“That’s her, that’s the one,” the plump man pointed an accusing finger at me. “That’s the thief.” The lord Diablo’s men gripped my arms even tighter. Passersby, inspecting the wares of the carts up and down the dirt streets, stopped at the scene with curiosity.
“She will be punished,” sneered the lord Diablo, as he turned to go. Satisfied, the round little shopkeeper returned to his cart. The two men holding me smiled rather evilly, shoving me back farther into the alley down which I had almost escaped with my stolen parcel. The taller of my two captors turned without warning and struck me hard in the face, and I stumbled backwards on the dirt ground. I started to get up, but the shorter, stockier one kicked me in the stomach, knocking me back down. I rolled over, groaning at the pain in my abdomen, and tried to make a run for the end of the alley, but the tall one grabbed me by the shoulders, holding me back.
“Not so fast, Carmel,” he said. “We’re not finished with you yet.”
The beating that followed was one of the most severe I’ve ever received in my life, which is quite a statement coming from a professional thief. My years on the streets as a thief and the periodic “punishments” that I received whenever I was caught had toughened me, but nothing had prepared me for what I endured that day. Surely a loaf of bread was not worth the bruising I received. They beat me until I tasted blood, too weak to even try to escape. When the two finally backed off, permitting me to leave, I struggled to my feet. Leaning heavily against the wall of a building, I tried to catch my breath as I staggered out of the dark alley. My head was pounding, and I could already feel my left eye starting to swell. Tears flooded my eyes as I moved away from the town, not caring which direction I took. And although I tried to fight them back, on this day I simply could not- very uncharacteristic of me. But then, who am I, anyway? Well, let me explain.
I, Carmel, once lived in a large town called Arabella. Arabella was ruled by its King and his son, The Prince, and they lived in a large palace overlooking the town. The end of town opposite the Palace was known as the diablo. Although the diablo was still a part of Arabella, it was the junky part, where the drunks and prostitutes and homeless people lived- if you can call it living. This part of town was controlled by the lord Diablo, a man who hated The King with everything in him. He ran this trashy end of town, and encouraged the people to disobey The King’s laws by doing any number of immoral things- things that sounded good to those who struggled to keep The King’s laws.
You see, The King of Arabella was an extremely just and righteous king. He could not tolerate any injustice or transgressions in his town, because he himself was so righteous. So his laws were strict but always fair; there was to be no murder, no stealing, no lying, cheating, dishonesty… no faults or imperfections of any kind, no matter how small they seemed. Indeed, he demanded absolute perfection from his people, because any wrongdoing, any fault angered and disturbed him so greatly, and he could not bear to be around such people. So, wanting only the very best for his people, he gave them the most just, perfect set of laws any town had ever seen.
But of course, the people were only human, and it was impossible for them to keep all the decrees of their King, since any fault whatsoever made them below his standards. However good they were, they were not perfect, only human. And The King’s laws said only the shedding of blood could cleanse a person from his wrongdoing; only the shedding of blood could “make up for” a person’s transgression. The only penalty was the death penalty.
But The King was quick to see that his people would never be able to keep these laws, and he loved them very, very much. He couldn’t let them be executed, even if they were not perfect and did not deserve to live in his town with him. So The King came up with a solution to the problem; instead of the people paying the price for their faults with their own blood, they could use the blood of animals. To pay for their sins, people sacrificed certain animals, depending on which law they had broken.
For a while it appeared that The King had solved the problem for his people, and whenever they broke a law they would be able to make atonement for it and they could still stay in Arabella with their King. But the people were still imperfect in nature and had trouble even making atonement when they broke a law. The King realized this could not go on forever. It was inefficient and not working for the imperfect townspeople.
So what happened then? The people either struggled to keep The King’s laws or they didn’t. And those who didn’t often found themselves living in the diablo, enslaved by their passions and weaknesses. You see, the lord Diablo who governed that part of town had a very different philosophy. He encouraged people to live thinking only of themselves and doing whatever they wanted, and he used his power to support that idea. The lord Diablo did not care what his followers did, so long as they were not obeying the laws. In fact, the more of The King’s laws the people broke and the more they hated him, the better. Petty theft was a part of everyday life, and cheating and dishonesty were second nature to many people. All this the lord Diablo loved.
As opposite as they were, it’s easy to see why the lord Diablo and The King hated each other.
