The first grey casts of light were only just creeping over the tiny village of Grasslot, yet the village square was full of people. Mayor Tam Deeks had used the old bell in the Town Hall for the first time in his memory, thus summoning the village. Tam now stood on the Town Hall steps looking exhausted and extremely worried.
"For crying out loud Tam! Don't you think we're all up early enough as it is?" Called Bern Hayes, a farmer who's family had been in Grasslot for generations.
"Yes. I've left my stable lad in charge of my furnace, Tam. What's this all about?" Alec Green asked in his usual low booming voice.
"If it wasn't so urgent, I'd never have sounded the bell." Tam rubbed his tired eyes. "About an hour ago I was woken from my own sleep by two official, armed messengers from Rothsburg." He stopped to let the importance of this sink in. Grasslot was so far away from Rothsburg in every respect, that it may as well have been in another realm. It was possible that no one in the village had ever seen anyone from Rothsburg, let alone an armed official. Only four of the Elders had ever been to a city and that was Lisle which was endlessly closer than Rothsburg!
"It's The Bastard!" Someone, possibly Bern's wife, shouted.
"What would the King want out here?" Lily Cornell snorted. "He won't even know we exist!"
"He looks for Sorcerers to butcher, doesn't he?" Will Ferry asked nervously. "I read it in one of the last Gleeman's books."
"Bah! Gleemen! Don't talk rot, young Will." Alec tutted.
"It was in a book!" Maggie Hayes pushed forward. "Books is used for learning, Alec Green!" She turned her attention to Will, who looked terrified of her.
"It's the Sorcerers you see." Will muttered. "They attack folk and torture them before killing them but only if they're no good to them. I heard they use people for food." This caused gasps and murmurs of horror though the square.
"We have no Sorcerers!" Tam had heard enough. "Will Ferry I'm surprised at you. Sorcerers in Grasslot indeed. No Sorcerers, no Mages, no magic at all in Grasslot. Is that clear?"
"How do you know?" Bern called over. "That's why The Bastard sends out scouts isn't it? Like those two this morning? Us Ordinary folk can't tell who's magic and who isn't." This got some subdued support among the villagers.
"Bern I have no idea of the workings of Sorcerers or Mages. I don't even know the difference between them." Tam sighed wearily. "I do know that King Stephen Von Roth and Arch Mage Skar Rillin are the most powerful Mages in the Realm. We all ..."
"And they go around butchering and killing not only Sorcerers, but other Mages too!" Tam was interrupted.
"Oh and why would they do that Leon Folder? You silly old fool" Sally Took shouted. "Sorcerers maybe, they eat folk, but Mages same as themselves? Makes no sense. Hush."
"Hush yourself, you crone! It makes sense if they want to get rid of the competition. Eh? Eh? Or even if they capture all the Mages and cast spells on them to form a huge magic army! Take it from me Sally Took, Black Stephen and his Mage kill everyone, Sorcerer and Mage!"
"We have no blasted Mages!" Tam bellowed, rather hysterically. "The messengers I received this morning were exactly that. Messengers." The noise levels dropped but Tam's blood pressure didn't. "Before everyone starts starts babbling like giddy goats, will you kindly let me tell you what these messengers had to deliver? Yes? Messengers? Message?" Tam waved a yellow coloured scroll infront of himself. The giddy Grasslotites settled down somewhat and took a few steps back. "Thank you. Seeing as this is an official document, I'll just read it as it is.
'To the Occupants of the smaller settlements along the Western Forest Belt.
You are in urgent danger from Sorcerer Factions that are originating from the Flatlands to the West of your lands. These Factions are swifter and more organised than was first assumed by Rothsburg. As an emergency measure, you are to evacuate your land and make your way East to Kencaster where a Rothsburg Military Division has been installed to ensure your safety. I reiterate, you are in real and extreme danger. Evacuate immediately, as per instruction.
King Stephen Von Roth.'
