Sunday, October 22, 2017

Not Zen 191: Time is a Lemon

"We spent almost two hours replacing five planks in that last footbridge," the park ranger said. She looked down at her handwritten schedule. "I'd planned for half that time."

"Is it a problem?" Her seasonal park assistant, Darren, sat up straight in his saddle. He stopped petting his horse's flank and lifted the reins.

"Maybe." The trail was wide enough for both mounts side by side but Isabella's mare insisted on leading, which is why she'd chosen it. She wanted to be out front even if she had to turn to her right to talk.

Darren's assignment, unlike hers, was temporary. Isabella had picked him out of the volunteer pool because she'd met him in her yoga class. He was a known quantity, a gray-haired older fellow who kept physically fit without being fanatical. He didn't carry extra weight. He knew how to use the only tools that were important on this trip, a pry bar, shovel, hammer, and saw. Although he'd never ridden a horse, he was delighted to try and he proved to be a natural. Better, he showed affection for his animal. He had so much going for him that she felt reluctant to push him to hurry.

"The two of us are supposed to perform four miles of repair per day," she said.

Darren's smile faded. His posture changed. Perhaps unconsciously, he let his gelding know that he wanted to speed up. That made Isabella's mare whinny and match pace to stay ahead.

"That seems like a lot for only two workers," he said after a while. "We're hauling timber. There are more footbridges ahead."

"The schedule is ambitious."

"Did your bosses make it? Is this their way of giving you crap about your leg?" Perhaps it was his age but Darren wasn't squeamish about Isabella's artificial foot. He didn't seem to care about it one way or another so he didn't avoid the topic. That made her uncomfortable but in a way she guessed was healthy. She had lost the limb while in the army. The government had paid for her artificial foot and it was the best.

"The schedule was my choice. And my bosses are literally not allowed to make my an issue about my leg."

"They follow the rules? Good."

"They gave me funny looks when I handed them my trail maintenance plans. I let them shuffle around and clear their throats for half a minute before I told them I was going to take my horses."

His laugh cut across the hard dirt. It echoed, for a second, from hill to hill. They'd left the trees behind them. Ahead of them rose only scrub grass and rocks.

"Anyway, that's why I've got an eye on the time."

His lips twitched with a gentle smile. He spent a moment lost in thought. Whereas Isabella had worn her regulation green park ranger uniform, Darren had dressed sensibly for the heat. He had a light, blue shirt, khaki pants, a spoonbill cap, and sensible shoes rather than heavy boots.

"In yoga class," he observed, "you were the one who insisted that time doesn't exist."

Isabella sighed and nodded.

"I meant that in a Buddhist way," she told him. "The idea that time doesn't exist is good."

"I'm acquainted with it. The past is a construct in the mind. The future is, too. Those parts make sense. From the viewpoint of our immediate situation, both are imaginary."

"Not just past and future but time itself is an illusion."

"Isn't it important to be able to dismiss that illusion?"

Isabella pulled back on the reins. Her horse drew to a halt. In a second, she grabbed a wax paper wrap from her saddlebag and dismounted.

Inside the wax paper were samples of living horsemint. Despite the name, they were simple, purple flowers that had grown wild on the mountain before wildfires had swept through. Part of her job was to repopulate the mountain with native species. Another team had planted saplings. She'd gotten flowers assigned to her and she was good at it. She pulled out her hand spade from her belt as she stepped to the spot she wanted. It took her no more than 20 seconds to kneel, plant the horsemint, and splash the ground with a half cup of water.

"Done," she said. She slipped the shovel into her belt. A second later, she hopped her left foot into a stirrup, swung her right leg over the back on the horse, and settled into the saddle. She hooked her artificial foot into the other stirrup. With effort, she returned her mind to their conversation. "As far as dismissing the illusion of time, I think that's where the modern teaching goes slightly wrong. Traditional Buddhism has units of time like the ksana. The old masters knew time was a mental construct, yes, but it was more, too."

"Isn't the ksana a subjective measure?"

"Ninety ksanas is how long a reflective moment of thought is supposed to take. Based on that, a ksana is about a seventy-fifth of a second. It does seem like a subjective estimate. But the point is that the ancient Buddhists understood the need to take measurements of time. They wanted to do good works in the world. Managing time is part of that."

"Yeah, anyone wanting to do work has to deal with it."

"That's because time isn't insubstantial in the usual sense of an illusion. It's a mental construct, yes, but pointing that out is like pointing out that a lemon is yellow. That's true but it's not an end to the description."

"A lemon is more than yellow. It's sour."

"It's lots of things. It has many aspects. So does time. Time can be a construct of the mind and it can have other attributes like duration or relativity. That seems to be a hard concept for people to grasp, even people who I would otherwise regard as clear thinkers."

They rode another eighth of a mile. Darren tipped the bill of his cap down to keep his face shaded. Isabella saw a flat shelf of dirt next to the trail and decided it would be her next stop. She halted the horses, swung down from her saddle, and planted more flowers.

When she remounted, she found that Darren had walked his gelding close to the mare. He'd untied her wide-brim ranger hat from her saddlebag. He offered it to her. With a nod, she accepted. It was sensible now that the midday heat had begun. As soon as she put on the hat, her face felt cooler.

"Is time an illusion, actually?" Darren asked. "Is it right to say that?"

"Yes." She had no doubts. "It's created by our minds. We need to be skeptical of it. People have the misconception that life is a path like you'd make as you tramp through a field. You can see what you've left behind you, a lot of flattened grasses or maybe you picked some flowers or planted something along the way."

"That sounds natural. Isn't that the way of things?"

"Yes, it's natural." She left it at that.

They rode a bit farther. In a few minutes, they came within line of sight of the next footbridge. It had been partly burned by the wildfire. Repairing it would take hours.

Isabella sighed and decided on another stopping point before they reached the repair job. She slipped off of her mare and planted another set of flowers.

"I think Dogen said that existence is time," Darren mentioned. As he waited for her to adjust her hat, he put his hands on the pommel of his saddle. "And that the annihilation of time would be the annihilation of everything."

"Fair enough." She didn't actually expect Darren to resist the seduction of over-simplification. Everyone fell for that, including her. Maybe it wasn't an important point to understand anyway.

"But that's still incomplete," he said. "I like your explanation better. Time is an illusion but it's more. It's not limited to a single idea. It can be illusion and existence. We have to hold multiple concepts in our minds to begin to understand."

"And to let them go." She couldn't help smiling.

"Yeah."

Isabella stood. She looked to her assistant but he had turned his head. So she followed Darren's gaze back down the trail they'd climbed. They saw the trees below, the close end of the bridge they'd repaired, the burned stumps, the rocks, a curve in the trail, and the grasses springing back to life after the fire. Alongside the trail, winding to the north, she noticed the dark patches of watered soil. In them stood purple flowers. They dotted the landscape with bits of color and they rose, closer and closer, right up to the ones by her feet, to mark their progress.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Not Even Not Zen 98: A Bandit Accountant, 16.2

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Twice Eight

Scene Two: An Accounting 

The Oggli forces numbered eight men and one horse. The shiniest fellow was the lieutenant. He led his tired-looking gelding a few steps behind him. The horse seemed content to amble. It was a chestnut with a star pattern on its nose and a vacant look in its eyes. Unlike the lieutenant, it bore no armor. Apparently the beast had been drafted into the military to carry burdens. Yet it was healthy and probably the only horse within forty miles, a curiosity.

The officer let his animal snatch clumps of grass as they drew close. Denario gawked. The horse reminded him of his home in Oggli, where streets near the palace could get several inches deep in manure during the winter.

Denario recognized the lieutenant, moreover, a young man named Dvishvili. They'd met in the court of the Marquis de Oggli. He seemed to recognize Denario as well. As the accountant grew near, he ordered his men to lower their weapons.

Dvishvili was the only one wearing a full breastplate. In the center he bore a white, triangular pennant on a blue field, the colors of the marquis. Sewn on the lieutenant's shoulder was the purple hippogriff of Baron Ankster. His assistant, a corporal, also wore the hippogriff. The rest of the men looked like mercenaries of some sort. They were dressed in different styles of chain mail. Someone in authority had issued them swords but they were odd sizes. One was curved. Their weapons bore each a different insignia, none of them Oggli or Mundredi. Denario wondered if these were pirates caught and pardoned for the sake of conscription into the army. They looked scruffy and smelled like brine.

“Denario the Accountant, is it?” The lieutenant smiled but he raised a hand for Denario to halt.

“Yes. Lieutenant Dvishvili, I think?” Denario stopped. He felt abruptly grateful that he'd remembered the fellow's name. He must have met a hundred lieutenants in the court. “You were in the palace for several weeks.”

Dvishvili scowled. He had a thin, angular face and a rather pointed beard. His ebon hair, dark eyes, and relatively fair skin made him a striking figure. Denario remembered that a few matrons of the court had pressed themselves upon young officers and Dvishvili had been one. He'd seemed uncomfortable receiving the older women's attentions.

“It was a temporary assignment. Now I'm patrolling the borders of Baron Ankster's lands. No one told me we had an accountant out here. If you don't have legitimate business, I'll have to place you under arrest for your own protection.” He cast sinister glances at Hermann and Valentina but, in a way, he hardly noticed them. His glare was nothing personal. They were just peasants.

“I had a job in Zeigeburg,” said Denario. He felt determined to stick to the truth as closely as possible but his story was tricky. “The coach was attacked. I escaped with my life but I couldn't get back to the coach road. Nor could I risk it. So I headed northeast and, since then, I've been working my way west toward Oggli.”

“Working?”

“Book keeping, deciphering, and figuring out the odd accounting systems they have here. It's been interesting. I get paid in food. I've been surveying, too, on my own initiative. The marquis has a standing award fee for new maps. I've built up a collection.”

He patted the roll of scrolls and papers.

“I'll have to see those.” The lieutenant held out his left hand. With bad grace that was only partly feigned, Denario handed them over. He hoped the man understood how precious any halfway decent map could be.

Dvishvili harumphed and mumbled to himself. Although he was an educated man, he didn't seem like an avid reader. Denario remembered someone mentioning that the lieutenant was the youngest bastard son of a nobleman. He'd probably gotten his reading lessons a bit late in life. He struggled with the charts and the words as much as Valentina had done. Valentina, at least, had the excuse of reading in a foreign language.

“This looks useful.” The lieutenant handed the first map to his corporal. He peeled off another from the roll. “Nice. Very detailed.”