So, where was I during all of this? I was an Arabella dropout. That is, I abandoned The King’s laws and bummed around the streets of the diablo. I worked periodically for various people, those who were never sober and those who lived “a decent life,” and when business was bad, I took what I needed. It really doesn’t matter what I did for work, and I couldn’t tell you because I drifted from job to job as it suited me. For the most part my occupation was simply as a thief, and I worked for the lord Diablo himself. The point is, I had a hard life and I stayed alive by stealing whatever I could from others. Oh, there were a few times I tried to reform, but like the rest of Arabella I was imperfect in nature and my own desires often got the better of me. We were all slaves to our own crimes, and quite unable to free ourselves no matter how hard we tried.
I stumbled along for what seemed like hours, my vision blurred by the tears in my eyes. I was by now, I knew, quite far from the small alley back in town that I called home, but I didn’t care. I didn’t know where I was or where I was going, but anywhere had to be better than the place I had left. I paid no attention to my direction. Finally, exhausted and too weak to walk any farther (and where would I go, anyway?), I collapsed under the shade of a massive oak tree. I curled up on the ground and buried my head in my arms, sobbing. Every muscle in my body ached from the terrible beating it had received, and it hurt simply to lie on the ground.
“Carmel, why are you crying?” I heard a gentle voice behind me. Startled, I mustered enough strength to turn around and look.
Standing there before me was a young man in his early thirties, dressed in the most elegant, royal-looking attire I had ever seen in my life. He knelt beside me, a concerned look on his face.
“Who- who are you?” I asked, almost afraid to hear the answer. “And how do you know my name?”
“Carmel, I have watched you since the day you were born,” he said. “I am the Prince; it is my business to know my subjects.” My eyes widened.
“You’re The Prince?” I was still incredulous, but he seemed to have moved beyond that basic point.
“You are hurt,” he said. “That eye is going to be black for a while.” Although I was still dumbfounded, he talked to me, gently treating my injuries. Looking around at the beautiful trees and well-kept lawns, I realized I must have wandered onto the Palace grounds.
“Why are you helping me?” I finally gathered the courage to ask. “I broke the law.”
“Carmel, I love you, and I have waited so long for the day you would acknowledge me as your king. I long for the day you would not rebel against me, but follow the laws I have given you for your own good.”
His caring amazed me. Why a prince would care anything about a common street tramp, a thief in fact, was beyond me. But he treated me gently, and when we finally parted he asked me to come back the next day.
Although at the time I did not realize it, my life changed forever that day. My visits to the royal courtyards increased, until I spoke to The Prince almost daily. We walked through his gardens, or down by the lake, often talking late into the night. His interest in the street life and concern for the welfare of his people amazed me, and every day I found myself liking him more. At times I thought about how ridiculous we must look, strolling along side-by-side, a prince and a notorious thief, but these were thoughts that for the most part I ignored.
The more time I spent with The Prince, the less time I spent in the diablo. All my life I had found the dusty streets familiar and the daily struggles and crime exciting, but as I came to know The Prince more and more, I found the diablo increasingly less inviting. I began to seek more honest ways to earn a day’s wages, and the lord Diablo saw less and less of me.
Strange new thoughts ran through my head, unlike any I had ever entertained before. How long could I go on living this way? Was I doomed to forever live out my days stealing quick meals, living day-to-day as a thief, and submitting to the harsh beatings whenever I was caught? What kind of life was that? These were things I had never before considered.
Something inside my heart told me that this relationship could not last… but I couldn’t help it. I began to love him. We were an impossible match, a prince and a street thief, but I simply could not resist him. He loved me despite who I was… in fact, he loved me for who I was, regardless of what I had done. It was a concept new to me.
It wasn’t until one day a few weeks later, as I was on my way to meet The Prince, that I really began to think about the irony of our relationship. A prince and a thief? What a laugh! How could we possibly love each other when the distance between us was so great? I pushed the thoughts aside as I came in view of our meeting place.
And there he was. Waiting for me yet again. I ran towards him now, ready to be swept up into that strong embrace once more. Something about being with this man was worth more to me than all the money in the world.
But as we sat down again in our usual spot, underneath the oak tree, where we had first met, I could not push my previous thoughts out of my mind. We talked, and he spoke of conversations with his father. But even as he spoke my mind was elsewhere. Thoughts raced around inside my head. What was I doing? Wasn’t I just setting myself up for disappointment? This man was a sovereign and I his subject. Did I honestly think we could love each other? Get married? Get real! How could I go on seeing him, sneaking away evening after evening, when we could never be together anyway?
“Something is wrong,” he said. “Tell me.” I shook my head.
