The noise levels dropped dramatically when Tam and Reeve entered Travern's Inn, which suggested that Reeve had probably just been the topic of conversation.
"Tam." Brent Travern, the Innkeep himself, decided to break the ice.
"I'll have the fish please Brent. Same for Reeve." Tam nodded.
"Er ... she's eating here? With you?" Brent said uncertainly.
"Brent, don't." Tam held up his hand. "I've had enough bigotry for today and I'm in no mood. Two thirds of the villagers have gone. I'm sure we won't damage your reputation."
"Actually it was a bit more than that." Brent retorted shortly. "It wasn't my reputation I was thinking of, if you must know. It was our safety, all of us." A few nods came from the other customers.
"That safety that would have been maximised in Kencaster?" Tam snapped. "Kencaster where no one would take her?" He threw down his menu. "How in the realm is Reeve being here putting you in danger? We want something to eat!"
"Right, I'll tell you shall I?" Brent folded his arms. "All this magic business, Tam. Magic! In Grasslot! We're the back of beyond out here, everyone knows it! Suddenly we get a message from King Stephen about the very thing we don't have! Magic! Or do we?" The Innkeep narrowed his eyes at Reeve.
"Me?" Reeve blurted in panic. "Don't be foolish Mr. Travern! I wouldn't know a Sorcerer from a soup bowl!"
"Yes Brent!" Tam said in shock. "Where did that one come from? Reeve? Magic? I think you've been in the wine keg my friend. Let's calm down and share a drink."
"Foolish? Wine keg?" Brent indignantly. "Look at it all sensibly, Tam! Something's got Black Stephen's attention out here and I don't think it's my braised lamb! Who's the only one in Grasslot that we know nothing about? The foundling! The Reeve are known for their mystic ways and dabbling in bad forces. They breed it along the generations. The Bastard's got to hear of her and now we're all done for."
"Enough!" Tam slammed his hands on the table. "Is this what you've all been talking about? Is it? She's a ready made scapegoat Brent! Surely you can see that? She's been blamed for every woeful thing in this place from failed crops to Bern's stillborn lambs! Things that all happen naturally, Brent before you tell me I've proved your point. Problems arise in rural communities and yes, it's human nature to want to blame something, or someone, but what you're suggesting here is so outlandish it beggars belief! Why evacuate her if he wants her? Answer me that one. If she's magical then how come she's put up with all the dung that's been hurled at her in the last twenty years? I would have zapped the bloody lot of you." Tam was now on his feet. "And furthermore, why now? She's lived here all her life! Have you, Brent?" Brent looked at his hands. "In fact, her life is twenty years long. You bought this place eight years ago and moved here from Allerby. Dan Lester, I see you. You moved your family here from Westport fifteen years ago. I'm from Siddick. Anything to say to that? I've been here only five years longer than Reeve has. Gentlemen, she's more Grasslotite than some of us." He turned round to escort Reeve from the Inn, only to see an empty chair. "Some things don't change. It's not the first time you drove a young girl out on the street." Tam left the Inn, feeling that same disgust as he did all those years ago.
"Mayor Deeks!" Reeve came running up the path with her skirts gathered round her knees. "Mayor Deeks look!" She pointed over the rooftop of the Inn. The sky was shimmering in the unmistakable glow of fire. Black, thick smoke scudded across the orange and the smell was just beginning to drift over Grasslot.
"Sacred shit!" Tam blinked at the sky. "It's Siddick. It's ablaze."
"Mayor Deeks Siddick is only ten miles from here! We're in danger! Mayor Deeks!" Reeve grabbed Tam's arms and shook him.
"Blessed Mother they're under attack." Tam sobbed. "The message ... "
"Mayor Deeks we have to tell the others. We have to go!" Reeve sobbed too.
"Yes." Tam straightened his shoulders and made a huge effort to compose himself. "I'm sorry Reeve. Yes you're right. Come on." He pulled Reeve back into Travern's Inn. "We have to head to the Town Hall." He announced. "I'm serious! The sky over Siddick is ablaze. They're under attack! We have to move to the Town Hall straight away. You must all go and collect your families and ... "
"Just wait a minute, Tam Deeks!" Bern shook his head. "Under attack? The Sorcerers?" He said in disbelief.