Denario began to sweat. Close to the center of the map roll were parchments that showed the way into Long Valley. The border mountains of Easy Valley were drawn, too. What would the lieutenant make of the fact that Denario had traveled through those hills? And could he read the obvious fact that there were wealthy, large towns left mostly undefended? The accountant had been a fool to leave those in the center of everything.

“This one is fine, too.” Dvishvili whipped off another, rather too carelessly for Denario's tastes. “You know, accountant, I received a new set of orders for me and my men. It came by courier a few towns back. What was that crossroads … Sniffleburg? Dam Thal?”

“It was Damnet Thal,” growled the tallest pirate-henchman.

“These little places have such funny names.” Dvishvili flashed a genuine if slightly mischievous smile. “Anyway, my orders told us news of a Mundredi spy headed this way. Can you believe it?”

Denario started to rub his hands. They were wet, so he stopped.

“It's good to see we've got our own spy.” The lieutenant pushed the unrolled maps on his corporal, a thin fellow who seemed too young to grow a decent beard. “Don't worry, we won't disturb your cover story. But you've got to do me a favor. You're a real accountant, right?”

“Of course!” Denario felt offended.

“Guild certified?” The lieutenant narrowed his gaze. At the same time, his corporal wrapped the last two maps around the roll and prepared to return them. Denario began to relax. He really didn't want anyone to see the charts on those few center scrolls.

“Yes, yes.” It was true, he'd passed the certification exams with ease. He'd been through the long ceremony that came after and he'd gotten his red sash.

“You can do a bit of magic, then.”

“No, I can't.”

“Come on, now. All Oggli and Anghrili certified accountants can do a bit of numeromancy.”

“How would you have heard about something like that?” He stalled for a few seconds of time. He needed to think.

“They can?” The corporal gaped. The enlisted men looked dumbfounded, too.

Dvishvili gave Denario a sly smile.

“Did you think the military doesn't know your guild secrets? We have our own trained accountants in the home office.”

“But they swore.” Denario realized it as his fingertips touched the roll of maps. He yanked them out of the hands of the corporal. “Damn it, they swore ...”

“What do you care ...”

“They swore to their gods! They were on their honor to the guild masters!”

“What makes you think it wasn't the guild masters themselves? You accountants can be had for a price.”

Whatever the look on Denario's face, the lieutenant closed his mouth. He studied Denario in silence for a moment. His corporal shrunk away from him. Hermann, who stood to Denario's left, leaned forward just slightly. It was a subtle movement but the accountant realized that his Mundredi friend was readying himself to draw his sword. However insulted Denario felt, it was nothing compared to the rage of the peasants who had seen their friends and family killed by Oggli men at arms. Hermann had been acting half-crazy for hours.

But as tempted as the accountant had been for an instant, he had no idea how his lighter baselard would hold up against an army sword like Dvishvili's. Actually, he did have an idea; that was the whole problem. He wasn't keen to prove his blade. He was more interesting in staying alive. The tension was broken when one of the Dvishvili's men cleared his throat.

“Merely as an enlisted fellow,” he said, “I wonder if I might have a word with the accountant and the lieutenant?”

“What?” The lieutenant seemed totally taken off guard. He blinked at the larger man.

“The favor, ahem.” The brute was comically concerned. He put a hand to his chest. “It is a matter of wages, after all.”

“Oh, yes. It is.”

“And the peasants should not stand so close to our men while we're gone or there will be a fight.”

“That's outrageous, Imesh, I ...” Dvishvili hesitated. He seemed to absorb the physical attitudes of everyone in an instant. He nodded and waved to his assistant. “See to it, corporal. Let the peasants go pray in their heathen graveyard or something.”

“Thank you, sir.” The burly henchmen led the way off of the road without looking back. He clearly intended for others to follow. The lieutenant, as his expression flashed with annoyance, gave in. Denario trailed after.

“Very well, you have your conference,” the lieutenant said as the accountant arrived to a spot thirty yards away. “What's this all about, Imesh?”

“You shouldn't have told those two peasants that the accountant is a spy, sir,” grumbled the henchman. Yes, he was definitely a senior man, probably in his late twenties. He looked older even than Dvishvili. Flecks of grey marred his dark, brown beard. “That's going to make trouble for him.”

“Oh.” Dvishvili rubbed his jaw. He leaned closer to Denario so he couldn't be overheard. “Do you want us to kill those peasants or something?”

“No, don't hurt them. They're good servants.” Denario had to pause and re-think. He was still upset over the slander about accountants. There was the loss of guild secrets to consider, too. It was one thing to tell a spouse or a foreigner such privileged information, quite another to admit to magic in front of a wizard or a nobleman. That was an act undertaken only for guild jobs at guild rates. The guild expected discretion. “They swore oaths to help me and they've taken the oaths seriously. They're on our side. Well, they're on my side, at least.”

“On the side with the most money for them, more like.”

“There may be something to that. But they've been very useful. And faithful to me. I won't break the faith.”

“Good on ye.” The piratical enlisted man gave a gap-toothed grin.

The lieutenant took a deep breath.

“I apologize for what I said about accountants,” he mumbled.

“No, I was angry, but maybe that's because I think you're right about our guild masters. They seem to be for sale.” Masters Spioniladro and Filchi fit the lieutenant's idea of crass bead-counters all too well. “But it wasn't always that way. I'll do my best to set things right in the future.”

“Well. Nicely said.” The lieutenant nodded.

“So ...” Denario put his hands on his hips and looked at his boots for a moment. They weren't accounting boots but they had a dark brown-red color. He felt they went well with his vest. He wondered for a moment if he could wear them in the city or if his friends would think it too strange. “What is this favor you're leading up to ask me about? It must have something to do with numeromancy.”

The lieutenant and his man took turns clearing their throats.

“Well, I wouldn't want it to get about.” Dvishvili rubbed his black-furred chin. “But I'm here as a mercenary. We all are. We're not the knight's men or the baron's, exactly, despite our uniforms. We're paid by contract to a whole group of barons. And we're not sworn in by them.”

“But you got to keep your uniforms.”

“Well, I got out of the service on the same day as a few of my friends. There was a lot of pressure to re-sign with the marquis, of course. Half of us did. But I'd fulfilled my oath. I wanted something new. And it grew clear that when decommissioned troops reported to the paymaster for our final bit of silver, we wouldn't get it. Instead, we'd be handed an IOU like the other low officers and we'd have to turn in our uniforms on top of that insult. I've been with the Marquis for eight years. I hardly have any other clothes. So that didn't appeal.”

“How did you hear about the barons?”

“One of Blockhelm's men came for us in the officer's bar. He bought us a round of drinks and said he'd heard we didn't want to fight against the King of Faschnaught. We said we didn't care about Faschnaught one way or the other. But he went on and said that the upriver barons were paying good wages to officers on six month contracts. It was payment in silver plus all we could pillage. We only needed to recruit our own troops.”

“Which you did.”

“Yes. Imesh and his friends needed to jump ship. I needed soldiers.”

“We all needed paid,” grunted Imesh.

“Right,” said Denario. “Are they supposed to get cash to you all the way out here?”

“No. That wouldn't do much good. And we missed our first pay because we had to hike along the Lamp Kill.” The lieutenant threw up his arms. “It was either that or hire a coach and they hadn't given us enough spending money for that. Last week we were supposed to turn back to Sir Fettertyr's castle, rest for a few days, and collect two pay allotments. Instead, we got orders to march north and west to check out some fighting. That used the last of our provisions, so we're on our way back.”

“And you'll collect three allotments now?” Denario wondered. He remembered what Vir had said about how the nobility treated mercenaries. He caught the mention of provisions, too. These men weren't living off the land or off the hospitality of towns.

“We'll be almost due. But I'm suspicious.” Dvishvili reached into a pouch on his left hip. From it, he took a parchment scroll that looked fresh. It was hardly creased and still had a red ribbon around it. “Here's our last set of orders. You see, when I signed my contract, it said we'd patrol a certain amount each day with breaks for rest and provisions. I'd swear we've already patrolled more miles than we should. We're doing more work for less pay and no rest. But the orders say they come from Sir Hiemdahl, whom I trust. He would never work us more without offering to pay.”

“Should I know him?”

“Probably not. He was never at court. He was just a good soldier, knighted for bravery. But he's been wounded so that he has to take desk jobs. I never heard anything dishonest about him.”

Denario held out his hand. The lieutenant hesitated. He glanced to his enlisted man and then to the more distant group that included his corporal. Then he gave the scroll to the accountant.

After slipping off the ribbon, Denario handed that part back. He unrolled the sheet of fine parchment and held it up to the light, in front of the sun.

“How can you read it like that?” Dvishvili asked.

“I can't.” Denario let his gaze run across the lines of ink. Yes, there were a few spots on the parchment that might have been scratched with a razor. The work had been done by an expert. There were no remnants of the old numbers.

On paper, this sort of forgery would have been difficult to disguise. An attempt to cut or erase would have been obvious. On the calfskin used for vellum, though, it was possible. All it took was a good artist. In this case, the artist had matched ink colors too well. It was going to be difficult indeed to work out what had been changed.

Denario turned the page so that it was edge-on to the sun.

“Now what?” said Dvishvili. “Oh, hello, corporal.”

The accountant glanced to his right. The rest of the baron's troops were approaching. At the back of their line, a man led the lieutenant's horse. Denario heard footfalls behind him, too. Valentina and Hermann must have seen the troops move and decided to protect Denario. He glanced to his left and saw Mundredi boots. Well, that was fine as long as no one started fighting.

“I think these orders were changed along the way to you,” said Denario. “But the inks match almost perfectly. We're going to have to check the bank sum. I don't think that's been touched.”

“What's a bank sum? Is that magic?” The lieutenant rubbed his hands eagerly. His men, however, stepped back. Even Hermann moved off further to one side.

“It's math,” said Denario. “Maybe we'll use magic later. For now, I want some volunteers to draw numbers in the dirt. Who can write?”

To the accountant's surprise, only the Oggli corporal and Valentina raised their hands.

“Come on, now,” said the corporal. “We can't have a woman do it. Surely you can write, lieutenant.”

“Not sums, I'm afraid.” Dvishvili shrugged. “Never saw the point in math. And I'll be glad to have a native woman show you up, Fred, if she does.”

The corporal moved his mouth for a moment but he gained control of his emotions. His lips closed tight and pale.

“Just tell me what to do,” he said tersely. He pulled out a long, slim dagger and knelt in the grass and dirt. On the other side of Denario, Valentina did the same and adopted a similar pose.

“Right, then. See these little numbers in the upper left corner, lieutenant?”