“I’m alright,” I said.
“No,” he said slowly. “I can see that you are troubled. Carmel, what’s bothering you?”
So I tried to explain as the fears and the doubts began pouring out of me, onto his lap in the form of tears. There was no way out. Nothing could change the fact that I fell unbelievably short of his standards.
“You’re a prince,” I said. “I’m definitely not a princess. You’ve kept every one of your father’s rules. I’ve broken every one. You’re so royal. I’m so filthy. You loved me. I didn’t even know you. You loved me anyway. In time I came to love you. But what are we going to do? We’re the most unlikely pair that ever lived! And the law separates us so that we can never be together.”
“Shhhh,” he said softly, putting a finger to my lips. “I’ll find a way. We’ll be together forever. I promise.”
“Why? Why would you do that for someone like me?”
“Because I love you.”
“Are you out of your mind?!” I jumped up from under the oak tree where we had sat together so many times and began pacing wildly. Fairy tales were nice, but reality was starting to sink in. What we had was impossible. “There isn’t one reason on earth why you should love me! I’m a filthy, dirty, ignorant street girl who’s broken every law your father’s ever made, sometimes just for spite and always even though I knew better, and I spent my whole life HATING you and running from the justice of your rules!! HOW ON EARTH CAN YOU LOVE ME??!!”
Slowly The Prince stood. For a split second it occurred to me that I could have made him angry. But there was only love in his eyes. He walked up to me, took my chin in his hands and smiled.
“Because you are mine,” he said. “And I treasure you.”
I’ll never fully understand it. How he could love me. The profound simplicity of it is beyond my comprehension. But he took me in his arms, told me it would be alright, and we parted for the night.
Unfortunately, the best evening of my life also quickly turned into one of the worst. The reality of our situation struck me all too quickly when I realized that the lord Diablo had picked up on what was going on. I was walking back to my alley, smiling to myself as the words Because you are mine, and I treasure you, played over and over again in my mind, when suddenly the lord Diablo himself stepped out from around a corner, and stood directly in front of me.
“Ah, Carmel,” he said, all too nicely. “You’ve been out rather late. In fact, you disappear quite often. There wouldn’t, by any chance, be anything going on you’re not telling me, would there?” I tried to go around him, but three of his men stepped forward, and one of them caught me by the shoulder, shoving me back.
“Don’t walk away when I’m speaking to you,” Diablo sneered. “The Prince would find your manners most disappointing.”
“What do you want?” I finally growled, as the man holding me shoved me roughly to the ground at the lord Diablo’s feet.
“My dear,” he said. “I am simply here to remind you of your duties. You and I have something of a deal worked out together. I’m sure any new relationships you are forming are strictly business-related.”
“What are you talking about?” I said angrily, getting back on my feet.
“I think you know what I’m talking about, my pet,” he replied. “You are a thief. You have always been a thief, and you will always be a thief. Your life, my dear, belongs to me. And your relationship with The Prince could prove most useful to us. You are a fine pickpocket. Surely in all your visits with The Prince you have seen something valuable…”
“Never!” I cried. “I would never steal from him!”
“Oh, my pet,” he said, leaning forward, “I think you would.”
Two of the men grabbed my shoulders, one on either side, holding me firmly despite my kicking and screaming. They shoved me back into the growing shadows, and the third one stood by readily, prepared to be persuasive, if necessary.
“Bring me back something tomorrow, my dear,” the lord Diablo said. “By sundown, if you wish to see the sunrise.”
“Never!” I screamed again. “I won’t do it! I won’t steal for you anymore, and I won’t hurt The Prince!”
With a nod of his head the lord Diablo signaled the third man, who now held a large wooden staff in his hand. He beat me mercilessly, and although I fought with all my strength, I could not break free of the two men holding my arms. They shoved me to the ground, and the third one kicked me hard.
“Changed your mind yet?” the lord Diablo asked pleasantly.
“I won’t do it!” I yelled angrily, choking out the words in between huge sobs and coughs that filled my mouth with blood. “I… I love him,” I whispered. So the three resumed. They attacked me brutally, well into the night, until finally, semi-conscious, I nodded my head miserably.
“Alright,” I whispered, my chest heaving with huge gasps. “Just leave me alone!”
“I knew you would find my proposition most agreeable if you just thought about it long enough,” the lord Diablo said with an evil grin. “Goodnight, my pet. See you at sundown.” And he and his men withdrew from me, leaving me alone, crying and still coughing up blood.
