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Excerpt for Ruben Leigh . The King's Knights ( Book 1 ) by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

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Ruben Leigh


The King’s Knights

Book 1






Chapters

Prologue

1 : The Great Healer

2 : The Queen Consort

3 : Carrack City

4 : Difference of Opinion

5 : Ghost

6 : The King’s Knights

7 : Good Fortune

8 : The Calling

9 : Seer and the King

10 : Healing Hands

11 : Barbarians

12 : The Other Side

13 : Wilder-Beast

14 : Bond of Enchantment

15 : To Save A Life

16 : Suspicion

Prologue


Footsteps echoed in the dark, in the moonlight, two figures appeared, one Susan, a girl of fourteen, the other Babb, a girl of eleven. For Babb, Susan's young sister, time was almost up, for she had a curse, the ghost that plagued her was wanting. They fled deeper into the forest. Struggling to keep up, tired, hungry, Babb sobbed.

'It’s not far now,' Susan tried to reassure her sister. She glanced over her shoulder, into the gloom. 'The risk is too great. We can't stop until we've reached the forest border.'

'But sister, my legs are weak, I must rest.'

'Babb, not yet, soon we will.'

Tears flowed from the younger sister’s eyes, she wept, slumped down on her knees and refused to budge. Susan scowled down at her. Yet she understood her sister was young, unaware of the danger. When thirteen, plagued by a ghost, children vanished, never to be seen again. Susan refused to let this happen to her sister. She sought help from Ruben, the renowned healer.

'Very well.' Susan was unsure, but she gave in to pressure. 'Just five minutes rest, I’ll watch over you.'

Although the willows twisted roots were hard, Susan squatted amongst them, Babb rested her head in her lap. Sweeping aside a lock of red hair, she gazed into her sister’s peaceful face. Her once tanned skin was pale, there were grey circles around her eyes, and her lips were flaking. Though Susan had heard rumours, she had never seen the effects of a haunting until now.

With her sister it came sudden. There was no warning, no prevention, but she watched, helpless, as from within her little sister became distant. Lost from the world, her soul whittled away, she had become withdrawn, a shell of her former self. Against her father’s wishes, Susan had stolen Babb in the night. For her sister, there was one hope, the healer.

Susan waited, counting every passing second. But soon she too became tired, the running, the hiding, it had become too much. The urge to sleep was too great. Before long Susan would wake, Babb would have had a dream, another tale she would tell. Or would she?

Susan woke with a fright. Her arms were empty, all except for the scent of Babb. She sniffed the sweet fragrance on her hands and clothes. She wept until the fog dispersed and the sun climbed high in the sky. Yet tears nor grief could return the sister, taken from her that night.

Chapter 1

The Great Healer



*

Ruben Leigh, the young man of seventeen, with the long nose, handsome features, tanned skin and silvery, shoulder length hair, walked the winding passage at the side of the king’s porter.

Why does King Ravine require my help? The ghosts, they plague the innocent. My service isn’t required here. Yet something about his letter, the lack of information, I’ve cause to believe King Ravine is fearful, the letter penned for me might fall into enemy hands.

‘Ayden,’ said Ruben, to the king’s porter. ‘What’s happened to the king?’

‘Mr Leigh, even if I knew, I’m afraid I can’t answer your question. For some days I’ve not seen the king. He shuns his duties, hiding, in his bedchamber.’ Ayden gave a weary sigh. ‘Since your last visit things have changed for the worst.’

‘On my journey here, for some ten miles, I couldn’t help notice the quiet,’ said Ruben.

‘The people of this city hide behind locked doors and shuttered windows,’ explained Ayden. ‘They seldom venture far from their homes.’

‘In times of uncertainty the monarch should be vocal,' hissed Ruben, concerned. 'No matter how dire the circumstance, he should give reassurance, hope to his people.’

‘He once did, in the past, but these are troubled times we live in.'

'Still a king has a duty to uphold.'

'It’s been a while since you’ve visited Ravine Kingdom. There are changes afoot, the crown is threatened.’

'By whom?' asked Ruben.

'I wish I could answer your question, but I can't. There're things not even I'm aware of. Still, soon enough all will become clear.' Ayden led the healer into a cavernous hall, with a gold painted landing above. ‘Mr Leigh, this way,’ he said, indicating with a hand, ushering the guest across the hall to the broad staircase.