“Barely. Are those numbers? I thought they were part of the military seal. They look funny. And they never mean anything to the message, I know, or someone would have told me.”

“They provide a way to check every written military order or bank note if you know how. You see, the banks in Muntar started the practice of writing checksums on messages about four hundred years ago. They did it in base 16 arithmetic back then, perhaps because they had those fancy counting machines. And that's why they put letters among the numbers to allow for sixteen digits including a zero. Most of those old calculating machines are lost but accountants know how to do checksums by hand. When I was a boy, I noticed that the marquis and the military still use the old Muntar bank checksums. They've got the method duplicated right down to the hexadecimal. I worked out a few of the military checksums just for fun.”

“For fun, eh? What a strange boy you must have been. And now what?”

“Now we do the first step. We find out if your orders have been changed on the way from Heimdahl to you.”

Denario gave orders to Valentina and to Corporeal Fred as if he were a pompous master accountant who brooked no backtalk from the help. They dutifully scratched their numbers in the dirt. Hermann even assisted his wife by pulling up clumps of grass to give her more room to work. Strictly speaking, the accountant didn't need assistance. He could have done the math faster himself. But the situation seemed similar to those he'd encountered with his apprentices. Sometimes boys wanted to fight. And what could you do then? You could keep them busy thinking about something else for a while. Enlisting aides was a way to keep hostilities to a minimum.

“Have you got the first row?” he asked as he saw the corporal draw the last loop in the number eight. Each letter in the alphabet was assigned its ordinal value in the Muntar system. The checksum for a row was simply the ordinals summed and summed again until they produced a number less than 16, in this case 'A,' which stood for ten.

Denario had to correct the corporal's addition twice. Fred wrote and calculated sums quickly but he kept making mistakes. Valentina worked at half the speed but she never wrote a sum without being very, very sure it was correct. So she'd been faster to finish the first line, which the corporal didn't like.

“Excellent,” he continued. He tried to jolly the army man along. “Now we chop the total into pieces, right to left, and add again.”

He led them both to the correct answer. His results matched the first digit of the first line of the checksum. He'd expected that. The opening line was just the date the order was written, the author's name, and the name of the officer for whom the orders were intended. It would have been a surprise if Sir Fettertyr or someone else along the way had felt the need to change those. The accountant felt he'd discover the forgeries in later lines, particularly around the references to patrol miles and to pay. He divided the Mundredi woman's work and the corporal's work into separate batches of message lines. That kept the corporal from being irritated by being constantly compared to a woman. Due to there being an odd number of lines, it also gave the fellow one extra job to complete, another face-saver.

Halfway through the process, Denario saw that the Sir Heimdahl's orders had indeed been changed by someone who didn't understand checksums. That was a relief because if Denario had suspected changes but the checksums matched, he'd have had to worry about the sophistication level of the espionage. It was possible for wizards to fool numeromancers by inserting magical numbers in place of the true ghosts, for instance, and accountants hadn't worked out how it was done. Denario felt sure now that he didn't have to deal with that. By the end of the mundane summing process, he knew the lines 5, 7, 9 though 11, and line 14 had been edited even though the alterations weren't obvious. The sums for the lines didn't match the places in the military code up top.

When he told Dvishvili the news, the lieutenant clapped his hands. His dark eyes glowed.

“Brilliant!” he said.

“Thanks to Frau Ansel and Corporal Fred.” Denario had almost forgotten to be polite. When he got engrossed in math, he had to remind himself. His weeks spent traveling alone had made him worse, he judged. But the Ansels had re-civilized him a bit and the adrenaline thrill of nearly being arrested had sharpened his social wits.

“You did a lot of it in your head.” Dvishvili waggled his eyebrows. He was comically good at it. Denario remembered that the ladies in Oggli had laughed. “I could see it.”

“My old master trained me on finding forgeries like this,” Denario said.

“Have you figured out the original numbers?” When the lieutenant said this, two of his mercenaries leaned in to get a look at the orders. Denario realized they didn't understand what he'd done. They expected to see a change on the page. Did they think checksums were magic? Probably they did. The accountant felt a surge of sympathy. They didn't know the difference between math and magic. Maybe they'd never get it.

“No, sorry, lieutenant. If the forgery had been done on paper, we might have some idea. But on parchment, well, whoever did this was skilled and careful.” He turned the page so that everyone could see that the marks on it hadn't changed.

The lieutenant barely took the time to rub his beard.

“So it's down to numeromancy, then,” he said.

“Could be. Do you understand that numeromancy will only uncover the missing numbers, not the text?”

“You can't magic the words?”

“No. I'll get the erased digits. That's my best. Advanced practitioners can get the numbers when they're written out as words but that's not me. I've only done this in the guild hall before. Also, it's a form of death magic. Are you sure you want to do it?”

“What does this have to do with death?”

“Erased numbers have a sort of spiritual existence. We'll be raising the ghosts of the buried numerals. They hover around the page for a while. Apparently, they can linger for years near tomes that haven't moved much. But the more a document is moved around and touched, the more faded the ghosts of numbers past become. Eventually, they get lost entirely.”

“But we've walked near thirty miles!” Dvishvili wailed.

“Expect pale ghosts. Maybe a few will be gone. But your orders are fresh. I don't think we'll have lost too many. The magic should be worth the price.”

“Ah, the price. We're not carrying much money, you know. What's this going to cost?”

“The guild rate is ten gold for attempting numeromancy.” Denario said it automatically but he knew it posed a problem.

“Two gold,” countered the lieutenant. “And we don't arrest you.”

“Lieutenant, it's the rate.” He threw out his hands. “It doesn't move except upward. You can write an IOU if you like but I can't be foresworn to my guild.”

“We're in the service of the barons. That must count for something.”

“I've had a moment to think about it.” Denario put his fists on his hips. “Let's see if the barons are good for the money. Don't bill it to them directly. Charge it to Sir Heimdahl. Let him bill it back to his employers.”

“Ah.” That got a smile from the dapper lieutenant.

“Pay a token amount, whatever makes sense to you. That's so we have a down payment and I can swear it to my guild. Then write a note for the rest. Explain that an accountant found signs of forgery on your orders so you had pay a numeromancy fee to discover the truth. Then send a copy of the true order and the falsified order back with me, sealed. Leave it to Heimdahl to pay me.”

“Are you sure? I love him but he's tight with funds.”

“Is your word good with him? You know him personally, right?”

“Yes.”

“Will he be offended if the barons are changing his orders?”

“It's a stain on his honor.”

“Then his paymaster will take care of me. If he won't, it's out of your hands, lieutenant. The debt won't be held to you. The guild will say it's up to me to collect. I can give your note to my guild bosses if your superiors try to haggle. The guild will take a cut but they'll uphold the honor of the deal. That's what a guild is for, after all.”

“Excellent.” Dvishvili rubbed his hands together. He heaved a small sigh of relief and ordered his corporal to take out paper and ink. “We'll compose a note for your right of free passage. I'll mention that your coach from Zeigeburg was attacked. Should I include details?”

Denario thought back to the scene of the broken carriage and the bodies being looted. He shuddered. The lieutenant looked deep into his eyes and he saw the answer.

“Maybe not, then,” said Dvishvili, hardly missing a beat.

It took the man a few minutes to compose his letter, which he did mostly through dictation. His corporal's writing was not the best. As Fred had done with his math in the dirt, he made mistakes. He wasn't good at recovering from them. So despite the official letterhead of the mercenary headquarters in Oupenli – it said at the top, 'Free Lances of the Five Barons' – the lieutenant's note didn't seem as impressive as the ones from local Mundredi mayors. Of course, it didn't need to rely on looks. It was backed by military authority. Denario's hand-crafted letters of passage appeared impressive but that was because they needed help. They were backed by nothing.

Even as the ink was drying, Denario had a disturbing thought. Now I've got an official letterhead. I can forge military orders if I need to. Then he wondered where that treasonous idea had come from. It would be a bad thing to do, he told himself. But another part of him, the one concerned with math, added, I know the military checksums. It would be easy.

The accountant realized that, as of today, the barons would know an accountant understood their checksums. They might see it as expected. Or they might see it as a startling revelation. One way or another, though, Sir Heimdahl would surely tell them.

What Denario said as he accepted the scroll was, “Is Oupenli my destination?”

“Yes. Heimdahl has set up a military camp inside its borders for legal reasons. That should be fine, shouldn't it? I'd think you'll have to pass through it on your way to Oggli.”

“Yes, the coach stopped there on my way to Zeigeburg. It's an amazing place.”

Embassy Row in the city of Oupenli was a colorful sight. Many of the buildings were painted outlandish hues and flew strange flags. If they didn't show off with their architecture, the embassies erected pavilions out front to do the same thing.

It was strange that Oupenli was still allowed to exist, a free city sandwiched between the lands of many sworn barons and knights of West Ogglia. But it had been traditionally free for ages and somehow that made it acceptable. It was a home to smugglers of all sorts, many of whom paid bits of cash to local knights to keep it lawless. Plus there were the free lancers, knights of no allegiance but of some means of support. Along with such alarming figures were worse ones: mercenaries, rogue wizards, witches, priests of small gods, and nobles from far off places, most of whom came to Oupenli for the fun. Apparently, the nobles regarded it as a place to relax where there were no formal rules and a bit of money was respected, especially when accompanied by men with weapons.

“If your servants won't go as far as Oupenli, you should take advantage of Heimdahl's protection.” Dvishvili pounded his fist in sort of an 'aha' moment. “That city is nice to rich folks but for everyone else it's a risk. Men gamble. They get into fights over women. Could there be anything sillier? Yet it happens. There are duels in Oupenli nearly every day.”

“No one would challenge an accountant, I hope.”

“Perhaps not. But stay away from the women. And you should take what protection and supplies you can. I must say that you seem well provisioned. You might be better off than I am. Look at us.” Dvishvili pressed his fingers to his breastplate. “Do you see any bows? Arrows? No, not a single one. We can't fight our way into these larger peasant villages and they know it. They stand back and fire at us until we go away.”

“That's ...” Laceo struggled. The words 'good' and 'appropriate' would seem treasonous. He scratched his oiled hair before he let his thoughts change course. “That's too bad. Does that mean you get no food from the locals? They don't sell to you?”

“Sell? They won't even talk to me. They shoot before they can even meet us properly. How the hell have you managed to get from town to town without armor?”

“My servants are carrying my armor, lieutenant.” He gestured to the hard, leather hauberk. “I've taken four shots to the chest from a long distance. But I'm still here.”