It's dated and the seal is authentic. It's an evacuation order issued by the King." Tam finished. The only sound that could be heard was the brook and the birds. Not a soul spoke while they took this information in. Danger? Sorcerers? Mages? Raids? Out here in Grasslot?
"Well it's a trap, obviously." Bern said, more quietly than his previous statements. "We have livelihoods here, Tam. Who's going to feed our kids? You?"
"Too true!" Maggie stood by her husband. "If we leave Grasslot, Black Stephen gets us and our lands and trades. Do you want Stephen The Bastard sitting in your office Tam Deeks? Sounds like it to me!"
"Right!" Alec Green's normal voice was twice as loud as either Hayes, let alone his raised voice. The huge blacksmith elbowed his way to the front of the square. "Bern Hayes, don't you dare try and shout at me." Bern closed his mouth. "Thank you. Why are you shouting at Tam? Tam who's been our Mayor for fifteen years! Now no one's going to manage a decent thought if we all don't calm down. This is serious, whether you like it or not. I can see The King's seal from here." He pointed at the scroll in Tam's hands. "Bern, nobody wants to leave Grasslot and for the very reasons you mentioned. This is our home and everything we have and everything we've worked for is right here, myself and Tam included. No one would argue that that message there is a bit ... curt ... and it contains next to no details and that would be unsatisfactory in most circumstances. A signed missive can't be disregarded as 'most circumstances'."
"So we just have to turn tail and run from everything we know?" Maggie demanded. "Based on that curt message from someone we've never even seen or heard from before at all? He's never helped us! Not once in all my born days!"
"And I hear you loud and clear Maggie, I swear I do. I can remember the forest fires that all but wiped out four of our villages. We fixed that on our own with no help from Rothsburg. We're all very proud of our communities and what we've achieved out here for ourselves. This is something that we can't fix ourselves Maggie, think about it. We can stand against men armed with tools, natural disasters, illnesses, plagues. We have done in the past. That's because we can defeat what we understand if it poses a threat to us. It's already been said a dozen times this morning. We have no Sorcerers and no Mages out here. I doubt anyone has seen any sort of magical activity whatsoever. I certainly haven't and I've no desire to. We know absolutely nothing about this potential threat. If we're attacked with magic, what are we going to do?" Alec shrugged his big shoulders.
"Potential, Alec, not certain." Bern said stubbornly.
"Oh give over Bern." Tam stood up next to Alec. "Fair enough, we have no magical experts here but the biggest two experts in history saw fit to send this." He held up his parchment. "Please Maggie, don't bring up the subject of The King wanting our lands." He stopped Maggie before she got started again. "He has our lands, technically speaking. He could just wade in and chuck us all out, although I doubt he would. Why in the realm would he go through all this hooey? He wouldn't. Trust me, those messengers were exhausted and they still had four scrolls to deliver. This is serious and it's urgent. Now I'm the Mayor, not any sort of enforcer. I have no authority from either King Stephen, or from Rothsburg. I was elected by you, the villagers of Grasslot. Obviously I can't force anyone out of their home, nor would I if I could. The decision is yours. You know as much as I do. I'll designate an assembly point on this side of Trotter's Bridge. If you're leaving, please have the sense not to just wander off. I'll need a full list of every single villager and where they are, be it here or leaving for Kencaster. I recommend three hours then the light will be good." Tam hurried up the steps towards the Town Hall doors.
"They're scared, Tam." Alec caught him up.
"I know. So am I, believe me. I can't order them off their lands, Alec. I just hope they decide to do the safest thing. Thanks Alec. It's not the first time you've bailed me out. Excuse me, I have a mountain of paperwork to do." Tam entered the familiar gloom and dust of the Town Hall.
Reeve skirted round to the side of the Town Hall and let herself in through the small door there. She wasn't quite sure what sort of mood to be in after the morning's tidings. She was shocked and scared, obviously, but she was also extremely loyal to Mayor Deeks and as mad as a scalded cat about the Hayes' performance.
