Two weeks after the death of King Ralof, while the kingdom was still in mourning and all the banners still hung black, an angry spirit started attacking the castle staff.
It screamed through the halls and left cold mist and trails of frost in its path. It tore through the portraits of the historic royal family and clawed out the faces of dead monarchs. It destroyed the busts in the libraries and shattered windows in the main hall. It shredded the mourning banners and nation's flags, and when anyone got too close, it hurled them across the rooms with gusts of icy wind. When it had finished its destruction, the spirit wailed in the upper part of the castle, where the king's personal quarters had been.
Nobody knew why the spirit was there. Some guessed it was because the king had died childless. The queen had passed not long ago, and he hadn't the time or opportunity to sire an heir. At that very moment, distant royal relations were on their way to the castle to squabble over who was the rightful heir. Perhaps the ghost was the old king lamenting the end of his family line. Perhaps the king had not died of a heart attack as the physician had said, but was murdered, and this was how he let them know.
"No," said the leader of the church. "It was the funeral service. It clearly wasn't sufficient. We need to hold another."
So they tried.
Once again, the halls were covered in black banners, the capital was filled with black-clad mourners, the castle courtyard was filled with bouquets of lilies and people who couldn't go inside the castle, either for lack of space indoors or their lack of prestige. All the kingdom that could come was there, once again, to hear the speeches in the great halls lamenting the loss of the king.
In the middle of the speech, just as the high priest was going into detail about the legacy of charity and mercy the compassionate king had left, the spirit shattered every piece of glass in the castle-- windows, mirrors, even drinkware and platters-- and snuffed out every source of light. Despite the strong sunlight outside, the room was completely devoid of light. Screams went up. Some of the screams belonged to the mourners, but the loudest scream of all belonged to the specter as it wailed and threw people aside like rag dolls. Lords and ladies, dukes and duchesses, barons, baronesses, viscounts, viscountesses and nobility of all kinds went running for safety or were flung out of the room by the spirit.
Everyone ran from the hall and once the last of them were out, the great double doors slammed shut behind them, and nobody could get them to open again.
* * * *
The third memorial service for the king was scheduled two days after the second, and Mallory, the gardener's boy, was tired.
"No sense bellyaching," his father said, passing him a clean shirt. It wasn't the best shirt-- Mal had worn that at the first service. It wasn't the second best, either, as that one had been worn at the second. Both were still dirty from the two sitting out in the sun with the rest of the servants at the service held outside the castle. Now the two were preparing for the third service in their third-best clothes.
"Do we have to be inside this time?" Mal said, taking the shirt. They had both been right up front of the mourning servants, and they had seen the doors fly open and the nobility scrambling over each other trying to flee the spirit.
His father, Donlan, straightened his tie. "That's what the steward said. He wants a full house, and none of the nobles are willing to risk getting attacked again."
"So they'll have us fill in," said Mal flatly.
Donlan sighed. "Ralof was a good man," he said. "I don't understand why. . . " He let the sentence trail off. "I just don't understand," he said finally.
Mallory thought of the late king.
Before he has died, the king had taken special pride in his gardens. The castle grounds had great, winding gardens full of viney roses strung tastefully along wrought iron fences, lilacs taller than grown men that grew along the walls, beds of pansies and petunias and tulips and every other kind of flower imaginable. There were boxes and planters and pots bursting with colorful flowers. There were fountains and small streams and exotic birds and hedges shaped like animals. And there were practical parts dedicated to the best fruit trees and vegetables and herbs and spices for the kitchens. For a time, it had seemed like Donlan was always being called to the castle to speak with the king about new additions to the gardens.
When Mallory was younger, he would sometimes find the king wandering around the garden, lost among the maze-like hedges, and he would have to lead him back to the castle.
"You must really love your garden, your majesty," he said once when he was still too young to know that he wasn't supposed to speak to royalty without permission.
The king had gotten an odd look on his face. Something sad and tired, but he still smiled and said, "You could say. My father did, too. So I come out here to think about him. About family."
The king had gone quiet after that, lost in thought, and Mal hadn't tried to distract him.
As he got older, Mallory saw the king less and less. He didn't question it; it wasn't his job to question it. The king lost interest in the garden and stopped coming by.
For all that he lived on the castle grounds, Mal could go months and months without seeing his majesty. Usually, his father would meet with the steward who told him the kings sparse orders about the garden. Mostly, the orders were along the lines of "keep up the good work, don't change a thing."
However, in the weeks leading up to his death, the king had started visiting the gardens again. Mal saw him once or twice, but each time, left before the king saw him, and went to get his father to lead the king home. He knew then that he wasn't supposed to talk to royals.
