To Arthur, the next few days passed in a blur.
His newly forged determination to learn as many skills as he could, to not let another tragedy happen again on his watch, was still there. But it was cloaked by a fog of grief so choking that he had trouble rising from his bed to go about his day.
Though he went about his chores, he did so in a listless haze. Without putting effort into what he was doing, none of his skills progressed.
It was a vicious cycle where he felt like he was betraying the memory of his friend by not progressing… and yet couldn’t find the inner willpower to break free, work, and progress.
He was used to death in the village. Before he had lost his mother and sister, all the other boys and girls his age had been chipped away, one by one.
But Ernie was different. They’d been instant best friends since Arthur had come to the village as a little kid.
Now he was gone, too.
He wanted to snap out of it, to somehow rebuild his life. But as with fixing up the cottage… he was afraid that if he did, the baron or the scourge would come and take it all away.
It didn’t help that his father was hardly in the cottage.
Arthur was used to him being out and about: Calvan was an important man who often took it upon himself to help out whenever he could. But even lost in grief, Arthur knew he could have used his father’s guidance.
What was more important, the village or his son?
That kernel of anger grew hotter, like a lump of banked coal in his heart given new tinder. On the evening of the fourth day, Arthur rose from his cot and found himself stalking around the house, clenching and unclenching his fists.
He hated it here. Hated the village, hated the scourge and the baron and… and everything!
Irritated with himself and the world, he went out to chop wood. It felt good just to work until he sweated and feel the bite of the ax in the logs.
Because he was doing it without care and focus, his skill didn’t progress. That was important to discover, but he found himself irritated… and thinking of Ernie.
There were no funerals in the village. People didn’t have time and deaths were too common.
Soon another family would move into Amanda and Ernie’s house, if it hadn’t happened already. Arthur hadn’t gone into the village yet to find out.
Though, according to the charts he had learned to read, there would be a new dragon soil shipment soon. He would have to visit the village then.
His thoughts halted in surprise when he heard the clop-clop-clop of hooves on the lane behind the cottage.
The baron’s men, he thought with a bolt of fear.
There had been no word of what had happened when the baron’s men searched the bandit camp. His father had said the villagers guessed they’d found what they were looking for… though Arthur and Calvan knew differently.
Chances were the baron had widened his search to other border villages. But he could return at any time. It was doubtful he would let it go.
With dread, Arthur put down the ax and walked around the house. The back lane stretched to the east — away from the deadlands and towards the middle of the kingdom. It was common for the baron’s men to come up from that direction.
But it wasn’t uniformed and armed men.
It was his father, accompanying a stranger who was riding on an old donkey.
This was unusual for a few reasons. There were no strangers in the village. Not unless they were newly assigned there, fresh from being convicted for their crimes. Those people were never allowed to bring livestock.
This man didn’t have the look of a borderland villager. Though he was short, there was extra flesh on his bones. No scars or pockmarks to be seen. Though he was unshaved, and his hair was long and gray, he didn’t have that pinched look to suggest he’d been sick recently.
The donkey, too, looked well-fed and relaxed.
Calvan saw Arthur and waved him over. “Arthur, glad to see you’re up. Red’s going to need someone to help brush down his donkey.”
The man, Red, though there was nothing red left in his salt-and-pepper hair, guffawed. “That’s Arthur? Why, he’s sprouted up like a weed. He has to be what, nine, ten years old?”
“I’m twelve,” Arthur muttered but came over to do as he was told anyway.
Red dismounted and handed over the donkey’s reins. “Brush is in the left saddle pack.” Then, with a long look Arthur’s way, he and Calvan walked to the cottage.
Occasionally the children of villagers were made to take care of the horses which carted in dragon soil, so Arthur had some knowledge of what to do. Keeping a firm hold on the reins, he clucked his tongue and started towards the side of the cottage.
A horse would follow immediately. The donkey hesitated for a long moment, turning its shaggy head to look towards where its master had gone.
“Come on,” Arthur muttered. “I got a patch of juicy grass around the corner. Hasn’t been scourged touched for generations, I think.”
That seemed to be what the donkey was waiting for. It reluctantly followed him.
Arthur led the donkey past his mother and sister’s gravestones. Flowers had already spouted from the dragon soil offering he’d given it the other day. Arthur hadn’t noticed until now and for a few moments, he forgot about his grief.
The donkey reached for the flowers as if to eat them.
Pulling the donkey’s head up, he took a firmer hold on the reins and moved it well out of reach of the graves. Then he tied the reins to a low branch of a tree.
The donkey bent its head again to crop at the grass nearby. Arthur went around to pull up even more grass, setting a pile in front of the animal to keep it occupied.
He rummaged in the saddlebag for the brush and found it right away.
The donkey nipped at him half-heartedly, almost as if to tell him to hurry up. With a chuckle, Arthur pushed its head away, took off the saddle and blanket to stow to the side, and started brushing the animal down.
Odd. There was not a trace of scourge-dust on the beast. Just regular road dirt and a little redder than Arthur was used to seeing.
Wherever this donkey and his rider had been, it wasn’t close to scourge-lands.
Arthur had just swiped his brush for the last time when he received a notification.
New skill gained: Basic Equine Care (Animal Husbandry Class)
Due to your previous experience and your card’s bonus traits, you automatically start this skill at level 4.
Smiling softly, Arthur patted the donkey and scratched up its neck to its big ears. The donkey leaned into him.