“And they talk to you after they shoot you?”

“One man alone or one man with native guides must seem more harmless than you. And aren't they right to think so?”

“Of course. It's a compliment, in a way.” The lieutenant smiled for a moment. But the expression faded. “But it makes for lonely marches. And we've come across two other towns like this one, all burnt out from fighting.”

“That's what's put you at the limit of your provisions so fast, then.” That was interesting. It seemed important in a military way, so Denario almost turned to the Mundredi to say something about it. Instead, he stammered, “Uh, me, too. But I can continue to perform accounting along the way for my food. I don't need anything from you.”

“I wasn't implying that I could give anything.” The lieutenant waved off the idea. “At least now I'm relieved of the task of arresting you. You've got a military mission now, legitimate business.”

The idea made Denario's palms sweat. He wiped one hand on his trousers.

Attempting to appear casual, he said, “I really could use the money.”

“Well, I've done my part. Stick to the main roads and wave your pass around. I think the hostility among the peasants here is overblown.”

“If you say so, lieutenant.”

“How were we going to feed him?” asked Fred. The corporal's eyes narrowed. He turned on his officer.

“Eh?”

“If we arrested the accountant, how were you planning to feed him? I don't think we can actually make arrests after a week of travel. We can't afford to feed anyone besides ourselves on the return trip or we'll all starve.”

“You talk a bit too much, Fred.” The lieutenant leaned over his subordinate. He was nearly half a head taller.

“That seems like a flaw in your orders,” said Denario.

“It does, doesn't it?” Dvishvili grinned as if caught like a child stealing sweets. “Well, I won't bother Sir Heimdahl about it. He's got enough to worry about. From here, I'm going to take the road west toward Sir Fettyrtyr. I suppose you should continue south.”

“Yes.”

“No arrest or fine, as I said, but I'll have to report on you.”

“That's only natural. If any knight or baron has a problem with me crossing their lands unannounced, he can take it up with my guild when I get to court.”

“There is that.” Dvishvili nodded, comforted. “And now I'll write you the IOU in Sir Heimdahl's name. I'm only going to give you two silvers. Is that okay?”

Denario paused to consider but it was only for effect.

“Any down payment is good,” he said. “It's on your honor and I'll sign for the receipt of it on your IOU, too, so Heimdahl doesn't have to pay that part again.”

The appeal to the lieutenant's honor was good for an extra silver piece. It probably would have been more but, as a disinherited bastard son, Dvishvili was about as poor as officers got. Denario vaguely remembered the man's half-brother, a staggering drunkard. The drunkard was the legal heir, though. That one would get the estate money, knew it, and had made a start on spending it all.

Here was an example of the downside of primogeniture. Denario had just been writing in his journal about how bad tanistry was. Now he was reminded that, in Oggli, only the eldest legitimate sons inherited. Competent men like Dvishvili, who should have inherited something, anything, had to scramble for funds. Now the lieutenant had turned into a mercenary. His armor was probably technically stolen, too, although no one would call him on it.

“Do you have a magic token?” asked Denario. He was already thinking ahead to the next step. “Anything with a blessing on it?”

“That's for richer men than I, accountant. Or for religious fools, I suppose.”

“Then we'll have to use the graveyard.” Numeromancy needed a source of magic. Accountants weren't wizards. They couldn't make magic or store it up, just manipulate it.

There were many components to the spell he was going to try. The first of them was a magical item. Back in Oggli, the best accountants kept a charmed trinket on hand in case numeromancy was demanded. Denario didn't have anything magical to spare but he could try a substitute. The natural background aura created by worshipers would work in theory. He'd never tested the theory. He'd never known anyone who'd tried. The Secret Accounting Guide said it would work. That's all he knew. But he worried about what would happen if the Sun God or some other magical creature objected to what he was doing. The Secret Accounting Guide had warned of it.

“Let's stand on the east side of the Pillar of the Sun.” Denario reasoned that the totem pole was damaged and probably leaking enchantments anyway.

“You mean the one that they desecrated?” growled Hermann Ansel. They were his first words he'd spoken to anyone other than his wife in quite a while. His tone was such that three of the mercenaries put hands to their sword pommels.

“Not us,” said the lieutenant. He hadn't been bothered by Hermann's accusation. His expression remained carefully pleasant. “You saw us arrive. In any case, no mercenary would anger local gods without direct orders.”

“How can we know?”

“You can't.” Dvishvili rubbed his chin. “But I think the gods would know. Wouldn't you agree?”

Hermann had no answer for a long while.

“I will go pray for us,” he said eventually. “I pray that we may all be forgiven.”

“A good prayer for mercenaries.” The lieutenant nodded. His men relaxed and took their hands from their swords. Everyone marched onward, following the native guides.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Not Even Not Zen 97: A Bandit Accountant, 16.1

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Twice Eight

Scene One: Rehearsal  

“What are you doing?” Valentina said as Denario ducked behind a shrine. She hid behind the ivy at his side. Hermann joined. The taller two had to crouch to avoid being seen from the road.

The accountant dropped his weapons. He knew that he needed them for later. There was a lot of land to travel, no matter what the Oggli troops thought of him striding armed through their re-claimed territories. But he to carry his equipment while looking harmless. The spear already appeared to be a transit because that's mostly what it was. He couldn't disguise the sword so he'd have to bluff his way with that. Maybe it wouldn't seem so odd to the soldiers to find an accountant carrying weapons out here in the wilds. He could tell them the bow was for hunting.

He untied the straps on the front of his brass-studded, oxhide jerkin. One arm slipped free. He turned and let the armor fall to the ground.They sent the boys on th
The Bandit Accountant

Twice Eight
Scene One: Rehearsal

“My gods, I feel twenty pounds lighter without that!” he exclaimed.

“You need protection,” said Hermann. He had his sword drawn and he pointed with the tip of it to the discarded jerkin. “Especially now.”

“No, I don't. First, I've got chain mail between my shirts. Second, I'm an accountant.” Denario set down his traveling packs. He laid his accounting bag next to them. He'd need to rummage through.

“So?”

“So I'm dressing as an accountant to save my life.” His arm sunk into his pack up to the elbow. He'd stored his vest at the top of it to act as a cushion. That was weeks ago. He hadn't worn it since and, what with one task and another, he'd used nearly everything else. Now the vest had fallen to the bottom.

“What about our lives?” Valentina asked rather reasonably. Fortunately, Denario had a plan. As he tried to give voice to it, he encountered self-doubts. Maybe the Mundredi couldn't pull it off. But he didn't see any other way. They'd have to try.

“You ... you're my servants. Got it? You're here to help me with my map-making for the Marquis de Oggli.” He stopped what he was doing, grabbed a roll of maps from his bag, and waggled it at them. Then he slipped it back in. “My other servants died. So I hired you. Understand?”

“Not really.” Hermann scratched his head.

“Yes,” said Valentina. She smacked her fist. “But will they believe it?”

Denario rose with the vest in his hands. He slipped it on and started fastening the buttons.

“If I look like a snob and a pansy ... and just generally like a big spender ... and you look like greedy cowards, well, it could work.” His fingers still knew the vest perfectly, every thread. In a few seconds, he finished. He only needed his cap to complete the outfit.

“You're going to look like a flower?” asked Hermann. He stared at the bright red accountant's vest for the first time. The gold brocade on it must have seemed a bit loud. His eyes widened.

“Not a flower, a pansy. Oh, right, a pansy is a flower ... what's the word I want? Rich. I want to look rich and a bit lazy.”

“I've got some goose grease. And a comb.” Valentina reached into her pack. A moment later, a black pouch and a fishbone carding tool appeared in her hands.

“What for?” Denario stepped back. “Oh, right. My hair.”

“You might not have looked in a mirror lately. We do have them, you know,” she said reproachfully.

He submitted to a bit of grooming while he had Hermann dig into his accounting bag. It didn't take long for the man to find his red-and-gold cap. Then Hermann pulled a brush from his supplies to knock off some of the trail dirt from Denario's clothes. He and his wife worked together like they were married. They traded tools without a spoken word. Valentina put the cap on the accountant's head. Hermann tied a lace on Denario's boots.

“You need to hide the coin.” Valentina's fingers pulled his collar wide. She tucked the blue symbol of royalty next to the necklace from Pecunia.

“Is that necessary?” he asked, temporarily worried that she would see the gold pendant. “Those men won't know what it means.”

“Do you want to take that chance?”

He grunted. There was no use arguing with her when she was right. Probably there would have been no use arguing if she were wrong.

“Servants,” he said as he pushed them back gently. He tried to act like the most pompous of the court accountants. He picked up his bags. “How do I look?”

“You're not doing it right,” said Valentina. “You shouldn't be carrying all that.”

“But ...”

“If we're your servants, we should carry almost everything.”

Hermann stared at his wife like she'd grown an extra nose.

“Damn it, you're right.” Denario saw that she had a good point. He handed his two heaviest travel bags to Hermann. Best to laden the man down, he thought, and make him look as harmless as possible. “What else am I forgetting?”

“Your maps should stick out, I think.”

“Sounds good.” He lifted the roll of maps so that it hung out of the front a bit.

“Your accent is sounding funny now, a bit like a knight's man.” Hermann looked puzzled.

“Good, good.”

“Is that how Oggli natives speak?” wondered Valentina. “What about the women? How should I act?”

“You don't look Oggli. Just treat me like royalty.”

“You mean with suspicion?”

“No! Do you really? Well, yes, I suppose you do. Just act like I'm brilliant and you're humble, okay? Think humble.”

“I've never been good at that,” said Valentina.

“Then concentrate on being ignorant.”

“I can do that, easy,” Hermann assured him.

“Wonderful,” said Denario. He hitched his accounting bag up to his shoulder with his roll of maps sticking out the front. “Well, they probably saw us when we noticed them. So let's go greet them like we're not worried, just ignorant fools tramping through the wilderness.”

“I thought we were going to put on an act instead,” grumbled Hermann.

Next: Chapter Sixteen, Scene Two

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Not Even Not Zen 96: A Bandit Accountant, 15.8

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Fifth Triangular Number

Scene Eight: A Fateful Graveyard 

They sent the boys on their way to North Ackerland in the warmth of mid-morning. Valentina fed them from her stewpot first. For traveling food, she dug deep into her pack despite the way that she'd refused to share her supplies with them the day before. From it, she brought out the last of her bread. She even persuaded Denario to sacrifice a second page from his book so that the accountant could sketch a map, separate from the military one, for the children to follow. But she forbade Hermann from giving away anything.