"I don't know, Bern." Tam tried to keep his voice even. "No matter what the cause, we have less than a dozen men. We can't make a stand, not this time."
"Shouldn't we send out help?" Brent asked. "Even a few men could make a difference."
"We'd never get there in time, especially if magic is involved. Brent it would be suicide and futile. We must move." Tam repeated urgently.
"I have two sisters up those stairs. I'm not going anywhere."
"Yes and my wife and kids are at home." Bern grabbed his tunic.
"Listen to me!" Tam said desperately. "We need to be in the same place, not scattered all over the village. Bern, we can all protect your family if we're all in one place. Do you see? You all need to go and get your families and extinguish any lights and fires. All of them. We need to create the impression that the village is deserted, evacuated completely. If any assailants to come across Grasslot, they'll assume we've gone." He explained.
"I'm not keen on running and hiding." Bern said darkly.
"I know Bern. It goes against the independent way we are." Tam smiled at the gruff farmer. "We aren't hiding, we're protecting our own when the odds are against us. Go and get your family."
Reeve had already extinguished her fires earlier that day when she thought she was leaving. Tam hadn't even had chance to light his.
"Do they really think it's my fault Tam?" Reeve asked, pulling the heavy shutters over the windows of the Town Hall.
"I doubt it Reeve." Tam dragged a heavy bookcase across the side door catching the rat whip when it slid off the case. "They're looking for explanations for something that's out of their control. I think I've given you that explanation on many occasions." He smiled, re-shelving the whip.
"Have you ever." Reeve rolled her eyes. "I nearly got to understanding Bern Hayes back there. Then he announced he'd kept his children here! Mrs. Hayes has a face that would ward off the undead so she'll be fine but the children? The man needs a warm water enema from Nanny Crook."
"Oh steady on Reeve. That's a tad harsh. The enema I mean, not Mrs. Hayes' face." Tam smirked. "You doing well?"
"Am I stuff! I'm terrified!" Reeve sighed loudly.
"Me too." Tam rubbed his eyes. "They're starting to arrive. Keep everyone away from the windows, Reeve, and do your best to keep them quiet." Reeve nodded and went to stand by the door as the remaining villagers shuffled in, every one of them shocked and frightened.
In the terrified silence the noises of distant combat could be heard. The smell of burning had enveloped Grasslot, as had the smoke and soot. Two men only had gone out into the village. Bern and Brent were acting as lookouts and Tam wouldn't have stopped them even if he could. They were Grasslotites and they deserved to have some part in protecting their homes. Reeve noticed Mrs. Hayes and her three children and she looked uncharacteristically scared and nervous.
"Can I get you some food, Mrs. Hayes? Only bread and cheese I'm afraid." Reeve crouched under the table with the family.
"My Da says this is all your fault!" Joey Hayes, the oldest at ten years, glared at Reeve. Reeve glanced at the boy's mother but she looked away. "You don't belong here, just like The Bastard doesn't and now he's coming for you. This is all your fault Reeve!"
"Joey no one's coming for me, or you, or your family and this isn't anyone's fault." Reeve tried. "How would King Stephen know about just one person in a tiny village like ours?"
"It's not your village." Joey sneered. "He's the same as you and that's how he knows. He can find wicked demons like himself and you're one!"
"I'll go and get you all something to eat." Reeve stood up.
"We don't want it." Maggie spoke for her family. Reeve nodded and tried not to barge her way over to Tam.
"He's got his family as obnoxious as himself." She muttered. "Yes, I know, they're scared." Reeve settled herself on the floor by the bookcase.
Reeve saw Bern and Brent return and speak to Tam quite a few times and that had to be a good sign. After around four hours the noise of battle gradually lessened but the eerie, death-like silence was as unbearable as the clamour. Bern reported that there was no sign of anyone at all in the village and it was now daylight. The attackers had either disregarded Grasslot as empty or unimportant, or they simply hadn't seen the village. Either way, the ploy to sit out the night in darkness had worked.
"Brent, we have to take some men and check the place properly." Bern said. "Once we know we're in the clear we must venture out into the woods. People could be out there injured."
"I agree. Tam?" Brent looked at the Mayor.