Needless to say, I didn’t sleep well that night. The injuries I had sustained and the burden weighing on my mind made my sleep fitful at best. I spent the next day wandering restlessly, anxiously trying to put off my visit to The Prince. He would ask what had happened to me. I could not tell him the truth; I would have to make something up. And then I would have to find something to bring back to the lord Diablo. Your life, my dear, belongs to me, he had said. You’re nothing more than his slave, I thought. I briefly considered simply not going; perhaps I could make a run for it, leave town. But wherever I went he was bound to find me eventually. And his words by sundown, if you wish to see the sunrise, echoed in my mind. Finally, with a heavy heart and tears in my eyes, I began to walk in the direction of the Palace, dreading what was to come.
Naturally, The Prince was surprised to see my condition.
“Carmel, what happened to you?” he asked with great concern.
“I guess I was out a bit too late last night,” I mumbled, biting my lip. “A couple of thugs jumped me.” Something in his expression told me he didn’t really believe me, but he said nothing.
We sat down again underneath the oak tree, but this evening my mind was on the difficult task I had been assigned. We talked, as always, but my mind was completely absent. How could I have gotten myself into such a foolish predicament? I was a thief- more so today than ever. Even the love of a prince could not change that. Now I would have to hurt him too.
“Carmel, what’s wrong now?” he said finally. “Tell me.” I shook my head, knowing that tonight I could not reveal the true source of my agony.
“Nothing,” I said. “I’m fine, really. Just tired. Go on with what you were saying.” He said nothing more, but the look on his face made my heart skip a beat. Almost as if he knew… but surely it was impossible.
Reminded of my solemn mission, my eyes fell on a silver pin fastened to his garment. It was very beautiful, intricate and of fine workmanship, with a large clear stone in the center. Surely it was worth much, and it would satisfy the lord Diablo. As I embraced The Prince for what I was sure would be the last time, I slipped my nimble fingers over it, removing it in a flash. I’d had years of experience at stealthy pick pocketing, and never given it a second thought. But tonight tears filled my eyes, and I was certain my heart would shatter in a million pieces right then and there. Which I wouldn’t have minded so much, that’s how much it hurt me to do it. As I pulled away, I almost wondered if The Prince had somehow known what I had done. There seemed to be such pain in his eyes. Without a word I quickly turned to go. I looked back only once, and it could have just been the evening light playing a trick, but I almost thought I saw a tear in his eye.
No sooner did I leave The Prince than I broke down. I cried huge sobs the whole way back to town, quite hysterical by the time I reached the main square of the diablo. The lord Diablo and his men were already waiting for me. The lord Diablo himself seemed pleased, although his men looked a little disappointed, that I had returned on time.
“Ah, my pet, I knew you would come through for us. I knew you would not fail,” he said as I approached. I was so upset and angry, if his men hadn’t been there I might have tried to take him down. As it was, I threw the silver amulet as hard as I could to the ground at his feet, and spit. Not on the silver pin I had stolen, for that had belonged to my prince, but on the ground at the lord Diablo’s feet.
“I hope you’re satisfied,” I screamed. “Because I don’t ever want to see you again! Ever!” I began to back away.
“My pet,” the lord Diablo said slowly. “I’m afraid that won’t be possible. You see, you have placed at my feet the very grounds upon which I can arrest you. The Prince loves you. Therefore, I will kill you.” His men moved towards me. I turned to run, but the tears that flooded my eyes and ran down my face clouded my vision, and I tripped. I got back up again, but by now they were on top of me. They grabbed me quickly, shoving me to the ground in front of the lord Diablo.
“Carmel, you are a fool,” he said, laughing to himself. “A sad fool. We’ve no need of the likes of you on the streets. Take her away!”
The men dragged me to the prison only a few streets away, shoving me roughly in the door and down the dimly lit halls. They threw me inside a dark cell and beat me for as long as they so desired; then left me, half-alive, lying on the cold stone floor. The place had a rotten, musty odor, but at the moment that was the least of my complaints. Beaten up twice in one week, I was in quite bad shape. Every muscle and bone in my body was screaming; some, I’m sure, broken. I had a terrible headache and my whole body felt feverishly cold. I could barely breath, and whenever I coughed I tasted blood. I shivered. It’s your own fault, I thought to myself. How could you have ever let yourself get into such a mess? Now The Prince will never see you again, and he’ll think of you only as a cheating thief. He’ll probably never even know what happened to you.
That was the last thing I remember before everything went black.
