The spell card was encased yet again within a thin sheet of glass with a lock surrounded by complex runes.
It was... beautiful.
Larger than a man's spread hand, the card was thick as if he were looking at a piece of metal and not paper. Jade green, it was edged in glowing purple jewels with golden threads running along the length. If the card weren't magic, he would have thought it had been painted on by a hair-fine brush.
What truly caught his eye were the stamped pictures within the card — pictures that shifted and moved before his eyes. An anvil and hammer, an ax, a sewing needle and thread, a fishing line and hook, a simple figure of a man in mid-stride, a book... and more. One replaced the other in a pattern he couldn't quite determine.
There were words etched on the top of the card and a glittering paragraph below the shifting pictures. Arthur's father never had time to teach him more than a few words of reading, but he thought he recognized the word 'skill' as well as a few numbers.
The dragon spoke, making Arthur start in surprise.
"You said your father hates the nobles?"
Tearing his eyes from the card, Arthur croaked out, "He does."
Everyone in the village had reason to hate the nobles. The baron, especially.
The dragon cocked its head. Though its scaly lips didn't move, Arthur could have sworn that it smiled at him. "A card of this caliber in a serf's hands? That could be... fun."
Arthur said nothing, though his fingers tightened on the glass casing. He never would have imagined he'd see a card much less hold one. Even if it was the last thing he did… well. It wouldn’t be worth it, but what a way to go.
The dragon rumbled, sounding too much like a growl for Arthur's peace of mind.
"Give this card to him," it said. "Or whoever is the headman of your village. Whoever can cause the baron the most mischief." It leaned down until its chin was nearly level to the ground, eye to eye with Arthur. "But if this card finds its way back into Baron Kane's hands, I will know. And cub... I have your scent. I will find you and any blood kin."
"I... I..." Arthur babbled.
The dragon didn't seem to care to hear his answer. It raised its head. "But first, I have a few more chores to attend to."
Appearing in a grand mood, it turned its attention to the men it had killed.
Arthur followed its gaze. There was now a misty glow above every man's chest -- or the remains of a chest in some cases. It was as if there was an inner light trying to peek out.
The dragon waved a clawed hand over each corpse. A new spell card rose from their bodies.
The new cards were as big as the one in the glass case. Four were creme-colored like a fancy piece of paper. The one from the swordsman was a metallic steel blue. All lacked the intricate designs on the borders. The icons were flat and painted on. They didn't move.
With a wave, the dragon brought the cards, one by one, to float in front of his face so it could view them.
"Basic cards," it muttered but gathered them into his palm. Then it brought its palm to its chest. When he lowered the clawed hand again, the cards were gone.
The dragon had just added the cards of the men it had killed to its heart deck.
That done, the dragon turned its attention back to the corpse of the swordsman. After pawing at it for a moment, the dragon returned to Arthur with a thin chain hanging off the tip of his claw. At the end of the chain hung a delicate key.
"A runic key to unlock the card. Take it," he said, cheerfully. "Remember: If you speak of me or let the card fall into the baron's hands, I will find you and roast your family. Now go."
It was a good thing Arthur knew every footpath, every animal trail on the way home. After touching the runic key to the lock, the glass and key melted down into harmless water which dribbled through his fingers, leaving only the card behind. It was as heavy as a piece of sheeted metal, impossible to bend.
Arthur didn't wait, couldn't afford to be surprised. He sprinted from the dragon, half-blind with shock and amazement.
A dragon. The creature he'd always been taught that preserves human lives, whose very fertilizer brought entire fields back from scourge-death. Something he never even considered could talk. Now he had just seen one raze a carriage, kill five men, and steal their cards.
He cast a fearful glance over his shoulder. The dragon was nowhere in sight. only a thin tracing of smoke marked where the remains of the carriage lay.
With the entire village occupied with the current shipment of dragon soil, it might be hours or days until the scene was discovered.
He had to ensure no one connected him with the carriage. More than that, he had to protect the card he'd been gifted. It was literally worth more than his life.
He had to get this to his father.
His heart racing, Arthur used every trick of bush-craft he could think of to ensure he didn't leave tracks behind. Luck was with him because the gray dirt of the scourge-field was too hard-packed to leave an easy mark on the ground.
Soon he'd recrossed over the bad patch and was on live land again. Scraggly yellow-green grass helped hide his tracks further.
Arthur made a looping path to the small cottage he and his father shared.
The moment he set his eyes on the cottage, he knew his father wasn't in. No smoke came from the chimney, meaning no one had fed the fire in hours. That made sense. His father would likely be in the village square directing the workers and helping out himself.
Before he went to the door, Arthur stopped, as he always did, at his mother and sister's graves.
Both had been killed three winters before last when a scourge-mutated cough raged through the village.
Before Arthur had gotten the bright idea to follow the baron's carriage, he'd managed to steal a few handfuls of dragon soil from the incoming delivery carts and stick them in his pocket. He withdrew the soil now, rich and dark and full of life.
Once dragon soil was shoveled out of a hive, it would be left to bake out in the sun for a year and a day, mixed with regular dirt and organic leavings from trash pits. The result was a crumbly, rich soil that was so potent a few cart fulls could revive an entire scourge-ridden field.
Arthur carefully sprinkled the soil around the two gravestones. In a few days, they would be surrounded by a riot of flowers.
Then he knelt in between the graves. It was a good place to think.
His father would be busy for the rest of the day. Possibly the night, too. Arthur couldn't risk giving him the card in sight of other adults and gossipy kids.
He had to hide the card.
But where? Surely not in the house. The baron's men sometimes searched all the villagers' homes for valuables. A few of the men always followed the dragon carts.
In the woods? His father had shown him some trees which had hollow places inside. They hid knives there for 'Just in case' though Arthur didn't know exactly when 'Just in case' was meant to be. The only danger came from the baron's men and no villager dared stand up to them. They were too poor to attract outlaws.
Arthur's best friend, Ernie, told him the baron had carded men with abilities to sniff out treasure. No, he couldn't hide the card in the woods.
Arthur held the card between his hands. His fingers were grubby and left prints on the fine facing. Hastily, he tried to rub them away with a corner of his shirt… but his shirt wasn’t much better.
"Where can I keep this safe?" he asked the graves in front of him.
He swore he felt a breeze touch his cheek. He glanced up, but the bare winter branches overhead weren't moving.
Then the answer came. In reality, he'd always known but he wanted to explore other options first.
Once a card was placed inside someone's heart, it could only be removed by the caster or by death. Some great heroes had entire decks of cards encased in their hearts. One new power for every occasion. The red dragon now had the powers of acid, water, and the lightning sword from the dead men. Those seemed like small magics compared to the fireball and purple unmaking candle flames, but… perhaps it had been enough not to want this card too.
Arthur gazed back down at the card. Yes, he would keep it with him tucked safely in his heart. Then when his father was done tilling the dragon soil in the new field, he'd give it to him.
But... Arthur was twelve years old. Was his heart big enough to hold a card?
Only one way to find out.