It was a small thing, but he felt the weight of his grief lift just a little.
When he returned to the cottage it was to find that his father and the stranger had taken the only two chairs.
His father had a broad grin on his face which was so unlike him that it took Arthur aback.
Before he could recover, Calvan gestured to the wood stove and the table which was loaded down with several sacks. “Red has brought some food to pay for his visit here.” He slapped the man on the shoulder. “Why don’t you see what you can do with those ingredients?”
“It ain't much. Just some supplies I picked up here and there on the road,” Red said.
With a silent nod, Arthur went to the table, surprised to see more bundles out of view behind the bags. His eyes widened. There were several large fish wrapped in wax paper, at least five different pouches of dried herbs — most of which he didn’t have names for, but all smelled delicious — huge potatoes nearly the size of two man’s fists pressed together, freshly picked greens and one strange fruit that was a bright, sunshiny yellow.
He glanced up to see the two men watching him.
“Your father says you know how to cook?” Red asked.
There was a particular weight to his words, but Arthur simply nodded.
“I can. How much of this can I use?”
Red barked out a laugh. “All of it, of course. Men got to eat, don’t they?”
Maybe so, but this was more food than Arthur was used to seeing for three days’ worth of meals.
His stomach growled. He hadn’t managed to eat much since Ernie—
Arthur shoved that thought away before the grief could drag him back down.
He reached for the potatoes and focused his mind on his card skill. Then he got to work.
The first thing to do was to figure out the herbs. He could tell which was garlic and which was salt, but the rest were a mystery. One of the green herbs smelled like it might be good with the fish. The fish, too, he couldn’t recognize but the meat was red and fatty.
He was used to filleting the bony trout that managed to survive the streams. This large fish was easy in comparison. His knife cut through like butter.
After laying three large fillets aside and wrapping the third to be smoked or eaten for later, Arthur turned his attention back to the herbs. He bruised the green herb and rubbed it all over the fillets, tucking some of the broken leaves here and there.
He rewrapped them in parchment and put them in a dry pot with the last of the herbs to slow cook over the wood stove.
Then he worked to bring the potatoes to a boil in a large pot — adding extra salt to the water to account for the large tubers.
He turned his attention to the greens. They were nothing like the wilted things he was used to. Though they must have been picked hours ago, they were still so crisp droplets of water leaked out the ends when he cut into them.
Lastly, he turned his attention to the odd fruit. Was it supposed to be a dessert?
“That’s a lemon,” his father said. He and Red had been quietly talking while Arthur worked, though he’d felt their gazes on him every once in a while. “It’s very sour. Best to use it to dress the greens.”
Arthur nodded and used his knife to cut into it. The skin was exceptionally thick, the flesh exceptionally juicy. He tasted the tip of his finger and Red laughed again at the face he pulled.
Hard-won experience with occasional wisdom from his card had carried him so far. But he was at a loss of what ‘dress the greens’ meant. Sometimes his father spoke fancy like that — words from another life.
Deciding that none of the odd lemon should be wasted even though it was sour as all get-out, Arthur cut it into thirds. That way each person could decide what to do with theirs. Arthur planned to ditch his part, soon as someone wasn’t looking.
The fish was done, and he took it off the heat to steam out for a few minutes. By that time, the potatoes were ready, too. He mashed them quickly and added more salt and some of the garlic.
New skill level:
Apprentice Meal Preparation (Cooking Class)
Arthur flinched in surprise then had to bite his bottom lip to keep back a grin. Two levels out of one meal!
Not a surprise considering the quality of ingredients and all the methods he’d had to use.
A new burst of wisdom came to him, and he took one of the lemon slices, squeezing it over the fish. There. Done.
He grabbed some of the plates that had been recently scavenged from the broken ones and served the food out.
Red’s bushy eyebrows lifted as he saw the dish. They went even higher when he bit into the fish.
“Well now, this is nearly as good as one of those fancy restaurants in Calla.”
Arthur nodded, cheeks bulging. He’d dug in the moment he was able.
“He’s always been a talented boy,” Calvan said for him.
“And you can read and write, too.”
“Yes sir,” Arthur said thickly, through more potatoes. “Both.”
Red and Calvan exchanged a look. Arthur wondered what it was about but was more interested in clearing his plate.
“And how did Bella treat you?”
“Who? Oh,” he realized. “The donkey. Fine. She tried to nip me but didn’t manage it.”
“But she’ll let you brush her down?” He seemed skeptical when Arthur nodded.
Abruptly, Red pushed his chair back and put the plate to the side. “Pardon me.”
With that, he went to the door.
Arthur glanced to his father who shook his head, eyes to the door.
A few moments later Red returned with the saddle bag in hand. Now he was smiling.
“I’m sorry, Calvan. I have to admit that I laid a trap for your son: There was a pouch of money plain within sight of the donkey’s brush. But I just counted. Every one of the coins is still there.”
“I wouldn’t have stolen!” Arthur said, indignant, a few crumbs flying. The truth was, he hadn’t even seen the pouch or would have known what to do with the money. It wasn’t like traders came to town.
For the first time in a long time, his father looked relaxed. He nodded. “He’s an honest boy, too. Takes after his dad that way.”
“I hope not,” Red snorted. “But I take your point. Fine, Calvan. He’s undersized but clearly a hard worker. Yes, he can join my crew.”
The last delicious bite of fish seemed to lodge halfway in Arthur’s throat.