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Ruben Leigh


Book 1





Chapters

Prologue

1 : The Great Healer

2 : The Queen Consort

3 : Carrack City

4 : Difference of Opinion

5 : Spirit

6 : The King’s Knights

7 : Good Fortune

8 : The Calling

9 : The Seer and The King

10 : Healing

11 : Barbarians

12 : The Other Side

13 : The Wilder-Beast

14 : Bound By Enchantment

15 : To Save A Life

16 : Suspicion

17 : Gathering of Leaders

18 : Many Regrets

19 : The Prisoner Convoy

20 : The Spy

21 : Enemy Plans

22 : Hoofprints In the Dust

23 : The Writing

24 : Battlefield

25 : The Sleeping Guard

26 : Duty

27 : Nothing to Waste

28 : The Barbarian Domain

29 : Pursuit

Prologue


Footsteps echoed in the dark, in the moonlight, two figures appeared, one Susan, a girl of sixteen, the other Babb, a girl of thirteen. For Babb, Susan's young sister, time was almost up, for she had a curse, the spirit 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 spirit, 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 Lost from the world, her soul whittled away, she had become withdrawn, a shell of her former self.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 rose high in the sky. Yet tears nor grief could return the sister, taken from her that night.

Chapter 1

The Great Healer



*

Ruben the hawked nosed man, with chiselled features, tanned skin, thick facial stubble, and silvery shoulder length hair, walked the winding passage, following the king’s porter.

Why does King Ravine require my help? The spirits, 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 quite,’ 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 renounce 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 the bewitching beauty 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,' said Ayden. 'It’s amazing how with one brushstroke he captured the essence of 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. Only she’s fearful. She alone 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 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 spirit.'

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, a shifting shape with wispy coils of smoke. 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 spirit 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 spirit 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 spirit 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 spirits 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 arrive 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 spirit that's haunting you.'

'Do you know, King Casmir, 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 spirits. 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 spirit.’

‘My vengeful spirits 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 spirit. 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 spirit that moved outside a haunted child.

‘The foul spirit 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 rose 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, the kingdom polluting the south-east coast, and a hundred miles inland.

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, her royal handmaid. The stocky woman entered the pool chamber. Her hair was like tuffs of white straw. The lines etched on her face, told a story of hardship, yet she was kind and true. 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, it 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 bestowed on 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 gaped 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 faced the king.

The monarch was fifty, King Condor, with 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 rose, 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 together.'

'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 rose 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 together.'

'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’s 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 this 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 hold 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's shrill voice was pained. 'You don’t know what it's like. Time after time, day and night, alone. The emptiness, unable to fell. Void of humanity. Only the healer can cure me of this cruel damnation.'

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

'Who knows. Perhaps she'll fall prey to the spirit that's haunting her. Time will tell. I can't mourn the loss of my daughter, it's life, 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 mine, 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 rose, 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 masculine 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 Casmir, 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 spirit.

A fortnight has passed since Ruben received the letter from King Casmir. 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 Casmir'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 Casmir. 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 Casmir.'

'Only a fall would dare come here.'

With the back of his hand, Ruben shielded his eyes from the suns glair. 'To King Casmir, my quest is of great importance. It's vital I'm granted audience.'

'Don’t mention that mans 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. As he shifted to face Ruben, the black peg supporting the weight of the stump, where his right leg was missing, struck the wood floor. 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 Casmir enforced his law. All children of thirteen are to be sacrificed. He believes this'll keep the spirits 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 Casmir 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 O’Dell. 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 Casmir.'

'If he needed your assistance, it's too late, some say his sons left this world... None have seen King Casmir 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 Casmir 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 O’Dell 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 like his father’s. He wore a laced white shirt, a waistcoat, black trousers, and buckled shoes.

