A Gentle Soul - 4

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A Gentle Soul - Conclusion

Here is the conclusion to the story. I apologize to those who liked the fairy tales in the story. The Grimm brothers do not play much of a role in this one: Dawn.

The company made its way into Southfarthing, where they broke up. The hobbits left for Fangorn with the pony cart containging the wood (and Entwives) while Ruth rode her little donkey cart pulled by Hansel and Gretel on towards her home.

Just prior to getting home, the Grimms bought a pair of horses with their pub earnings from a farmer Ruth recommended, and headed into the capital, where they hoped their stories would be as popular as they had been on the road. When she arrived home, Ruth quietly let her donkeys loose, knowing there were no straw houses in the area for them to molest.

The new house was much larger than the old hut, and Ruth went to the side door leading to the kitchen. The first to see her was little Mary, who screamed “Roof” and ran to her. Her mother looked up, and also ran from the stove to hug her Gentle Soul.

“Don’t let the soup burn,” Ruth chastised, and then noticed another woman in the kitchen. Her mother now had a maid, an older woman whose husband had died in a farming accident. Ruth’s father Moses was now an unofficial squire to the area, and the family was prospering due to income Ruth had acquired as a healer.

“Your father has a guest, but I think he would like to see you immediately,” Miriam said. “He is in the parlor.”

In the parlor Ruth tapped the door, then entered. Her father also ran to her and hugged her deeply, only relaxing when he realized that his guest might feel the actions were unsquirelike.

“My lord,” Moses said. “My daughter has just returned from a months-long quest. I apologize for my show of emotions.”

“Nonsense, man,” the visitor said, and Ruth got a good look at the tall, well-built young man. She recognized him instantly.

“I know you,” the Earl said. “You were here years ago when I was gleaning the area for men and supplies for a raid on the south. You looked different then. More like a boy, if I remember.”

Ruth smiled. “I remember. I hope that you did not think badly of my father when I ran away to avoid your army. He did try to find me, but I made it into the fairy woods, and … was changed, somewhat.”

“She came back a healer,” Moses bragged. “She is the source of my good fortune since that time.”

“And it is my excellent timing to meet you today,” the earl said. “We in the capital heard of a powerful healer in this area, and I sent for you. A replacement healer came first, but was unable to help, and was sent back. My mission was to find you, and take you with me to the castle. My father is very ill, and I hope to keep myself from becoming Duke for a few more years. Will you attend him?”

“Of course my lord. I suppose I must, since my father did offer you my services those years ago. This time I am ready to serve,” Ruth said. With that she got the Earl to describe the symptoms of the illness, which seemed very much like a familiar ailment.

“My Lord,” she said. “This sounds like the wasting disease.”

“That is what the castle healers said, and the blonde healer that attended. They claim there is no cure. But I have heard that you have been able to heal it.”

“I cannot make a promise,” Ruth said. “Sometimes I can heal it, other times I cannot. Your father seems to be in the latter stages. He should be fine for several more weeks, although in great pain. I would come at once, if you require it, but …”

“But you have been away from your family for months. If I give you a month, will you then come?”

“I think it should be a week,” Ruth said. “If we wait longer, we may be too late for a cure.”

“As you say,” the Earl said. “In that case you may arrive in time for the Prince’s gala. He seeks a bride, and has requested all the most beautiful young maidens of the land attend. You certainly qualify.”

Ruth blushed. “It is not for some vainglorious Prince that I come, it is to see if I can help your father.”

“None-the-less, it would be best if you arrive in time for the gala. If you showed up a day or two later, while the Prince is still visiting, he may feel I was hiding you away. Your appearance at the gala, even if only for an hour or so, will prevent bad feelings. The prince and the duchy are at odds over several things, not the least the agreement my grandfather made with his that made the duchy self governing and independent of his father, the King.”

“A gown will be required,” the young Earl said. “Do you require funds to pay for such?”

“No my lord. My father is prominent in the district, and we have done well, unless things have changed while I was away. We can provide a gown.”