Ruben followed on Ayden’s heels, glancing, warily around. The main hall was furnished, blue patterned, wool rugs covered bare wood floorboards. In one corner gold gilded chairs were arranged around a long sofa. A fire roared in a large fireplace, and a portrait of King Ravine, the child monarch, hung above it. There was a large mirror facing the east wall, where patterned curtains draped long lattice windows reaching from floor to ceiling.

In the castle of King Ravine, there was a chill. As Ruben and the porter ascended the steps to the balcony above, wood floorboards creaked beneath their weight. There were four doors around the landing and a corridor, another flight of steps led to the next landing. Up this flight they proceeded. On both sides of the winding stairway were portraits. Each had written in the bottom left hand corner the artists name and the year of the painting. The Ravine family was extensive, ranging back some twelve hundred years, with kings and queens seated on the throne. Today only the child monarch remained.

A year before, King Ravine’s father, King Barrel ruled the kingdom, his wife was Ishan, and their sons Prince Ravine, Prince Dalton and Prince Hemming. For the attempted poisoning of his two younger brothers, Prince Hemming was renounced by his father, and excluded from his title Prince of Rock Hamlet. What no one knew was Prince Hemming had an unfair trial, the evidence against him insignificant, yet damming.

King Barrel did not hang his son, nor did he imprison him, he banished him from the kingdom. This angered Ishan, her plan failed, she wanted her sons Prince Ravine and Prince Dalton to perish, from poison she applied to their food. She wanted Prince Hemming, her older son to stand accused, forfeiting his life. Her reason, she would then be next in line to throne and kingdom. Ishan passed away with plague, two seasons ago, so did King Barrel and Prince Dalton.

Ruben looked at the less familiar portraits, people who he had had only heard tales of, like Count Tully. His face was hangered. Ruben gazed on the face of Queen Saratha, she was bewitching to the eye. Still from the stories told he believed there was something more to her, something cold, mysterious and sinister. It was roumoured that beneath the bewitching beauty she was a witch. As they climbed to the top of the staircase Ruben saw the portrait of King Ravine.

‘It’s a true work of art,’ he hissed under his breath, crossing his arms across his chest, he studied the painting closely.

'Lifelike,' said Ayden, agreeing. 'Too the last detail, an artist should capture his subject.'

'I don't think I could sit for hours,' admitted Ruben.

‘By tradition, every monarch favoured one artist, the painter of this portrait was amongst the most talented in all the lands,' said Ayden. 'It’s amazing how with one brushstroke he captured the very essence of the monarchy.’

Ruben squinted at the name scribbled on the lower left corner. ‘Marth Higgin, I heard he’s retired.’

‘You could say that. He passed away months ago, shortly after King Ravine posed for this portrait. That was back then, when the king was well. Mr Leigh, the reason for your summons, I dare not repeat what the remaining chambermaid mentioned to me. She’s fearful. She alone is permitted to see the king. All other staff are dismissed from his presence… The king’s unwell.’

‘I thought as much,’ said Ruben. 'His letter didn't detail the nature of my summons, only his request, that I visit him immediately.'

‘Mr Leigh, this way.’ Ayden applied a slight touch to the healer’s coat sleeve.

They continued along the passage pass the doors on each side. Clasped in iron brackets, the flames in wall scones lit the way. The porter was anxious, he rushed ahead, halting before two elegant carved oak doors. Suddenly a scream came from inside.

King Ravine, thought Ruben, as he hastened, pushing aside the double doors.

‘Mr Leigh,’ hissed the kings royal handmaid, shivering, wringing water from the cloth in her grasp, she stood back from the four-poster bed.

Ruben peered through the gloom of the empty chamber. The laced curtains around the bed were drawn shut. A candle burned on the floor near the royal handmaid’s feet. Behind the net curtains around the bed, a shadow shifted. The light was too poor for Ruben to discern anything. Then there came another scream from the figure on the bed.

The porter swung his head to the healer. ‘You know what it is,’ he said, trembling with fright. 'A ghost.'

Ruben said nothing as he was interrupted by another harrowing scream. He went to enter the chamber, suddenly the porter grasped his arm, demanding he wait.

