Arthur’s body may now be magically boosted from having a card, but the last two days had been exhausting. He slept in late on the cold floor with a ratty, torn blanket thrown over him. It was one of the few cloth items which hadn’t been soiled.
He was barely aware of his father rummaging around in the early pre-dawn hours.
Arthur must have fallen asleep again because the next thing he knew, his father was shaking his shoulder gently. “Time to get up.”
Cracking open his eyes, Arthur looked around and was surprised to see that the table was back inside the cottage, though the legs looked in bad repair. One of the kitchen chairs had been mended using the remains of two others. A dented pot sat on the wood stove. From the smell bubbling up within it, his father had put in oats to boil.
Arthur’s stomach rumbled loud enough to be heard.
Smiling, his father said, “Get up. We have a big day ahead of us.”
Instantly, his mood sank. Yes, repairing what the baron’s men had destroyed would make for a busy day.
A cynical part of him wondered if the work was worth it. Sure as anything, once they fixed everything up and somehow scrounged replacements for the next, the baron’s men would think of another excuse to come again. This last time had been one of the worst, but not unique.
But… they hadn’t returned so far. Plus, the alternative was to sit around in a nest of broken things.
Swallowing a sigh, Arthur got up.
His father was a man who took his duties seriously, but he seemed unusually energetic this morning. As Arthur spooned a ladle’s worth of oats in the bowl, his father placed what wasn’t hopelessly beyond broken recognition on the shelves.
“Take two ladle-full’s worth,” his father said, barely glancing over his shoulder.
Arthur hesitated even as his stomach clenched in greedy anticipation. “Are you sure?”
One was usually all he was allowed for breakfast. Rations were thin in the village. Most everyone ate just enough to take the edge off their growling hunger, and no more.
“I already ate one of the bruised apples,” Calvan replied.
Arthur might have questioned it further — he’d caught his father lying about how much food he had eaten before — but he was just too hungry. The second ladle’s worth was enough to nearly empty the pot. He quickly dumped it in his bowl and started eating.
The oats were satisfyingly hot, though undercooked. His father had never picked up the knack for cooking like his mother had. But food was food.
Arthur ate quickly, scraping out the last bits with the side of his finger. When there wasn’t so much as a taste left, he went to dunk the bowl in the rain barrel outside to wash it.
When he returned it was to see that his father had collected several papers together in a stack.
“I guess we have to wash out the blankets now?” Arthur asked, wrinkling his nose at the thought. They’d have to bundle up all the piss-soaked blankets which were still outside and then trudge them down to the river, wade in the icy water to weigh the blankets down with rocks, and let the current take the worst of the filth away.
On top of all that work, the blankets probably wouldn’t be dry for days.
“I’m going to take care of that,” Calvan said. “It’s well past time you got started on your letters.”
“Your mother did start teaching you to read, didn’t she?”
Arthur nodded and didn’t add those few lessons had stopped after she died. For a long time afterward, both had edged around the memories of his mother and sister. Her favorite plates were put high up on the shelf to never be used and only occasionally looked at. His sister’s baby toys were given to needy families in the village except for a stuffed bear, which had joined the plates on the shelf. That bear's head was now missing from its body. One of the baron’s men had looked inside to see if anything valuable had been hidden in the straw stuffing.
Calvan pointed to the chair. When Arthur reluctantly sat he said, “Tell me what you know of the alphabet.”
Arthur paused for a moment and then slowly began to repeat the letters, dropping into a sing-song cadence. He was pleased he could repeat them all without being corrected. And he didn’t even need the card to do it. The alphabet had come from his own memories.
His father eyed him closely until he reached the end. “Did you get a notification?”
“About what? My letters?” He shook his head. “I got one yesterday while chopping carrots. It took a few of ‘em, though.”
“Repetition to build a foundation.” His father nodded. “Go through the alphabet again, without singing this time.”
Arthur sighed. “Why?”
“Do you think that carded mages with a fireball or ice-spike spells can conjure and throw instantly?”
“Uh…” The answer was yes, but he knew that wouldn’t be wise. “I don’t know?”
“They don’t. I knew one boy with a card for instant freeze who could only conjure cold air between his fingers for months until he got the knack.” His father smiled but it was gone again in the next instant. “Noble sons and daughters practice until their card’s magic becomes second nature. You need to learn how to do the same.”
Arthur fidgeted for a moment, still unsure. “But I can’t make ice or fire or… anything. I just learn stuff! What’s the point? Will it even stay with me if the card is gone?”