Two or three times Ruth tried to excuse herself from the meeting between the men, but the Earl seemed reluctant to let her leave. Finally he announced: “I feel you want to get back to the rest of your family. There was a secondary reason for my visit. Word is that your father has become a leader in this area, and I have decided to name him Squire of the county. An official ceremony will be held in the castle in the spring, where my father will confirm the title. If things go well. I guess it will be my honor otherwise.”

The Earl left, with his several men who had stayed in the background. One was a scribe, and he left Moses with an elaborate parchment that the Earl signed, naming him Squire. Of course Moses could not read, but Ruth read it to him that night at supper, to the pleasure of the entire family.

That night was glorious to Ruth. Mary insisted on sitting on her lap the entire time, other than dinner. Ruth’s father summed up the families financial position, and Ruth added the money she had earned on her trip home to the pot.

The next morning dressmaking was the focus. Ruth showed her mother the velour fabric from the south, amazing the older woman. Such a fine material was unknown in this area, even in the capital, and the women were more than a little afraid of cutting the soft material to make a dress.

Miriam had made many dresses in her life, but never a gown. Ruth described what she wanted, and the new Squire’s wife sketched out the pieces with a soft white stone on the fabric. The dress would be floor length at the back, but in the front the hem would rise up about eight inches. Miriam was scandalized, but did as her daughter asked. The bell sleeves and a sash were in the contrasting color, and even though the sleeves ended above the elbow, freestanding cuffs in the contrasting color were cut.

The latter were to give little Mary a hand in the production. Nearly five now, she begged to help, and Miriam cut out the cuffs, and hemmed them, then passed them over to the little girl who took a needle and thread and sewed on the buttons, with her tongue stuck out of her mouth the entire time.

After the material had been cut and fitted, Miriam took to sewing pieces together. Ruth helped, but then took her donkey cart into town to see the shoemaker. She had a daring idea, and although he resisted, he finally gave in when he learned that she was going to wear the shoes before the Prince at a gala.

It was back to the house for more sewing, and more fitting. Little Mary appeared with her cuffs, and Miriam shook her head glumly when she saw them. The girl had sewn and sewn and there was a ball of thread bigger than the button on each cuff. Miriam sent Mary off to the kitchen for something.

“I can cut out a new pair tomorrow. It won’t take long.”

“You will not,” Ruth insisted. “These were made by my little sister with all the love she has for me. I will wear them with pride, and every time I see those little globs of thread I will think of her, and smile.”

The gown was perfect. One of the boys took the donkey cart into town and picked up the shoes. Miriam gasped when she saw them. They were low peasant shoes, but the shoemaker had found a gold-color leather for them. Ruth had taken the idea from an early version of Cinderella, before the shoes were changed to glass slippers. Miriam could now see why the front hem was higher. It allowed continual glimpses of the little gold shoes as she walked.

On the day of the gala, a carriage appeared from the capital at dawn, and Ruth went off to the celebration. Due to poor weather over the last week, the carriage was slow, and as a result Ruth was one of the last attendees to arrive. She got out of the muddy carriage, thanked the driver, to his surprise, and went up the steps to the castle, where she was required to give her name to the footman there.

“Miss Ruth Miriamdottir,” the man announced, and she walked into the gala. The first thing she noticed was that there was a three or four to one ratio of women to men. Of course, since this was a place for the Prince to meet women, that made some sense. It did make it hard for Ruth to find the Earl, however.

As she walked through the great hall, looking left and right, she could hear catty remarks from the women standing around in clusters, mainly about how out-of-style her dress was.

“And look at the cuffs,” said one buxom blonde. “They look like they were made by a child.”

“They were made by a child,” Ruth retorted to that particular comment. “A very special child who I love very much. Your gown is beautiful, but I suspect it was made by a tailor working for money. My gown was made by myself, with my mother and little sister helping. It was made with love, not money.”

The women just tittered and referred to her as ‘the farmer’s daughter.’ The fact that Ruth was a farmer’s daughter, and proud of it, made the barb sharper.

Finally Ruth had enough, she noticed a doorway out of the hall, and started towards it, walking faster and faster and finally running. She was in tears as she burst out into a garden and ran into a man.

“Sorry,” she sobbed, her eyes filled with tears. Then she wiped her eyes on one of the cuffs, and saw that it was the Earl, and he was holding her gently.

