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Dragon soil had to be tilled into scourge-deadened fields, and it needed to be done while the soil was as fresh as possible. It also had to be done carefully because not only could the scourge make any cut or popped blister lead to an infection, but breathing in too much scourge-dust could rot the lungs.

As a result, only the adults worked the fields. Children under the age of fifteen were sent out as runners, sprinting back and forth from the fields with buckets of water, extra replacement tools, and messages.

Even when the promised stew was done, Arthur only got to snatch bites on the go, between ladling out more into bowls for the working adults.

The setting sun did not earn the field worked a break. Instead the baron’s men — who mostly lounged near the dragon soil carts — handed out torches to be staked into the fields and lit.

That allowed just enough work to see by.

Eventually, as some of the weaker adults pleaded exhaustion, the elderly were pressed into service to replace them.

Always before on dragon soil nights, Arthur had been on the verge of dropping from exhaustion a few hours after midnight. When he’d been little, he’d been allowed to nap under the carts with the rest of the children. Now he was expected to endure until he dropped. It had happened before.

This time, however, he felt as if there was a wellspring of energy he could draw from. He certainly wasn’t fresh — and he wasn’t stupid enough to show enthusiasm in front of the Baron’s men — but he could grimly keep going.

The last of the dragon soil was scraped out of the final cart as dawn broke.

A ragged cheer went up from the adults. Yuma and the tent workers provided thick, hearty oatmeal for breakfast. It pepped everyone up enough to till the last of the soil in.

What had once been a gray, deadened patch of land was now rich brown. Soon, greenery blown in from seeds on the wind would take root. The village would allow it to stay fallow for a few seasons. Then it would be ready for planting.

Another small bit of land was reclaimed for the kingdom.

Arthur’s father found him just as Arthur was finishing his last bite of oatmeal. His father was dirty — they both were — and the lines that etched his face seemed more pronounced than usual. But his eyes were sparkling.

“I saw you working through the night.” He clapped his son on the shoulder. “Good job.”

Arthur beamed back at his father. “I guess I’m growing up.”

The air was so cold in the dawn chill that their breath steamed as they walked down the trail back to their house. Yet Arthur felt perfectly comfortable. Normally, he would be shivering in his ratty clothing.

It had to be the magic of the card, warming him from the inside out.

Carded people were stronger and healthier than unfortunate uncarded folk.

He was going to miss that benefit once he gave the card to his father… but cards were usually passed down through the family, weren’t they? And he and his dad only had each other. So he would get it back eventually. That made him feel better.

“Home sweet home,” his father said.

Arthur looked up, realizing he’d been staring at his scuffed boots as he had walked.

Their cottage had come into view. Not a wisp of smoke came out from the chimney. The fire had completely died, leaving the building stone cold.

It seemed the moment he crossed the threshold, the last of his energy drained out of him. Arthur stumbled to his cot-bed which was set in the far corner.

Now that he and his dad was alone, protected by the walls of the house he ought to tell him about the dragon, the carriage, and most importantly, the card. Arthur hadn’t had time to think much about it, himself. There had been so much work to do.

But he was so very tired and for once he wasn’t going to bed shivering. It wouldn’t hurt to keep the card for a few more hours… just to feel the sensation of going to sleep and waking up warm.

 


 

Arthur was jerked out of a deep sleep by a fist pounding on the door. It was so strong that it shook the adjoining walls and rattled the simple plates and bowls they used for crockery.

“What in the world?” his father demanded, voice thick with sleep.

Arthur saw him rise out of his own bed which was nearer to the front door. Like Arthur, he had fallen asleep in his clothing, pausing only to kick off his boots.

His father had not reached the door before the rusty hinges gave. It fell open and three burly men wearing the baron’s colors of rust red and brown stormed in.

One grabbed his father and shoved him against the closest wall.

A smaller, reedy man demanded, “Where is it, Calvan? Where did you hide it?”

“Hide what?” Calvan, his father, demanded. “What’s going on?”

Meanwhile, the third man had walked around his father and started to rifle through the shelves, pulling some of the plates and bowls down and smashing them to the floor.

Arthur yelled a protest. “Those were my mother’s plates!”

They had been some of the few objects she had brought from their old house, when they’d been banished to this village.

Arthur’s memories of the house they used to live in were dim and vague — everything had seemed overly large and grand, he was sure, because he had been so small. Most of the time he was half-convinced he’d made it up in his mind. Just a little story of better times to make himself feel better.

