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The Stranger

 

Fiona stood in the parlor, leaning on her broom and staring out the window. She sighed softly and then continued sweeping. After brushing the dirt into a dustpan, she carried it outside where she dumped it in the trash behind the house.

A sparrow chirped from a branch above her. Fiona stopped to listen, a smile growing on her face. A gentle breeze played with wisps of her hair as she stood still, enjoying the serenade. Then, with a shake of his tail, the sparrow spread his wings and flew away.

Fiona watched him until he disappeared into the trees, then sighed. How wonderful to be free like that Ė to be able to go anywhere she wanted, whenever she wanted.

"It is nice here, too," she said to herself. "After all, no one is here to boss me around right now. I can do anything I like until they come back from the Festival Ė as long as my chores are done." Smiling at this thought, Fiona turned toward the house and headed for the kitchen.

When the dishes were washed and put away, she tackled the floor. As she scrubbed, she let her mind drift back to all the bustle that had taken place early that morning. Everyone had been in a hurry. Fiona had been ordered here and there, greeted by irritated looks and cross words.

"Canít you move faster?" Margarette had snapped. "We need to get ready. Now, where is my sash?"

"Mama, I canít find my blue bow," Josie whined as she tugged at her motherís skirt. "I need it right now!"

"Where is my other shoe?" Jami, Josieís twin, demanded. "I need it right now!"

Fiona sighed, clamped her mouth shut to keep from saying something rude and went to search for the missing items. The moment she returned with the hair bow and shoe, she was sent running to complete several more tasks. She tried not to show her relief when the carriage finally clattered up to the front door.

"Time to go, girls!" Margarette called cheerily.

"The Festival will be so much fun!" Josie cried, bouncing up and down eagerly.

"Maybe weíll see King Arnon," Jami added.

"He will be there, wonít be, Mama?" Josie asked.

"He may, indeed," Margarette said, ushering her excited twins out the door. "Make sure the house is clean, the laundry sorted and put away and the dishes washed," she commanded, looking crossly at Fiona. "And donít let anyone into the house while we are gone."

"Yes, maíam," Fiona said quietly. The door slammed shut, making her jump. Moments later, the carriage clattered off, taking with it the excited voices of the twins as they listed all the things they were going to buy at the Festival.

Fiona sat back on her heels, wiping sweat from her forehead. "I wonder if King Arnon really will be at the Festival," she said to herself. Then she sighed. "Of course, heíd never notice someone like me." Wearily she dipped the scrub brush into the soapy water and continued cleaning the floor.

For as long as she could remember, Fiona had lived with Margarette and her twin daughters. Her own parents had died in a fever outbreak when she was only a toddler. Margarette had been harsh to the little girl, resenting the fact that she had to raise her orphaned niece. Fiona was always expected to work harder, be smarter and keep her room neater than the twins. When she turned twelve, Fiona had been moved from the tiny bedroom at the back of the house to an even smaller room in the attic. She was forced to leave school, which she loved, being a place where she was praised and encouraged. Instead, Fiona was made a servant in her auntís house.

"But, it isnít all bad," Fiona told herself as she dumped the soapy water out the kitchen door. "I have an entire library of books to read, anytime I like Ė as long as no one finds out, that is." She smiled, remembering all the books she had smuggled up to her attic room. She saved the ends of candles, melting them to create larger ones to use for her late night reading.

Fiona smiled to herself. "With everyone gone, I can sit in the library and read. My chores are all done and it will be hours before they get back." With that thought, she headed to the library.

"Letís see . . . a fairy tale . . . an adventure story . . . a picture book?" Fiona studied the shelves thoughtfully. The library was several stories high and every wall was lined with shelves. Every shelf was crammed with books. Margarette was immensely proud of the library, built book by book by her father, grandfather and great-grandfather. But, although she admired the library, showing it off with pride to visitors, she rarely took a book off its shelf to actually read it. The twins were not much better.

"How can they have all these books and never read them?" Fiona wondered as her eyes scanned the shelves filled with old friends. Then her eye fell on a favorite Ė a beautifully illustrated book about King Arnon. Many people in Kyr had copies of the same book, although most were not as decorative as the one in Margaretteís library. But, just like Margarette, very few seemed to actually take it down to read it.

Fiona settled into her favorite chair beside the window, opening the book to a collection of stories. Each story taught a lesson about King Arnon; his love, his wisdom, the way he ruled his kingdom. His commands were always wise, Fiona knew, and those who did what he asked found that his ways were best.

"I wish I could meet King Arnon, just once," Fiona sighed. "Maybe he would take me away from this place and let me live in his palace."

Just then, Fiona heard a knock at the kitchen door. She put down the book and hurried to answer it. "Perhaps it is Mara delivering our milk and cheese," she said to herself.

When she opened the door, a surprise met her eyes. A bedraggled, weary-looking traveler stood on the back step. "Can I help you?" Fiona asked warily.

"Could you spare some bread?" the man asked.

"Of course." She studied the man carefully. His clothes were dirty and there was mud on his boots. There were a few patches on his cloak, but it looked warm enough. But when Fiona looked into his eyes, she saw kindness and gentleness. She felt this was someone she could trust.