In actuality, The Prince knew very well of my plight and was already formulating a plan. In his father’s throne room, The Prince discussed the subject with The King.
“Father, the lord Diablo has your subjects bound and tied. They cannot keep the laws, and so they are forever in his grasp. The time is right. Something must be done.”
“Yes, but what?” replied The King. The Prince thought for a moment.
“The penalty must be paid, but they cannot pay it. I have committed no crime. I could take their place.”
“You, my son?”
“Yes, Father. Your subjects would be free, and justice would still be served.”
“I know, my son,” The King said quietly. “I have always known. But I would never force you to undertake such a task. Do you really want to do this?”
“Father, if I don’t, what will happen to Carmel? I am willing. Say the word and I will go.”
The King rose slowly from his throne and embraced his son.
“Then go, my son, and free the ones we love. And know that I love you, and you have made me proud.”
How could I have ever believed that he loved me? I thought as I lay alone in my self-built prison hours later. I had long since resigned myself to the fact that I was incapable of working my way out of the chains and trying to escape. Instead I lay exhausted and aching on the cold, hard floor. He’s a prince! No matter what, for all time, he will always be royalty and I will always be less than nothing! I would have kicked myself if I had had the energy. But I was powerless. Powerless to become the princess a prince could marry. Powerless to keep The King’s laws. Powerless to prevent justice from throwing me in a cold, dark, smelly prison. Powerless to break the chains I deserved. Powerless to escape the death sentence I had written for myself. Totally and completely powerless.
I began to cry.
Then suddenly I heard footsteps, and the creaking of the door opening. From my position lying on the floor I could see a single shaft of light on the dirty stones in front of me.
“There she is, you’ve seen her. Now, leave us! There’s nothing you can do for her. She’s broken the law too many times to count. She belongs to me now,” I heard a voice say. I recognized it immediately as the lord Diablo’s. It’s not a voice you forget easily, and I was shamefully familiar with it.
“You are wrong,” another voice said. Instantly I thought I recognized it, but surely it was impossible. “There is something I can do. I can, and I will. I will do anything, whatever it takes, to free her. I wish to make an exchange.” My heart was pounding now. Could it be? Was it really possible that The Prince could love me enough… even now… to come… here?
“An exchange? Of prisoners?” lord Diablo spoke.
“No,” the other said. “Not an exchange of prisoners, but an exchange of a free man for your prisoners. I give you myself, in exchange for all you hold prisoner here. That is, my life as ransom for all the citizens of Arabella.”
For a moment there was silence. Then the sneering laugh of the lord Diablo.
“You want to exchange yourself for their freedom? For her freedom? And why on earth would you want to do that?”
“Because I love her.”
The lord Diablo laughed again. “Because you love her! Ha! Let me think about it,” he said.
“Perhaps you misunderstand. I’m not asking you what you think. I’m telling you what you will do. I am still The Prince, and you will do as I instruct you. Justice will still be served. Release her. I will take her place.”
This can’t be happening, I thought, bewildered. Something’s not right. But a shadow fell over me, and vaguely I saw that indeed, The Prince himself knelt down beside me on this filthy prison floor. Love shone in his eyes as he leaned over me, and he glanced sorrowfully at my dirty surroundings. With a touch of his hand the chains around my ankles and wrists cracked and shattered, and although I was sure some bones had to have been broken, any pain disappeared. Gently, tenderly he lifted me up and held me for just a moment, then carefully set me on my own wobbly feet. My head was pounding with a headache and I could barely stand, let alone think clearly. Vaguely I was able to process that he was setting me free, and then it finally got through to me that he intended to take my place.
“What- wait! What about you?!” I called as one of the lord Diablo’s men started to lead me away.
“I will see you soon,” he said. Despite my weak condition, I wrenched away from the man holding my arm.
“Why-” I began, but The Prince took my chin in one hand and with the other put a finger to my lips.
“Because I love you,” he said. Then he took out a key and pressed it into my palm. “Go straight to the Palace and see my father. He has something for you.” I wanted to say more, but the lord Diablo’s man pulled me away and led me up the stairs, towards the surface.
“Don’t do this!” I cried, struggling against the man. “There has to be another way!” But the door of the room I had been chained in only moments before shut behind them.
