Sunday, July 23, 2017

Not Even Not Zen 87: A Bandit Accountant, 14.6

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Pair of Sevens

Scene Six: Ackerland

“What town is that?” Denario gestured past the man who was, even yet, pointing a loaded bow at him. A church spire rose in the distance. An row of huts lined the road in front. They were all thatched and sealed with pitch on their roofs, which meant there had to be a natural supply of tar somewhere close.

“Ackerland.” The fellow swiveled to peer down the trail. Then he thought better of it and turned his attention back to Denario.

“Really?” A spark of memory awoke in the accountant's mind. “North or South Ackerland?”

The farmer lowered his bow slightly. Then he lowered it more until it was almost at his feet.

“Step forward,” he said.

“What about your friends?” Denario nodded to the trees. Only a month ago, he would never have noticed the signs of their occupation.

“Well, is that a Mundredi coin?” the farmer asked. “You wear it boldly enough. If it's yours, we won't hurt you.”

“It was given to me by the chief of the Mundredi to aid me in my mission.” Denario began his stroll up the low slope of grass toward the farmer. He touched the blue disc on his chest. A moment later, he halted and dropped his hand to the pommel of his sword. The men who came out of the bushes and trees were not the farmer's sons. They looked like brigands. Some of them had bits of armor, mostly leather hauberks like Denario's own. “You haven't answered my question. I have an interest in passing through South Ackerland. Is this it?”

“South Ackerland is dead.” The farmer un-notched his arrow. He ignored the men on either side of him, one a head taller than he. His eyes glistened in the morning sun as he remembered, perhaps, a battle. “It was laid to waste last year and all of its fields with it. The baron's men burned the temples and halls and homes to the ground.”

“Oh.”

“They came only a week after Sergeant Kaspir and his band left. Someone must have told them.”

“A traitor,” Denario whispered. The leader heard him, though, and nodded.

“Aren't we going to rob him?” complained a thin-looking man in a studded vest. He put his hand on the elbow of the man who Denario no longer regarded as a farmer.

In answer, his leader sighed and rolled his eyes. He patiently unstrung his bow.

The hungry-looking fellow had stained teeth. He wore bright yellow, brown, and gold clothes. They'd been fine once but they'd faded. His straw-colored hair stood on end and askew to his left. All in all, he looked a bit like a lopsided, perhaps wounded, tropical bird, perhaps a canary drunk with attitude.

“Come on, Wilmit,” pleaded the giant beside the canary. He didn't take his eyes off of Denario. “I didn't get any meat yesterday. Nothing but turnips.”

The fourth member of the troop, a long-bearded fellow who hovered behind the giant, smiled to show his black and broken teeth.

“Here's how it is,” the leader Wilmit explained. He seemed to be talking to both Denario and to his allies. “Everyone around here is starving and broke. We know ye've a lot of goods with ye, traveler. Yer belly is full and so's the packs on yer back. But we understand that the army is looking after ye. We're not going to violate our oaths.”

“Uh.” The giant let out a defeated sigh. On the other side of the leader, the thin, yellowish man spun in a circle.

“But we've got lots of knives and arrows,” he complained.

“We'll walk him into town.” The leader stared down the thin fellow, who backed away and spun in another circle.

Even an accountant could see that further conversation would lead to blows. The hungry man seemed quick, too, and bristling with pointed weapons. Yet he didn't carry a sword. Swords were for gentlemen or for hired men at arms. They were a sign of a professional soldier, which was probably why folks hadn't bothered Denario as much as they might have otherwise, that and his lack of clan status.

“I could trade,” Denario offered.

“We haven't got anything.” Wilmit dismissed the idea to the groans of his men.

“Well, I could share, then. I've got a bit of hard tack. Also some cheese. Butter? Well, I may be out of that. But I've got some spare oats.”

“Oats!” one man shouted.

“Butter,” said another, the giant. “By the gods, I'd sell my granny for a bit of butter. Can you ... can you look, man? Along the way.”

“Along the way or at the mayor's house.” Wilmit nodded. He hitched his unstrung bow to his back and marched to the southeast path.

Denario fell in beside the leader as quickly as he could. The path was wide enough for them both. And he wanted to keep everyone happy and relaxed. It wasn't Denario's first encounter like this. In fact, he felt he was getting into the rhythm of them.

It was funny that no one ever wanted his money. From town to town in the Mundredi lands, the peasants asked him for things they could really use. Here, beyond of the Seven Valleys, these were still Mundredi lands. Yes, the folks had learned what money was. They knew that their knights and barons coveted it. But no one wanted to trade him anything for it. No one even cared to steal it.