'Mr Leigh,' said Sir O’Dell, as he paced forward. 'This is Abacus, my son. He’s a boy, with a curse, a spirit 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 spirits 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 O’Dell, 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 spirit 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 O’Dell 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 O’Dell 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 Casmir 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 O’Dell’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, now she was a woman. And still his feelings for her lingered.

'We have aged since we last met. I am free, content with life, and you are a gifted 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 a long time.' Susan smiled back. She reached up, placing a hand on the healers left cheek, working her fingers along the stubble of his chin. 'Over twenty years. As though it were yesterday, I remember the children dancing when you, my saviour arrived.'

'They swamped me.' Ruben was comforted by her touch. 'Neither can I forget.'

'You saved my life.'

Ruben suddenly looked concerned. 'I fear you’re hiding something.' He noticed an expression of doubt 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 O’Dell, 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 spirit came, and she suffered the plague of a haunting.'

'You searched for me.' Ruben looked sympathetic.

'We quested to find you, I never gave up hope, we came close… Yet it wasn’t to be. Babb was taken from me while I slept.'

Ruben offered an apology.

'The fiend snatched her from my arms.' In frustration, Susan's mood soured. 'I was robbed of everything. I was wandering aimlessly when I arrived at Carrack City. I was lost. When you’ve nowhere to go the streets of even a prosperous city, are a loathsome place.' Susan paused.

'You seem to have survived the worst of it,' said Ruben.

The maid tilted her head and looked up at him. 'Hardly, there's more to tell. I heard a scream, I knew someone was in distress. That’s when I saw Sir O’Dell, fending off a group of robbers.'

'Barbarians.' Ruben butted in. 'They seldom stray this far from their territory.'

'These men’s actions were fuelled by desperation. They weren’t battle hardened barbarians, but opportunist, driven by greed. Sir O’Dell fought them off with his cane. Considering there were four of them he put up a fight. It helped, before his injury and his retirement, he was once King Casmir's champion knight. Sir O’Dell protected his wife, she was heavily pregnant. I rushed over to assist. I had the big one face down, pinned to the cobbles, his weapon in my hand. That’s when Mrs O’Dell's water broke, she went into labour. Guards entered the square. Scared, the robbers fled. Sir O’Dell and I ushered Mrs O'Dell into the house. Together Sir O’Dell and I delivered the baby, it was a boy, and he was named Abacus. Unfortunately, shortly after the birth Mrs O'Dell passed away. Afterwards, Sir O’Dell asked me to stay.'

'And here you are, in your words, happy and content,' said Ruben soberly.

'I couldn't ask for a better master. Sir O'Dell's kind-hearted, if he seems brash, it's because he fears for his son’s life.'

'Given the current situation that's understandable,' said Ruben. He was captivated by the woman standing before him. 'In all my travels I seldom met someone I've healed.'

'The lands of the continent and the neighbouring nations are vast,' said Susan, wishing they had met years earlier.

'Yes, but you’re amongst the first. When I look at you I’m filled with hope. It makes everything I do worthwhile.'

'And Abacus, what will become of him?'

'I promise the boy will be saved.'

Susan seemed content with the reply. 'I’ll inform Sir O’Dell, at dinner, you’ll be dining with him.'

Chapter 4

Difference of Opinion



*

Ruben woke refreshed. He shaved, washed his face, dressed in blue robes he found in the wardrobe, then trudged downstairs. As he approached the dining hall the aroma of roast pork, spiced bacon, chicken, and potatoes wafted on the air. The gilded double doors were wide-open. At the top of the long dining table sat Sir O’Dell. Abacus sat on the corner nearby, too reach his plate, his seat was raised with cushions. On a silver trolley, food was wheeled from the kitchen. Onto a silver plate, Susan dished up Sir O'Dell's generous portion of dinner.

Sir O’Dell glanced up from his meal at Ruben, who lingered in the doorway. 'You’re in time.' With a hand he gestured him forward. 'Mr Leigh, be seated.'

'Thank you.' Ruben entered.