My escort shoved me roughly out the door of the prison house, and I found myself once again in the streets of the diablo. The brightness of the sky hurt my eyes, and I staggered back against the wall of the prison house and slumped down on the ground. My headache still raged, but I was thinking clearer out in the open air. What’s happened to you? I asked myself, sighing weakly. Could your life really have changed that much in so short a time? And what of The Prince? The only one who truly loved me, enough even to take my place, and I would never get to see him again? I’d never even thanked him. And now he would have to rot away in that filthy prison and carry a death sentence for my crimes? There had to be a way. Something I could do… but the sun was warm, and I was thoroughly exhausted, and even in these dismal and dirty surroundings, I could not stay awake. I don’t know how long I slept, but I’ll never forget how I woke up.
Suddenly the door to the prison house burst open, and an angry mob of people poured out, startling me awake. I quickly jumped up and moved aside as the deadly wild crowd of lord Diablo’s men screamed and sneered. What now? I wondered. Could things possibly get any worse? The crowd cursed and jeered towards some unlucky focal point in the middle. I moved towards them, pushing my way towards the center. The mob was wild, but my years on the streets had toughened me. Finally I got close enough to peer over a few shoulders at the unfortunate object of all this attention…
There he stood. At the center, being shoved along by the lord Diablo himself, was my beautiful prince. I gasped, crying out as I first realized who it was. He had been stripped of any clothing of royalty, wearing instead the torn, brown uniform of a prisoner. At least, it had once been completely brown. He had been beaten so badly that he barely looked alive, and blood stained the thin cloth and ran down his legs. He could barely walk, but the lord Diablo dragged him on anyway, sneering and enjoying this moment of triumph. They dragged him to the main square of the Diablo and the crowd cleared back a little. I screamed, I cried, I begged and pleaded, but no one would listen. They ignored me like they couldn’t even see me. The exchange had been made, and I was no longer one of them.
As the crowd of lord Diablo’s followers cheered, the lord Diablo himself mocked The Prince. Someone passed him a jagged metal bowl resembling a large tin can, something pulled from a nearby alley or overflowing garbage bin, and he shoved it on The Prince’s head like a crown. They found a filthy, ragged blanket and put it on his shoulders as a royal robe. I grabbed desperately at people’s sleeves, screaming and crying inconsolably, but no one would listen- they shoved me away. They shouted and fell down before him, bringing him offerings from the streets of the nearby alleys. I pushed my way out of the jeering mob and over to the side of a building, where I collapsed, my whole body shaking as I cried. My face pressed against the packed dirt, I asked myself why, why would anyone ever want to do this? And then I remembered all the times I had done it myself to other prisoners of the lord Diablo. I had sneered and laughed at the very people my lord and love The Prince was dying to redeem. In essence, I had done it to him as these people were doing it to him. I had laughed in his face every time I disobeyed the laws and added another crime to my long list of inequities for which he would die.
The violent crowd’s taunting escalated, and the lord Diablo began shoving his prized prisoner down another street. They were moving? But why? Hadn’t they already done enough? I willed myself to stand up and follow them, trailing behind the dangerous crowd. As they turned down several streets, I realized with horror where they were going. No, they can’t! My mind raced wildly as I turned down a side street. They were moving slowly, going the long way through the entire city and enjoying their parade. I would get there first. My heart pounded as I raced through the streets of filth I knew so well. If their destination was the same as mine, I would never see my prince again.
I crossed a quarter of the city, rounded a few corners and found myself standing on the sacrificial grounds. Slowly, almost hesitantly, I crept forward. Slowly I ran my fingers over the smooth edge of the huge slab of stone upon which countless animals had been offered as redemption for the uncountable sins of an imperfect people. I should have known they would come here. I knew my own penalty was death, and so his would be too. But I truly realized for the first time why this had to happen. Our crimes were so grievous to our lord The King, who had kept all his perfect laws, punishment was necessary. There had to be a penalty. Any just ruler would acknowledge that fact. The penalty was death. We would have to pay for our crimes with our own blood. But our King loved us. He couldn’t let us die. So he temporarily accepted the blood of animals instead. We were able to “cover up” our sins with the blood of our best livestock, squeezing by but failing miserably. We were still bound by our crimes. I was still imprisoned. But our King loved us. He couldn’t let us die. So he died instead. He sent his own son to take our places. My place. The only one who had kept all the rules and escaped this punishment of the law was taking it anyway so we wouldn’t have to.
I heard shouts and taunting, and I backed away just as the mob rounded the corner and approached the sacrificial stone. Only it wasn’t just the angry mob of lord Diablo’s men anymore. It was the whole town. Everyone had come to see the death of The Prince. Not only that, but they were shouting and jeering just like lord Diablo’s men had. Each one had rejected him and was happy to see him die.