“My Lord, I am so sorry. These affairs are not to my liking. I shouldn’t have come. I don’t even have proper clothes.”

“Nonsense,” the handsome Earl said. “There is nothing wrong with your dress. Let me guess: some of the girls were teasing you about it.”

Ruth nodded.

“Well, mark my words, half of those who teased you will be wearing something similar at the next great ball.”

Ruth felt comfortable and safe with the Earl’s arms around her. The fact that he also seemed to enjoy it made it even more wonderful.

“Ascuse me, mithtress,” a voice from near the door said. “I thaw you looth your thoe.” The woman held out Ruth’s right shoe, which had come off in her mad dash to the garden. The woman had a terribly cleft palate, making her speech difficult and marring what otherwise would be a pretty face. She kneeled down in front of Ruth and slid the shoe back on.

“That ith a bootiful dreth,” she said. “Tho it ith not for one like me to thay.”

“Come,” Ruth said and as the girl stood close Ruth placed her hands on the girls face. For a moment it seemed that nothing was happening, then the girl’s eyes went wide in surprise. A minute later Ruth pulled her hands away, and the girl’s mouth was healed with no trace of the former injury.

“My Lady,” the girl said with no trace of a lisp. “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

“What is your name, girl?” the Earl said.

“Elizabeth, my lord,” the servant said, bowing.

“And what is your job in the castle?”

“Normally I turn the spit in the kitchen,” she said. “But the chamberlain wanted me to come here in case any of the gentlemen had too much to drink and soiled the garden. I was to clean up any messes. He will be so angry. I was not to allow any guests to see me in my rags.”

“Your dress is fine,” Ruth said. “Not appropriate for dancing at a ball, of course, but very good clothes from where I come from.”

“You are too kind, my lady,” Elizabeth said. “What did you do to me? My mouth feels so funny. Did you fix me?”

“I am a healer,” Ruth said. “I do what I can to help people.”

“But I cannot pay you,” she said. “I could never pay for what you have done for me.”

“Be my friend,” Ruth said. “Other than the two of you, I have not found many friends here at this party.

“And you need not worry about the Chamberlain,” the Earl said. “I will inform him that from this time forth you will be one of the maids in my room. A day maid.” He added the last so that Ruth would know that he did not intend to besmirch the girl’s honor. “And tonight you shall be our chaperone, since it is my wish to speak more of the lady and spare her the agonies of the gala.”

Ruth and the earl sat on a bench. No amount of urging could get Ruth to have the girl sit as well. Instead she stood behind them, ready to serve should it be needed. In spite of her kitchen-smeared dress, Elizabeth had a smile a mile wide at her new status: a smile she had never before been able to show.

Ruth told the Earl and the girl the story of Cinderella. Elizabeth was so much like Ella in the early parts of the story, and Ruth loosing a shoe mirrored the later part. She was near the end, where the handsome prince was going through the land to find out who fit into the glass slipper when a noise was heard at the entrance to the hall.

“Who is the handsome prince?” a deep voice said. “Me, I hope.”

Ruth looked up, and saw the Prince standing there, surrounded by three footmen and a gaggle of young women wishing to be close to him. More were flowing out for the door by the minute, and soon the garden was packed.

“Sean, my cousin,” the Prince said. “You are holding out on me. Who is this vision of beauty?”

“She is not for you,” the Earl said sternly.

“I would let her say so,” the prince said. “You are but a lowly Earl, soon to be a Duke I note, but still far below me. I am a prince. One day to be King. Surely she would prefer my company to yours.”

There was a gasp from the assembled women. None of them had heard anything so positive in their chasing after the Prince.

“Well then,” Ruth said slowly. “I have no vows to the Earl, but merely come to him as a healer. But I find him so far superior a man to yourself that I cannot contend. I therefore respectfully decline your offer, if that is what it is.”

Fire flashed in the Prince’s eyes. “You defy me?” he shouted. “I am the Prince of all the land. I can order the girl to attend me.”

“You cannot,” the Earl said with as much steel in his voice. “The Duchy is independent of the kingdom, thanks to the boon of your grandfather to mine, when our troops turned a decisive battle in our favor. The boon is that the Duchy is independent for all time.”