"I can't believe what a wooden headed pair they are!" Reeve scraped a wooden chair along the floor and sat opposite Tam at his desk. "Why do they think King Stephen wrote that? Because he was bored? And as for ranting on at you! The man's been among the turnips for too long and taken his wife with him." She folded her tanned arms and tossed her mass of black ringlets.
"They're worried, Reeve." Tam smiled at his assistant. "Worried and scared."
"So? No excuse for all that, Mayor Deeks. It wasn't that when he came wailing to you when his wall fell down, was it?" Reeve snorted loudly. "Why won't they listen? You and Mr. Green made perfect sense out there. They even said themselves how vile Sorcerers are so why are they ignoring a valid warning about Sorcerers? Bah I could slap Maggie Hayes. Oh and she had no idea what 'curt' meant."
"Right, calm down Reeve." Tam got up to put the kettle on. "It's like I said. I can't force anyone to do anything. I just hope they all see sense and go. The message didn't say it would be permanent. I'll get that list to young Skillen Brown. He'll note down who's here and who isn't then he'll leave in the last cart with Master Bule." Reeve's snort at the mention of Norm Bule's name revealed what she thought of the local schoolteacher.
"Does anyone here know anything about magic? I know they'd never admit to it anyway but we have some clever and well travelled people here and I don't mean Master Bule." Reeve sipped her tea.
"I doubt it, Reeve." Tam shook his head. "We're about as far as you can get from it all out here. I said earlier I didn't even know the difference between a Mage and a Sorcerer and that's true. I haven't a clue. You?"
"I didn't even know there was a difference but obviously there must be when you think about it." Reeve mused.
"And villagers don't think about it. Nor should you. Weird business." Tam pulled a face and made Reeve laugh. "Get yourself home and put your belongings together, Reeve. We need the evacuation under way while the light is good." Reeve nodded and stood up.
"I'll see you at the Bridge." Reeve smiled then noticed Tam look away from her. "Mayor Deeks? We'll be fine once we get to Kencaster. You must be so worried but there are soldiers at Kencaster and they'll look after us."
"I won't be going, Reeve." Tam tried another smile and Reeve sat down heavily. "It'll take more than this to move the Bern Hayes' from Grasslot. Don't you shout! He'll stay, Reeve, you know he will and he won't be the only one either."
"And you've done everything you can to tell them it's a mistake! You have a message from the King of Rothsburg for crying out loud!" Reeve shouted anyway. "Mayor Deeks you can't stay here! The risk is too great. Bern Hayes and the others are all adults and it's their chioce, not yours."
"I'm their choice." Tam sat on the edge of his desk. "I've been their choice every year for the past fifteen years. Their Mayor, Reeve, not Grasslot's Mayor. Grasslot is land and buildings made from stone. The village is its people. I know you understand what I mean. As long as there are people in Grasslot then I'm still its Mayor. Now go on! We don't want you traipsing about the woods in the dark on your own."
"I'm staying here." Reeve nodded stubbornly.
"Oh don't talk offal." Tam sniffed. "No one's ever interested in the villages for long. I'll see you when it's all over. Go away!"
"I'll hold you to that. Maybe I'll go and beat the snot out of Bern Hayes and drag him to Trotter's Bridge. Stubborn old mule." Reeve stuck her nose in the air and bounced out of the Town Hall.
Tam watched the door long after Reeve had left. At least she'd fit in in the quite cosmopolitan town of Kencaster. Tam was surprised she hadn't gone there long ago.