Behind the net curtains, the figure above the bed was humanlike, translucent, it shape shifted, wispy coils of smoke billowed from it. Ignoring Ayden’s plea, Ruben pushed forward, hurrying closer, he observed.

‘Help me,’ begged King Ravine, from behind the curtain, his voice was barely audible, his right arm raised slightly, then fell.

‘A ghost manifesting outside its prey. They lurk within the child’s inner being. That's their law.' Ruben was shocked by what he witnessed. The haunting of the child king.

'Then the ghastly ghost breaks those laws,' said Ayden.

'The haunting,' the royal handmaid told the healer. 'It's been like this for the past week. Day and night. Before it came less frequent, the king's strong willed, he didn't think it would come to this. Now the ghost appears, often, taunting him, removing all that made him great. It won't let him be.'

Ruben slowly made his way forward, in a flicker of fading light, the ghosts vanished before he reached the bedside. Hesitantly, he grabbed the edge of the net curtain, tugging it aside. Ruben jumped back with fright stepping on Ayden’s toes.

‘Mr Leigh, you've arrived at last,’ wheezed King Ravine. His face was skeletal, his skin white and peeling. His small chest tight, he found breathing a struggle, and speaking difficult. ‘Still, I've no doubt you have other, more pressing appointments. My fate is of lesser value.'

'You're not finished yet, you needn't fear anymore,' assured Ruben. 'I intend to save you from the ghost that's haunting you.'

'Do you know, King Casimir, your old friend, has taken to extremes?' inquired King Ravine.

'I don't know what you mean,' said Ruben.

'No, you clearly wouldn't, you're busy no doubt. Then so is your friend. You clearly know nothing about the pyres, the burning of innocent children. The king of the South Mountains does this to appease the ghosts. He believes such barbaric acts will save his sons soul.’

‘I feel like I've failed an old friend,' confessed Ruben. 'It’s been sometime since I visited Carrack City.’

‘I can’t say I blame you, the Carrack’s, they’re a bunch of passivists, not my type. Still, their armies impressive, not that they’ve ever fought in battle. Their monarchs are diplomats. The envy of any lesser kingdom. Yet none can deny them, they’re a nation, thriving, founded on trade, benefiting even my sorry kingdom.’

‘I’m not here to speak about trading neighbours,’ said Ruben, bluntly. ‘I saw it, your ghost.’

‘My vengeful ghost I call it.’ King Ravine choked black spittle into a cloth. ‘The foul thing plagues me as surely as it would any child.’

‘You're thirteen, the age.’

‘I was hoping you wouldn't remind me. Not even a king is above the curse. You saw it.’

‘That wasn’t the behaviour of a normal ghost. They shield their presence. None have ever left a child.’

‘Great healer, sounding doubtful, but you can’t deny you saw it.’

Ruben shook his head, from his years of experience, he never encountered a ghost that moved outside, haunting a child.

‘The foul ghost hasn't won yet. I have come to heal you and I'll succeed,’ promised Ruben. ‘More light,’ he said over his shoulder.

The king’s royal handmaid brought the candle closer, the healer took it from her and turned. He saw King Ravine, his eyes staring, his mouth slightly open... He was gone.

Chapter 2

The Queen Consort



*

Through the ages, Longcross City was impenetrable to its enemies. Firstly, it was situated high on the Northwest Pine’s, a cliff that sawed high from the seabed. It was also built on the threshold of a mass waterfall, this plunged into the Grey Sea. A drawbridge was all that connected the sprawling city at its rocky base, to the mainland. Day and night, watchmen with pikes and silver amour guarded the bridge. Longcross City had a wall, thirty feet high, and beyond this was a sprawling metropolis of grey steeples. And dotted amongst the hills were small villages, where farmers lived in thatched roofed houses. And lakes with treacherous currents, twisted through the looming valley and beyond. Longcross Castle was situated on a high hilltop overlooking the kingdom.

In the castle, King Condor lived with Prince Harmon, his son, and Princess Alice, his daughter. And the jewel in his eye, Thistle, the Queen Consort of Longcross.

Such was King Condor's adoration for his wife, in her presence, he seldom acknowledged anyone else. And Thistle knew why, with enchantments, it was she who bewitched him.