Today's breeze was cool. It made Denario glad for all of his layers of clothes and armor. The land smelled full of life, musty and sharp. It was planting season. Wilmit led them across two shortcuts in the path. They passed four small fields separated by meadows or trees. In each field, there were peasants turning the soil or watering it or planting something.

Despite how Wilmit had said that they had no possessions, his men found things to trade with Denario. The giant exchanged three turnips for a glob of butter. The long-bearded fellow gave Denario a pair of black sticks that turned out to be badly-dried snake jerky. Probably no one else wanted the stuff but the accountant wasn't going to risk offending the man. At any rate, Denario's rather mundane oats proved popular with the men, Wilmit included. Their mayor had declared all of the remaining oats in the local vicinity to be part of the seed stock. Oat florets were being sown back into the ground. It was good civic planning but it was an unpopular decision. Not a single person wanted to give up their carefully saved food.

Not only were oats in short supply but none of the native farmers had wheat left after the harsh winter. Wheat spikelets had been reduced to handfuls. The peasants couldn't make bread. They were living on year-old acorns, pine nuts, and turnips. Many folks were growing spring onions and peas but there weren't enough. Bitter acorn flour had become the filler used in everything. Denario was glad to re-stock his travel packs with pine nuts and onions and what few wild herbs the townsfolk had found. He rather liked nuts, except acorns, and he privately considered most nuts to be better eating than dried meat. He was sure he'd finish his new batch of pine nuts before he ate any snake jerky.

“Yes, the children who gather these nuts and berries are saving our lives,” said Wilmit. “Without their work, the mayor would have had to hang a dozen more folks. Like maybe Tabner here.”

Tabner spun in a circle as he walked. He still looked half-mad and, although he smiled at the use of his name. And he did not look scared of Wilmit. In fact, he seemed eager for action. He'd added to his ruffled look by leaving a few oat kernels in his blond mustache, leftovers from his hurried eating a moment earlier.

“It turned to fighting this winter,” Wilmit continued. “And it wasn't the usual clan warfare. No declarations, no totems torn down. But when the snow melted, we found nineteen bodies. Folks were out-and-out murdered. Their household belongings were stolen. The mayor hanged one man for that, although we know there must be more. She hanged two others who were caught stealing pigs. Both of those were refugees from South Ackerland. Another fellow was killed in an argument with his neighbor about a cow they shared. Even our local herds of sheep and goats have been thinned. And of course the baron still wants his tenth of everything.”

“Will he get it?”

“The mayor says no.”

“But ...” Denario had been all for tax resistance up to when he considered the consequences. “Won't the baron send his men? Won't they raze the town?”

“Could be. He might try. But we have more men with us now, all desperate. We'll be ready this time. And we don't have any food to spare for the baron. It don't matter what the priests say or what orders the knights give us.”

The temple fields to their left gave way to the temple spires and a shed. Soon after, the winding trail to Ackerland ended in a sort of town square. The space wasn't rectangular. It was a circle of dirt and dust. Lean-tos had been built around the edge of the area. These, Denario guessed, were the homes of refugees from South Ackerland and other towns ransacked by Baron Ankster.

At the south end of the dirt circle, there stood a well head constructed of loose stones with a board laid across. Two children lay near the well. They faced the temple, eyes closed.

To the accountant, the boy and girl looked lean to the point of sickly. Wilmit and his men had no pity on them, though. They prodded the children with their toes. When they roused, the men told them to get back to the fields, “And no complaining neither!” The girl got to her feet. The boy held his stomach and didn't move until the giant kicked him lightly in the rear end. Then he, too, got up and headed back to work.

"What are you lazy bums doing besides berating kids?” Suddenly a woman appeared from the trail on the other side of the well. She wore fine yet rather severe dress in shades of white, gray, and black. Her layers of clothing above it, including a vest, shoulder wrap, and wide belt that included a hammer strapped on with a loop of string, obscured her figure somewhat.

Denario could tell by her shoulders, though, and the width of her arms that she was strong. She walked like a woman of authority. Her black head scarf reminded him of what some priestesses wore.

“Are you waylaying caravans again? If you are, Wilmit, I'll have you in the stocks this time.” Her voice penetrated like Olga Clumpi's. For a moment, Denario thought he might have been transported back to Pharts Bad among the stern grandmothers. But this woman was younger, somewhere in her middle years. She reminded Denario of some city women in Oggli who ran their own shops. She had similar, quick hand gestures.

“No, mayor, my men were doing exactly what you said to do. We were patrolling the fields. Weeding, too. But you have to admit, getting a visitor traveling all on his own nowadays is strange. And we have one.”