“You idiots!” I screamed desperately as they placed him on the stone. “Don’t you know he’s doing it for you?! Can’t you see he’s taking your place?!” But no one even heard me. I was completely ignored.
I stood at the side of the crowd, my whole body shaking as though it were possessed. I screamed and fell to my knees as they drove spikes through his hands and feet into the wooden posts at the side of the stone, to hold him in place, though not once had he struggled. He was doing this willingly, because he wanted to save us, not because he had to. Tears streamed down my face as I heard people shouting, “Come on, Prince! Save yourself! You are The Prince! Call in your armies to rescue you!” I saw him look back at me just once, and he seemed at peace knowing I was free.
“No!” I screamed. “Please no!” Gasping, my body wracked with huge sobs, I pleaded with them, but no one cared. They only pushed me away, holding me back from running to my prince. I moved to the back of the crowd, unable to watch, as I saw the lord Diablo raise the knife to complete the sacrifice. Then I heard The Prince cry out, “My father, please, forgive them, they don’t understand what they’re doing!” Some laughed harder. I cried harder. I cried thinking of the grace and mercy of this man. I stepped into an alley behind the crowd and leaned back, collapsed against a wall, but I heard the cheers when the knife came down.
A brilliant flash of lightning split open the night sky, followed almost instantaneously by a tremendous peal of thunder. Suddenly, as if spellbound, the crowd parted and drew back, and then everyone froze, things seemed to stand still, as if I was the only one who could move. I forced myself to look with horror as the blood flowed down the stone onto the ground. And as I stood frozen in the silence, unable to turn away, I heard a loud snap. Then another, and another. I turned around and saw chained prisoners and people in stocks whose binds had cracked and fallen apart in a heap at their feet. Everywhere former prisoners were free from their chains and bindings. The punishment had been taken, the price paid, and the lord Diablo no longer held power over us to drag us away and hold us captive in chains. Now we would choose whom we would follow. As people began to look around some realized the truth, that the man just murdered had died for them, so they would be freed. Many others still refused to believe it, and allowed themselves to continue being slaves bound by their own crimes because they rejected the gift of The Prince.
The lord Diablo laughed and sneered on, thinking he had won. Someone took the body away, and people began to leave, many continuing to riot in reckless celebration. I was still in shock and unable to go. When finally I willed my legs to move again, the last to leave, the first corner I rounded I ran into an older man leaning against the building, tears streaming down his face.
“Forgive me,” I choked, coughing out the words in between sobs. He lifted his head and I saw his tear-stained face. I gasped, choking.
“Your Highness! What- what are you doing here?” I said through my tears, glancing at the commoner’s clothing he wore. “Your Majesty, you’ve been here the whole time?”
“My child,” he said, tears glistening in his eyes. “Did you not think that I was aware of the death of my son? Did you not think I was here? Oh I was here. I cried when the spikes were driven into his hands, too. I felt every pain he experienced as if it were my own. I heard the shouts and cheers as the knife fell. And only a moment before that I heard my son cry out to me to forgive them.”
When I awoke the next morning, or rather, afternoon, I honestly wondered if it had all been a dream. A horrible nightmare. After leaving The King, I had wandered around town in a daze for hours, until sheer exhaustion finally overcame me and I went back to my alley, dozing fitfully until late in the afternoon. With my hours all switched around the events of last night were distant, like something that had happened a week ago, and easily accredited to a terrible nightmare. After all, even from my dismal alley I could see that the sun was still shining, the birds singing, and children laughing. Life went on. If today seemed so normal, surely last night could not have been so horrible. But as I stood up I saw on my wrists the red marks left by the chains that had bound me. A sore reminder that didn’t even come close to describing the price he paid for me. I sank back down with a sadness and pain that had moved way beyond tears, down deep into my chest.
What were we all to do now? The blood of The Prince had freed us from the slavery of our own desires… or had it? What alternative did we have? The Prince was dead, and it seemed certain that the lord Diablo had won after all.
Nothing could describe the hopeless despair that settled over me that afternoon. I cried very little, instead wandering around in a daze, vaguely noting how cruel life was to go on living when there was nothing left to live for. There was a hollow emptiness in my chest, a deep void that could never be filled, and truly nothing more to live for, other than what I had been living for before I ever knew The Prince- my survival, my own personal satisfaction, my selfish gain. And this was meaningless to me, after I had tasted something so much higher. All that had once given me mild satisfaction I now regarded as null and void, in favor of a prized treasure that truly made life worth living. But this treasure was no longer mine, and a deep apathy cut into my soul.