Once pure and scented with lavender, now the water she bathed in was foul, smelly, putrefied. Thick scum had congealed across its surface. Pieces of dried, scaly skin bobbed on the heated rapids. Thin strands of yellow hair floated past, Thistle’s head slowly emerged from the foul substance. She sat upright. Her translucent skin pulsed, her breathing was laboured, air hissed through her lungs. New blood coursed through her veins. She felt no pain. Often, she endured this transformation, discarding her frail identity, soon she would develop new skin and bones.

Her gift had granted her everything she desired, a kingdom to rule over, wealth, but not contempt. Even with the king wrapped around her small finger she was dissatisfied. Masquerading, upholding her duty as wife and mother, she had no time for worldly pleasures.

'Your Majesty.'

The Queen Consort of Longcross, jumped at the sight of Glenda, the girl of fifteen, who she had taken into her care, was her royal handmaid. The stocky girl entered the pool chamber. Her hair was like tuffs of straw. She was dressed in silk, her gown hid her ankles, it was grey, the colour of the royal handmaid. In her hands she held a hooded, woollen bathrobe.

'What is it,' inquired Thistle. She was none too pleased with the disturbance.

'Your Majesty, the matter's urgent, your husband, the king is on his way.'

Swiftly Thistle mounted the steps out of the pool. Her skin was translucent, her face part developed, and new hair grew from her bald scalp. Trying hard not to snap her fragile, twisted limbs, Glenda helped her into the robe of shimmering red silk.

The royal handmaid was trusted with all Thistle’s doings, seldom were secrets kept between them. Glenda would listen to her rant till she was blue in the face, and sometimes advise her, aware of the consequences. The Queen Consort of Longcross had a foul temper. She disliked challenging remarks.

'I fear that someday the truth will out,’ said the royal handmaid. ‘If the king discovers you like this, he’ll have you whipped, hung and quartered.'

With a clenched fist, Thistle struck Glenda’s left cheek, with force, sending her head swinging aside. The royal handmaid was shocked, her pride wounded. With trembling fingers, she touched her lip. She winced at the pain, the cut bled, still she maintained her dutiful composure.

Lacking regret, Thistle took a moment to consider her actions. 'Time’s short.' She lifted a skeletal hand to the royal handmaid’s shoulder. There was urgency in her voice. 'Go to my husband, inform him I’m in the royal garden. Escort him there at once.'

'Your Majesty, he might question why I’m here.'

'If he does, tell him you've my permission. Say I sent you for my shawl, the one with the emeralds and lace. It's a gift he once gave me. Since I seldom take interest in his affections, he likes to see me wear it, the drab colour, dull design, wonky stitching. I'd rather burn it. But it serves a purpose as does my wedding ring.'

'I'll go to him at once.' The royal handmaid dipped her head and went to leave.

'Glenda!' called Thistle after her. 'Don’t forget the minor detail you're bleeding, wipe that from your lip.'

With her back to the Queen Consort of Longcross, Glenda touched a finger to her lip and looked. The strike she received was harder than she thought. It wept blood.

Thistle tied the bathrobe belt around her thin waist. She reached into a pocket and retrieved her wedding ring. It was thin, gold, with a large white jewel, shaped like a teardrop at its centre. Slowly she descended the marble steps to the water’s edge. The discarded remains of what she was had become an odorous soup. Thistle knelt, placing the ring on her finger, dipping it into the scum. Half submerged, gradually, the ring began adsorbing the fluids. Swiftly the stone changed colour, turning crimson, as the edges of the bathwater began to clear.


**


In the royal bedchamber Glenda gazed at her reflection. In the oval mirror she saw her cut lip, it throbbed with pain, still she convinced herself, the Queen Consort of Longcross, meant her no harm. She licked the tissue in her hand, dabbing away the last drops of blood. Expecting King Condor at any moment, screwing up the tissue she tossed it into the bin. Time was scarce. She hastened across the chamber, to the wardrobe that covered the wall. Often Glenda dressed Thistle. She had no difficulty locating what she sought. The royal handmaid flung open a door, within there was a rail crammed with dresses, the scarves were situated on a shelf above. On tiptoes, Glenda reached up, scared she glanced back at the bedchamber door... At that very moment King Condor entered the bedroom chamber.

'What do you think you’re doing?' bellowed the king.

