Arthur and his father were forced to walk back to the village, still without their shoes. However, they weren’t the only ones. Up and down the lanes, people were being shoved out of their homes by teams of the baron’s men.
Some people were in nothing but their underclothing. Arthur and Calvan were lucky that they had fallen asleep while wearing their work shirts and trousers.
Aside from being undignified, it was also cold. A thick fog had rolled in over the late hours, making the air damp and chilly.
They were herded into the middle of the square. No comforts such as food, water, or even a place to sit were offered.
The baron’s guards set up positions at every corner to watch for escape attempts. Meanwhile, the rest of the baron’s men continued their house-to-house search.
But the guards could not contain the gossip.
“I heard they found a carriage overturned…”
“Four men, all carded.”
“I heard it was ten men!”
“Must be bandits. Surely the baron will see…”
“We were doing his dragon damned work…”
“We’ve been telling the baron about the bandit problem for years.”
“Pah. He won’t do nothing…”
Arthur edged away from his father who stood in the center of the storm of gossip. Borderland Village number forty-nine was not allowed to have elected leaders, but the adults often saw him as their spokesman.
No doubt that was the reason why they had been visited by the Treasure Seeker first.
Feeling sick with a combination of anger and guilt, Arthur found a knot of kids and joined them.
Ernie, his best friend by virtue of being the only other boy his age, brightened. “Art! You know why the baron’s got his garter belt in a twist?”
Arthur grimaced and glanced over his shoulder. Thankfully, the guard’s attention was on the adults rather than the kids.
Arthur lowered his voice. “Remember that fancy carriage that rolled in with the dragon soil shipment yesterday? It got attacked just out of town.”
Ernie made a face. “It couldn't have been anyone here. We were all busy in the field. Maybe bandits, you think?”
“That’s what my dad said.” He wanted to add more about the missing card, but Ernie had the biggest mouth in the village. He’d blurt it out for sure, and Arthur wasn’t sure if it was supposed to be known information.
He felt a tug on the hem of his shirt and looked down to see one of the little girls. “What’s gonna happen to us?” She glanced at the guards anxiously, sucking on dirty fingers.
Ernie answered before Arthur could. “They’ll waste time here, trying to shake news of where the bandits who did this are hiding. Then they’ll go back to their fancy houses and leave us good folk alone.”
That felt too optimistic to Arthur but he nodded anyway.
They waited and the damp cold crept in. Some of the quicker mothers had insisted on grabbing blankets for the children as they were pushed out of their house. So those who had a little warmth to share huddled together.
Arthur’s guilt along with the fact he didn’t feel particularly uncomfortable allowed him to decline a piece of blanket.
Ernie tried to follow his example but was soon dancing from foot to foot to keep warm on the cold cobblestones. He finally gave up and ducked in with the rest of the kids.
The stones were certainly cold under Arthur’s bare feet, but it was as if the cold couldn’t sink in. He felt the cold, but not deep down inside.
No, most of his discomfort came from gnawing guilt.
If he had any honor, he would go up to the guards and confess everything he’d seen. But even if he fibbed and said the red dragon had taken the card with it, the baron’s men would likely take out their anger on the whole town. They’d do it just because they could.
But it wasn’t my fault, insisted a stubborn thought. It was the dragon.
Why did the baron’s men think that a band of dirty, starving bandits could take out five carded men? Then destroy the carriage with magic to boot?
Because they were idiots and it was easier to blame the borderland town. All of the adults were convicted criminals and not to be trusted.
Arthur sighed. No. There wasn’t a point in telling the guards they were barking up the wrong tree. Plus he hadn’t forgotten the red dragon had promised to kill him and his family if the card somehow fell in the baron’s hands.
So Arthur kept his mouth shut and hoped the guards would mistake any guilt on his face for fear.
The townsfolk were made to stand in the courtyard without food or water for hours as the baron's men went from house to house. This would have been uncomfortable at the best of times, but coming straight from an entire night of tilling dragon soil in the dead field, it was miserable.
Sitting huddled together with the rest of the kids, Ernie was the first to perk up. He poked a hand out from under a blanket and pointed. "Someone's coming."
Through a gap between two ramshackle buildings, Arthur caught a glimpse of the road. Two foaming horses pulled a carriage at a fast clip.
This carriage was highly decorated, though much smaller than the one the dragon had destroyed. And unlike the last one, someone sat inside.
The carriage was driven to the town's square, scattering townsfolk. It jerked to a halt and the footman jumped down to open the door.
A murmur swept through the crowd as the baron Kane stepped out.
Arthur didn't know the man's first name, only the insults the adults called him by, all spoken under their breath.
