Stephen watched the torches of the patrols, from his window, as they left Rothsburg just before dusk. Reeve hadn't wandered off and got lost. That was quite obvious by now. Nor was she purposely hiding from him. She wouldn't know how for one thing, nor was she stupid enough to leave Rothsburg on her own.
"King Stephen. Mrs Brown, Sir." Lucas admitted Ellen who looked close to fainting as she gaped around The King's own suite.
"Simple question, Mrs Brown. Where you ill today?" Stephen asked.
"No Sir. It's my day off. I spent it at home in the company of my cousin, Lilian Bessiworth. Still no news, Sir? Please forgive my boldness. I grew very fond of Lady Reeve." Ellen dabbed her eyes with her sleeve.
"Take a seat, Mrs. Brown. No news yet. We don't know the whereabouts of Gretchen Carter either." Stephen turned away from the cook to grit his teeth in anger. Skar had warned him about that woman months ago.
"Gretchen? We don't see much of her downstairs these days, Sir. She's missing too?" Ellen said in shock at the implications of this.
"She went to Reeve to tell her you were ill and that you were asking for her. Robert let her into Reeve's rooms and he saw Reeve leave with her. Reeve said she'd be in the kitchen. She wasn't. Lucas came to relieve Robert of his guard and Robert went straight downstairs. The kitchens were empty. We know no more." Stephen explained.
"I don't know what to think, Sir. Reeve was never Gretchen's favourite person but what could she have done with her? I'm sure you suspect foul play, judging by the military activity, Sir. Could Lady Reeve and Gretchen both be victims?" Ellen was clutching at straws.
"That would be the better option for Gretchen Carter." The King said darkly and Ellen felt herself shudder.
"Is ... is there anything a humble cook can do to help, Sir? As I said, I grew very fond of Reeve."
"Just keep your eyes and ears open, Mrs. Brown. Staff below stairs always hear chatter and gossip first. Bring it all to me, no matter how trivial it seems. Go and finish what's left of your day off." Stephen nodded.
"Thank you, Sir. We'll find her. She's our Lady Reeve too, Sir." Ellen bobbed a bow and left.
Stephen was brooding in the out building, next to his restored Scryer.
"Stephen. It's Skar." Skar tapped on the door. "Stephen? I saw the lantern light. Are you in there?" Stephen got up to let him in. "I've been everywhere looking for you."
"We should be everywhere looking for her." Stephen said flatly. "She's not there, Skar." He indicated the inert Scryer. "I can't even get out there because I have shit in Lisle and pending shit from Aaron Cord. He has to be behind this."
"Well firstly, you don't need to get out there. Everyone's looking for her. Trust your own men, Stephen. As for Aaron, he's not in the vicinity. I'd smell him a mile off. Every Mage in the City is on alert. Erin even has the younger Mages on to it." Skar assured him.
"I know, I know. I didn't mean to criticise." Stephen said despondently. "I can't believe some shit just walked off with her! Gretchen Carter couldn't have done this alone, it's just not possible. We have the central Rift here in Rothsburg so that wouldn't be an option even if they had a co-operating Mage."
"Express messages have been sent out to all nearby towns and cities close to known Rifts and their Mages are under observation, just as a precaution." Skar told him.
"So they're on land. You'd think they'd be easier to find on land wouldn't you? How far can they bloody get on foot, or in a cart?" Stephen shook his head.
"In the wooded terrain between cities? Who knows." Skar rubbed his tired eyes. "Stephen we'll find her. We have to."
"Because she's a Healer? Skar I've doubted that for a while now. Even we aren't infallible."
"I know. I know you doubt it now. It doesn't matter. The reason she's important to us doesn't matter, Stephen, just the fact that she is." Skar said and Stephen barely reacted. Skar recognised this state, he'd seen it before in Stephen. The King was spiralling downwards and who could blame him. "Come on, out of here. Don't object, Stephen please. You're no good to any bugger if you're exhausted. So! You getting hitched when we get her back?"
"Are you mad?" Stephen barked and stood up. Skar smiled to himself. "Don't you think I'm demented enough without a legally binding contract to compound it?" They left the outbuilding. "A reversion to my young, carefree days is very appealing just now."
"Your what? I must have blinked and missed that. Carefree as in Baron Thursby taking out an assassination contract on you?" Skar rolled his eyes.
"I could have charged him with treason for that. I was still The King." Stephen reasoned.
"For a whole six months and you were in bed with his wife." Skar reminded him.
"Misunderstanding. He was supposed to in Broughton. I wonder what happened to her?"
"Well one would assume she went with the Baron after he was mysteriously posted to Landsea." Skar laughed.
"Remember the one who tried to rob me?" Stephen laughed too.
"Erin caught her rifling your drawers."
"Well she'd done that already." Stephen sniggered. "Yes and your good Lady battered her all over my chambers. By Torment I didn't know what was happening! Have you noticed I never upset Lady Erin?"
"Me either. As well as a mean left punch, I've seen some of those concoctions she brews in the Alchemy Halls. I could be administered a few of them if I don't get home."
"You big skirt. Carefree is the way to go." Stephen opened his door.
"I'll tell her you said so." Skar said.