As she pulled the scarf free, Glenda lost her balance. The pile of scarves toppled down around her. Embarrassed. Clutching the scarf, the royal handmaid gained her composure and turned to the king.

King Condor, had a face like worn leather, his anger lines were most prominent. His hair was grey, short and thinning, his eyebrows were thick, and he had a small goatee beard. His stern frame was concealed beneath fitted black clothes. There were three precious rings on his right hand, one of emeralds, one of rubies, and one of sapphires. His cold gaze fixed on the royal handmaid.

'Your Highness I wasn’t expecting you,' stammered Glenda.

'What were you doing?' he repeated with a glower.

'I’ve been sent for your wife’s favourite scarf.' She held it aloft for him to see. Then realized the mess at her feet. 'I’ll have this cleared up at once.' On her knees, she gathered up the scarves, then began folding them.

'Where’s my wife?' inquired the king.

'In the garden.'

'I don’t believe you.'

'Your Highness, it’s true.'

King Condor stepped pass the royal handmaid. He stood before the wardrobe, at the sight of the dresses, a smirk crossed his face. 'You’re lying,' he hissed bitterly.

'Your Highness.'

'Silence!' The king reached into the wardrobe, he grabbed a hanger, tossing a garment aside. The silk dress crumpled by Glenda’s knees. She avoided the king’s hardened glair. 'A short while ago my wife wore that dress. She can't be far.'

Gulping, the royal handmaid stood up, trying to contain her mounting panic, she backed away. 'Your Highness, please excuse me. I must go too her at once.' She wanted to flee from the scene.

'I demand to know where my wife is.'

'She’s bathing.'

'How did I not guess, the only place she could be, hiding from me.'

'Your Highness, wait, you can’t.'

Glenda's plea fell on deaf ears. King Condor stalked across the chamber toward the pool chambers entrance. Desperate to warn Thistle, ahead of the king, the royal handmaid ran. Hurrying down the steps that led from the bedchamber, Glenda entered the large pool chamber, with its cold limestone walls and black tiled floor. Her hands flapped wildly as she called out.

King Condor stormed up behind the royal handmaid. 'What’s going on?' he demanded.

Thistle remained silent, kneeling by the water’s edge, her back was to them both.

'Your Majesty,' stammered the royal handmaid. 'I tried to.'

'I'm aware,' Thistle butted in, her gaze fixed on her reflection, rippling in the clear water. She was once again beautiful and youthful. 'Glenda, you did well, it’s not your fault I was ill fated to wed a stubborn pig.'

'How dare you!' raged King Condor. 'This is my home, you’re my wife, and I warrant respect beneath my roof. I demand to know what you're hiding, or should I say, whom?'

'I've really no idea what you're talking about.'

'I’ll kill the rascal.'

'Me hiding another, in here, you’re taking leave of your senses.' The Queen Consort of Longcross swung back her head and gave a mocking chuckle. 'Look around, you see there’s nobody here but my handmaid, you and me. I think you're jealous.'

'Of what?' challenged the king. 'All I want is time alone, let’s set aside our differences, and bathe togthe Ether.'

'I don't think so.'

'You spend most of your life here!' snapped the king, overwhelmed with sudden frustration.

Thistle reached for the crystal goblet at her side. Clear water splashed from its rim, wetting the smooth skin of her hand, her fingers were perfectly formed, and her nails long. She had to quench her husband’s jealous nature and win his trust. She arose to her feet, dipping her ring finger into the glass. The jewels substance coursed through the water, polluting, turning it red.

'Wine,' muttered the queen as her lips touched the rim of the glass.

'What was that?' King Condor heard her mutter something. 'I heard you whisper. You spoke his name.'

With the glass cupped between her hands slowly she turned. 'You hardly let me from your sight. Where would I find time for another?' She stalked closer. 'I thought we might drink togthe Ether.'

'My favourite, wine,' said King Condor.

'And chilled too.' Thistle stood before her husband and offered him the glass. 'Drink, be merry.'

The king brought his head forward, holding it in both hands, she tilted the glass to his lips. He drank, savouring every mouthful. The Queen Consort of Longcross smiled cunningly and withdrew the glass.

'More,' insisted her husband.

Pressing a finger to his lips she silenced him. For a moment she relished her power.