His father said something.
"What?" said Mal.
"It's time to go," Donlan said, putting on his jacket.
With a sigh, Mal followed his father out the door.
* * * * *
The great hall was still locked up, and nobody could get it to open again. So the third service was held in the smaller amphitheater on the north side of the castle. Like the first and second service, the streets outside were full of mourners, but unlike the first service, where the air had been full of grief, and the second there the air had been full of worry, the air of the crowd was that of fear. What if the king never came to peace?
The amphitheater was packed with people, and because no nobles wanted to risk the ire of the king again, most of the attendees were servants who worked in the castle. The stage in the front of the room was covered in flowers and paper doves and letters from all around the kingdom written to the spirit of the king to tell him how much he was loved, and how everyone hoped he would find rest.
The doors to the hall closed and the priests began the third batch of funeral rites. They spoke of the king's honor, of his many accomplishments, of the peace he brought the kingdom. The bishop's voice echoed through the hall, bouncing off the walls so that even those in the back could hear, and just as the bishop was coming to the part about the king deserving his eternal reward in the next life, the lights went out. A murmur went through the crowd, but the bishop continued valiantly by the light from the high windows. Then a cold wind flooded the room, and the temperature suddenly dropped. People in the crowd began to shiver. The breathing of everyone in the room became labored, and their breaths came out in visible puffs.
The bishop would have continued, but the wind grew stronger and knocked away his notes from the podium, then knocked down the podium itself, and then him. Several people on the stage -- the judge, the general, the king's advisors-- rushed forward to help him up, but they too were knocked back. Someone in the room screamed, and the doors to the amphitheater burst open. The wind seemed to encourage everyone to leave, pushing them towards the open doors.
A few people in back were knocked out of the room and into the pavilion outside. Those who were still left in the hall looked to the center of the room and saw the spirit full on-- a huge, floating vision of the old king, his frame more skeletal than it had ever been in life, even on his deathbed, draped in torn robes that floated around him as though he were underwater. There was no color to the spirit, only shades of gray, blue, and white that cast an unnatural light. It had no eyes, only gaping black pits where they ought to be.
Despite the light from the window and the open doors, the room inside was pitch black save for the king.
The spectre opened his mouth, stretched far wider than any living human could, and screeched.
The noise was unbearable. It was a sound of pure, unceasing pain. Everyone inside the room and most of the people outside fell to the ground, clutching their ears. The noise was blinding.
Then, suddenly, the lights came back on.
The wailing stopped.
Those who could began to stand and saw the king in the middle of the room.
The ghost was looming over a boy. Its claw-like hands were wrapped around the boy's wrists, and as the boy struggled in its grip, it appeared to be dragging him away. The boy's cries filled the air; his skin burned where the ghost touched, and when he finally managed to squirm away, his skin tore beneath the spirit's hands, leaving open wounds on his arms, his face, and shoulder.
"Get away from him!" screamed the gardener. He ran towards the boy and the spectre of the king.
The ghost king backed away as he approached and, with a look of complete and utter hopelessness, vanished into the wall.
* * * * *
The next few hours were a blur for Mallory.
Everyone wanted to know why the ghost had targeted him out of all others in the room.
The king in life had been a perfectly reasonable figure of authority, and not the sort of person to torment a gardener. The castle priests didn't know what to make of it. They sent him to the mages, who also didn't know what to do. They called on the king's advisers, thinking maybe they'd know if he'd harbored any grudges against the gardener's boy. They called the astronomers to see if the stars were at fault. They called in more people, and when there came to be too many people all wanting to hear and be heard, they packed into the auditorium where they used to give out royal proclamations. Soon the room was full of people with opinions and arguments broke out.
Some people wanted the ghost gone. If he was torturing the gardener's boy, then what was going to stop him from targeting anyone else? Others maintained that, dead or not, the king was still the king and he obviously had a point to make. The boy must've done something to deserve it.
"Arrest him," the general said. "Toss him in the dungeon and leave him to rot."
But when anyone tried to grab him, they were thrown back by a great, cold wind, and the few pieces of glass left in the window frames shattered even further, and the room filled with the noxious smell of death. They stopped trying to arrest him.
Others argued that the king, if he was still to be considered such, was a mad king now and ought to be ousted. Others said that sounded like treason talk. No, revolution, they said. King for life and not a second afterward.
There was a lot of yelling and sabre rattling until Mallory was suddenly yanked out of the crowd by the scruff of his shirt and dragged towards the door by an invisible force. He screamed and kicked, and it was only when Donlan dragged him back that the invisible hand released him.
