The first time Arthur was smacked across the face, it took him completely by surprise.
It was his second night away from his father's cottage, and the first traveling with the trader’s caravan. He and Red had met up with the rest of the group earlier that day.
Red ran what he called a small caravan. Three giant canvas-covered carts hauled by four oxen a piece. There was a host of smaller carts, too, leading the group and trailing after. These were usually pulled by donkeys or small, broken-down horses.
Each cart had its own team of men to accompany it. These teams, Red explained, all paid a certain amount to Red to travel along with him. In return, Red knew the best way-points and cut-through trails to get where they needed to go. He paid camping fees and introduced sellers of goods to interested buyers in different towns. Red’s personal cart was filled with supplies to support the rest of the caravan — everything from food to extra bedding. All came as part of the fee.
There was also safety in numbers while traveling on the kingdom's backroads.
Arthur had nodded along and kept his mouth shut. Partially because he was more homesick than he thought was possible. It was like there was a gaping hole in his heart and he was half afraid if he opened his mouth he’d just start bawling like an infant.
The other reason why he kept quiet was that he was intimidated. Every one of the men who followed the carts was big and brawny and obviously carded. They made Red look puny in comparison.
For the first few hours, Arthur followed along on foot behind Red who had hooked his donkey to help haul his personal supply wagon. Red rode in the driver's seat and didn't offer for Arthur a seat alongside him.
Finally, Arthur got up the courage to speak.
“Red? You’re not carded?” It was one of the first things he’d said all day.
Red looked down at him and pursed his lips. “That’s a mighty personal thing you’re asking there, Ernest.”
Arthur tried not to flinch at the name. Along the way, Red had explained that it would be for the best — especially while they were close to the border villages — that he go by a new name.
The former Rowantree Dutchy was on the other side of the kingdom. The surname may not be well known over here, but it was best not bandied about.
So, Arthur had chosen Ernest Youngblood as an honor to his friend, Ernie.
Yes, Ernie and Amanda would eventually be marked as deserters, but he didn’t think they’d be so well-known that people would be out looking for them.
“But as it happens,” Red continued. “No. My beliefs forbid it. No tattoos, no piercings, and no gods damned cards.” He spat to the side.
“Why?” Arthur asked.
“To alter the body that was given naturally to you… well, it ain’t right.”
Arthur might have looked skeptical because Red smiled grimly at him.
“When you get a bit older, you might be tempted to seek out a card for yourself. I’d advise you to think twice about it. Too many people lean in on their cards to the detriment of everything else. Take me for example: I am the caravan leader, and these carded men… well, they pay good coin to ride with me on this piece of road. You remember that.”
Soon, Arthur was told to run messages back and forth up and down the line of moving carts. Most of them were instructions for the lead cart to turn right or left at different junctures, and general announcements of where they would be camping at the night.
Arthur was at a constant jog. If not for the extra stamina that his card provided, he would have dropped long ago.
The work beat back his homesickness and he grew powerfully curious about the other carts. The biggest, in particular, was heaped so high the tops threatened to brush against low branches. It was covered in tight tarps and had an interesting, complex smell.
Having just delivered a message from red to this cart’s leader — Red’s second in command who he just called ‘Second’. — Arthur paused at the back of the cart to peek under the tarp.
He had barely gotten one corner lifted before he felt a blow to the side of his head. It was so strong that it staggered him back a few steps.
Reeling, Arthur’s first reaction was to ball his fists and set his stance so he didn’t fall, so he could jump back at his attacker, and—
His vision cleared. He stared up (and up and up) at Second.
Second was a bear of a man with dirty black hair that fell to his shoulder, a matching goatee, and a perpetual smirk on his face. That smirk was full in place as he looked down at Arthur.
“You trying to steal from me, you little Piss-Ant?”
Arthur loosened his fists. What was wrong with him? Had he seriously been about to attack a man twice his size? “I wasn’t stealing!”
“Yes, because I caught you. Go back to your master, Piss-Ant.”
A couple of the other men chuckled.
Red-faced, Arthur returned to the back of the caravan. He didn’t start rubbing his stinging ear until he was well out of sight, not wanting to give Second the satisfaction.
When he got there, Red looked at him. “What’s wrong?”
“Second smacked me! And he called me a Piss-Ant.”
“Your fault for getting in his way. He’s a mean son of a bitch. Most of them are.”
And that was that.
They might be criminals in the borderland village, but no one hauled off and smacked kids around for something like looking under a tarp of a cart.
Arthur seethed, but he was used to injustice from the baron’s men. So, he seethed quietly.
By evening, he was dismayed to find that his new nickname had stuck.