He cut a fine figure in rich clothing of rust red and rich soil brown. His dark beard was trimmed short, his skin free of scars and pockmarks which were so common in the village.
And he looked at all of them as if they were worms.
Every man in uniform, including the Treasure Seeker, immediately gathered around him to make their reports.
Whatever they said made the baron's face cloud with anger.
His gaze swept around and landed on Arthur's father.
Not a surprise. The village wasn't allowed to elect a mayor, but if they did, Arthur's father would have been it.
Though two burly men gripped Calvan's arms to pull him forward, he went willingly. His back was straight with his chin lifted proudly.
"I heard you lost a card, Mace."
The baron looked at Calvan coldly. "You have one chance to give it up and spare your people." He paused. "And whatever is left of your family."
In answer, Calvan spat to the side. "I can't give up what I don't have. We were tilling your fields. Your men likely deserted and stole the card. You still underpaying them, Mace?”
The baron’s eyes narrowed.
Calvan smirked. He leaned in as if to impart a secret, but his words were loud enough for all to hear. “Every man and woman here is already under a suspended death sentence from the crown, but the kingdom needs us to reclaim the dead fields. You can’t kill us to search our corpses for the card. Who would till scourge-ground for you? How would your quaint barony expand?”
“There are always more criminals to be found, as you well know.”
Calvan didn’t flinch. He continued to stare at the baron with half his mouth quirked as if he found the other man amusing and more than a little pathetic.
The baron was the one to break the stare-off. “Nevertheless, you’re right. I don’t need to waste good manpower by searching corpses.” He turned and gestured to the carriage. Out stepped an old woman. She was tiny, wrapped in so many shawls that Arthur couldn't see her shape. Her eyes peered out from within, fierce and glittering.
One of the baron's men extended a hand to help her step down.
"Scan him," the baron said. "Make sure all can see."
She nodded and pressed one twisted hand to Calvan's chest.
Calvan gasped as if the air had been punched out of him. At the same time, a list popped into view in the air. It was similar to the one Arthur had seen when he'd pressed his card into his heart.
Heart Deck: Calvan Rowantree
Total cards: 0
Total completed sets: 0
Paired cards: 0
Linked cards: 0
All the card slots were empty.
Calvan sucked in an unsteady breath. He looked pained, though his words were defiant. "I told you, Mace."
The baron backhanded his father, then turned away to glare at the rest of the crowd. When he spoke, his voice was high-pitched at the end as if it were close to breaking.
"Search them all!"
The old woman was a card seeker. If they searched Arthur, they'd find the card.
Arthur backed up a step to place him within the group of other kids.
One by one, the adults were pulled forward. The old woman placed a hand on their chests.
Information popped into existence in the air, but theirs was different from his father’s. A simple message:
|Heart Deck Not Active.|
Arthur realized for the first time how much taller his father was from the rest of the townsfolk. His shoulders were broad, and while he had a few pockmarks on his chin and cheeks, they were recent.
Once the men and women were done, the baron pointed at the older teens.
Arthur had to concentrate on breathing normally. If he went faint, would they believe it was a lack of food or water? No, they might search him anyway.
The only good thing about his stomach-churning anxiety was that he felt too sick to feel hungry. He was in no danger of throwing up.
The search took a long time. Eventually, the fog burned off and was replaced by a cold wind. It only made the townsfolk feel more miserable.
Finally, the latest to be searched -- a fifteen-year-old girl named Poesy -- returned with:
|Heart Deck Not Active.|
The baron seemed to have enough. His voice boomed out.
"The card is here in the village! Who has it?"
He was met by a sullen silence.
Someone in the back of the crowd yelled. "The bandits took it, didn't they?"
"Then you know who the bandits are! Who is hiding them? Tell me!"
Again, he was met by silence.
The baron turned to his guards. "Search the village again. Every house, every corner."
"Mace," Calvan said, "Some of these women are young mothers with babies to feed—"
That was a mistake. The baron swung back to him, his sculpted face ugly with rage.
"Then they have more incentive to speak than anyone else. No,” he snapped at his men. “Never mind searching these hovels, we'll ask the peasants directly."
With that, the men were pulled out of the crowd one by one and shoved into one of the nearby houses with two guards in attendance. By the time they returned, many had black eyes and split lips.
Arthur felt so guilty he could barely stand himself.
Finally, as the bottom of the sun touched the horizon, more riders wearing the baron's colors rode in. They dismounted and spoke to the baron directly.
Arthur was too far away to hear what was said, but rumor swept through the crowd in whispers: A bandit village had been found in the dead lands to the north-west.
The baron called his men back and without a glance toward the town he had been harassing all day, they all rode out.