Susan pushed the trolley to the table’s far end and pulled out a chair. With the guest seated the maid placed a silver plate, knife, and fork before him. She then served his dinner. Afterwards he thanked her, and like a ravenous wolf began to devourer the food.

'Mr Leigh, you’re hungry,' said the maid, affectionately, in awe of the fine-looking man. 'Eat up, I’ll be back soon.' Sheepishly she smiled, then departed for the kitchen.

'A charming woman,' said Ruben to Sir O’Dell.

'I agree.' From the table’s far end he nodded. He shovelled a forkful of potato and vegetables into his mouth and chewed. 'Susan’s my saviour, I’ve often wonder what I’d do without her. Of course, Abacus favours her too. Before the plague of the spirit took him, Susan tutored my son, she treats him as though he were her child. And I appreciate this. Susan’s intelligent, I often feel guilty she’s still in my employment, and I do her an injustice. She gives and deserves so much more. She could be wed, have children, yet she’s stubborn as a mule and won’t leave.'

'She’s happy here,' said Ruben. ‘Taking care of you and your son, you offer her a sense of belonging, I don't think she'd get anywhere else.’

'Indeed, you’re right, Abacus, Susan, and myself. We're one happy family.' Sir O’Dell ruffled his son’s hair.

Ruben drank from a crystal goblet. 'Sir O’Dell, tell me, why such a big house?'

'I’m a Sir, knighted by the king, wealthy, retired from duty. This house has a history, you may remember, your friend King Casmir once lived here, before it became too small for his ever-expanding family. Then he had the palace built. My wife and I wanted a large family too, unfortunately things seldom happen as planned. Though Abacus has inherited his mother’s good looks.' Sir O’Dell’s voice dropped a tone as he gave a woeful look. 'Unfortunately, she can’t be with us.'

'I understand,' said Ruben.

'With the passing of time we've learnt how to get by without her.'

When dinner was finished, Sir O’Dell rang the bell by his arm. Pushing the trolley, Susan entered once more. She began clearing away the plates and cutlery. Sir O’Dell complimented her cooking, she acknowledged him with a nod of her head, then pushed the trolley onward. She made her way too Ruben.

He had already arranged everything neatly on his plate. 'That was delicious,' he said, handing it to her.

'Thank you.' Susan glanced at his empty glass. 'Would you’d like more drink?' she asked, placing the plate on the trolley.

'No, thank you.'

From the ice bucket, Susan had already lifted a bottle. 'I hope you’ve got room for afters we're having blueberry pie and custard. It will soon be ready.' She refilled the glass then placed the bottle back in the bucket, turned, and headed for the kitchen.

Ruben sipped his drink, then placed the glass back on the silk tablemat. His fingers twisting the stem, deep in thought, he gazed at the swirling liquid. 'Sir O’Dell,' he said at last. 'Before anything, I must talk to you alone, without Abacus present.'

'I understand your concerns but there’s nothing my son doesn’t know. I’ve told him everything.'

'Sir O’Dell, it can't wait.'

'Very well, if you insist.' He placed a firm hand on his son’s shoulder. His voice was barely a whisper. 'Abacus I need a moment with our guest. Help Susan with the washing up.'

In a dazed state, Abacus climbed from the chair, then stiffly walked in the direction of the kitchen.

'I urge you to reconsider,' hissed Ruben.

'Famed healer… You question your ability to perform the task.' Sir O’Dell’s mood was sombre, he gazed along the table at his guest. 'Mr Leigh, don’t underestimate your ability, you’re the one. There’re none with such an outstanding reputation.'

'I can’t express how much I want to help your son. But understand there’s uncertainty where spirits are involved.'

'I call them spirits,' interrupted Sir O’Dell.

'Whatever they are, whoever they once were, it’s too them I fear losing your son.'

'The don’t fail, my son needs saving. Without hope there’s nothing.'