Red identified a safe spot to pull off the road and camp as the sun was going down. Then he and Arthur got to work hauling out a truly gigantic stew-pot from his cart, pouring in water from a nearby stream, and starting a stew.
Red was a dab hand at cooking for a large number of people. Once he started unloading the cart, Arthur found himself boggling. He had more herbs than Arthur thought existed, dried, chopped, in glass jars and in bags. There were different colors of potatoes, too: Blue, yellow, and red along with the dirty browns he was used to seeing.
Red also had meat. Real beef, which was smoked to jerky. But Arthur had only had beef as a treat a few times in his life.
Arthur bit off a chunk of jerky. Unfortunately, it was within view of one of Second’s friends — a spidery-looking man everyone called Hivey.
“Stop stealing food and get to cookin’, Piss-Ant!”
This time, Arthur was smacked right across the face.
That didn’t feel so unjust as the last time. He would have gotten whacked with a spoon had Yuma caught him doing the same back at the village.
But Arthur still seethed.
Again, Red stayed silent on the subject and simply directed Arthur to grab the powered soup stock from the cart.
With the stock and the added vegetables they chopped, the soup was done just after the sun had finished setting.
No one complimented Arthur or Red on the stew even though it was delicious. Mostly, the other men sat around the campfire laughing uproariously at jokes that went over Arthur’s head.
Red sold skins of wine for an extra cost and occasionally someone would yell at the Piss-Ant to sell him one. Arthur would then put down his own bowl of soup and do the transaction, giving the coins to Red who silently pocketed them.
The only good thing about the meal was that Arthur was allowed seconds and thirds. There was plenty to go around and Arthur rarely felt so full.
After he was tasked with doing the dishes which added another level to his tidying skill.
“Get back to your bedroll,” Red said after the last of the dishes were stowed back in the cart. “You look half done-out.”
He was tired and the men looked intent on staying up late, laughing and drinking around the campfire.
After excusing himself, Arthur headed back to where he’d stashed his bedroll, by where Red had tied up the donkeys.
Halfway there, he paused and looked back over his shoulder.
All of the men, including Second and his friends, were still around the campfire. A fire that would destroy their night vision.
No one was watching him.
Arthur stepped off the trail and into the thicker vegetation.
Underbrush crackled at every step. It wasn’t the long-dead crackle he was used to in the scourge-lands. This was just dry brush… and there was so much of it. It was odd not to have to worry about scourge-dust at all.
He was making too much noise.
Pausing, Arthur took off his boots and held them in one hand, feeling his way carefully forward bare-footed.
He had traveled fairly quietly for a few dozen feet when he received a new message.
New skill gained: Basic Stealth (Rogue/Thief Class)
Due to your previous experience and your card’s bonus traits, you automatically start this skill at level 4.
He must have gotten extra experience from all that time sneaking around the village with Ernie.
Arthur ruthlessly pushed away the memory before it could overwhelm him and cause him to make a mistake.
Eventually, he was sidelong to Second’s cart.
He waited a long moment, triple-checking to make sure no one was around. Then he stepped out of the brush and back onto the trail.
The tarp was tied down tight, so it took him a few moments to find a spot loose enough to lift.
There were leaves underneath. Big, long leaves with a tapered end. There were spots of green left, but most had wilted to muddy brown.
When he took a pinch, it crumbled between his fingers.
Arthur sniffed it, getting an intense smokey-spicy scent that was familiar… though he couldn’t place it.
He was about to bring it to his tongue to taste when a fuzzy memory rose to his mind. It was old. He couldn’t have been more than a toddler.
He and his father were sitting in a rich red room and his father was stuffing crumbles into his pipe just like this, before he smoked it.
Tobacco, Arthur realized. Second was trading in tobacco leaf.
Immediately, he was disgusted. Was that all? The tarp wasn’t there to hide something illegal, just to keep all the product safe.
He’d taken offense just for the excuse to hit Arthur and call him mean names.
Annoyed, Arthur went to the nearest knot which tied the tarp down. He loosened it and then reached in, shifting an arm-full of the stuff off balance. Just a little.
If no one caught that this corner was loose, that arm full had a good chance of falling out the back when the cart lurched into motion tomorrow. It would serve him right.
Arthur quickly returned to the thicker brush and made his way back. He took a long way around, concentrating on being as quiet as possible. For his efforts, he got another level.
New skill level: Basic Stealth (Rogue/Thief Class)
That wasn’t the only skill with its own class, but it was the only one that had two of them.
“What are classes?” he whispered to himself.
The card didn’t answer back.
He wished he could ask someone. Too bad the only friendly face in the caravan was Red and didn’t like cards.
Still, Arthur smiled to himself. Unlike the tidying skill, he could see some real value to Stealth. He resolved to practice it as much as he could.