But the one thing he was certain of was that his mother had loved those plates and the beautiful, idyllic scenes of nature that had been etched on each one.

Throwing his ratty blanket to the side, he rushed to stop the man, but his father managed to reach out and snag him by the collar, stopping him.

“Arthur, stay by me. What is the meaning of this?” he demanded to the intruders.

The reedy one, who looked to be the leader, sneered at him. “Theft from the Baron. A carriage was attacked, the contents stolen.”

Arthur stared, feeling like all his joints had been locked into place by shock and looming terror. He should have guessed this would happen. He should have told his father.

“Theft? When? The entire village was tasked to reclaim the field yesterday,” his father snarled. “Sounds like our lord baron has a brigand problem.”

In answer, the man slapped him — open-faced and contemptuous. Then he turned to the others.

“Search the house.”

The two other men moved to continue where the first had left off; pulling absolutely everything off the shelf and throwing them to the floor. When they were done, they tore through Arthur and his father’s meager pile of clothing, upended the baskets of roots, and flipped the straw mattresses. Then for good measure they took knives and cut open the sacks that held the straw in, pouring out the contents of their bedding all over the floor.

His father remained silent but stared at the process with hard eyes. Arthur shrank back to press against the wall.

Finally, the men returned to the leader, shaking their heads.

The head man turned back to his father. “I’m going to ask you once, Calvan. My man, Dino, here is a Treasure Seeker. He can sniff out the magic from a card from ten miles away. You know what that means?”

Calvan’s eyes widened at the realization of what they were looking for—and what had been stolen from the baron— but his voice remained level as he answered: “I do.”

“If we find a card on your property, we will kill you and your boy. But if you give it up now, it’ll only be your life.”

Calvan met the other man’s gaze square on. “I know the terms of my sentence. I don’t have possession of a card. All the villagers can vouch for me.”

The man simply stared, letting the moment lengthen as if silently asking for Arthur’s father to reconsider.

Rising fear made Arthur fidget. Should he say something? Would they kill both of them if he confessed now? It wasn’t like anyone would believe he had the power to destroy a carriage…

No, they’d think he had help from his father, or other men of the village.

He’d heard of Treasure Seekers. They were men with spell cards which gave them the ability to find rare and valuable objects. The variety, type, and restrictions of the treasures were as varied as there were cards.

Some of them could only find objects above or below a certain value. Or a certain type of object — metallic, magical, or mineral.

Some extraordinary cards could identify specific items the caster searched for. Those were rare and almost invaluable and usually worked over short distances.

His father had once told Arthur that for all the baron’s power over their lives… he was a minor lord in the grand scheme of the kingdom. Would he be powerful enough to have a high-powered Treasure Seeker on this staff?

Maybe.

Arthur would have confessed at that moment… if the man’s threat hadn’t included his father dying.

The silence dragged on. Calvan didn’t so much as break a sweat as he stared back at the reedy man.

“We don’t have what you’re looking for.”

The head man snorted. “So be it. Dino?”

The biggest of the two goons grunted and kicked away chips of pottery and loose straw with the side of his foot to create a clear area. Then he sat down with his legs crossed and his hands resting on his knees. He let out a long breath and held his palms upward. A soft blue glow emanated between them.

Arthur held his breath and resisted the urge to raise his hand to cover his chest where the card lay.

Could a Treasure Seeker see into his heart?

Dino’s eyes fluttered closed. He was silent for a moment which felt like an age until he spoke in a slow intonation.

“There is a cache thirty yards to the north in the woods.”

The headman smirked in triumph.

They roughly marched Arthur and Calvan out, barefoot, out the door.

Dino the Treasure Seeker followed and pointed to one of the large oak trees, and Arthur tried not to look relieved.

This was one of the hollow tree caches.

Unerringly, Dino walked to the dark hole in the bark and reached in. He swore and yanked his hand out.

“Be careful,” Calvan said. “Things bite out here in the borderlands.”

That earned him another slap.

The second goon walked over, literally grabbed a handful of bark, his fingers sinking into it as if it were a soft sponge, and ripped it away.

He had to have some kind of a body strengthening card.

The man tore pieces of the trunk in chunks around the blackened hollow. Inside were three simple knives and a few silver coins.

One of the knives still had a spot of blood on it from Dino.

The headman growled and for a moment Arthur was afraid his father was going to get hit again. But the man simply reached over and pocketed the coins.

Then he looked at the two of them.

“March,” he said.

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HonourRae

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