“Arthur! Arthur, wait—“ his father called, but Arthur was already out the door and pelting down the road.
It can’t be real. It can’t be him, he thought desperately, trying to remember if there was another Youngborn family by that name. Someone, anyone other than his friend. Sometimes, if the crime against the crown were serious enough, an entire extended family could be sent to the border towns.
But Mable had said Amanda’s son. Amanda Youngborn had only one living child left.
No, Arthur thought. Ernie couldn’t be dying. He’d just seen him, what, three days ago?
But scourge-born sicknesses took people that fast.
The flu that had taken the life of his mother and sister had burned through the entire village like wildfire. It seemed everyone had caught it at once.
Distantly, he heard his father shout again. Arthur was already well down the lane that led to the village.
Arthur had raced his father before — short sprints up and down the dirt road. They were rare occasions when his father was in a good mood and wasn’t exhausted from working the fields or just trying to survive.
Always before, Calvan’s longer legs won out. Arthur was small for his age, never quite hitting those growth spurts his mother used to promise was right around the corner.
Now, before he realized it, he had well outdistanced his father.
He wasn’t even out of breath.
Despite his worry for his friend and the blunt edge of pending grief, Arthur wondered if it was possible to get a running skill.
… He should have told Ernie the news about the missing card the other day — not that Arthur had it, he wasn’t stupid — but that the baron had lost it. The baron had ended up announcing it to the village anyway, and Ernie loved to gossip. It would have made him so happy to know something before everyone else…
Ernie and his mother lived close to the village square in a ramshackle hut that was smaller even than Arthur’s cottage. Like Arthur, he’d once had a larger family, too. One sibling had died from the same flu that had killed Arthur’s mother and sister. Another brother died later on from a bad cut gone scourge-rotten. Ernie’s father died out in the fields. One day, he simply clutched his chest and fell down dead.
People said it occasionally happened to uncarded men.
Anyway, for a while now it had just been Ernie and his mother in their house.
As Arthur ran up, puffing but not entirely out of breath, he saw several adults standing outside Ernie’s house. All wore grave expressions.
Arthur tried to barrel past them but a man named Sam caught him around the shoulders and pulled him short.
“Where do you think you’re going, Arthur? Where is your father?”
“Behind me. Where’s Ernie? Is he…” Arthur couldn’t finish.
“He and his mother are very sick,” Sam said kindly. “Yuma is in there with her healing herbs. The men are to stay out and not get in her way.”
That wasn’t the reason. Every able-bodied person got well clear of a house filled with a scourge-sickness. Yuma with her stumpy legs, didn’t bother.
But I won’t get sick! Arthur nearly blurted. He pinched his lips, horrified with himself. Stupid. Stupid. Only carded people didn’t need to worry about getting sick.
Sam looked on with sympathy, misreading Arthur’s expression for him trying not to cry. “We’ll talk to your father about it once he gets here — oh, here he is now.”
Arthur turned to see his father jogging up the same lane. Mable, who’d followed, was much further back.
Calvan looked annoyed but didn’t say anything specifically to Arthur as he came up. Instead, he looked to Sam. “How bad is it?”
“Bad,” Sam said flatly. “We think it’s not catching, but there wasn’t much food in the house. I saw what they had left before I got out — it’s scourge-infected.”
Calvan let out a long sigh and rubbed a hand down his face.
“Yuma’s making her medicine inside,” Arthur said quickly, looking hard at his father. “I can… I can help.”
It was a desperate hope. If healing was a skill, if he could learn from Yuma… then maybe the card would offer some wisdom to help Ernie and his mother.
His father hesitated, likely thinking the same thing. “You’re sure it’s not in the air, Sam?”
“Yuma didn’t seem worried about that.”
Calvan nodded. “Okay, Arthur. Go in and give her a hand, but mind you don’t get in her way.”
Arthur nodded and Sam stepped aside for him to open the door. Neither one of the men followed him.
The inside of the house had an unpleasant smell of sewage, like a privy bucket had overflowed. It was one room with a cookfire on one end and a bed on the other. Ernie once told Arthur a story of the edge of the blankets falling into the coals and the family waking to a bed half on fire. Being Ernie, he said it with a laugh like it it was the biggest joke in the world.
Now every blanket in the house — even one with old char spots on it — was piled up on the single bed. Two shapes lay listless and unmoving.
Yuma sat on a chair, squished between the bed and the table, frantically grinding herbs with a mortar and pestle. She looked up as Arthur came in.
“What do you think you’re doing, boy?”
“I came to help.” Edging up, he looked at the shapeless lumps but they were so well covered he couldn’t see either of their faces. Neither stirred at the sound of him coming in.
“Ernie is your friend, right?” Yuma sighed. “Come on in. They’re sleeping right now.”
Arthur noticed she didn’t make a point of keeping her voice down. Clearly, she wasn’t worried about waking them.
“I can help,” Arthur said. “You know I can chop stuff and… and I can fetch whatever you need.”
“What you can do is grind these herbs. It takes some strength and I’m afraid I don’t have much in me.” She pushed the mortar and pestle over. “Grind it down hard. It needs to be a powder. I’ll work on mincing the ginger root.”
Arthur eagerly bent to start grinding. The stuff inside the mortar looked like flakes of bark. “What is this?”