“What do you mean?”
He blurted out the worry that had been plaguing him, despite his father’s assurances last night. “The dragon gave it to me to give it to you!”
“Arthur, we talked about this—“
“I know the baron’s men would search you first, but we’ve never seen Treasure Seekers before. They might not come again. You could do more with the card than I could. It’s not right!” His hand bunched a fistful of his shirt over his heart. It hurt to say because deep down inside… he didn’t want to give it up.
His father watched him for a moment, eyes narrowed and lips pressed together. Then he nodded to himself and bent to put himself level with his son.
“Arthur, listen to me. How much do you remember of our old home? I know you were very young at the time… do you have any memories of before?”
“A little. But you and…” He swallowed. “You and Mom didn’t ever want to talk about it.”
“Because it’s painful. I think you have guessed by now that I was a carded man. I had three spell cards of my own.” He grimaced and touched his chest, right over his heart. “I was forced to give them up when my land was taken from me.”
“Arthur,” he said, looking shocked that he didn’t know. “I was a noble. A duke.”
Arthur rocked back so hard that his father caught the edge of his chair to set him back on balanced. He barely noticed, eyes wide and staring at his father.
“You were like… the baron?” he whispered.
“I was nothing like him.” Calvan’s expression clouded over. “Nothing.”
“But…” It was a knowledge Arthur felt he had half-known, once, but had pushed down out of sheer survival. His mind boggled.
His father had been a duke. That was even more important than a baron.
He could have been a duke’s son.
What would that have been like? Would he have grown up as cruel as the baron?
No. His mind rejected that immediately. No, he wouldn’t because his father wasn’t a cruel man.
Still… this village was all he knew. He could hardly conceive of a life outside of it except for the fantasy of riches. Of eating whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted. Of being about to go out and play with his friends, or hunt deer on top of his own stallion…
Would he have had the pick of his own cards?
“What happened?” Arthur asked.
“It doesn’t matter,” his father said, sharply in a way that told Arthur he’d better not push. “The important thing was, when I came here I was forced to take a vow that I would hold no more cards. They’ve taken everything from me, but I still have my honor and the oaths I made. I will stand by them.”
Arthur didn’t point out that the baron broke his oaths all the time. He didn’t know much about the outside world, but he knew that nobles weren’t supposed to steal from and abuse their serfs for no reason.
His father’s eyes softened. “Had you grown up as you ought to have, you would have been given cards at about this age.”
“But the dragon told me to give it to you,” he insisted. “It said it would kill me if the card fell back into the baron’s hands.”
“Then that had better not happen,” Calvan said lightly. Seeing his son wasn’t reassured, he leaned forward. “You don’t know much about dragons. Yes, they can talk but they are beasts who don’t know the intricacies of human society. That is why they bond their cards with their riders. If the one you saw was without a rider to guide it, it was little more than an animal. A talking animal, but still. Chances are, it flew off afterward and forgot.”
Arthur was certain his father was wrong. No regular animal would act out of revenge, and he was certain that was what had driven the dragon.
“In any case,” his father continued. “We will work on your ABCs and you will tell me when you receive a notification. So, repeat them.”
Arthur did, this time making an effort not to sing them. It was easier this time since they were fresher in his mind.
The message did not come the second time around but on the third. As he finished his litany, it felt as if something clicked into place.
New skill gained: Basic Reading (Scholarship Class)
Due to your card’s bonus traits, you automatically start this skill at level 3.
Apparently, he hadn’t known the ABCs well enough to gain bonus levels. Oh well.
“I got it,” he said. “Basic reading.”
“Excellent. Now repeat your ABCs backward.”
Arthur blinked but then shrugged and started with the last letter. To his surprise, they came to him one by one, each clear and shining in his mind.
Then his father took him outside and had them scratch them out on a patch of dirt using a stick.
Arthur figured that he would gain a level. Instead, he received an entirely new skill:
New skill gained: Basic Writing (Scholarship Class)
Due to your card’s bonus traits, you automatically start this skill at level 3.
When he told his father of this, he had Arthur return to the cottage. There, he handed him the papers he had been sorting earlier.
“They’re nothing exciting, I’m afraid. Just kingdom notifications. I kept them around in case we needed paper to wipe ourselves. Read through them as best you can and take this.” He shoved a charred stick in his hand. “Underline the words you can’t puzzle out yourself. When I come back, we’ll work on them together.”