Reeve was an orphan, only a few months old when her people were attacked by bandits. She was the only survivor and that was sheer luck. A heavy cooking pot had upturned over her and muffled her cries, as well as hiding her from sight. By the time the villagers of Grasslot had ran to help the travellers, the site was a graveyard. The previous schoolteacher, Master Mist, and his wife, were among the party that had volunteered to treat the dead. Eleanor Mist had found Reeve and kept her against huge pressure from the village who didn't want travelling stock among their folk. Even Reeve's name meant 'traveller' and it was the only name she'd been allowed to have. Even though Master Mist was the schoolteacher, Reeve wasn't allowed to go to school so Gadd taught her at home, and quite well too. The resentment gradually subsided to dislike, then tolerance for Reeve. The likes of Bern and Maggie Hayes would always resent Reeve. Eleanor Mist died of the fever when Reeve was six and Gadd raised her alone for another six before he, too, died. Reeve was twelve years old. Because the schoolhouse was part of the school, it was to be re-let to the next Master, Master Bule. Reeve found herself homeless and with no means to support herself. Tam Deeks had seen enough. It was probably the only time in his life that he'd felt disgust at his fellow Grasslotites. The uproar was calamitous when Tam raised the issue among the villagers and offered to have Reeve move into his spare room and earn her keep. The main, and loudest objection was that Reeve was, at thirteen, a young woman, and Tam was an unmarried man. Tam had been livid and revolted. Out of sheer stubbornness and anger, he cleared out a tiny, single room, stone shed that he owned, right on the very outskirts of Grasslot that he'd previously been using for storage. Reeve moved into it. Tam's anger wasn't quite satisfied so he took Reeve to the Town Hall with him and had her sweeping floors and polishing shelves as a means to provide her with a small wage. Gradually, the noise in the village abated as the folk got used to seeing Reeve around, as long as she was working and not free-loading. Tam wasn't about to let Reeve's education go to waste and he began to teach her book-keeping and filing. Reeve was twenty now and back at the 'tolerated' stage in the village. She'd get no further in Grasslot. Her dark skin and jet black ringlets would always show her heritage. She was a Reeve, a traveller.
The sun was setting by the time Tam was putting away his ledgers. He'd had a tiresome and bad tempered day dealing with confused, frightened and angry villagers. His irritation wasn't helped when he realised just how late it was and Skillen hadn't returned with his list of villagers. At last, he heard the side door opening as he re-shelved his last ledger.
"Where in the realm have you been boy!" Tam shouted from the store cupboard. "You should have been off with Master Bule by now!"
"I have your list Mayor Deeks." Reeve's voice made Tam jerk backwards and hit his head on the door.
"Reeve! For goodness sakes Reeve I thought you had more sense! I could shake you until your eyeballs pop! You had the nerve to call Bern Hayes a mule, remember? Too risky here? The King knows what he's doing? Remember all that?" Tam shouted.
"They wouldn't take me." Reeve shrugged and put the list on Tam's desk. Tam had to sit down and only just hit the chair. "I tried. It only took me half an hour to bundle up my belongings. I tried Mayor Deeks. I stood at Trotter's Bridge for six hours and Master Bule and Skillen were the last to leave."
"I don't believe this." Tam said in shock. "No one would take you? No one at all? What about the Greens? Sally Took? Ed and Stella Fort?"
"According to Skillen's list, they'd all left already." Reeve said miserably. "Norm Bule just looked at me like I was something stuck to his boot. He said 'come on Skillen.' and that was that."
"He'd have been stuck to my boot if I had been near him." Tam said darkly. "What makes it worse is I have a cart in my outbuilding! It's just sitting there! Reeve it's a whole village full of bloody carts! Of course there was room for you."
"Well I didn't say there was no room." Reeve shrugged her shoulders. "I'll take the cart at first light. I'm sure I'll catch up with the others."
"The mood I'm in, I could just come with you and leave them to it." Tam growled. "You won't have eaten. Come on, we'll go to Travern's."
"Travern's Inn?" Reeve automatically fiddled with her skirt.
"Unless you prefer his coal shed? It's the only Inn still open. Bekerstaff and his brood have all gone." Tam lead the way and Reeve followed.