“We must get to Fruhlingsburg,” she said. “I trust you men to take care of me but we're still two days out. We mustn't be over-generous. There will be more refugees from Einpferd Wad. Not all of them will be like these boys.”

Before she said farewell to Franzel and Adalwolf, the woman sewed her clan sign onto their shirts as a way of offering her house protection. Denario observed with interest the way she created her spear-and-hammer shape with bleached woolen thread. She was quick with the needle.

Already that morning, she'd revealed that her backpack carried fish hooks, pins, two wooden hammers, a thimble, six packets of herbs, salt, fishing line, brass snips, wooden pliers, and five different knives. She had no axe because the Mundredi regarded it as a man's tool but one of her knives looked like an axe head with a short handle. For food, she carried turnips, onions, dried venison, and of course her stew pot.

Denario noticed that she bore a spear-and-hammer motif on her left arm but, unlike her husband, she wore no spear-and-shield tattoo. Now that he'd gotten better at reading the signs, Denario was sure that Hermann belonged to the spear-and-shield clan. Was Valentina in a different clan from her husband? That was how it looked on her arm. Shouldn't she have left her clan to join his? Maybe not. Maybe men left their clans instead. Maybe the practices differed from town to town. Denario had never been sure of how it worked and he was afraid to ask.

He reminded himself that he was never coming back anyway. He didn't need to know.

While Valentina embroidered, Denario gathered up his snares. He'd set out his collection of traps the night before. As usual, he hadn't caught any game. He made a gift of two of the easiest traps, one to each boy, in the hope that they'd have more luck than he did.

“These are nice.” Hermann said as he rubbed his fingers over the strap of a noose-snare. After a moment, he handed it back to Franzel. “Do you set up these traps every night, accountant?”

“Yes,” said Denario.

The Mundredi man strolled over to a bush where a snare remained uncollected. He twisted the twine of it to test the tension. He sat back on his haunches and studied it. Then his fingers touched his lips.

“I haven't seen traps this good in a long time. It's a pity that you don't have time to teach the boys. You must not catch much for yourself.”

“Not a lot, no. How did you know?”

“Your scent is all over this stuff. It takes a few days to fade and, from what you've told me, you never stay any one place for long. You might catch a hare or a rat or a red fox brave enough to try to steal from you. But I doubt you could catch a stoat or groundhog or anything heavy.”

“I've caught three rats,” Denario said, impressed by Hermann's good sense and correct prediction. “A few other animals have set off the snares but weren't trapped or they chewed through the ropes before I could find them.”

He left out of his description the fact that he hadn't known what to do with what he'd caught anyway. He'd had to pay a boy near a town called Hardfeld to dress two rats for him. Come to think of it, that was one of the times when Denario had camped out an extra day to work on his math theories. Hermann seemed to be right about the source of the problem.

“How long have you been trapping?”

“Less than a month. Vir taught me.” Denario sifted through his memories frantically to see if the chief had warned him about leaving scent on the traps. Yes, he had. Damn. Denario had not been mindful of the advice.

“Really? I thought you were only with him for a few weeks.”

“That's right.”

“You learned a lot, quickly.”

Denario knew he'd actually ignored many opportunities to learn from Vir. He'd picked up most of his skills during the six days that he suddenly realized he needed to pay attention. Now that felt like a shame. But he'd been practicing since then to make up for it. His sword kata was getting reasonable. He could string his bow. Surely he should have parted ways with the chief better trained than he was but at least he remembered some of the things that Vir and Alaric had taught to other men.

While he was with the Mundredi, Denario had spent a lot of time resenting the way he'd been dragged into the their battles. Now he regretted not taking better advantage of the chance to learn from their woodscraft. Only caravans and armies traveled in the Seven Valleys. Everyone else lived in the same area, probably in the same town, for their entire lives. Traveling made a man 'heroic.' In that sense, Denario had learned his skills from the most heroic men around. Vir and his officers were veterans not just of battles but of living off the land.

Vir's men hunted successfully as they wandered from fort to fort. Denario had witnessed the process. He just hadn't understood it. He'd considered all of the hill denizens to be uncultured, superstitious, and pretty much at the same level mentally. But they weren't. They were rich and poor, tall and short, dunce and genius, every individual different like in any other group of people. And the widely-traveled ones were even more different. In their own eyes and probably by any fair measure, the army lads were heroes. They lived on very little. They fought with weapons they stole. They patrolled the hills around their two valleys endlessly, giving the best of their lives to keep their neighbors safe even though those neighbors, for the most part, made them unwelcome.

“You're going to love the army,” Hermann told Franzel and Adalwolf as he waved. Denario waved, too, and watched them go with mixed emotions of pride, shame, relief, and guilt.

After the boys had disappeared over a rise in the trail, the Ansels packed up their gear. They led Denario about a mile down the road and into their home city. At first, the accountant was grateful to be moving. His muscles loosened. His mind wandered to mathematics problems or at least the beginnings of them. But as the town's church spires rose into view, his spirits fell.

Hardly any of South Ackerland's buildings remained. Their main church was one of them. Its walls were stone, charred black, gutted of wooden adornments and stripped of all metalwork. That was a sign that the knights in this area were as poor as their townsfolk. The mercenaries must have yanked out the wrought iron torch sconces from the walls. Only a broken nail was left to show what had been there before. The looters had pried hinges off of the doors and thrown the burnt, cracked oak planks to the ground. It occurred to the accountant that maybe the hinges he'd been given in payment were worth something after all.

The inn and the town hall had been built with bricks. They were mostly still standing. Their structures, too, showed gaps in the destruction where bits of metal or simply anything well-made had survived the fires long enough to be stolen. The town hall seemed to be missing an entire glass window. It hadn't burned or melted. There was no sign of its frame. It had been removed whole.

The wooden huts along the main streets had been burned to the ground. Only piles of sticks and ash remained. Grasses sprouted on the piles. Patches of greenery appeared in the main streets. Denario judged that, in a few years, most of the homes would look like mounds of earth. Only a few human skeletons remained to mar the illusion of peace. Most of the bones were white, devoid of flesh, but on some there was hair, leathery skin, or even bits of clothing.

“No,” said Valentina as she knelt over a body left at what might have been the hearth of a former home. Long, curly hair remained on the skull of a little girl's corpse. Half of the body was missing, perhaps carried away by foxes or wild dogs. There were paw prints on the ground that not even an accountant could fail to notice.

Hermann Ansel nodded to his wife. Then he turned away from the sight of the bodies.

“I don't think we'll find her here,” he said.

“You mean you hope that we won't.” Valentina's voice grew colder. She stood and straightened her shoulders so that her fists hung down by her hips. She seemed ready to fight, only there was no one willing. Hermann, in contrast, sighed as he stared down the length of his devastated main street. Despite his sword and partial armor, he looked defeated.

“Come on,” he said. He led them further south down the road. Even so, he couldn't help stopping at every bone or scrap of clothing.

When he noticed the accountant by his side, he checked on the location of his wife. She stood twenty yards back.

“Val will never give up,” Hermann said.

“Give up what?” Denario whispered.

“Looking.” Hands behind his back, the taller man strode to the next mound of sticks, dirt, and ashes. “Do you remember when I wouldn't tell you the whole story of the battle here?”

“Sort of.” Denario remembered that no one had wanted to broach certain subjects.

“After the horsemen ran over me and left me for dead, I woke to find the fighting had moved into the house rows. The knight's men were killing everyone, Waldi and Oggli and Mundredi all alike, every citizen of the town they could catch. Folks were fleeing whenever they could and fighting when they couldn't escape. Bowmen shot old granddad Bierks not a hundred feet from me as he ran from his burning house. But the bowmen didn't notice me.

“No one looked my way and I saw there was no point in fighting. I had to find my family. That seemed like a futile chore but I raced to my home on the north end of town.”

“Have we already passed it?” Denario said. He turned.

“It was one of the mounds up on the hill behind town hall. You saw Valentina check it. There were no bodies inside.” Hermann tipped his head as if that didn't surprise him. “Despite the fighting back on that day, I found Valentina and my youngest daughter, Ullricka, not far from our home. My wife had the sense to take cover in our apple orchard. Valentina had brought her knife, too, and a set of leather vambraces she was tying onto her forearms. When I saw her in that instant, I smiled. But then I realized that our eldest, Claudia, wasn't with her. Valentina realized that Claudia wasn't with me at the same time.

“We talked for a minute at most and my wife swore she would hide until I returned or, if necessary, she would fight Sir Fettertyr's men to the death. For my part, I swore to her that I would find Claudia and return. Then we would run away together to the north.

“None of that happened. I wandered the streets, searching for my girl. I couldn't find her. The knight's men found me and shot at me on three occasions. They chased me, too, but in their mail and plate armor they were slow. So I continued to look. They continued to shoot. I never saw a girl of Claudia's size, not even as a body on the ground.

“Finally, Valentina broke her word and came back to our house to pack a bag just as I was returning to it myself. I held out hope that our daughter would have gone there. And as fate would have it, two men on horses came riding down the road. They'd followed me, perhaps, or they'd noticed that they hadn't yet torched my home. My wife and I cursed at them but we fled. I grabbed my youngest daughter in my arms. The armed men rode through the apple orchard and shot at us.

“One of the arrows meant for me struck Ullricka. At the time, although she cried, I had a hope that it might not be fatal. It struck her breastbone but the barbed head didn't go all the way through. We escaped our pursuers because the orchard goes right up to the edge of a dense woods. Their horses refused to pass through the bracken after us. Still we kept running until we couldn't keep up the pace. Then we walked until we had to stop. It was nearly night. We were lost. And Ullricka had died in my arms. I'd thought she was sleeping. Her chest seemed to move but I suppose the motion was all from me as I marched.

“We didn't truly, completely believe she was dead for a few hours. We lay down and shivered. It was a chilly, fall evening. Valentina and I held our youngest between us. But by the middle of the night, we knew. I got up and moved the body. Ullricka’s soul wasn’t in it. In the morning, we buried the remains as best as we could.”

“Not in the graveyard.” Denario shook his head. He seemed to be called upon to say something by the awkward silence. He didn't have any comforting words, though. He wished he were doing math.

“No. We weren't near one. The big graveyard is on this side of town. We'll see it when we turn the corner in the road up ahead.” Hermann rubbed the forelocks of his hair. “Now I'm curious. Are there new graves? Did Sir Fettyrtyr's men bury townsfolk there?”

“Would you feel better?”

“Not really. Not unless there were ghosts.”