"Iíd like to invite you in, to sit in the kitchen," Fiona began, "but my aunt told me not to let anyone into the house while she is gone. Iím sorry."

The traveler nodded. He glanced around the yard. Two wooden stools sat on the grass not far from the door. An old crate sat on the ground beside them. "Perhaps I can sit there?" he asked.

"Of course," Fiona smiled warmly. "Iíll bring you something to eat and drink."

Although the traveler had asked only for bread, Fiona found a leftover meat pie, a small jug of milk and some cheese to add to the bread. "In the book about King Arnon, there are stories of people who were rewarded for giving generously to strangers," she told herself. "One boy found he had even helped King Arnon, himself. Not that Iím likely to ever see him. Still, I can help this man." She placed the modest meal on a tray and carried it outside.

"Here you are," she said, placing it on the makeshift table.

"But I only asked for bread," he said. "Wonít your aunt be angry?"

"She would have thrown the meat pie out Ė she never eats anything left over from a meal," Fiona answered. She didnít add that the food on the tray was to have been her supper. "Iíll find something else to eat later," she thought.

The traveler smiled. "Thank you, Fiona."

"How did you know my name?" she asked. "Do I know you?"

"I know everything about you Ė how you lost your parents, how hard you work each day, how you often cry yourself to sleep at night."

"Who are you?" Fiona asked, amazed.

The man smiled. He pulled a gold chain from underneath the dirty tunic. Fiona gasped as she recognized the symbol on the medallion. "Are you Ė King Arnon?"

"I am," he replied. He smiled as he took a drink of the milk. "Why donít you join me?"

Fiona was about to protest that there wasnít really enough for two, then she stared at the table in amazement. The tray was now filled to overflowing. There was a full meat pie, fresh from the oven; a loaf of fresh bread with a pat of butter beside it; two large mugs of milk and a plate of sliced cheese. There were bowls of fruit and a platter of sweets for desert. "Where did all this come from?" she asked.

"You were willing to share your supper with a stranger," King Arnon answered warmly. "Now, feast with me."

The two had a merry meal, sitting on two wooden stools, using the crate as their table. Fiona was afraid she would be shy before the King, but found herself talking happily with him as if they had known each other forever. The sun was beginning to sink behind the trees when King Arnon stood, preparing to leave.

"Please, King Arnon," Fiona said hesitantly. "Could you take me with you? I could work in your palace."

"Actually, I have something special for you to do right here," the King answered.

"You do?" Fiona asked. "What is it?"

King Arnon reached into a pocket in his cloak and pulled out a dark seed with a streak of gold in it. "This is a saba seed. Plant it in the herb garden and water it every day. The plant that will grow from this seed will produce food for you and anyone who passes by asking for bread. Share with them and you will be serving me."

Fiona nodded thoughtfully. She wanted to serve King Arnon, but when she thought of staying at her auntís house, she sighed.

"What is it, child?" King Arnon asked gently. "Do not be afraid to tell me what is on your heart."

Fiona looked into his eyes and knew she could tell him anything. Tears welled up in her eyes as she said, "It is hard to live here. Aunt is so cross and mean. And the twins are always trying to get me into trouble. They laugh at me and boss me around all the time."

King Arnon nodded. "It is hard here, I know. But, who will show my love to Margarette and her daughters?"

"I donít know if I can do that," Fiona said honestly. "I get so mad at them sometimes. I only live here because I have nowhere else to go. I donít love them and Iím not sure I want to."

"Learning to love takes time and practice," King Arnon said. "You cannot do it by yourself. But I will help you." Once again, he reached inside his cloak. This time he pulled out a ruby-red gem on a gold chain. "This is a haima stone," he said, placing it around her neck. "It will fill you with my love. Only my love is powerful enough to help you learn to love others."

Fiona held the stone in her hand, watching it reflect the sunlight. A warm glow touched her heart, filling it to overflowing. Maybe it really was possible to love her aunt and the twins.

"So, will you serve me by feeding travelers and learning to love those in this house?" King Arnon asked.

Fiona looked into his eyes and saw the love there. She knew that, although what he asked was not what she had wished for, his ways were best. She knew she could trust him. She took a deep breath and said, "Yes, King Arnon. I will serve you here."

"Good." King Arnon smiled. "I will send helpers to you Ė the Ursa fairies. They will encourage you and help you with your chores. And I will stop by every now and then, to share a meal at your table." He waved a hand at their unusual banquet hall with a smile.

King Arnon waved and then headed on his way through the trees. He visited the Ursa fairies in their valley, telling them about Fiona. Every day, several Ursa fairies stopped by the house, helping Fiona wash dishes, dust furniture and fold laundry. They played music for her and read books while perched on her shoulders. They joined in feasts as Fiona fed hungry travelers behind the kitchen. They also encouraged her to act in love toward those she lived with, using the power of his love.

And so, the Ursa fairies learned that not all who serve King Arnon do so from inside his palace. For there are many who need to know his love and feel it through an act of service or kindness. Those who are filled with the Kingís love are able to love even those who are unkind, for his love fills the heart to overflowing.



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