While convincing people to part with their money, Arthur soon learned he needed to work on what the traders liked to call their “sales pitch”. He and the rest of the caravan were a welcome oddity when they rolled into town but weren’t necessarily trusted.
Unless Arthur spoke quickly, most assumed he was just setting them up to be cheated out of their money on a scam of a card game. That wasn’t the case at all. Arthur wanted to win their money. Big difference.
However, his age helped out. If he was a full-grown man or even an older teenager, he would have been met with even more suspicion. But Arthur was twelve years old. Though the card in his heart was doing wonders, he still looked small and underfed. Harmless.
It was much easier to join a friendly game than to start one himself. Arthur found that once he had a seat at the card table, the little card tricks he’d learned over the next few weeks helped him gain favor.
He now knew three ways to shuffle — each flashier than the last. And once he pushed that skill to Apprentice, he never lost a card. His Blackjack and Card Counting skills weren’t far behind.
Soon, he could count his little stash of coins in coppers instead of pennies. He had eight coppers in total and would have had more if he hadn’t been forced to buy new shirts, pants, and boots for himself.
He was still small but growing. His old clothing no longer fit.
If he wasn’t careful people would notice he was growing quickly. Maybe too quickly for a boy hitting a normal growth spurt. He had to get his hands on a second card.
His newly gained coins were nowhere near enough to buy a card, however. From what Arthur heard, the bigger cities near the kingdom center had entire stores dedicated to cards. And if the rumors were to be believed, the Common cards went for a cheap price. Still more than what Arthur currently had — but a price measured in silver coins, not gold.
Still, things were looking up. Red was turning into a grumpy old uncle he never thought he’d had, and as long as he stayed out of Second’s way, his life in the caravan was comfortable. It was a life Arthur never expected to have, but he found he was settling in quite nicely.
That ended the day of the eruption.
It was a day that started like any other. Red had pulled the entire caravan off to a little-known campsite last evening. They were still at least two days away from the next town on the schedule. Most of the men had done well selling their goods at the last town and were still in a celebratory mood. That meant Arthur had stayed up late selling them bottles of wine and doing the dishes.
He yawned contentedly as he brushed down the donkeys and yoked them up to the cart. Bella took the opportunity to nuzzle his hand.
Donkeys were finicky creatures, but Bella had taken a shine to Arthur ever since he finally passed Apprentice in Equine Animal Husbandry.
Now Arthur felt a sort of invisible, nebulous connection between himself, the donkeys, and the horses. The oxen weren’t included — he supposed it was because they were hitched to different carts, and he didn’t work with them very much. Or maybe they weren't equines and so weren't included in his skill. He wasn't sure.
Idly, Arthur wondered if he should skip the card games in the next town and see if he could help out more at the stables. It might be useful to gain another Animal-type skill. He’d rather get another class in that direction than, say, Thieving.
“We’ll be moving the caravan soon, Arthur—oh.” Red came up short, having called out to the boy before fully seeing what he was up to. “You’ve got the donkeys yoked? Excellent. We’re going to have to move fast to make the next campsite before sunset tonight.” He frowned at the men who were still packing away their carts, and walked off before Arthur had time to respond.
Arthur turned to Bella. “Is he always like that?”
Bella’s lips turned rose from her teeth and she brayed in donkey-agreement.
The caravan started moving before long, though at a slower pace than Red wanted. The day was both warm and pleasant. It was the sort of summer day that made Arthur wish there was a stream nearby to swim in.
The road took them over sharp-cut ridges that overlooked a small, lush valley.
Arthur paused a moment to gaze down. He hadn’t yet gotten used to how things looked so green away from the border. Sometimes, back in his village, he would have to search for something that looked alive. Here, his eyes were full of the color green in more shades than he thought existed.
“Arthur!” Red barked.
Arthur flinched, thinking the man was calling him out for dwaddling. Then his mind caught up and he realized the man had used his real name.
Red gestured towards the line of carts rolling ahead of them. “Go to the lead wagon and tell them to stop. Now!” he barked before Arthur could question why.
Arthur took off like an arrow shot, racing past plodding oxen-pulled carts. Second was leading the caravan today. His huge, overstuffed cart blocked any view of the road ahead.
Running up to the driver’s seat, Arthur puffed out, “Red says to stop.”
Second glanced down at him, annoyed. Then, with a sharp whistle to the men and beasts, he pulled back hard on the reins. His oxen came to a stop. Behind them, the other carts did the same.
Hivey, Second’s friend, glared down at Arthur. “What’s wrong, Piss-Ant? Someone break a wheel?”
“I don’t know. He just asked—“
“Shut up,” Second snapped. He looked grim. “Do you hear that?”
Arthur swiveled around, ears alert. The only thing noticeable was the harsh call of crows in the trees.
“The crows,” Hivey confirmed.
Glancing up, Arthur saw a few dark sharps flitting from tree to tree. “Don’t they get like that when there’s food around?”
It was a mistake to offer his opinion, and he received a slap upside the head.
“Get back to your master, Piss-Ant," Second said.
Rubbing the back of his skull, Arthur did. The people in the carts he passed were also looking up towards the trees. All seemed unhappy.
When he got to Red’s cart, he found him checking all the tie-downs as if to make sure all was secure. He glanced up as Arthur approached.
“Check the donkeys. Make sure they’re ready to run at a moment’s notice.”
Arthur did as he was told but called back over his shoulder. “What’s going on? Is it the crows?”
Red shrugged. “Might be the crows found a good meal somewhere, or maybe some hunter stirred up one of their nests. But they’re usually the first to know when there’s a scourgling eruption nearby.”
That stopped Arthur cold. “What? Now?” He looked around, half expecting the vegetation around him to start boiling with the dread creatures.
“We’ll know if the donkeys start going crazy, too. They’ll want to run away and we’re going to let them.”
Swallowing, Arthur checked the donkey’s gear. He had recently oiled the leather reins and cleaned the rings that secured the ropes to the yoke. Everything was still in order.
However, the crows continued cawing. There were more and more of them — harsh croaking that was soon joined by other, shrill noises as more birds in the forest took up the call. Soon enough, every winged thing with a throat was trilling.
The donkeys began shifting from foot to foot. Bella lifted her head, flattened her ears, and let out a coughing bray.
Red came from around the back of the cart, took a look at the donkeys, and then met Arthur’s eyes.
“Get in the driver’s seat.” His voice was forcefully calm. “When they bolt, they won’t stop for nothing.”
Arthur scrambled up. He hadn’t been allowed in the driver’s seat before. Red followed after. It was a tight fit, even though Red wasn’t a big man.
Up and down the line of carts, the hooved animals grew more agitated. Oxen stamped their feet, snorted, and bellowed. One of the horses tried to stand up on its hind legs as if to buck.
Arthur’s mouth went dry. He turned to Red to ask a question. Even though he was sitting right by the man, he still had to yell to be heard over the noise. “Do you know where the scourglings will come up?”
“Could be anywhere, though I think this one will be further away. When I was a little older than you, one erupted practically under my feet. You shoulda seen the animals then.” He grinned almost feral.
At that moment, something deep inside Arthur quivered. He thought it came from his heart.
And off in the low valley, seen through a gap in the trees, the ground cracked open.