“Is that likely?” Denario had a strong suspicion that the answer was yes. The wizards in Oggli had told the marquis about ghosts. Witches said they talked to ghosts, too.

“If the world were fair,” Hermann murmured, “there would be ghosts on these lands forever more.”

“Do you have a lot of magic around?” Denario asked, suddenly nervous. He heard footsteps behind him.

“No, not really.”

“Just in the graveyard,” corrected Valentina.

Denario turned. The woman had caught up. She'd put both straps of her backpack back on. She'd nearly brushed away the mud stains from her dress. Her expression was calm although her cheeks glistened from tears. He wasn't sure if that was good or bad. Anger seemed normal enough given what had happened and he didn't want Valentina to act as defeated as her husband.

“Oh, yes.” Hermann didn't look at his wife but he nodded. “Centuries of prayers on the graves have done something, I suppose. It's become an odd place with bits of holiness, maybe, here and there.”

It didn't take more than fifteen minutes to discover how strange the place was. In daylight, the answer was: not very. A hillock to the southeast seemed to have tumbled over a pair of grave markers. Closer to Denario, coming into view as he crested the rise, there stood at least two hundred tombstones directly beneath him at the base of the slope. They were set in clusters, probably family plots, house groups, or clans. Most of them looked old. Further to his left, he counted three shrines and two obelisks to local gods. One of the shrines held a statue of a pale, wooden bird on a marble pedestal. Ivy vines covered the structure. They grew everywhere but the bird itself. That part, the plants avoided. Someone had taken a hack at the body of the bird in the process of razing the town. On its flank sat a sword mark like a wound in real flesh. The statue looked otherwise unhurt. It's beady, hawk-like gaze seemed to focus on the visitors as they passed through the graveyard.

Soon they spotted other things that were wrong.

“Someone tried to burn the sun god!” Hermann dashed twenty yards behind the shrine to a tall, tribal totem pole. Priests had carved the symbols for five local deities on the pole. The orb of the sun stood at the top.

Piles of charred, wet wood rested in heaps around the base of the totem. The men who had set the fire had done so in the rain most likely. Even so, the flames had done serious damage. The base of the pole had blackened and cracked. Trails of ash rose up through the figures of the local farm god and rain goddess.

Hermann stood and cried in front of the totems for a while. Grave markers had been knocked down all around. Some had blackened in the fire. After a minute or so, Hermann began kicking and scattering the wood in his fury. Pieces flew. Even Valentina stood back. The man created a storm of charcoals and sticks. He made so much noise and continued for so long that the accountant turned his head to check the road.

There was still no one else visible in any direction, thank goodness. Denario returned to the spectacle. Something he'd seen nagged at him. He blinked. He swiveled back to what he'd noticed. It took him a moment to confirm that, between him and the muddy path headed southeast, the bird was missing from its shrine. He yelled.

“A thief!” Denario leapt sideways and grabbed Valentina by the arm.

“Mm?” She regarded him with an indulgent expression.

“It's been stolen.” Denario pointed to the shrine. The bird was ... back to where it had always been. “No! The pedestal was empty! I saw it. I saw it twice. The statue was really was gone.”

“You saw that?” said Valentina. She smiled. “That's special. It doesn't happen often. But I saw it, too, once when I was a girl. Everyone knows it happens.”

“But, but ...”

“It's magic. Nobody knows where it goes to. It's said that the bird goes off to scout ahead for folks in mortal danger. But that's according to the priestess. She's a bit flighty. Was. She was flighty.” The tall woman scowled as she contemplated the fact of the priestess's death.

They glanced at Hermann, who had slowed down. His chest heaved. His pale green shirt had come loose. It billowed in the wind and showed his hairy navel. His arms hung loose by his sides. His head hung down so that his goatee touched his shirt.

“Are you feeling better, husband?” Valentina said with concern in her voice.

“A little,” he allowed. He raised his eyes and gestured with his left arm toward the fields. “Mostly I'm sad to see all this. The mound they raised for the bodies. The fires. The tombstones. Look how many they turned over.”

Dozens, Denario thought instantly. He started to count them. In the stretch of land beyond Hermann, the accountant could see rows of grave markers toppled. Some of them were carved of stone, others of wood. He stopped at fifty-one because the rest were only partway knocked down. The vandals had struggled with the heaviest. Thick headstones sat at odd angles, sunk too deeply for the soldiers to move.

Grass grew over a couple of the broken markers. Others bore fresh mud. The accountant crept closer to check. He peered into a hole.

“It's not an illusion,” he murmured. “This soil is fresh. It hasn't rained since this gravestone was toppled. But it rained three nights ago, didn't it?”

“What? Let me see.” Hermann stomped over. His wife followed close behind.

“Damn,” hissed Valentina.

Denario immediately turned to look at the road.

Far to the southeast, he saw movement. It came through the budding branches of a willow tree. The sun had been behind clouds most of the time since they'd arrived in South Ackerland but now it cast a bright light on the figures at the edge of his vision, next to the willow. He saw a flash of steel. It came from a polished chest plate. There were men headed this way. And they were wearing Ogglian armor.

Next: Chapter Sixteen, Scene One

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Not Even Not Zen 95: A Bandit Accountant, 15.7

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Fifth Triangular Number

Scene Seven: Too Much Magic 

Hermann Ansel saved Denario with his axe, which he used that morning to make the boys crude spears and wooden swords. His good deed let the accountant off the hook for his hasty promise. Hermann held a training session, too. All together, it took them four hours to break camp but the Ansels didn't seem to be in a hurry to see their old town. Even Valentina got into the spirit of things. She joined the spear practice.

“You know your sword drills quite well,” Herman whispered to Denario at one point. “How is it that you're so bad with the everything else?”

“I have no idea.” Denario rubbed his brow. Maybe a spear took more balance and coordination than he had. He'd managed to bruise himself with the butt end of the pole while demonstrating a turn and thrust move. It had hurt so much that he'd sat down and let Hermann take over the teaching with the pointed stick he'd made.

“And what are you doing now?”

The accountant finished reattaching a pair of copper circles to the head of his spear. It was this arrangement, along with some rather delicate wires, that turned his weapon into a theodolite. Of course, it was a theodolite without a glass lens. He had to rely on his crude line of sight through the crosshairs made by the disks as they met.

Denario stood and gave each disk a spin to test them. Then he sighted along the vertical axis toward the closest landmark, a hillock to the southwest.

“I'm going back to being myself, an accountant and geometer,” he told Hermann. “I'm taking earth measurements.”

“Why?” the Mundredi man asked. Behind them, Valentina led the boys in a blood curdling spear thrust and scream.

“To find out where I am.”

“But you're right here!” Hermann threw up his arms, exasperated.

While Valentina led the boys on six spear charges, Denario tried to explain. The Mundredi peasants who had been exposed to West Ogglian ideas knew what maps were. They had lost the art of creating them but it was only a few generations gone. Denario talked about how Vir's grandfather had understood mapping as he pointed to the intersection of his two copper circles. He sighted the top ridge of the hillock and invited Hermann to look. It turned out that Hermann didn't know what angles were, though, so the he didn't understand how distances might be estimated with them. He didn't want to learn about inclines or declines of the ground, either. If two objects met, then they did, and that was enough.

The accountant tried to explain leveling. That, at least, interested Hermann a bit more. He thought the leveler was ingenious.

“A little bubble of water in the wax tells you if the ground is straight? Smart.” He shook the level for no apparent reason, perhaps just to see the bubbles move. “But it's still useless. I can stand on the ground and tell if it's level enough for what I want.”

“The floors in your churches and homes are dirt,” Denario pointed out.

“What of it?”

“Haven't you ever wanted wood floors? Stone floors, maybe?”

“People made floors like that in South Ackerland, yes. We had wood floors in most of the civic buildings. I've seen masons lay out pegs and ropes to do it.”

“Aha! So they used peg-and-chain surveying.”

“No, they used ropes.”

“Same thing. I mean they had a type of surveying that's good for planning a building. You can make quite large structures that way. You can even survey fields. Not many, though. For that method, you need to be able to make triangles. You would need ropes strung across every field, through trees and streams and everything.”

“No one's going to do that. Is that why our folk don't make maps?”

“I'm not sure. Your ancestors must have had better methods once. Some of your kinsmen are good at math. Superb, even. I feel that someone among them must understand angles and other geometry. For making a detailed map, what you mostly need to know about is distance measurements and angles.”

“And that's why you use your theo-thingy.”

“Yes. With the maps I've made,” Denario concluded, “I could find my way back to every town I've visited. In fact, I can find many towns that I haven't seen because you've told me where they are. I can find water for drinking. My maps show streams and ponds. I could hand them to any people who are able to read maps and they could find those things, too.”

“It's a sort of magic, then," said the boy Franzel as he walked up, winded from his exercise.

Valentina stood well back, fists on her hips. Sweat dripped from her brow. Behind her, Adalwolf took huge gasps of air, which he made more difficult by trying to hide his exhaustion. He seemed to have a keen desire to avoid looking weak in front of a woman.

“No, it's not magic, really,” Denario corrected with a wave of his finger. “It's just maps. It's marks on parchment or paper.”

“You mean you can find your way back home using a piece of paper?” Franzel looked like he'd forgotten that his father was probably dead and that he was on a forced march through a land of strangers.

“Exactly,” said Denario. “Would you like to learn to read maps?”

“No.” He surprised the accountant by putting up both hands as if trying to ward off a spell. “It's too much magic for me.”

“Me, too,” Hermann agreed.

Next: Chapter Fifteen, Scene Eight

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Not Even Not Zen 94: A Bandit Accountant, 15.6

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Fifth Triangular Number

Scene Six: The Story of Einpferd Wad 

“The last of the snow melted weeks ago,” Hermann said as the boys built up the campfire. Although it wasn't yet dusk, the Ansels were setting up camp because it had been a hot day's march. “I'm surprised we haven't seen others on the road.”

The boys and Valentina nodded.

All of the travelers were hungry and Hermann had carried meat that needed stewing. There probably wasn't much danger that the smoke would give them away. The boys said they hadn't seen anyone for days. The Ansels kept watch nevertheless. In the hour it took to get water from a ditch and set the blaze with a glowing coal carried from home in a freshwater clam shell, they spied no one coming from the south or the north.

“Everyone's afraid to travel,” Herman began again. He handed Valentina back her clam shell with a fresh fire ember inside. “But there are flower blossoms and nuts to eat. Anyone provisioned to keep warm can journey freely. That includes the knights and their mercenaries although we haven't seen them.”