It was clear, everyone agreed. They needed outside help.
* * * * *
The spirit speaker was an old woman a good foot taller than most of the men in the castle. She wore layers and layers of gray clothing, looking like an upturned flower. Each layer was a different shade of gray, each with patters embroidered in that hummed and buzzed like some kind of winged insect. Her hair was thick and gray and fanned out down her back. Around her neck was a silver amulet that made Mal's teeth ache when he looked at it. She walked with a staff that had a curved crook at the end and silver bells tied on that jingled when she walked.
First she spoke to the general, then the clerics, then the mages and advisers and to a few courtiers, then the majordomo and the maids and the chefs and all the staff who had been at the funeral until she had gotten the story from every angle but his. Then she went to Mallory.
"Well?" she said.
"I don't know," he said.
"Let me see your arm."
He showed her. She examined the burns, being careful not to touch them directly. Then she took her amulet and passed it over his skin. It hurt, though there was no contact.
"Sorry," she said, letting him go. "I just wanted to make sure those were caused by a specter."
He nodded. "'kay."
"What do you make of it?" said Donlan.
"We need more information," she said. "We need to speak to the spirit directly."
"The spirit can't talk," said the bishop. "It can only wail. We've tried speaking to it before."
The Spirit Speaker held up her amulet. "I can speak to him," she said. "And I can make it so that you can hear him, too. we just need to bring him out again."
"Then it's no problem," said the general. "We'll have the boy lure the spirit out."
"No we will not!" said Donlan.
"Of course we'll be with him," said the Spirit Speaker. "He won't be alone."
"The spirit is clearly interested in--" started the bishop.
"I don't care! Mal's not going anywhere near it again! It's too dangerous."
"Dad, it's alright," said Mallory. "I'm not afraid."
"I don't care if you're afraid or not! I'm your father, and I'm saying you can't--"
"Donlan," said the steward, "Ralof wants to see the boy."
"He's not the king anymore! He's dead! He gave up the right--"
"Dad!" Mallory placed his hand on his father's shoulder. "I want to do this. He was good when he was alive, and if I can help him now, then I want to."
Donlan looked like he wanted to argue, but stopped. He sighed, then nodded his head.
"Alright," he said. "But I'm coming with you."
* * * * *
Mallory, Donlan, the Spirit Speaker, the general, the bishop, and the steward approached the doors to the great hall in utter silence. The castle was empty; everyone had been instructed to wait outside in case the king did something nasty. The doors of the hall were cold to the touch and were stuck shut until Mallory stepped forward. Then, both doors flung wide open. The group went inside.
In the center of the room, the Spirit Speaker held up her hand for them all to stop. She held up the amulet and said,
"Here me, spirit of Ralof the king. Your subjects would speak with you."
Without any warning save for the chill in the air, the ghost of the king was there before them.
The Spirit Speaker raised her arms and said, "Hear us, oh spirit! We ask of you--"
The ghost of the king ignored her entirely. "I'm sorry," it said. Though it had no eyes, its face was turned towards Mallory. "I'm so sorry."
The spirit moved towards Mallory, its arm out and reaching. Everyone backed away except Mal, who was stuck, frozen in place. Adrenaline coursed through his veins and blood pounded in his ears. He stood, shaking, primed to run.
"No," the king said, drawing his arm back. "Please don't run away. Don't run from me."
"Spirit," said the Spirit Speaker. "I bid thee to--"
The king flicked his wrist and a gust of freezing wind knocked everyone else in the room off their feet. His face, intense and full of hunger, never left Mal.
He couldn't help it. Mal bolted.
"No!" wailed the spectre.
The sudden wind blew Mallory off his feet, and he stumbled, slid, and smacked into the wall. Stars filled his vision and a dull pain started at the back of his head. When he could see clearly again, he saw the old king looming over him, watching him hungrily. Mal closed his eyes. He didn't want to see when he died.
Something cold brushed against his face. He squeezed his eyes close even tighter, expecting the spirit to hurt him again.
"Please," said the king. "Don't be afraid."
Slowly, Mal opened his eyes. The spirit gently touched his head. "I'm so sorry."
Mal sat up. The spirit touched the burn on his cheek, sending icy pins and needles into his face. Mal winced, and the spirit immediately drew its hand away.
"I didn't mean to."
Mallory tried to find his voice. "What?"
"I didn't mean to hurt you. I just-- I just--" The ghost's hand shook with the urge to reach out and touch him. "I'm so sorry."