'My conscious tells me otherwise. I haven't always prevailed, sometimes the challenge is to great. At a considerable cost I've failed. You’ve no idea how the parents grieve. Neither are you aware how I'm affected. My task isn't easy, each time I employ my gift, I lose my life to the spirits... It won’t be easy for Abacus either, to free him I must sever his link with the ether, only then does he stand a chance. Afterward, that part of him will be vanquished forever. Your son might not recover, and if he does, all memories of you might be forfeit.'

'Whatever the outcome, he has a chance. Come what may, I assure you, for your service you’ll be rewarded in coin.'

'That’s not what I want.'

'Everyone has a price what’s yours?' Sir O’Dell hissed through his teeth. 'You’ve been given your gift for a reason, too preserve life. You can’t deny my son, hope.' Angry, he rose to his feet.

Sir O’Dell paced the floor. His son’s safety was paramount, Abacus was all Sir O’Dell had left in life, the father, son bond clouded his judgment to Ruben’s warning. Any decision to reconsider was gone.

Images of the past flooded Sir O’Dell’s mind, he heard crying. He changed baby Abacus' soiled nappy. Then placed a bottle too his eager lips. Swiftly the boy drank… Then there was a cake, at its centre burned a single candle. Abacus was one years old and without a care in the world… Next Sir O’Dell played chess with his five-year-old son. At football and swimming, his son was the best. He had brains too. When asked what he wanted to be, Abacus replied an historian, a writer, not a king’s champion knight, like his father… Then beneath a clear blue sky they built a sandcastle by the seafront. He realized then that Abacus had grown. The years had flown by. This frightened Sir O’Dell. With dread, constantly, he thought about their borrowed time together. The plague of the spirits swept the lands without mercy. What future was there for his son? Then as Sir O’Dell gazed on the message, written beneath the sandcastle, his eyes filled with tears.

(Mummies home)

What touched him deeply was, at the age of twelve, Abacus had never forgotten. He still remembered his mother, the woman he had never seen. It was as though she were there with them eternally.

Ruben slowly rose to his feet. 'Sir O’Dell.'

'Well, what will it be?' he retorted, anxiously. 'I can't force you to obey, to plie your healing craft, you obviously think my son's beyond saving. Mr Leigh, my son has two days remaining. Then King Casmir's guards seal his fate. He’ll be taken from me, to the square, and his fate will await, tied to a pole, on a stack of dried wood littered with children’s bones… Now make up your mind before I throw you out!'

'Sir O'Dell, you’re a stubborn man,' said Ruben.

'These are desperate times with dire situations.'

Like Abacus, across the lands were other children, they too were thirteen, plagued by spirits. Ruben could not heal them all. He turned his back on Sir O’Dell.

'Bring Abacus, it’s time.'

Chapter 5

Spirit



*

With vacant eyes, Sir O’Dell crossed to a window, he gazed down into the square, at the blazing bonfire. He hardly said a word to Ruben, they waited in silence.

Susan brought Abacus into the lounge. Ruben waited by the fireplace, feeding logs into the flames, then rubbed his hands, warming them. The numbness soon passed from his fingers. But there was scant comfort in this, his priority, the task ahead filled him with dread. Ruben turned from the flames to acknowledge the woman and boy.

'This way.' Ruben beckoned Abacus across to a couch.

With a nervous expression on his face, the boy sat on the sofas edge. For a moment Ruben lingered by him, waiting for Sir O’Dell’s consent, he expected him to observe. Sir O’Dell remained silent. He had sudden regrets, lingering doubts that manifested from the healer’s concerns surfaced, he could not bear to watch.

Ruben gave Abacus a sympathetic smile. Then knelt and whispered into his right ear. 'It won’t hurt…' His tone was soothing. 'Lay on the couch. While awake, you’re conscious, your will too great. I need to delve deep into your mind, I can only enter while you’re in sleep state.'

Abacus glanced over at Susan who edged closer to the foot of the sofa.