“Oh, those. They're coming.” The younger boy, Franzel, dropped an armload of sticks. He and his friend Adalwolf were careless in their chores. It was astonishing that they'd gotten this far, nearly eight miles from their home. “They sent a messenger to Einpferd Wad.”

“You said that's your town?”

“Yes,” replied the boy. He set his hand on his hips. “The messenger told everyone that the Ogglis and Waldis were to free to take any lands held by Mundredi families.”

“Really? What about the Raduar families?” Denario interrupted. “Sorry, but I notice you have some Raduar tattoos, Franz.”

“I don't think the Ogglis know the difference between the tribes.” The boy wasn't offended. In fact, he glanced at the tattoo that had given away his heritage, the familiar sword in front of a sun.

“That sounds right,” Hermann confirmed. “None of the Ogglis, anyway, have ever shown me a sign that they know there are other tribes in the valleys. They're barely aware of the clans and houses of the Mundredi living among them.”

“There's nothing wrong with Franzel,” said the older boy, Adalwolf. He arrived carrying a rotten tree stump over one shoulder. He threw it down as carelessly as a stick or twig, though it fell with rock-cracking weight. “His granddad was a Raduar, come down to us by the way of some creek or river. But he was a hero, a real tough fighter.”

“A murderer?” Denario asked before he could stop himself. To his mind, the Mundredi equated violence with heroism too often. When he'd read the accounting histories as a boy, he'd thought many of the geometers and surveyors were brave. But no one gave them credit for it.

“With how far old Papuar traveled? I suppose. But he didn't kill anyone in Einpferd Wad.” Adal shook his head as if he thought the questions were a bit simple-minded. “Granddad Papuar married into the Mundredi Scythia clan. He adopted the house of Plow And Dagger and the house adopted him. Papuar worshiped Uroica and Melwas along with the rest of us. And it was his son, Franz's dad Tansel, who stood up to the knight's messenger.”

“He did? What did he say?” Hermann and Denario spoke two questions at once. Adalwolf hesitated. Franzel spoke up. The conversation was about his father, after all.

“My dad said that he'd worked for years to clear his land.” The boy's voice had been unsteady for a moment but he grew more sure of himself as he continued. “And his father before him, too. He asked why anyone would want to steal it.”

“Makes sense,” Hermann encouraged.

“He said there was still plenty of free land around. But the messenger told him to shut up and that none of the land was free. It all belonged to Sir Fettyrtyr now and it had belonged to Sir Ulrich before him, who was unjustly slain by a bandit.”

“Ah,” said Hermann and Valentina. They smiled at the fate of Sir Ulrich. Denario had to remind himself that it was Vir who had managed that.

“And the messenger said that any lands that didn't belong to his knight belonged to his baron because all of the lands north of Rune Kill belong to the baron.”

“That's a whole lot of ... what, are they saying forever north from there?” An entire continent stretched out northward beyond. After the ranges of hills came magical lands that no one could cross. Who in his right mind would lay claim to those? Yet Denario had to admit that it sounded precisely like what the Ogglian nobles asserted when in court with the marquis.

“According to the messenger, yes. That started an argument. Lots of men took different sides.”

“Did they fight?”

“No, my pa came home safe. I heard him tell me ma that it was only the drunks and the poorest of the Waldis who wanted to take Mundredi lands. None of them would actually do anything, really. Those poor men live as servants or as farmhands because it's easier than moving out and clearing their own land.”

“That's what my dad says, too,” chimed the older boy.

“Half the Waldis and most of the Ogglis don't know how to farm. They'd starve if they tried.” Hermann nodded. Then his wife caught his eye. He hesitated. Their eyes cast guilty glances in the accountant's direction.

Denario rose from where he'd been working on his journal and his maps. He grabbed his spear, which he was pretty sure he would never use to stab anyone. That was because he'd made it into a theodolite by means of wire, a copper plate, and a notch for sighting. It's true, he thought. They think it's a weakness but I wouldn't deny it. He was well aware how little he understood about farming. For that matter, he wasn't confident about his fire starting skills. But he knew how to survey these lands. He was earning his way home.

“Now you can't find your dad, Franzel?” Hermann continued as he turned to the younger boy. “You said you were separated?”

“Our fathers are dead, I think.” The larger one, Adalwolf, stepped between Franz and Hermann. From the look on his face, he might not have admitted this part to himself before. “The Ogglis ambushed us at the Mundredi church.”

“With torches and fire?” Hermann asked.

“They waited for the dawn service. That's when most folks go. The mayor and the knight's man gathered some of the poorest waldis, a couple dozen hunting bows, and lots of wood. They had something else, too, a liquid that smelled like, I don't know ... like it burned the air.”

“Some kind of pitch?” Valentina asked.

“Turpentine?”

“Turpentine or distilled alcohol, I think,” Denario grunted. “Both smell awful. Both are good for setting fires.”

“Anyway, fire caught on the north wall. Then we saw it start up on the south, too. But we got out. A bunch of us ran right through the the front doors. Some of the men took arrows to the chest. The waldis were half-drunk, I think, but they kept shooting. So we kept running. And when Franz and I turned around, we saw a battle going on between our dads and the bowmen. There were some good Mundredi folks, mostly women, headed out of town the opposite way, toward Frühlingsburg. But we couldn't go with them. The mayor and his men cut us off. Then some of them split off from their main group and started to chase us.”

“But you were fast enough. You made it.”

“Well, Franz and I made it. There were five of us when we started. Those men caught Fatty Braun. While they were stabbing him and kicking him, the rest of us got away. Then the other two boys turned back around anyway. They said they wanted to go find their mums.”

“But you came all the way out here.”

“I knew Sourth Ackerland had a fight like ours. But I thought it would be okay. I didn't think it would be deserted. When I was younger, the caravan masters told me how big it was. All of the traders passed through it on their way to, well, nearly everywhere.”

“It was grand, once. You missed it. Now what happens to you?"

“I hoped you'd take us with you,” the boy said. “But you're headed the wrong way. You're headed right for the knight’s men.”

Hermann sat back on his haunches and sighed. He cracked a twig in half and threw both parts into the growing fire, one after the other. After a moment, he looked up at Adalwolf and Franzel. The younger boy looked particularly miserable. His shirt was too big and torn half open. His hat looked like it was a hundred years old. The brim had been cut from leather worn thin enough for the sun to shine through it.

“We must head for Frühlingsburg and Ruin Thal,” Hermann announced. “The accountant is going all the way to Oggli by way of the river when he reaches it. We're all sworn to our journeys, even my wife.”

The boys looked crestfallen. Probably they were wondering how they would survive.

“Did you see any of the knight's mercenaries aside from the one?” Hermann asked. “From what you've said so far, it sounds like a battle between groups of villagers in Einpferd Wad. Only a small parts of the Mundredi or the Waldis were involved. Maybe the knight isn't going to wage war.”

“That man ...”

“The herald. He called himself a herald.”

The Mundredi exchanged questioning looks. The adults didn't know the meaning of the title, so Hermann and Valentina turned to Denario.

“A herald is a sort of messenger,” the accountant explained. “He reads or writes messages. Sometimes he delivers them and reads them in the town squares or in the temples or churches. It's illegal to kill any of the court heralds, no matter what they say or where they say it.”

“Are you a herald?” young Franzel asked. “I saw you writing in your book.”

“An accountant writes math, not announcements.” Denario scratched his head. “Although I do send messages back to Vir and to others in the Mundredi army. That's a bit like a herald.”

“Well, the knight's herald said that Sir Fettyrtyr was going to visit the towns with his men. That was at the orders of his master, Baron Ankster.”

“He'll be killing Mundredi all the way, no doubt.” Hermann scowled and threw a rock into the fire instead of a stick.

“Why? I know the nobility has done this before but why?” Even though he'd been the one to point out the pattern to Vir, Denario couldn't escape the question the chief had asked. The murders didn't make sense, not in any moral or economic way. But Baron Ankster apparently didn't care. “Why kill so many?”

“Are they doing it for their gods?” Hermann asked.

“What a mess.” Denario drew a quick map on the ground. He knew he needed to pass through lands occupied by the knights on one side and by the Mundredi on the other. It was as bad as passing between the Mundredi and Raduar.

The poor Mundredi peasants had it the worst. The barons were ordering them driven out of the farmlands at the same time the Raduar were crossing down from the northern valleys and hills. That left the nearly powerless Mundredi chief, Vir, to fight a war on two fronts along hundreds of miles of border with maybe a hundred men. It was hopeless. Boys like Franzel and Adalwolf were caught in the middle with no escape.

After a while, he said, “I don't think you should turn back. Hermann's bound to be right. You've made a good start. You need to follow it with some fast marching. The baron's knights are on the move. You two need to keep going north and west to get away.”

“What's in that direction?”

“The Mundredi army, eventually. If you can reach them, they'll protect you in Fort Dred until you're older.”

“Protect us? We don't need protecting. We want to join the army. Don't we Franz?”

Franzel had nearly been in tears a minute ago. He would have said yes anything his friend proposed. “Sure.”

“Uh, you're a bit ...” Denario had been about to say, 'young.' Franzel, at least, didn't look to have hit puberty yet. Adalwolf probably had just finished his growth spurt.

The boys strolled closer to him. Except for their rags and hunger, they didn't look in bad shape. What would Vir have done in this situation? Conscript them? Probably he'd smack them on their bottoms and send them to the next town.

“Attention!” Denario shouted in the voice that Vir used on his men, or at least a bad imitation. The boys stood straight, arms at their sides. They knew precisely what he meant. Then they laughed.

“You're no taller than Franz!” Adalwolf exclaimed.

“That's right.” Denario knew he had to talk quickly. “If your chief can teach a waldi like me to use a sword and a spear, surely he can do better with lads like you. I've done this before. I've sent men to him to train. But they were older. You say you want to train?”

“Yes, sir!” they shouted in uneven chorus.

Denario was careful not to promise they'd be allowed to join the army. Vir probably wouldn't go for that. But training? Practicing with a sword and spear was mandatory for any teenaged boy who came within a mile of Vir. He'd probably slap armor on them if they weren't quick enough to dodge it.

“Right. Well, Captain Vir is a bit rough but he's good. Very good.” Denario swallowed and told a lie. “With him, maybe you've got a chance against the Ogglis.”

“But how are we going to get there?” said Adalwolf.

“It's two weeks of travel if you don't take a roundabout route like I've done.”

“We don't have letters of transit. We won't get another day more. Who will feed us? We're not doing well. We ate a bunch of mushrooms one night and we were fine. We did the same for our next lunch and we got sick. If we don't starve, someone older will grab us and lock us up.”