'Now where were we,' she said, in a patronizing tone of voice. 'The seer and the healer.'

'Jasper has informed me of a slight problem. He has difficulty locating the one we seek.'

Thistle snarled. 'That's not good enough. Go to him at once, insist Mr Leigh must be found. We can’t afford to lose anymore time, for Alice, our daughter, it may already be too late.'

King Condor took hold of his wife’s hand and placed a kiss on it. Without delay he departed.

Although Thistle seemed pleased, something nagged at her mind. 'You doubt me?' Slowly she turned to her handmaid.

'Your Majesty, your husband was once a good man. Strong as he was confident. A leader of the people. Adored by the masses. The effects of your enchantment hold him, reckless, spellbound.'

'I can't be held responsible for his addiction.'

'But you could stop teasing him.'

'I don't want to talk about my droll husband and his irritating ways.'

'Your need for Mr Leigh is become unhealthy.'

'Are you implying I'm obsessed with the healer?'

'Not at all.' Glenda was outspoken, she knew before long Thistle would become angered. 'The pursuit of the young man you seek has changed you.'

'Mr Leigh has a duty, he lives to serve the needy. Without this purpose he's nothing. My daughter, I won't deny her hope.'

'You fool the king, but I know It's the healer you want more than anything. He holds you spellbound.'

Suddenly Thistle frowned. 'If I considered you a lesser I'd remove your tongue for that remark.' In a fit of anguish, she spun away, dashing the glass through the air, it shattered as it struck the floor. That which was drank by her husband, moments earlier, hissed and evaporated. 'I've waited long enough!' The Queen Consort of Longcross' shrill voice was pained. 'You don’t know what it's like. Time after time, day and night, alone. The emptiness, unable to feel. Void of all humanity. Only the healer can cure me of my cruel damnation.'

'Then regardless of your needs, Princess Alice, what happens to her?' asked Glenda.

'Who knows. Perhaps she'll fall prey to the ghost that's haunting her. Time will tell. I can't mourn the loss of my daughter. Children perish all the time.' Thistle shrugged her shoulders. 'I aim to snare the healer. When I have him in my grasp he’ll never leave.' She stared at her reflection in the water. 'Mr Leigh will be my prisoner, forever.'

Chapter 3

Carrack City



*

With windows facing the town square, the white stone houses, basked in the noonday sun. To the south, the snow-capped hills sawed, and dwellings with high pillars of stone, sprawled into the distance, beneath the jagged mountain terrain. Too experience the ways of the people of Carrack City, visitors came from far, everybody wanted something, a token sovereign of the magnificent city. Yet the streets were deserted. This was uncanny on a day when traders normally packed the cobbles. A lone stranger strolled into the square. Thick grey robes adorned his thin frame, shielding him from the chill winds.

Amongst the king’s palace were large dwellings. These white washed mansions belonged to Carrack's aristocracy. Ruben noticed, each door smeared, defaced with painted red symbols. He guessed the signs were primitive, yet they meant something, but too whom? The Carrack people were not barbarians, but a civilized society. The practicing of ancient rituals was banished by races centuries ago.

Ruben soon noticed a charred pole in the square centre, protruding from a pile of ashes. Amongst the rubble there were teeth and bones, too small to be those of an adult. The scent of smoke lingered on the air, it mingled with something else. Ruben approached the sacrificial pyre.

What the healer heard from King Ravine, suddenly held weight. In Carrack City, something was happening, and King Casimir, his friend, warranted it. The pyre in the city square. This was a reminder, the king attempted to prevent his son falling prey to a ghost.

A fortnight has passed since Ruben received the letter from King Casimir. Like a man in fear of his life it was penned in his handwriting.

Ruben was not discouraged by the white face building; the palace of King Casimir's was by far the largest in the square. He ascended the wide steps to the porch. Tall pillars supported the balcony above, and large arched windows had their curtains drawn. Ruben banged on the doorknocker, the sound echoed around the empty square, there was a moment’s silence, a minute of waiting, and no reply. As were the ways of Carrack’s people, they were renowned for their hospitality, and above all, King Casimir. Standing on the doorstep, with large hazel eyes, Ruben glanced up, hoping to catch the twitch of a curtain. Soon his patience grew thin, he strolled into the square, ascended the step to the next establishment, and pulled the bell-handle. Chimes rang from within the hallway. There was no reply. In frustration, Ruben turned away, then to his back, a bolt creaked, and a chain rattled. The door opened slightly. The healer turned. From the darkened crack someone blinked back.