“A boon given can be a boon taken away,” the Prince growled. “Do you wish war with the Kingdom. I will crush you and then take what I wish.”

“I see my first impressions were right,” Ruth said. “It seems that you will take a woman against her will. We have a word for that in the Duchy, and severe penalties for those who do it.”

The Prince was livid. “I am the Prince. I am above the law. Mark my words, cousin-no-more. I shall attack this land and take what is my due.”

He then turned and pointed out 10 girls from the crowd who attended him. “Bring these and fix the wagons and carriages. I will leave this place until I can return at the head of the greatest army this piddling castle has ever seen.” He then strode out of the garden, taking his men and his harem with him.

Ruth noticed an official remained behind, staring at Elizabeth. “Chamberlain, attend,” the Earl said. “I would have the gala ended now that the guest of honor,” he nearly spat those words, “has left. It is my duty to my guests to say the closing remarks, but this young healer is here to tend to my father, and I would take her to him immediately. Please give the farewell, and my apologies. I feel none of my guests will take offense to my seeing to the needs of the Duke over them. And this girl,” he motioned to Elizabeth, is now one of my day maids. Make sure she is given suitable quarters, and suitable clothing.”

With that Ruth, Elizabeth, and the Earl hurried through the garden to another exit into the castle. After going through a warren of halls, they came to the sick room of the Duke. There were three doctors there, and more nurses. The Duke was in a great bed, breathing with a rattling rale. Ruth approached immediately, and put her hands on his chest. The sounds stopped, and his breathing eased immediately.

The doctors immediately started to ply her with questions, and Ruth had to ask them to leave, with only two of the nurses, the Earl, and Elizabeth allowed to remain.

It took all night, all the next day, and past midnight on a second evening before Ruth fell to the floor in a faint. The Earl carried her away to a bed, and as they left Sean heard his father say: “Who was that girl? I feel so … well.”

Ruth gained consciousness around noon, and Elizabeth fed her a half bowl of broth before she fell asleep again. When she awoke again it was past midnight, and Ruth said she was hungry. Elizabeth put a nurse next to her, and ran herself to the kitchens she knew so well, and started warming some soup and leftover stew.

The noise in the kitchen alerted several of the staff, including the cook, who stared at the girl’s beautiful face. “What happened to you?” the cook asked.

“I was healed by a lady,” Elizabeth said. “The Earl has promoted me to work upstairs. The lady has been ill, after healing the Duke, who is now well. I must take these to her, so that she can get well.”

This time Ruth finished both the stew and the soup. “Have you eaten, my dear?” she asked Elizabeth.

“Only the half bowl of soup you couldn’t finish last night,” Elizabeth said.

“Oh dear, and this time I have left nothing for you. Go you down to the kitchens and feed yourself. I am well now. I will have a little sleep, and when morning comes you must lead me through this place to where I need to be. I hope I can see the Earl again.”

Elizabeth again went down to the kitchen, where there were more questions as she ate a meal the cook had made for her. She told those assembled how Ruth had healed her with only her hands, and then healed the Duke, who the doctors said was dying. She mentioned Ruth’s kindness to her, and how it seemed to rub off on the Earl, who had also treated her as a person, and not just a functionary.

When morning came, Ruth awoke to find Elizabeth opening the curtains to her room. The girl was in a clean and new-looking uniform. “How did I come to be here?” the healer asked.

“The Earl himself carried you here. It is one of the best rooms in the castle.”

“Oh yes, I remember feeling safe and secure after I collapsed. The wasting disease is very taxing on a healer, and the Duke’s case was the worst I have ever faced.”

“We are wanted to breakfast in an hour,” Elizabeth said. “The Earl has named me your personal maid while you remain with us. I have ordered a bath, and there have been some clothes brought as well. I assume you will not want to wear your gown from the gala again.”

“No, certainly not,” Ruth said. “And a bath sounds wonderful.”

It was the first time Ruth had ever had a bath in a wooden tub. On the farm she had bathed in the river with her mother and sisters, but this tub of nearly hot water was just what she needed. Having Elizabeth standing beside the tub to scrub her back and hand her towels was a luxury for the young healer.