'I'll watch over you both,' she reassured the boy. 'Make sure nothing happens to either of you. But you needn't be frightened, Mr Leigh's the best there is.'

Abacus' shoes slid from his feet as he lay on his back. Ruben came forward. Gently he placed his hands on the boy’s temples, beneath his fingers, his pulse throbbed. Beads of sweat gathered on the boy’s hairline. He was nervous, his heart drummed faster. Ruben took a step back. His hands shook, he plied his craft. His fingertips tingled, his fingers cramped, they began to glow. At first the light was faint, pure and white, then it steadily pulsed, first with Ruben's, then Abacus’ ever decreasing heartbeat. The healer looked transfixed, entranced, his eyes shut. At that point the boy slipped into unconsciousness.

Traveling through turbulence, Ruben's conscience seeped forth, delving deep into a multitude of pathways. There were auras against the darkness, bridges of luminosity. Green, red, blue, yellow, grey, and orange, each a central point, the healer’s pathway. From these conduits the ether was formed. Ruben's probe deepened, seeking the entry point, only there could he sever the spirits link with his patient. He found the blue line, the intended safe path.

A sudden vibration sent Ruben spinning off axis. His probe slowed, he gathered his bearings. Something was gaining on him, his awareness determined it was a spirit. It remained beyond the path, fearful of its light, the spirit kinds major weakness… Then Ruben shuddered. A thought occurred. Ether challenged him. Soon he would be discarded, spat into the path of the spirits, that which haunted the child’s being. Once in its domain, direct conflict was unavoidable, against it the healers chance of survival would be slim. The pathway trembled with increased violence. The defences around him weakened. Ruben was aware of impending danger. Each time he exorcized a child’s spirit, it was like this, in this domain there were no certainties. The blue tunnel flexed, in one swift jolt it sped away. Ruben was immersed in gloom. A cold chill touched his awareness. Ahead, something blinked, its eyes were red and large. It vented its anger in whispers that became a defining ramble. A language unknown to the healer. His tormentor made itself known to him. The spirits rushed forth, its claws raking, its sharp teeth bared.

Ruben screamed in agony and collapsed to his knees. His fingers still pressed to Abacus' temples, he struggled to regain control of the hostile, turbulent force that fought against him.

Sir O’Dell turned from the window. 'What have I done,' he hissed. With his pegleg balancing his weight, he crossed the chamber, to stand by the couch. Regret was etched across his face. 'It's gone too far. Before it's too late I must put an end to this.'

'They’re in a place where the spirits dwells, we daren’t deviate from Mr Leigh's warning,' said Susan in a hurry, aware she had to prevent Sir O'Dell from intervening. 'If you interfere neither of them will survive. The healer is your sons only hope, he knows what he's doing.'

'If I could believe as you do. I feel helpless,' confessed Sir O’Dell.

'Don’t be harsh on yourself. What father wouldn't want a second chance for their son? Any parent would do the same. Have faith in Mr Leigh, wait.'

Sir O’Dell folded his arms. 'My son,' he whispered with regret. 'Somethings wrong, the healers in pain.' A horrified look crossed his face. 'I think Mr Leigh's losing the fight.'

'We must wait,' cautioned Susan.

Sir O'Dell shook his head. 'It’s time to bring this to an end,' he said.

He reached out, a blast of heat thumped from Ruben’s chest. Sir O’Dell staggered backwards into Susan's arms. Ruben’s face contorted, he released another agonized scream, his eyes pressed shut, tears seeped from them. The material at the front of his robe shredded, claw marks appeared across his chest, crimson seeped from the three wounds. He screamed again. Claw marks appeared down his left arm. The robe sleeve hung in tatters, droplets of crimson oozed from the gashes, onto Abacus’ forehead.

'He feared this would happen,' said Sir O’Dell, helplessly. 'I should've listened, heeded his concerns.'

'Abacus' spirits,' hissed Susan. 'It has him.'