"What do you want?" Mal said. He looked beyond the ghost king and saw the others watching him. The Spirit Speaker nodded at him encouragingly while his father was being held back by the general and bishop.
"Why haven't you passed on yet?" Mal said.
"You," said the king. It shuddered like it was in pain.
"Why? What did I do?" His heart pounded in his chest. "Did I do something wrong?" he croaked.
"No," said the spirit. It shivered so hard that it blurred for a second. "My son. I'm so sorry."
Mallory looked to Donlan, who was no longer struggling against the general and bishop, but was standing there with his head down.
The ghost sank down, almost into the floor, and said, "You are my son. Your mother was a peasant, a witch woman I had known in youth and met again. She died when you were born, and she sent me a letter predicting her death. I promised her I'd take you in, but by then I was married. You were a bastard and I--" The spirit suddenly howled in pain. "I didn't want you! I would've killed you. I would have! But the gardener's wife had just lost a child. They'd been hard workers-- I'd known them for years. You were a gift." The spirit curled in on itself, hunched over on its knees, cradling itself in its arms. "Please," it whispered. "Forgive me."
Mallory stared at the king. Then at his father who had slumped to the floor. To both he said, "But there's nothing to forgive."
The spirit turned its face up. So did Donlan.
"I love my family," Mallory said, looking again at the king. "I love being a gardener. I love taking care of things and watching them grow. Why would you apologize for that?"
"You should've been a prince."
"Id've been terrible at it. Gardening is what makes me happy. And you could've killed me, but you didn't, so thank you for that--"
"No!" The specter hit its fist against the floor and ice spider-webbed out from where it made contact. "Don't thank me for your life. Don't thank me for not killing you. Don't thank me for almost murdering a baby, my own flesh and blood. You should've had everything! You should've had fine clothes and soft beds and all the food you could eat. You should've had schooling and horse riding and swordsmanship and music and I could've given it to you. I should've given it to you! But I didn't. I watched you grow and I didn't care until it was too late."
The spirit crumpled, and Mal found himself with the overwhelming urge to comfort it.
"Please don't be upset," he said, awkwardly trying to pat its shoulder. It was almost solid enough, but if he let his hand sit for too long, it started to sink through the spirit's shoulder.
"I should've made you happy."
"You did. I love my life. I am happy."
The spirit peered at him. "Really?"
The spirit smiled. It brushed Mal's face again, and this time he didn't shy away.
"Thank you," it said.
And then it was gone.
The others had been watching the entire exchange. The steward got to his feet first, and while the others muttered among themselves and dusted themselves off, he strode over to Mallory and said, "Well, what now, your majesty?"
Mal started at him, horrified. "Don't do that!"
Donlan was the last to pick himself up. He approached Mallory, his eyes locked on the floor, and said, "I'm sorry I never--"
He didn't finish. Mal stepped into a hug. "Don't you either," Mal said.
"Nevertheless," the general said. "It looks like you're the next one for the throne, your majesty."
"But I don't want to be!" said Mal, edging away. "I wasn't lying about that-- I want to be a gardener!"
The general opened his mouth to argue the matter, and he stepped forward towards Mal, but before he could do or say anything, a strong gust of icy wind blew him backwards. It knocked him off balance and he tumbled several feet away, aided by the unrelenting wind that seemed intent only on him.
Then, it passed. For a long moment, nobody moved.
"Well," said the Spirit Speaker. "It seems the intent of the king is clear. The young man should remain a gardener."
"It appears to be his last request. . . " said the bishop uncertainly.
"We still need somebody!" said the general from the floor.
"He spoke well of his cousin," said the steward. "Cecil, I think his name was. Said he was smarter than the rest of them."
The air in the room, which had still been chilly, became a few degrees warmer. Everyone waited for another sign. None came.
"So Cecil, then," said the general, back on his feet. "We're agreed. We tell everyone that we came in, the king told the gardener's boy that the royal cousin Cecil was to be the new king."
"Why would he tell the gardener boy and not us?" said the bishop.
"He liked his gardens," said Donlan. "Always did. Used to come by all the time." He looked at Mallory apologetically. "He stopped when you got older. Said you looked too much like your mom."
It took Mal a second to realize he was talking about the king's dead lover and not Donlan's late wife.
"So that's the story, then," said the general. "Unless anyone has a problem with it?"
Don and Mal shook their heads furiously.
The Spirit Speaker smiled. "It's the will of the dead," she said. "I will respect his wishes."
"Great," said the general. "Nothing to do now but sell it to them out there." He strode forward and opened the doors.
The group followed after.