“This breakfast gown will do,” the maid said.

“It is a bit ornate,” Ruth noted.

“Yes, but you will be eating with the Duke and the Earl. Some degree of opulence is needed.”

When they were dressed, the maid led Ruth through another different maze of tunnels, finally coming out on a balcony. As they entered, an older woman rushed over and put her arms around Ruth, gushing: “You have restored the love of my life. I can never repay you.” Ruth guessed, correctly, that this was the Duchess, and Sean’s mother.

An elderly man then rose, looking hale and healthy. “I too thank you,” the Duke said. “Ask anything of the kingdom and it is yours.”

“You are looking much better than the last time I saw you,” Ruth said. “Are there any pains? Tingles in the limbs? A cough, perhaps?”

“No, none,” the Duke said. “I feel better than I have felt since Sean was born, and that is getting close to a quarter century. Will you stay and be my personal physician?”

“I will stay. For a while,” she said. “But not to be your personal physician. There are many ill people in the city. I can feel it. I will help them. And if you or any of the castle fall ill I will help them. But I need to keep using my talents for the people or the lady Goldberry may take them away.”

“First we dine. I see you have a new maid. She will serve you?”

“No, Elizabeth is my friend. She will eat as I do.” There was a gasp, from the three ducal rulers, and even larger gasp from Elizabeth. But the largest gasp was from the other four servants in the room plating food and setting it out. They had never heard of a servant being asked to eat with the Duke.

“I cannot deny the one who saved my life,” the Duke said. “Your maid will sit with us.”

Elizabeth protested, and Ruth relented when she saw how embarrassed the situation was making the girl. She compromised, saying that Elizabeth should sit at a smaller table in the room. Then she added that the other four servants would join her once their duties were completed. This brought forth a new chorus of gasps.

The servants took turns eating with Elizabeth, with two eating as two others served the family and Ruth, then switching. During the meal, talk turned to the Prince, and his hasty retreat. Apparently the Duke’s spies were reporting that the Prince was raising levies, and planned to attack the Duchy.

“A battle on two fronts can never by won,” the Duke lamented.

“Only one front, my lord and father,” Sean said. “We have not attacked the south for several years, and while you were ill, I made trade overtures to them. They were well received. I cannot imagine that they will ally with us when the Prince attacks, but they will not interfere.”

“Bah, what good comes from the south,” the Duke disparaged.

“There are many good things from the south,” Ruth said. “I was at a fair in Tharbad not a month ago, and the array of goods was astonishing. Elizabeth, would you please run and get my gown from the gala? I think the Duchess would like to see it.”

The girl ran off immediately, and then Sean spoke. “Ruth, you healed Elizabeth so effortlessly, yet curing father took all of your powers. The doctors said you would never revive. Why is this?”

“Healed the girl?” the Duke interrupted.

“Oh my,” the Duchess added in awe. “She is the poor girl in the kitchens with the ruined face. I thought I recognized her. She is beautiful now.”

“Yes,” Ruth steered the conversation back to Sean’s question. “I can cure many in a short time. It is only the wasting disease that takes so much energy from me.”

“What I was wondering,” the Earl said, “was if you could heal war injuries. Arrow wounds, sword slashes, the like. How many could you cure in a few hours?”

“Arrows and slashes are relatively easy. Stop the blood flow, heal the wound. Most men with injuries of that type could fight again the next day.”

The Duke gasped. “Right now we send physicians to the front, but they generally amputate a limb, if they can save the man at all. To have the wounded back in the battle the next day …”

“ … would turn the tide of a war,” Sean answered. “In most battles there are 400 wounded and 100 killed on each side, per 1000 troops. If we could put 900 of those into battle against the remaining 500 of the enemy on the following day, we would win continually. Let the Prince come.”

While Ruth and the men were talking, Elizabeth returned with the robe, and placed it on the lap of the Duchess.

“I want this,” she said firmly. She turned to her son. “Make this trade thing happen.”

