Reeve woke up some time later and wished she hadn't. She was freezing cold and soaked to the skin due to the torrential rain that pelted from the sky. Every part of her body ached and a throbbing pain threatened to make her head explode. Reeve squinted into the rain. She was in a huge, stone courtyard with two adjacent walls that were at least fifty feet high and made of solid stone. One end was taken up by massive oak doors and were obviously stables and the fourth wall towered up into the black clouds and formed part of some sort of vast structure. Reeve could make out the tiny squares of lamp-lit windows far above the gloom. She forced her aching limbs to work and take her in the direction of the stables.
"Help!" Reeve yelled against the wind but her voice was lost. "Let me in!" She hammered on the doors but she may as well have hammered on the stone. Inch by painful inch, Reeve groped her way along one wall, then the other, then the structure wall. It took an age but all for nothing. There were no doors or exits at all. Eventually she sank into a corner through exhaustion. She could feel the chills setting in, and her temperature going wild. "Alexander!" Reeve sobbed. "Don't let them leave me here!"
"Right! Enough, Stephen! King or not, you have no right to torture her like that!" Archmage Skar Rillin strode into one of the upper rooms that overlooked the Rift yard.
"My apprentice, remember?" The King turned to look at his Mage. "She's sick! She's semi conscious and she has a fever! Why in Torment doesn't she heal herself?!"
"Because she doesn't know she can!" Skar said in exasperation. "She's not going to do it, Stephen. She will die out there. How much do you want another Healer?"
"She tried to heal me in a similar condition." Stephen tutted loudly. "Self preservation is a very strong motivator."
"And preserving the life of others is stronger for some people. Ask any Physician or Medic, especially those out there on battlefields." Skar retorted. "The Stars only know why she went to help you but it was pure instinct. This is how you repay her? What about in her house? I'd never have found you in a weak and dehydrated state and who was that all down to? Only you and I can give the order for that door to be open. If you don't do it, I will."
"I knew you'd do this. You lasted all of two hours." Stephen grumbled.
"I never agreed to be a party to torture, Stephen. That method isn't working and it's wrong. You know it is. Let her in."
Reeve was vaguely aware of an orange patch of light in the opposite wall. A door? She staggered to her feet and willed her sore body to co-operate.
"Are you going to take long? It's bitter out here!" A woman's voice came from a shadowy figure in the doorway.
"Don't close it!" Reeve tried to shout. "I could use a bit of help!" The shadow vanished but the door stayed open. She couldn't even guess how long it was before she eventually collapsed over the thresh-hold and lay in a sodden heap in a hallway. There she lay shivering in a pool of water, drifting in and out of consciousness.
"You're all heart Gretchen." Reeve felt a supportive arm around her and struggled to wake up. "Take it easy child. I'm Ellen. Mrs. Brown if you like." Ellen half dragged half carried Reeve up the corridor then turned right into a warm bright kitchen. Reeve started to cry as she sagged down gratefully on the floor in front of a roaring fire. "Come on I'll get those clothes off you. Merciful Mother child you're frozen stiff."
"Thank ... " Reeve struggled to try and help undress herself. Suddenly she was surrounded by soft warmth as Ellen wrapped a thick woollen blanket around her freezing body. Ellen busied herself arranging Reeve's wet clothes on a drying rack above the fire.
"They'll be dry in no time. I have some soup left over from dinner if you'd like some? Of course you would." Ellen opened the cupboard without waiting for an answer.
"Where am I Mrs. Brown?" Reeve asked through chattering teeth.
"Where are you?" Ellen laughed. "Rothsburg Castle of course. Nowhere else has a Rift door."
"Rothsburg Castle!" Reeve squealed in hysterics. "No, I can't be! Mrs. Brown I was attacked by a man just outside of Kencaster. Alexander ... um ... well it all got a bit strange after that. No matter! I can't have come all the way from Kencaster to Rothsburg. That would take weeks!"
"I just told you, there's a Rift right outside." Ellen said in confusion. "You must have come through the Rift with a Mage in order to end up out there in the Rift yard. There's no other way in."
"I don't even know what a Rift is, Mrs. Brown. Some sort of secret pathway?" Reeve gulped greedily at her soup and scalded her mouth.
"I suppose so, yes." Ellen sat at the table. "I'm no Mage so it's all beyond me. They can get all the way out to the Flatlands in a matter of minutes through the Rifts. Don't ask me how, I don't know."