"Absolutely." Tam nodded. "Are you going all the way to Siddick? Ten miles on foot is quite a haul and all the horses went with the carts."
"We've no way of knowing if those bastards are still there Tam." Brent sighed sadly. "I'm sorry. I know you have kin in Siddick. We wouldn't dare venture that far, especially with only a handful of men."
"No, of course not." Tam smiled sadly. "Once you tell us the village itself is safe, the ones not in the scouting party will return home to collect supplies. We need as many medicinal items as you can just in case our men find anyone in the woods. Dressings, blankets and washing items all count." The villagers began to get up stiffly from the floor. "Well done everyone and thank you."
Reeve left the Town Hall with the others once the village had been declared clear. She knew she had blankets, she'd made them herself. She also had washcloths and jugs and pots. She let herself into her cold little house and squinted into the darkness.
"How can one room get so cold?" She muttered, reaching for the large candle on the table. Reeve's one room was sectioned off with cloth screens to provide areas for cooking and storage. A tiny fireplace was situated on one wall with various knick-knacks dotted along its shelves. Over the hearth was a coiled leather whip. One of Reeve's humble occupations since the age of twelve, was Grasslot's rat-catcher. Eight years later and she was very good at it. Cloths and drying sheets were tugged out from a chest and put on the table. The blankets were in crates under the bed. Reeve took the candle and headed for the far end of the room. The scream that should have escaped got lodged in her throat and threatened to choke her when she saw a man lying on her narrow bed! Reeve sprang backwards and lunged for the only weapon she had, the whip.
"Don't scream!" The man said, trying to sit up. "Please don't scream. I won't hurt you. I can't hurt you." He flopped back on the pillow and Reeve held the candle a few inches closer. He was a very big man, as Reeve could tell by his dimensions compared to that of her bed. He was easily the same size as Bern Hayes and even Alec Green. He had short dark hair and was wearing clothing that was part hide and part metal of some sort. Armour! Reeve recoiled and raised her whip.
"You're a soldier." She warbled. "You attacked Siddick! Oh don't you dare move! I'm the rat-catcher and I can have your eye out from here! Stay there."
"I have no choice. I couldn't stand up just yet, let alone make a run for it." The man looked at Reeve. "Can I have water please?"
"No." Reeve swallowed hard. What was she supposed to do now? Her house was more out of the village than in it and it would take at least five minutes to run for someone. "We heard the battle. Siddick was an ordinary village just like this one. Why?"
"For Torment's sake I didn't attack the bloody place!" The man heaved. "Don't you recognise the armour? Wait. No of course you don't. Bloody village rat-catchers."
"Just you keep it shut!" Reeve said hotly. "Yes we're a village but we aren't all stupid! Could you recognise the different types of tree bark out here? No, so why should I recognise your armour? I bet our blacksmith could do a better job anyway." She said bravely. "Well?"
"Well what? You're scrambling my brain girl. Please may I have a drink?"
"I can use this whip with one hand. No tricks or you lose both eyes." Reeve managed to dip a beaker into yesterday's water tub without taking her eyes off the stranger. "Siddick. If you didn't attack it then why are you here?"
"Long story." The soldier gulped at the stale water.
"Maybe you'd like to tell the local men here. They're quite vexed about all this." Reeve tried to stay calm.
"Siddick was attacked by a Sorcerer Faction based on the West Flatlands. I'm in the Rothsburg army." The stranger held out his beaker for a refill. "Rothsburg sent out evacuation orders to all the settlements out here but clearly they didn't get here in time and for that I'm genuinely sorry. The army got to Silloth, twelve miles south of here, to find it unharmed and in the process of evacuation. Our next stop was here. We saw the flames over Siddick and took the outer tracks to go straight there. We were too late for them." The man stared into his cup. "Too late for all those people because of Rothsburg's underestimation of Aaron Shit Cord!" He looked up as though he'd just realised he was talking out loud. "I'm sorry, forgive my language."
"Who's Aaron Cord?" Reeve asked the obvious.
"He's the bast ... er ... the man who organises and co-ordinates all this carnage. His Sorcerers would have demolished this place next but the army held them off in Siddick and they retreated back west. Scum. There's nothing left of the place. Totally flattened." The stranger said sadly. "If only those messages had got here sooner."