'It has them both… The healer's endangered my sons life.' Sir O’Dell rushed forward and hollered. 'Infernal spirits, you’ll not take my boy!'

'No, don't do anything stupid, wait just a while longer!' pleaded the maid biting down on her knuckles. 'It’s not safe, let Mr Leigh finish.'

Susan's plea went unheard. Driven by impulse, the need to save his son, with eager intent, Sir O’Dell reached out, snatching him up in his arms. Abacus' limbs limply dangled. Immediately the connection between the healer and the boy severed. Ruben toppled, crashing to the ground, flat on his back. His head struck the floor. The ordeal left the healer dazed, confused, unable to open his eyes, and fearful of the spirits that had challenged him. Gradually he gathered his thoughts. His muscles stiff, he was unable to move. When he mustered the courage, his eyelids opened, he gazed up. Susan's face hovered above him. As his strength returned she helped him stand. Ruben winced, pain throbbed through him, he was fortunate, his wounds were not life threatening. Yet, unable to heal himself, he bled, in need of medical attention.

Susan opened the flap and inspected the marks on his chest. 'Mr Leigh, you’re hurt. These cuts must be washed and dressed. Can you walk?'

'Just about.'

'Good.' She hooked an arm around his waist and supported his weight. 'Come with me.'

They went to leave for the kitchen when Sir O’Dell’s cry rang out across the chamber. 'My son, not my son!' He held Abacus’ limp body close and sobbed into his hair. 'Not my boy.'

'Sir O’Dell,' gasped Susan with uncertainty in her voice.

'He did this!' Grief-stricken he pointed a finger at the healer. 'That monster's slain my son.'

'It can’t be,' whispered Susan, tears wet her cheeks.

'Mr Leigh.' Sir O’Dell shook an accusing finger. 'Abacus’ death is on your hands.'

'I did everything in my power to save him, but something happened. Ether rejected me, I was pulled into the clutches of the spirit. Waking me, you saved my life.'

'A saviour doesn’t need saving.' Sir O’Dell's anger boiled, ready to erupt. 'Is that all you can say? You can’t justify my innocent child’s death!'

'That’s untrue!' retorted Ruben just as angry. 'You never wanted to lose your son, I didn't intend it to end this way. You begged me for help. Snatching him from me, you broke the link, that’s why your son’s life was forfeit.'

'I don’t understand.'

'The spirit that plagued your son was fierce. For its survival it challenged me. If you waited a moment longer, your son would’ve been released from its influence, and it would've taken my life. Abacus would still be alive.'

'No!' Sir O’Dell shrieked, brandishing a defiant fist at his guest. 'I want you out of my house!'


**


Against Sir O'Dell's wishes, Susan sneaked Ruben too the master guestroom, removing his tarnished robe. With warm water and soap, she cleaned his wounds, dressed them with clean bandages. After, from the cupboard, she fetched clean clothes. Susan diverted her face while Ruben dressed. She tried pushing Abacus' final moments from her mind. The loss of the boy she raised like a son, lingered on.

'What's wrong?' asked Ruben.

'Mr Leigh, its time you left.'

'I understand.' The healer hung his head, he reflected on his present failure. 'My mission is done. Thank you for attending to my injuries.'

'When I return from checking on Sir O’Dell, I expect you to be gone.' Susan crossed the bedchamber and shut the door behind her.

Ruben waited a moment, riddled with guilt, his actions ruined any chance of them rekindling their friendship. Without Abacus, Sir O’Dell would need Susan's support. But who would care for her?

Ruben crossed to the window and peered down through the net curtain. In the square stood seven men, they were from King Casmir’s guard. Stationed around the pyre pole, carrying pieces of wood, some returned from a nearby cart. They added their load to the pile staked around the pole. Meanwhile another horse driven coach approached, it pulled up alongside the other. A child tied and gagged was bundled to the ground. He did not protest as he was tied to the pole.


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