"You do and I'll have you in Landsea too. Go and rest, Skar. I'll need Erin on hand tomorrow when Lisle meets the boy."
Paul Lisle's introduction to his grandson took place in Reeve's room. Erin and Skar were both there and Stephen was outside and out of sight, with Robert. Samson stood rigid in the corner and looked terrified of everyone.
"Sammy? You remember me and Skar, don't you?" Erin said gently. Samson looked at everyone, his grandfather last. "You came a long way to find him, Sammy. This is Lord Lisle."
"Where's Reeve?" Samson whispered.
"She had to go away on business. She'll be back soon." Erin smiled. "We've told Lord Lisle about Reeve but you know her the best. Do you want to tell him all about her?"
"She looks after me." Samson said quietly.
"I know she does." The Lord knelt on the floor. "I haven't met her yet but The King tells me she's very nice."
"Yes she is. The King sent me parchment and pencils and new clothes." Samson nodded and Skar sneaked a look outside at Stephen who scowled at him and wafted his hands. "I haven't seen him but I heard him. He shouted at Reeve so she swore at him."
"Er ... she did?" The Lord looked at Erin who just shrugged her shoulders. "Oh well. I dare say it happens." Another peek at Stephen showed him tutting in irritation. Skar tried not to laugh. "You're very brave, Samson. You came all this way to find me."
"Ma told me to if ever I got away from the Flatlands. I wasn't scared." Samson said challengingly.
"I don't doubt it. Brave, like I said. You're definitely a Lisle like me and your Ma." The Lord smiled and Samson edged further into the room.
"So I'm not like my Da? I don't want to be like him. He's a nutsack, the King said so." Samson nodded and Stephen looked surprised and shook his head furiously. "Are we going to Lisle now? I want to see Reeve."
"Well with The King's permission, it would be better if you stayed here for now. There are a few things to sort out in Lisle." Lisle nodded.
"Will Reeve and The King come and visit me in Lisle?" Samson asked.
"I don't see why not. I'll ask The King if you can stay here for now." Lord Lisle stood up.
"Can I stay, King Stephen?" Samson craned his neck to look into the hallway.
"Crap." Stephen muttered. "How did he know I was here?" Robert hid a smile and stood aside. "Um ... Samson." He looked at Samson and clearly had no idea what to do. "Reeve said ... she wants ... bugger it. Erin!"
"Yes?" Erin said innocently.
"Bah. You're sacked. You can stay here as long as you like, Samson. Reeve ..." Stephen almost blacked out in panic when Samson smiled and flung his arms round his waist. "No! I mean ... mean ... Erin!" He almost sobbed. Stephen couldn't remember beating such a hasty retreat in all his life.
Skar found The King in his rooms, trying to scrub his skin off at the wash basin.
"Stephen." He smirked an acknowledgement.
"Shut up. I mean it." Stephen muttered. "Reeve said he wasn't as scared of me anymore but come on!" He shuddered. "That's one aspect stalled. Now then. Aaron has had Reeve snatched in retaliation for me having Samson. Yes?" Skar nodded. "Why?"
"Why? Well he's obviously be told that she's your Consort." Skar said. "Only three people in the Realm know that we suspected her as a Healer. You, me and Erin. She was snatched because she's your Consort, Stephen, information from Gretchen Carter no doubt. No other reason."
"Right. If that is the case, and I think it is, then Reeve is safer. Torment knows what he'd do to her if he was drilling for magic. If he needs her for leverage then he needs her in one piece. I'll kill the bastard." Stephen said savagely. "If he's touched just one hair on her head, I'll gut him and bugger the consequences."
"You're right, settle down. He'll need her unharmed. So do you so what next?" Skar asked calmly.
"Well he's not getting the boy so balls to that." Stephen sat down and fumed. "I have no other options, Skar. I have to leave Rothsburg. He needs to be drawn away from the city. Lisle is out of the equation regarding anything at all. The place is gridlocked. The other large cities are too far away and the smaller towns and villages have to be protected. Shit, Skar I can't do it."
"Can't? I've never heard you say the word." Skar's words of support didn't hide the mounting worry he felt.
"Skar I don't have the men and Mages to cover here, Lisle, the villages and the search for Reeve. Shit that's the whole bloody Realm!" Stephen exclaimed.
"Listen to me." Skar sat forward. "Do we agree that Reeve will be unharmed? I'm not saying she'll be delighted with the situation, but she'll be physically unhurt. Yes?"
"She'd better be." Stephen snapped.
"So yes we do agree. Aaron will have to contact you, Stephen, otherwise the whole exercise would be pointless. She was snatched to use as leverage, we're assuming. I know it'll be all but impossible and a huge struggle, but wait it out. As you say, you can't be everywhere, but if you're here, the rest of the Realm knows where you are and where to come. That doesn't apply to Aaron because even if we didn't detect him, we all know what he looks like. He can't get in. Accept that information and your head will re-order itself."
"I hate this shit!" Stephen rubbed the back of his neck. "Lisle will just have to bear with it for now. The boy stays here. I stay here. Military and Mages on the highest alert but covertly. We don't want the people stampeding. Search patrols stay as they are. I also want a full guard in the Rift yard, just incase. We can't guard all the other ends but we can guard this one."
"Excellent." Skar nodded and left to do some organising.