It was this wandering listlessness, accompanied by horrifying nightmares, that characterized my existence from that Friday afternoon all through Saturday night.
When I awoke Sunday morning (although I still had not been able to truly sleep) it occurred to me that the pain in my chest and the gaping hole in my heart might be eased somewhat by visiting the tomb where The Prince had been buried. Yes, if I could not be with him in his life, then at least I would be with him in his death. At least I would be with him.
I stood up that morning with more energy than I had had since The Prince’s death. I quickened my pace as I neared the edge of town, trotting down a sloping green hillside. I began to run as I drew nearer to the caves, the tombs for the dead. The terrain began to grow rocky and I stumbled, my toe smashing against a jagged rock. I felt a sharp pain and, glancing down, saw blood. I didn’t care. The prospect of even being near The Prince’s body made me run all the harder.
I was flying now, my feet barely touching the ground, the pain in my toe going unnoticed. I rounded a large rock, closing in on my destination.
I stopped short.
In place of the sealed tomb where my prince should have been I saw instead an empty tomb, the large boulder that should have sealed off the entrance rolled away. I gasped, staring blankly. For several moments my mind tried to process this information, and finally I concluded that his body must have either been moved or stolen- for what wicked purpose I could not guess.
I could not withstand anymore. Dropping to my knees I began to cry, my chest and shoulders heaving, my whole body trembling. All hope was lost. The happiness that had been within my reach only days before was now gone, and had never really been mine, because I had still been bound by the law. And even now I felt I remained a slave to the lord Diablo, simply because there was nothing else to be.
“Carmel, what’s wrong? Why are you crying?” I heard a voice behind me. I should have recognized it, but I was too distracted.
“My prince is gone,” I choked. “And I don’t know what they’ve done with him.” I felt a hand on my shoulder.
“Carmel, it’s me. You don’t have to be afraid anymore.” I looked up and gasped, my mouth unable to close around any words to express my emotions. The Prince leaned over me, dressed once again in the glittering clothing of royalty. I was speechless, not to mention terrified. My eyes widened.
“But what… how… how did you…” I struggled for air.
“Carmel, I am The Prince. Death cannot hold me, time and space cannot contain me, nor evil triumph over me,” he said as he helped me to my feet. “And now it will be as I promised you. You will never again be a slave to the lord Diablo, but instead we will be together forever, if only you will come with me.”
And at that moment my life became his… after all, he had paid for it. Never again would I be the same; instead forever changed, eternally made new by the redeeming love and selfless sacrifice of the one who had freed me with his own blood.
“Have you been to the Palace yet?” he said suddenly.
“Actually, I forgot,” I replied sheepishly. “So much has happened.”
“Come with me,” he said as he took my hands and led me back towards the city.
“I don’t belong there,” I hesitated. “Not at the Palace. I’m no princess.”
“Come with me and you shall be. All this I have done for you.”
“Why would you go to all this trouble to marry someone like me?” I asked, although I knew in my heart I could not live without him.
“Because I love you,” he said.
Some story, huh? When we got to the Palace an official pardon for my previous crimes as well as any future trespasses was written and signed by The King himself- my freedom had been bought at a very high price, and my punishment taken. Never again would I be a criminal, but forever- you guessed it- a princess. How could I turn away this one who had taken upon himself my crimes, suffered and died in my place when he deserved none of it, and all out of love for me? And I knew I could never live apart from him. So they got married and lived happily ever after.
But not without responsibilities. I had been a bride no more than three days when The Prince came to speak to me about this.
“Many of the people still live as they did before I came to save them. But they do not have to, because I have paid for their lives as well and they also can be pardoned. But they do not understand this, they do not realize what has happened and they refuse to submit to The King. Carmel, you are no longer a peasant girl. Neither should you live like one. When you married me you became a princess, and your last name changed. You now bear my name and my father’s name, and you must strive to uphold it, for my sake and for the sake of all those who will now be watching you.”
So you see, that’s my mission now, to tell all who will listen about the gift of The Prince. Why? Because I love him, and he has instructed me to do this, so that more will be saved. And because I love them, and I want them to know and except the love he offers freely to all who will bow and believe. He offers you his endless grace to reach into your heart and give you new life, he promises to forever be by your side, faithful always, and he proves the love that redeemed your life will never fade, weaken, or dim.
This is the gift of The Prince.
what will you do with it?
© Denise Walker 2005
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