"And I came through the Rift?" Reeve said in disbelief.
"Obviously. Not by yourself though. A Mage has to bring you through. Again, I don't know. So who brought you?" Ellen asked.
"I'm not sure." Reeve chewed her lip. "I met two soldiers in Grasslot, where I'm from. Alexander and George. They helped defend Siddick. It turns out that they were more than soldiers though because when I was attacked in Kencaster, there was magic flying about everywhere from the attacker, Alexander and George. The next thing I knew, I was out in the yard in the rain." She explained. "Alexander wouldn't just leave me out there. He was so very nice. Something must have happened to him."
"Well I wasn't here until this evening so I don't know who came through here from the yard. Mistress Gretchen won't have even noticed. This is a predicament." Ellen frowned at Reeve. "You're probably not meant to be here, child, yet someone released the yard door. Maybe Lady Erin saw you and got Mage Rillin to do it. I'm guessing here."
"And I'm confused. Mage Rillin let me in? The King's Mage?" Reeve tried to stop her head from reeling.
"Either him or the King. They're the only ones who can release the door. Do you want my explanation?" Ellen asked and Reeve nodded. "I think that your man Alexander has swept you off your feet, literally, and brought you through the Rift with him. Once here, he wouldn't could get you through that door unless it was opened for him. He wouldn't dare ask King Stephen, not with all he has on the go right now. If the King did see him he could easily have gave him the rollocking of a lifetime and refused you entry to here. These are stressful times, child. The King's temper never was too mild at the best of times."
"So the King locked me out? Poor Alexander." Reeve said pathetically. "Who's Lady Erin? Did she let me in?"
"Lady Erin is Mage Rillin's Lady. Beautiful creature in every way. If she saw you out there, there's no way she'd just leave you to the elements. I'm guessing she got Mage Rillin to release the door." Ellen looked quite pleased with her deductions.
"So how do I find Alexander? I have to let him know I'm still alive." Reeve fretted.
"Best if you just leave it child." Ellen said wisely. "If the King is displeased with your young Mage then it won't go well for him if he finds out his request has been ignored. As I said, I don't think you're meant to be here. Not officially, that is."
"I'll find him eventually. I know I will." Reeve said stubbornly. "So how do I stay here unofficially? I've nowhere else to go. I'm a good worker, Mrs. Brown. I can read, write and I'm good at numeracy. I'm also a grafter. Village life toughens you up."
"Surely you're a traveller child?" Ellen asked what most other people did.
"I'm an orphan. I've lived in Grasslot all my life." Reeve explained. "Can I work for you? I don't even need a wage, as such. Just somewhere to sleep and food. Please, Mrs. Brown. I'll never get back to Kencaster on my own."
"Indeed you won't child. Your Alexander must be impressive. I'll see what I can do. I'm fine about it but Mistress Gretchen can be a bit ... rigid." Ellen told her. "She's in charge of the staff down here and does all the books and wages so it's really down to her. I'll have a word with her."
"Thank you Mrs. Brown." Reeve smiled. "Can I sleep in the cupboard tonight? I don't feel too well."
"There's a rush mat and blankets in the pantry. Drag them out here where it's warm. Don't worry, no menfolk come down here until noon."
Reeve expected to wake up in her own narrow bed in her tiny house in Grasslot, until her aching body and woolly head reminded her differently. She winced as she dressed in front of the still warm embers, then it took her mere minutes to rekindle a blaze. She'd never actually lit a stove before but she imagined it to be similar to Alec Green's furnace and she'd once had a go at that. Soon, the stove was lit too. Reeve looked around for something else to do and suddenly remembered the courtyard, or Rift yard. The wall over the sink that would have faced the yard was devoid of any sort of windows or shutters so Reeve went out into the corridor. To her right, the passage stretched away and eventually twisted out of sight but to her left there was just a wall about fifteen feet along. Reeve ducked back into the kitchen to make sure that this was the only corridor on that side of the kitchen. It was. Time to investigate that wall. Reeve poked, prodded, and ran her hands over the end wall but it was just a wall. It was just a smooth, whitewashed wall the same as the rest of the corridor. Just as she turned back round, Reeve felt a stinging pain along the top of her bare arm. She yelped in pain and spun round fully to see a small, wiry woman with a scowling face, holding a birch in her hand.
"What was that for?" Reeve demanded.
