The Storyteller is silent.
"Death is better than living here?" the oldest girl asks quietly.
"Yes, child," the Storyteller replies. He shakes his head dispiritedly. "We have no freedom of speech or religion, and must live our lives in fear of the government. They force us to pay incredibly large taxes, and live in the lap of luxury while the common people barely keep themselves on their feet. Criminals roam the streets, stealing, killing. The government has no concern for our safety. And yet it was not always like this."
Another child raises his hand, asks a question. The Storyteller answers patiently, sadly. Eventually he moves on to another story, the children sit enraptured, and the minutes drift into hours. They do not notice the skulking man at the door.
He had been there from the beginning, since the little girl in the pink frock had raised her scrubby fist and inquired fearfully about the "bad people." Smiling grimly, he had walked briskly down the street and into an alleyway where he had whispered a few words to an equally furtive-looking gentleman, and then had returned to the Storyteller's tent. Still listening to the old man's tales with half of his mind, the man at the door looks up and down the road and curses under his breath. Where are they?
The man works for the government, and is assigned the task of locating unhappy citizens that could be conspiring against the system of administration. The Storyteller is considered to be one such conspirator – his stories and his attitude are all too revealing. And poisoning the minds of young children can be a serious threat to society. No, this man cannot, and will not, be allowed to continue in this fashion. A smile plays at the edges of the man's mouth as he thinks of what the punishment will be this time. Will they break him? Confine him in jail until the end of his miserable days, perhaps? The man's thoughts drift as the Storyteller begins the legend of a selfish prince who is transformed into a silver stallion by a magician. The delighted laugh of a child echoes through the tent when the stallion is bought by a beautiful princess. The man at the door wonders who turned the Storyteller in to the government. Probably some anonymous commoner looking for a few extra coins. In the man's mind, that is the beauty of it all. They all complain about the dictatorship, as that is what it is, but they themselves are the ones who turn their own kind over to the enemy; who aid in their own continuing imprisonment.
And then the trumpets sound, their regal harmony cascading through the afternoon sunlight. The melody's major key is deceiving – it masks the intent of the trumpet bearers' escort. The man jumps up eagerly. "Finally, they are here!" he cries.
The children pour out of the doorway, but hesitate when they see the man. His hooded, shifty eyes and stooped stature make them wary. But what is coming down the street makes them instantly forget the man's presence. Some gasp, others break into tears. A short, squat boy covers his younger sister's eyes.
Tall, hooded soldiers mounted on huge black horses file down the lane. Their scarlet and raven uniforms clank ominously with silver buckles and buttons. Emblazoned on each saddle, coat, and helmet is the silhouette of a broken crown wreathed in flame. The first soldier is taller than the others. His armor seems blacker; the shadows in its notches and crevices seem deeper; the eye slits in his helmet embody fiercely glowing flames. He carries a pike topped with a charred human skull.
And as if by magic, the street is empty. Booths and stalls are abandoned; shopping baskets lie sprawled on the cobblestones, fruit and loaves of bread litter the ground.
The Storyteller emerges from his tent slowly, leaning on a gnarled cane. His liquid brown eyes melt and widen as he glimpses the army marching down the street. Time seems to freeze. And then he acts.
"Children!" he cries. "Children! Run home! Do not look back! Do not show them your faces!" The panic adds a new feel to his voice. It no longer seems comforting. Suddenly, he is a fragile, helpless old man. Terror shades his face – until it is replaced by resolve. He knows what he must do.
The children scamper, disappearing into dark alleyways and secret passages. The skulking man smiles at their fear. The Storyteller stands alone, afraid and yet unafraid, aware of his predicament.
The first soldier nears, dismounts from his steed, and draws close to the Storyteller.
"You're the one we have come for," he says. His voice is no more than a rasp.
"Yes, I suppose I am," says the Storyteller, with an ambiance all about him as if he knows he is looking death straight in the face and does not care.
The soldier strikes him down, his armored fist colliding with the Storyteller's side. The old man crashes onto the cobblestones. His right leg lies twisted under him. He struggles to breathe.
"Take him away," says the tall soldier disgustedly.
They drape the dying man on a foul black stallion and he is taken down the street and into the city. The tall soldier strikes a match and drops it at the foot of the Storyteller's tent. He turns away as the flames creep higher, not a look back. A thin plume of ashen smoke drifts into the crystalline sky.
The Storyteller sighs as he lies struggling for breath on the cold cobbled floor of the prison cell. The prison is strictly for government use – only citizens who threaten the Liberator's system are placed within its walls.
As the end slowly draws nearer, a sudden realization dawns on the old man. He summons his last strength and forces his body into a sitting position, bracing his back against the solid rock wall. Closing his eyes, the Storyteller reaches into his pocket and draws out a polished green stone that fits neatly into the palm of his hand. The last few tendrils of light from the setting sun peer dimly through the barred window set high in the wall, like the solitary remnants of a final, fading hope.