew loud, saturating the room.
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