---- ------ ----

Ruth spent the next four weeks wandering through the city, although this time there was a castle guard of four accompanying her at each stop. She worked her charm on the soldiers, buying them food and drink through the day, and treating them civilly. Word got around in the barracks, and healer-guard became the favored duty of all, even above guarding the great room when the Duke was in attendance.

The people of the city also grew to love her, with those who were wealthy happy to pay for the healing of themselves and their loved ones. But the poor of the city were most taken with the pretty healer. She healed them without any payment expected or given. What’s more, she treated them as equals, claiming only to be a poor country girl who was blessed with healing powers.

During that month Sean had sent emissaries to the south, and announced a great fair in the city for the fall. Traders all over the south responded, since there was a gap in the fair schedule that would allow them to come north, and return home before winter hit.

The Duke’s spies reported that the Prince had been irate on hearing of the fair. He considered that by that time he would have cleaned up the Duke’s ragtag army. He decided that he would merely seize all the trade goods and kill the traders, profiting to defray the costs of the war. The balance of the cost would be taxed out of the Duchy.

These same spies reported that the Prince planned to bring 10,000 men to the Duchy, the vast majority of the Kingdom’s army. The Earl gathered 5000 levies, and thought it might be enough, with Ruth’s aid.

At the border the Prince sent a force of 3000 though the pass between the lands, and Sean was waiting with half his force, 2500. Sean won the battle, but the cost was enormous, with him losing 250 men. The Prince lost 300, and 1200 wounded, most of whom where left on the battlefield. The Prince expected to win a war of attrition.

But yhen he sent another force of 3000 out, again to lose by the same edge, all of Sean’s injured were ready for battle, although left in reserve while the other half of the Ducal army fought.

On the third day, the Prince rode at the front of his army, expecting only a thousand or so troops left in the Ducal forces. To his surprise, there were over 5000 men facing him, outnumbering him.

Ruth had cured all of the Ducal injured, and then had moved on to the enemy troops that had been left on the battlefield. They expected the Duke’s men sent out to clear the field to slit their throats, but instead they were gently piled onto wagons and brought back to the camp. Once Ruth had cured her own people, she started on the enemy wounded, and the men were astonished to be healed, when the best they could have hoped for was to lose an arm or leg. The Prince was not loved by his men, and many switched sides immediately. Thus the entire left flank facing him was of his own former soldiers.

The battle went poorly for the Prince, who fled the battle early when it was clear that his troops were being slaughtered. When he was seen running, his troops waved a white flag, and to their surprise it was honored. They were even more surprised to see how the Duke treated their wounded, and the honorable burial he provided their dead, when the normal practice of the time was to build a cairn and burn the enemy dead in a pile.

Thus it was that Sean marched over the pass unopposed and had an army of nearly 12,000 troops surrounding the King’s palace two weeks later. Those troops who had joined the Ducal army were allowed leave to visit their loved ones, and the result of this was an increasing level of desertions from the dwindling royal army.

Finally, the King sent out an embassy, who were well treated. In return an embassy went to the palace. Ruth insisted on accompanying Sean.

Finally they were in the throne room, with an aged looking King slumping on the throne. “So you have defeated my idiot son,” the King said. “Apparently his great battle prowess was not enough to win even with 2 to one odds in his favor.”

“We only seek peace between our lands,” the Earl said. “Our grandparents knew that we would each grow stronger as friends than enemies. We should honor their wisdom.”

“Honor this,” the Prince yelled from the back of the room. He had grabbed a crossbow from a guard, and let fly, with the bolt crashing through the ceremonial breastplate the Earl wore and imbedded itself in his chest. “And she will be mine.”

The King gasped. An Embassy in his palace had been breached, and by his own son. He had enough. “Disarm that fool and take him to the tower,” the old man ordered. The Prince was bound and carried away, cursing at the men who held them, vowing that he would have their heads when he became King.

When Sean slumped to the floor, Ruth caught him and eased him down. She ordered the largest of the guard with them to pull out the bolt, and had another take the armor off. Meanwhile she had her hands inside his clothing, and soon found the wound. A week of dealing with battle wounds had left her adept at healing this type of injury, and in a moment the Earl was moaning, to the amazement of all the King’s attendants who thought they had just witnessed a murder. Another moment later and he cautiously got to his feet, a bit unsteady, but standing.

