It took every ounce of Arthur’s hard-forged determination and self-control not to shove the card in his heart right then and there.
Instead, feeling every mote of him protest the action, held it out to his father.
Calvan, however, had turned his head away.
“Why not?” Arthur demanded, all but pushing the card at him. “Do you know what this is?”
“Of course I do,” he said sharply. “Arthur, I made a promise to my king not to take any cards, and a binding oath not to leave. I did this in exchange for my family’s life.”
“Mom and my sister are dead!”
“And you’re not.” The fire that had been missing in his father’s eyes had returned — banked, but not completely dead yet. “My word means something. This place has cost me everything except for you, and my pride. I refuse to exchange it for power.”
If it was possible, Arthur would have tried to shove the card into his father’s heart. But he knew that was the sort of thing that had to be voluntarily accepted. It was one thing to rip a card out of an anchor tattoo, but the heart was another matter.
“If that’s the case, why did the baron’s men bother searching you for cards?” he asked, frustrated. “It’s not that you can’t, you won’t!”
His father remained pinched lipped and stubborn. “Not everyone is required to swear an oath, and even less to their King. To some, breaking their word and taking a card is worth it. Not to me.”
A thump to the side interrupted Arthur.
Lena had fallen to her knees, hands clasped in front of her. “Milord, I beg for you to share your generosity. Not to me. I know, thanks to my crimes, I’m not worthy. But I have two girls. They’re barely thirteen, milord. They’ve done nothing wrong, and it’s only luck that they’ve lived this long…”
“Please stand.” Arthur reached to help her to her feet, feeling sick. While he had been arguing with his father, he let himself forget others would welcome a card — any card. “Of course I’m sharing these around.” He glanced at his father, frustrated. “Why do you think I came here?”
Lena blinked. So did Calvan.
“I can give your girls a card.” Arthur held up the thick stack. “There’s more than enough to go to the children who can have them — and anyone else who is willing to leave.”
The next second he was holding a sobbing woman. Lena clutched at him, almost hysterical with joy. “Thank you! Thank you!”
Unsure what to do, Arthur looked at his father for support. Calvan shook his head.
“It’s not that easy, son. The Baron’s men won’t allow that to stand here. If any child takes a card, they must leave for their own safety.”
“I’m counting on it.” Gently, Arthur disengaged himself from Lena. Thankfully the woman was visibly trying to pull herself together again. “The hive needs dragon riders. Or, if any prefer not to fight, they can live better lives than here in the hive city. Carded lives.”
“How… how will you take them all the way to the hive?” Lena asked, wiping at her eyes. She shot a worried look at Calvan. “We don’t have horses to carry them all, and the roads aren’t safe.”
In answer, Arthur placed the stack of cards in his storage space. To an outsider, it looked like they flashed away in his hand. “They’ll be tucked away in my storage. It’s completely safe. Time doesn’t pass in there. To them, one moment they’ll be here. The next… over there.” He hesitated because he was speaking to a parent, and he had to be honest. “It might be awhile until I can remove them from storage again. The people I took these cards from will be looking for anyone with similar powers. So I’ll have to wait until suspicion dies down.”
Lena looked to Calvan as if for confirmation.
With a frown, Calvan nodded.
Lena looked back to Arthur. “But they’ll have new lives away from here. Can we do it, Cal?” she asked, turning back to him. She seemed afraid to hope.
Calvan nodded. “I think we can get most of the children out without much suspicion. I can add them to the latest casualty reports.”
“What casualty reports?” Arthur demanded.
The muscles in Calvan’s face shifted. His frown was so deep it looked engraved in his skin. “It’s been a hard season. A new scourge-sickness swept through. I’d say half the village is gone, including those who picked up and fled from fear — oath or no oath.”
“They can do that?” Arthur asked, sensing hope despite the horror.
Lena answered for him. “It depends on the exact wording of the oath, and to whom. I have to stay, but my children… they carry my hope.”