'Who are you?' demanded a voice. 'What do you want?'

'My name's Ruben Leigh. Important business brings me to Carrack City, I'm here to see King Casimir.'

'Only a fall would dare come here,' said the stranger.

With the back of his hand, Ruben shielded his eyes from the sun’s glair. 'Too King Casimir, my quest is of great importance. It's vital I'm granted audience.'

'Don’t mention that man’s name on my doorstep.' There was silence, then the chain slid, and the door opened. The stout man beckoned too Ruben. 'Quickly before you’re seen.'

Ruben hurried inside, while nervously the man peeped out, left then right. His face was creased with fear. He scanned the square, checking that nobody had witnessed the stranger enter. He shut and bolted the door. He quickly searched Ruben's pockets, looking for a weapon. He was disappointed to find none.

'Nothing,' the man gave a frown.

With his arms raised above his head, Ruben sighed. 'I assure you I’m no barbarian. You’ll find nothing on me.'

'Why should I believe you are who you say you are?'

'I gather you’re scared. I noticed the pyre in the square outside. For Carrack City, it seems out of place.'

'The man you speak of has us living in fear. A year has passed since King Casimir enforced his law. All children of thirteen are to be sacrificed. He believes this'll keep the ghosts from his son. It hasn't worked. If anyone's found hiding children, they’ll suffer a fate worse than that poor child in the square.'

'I was informed what King Casimir is doing. I just didn't believe what I heard, that things were so dire. I’ll make my visit brief.'

The proprietor smiled. 'I’m Sir Demo. Mr Leigh, you’re a healer with an outstanding reputation. Once the children of Carrack sung your name in the streets. All you’ll hear now are their screams. This is an aging society, through fear, our children remain hidden, for the unfortunate, there is one certainty, death.'

'My coming to your doorstep wasn't by chance.' With piercing eyes Ruben gazed in sudden disbelief. 'You,' he hissed. 'You sent the messenger on the quest to find me, not King Casimir.'

'If he needed your assistance, it's too late, some say his sons left this world... None have seen King Casimir in public since then. In better days I received an invite to a charity banquet at the palace of the king. I was once his champion knight. I carefully opened the envelope; the seal wasn't broken. I knew only King Casimir would bring you here. For this purpose, I kept it. Mr Leigh, it’s an urgent matter, I've a son. And a request, in two days from now, I'm to hand him to the executioner.'

'Show him too me,' said Ruben, bluntly.

Sir Demo clapped his hands twice, at the far end of the corridor a door opened. Ruben watched as two figures shuffled forward. One was a woman with grey eyes, long red hair, and wearing a long-sleeved gown of deep purple. Her hands rested on the shoulders of a boy, no older than thirteen. He had spiky dark hair, freckled cheeks, and clothes similar to his father’s. He wore a laced white shirt, a waistcoat, black trousers, and buckled shoes.

'Mr Leigh,' said Sir Demo, as he paced forward. 'This is Abacus, my son. He’s a boy, with a curse, a ghost you might say. Even as we speak it sucks the life from him.'

'I'll do all I can.' Ruben paused. 'But I must warn you, each time it's different.'

'Depending on what?'

'How far gone the child is, heightens the risk, there may be complications,' warned Ruben.

Suddenly Abacus broke away from Susan, the maid. His stride was slow and hesitant, his shoes clicked on the marble floor as he approached the healer. Abacus understood why the stranger was here, to save him from the ghosts torment, and an ill destined fate. The boys mind was shrouded with a haze. His sunken eyes, circled with grey flaking skin, pleaded up at him.

'Soon my fate will be decided,' said Abacus.

Susan gasped with surprise. 'He hasn't spoken for a week,' she hissed.

'Son,' said Sir Demo, there was a slight tremble in his voice. 'Can you hear me, are you in there?' He was suddenly hopeful.

Abacus spoke again, not to his father but the healer. 'I’m not afraid,' he said, dazed, confused, wanting to break free from the torment. 'At least with you I have a chance.'

