By the time Arthur finished with the flyers, an hour later, his Basic Reading skill had increased up to level seven which raised it as high as fire making. Something that he had practiced almost every day since he was old enough to set a fire.
He could sound out most of the words easily enough, though some of the bigger ones tripped him up.
As promised, they were dry notices: One was a chart with the expected dragon soil yields the village was to receive and the dates they were to arrive. Arthur thought those came randomly. At least, the adults acted surprised and like the carts were interrupting other business.
Though that might be a way to annoy the baron.
The most unsettling flyer was the reminder that all men and women who reached the age of eighteen years old had three days from their birthdate to report to the baron’s guard station for relocation.
The guard station was a bit of a joke. It was never manned, except when dragon soil shipments arrived or other nobles toured the village. So anyone wishing to report in must do so at one of the non-borderland towns, easily a week’s walk away.
By kingdom law, children did not pay for the crimes of their parents. So at eighteen years old, or what the kingdom called the age of majority, a new adult was allowed to apply to leave the borderland village — and their family — forever.
Of course, because the baron was a jackass, he made it as difficult as possible for a grown borderland child to start a new life.
Some managed it. Most, however, chose to stay out of loyalty to take care of sick parents and siblings who were struggling to put food on the table. Or to finally marry a childhood sweetheart, now that they were old enough.
Those who stayed three days past their eighteenth birthday were added to the border village rolls. They were expected to stay.
“Brenna Dunberry was the last one to leave, wasn’t she?” Arthur asked after his father had returned and helped explain a few words he’d had trouble with.
“She was, may the dragons help her,” he muttered.
Arthur frowned. Brenna’s leaving had caused a stir in the village because usually when someone left, it was a boy.
Also, by all reports, both parents had been counting on her to stay and raise grandchildren to help with the workload around the house.
“What do you think happened to her? The baron is supposed to help her go to another town to settle, right?”
“He’s to provide her transport to a village or a town on his barony,” his father corrected. He had been trying to get Arthur to speak all proper ever since he learned about the card.
“Transport to his barony,” Arthur said obediently.
“And, yes. Though I’m afraid the girl won’t have an easy time of it. Dirty and scarred from tilling dragon soil, with no education, no trades or dowry…” His father let out a great sigh, eyes slightly unfocused as if he were lost in thought. “But it’s a better future than staying here.”
Arthur swallowed, hard.
His eighteenth birthday was still a long way off… but he wasn’t sure what he would do.
He was grateful his father didn’t ask.
His father collected the paperwork and tapped it into a pile. “I believe the Roy family has some books,” he said. “I’ll see what they want to trade in exchange for borrowing.”
New guilt made Arthur squirm. “You don’t have to do that.”
His father just gave him a tight smile and nodded to the woodstove.
“Cut those vegetables for dinner and mind your skills.”
Over the next few days, Arthur almost regretted telling his father about the card.
He was used to working hard. Their village was small and people became ill and died regularly. No traders ever stopped by. Their clothing and other luxury items such as thread and planks of precut wood were provided on a donation basis by the baron when the ration carts arrived.
As convicted families sent to the borders for their crimes, they were allowed no real trade jobs.
So everything not provided by the baron had to be made by hand and bartered or traded for with other village families: Lye soap, woven baskets, fruits and vegetables from hidden gardens… anything and everything had a price.
Children were pressed into service from the time they could stand — even if it was small chores like taking out feed to the chickens or scouring the nearby woods for twigs to add to the cookfires.
Arthur was used to hard work, but in the past, there had always been downtime. Hours, even half-days where he could sneak away and be with his friends.
Ever since he told his father about the card, he had been kept close to home doing chore after chore in a deliberate, methodical process. Yesterday after reading and writing, he was set to help his father mend furniture. He’d gotten a new skill for that right away.
Today, he was tasked to chop wood. It was something he had done often in the past. He wasn’t too surprised when, on the third log, he received a message:
New skill gained: Wood Chopping (General Class)
Due to your previous experience and your card’s bonus traits, you automatically start this skill at level 5.
With a small smile, Arthur brushed the message away and picked out a new log. He set it in place, took up the ax… and hesitated.
There was nothing different about the log that he could see, but he had the vague sense of a flaw in the wood. If he brought his ax down just right of center…
Arthur swung the ax and missed his mark by two inches. Enough to split the wood a quarter of the way down the log.
He backed up and aimed again. This time he hit the mark straight on. With a louder crack than usual, the log split into three chunks — two neat thirds, and one ragged, thanks to his first bad hit.
New skill level:
Wood Chopping (General Class)
That was another thing he had noticed — what his father liked to call “part of a pattern” — was that when he followed these hunches the card was more likely to reward him with a skill level. Those led to more of a likelihood of hunches.
Last night while he had been sent to get more roots for supper, one of the hunches had led him to a beetroot that looked touched by the scourge. That happened sometimes, despite all their precautions.
Luckily, Arthur was able to throw it out before the scourge spread to the whole bucket. Eating scourge-touched food would have been a disaster.
On top of that, he had received another skill-up for his cooking. It was by far his best skill.
As Arthur lined up another log to cut, he glanced at his internal chart.