“The boys are right,” said Hermann. Valentina nodded in agreement. “When they reach North Ackerland, they won't be allowed to go farther. They'll be kept.”

“As farmhands? Slaves?”

“Farmhands, not slaves. They're not criminals. But they won't be allowed to travel. They don't have the royal coin or letters of transit or anything.” Hermann rolled over the stump that the older boy had brought. He steadied it with his foot. With his left hand, he motioned for his wife to sit.

“But … suppose …” Denario didn't know what he supposed. He thought there had to be a way for the boys to hike into the hills if that's what they wanted. Hadn't Denario sworn in other, admittedly older lads to the army? Yes, he had, although he'd committed fraud in doing it. When Vir found out, he'd be mad. But that was fine because Denario would never see him again. Anyway, Vir couldn't know about them yet, not all of them. There had to be a ruse to try. “Suppose we wrote a note to Mayor Richter?”

“Not good enough,” said Valentina. “Appealing to her is a mistake.”

Hermann looked to her. The boys noticed and they did the same. Come to think of it, Denario trusted Valentina's political judgment, too. She sat down on the makeshift seat her husband was offering. With a coy smile, she looked up to Denario.

“Don't mention her at all,” Valentina continued. “Just write a letter of transit. Make it military. You've got the writing for it. Draw it up to look official.”

“I think I understand,” said Hermann. “Wilmit will see the letter, even if he doesn't read. All of the burghers will take a turn. It won't be addressed to Ilse. When she does read it, and she will, she won't turn down a military request. Or a military order, especially one that's not directed at her.”

“She'll turn it to her advantage,” said Valentina. “She's smart.”

“But look, you two, Mayor Richter knows me. She knows I'm an accountant. Would she accept my word as a military authority?” Denario touched his hand to his chest. Didn't these folks understand how insignificant he was? The boys were excused for being young and naive. Valentina should have known better. She'd seen him getting paid in broken hinges. “My letters of transit are from Raduar and Mundredi mayors. They're very important people. People have to pay attention to what they say.”

“Not really,” retorted Hermann. Beside him, Valentina nodded in agreement. “Men from one town don't much care what a mayor from another town says.”

“Then why …?” Denario left the question unfinished. If the villagers everywhere felt like that, why had he been allowed to pass among them? Was it the blue coin?

“I think, mostly, men just hope. A lot of them have heard what's happening. And they hope. They hope you're going to save them. With your magic.”

“My magic? My magic is numbers.”

Hermann shrugged.

“They just hope, all right?” Adalwolf sounded almost angry. Next to him, Franzel stood, shaking. There were tears in the younger boy's eyes.

Denario realized the these boys needed something to believe in. Even the older, tougher one, fists by his sides, looked ready to have his face kicked. He seemed to expect it. He was waiting for Denario to let him down.

What would Melcurio do? Offer them a trick.

“Okay, so I'll give you a message to carry,” he told them. “It's a military message. You'll be heralds for the army. That way, you're not to be touched. I'll write that down. You'll have news of Sir Fettyrtyr. Your chief wants that news. I'll write what you've told us down on one of my maps to make it look official. And I'll give you a letter of transit.”

“Sir!” exclaimed Adalwolf. Denario hadn't done anything except make empty promises and the boy was already impressed. But he knew the boys needed hope. He couldn't deny them that. If they didn't have it, they might lie down and die on the side of the road.

“Right now?” said Franzel. He dried his eyes. Those were the first words he'd spoken in a while and Denario wasn't sure whether he should encourage the boy or not. But little Franz expected to see miracles and he wanted them immediately. He strolled in closer.

“You have work to do,” the accountant said in a stern voice. He knew these fellows expected a bit of pomp and attitude. “Keep building up the fire so we can eat. And Adal, if there's another stump or two like that, I could use a seat and a place to write.”

“Yes, sir!” The older boy grabbed his friend by the elbow.

It didn't take more than five minutes for the boys to set up an improvised desk for the accountant. The surface was two halves of a log that had split due to disease and rot. The pieces rested on a pile of smaller branches that had been stripped of their leaves and stacked up in a hurry. Denario reflected that it might be the most useful desk he'd ever owned because when he was done, it was going to boil his stew, keep him warm through the night, and probably heat his breakfast in the fire pit, too.

He laid out his writing utensils and tried to ignore the likelihood that these boys would be kidnapped or killed regardless of what he wrote. He had to try. Unfortunately, a few days ago, his best inkwell had run out of the lampblack-and-shellac mixture. He'd refilled it with tattoo ink. It didn't seem to flow as smoothly from his pen. He shook the bottle as hard as he dared in order to liquefy it. He prayed. The tattoo artist had made the ink from clay bottles of rust, burnt bones, pine soot, and oak galls. Come to think of it, that was a formula that Denario should have jotted down in his journal. Oak galls represented a new ingredient in non-magical ink as far as he knew.

Tattoo artists in these small, clan-dominated towns normally made their ink in solid form. That had been an unpleasant surprise when he'd discovered it. They liquefied their dyes with spit.

Denario fumbled through the bottom of his traveling supplies. His fingers failed to make contact with parchment. He tried again. He leaned down so close that his head was inside the bag. He must have used his last scroll to make a message to Vir. That stumped him for a moment. He had promised. Well, there were blank pages in his journal. He would have to sacrifice one.

Even Hermann and Valentina watched Denario in relative silence. They seemed surprised when he used his ruler to remove a sheet of paper cleanly. Under their fascinated stares, he wrote in large, bold letters at the top: Autorità di Transit. Underneath, he explained in more common Mundredi characters, Military Authority to Travel.

He rubbed the stubble on his chin until his fingers hurt. Even with his best writing, he worried that the title didn't look impressive enough. He took out his protractor and compass. With those, he drew a transit theodolite, basically a circle and line on top of a tripod. It was a better version of the surveying instrument he'd fashioned out of his otherwise-useless spear.

Hermann grunted. Valentina smiled. The boys did, too. Denario could feel the change in their expressions without looking up. They didn't understand it but they liked it. Good.

I, Denario of the Mundredi Army and the Oggli Guild of Accounting, appoint …

He had been about to write “these boys” but, after he glanced at them he wrote, these young men, Adalwolf of Einpferd Wad and Franzel of Einpferd Wad as heralds for the Army of the Mundredi. They are to take these messages and any other messages deemed appropriate by Mundredi officials to Chief Vir de Acker in Fort Dred. Their messages and their other belongings are property of the army. No one may delay them or hinder them upon pain of death.

They are known by these markings.

“Adal, Franz, come here and show me your left arms, please.”

The boys didn't seem able to carry out an order without questioning it but they did as he requested eventually. The taller, darker one grunted when he saw the drawings. He was fascinated by the use of the compass. The accountant made a few mistakes, partly because the tattoo ink didn't flow like the stuff sold in Oggli, but he made serviceable copies of the crossed spears, the scythe with serrated teeth, and the ox. As he struggled with the ink, the accountant reflected that the best shipments of Ogglian pigments came from the Pirate Islands. Which one of those islands was the source? He'd taken it for granted, so he'd never bothered to ask. And was the Pirate Islands ink of magical origin or could he make it himself from pine soot or squid dyes or whatever they used if he only knew the formula? The stuff was so plentiful in Oggli that he doubted it could be difficult.

Denario finished the plow and dagger sign on Adalwolf's arm. It was the last one.

“Thank you, Adal,” he said, and motioned for the younger one to step closer.

“Wow, you're a really good artist!” Franzel exclaimed as he got a better look at the letter of transit.

“I have good instruments,” said Denario. “Keep holding your arm up like that.”

The tattoos on Franzel's arm looked swollen and fresh, as if they had been completed only yesterday. Denario decided not to comment. Instead, he faithfully rendered the sword and spear crossed in front of a sun, the scythe that unlike Adalwolf's had no teeth, the ox and moon, and the plow and dagger. On both lads' right arms, he noticed, there were god and goddess symbols. Denario figured he didn't need those. Anyway, he was getting tired and his writing wasn't done.

It took him two hours to encode a message to Vir. He included every military detail he could in case the previous story of the burning of South Ackerland didn't make it. The length of his message and the need to hide some of the details made for a tedious process. It also subjected his methods to inspection. Hermann and the boys didn't ask why he did so much writing and transposing in the dirt. Valentina, however, seemed concerned.

“Will Vir be able to read what you're hiding?” she asked, rather reasonably. She was holding a torch by his side, unasked, as he finished his composition in the dirt.

“I'm not sure. Only he and one other Mundredi soldier know to look for this. Of course, anyone else can figure it out but …”

“But they won't.”

“Probably not, no.” Denario etched the last few letters into place. Then he added a few more decorations to make everything look more official. In memory of the mayor of Pharts Bad, Denario sketched the symbols of all of the four major tribes. He added a few of the most powerful Mundredi clans and one or two houses, as well. At the bottom, he finished with a variation of the Mundredi symbol he'd come to use as his trademark, the crossed spears over a crown joined in a number 8, written sideways. Let the mayors and villagers stew over that one, he thought.

Underneath the mark, he scribbled, Divine Equation of Nature, Acorns Ripen to Impressive
Oaks. and beneath that, Denario, Accountant of Oggli, Heralding the Army of the Mundredi. He finished it all with a dab of hot wax. He removed the blue coin of Mundredi royalty from his neck, pushed it into the wax, and held it until the impression set in firm detail.

“There.”

He rolled it up and accepted a strand of homemade twine from Adalwolf. Outside of the range of the cooking fire, a score of crickets chirped. Denario hadn't heard crickets in half a year. There had been none during the cold months in Ziegeburg or in Easy Valley. He hadn't heard any this spring after coming down from the Long Valley hills. Their noises reminded him of West Ogglian farms. But it was past any decent hour to sleep. The sky seemed dark and starless. He'd finished his bowl of stew and a second bowl, too. Valentina, after complaining that her husband had shared too much of their food, settled down to rest. Hermann half-dozed as he sat propped against a log.

The boys, in contrast, looked too excited to close their eyes. The older one had taken it into his head to make more string for tying the letter and the map. Ribbon would have been more impressive but there was none to be had and, anyway, the two were going to have to untie and retie the scrolls many times if they made it all the way to Fort Dred. They kept making strings from a patch of grass they said was good for it.

“Can you give us weapons, too?” Franz asked as he twisted a set of green strands together.

“In the morning,” Denario blurted. Then he wished he'd kept his mouth shut.

Next: Chapter Fifteen, Scene Seven