“White willow root bark. Don’t make that face! It’s very expensive and good to ease the fever. The ginger and peppermint I’ll add will help the stomach, too. It’s going to make a dreadful tea, but if they drink it and manage to keep the fluids down… well, maybe.”
But she seemed doubtful.
Arthur swallowed. “Sam said they ate scourge-touched food? If they were hungry, they coulda come to us…”
“Chances were, they didn’t know. It can take people like that, if you’re not paying attention to where you’re planting your crops. Amanda has been scatterbrained ever since her husband died, and the boy doesn’t know how to cook,” Yuma said.
Will they be alright? Arthur wanted to know, but was afraid of the answer if he asked. The still forms under the blankets was an answer itself.
He could imagine Amanda not only planting in a bad spot but not noticing the vegetables were bad. People had called her a dim bulb before, though not within her hearing.
The villagers weren’t allowed to have their own gardens or take from the field harvests. All their food came from the baron as payment.
Of course, they had their own gardens anyway — just not out in the open. And they stole whatever they could from the fields, ripe or not. Just to spite the baron.
Though it was hard to find safe places to plant. Most found a spot on the edge of the recently reclaimed fields, where the baron’s men were less likely to look. There might be patches that weren’t healed by the scourge.
Though Arthur had seen scourge-tainted vegetables before. How could Ernie or Amanda ever think they were good to eat?
Because they were hungry and exhausted and Amanda never paid attention at the best of times. Ernie didn’t like to do what he called ‘women’s chores’, so he wouldn’t have paid attention.
Arthur sighed. Maybe women’s chores weren’t so bad if not learning them got you sick.
Suddenly, he received an alert.
New skill level:
Apprentice Meal Preparation (Cooking Class)
“It’s not a meal, it’s medicine!” he snarled.
Yuma looked up. “What was that?”
He shook his head. “Nothing.”
“Hmm. Keep grinding.”
He did, redoubling his efforts until it was a fine powder.
When Yuma asked, he checked the kettle which hung on a hook over the fire. It was boiling so Yuma had him pour it into two mugs.
They mixed the herbs — the willow bark, dried peppermint leaves Yuma had already powdered, and the finely minced ginger. Then Yuma directed him to stir them into the cups until the powders were dissolved as much as possible.
Finally, he got the skill notification that he was looking for.
New skill gained: Herbal Medicine Preparation (Healing Class)
Due to learning the basics of this skill from another, your starting level has been increased. Because your teacher is not a master in this class, the possible experience gained has been reduced.
You automatically start this skill at level 5.
He had finally gained the skill, but no great revelations came to Arthur, other than they should let the tea cool. From the way Ernie and Amanda had not stirred, they’d have to tip it down their throats.
Now he could hear raspy breathing from the bed. He wasn’t sure who it was coming from, but it sounded terrible.
The mug he was staring at became blurry. Angrily, Arthur blinked back the beginning of tears.
He’d had the card for days now. If he had worked harder on his skills, or focused on useful ones instead of woodcutting or mending furniture he might have gotten more levels. Somehow.
And done what?
Herbs were rare. He couldn’t just go around grinding things from people’s gardens to practice his skill. He didn’t know he’d need it until now!
And the fact was, he’d never heard of anyone who ate scourge-food live to tell the tale.
Arthur continued stirring the tea so he didn’t cry.
Finally, Yuma declared it done.
“Help me sit them up. Ernie first.”
When Arthur pulled back the covers, he found his friend waxy, pale and shivering. A terrible smell came up from him, and he didn’t stir as Arthur sat him up. He was limp as a fresh corpse.
The blanket that fell away from his arm exposed veins that stood out dark against his pallid skin.
Yuma pursed her lips but said nothing.
Tipping back Ernie’s head, they slowly, very slowly, poured the tea in.
Ernie swallowed reflexively. Arthur knew the tea must have tasted awful but Ernie made no reaction. His eyes didn’t even flutter.
They tucked him back in and did the same for Amanda. She was the one with the raspy breathing, and when they pulled back the blankets she looked even worse. The veins had spread up her neck to her face.
In the end, Arthur got another skill: Basic Nursecraft at level 3, with the added wisdom of maybe moving the two to lay on their sides to help them breathe.
But there was no cure. He only had the most basic knowledge and no tools. Worse, the scourge had gotten a head start.
His friend was dying.
The best that could be said was that with the infection already inside them, they were obvious to any pain. Not like when people died of a scourge-infected cut and were awake and aware as the infection traveled up their body.
Arthur’s father came in to witness the last breaths and record the time and reason for kingdom officials.
Amanda died around sunset. Arthur made another infusion of tea — this one without the willow bark because Yuma had to keep the last scraps for the village.
The tea didn’t help.
He didn’t cry as Ernie’s rattling breaths finally stopped. Just stared at the boy who had been his friend and just felt so angry. So angry at the baron who never gave them enough food… for condemning them there at all.
Ernie didn’t do anything wrong. Neither had Amanda. Her husband had been caught stealing horses, and the whole family had been condemned. They hadn’t been allowed to leave when he died.
And Arthur was angry at himself, too. For being too weak and unknowledgeable to do anything to help.
He and his father walked back to the cottage in silence. His father slung an arm over his shoulder.
“Are you okay?”
Arthur shook his head. “Dad? I want to read some more. I want to… I need to do something. I need to grow stronger.”
The arm tightened briefly before his father dropped it. “You will,” he said. “I can promise you that.”