The boy’s courageous words held weight with the healer. 'Lad you’re far braver than I am.' He gave the boy a curious glance, aware, behind his eyes were those of the enemy, a ghost staring back at him. 'Whatever it takes we'll prevail.'


**


Waiting in the study, Ruben mentioned nothing more to the proprietor about Abacus. At present he wanted to bath and rest. The journey too Carrack City was long, almost twenty miles from Stoneham Town. Along the way he performed two healings. When his strength had returned, Ruben would see Abacus. Sir Demo instructed Susan to prepare the guest bedchamber. The bedding was changed on the king-size bed, and the feathered pillows were fluffed. A bathrobe and clean towels were left waiting. Then the maid began the arduous job of filling the bathtub. She was content, it mattered nothing that she trudged up and down three flights of steps, with buckets of boiled water. Afterwards, when the iron tub was full, she returned to the study. Then she escorted the guest through the house. They came to the third floor, it was lined with doors, and pictures that hung from panelled walls.

The maid halted before a large oak door. 'For the duration of your stay this is your sleeping quarters.' She gave a twist on the brass door handle and entered. Then she plucked a key from her keyring and handed it too Ruben. 'As you requested I’ve prepared a hot tub. There are clothes in the wardrobe; dinner will be served at six. If you prefer to rest, I could bring your food?'

'That won’t be necessary,' said Ruben. 'I’ll eat at the table.'

'I’m sure Sir Demo will appreciate that.' Susan returned the keyring to the hook at her waist and went to leave.

'Wait.'

She halted with a curious expression on her face. 'Mr Leigh, is there something else? Perhaps the room’s too large for your liking? This is the master guest room. There are smaller.'

'This is fine, you’ve done enough already.' The healer paced across the room and opened the wardrobe. From shoes too clothes, everything was neat and in order. Yet something aroused his curiosity. 'If King Casimir has lost his mind, why don't the people of Carrack City seek outside help from your allies, at King Condor's court?'

'What happens to us is the least of his troubles,' said the maid. 'The king of the west fights a war, with barbarians encroaching on his border. Long ago he abandoned us to our fate.'

'Forgive me for saying, but you should leave this place.'

'Mr Leigh, to even suggest such a thing. While other nations are at war, for over a decade, in peace, we have prospered. We Carrack's are a proud people.'

'You once were,' said Ruben. 'Times have changed. Now you live in fear of each other.'

'In light of the current situation we're cautious. Yet we get by. I've no complaint. Sir Demo’s a good man. I assure you I’ve no plan to leave his employment in a hurry.'

'Loyalty.' Ruben reflected, considering his plight as a selfless healer. He looked at the woman, a sudden memory surfaced, he knew her name. 'It's you,' he said, astonished by the discovery. 'Susan.' She was thirteen back then, he was fourteen, since then she had changed very little. And still his feelings for her lingered on.

'Things have changed since we last met. I’m free, content with life, and you are a gifted young man of fame, blessed with healing power. I thought you wouldn't remember me.' The maid blushed slightly, stepping closer.

'How can I forget. You were the first life I saved, until then I never fully understood the importance of my gift. I healed you from plague. It's because of you, today I strive to heal others.' Ruben smiled.

'It's been too long.' Susan smiled back. She reached up, placing a hand on the healers left cheek, working her fingers along his chin. 'I remember when we first met as though it were yesterday. The children danced when you, my saviour arived.'

'They swamped me. I could hardly breathe.' Ruben was comforted by her touch. 'Neither have I forgotten you.'

Susan gave the healer a playful thump in the chest. ‘I hope not.’ She chuckled. 'You saved my life.'

Ruben suddenly looked concerned. 'I fear you’re hiding something.' He noticed an expression of doubt slowly cross the maids face.

Gradually she withdrew her hand. 'I've no idea what you mean.'

'There is grief in this house. I thought it came from Sir Demo, but now I've arrived he is hopeful he'll not lose his son. Then there's you. You're hiding something.'

Susan fought back tears, her lower lip trembled. 'Mr Leigh, your power of deduction overwhelms me.' She refused to let him see her cry. 'Babb, my sister. She was precious to me. When she reached the age of thirteen, a ghost came, and she suffered the plague of a haunting.'


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