Fire Making - 7
Furniture Repair - 3
Tidying - 3
Wood Chopping - 6
Basic Meal Preparation - 9
Knife Work - 5
Basic Reading - 7
Basic Writing - 5
He inwardly grimaced at the tidying skill he’d picked up while making his bed every morning. Not that it was bad, but along with the cooking classes… well, he could imagine what his best friend, Ernie, would have said: All he needed was breadmaking and he might make somebody a good housewife.
Better not say that around Yuma or any of the other women. Not if he didn’t want a swat with a spoon.
Before he knew it, he’d finished chopping today’s logs. Arthur carefully set them in the shed for seasoning — bark side down.
He headed back into the cottage to see his father sitting at their repaired table. His father was bent with a needle and thread, carefully stitching Arthur’s sister’s old stuffed bear back together.
Instantly, he felt a pang for thinking of such things as women’s work.
“Do you want me to help?”
His father didn’t glance up from his work. “I don’t suppose you have a skill for sewing?”
“Well, I may not have skills but I have experience.” He carefully inserted the needle under the bear’s chin, making the stitch so tiny it would be impossible to see without tipping the toy’s head upward.
Arthur went to the kettle and poured some fresh water into a pot to set on the woodstove. They’d be eating potatoes again tonight, more likely than not.
“Hey Dad, if I go out and, I don’t know, start lifting buckets full of rocks, do you think I’ll get a skill for strength?”
That might offset the tidying skill…
His father rose out of his chair to check out the window hole. They still hadn’t replaced the glass and likely wouldn’t for a long time. Then he turned and shook his head.
“No, each card has a specific power. Yours seems to be limited to skills only. If you wanted something for strength, you would have to add a body modification-type to your deck.”
He slumped. “That means no magic, either?”
“I’m afraid not. You don’t have access to manna, do you?”
Arthur frowned and shook his head. He’d been over his internal card deck countless times over the last few days. There was no mention of manna anywhere.
Sitting back down at the table, his father took up the bear and the thread. “Most cards are part of a set — you can think of them as brother and sister cards. Generally, they come in a set of five.”
His eyes widened. “There are five others like mine?”
“Not quite like yours. Each card in the world is unique, even if the differences between them are slight. For example, one generalized water mage may be able to work with only salt water, others a certain volume, or water temperature.” He shook his head and returned to the subject. “If I had to guess, other cards within your set would be body enhancement, combat, magic, and of course the special card.”
“Mine’s a legendary rank, so if someone else has one in my set, they’re probably nobles?”
“High nobles,” his father confirmed. “Nothing like our local piss-ant Baron Kane. The world out there is much bigger than you know.”
Arthur frowned in thought. “What’s a special card?”
Calvan’s lips twitched in a smile as if he had been expecting that question. “You’ve seen a regular deck of cards? Think of the high cards: Aces, Kings, Queens, and Jacks. Well, the Special Card would fit into the joker category. It’s the card that is slightly outside the norm and usually has the power to upset the rest.”
“It’s the strongest?”
“Not necessarily. It’s a wild card so they usually have some of the minor abilities of each other card in the set. A Special Card in your set will likely have some skill bonus — not as large as yours, and with some hefty restrictions. Someone with only a Special won’t be able to compete alone against anyone else in their own set. The real power of the Special Card comes when it’s added to the rest of the set. The Special Card is the only one which can add powers to other cards, but only within their own set.” He smiled at Arthur as if imparting a secret.
“Have you ever seen someone who had a whole set?” Arthur asked, awed.
His father shook his head. “No, it’s vanishingly rare nowadays. Even pairs and so on are risky. It’s too much power in one person’s hands. The crown has encouraged nobles to split sets for generations.”
“Oh.” Arthur tried not to feel a little disappointment at that… and the knowledge that there was another card out there like his, but which would give him magic or strength.
At the same time, he had been beyond lucky to get any card at all. Even if all it did was help him chop potatoes a little better.
Speaking of potatoes, the water was starting to boil.
Arthur went to the potato bucket, dunked ‘em in the wash water, and set to chopping. With his Cooking Class knife skills, he found it almost easy to cut the lumpy potatoes into equal sized squarish cubes.
When he was done, he picked them up using the side of his knife to help him scoop and put them in the water to boil.
New skill level: Knife Work (Cooking Class)
New skill level:
Basic Meal Preparation (Cooking Class)
For reaching level 10, your skill has been upgraded from Basic to Apprentice
Arthur blinked. He was still looking at the boiling water and it occurred to him that the potatoes might taste a bit better with some salt.
Salt was, of course, expensive. So he took only a pinch and added it to the boiling water. Still, it was better than nothing.
Grinning, he turned to tell his dad of the apprentice upgrade.
There was a knock at the door.
Arthur’s heart froze. He turned, half expecting the baron’s men to come piling in with the Treasure Seeker in tow.
But the knock was soft and tentative.
“Stay there,” his father said and rose to check the door.
It wasn’t as if the cottage was large. Arthur was easily able to see as his father opened the door.
Old Mable stood on the other side, one gnarled hand wringing the other in anxiety.
“Calvan,” she said. “We need you to attend.”
His father let out a long breath.
What Mable meant was that his father was meant to attend someone’s death. To officially witness it.
Because living and working in a borderland village was a punishment and no one was allowed to escape, deaths must be carefully recorded. Calvan was the closest they had to a leader and he knew how to fill out the needed paperwork.
“Who is it?” Calvan asked.
“Amanda Youngborn and her son.”
Arthur’s breath felt like it froze in his chest.