"Are you meant to be out here? No you are not!" Reeve got another switch with the birch. "And you will address me as Mistress Gretchen. Is that clear?"
"Oh I see. I should have known." Reeve mumbled. "I'm sorry Mistress, I'm not sure where I'm meant to be at the moment. As you know I only arrived last night." She held the housekeeper's icy glare.
"I have received no notification of your employment here, traveller. The only reason you aren't out in the gutter is because of your original method of entry to this Castle. Someone let you in." Gretchen pulled a sour face and sniffed. "Until I receive official instruction, you will carry out jobs assigned by myself and Mrs. Brown. You may sleep in the grain pantry and I'm sure Mrs. Brown will feed you. If I receive no such instruction within three days, you will be turned out of the Castle, and it's grounds. Do you understand?"
"Three ... yes Mistress Gretchen." Reeve said miserably. She'd never find Alexander in three days, especially if Mistress Gretchen was going to work her all day and half the night.
"Through the pantry, out into the delivery yard. You will scrub the cobbles and the storage bunker out there. If it's not done to my standards, you will do it again. Dismissed." Mistress Gretchen spun on her heel and marched off into the kitchen. Reeve waited a few minutes then followed her. Ellen was at the stove with the breakfast pots, Gretchen at the table with her books. Reeve walked quietly to the delivery yard. This yard was quite large, much to Reeve's dismay, but what confused her was it's location. It should have butted onto, if not shared a wall with, the Rift yard, yet there was no sign at all of any fifty feet walls either there or anywhere else. More magic, obviously. Reeve filled her buckets and knelt on the cold, hard cobbles to start work.
"As though we don't get enough scroungers round here." Gretchen muttered angrily. "Torment only knows who let the brat in! What in the realm are Upstairs playing at? A horrid traveller at that, a Reeve." She said in disgust.
"Reeve or not, she was let in, Gretchen." Ellen said from her stove. "She was also brought here, remember?"
"So some Mage fancied a bit of rough in the courtyard? It's not my job to provide for their cast-offs. Why didn't he just take her back where he found her?" Gretchen sniped. Ellen hadn't actually thought of that. Why hadn't Alexander just taken her back through the Rift when he knew she wasn't allowed into the Castle? That would have been far kinder and Ellen got the impression from Reeve that he was a decent man.
"I was thinking that maybe Lady Erin saw her out there and took pity on her." Ellen commented.
"Lady Erin doesn't give the orders around here regarding Downstairs. She's out in three days if I don't hear differently from The King." Gretchen snapped then stood up and strode out into the delivery yard. "Start with the bunker then do the whole yard again!" She shouted at Reeve.
"According to that slate, a delivery is due in an hour. Wouldn't it make sense to wash that end after that?" Reeve asked.
"Mistress Gretchen!" Gretchen cracked Reeve over the back with the birch. "You don't get to tell me what makes sense and what doesn't! You do as I say and you do not question it." Another whack with the birch and Reeve sprang to her feet. "Make my day you dirty Reeve. I'll have you thrown over the Castle wall." Gretchen growled.
"Reeve!" Ellen appeared at the door. "Really child! You've yet to learn a bit of etiquette and it's a good job Mistress Gretchen appreciates the fact that you're new. Now go and start sweeping the far end." She gave Reeve such a meaningful and warning look that Reeve would have had to be blind to miss it. Gretchen almost knocked Ellen over as she marched into the kitchen and Reeve lowered her head and got back to work.
"You can't teach etiquette to the likes of that! She's out first thing in the morning." Gretchen sat at the table and fumed. "Impudent little bastard."
"Gretchen! Good grief! Surely one scrap of a girl shouldn't irk you so." Ellen put the kettle on.
"She won't by tomorrow. She can go and irk the gutter where she belongs."
"I've been thinking about that, Gretchen." Ellen sat at the table with the furious housekeeper. "Now it's you I'm thinking of here to hear me out." She lied. In Ellen's opinion, Gretchen was far more cruel than any Sorcerer she'd ever heard of. She was a vicious bully and always had been. "We've guessed about her way here and for what purpose and your idea is probably right, in my opinion." Another lie. "We still get stuck at who let her in, though. We can guess that it was Lady Erin and she does seem the more likely but what if it wasn't? What if Mage Rillin or even The King himself let her in? We don't really want to be chucking her over the Castle wall if she's here for some purpose of theirs." Ellen knew how to manipulate Gretchen Carter, she'd had plenty of experience with Gretchen's mania over the years. One thing that scared her was displeasing the King.