“The Duchy does not blame you for this,” he told the King. “I still seek peace between our lands.”

“You are a good man,” the King said. “I feared that your men would be ravaging my city in revenge before the night ended, and instead you still offer peace. At the least my son will be banished from the Kingdom, but I am old and ill and my only other son lies near death. The Prince will return when I die, and will again hold the power of the Kingdom.”

Ruth heard the King say the word “ill” and perked up. She walked up to the King. A guard stepped in front of her, but she just stared at him until he backed off. She put her hands on the head of the King and concentrated.

“You have been poisoned,” she said. “There, it is gone.”

“Treason,” the word flitted about the room. Several troops were sent to the kitchen to bring forth all the staff there for an investigation. Meanwhile, Ruth had moved to the Queen and cured her of the same poisoning. She then followed the woman to the sick room of her six-year-old son, who was very near death. It took a full 15 minutes to heal him, but when she left he was a normal young boy, bouncing around and eager to find out what had happened.

Ruth returned to the throne room in time to find that two servants had admitted to poisoning the royal family on the orders of the Prince, who was anxious to take the throne for himself. “You know this is treason,” the King said gravely. “I sentence you both …”

“Please, your highness,” Ruth begged. “Ask them why they did such a vile thing?”

“As you wish,” the King said. “Speak.”

The taller of the two servants fell to his knees, not expecting to be able to plead for his life. “I admit that we did it, and it was wrong. And we knew it was wrong. We were dead men the moment the Prince proposed his plot. But he told us that if we didn’t do his bidding, then he would kill our families, down to the cousins. We had no choice.”

The other man nodded in agreement. “I see. I sentence you to … banishment from the Kingdom for all time. I leave you two weeks to wrap up your affairs here, and to leave.”

“That is about the time that our army is due to leave,” Sean said. “They will accompany us, and live in the Duchy. Not as castle staff, but small farms will be found for them.”

“I wish that you were my son,” the King said. “My younger son is only six. Would you take him with you, so that he can learn royal duties properly? And be his regent should I die before he is of age?”

“I will. And I know that a mother never wishes to loose a son, so once a year he will spend two weeks vacationing here in the palace, where he can meet with his people and his army.”

“The army is another matter. You have taken most of my men. I am left defenseless should any other army attack,” the King lamented.

“Your men hate the Prince, not you or Raoul,” the Earl said. “If the Prince is gone, they will return to your army, most of them. They have family here, and love their country. I will allow you to take any that wish to come back, so long as you allow the ones who choose to stay with me to bring their families back to the Duchy.”

“Now it is time to deal with the traitor,” the King said. “Send a guard to the tower to bring him here.”

“If we might, your highness,” Ruth suggested. “The Earl and I would like to be part of that guard.”

The King smiled. “Excellent. Let those who he offended most bring him back. With a guard of eight.”

In the tower the door opened into the most sumptuous jail cell Ruth could imagine. Carpets covered the floors, and tapestries the walls. The furnishings were suitable for a noble detainee. Lounging on a sofa was the Prince. He smiled when he saw her, and swung his feet to the floor, starting to get up.

“So, with your little Earl gone you have changed your mind? You seek the Prince after all. I knew you would.”

Then Sean stepped into the room behind her, and the Prince stumbled backwards flopping onto the sofa. “But you … I … How …” he mumbled.

“Your plans did not work,” Sean said. “The King orders you to return to the throne room to hear his judgment.”

“Bah, he is weak,” the Prince boasted. “I shall be King is a few weeks, and then you will feel the wrath of the entire kingdom.”

“Yes, I know. We are suffering greatly from your wrath right now,” Sean said sarcastically. “With all my soldiers, and many of yours surrounding the city.”

“My soldiers joined you? Traitors.”

“That might not be the best word for you to use right now,” Ruth suggested.

Back in the Throne room the Prince was surprised to see a fit and able King sitting on the throne, and his little brother playing on the floor in front of his father’s feet. His mother also looked healthy. For the first time, the Prince saw his plans falling to pieces, and he sagged a bit. But only for a second.