Arthur took the hint. “The food will help those who stay. But we’ll need to work fast to get the children out.” He looked outside. His internal clock had it as late afternoon, but true night had fallen here. He looked back to the adults. “Gather who you can and do it quickly.”
Lena, of course, went for her twins at once.
They were pretty girls, with strawberry red hair and identical to the freckles on their faces. And they were so thin that it looked like a stiff breeze would snap them in half.
Arthur let them choose from the Common and Uncommon cards. It would be easier for the girls to blend into their new lives if they had a lower-rank card.
Though the girls were in awe of Arthur who was a stranger since Lena’s family had arrived after he left, they were smart enough to look through the cards and weigh their options — even if they had trouble reading the descriptions.
One settled on an Uncommon Minor Health Restore card.
It was an all-purpose card that would allow her to heal minor ailments with the use of mana. The main drawback was inefficiency as she couldn’t target a specific illness. Her power cast a blanket of healing energy over the patient. Minor sicknesses and discomforts would be healed. Major wounds and illness would become marginally better. Birth deformities, tumors, and scars would remain untouched.
While having such a card made her unlikely to ever link with a dragon, she could always find good work in the city.
The second twin, who carried a young kitten in the crook of her arm, gravitated toward a Common Animal Empathy card.
She might have a future as a dragon rider but could also work in the stables or kennels for any noble house.
After they had accepted their cards into their hearts, Arthur explained he would be transporting them to the hive. But he needed their permission first.
The second twin only agreed to go if Arthur stored the kitten, too.
The girls hugged their mother goodbye, though it was obvious to Arthur that they didn’t quite understand the full scope of what was happening to them. Like Arthur, neither could imagine what life would be like outside the border village.
However, their acceptance was all Arthur needed. He placed his hands on their shoulders. A moment later, they disappeared.
Lena stared at the place where they had been. She looked at Arthur. “Do you think I will ever see them again?”
“Count on it,” Arthur said. “I don’t know how or why, but I’m coming back. And I intend to get people out.”
There was a soft knock at the door. Calvan opened it to find a haggard couple standing outside with three sickly children in tow.
Not every child received a card. Arthur had no stone to determine when someone was mature enough. So he only risked handing out the cards to the teenagers.
Some parents flatly refused to be separated from their young children, though they happily accepted the boxes of food. Others practically pushed babies into Arthur’s arms — sometimes with tears, sometimes with grim determination.
It was a lucky thing he was able to place the babies into his storage with their parent’s permission. The line seemed to be drawn around three or four when the children had limited capability to reason.
Twelve children came in all. Five of them were able to accept cards.
There were no adults. Likely because those who could leave had already done so during the scourge-sickness.
When the last family was gone, Arthur was left in the cabin with his father. Arthur removed his card stack, reserved the Legendary and one of the Rares, added the Full Body Bind card he took from Otto the guard, and pushed the stack to his father.
His father stared at the cards on the table. “What do you want me to do with these?”
“Spread them to other children of the nearby border towns — whoever’s about to be eighteen and wants to leave. Or give them to the bandits nearby. Don’t pretend like you don’t have contact with them,” Arthur said with a smile.
His father didn’t smile back. “Won’t you need them?”
“I can’t afford to be caught with them. My storage is supposed to keep most Seekers at bay, but I can’t guarantee how hard the duke will search. And I can’t fence these cards locally.” Arthur shook his head. “Best case, I can sell them for coins. But here… these cards will change lives.”
Arthur took a breath. “All I ask is that you keep one of the Rares for yourself. Hide it far in the woods — past beyond what any Seeker could sense. That way if I ever find a solution to unbind your oath…” He trailed off.
Calvan didn’t answer. He only stared at his son, his eyes wet.
“Can you do this for me?” Arthur asked.
“Yes.” Then, his father held out a hand for him to shake.
Bemused, Arthur did so.
Their hands clasped, then Calvan jerked him into a hug.
Though his father’s arms weren’t as strong as he remembered, they were more than good enough.