"What purpose could a horrible little rat like that have Upstairs?" Gretchen scoffed.
"For Mage Rillin? I can't think of one at all seeing he has the Lovely Lady Erin. King Stephen? There are alot of rooms Upstairs, Gretchen." Ellen said vaguely and stood up to tend to the fire. Gretchen went quiet for a while.
"The King let her in for a bed warmer?" She said eventually. "Are you saying he brought her here too?"
"I don't know Gretchen, really I don't. The point is, nor do you." Ellen shrugged.
"He did leave yesterday, they both did." Gretchen referred to The King and Mage Rillin. "I was busy checking the wine stock all afternoon so I didn't see them return."
"There you go then. Doubt. Having said that, Gretchen, it's not often you're wrong, especially about the staff down here. I'm sure your judgement is sounder than mine. It was just a thought." Ellen knew she'd given Gretchen something to think about.
Gretchen was conspicuously absent over the next week, much to Reeve, and Ellen's relief. Reeve gradually worked off her fever and her stiff and aching pains and Ellen was quite impressed at the work in the girl! Nothing seemed to daunt her at all and Ellen had once had to stop her from trying to lug sacks of vegetables around that were bigger than she was. Reeve felt back to normal and Gretchen decided to reappear.
"Out!" She snapped at Reeve, who was just starting the washing up. "Go and dig over the compost heap. Move it." Reeve nodded and dried her hands. "Are you deaf?" Gretchen screamed and whipped Reeve across the neck, drawing blood. Reeve calmly held a wet cloth to her neck.
"If you hit me with that again, Mistress Gretchen, I'll shove it so far up your nether regions you'll be able to whip your own tongue."
"How dare you!" Gretchen screeched. "So you'd threaten me? Would you?" The birch came down twice over Reeve's forearms.
"Gretchen!" Ellen tried to intervene and caught a lash with the birch on her own arm. "Gretchen, please! Reeve, get out for mercy's sake."
"No chance. I've had about enough of this old hag." Reeve went to grab the birch from Gretchen and Gretchen swung a heavy copper pan and almost knocked Reeve senseless. Gretchen took advantage of this and rained down blow after blow with the birch. All Ellen could do was try and pull Gretchen away from Reeve and all Reeve could do was try and shield herself from the flesh splitting lashes. The assault came to an end when the stable lad came in for his lunch. Gretchen panted heavily and backed away from Reeve before pushing past the lad and barging into the corridor.
"Seth, just grab some bread and cheese from the pantry lad, go eat it in the Orchard." Ellen helped Reeve to sit at the table. "Blessed Mother she's out of control." She began to clean Reeve's welts.
"I've had worse from the local lads in the village." Reeve said bravely. "She's a lunatic Ellen! Does the King know what she's like down here? Or does he just not care?" She winced and couldn't hold in a sob as Ellen tried to clean the wound on her neck.
"He'll know she's a bully, yes. Everyone does. Child, do you really think the King of Rothsburg has the time to concern himself with Downstairs servants? Especially now with wars and battles at the door."
"I suppose so." Reeve said miserably. "I thought Alexander would have got a message down here, Ellen. He's not a bottom rung soldier, even I could tell that and he's a Mage! I don't know anything about them but I bet they aren't the bottom of the trough either. Why hasn't he looked for me?"
"Oh child." Ellen covered Reeve's neck with a linen bandage. "Maybe it's best if you don't cling to him. I've been kicking around for centuries and I've had four husbands. Men are flighty creatures child, infuriating too. I waited for two years for my first man to come back to me after the Fortress Wars had ended. I gave him over as dead after that time. Was he? Was he stuff. He was shacked up with some mare over by Dalston. He didn't think he had to tell me, you see. His words, not mine. He reckoned that men weren't meant to bide in one place like women. I decked him with the coal scuttle and came home."
"You did right!" Reeve agreed completely with Ellen's thuggery. "So I'm not that important to him? He'll have forgotten about me?"
"I'm just saying it's possible, child. Don't let yourself be open to all that heartbreak like I was."
"You're right, I suppose." Reeve exhaled loudly. "He wasn't all that impressive anyway ... sort of. I'm naive aren't I? Hardly my fault given the selection in Grasslot, let me tell you. Keep that coal scuttle handy." She nodded and Ellen laughed.