“You were a prince, and a son of mine,” the King intoned. “Now you are neither, just a subject awaiting his doom from the King. On the first count, you betrayed the trust of embassy by attacking another in this very room.”

“But he stands here unharmed,” the Prince said, thinking he might be able to talk his way out of this. “Embassy protects embassadors from being harmed. He is not harmed. I am innocent of this.”

“Perhaps, but the second count is that you committed treason, by inciting poisoning of the royal person, his consort, and his youngest … his only son,” the King said. “How plead you?”

“Innocent, of course,” the Prince said smugly. “I know nothing of any poison. I cannot prove that there was none. You look much better today than yesterday, but it is not of my hand if there was poison. What evidence is there?”

“These two men have testified that they did the poisoning,” the King said.

“Then there is your treason, hang them. Kill them.” He attempted to grab another crossbow to do the deed himself (and to silence their voices), but this time the guard held it firmly.

“These men testified that their families were in danger if they disobeyed you,” the King said.

“Then they and all their people are dead,” the Prince shouted in rage, and then stopped dead, realizing he had just implicated himself.

“They are not. And should some in the room feel that their Prince has given them a command, I will tell them that he is no longer a Prince, and can no longer protect them. If any of these men’s families are harmed in any way, the court will find out by whose hand. And that person or persons will not merely die, they will be sent to the dungeon. Torture has not been used in this Palace for 30 years, but in this case of treason it will be.”

“Now my … subject. By your own admission you were involved in this treason, and your fate is thus. Tomorrow morning, at first light, you will be taken to the tower and your head will be removed from your body. Although I would rather you hang by the neck and become raven’s food, I will grant you a royal death since you were once my son.”

----- - -- ----- -

Two weeks later the armies split up. Nearly 1000 men opted to move to the Duchy, where they were to be given land and allowed to build homes. The other soldiers rejoined their families, ready for the next call of their liege. The troops were inspected by their King, and the new Crown Prince, a young boy who was much beloved by his people.

The old Crown Prince rested in a cage atop the tower, with his head several feet away, silently watching the ravens feast on his body.

There were cheers for all those who were present at the departure. The Earl was cheered as having liberating the people from an oppressive overlord. Word had gotten out that it was he who had urged the King to cut the heavy tax load in half, to compensate to the onerous taxes that the Prince had levied. It was actually Ruth who had first made the suggestion, that taxes be abolished for two years. The palace Chamberlain protested, saying the Kingdom could not exist without revenues. It was Sean who suggested the compromise: halving taxes for two years, then adjusting them as necessary.

There was a massive cheer for the Crown Prince. The little boy was beloved by all his subjects and when he promised to learn from the Earl how to be a wise and fair ruler, cheers rang out five times before they calmed down.

But even that did not compare to the cheers that came Ruth’s way when she waved to the crowd. She was beloved, no exalted, by the poor people of the city. She did not speak, but screams of joy rang out when Sean announced that she would return with the princeling when he came back each year for vacation.

Finally the party left and a week later were back at the castle. Ruth was thrilled to find her entire family there. The confirmation of her father as Squire had happened a week before, and when word of the return of the army was announced, they were allowed to stay to see them come home.

The Earl and the Squire met in a small room that first night, while Elizabeth and Ruth were taking Mary through the entire castle, from kitchens to armory, all to the delight of the little girl. There was another in the party as well. Raoul, the crown prince, had fallen in love with Ruth, and didn’t want to let her out of his sight, particularly in this old castle that was strange and different from the palace he had grown up in.

At one point, the children were lagging behind and Ruth turned and saw that her sister was walking hand-in-hand with the Crown Prince. I shall never be a queen, thank goodness, Ruth thought. But perhaps Mary might. Their father would have to be raised again, to knight, to make this possible, but if young Raoul sought it, she felt it could happen.

The secret of the meeting between Earl and Squire was revealed that evening at dinner, when Sean stood and told those assembled that he had asked for permission to wed Ruth. He got down on knee, and proposed, offering the girl a ruby ring.

“I accept,” Ruth said. “You are the only man I would ever marry.” Her little speech was ended abruptly when he kissed her deeply.

And they lived happily ever after.



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