"Actually ... well ... they did." Reeve said awkwardly. The soldier seemed to recover markedly and he went an angry shade of red. "Only yesterday! It was still short notice and the message itself was curt!"
"Curt? Bloody curt?" The soldier would have roared his lungs out had he been able. "Did it say 'Get the shit out right now!' Or words to that effect?"
"Well yes but ... "
"So which bit was confusing you? Why are there people still here! Surely there's someone in the dump who can read!"
"Who do you think you are?" Reeve shouted. "You know nothing about these villages! Nothing! You prance down here in your fancy pants and expect everyone to jump! Some of these families have lived here for five generations or more! Do you know what that means? Everything they've ever had is right here! We get one poxy message in the last ... shit knows how long and it's one rotten paragraph telling us we're in danger from something most of us only think exists in legends and folklore. Sorcerers? Mages? Are you simple? Look at us! These villages have fought off plagues, fires, clan raids, disease, catastrophes you can only imagine. Those things are real to them, Mr. Fancy Pants Soldier, not magic and bloody Mages." Reeve exhaled loudly and sat down at the table. "It's not their fault. Don't judge them like that."
"Quite feisty for a rat-catcher." The soldier smiled. Reeve didn't. "So how many stayed?"
"About two thirds, including our Mayor. We'll be leaving soon, I'm fairly sure about that after last night." Reeve said sadly. "So you got injured and separated from your men?"
"Basically, yes. All I needed was time to heal. Nothing too serious. My main issue was to wait for my guard. I wouldn't last long roaming around the place dressed like this. I'm not stupid enough to think Rothsburg is hugely popular out here." He managed to prop himself up on the lumpy pillow and his big booted feet still hung over the other edge of the bed. "Much better. Where in the realm is that wretched man! Some guard he is eh?"
"Will he be long? Mayor Deeks will be here looking for me if I'm not back soon and I can't just leave you here by yourself." Reeve glanced at the door.
"I'll be fine. I just needed rest and time to recover. I'm already in your debt, Miss Ratcatcher of ... of ... where in Torment are we?"
"Grasslot." Reeve smiled and the soldier rolled his eyes. "My name is Reeve. Just Reeve. I'm not sure some of the men would be as ... understanding. I don't think you deserve to be hurt. I believe you are on our side, whatever that is but I doubt Bern Hayes would."
"You're very loyal to them, Reeve. Even if you'd removed my eyes with that whip, I could still tell that you are Reeve. A traveller in a village? I may not know much about life out here but I'm sure that arrangement wasn't planned. Probably not appreciated either. We do have smaller settlements around Rothsburg too." The soldier shrugged his plated shoulders.
"I was a foundling. My caravan was attacked by robbers when I was months old. I've been here for twenty years and I know nothing else. Of course I'm loyal to them. This is my home." Reeve explained.
"But you still must evacuate to Kencaster. Yes? All of you. Even the most stubborn of you will now know how much danger you're in. Oh! Ouch! You found me, you lummox." The soldier suddenly leant forward and groaned.
"Pardon me?" Reeve blinked a few times.
"Oh not you." He staggered to his feet. "My guard is close by." It wasn't until the man was standing clear of the bed that Reeve saw his sword at his hip. It was almost as big as Reeve was and was sheathed in a glittering black scabbard that was mesmerising. "You didn't think I was unarmed did you?" He grinned at Reeve and opened the door.
"For shit's sake you're a bugger to find! It would have been easier to wander around yelling 'S ... ' "
"Alexander." The soldier drew his guard's attention to Reeve. "I do know my name thank you George. This is Reeve the Rat-catcher and she saved my life while you were ambling around the countryside."
"Yes. Right. Nice to meet you Miss." George nodded politely. "Is this place occupied?"
"I'll explain on the road. Horses?"
"Back there. Good day, Miss." George wandered off behind Reeve's house.
"So it's Alexander? You're quite high up in the army aren't you?" Reeve observed.
"I shouldn't be. What sort of dullard gets stranded in Grasspot and has to rely on the rat-catcher? Go find your Mayor before he comes looking for you. Get every single person out of here as soon as you can, Reeve." Alexander followed his guard and Reeve headed for the Town Hall.