This time, the woman turned full-on towards Denario and inspected him with her round, brown eyes. Her strong jaw grew tight. Her thin lips curled in a sneer. Well, maybe she could tell that he wasn't much of a fighter. She put her fists on her hips.

“He says he's on an army mission and he looks it in his way.” Wilmit took off his hat and bowed to the mayor. Then he jostled his companion. Tabner did the same but in a way that was quite angry and jaunty at the same time. The other two did their best to follow suit.

Denario found himself taking off his traveling hat. He discovered his accounting cap beneath it. So he doffed that, too.

“I said I've been given leave by your army,” Denario corrected. “It's different than working for them, exactly. I'm an accountant. Do you know what that is? I do maths. I draw maps. I write out calculations and geometries.”

“I know what those are.” When the woman nodded, her firm jaw barely moved. At least she didn't seem insulted – or bewildered, which might have proved worse. “If you can write charts, surely you can read them.”

“Yes, ma'am.” He bowed again. It occurred to him that this was the first lady of any social class he'd met in a position of secular leadership. He'd met priestesses, maybe a pair of unannounced witches, several wealthy clan matriarchs, and one or two shopkeepers who showed a facility for math, but this was the only Mundredi woman he knew as a burgher or mayor.

She didn't even wait for him to rise from his bow. While his eyes were still on her cloth-covered shoes, she turned and strode away. After a second or two, Wilmit followed. They headed back to where she came from. Denario rushed to keep up. He finally caught them as the mayor marched up the stone steps of a building across the fountain from the church. He glanced up and saw a seal above the arched doorway. It was the town hall.


Sunday, July 16, 2017

Not Even Not Zen 86: A Bandit Accountant, 14.4

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Pair of Sevens

Scene Four: Swearing
Scene Five: Force of an Object

Tetron the Wheelwright lives between Bow Spit and West Bow. I am writing to you, Vir, to recommend him in the case that your army has need of a friendly house in this area. Tomorrow I will reach the northernmost war lands, so this may be my last message. I am confident that this note and accompanying documents will reach you because I am sending them with Tetron’s nephew, Jan, who wishes to join your army.

As he usually did when sending to Vir or Yannick, Denario scribbled his raw note in the dirt. The soil of Tetron’s front yard happened to be grayish with pebbles in it. The family’s boots had worn away the grass, which made for easy drawing. The next step in Denario’s process was to write out the encoded version next to the original, also in the gray dirt.

Since he was hiding his message inside another, the process took creativity and time. Finally, he transcribed the result onto a scrap of parchment provided to him by Tetron. The scrap was so old as to be a family heirloom but the accountant couldn’t turn it down.

“I see that you’re hiding your true meaning,” rumbled Tetron from his porch hammock. “But then you’re wrapping up the parchment into your map that shows my farm. What’s to stop someone from killing Jan and reading the map?”

"Nothing.” Denario shook his head. He continued to roll his message into the map. “But you told me that you can’t read the map without my help. Most folks around here can’t read it. And I can’t encode the map in a way that I know Vir or Yannick will understand.”

“Is there a way to make a map into numbers and letters?”

“Yes. The Guild of Accountants in Oggli knows a method. I assume that the Marquis of Oggli employs someone who knows, too.”

Tetron groaned. “Ye Ogglians are smarter than we are.”

“No.” Denario had talked with enough of the Mundredi to see that they were as bright as any other group of people. They lacked some basic resources, like iron, that the rest of the old empire had in abundance but what they mostly suffered from was a dearth of medicines, schools and books. They had geniuses like old Bibbo Clumpi in their midst but the Mundredi didn’t train them. They had no tradition of education except in martial arts. “Are you thinking of the math I taught you? Or are you thinking of the Ogglian armorers?”

“Those both and the war horses yer duke has, too. I came up against those when I was younger. Went for a bit of fun against a caravan. They slaughtered us.”

“Vir managed to beat some horsemen.” Denario’s dark eyebrows knotted together. He didn’t think Vir would find the method easy to repeat. “Maybe as long as the main cavalry are fighting elsewhere …”

“But yer not hopeful of that, I kin tell.”

“I don’t want to discourage your nephew. Or you.” The accountant hid his face from the veteran farmer for a moment. “No, I'm not hopeful. Vir has got to beat the Raduar first. And he has to do it within the year. The duke’s campaign against the King of Faschnaught has lasted fifteen months already. I don't think he can press on much longer. Your tribes and all of the clans in them need to be ready when the Ogglian soldiers return.”

“Sounds impossible.”

“Maybe not. The duke and the marquis don’t care about the Mundredi. The highest nobles are perfectly happy to take your tax money. It’s only Baron Ankster and a few others who want to kill you. They care about the religious differences. They see a threat in how your men keep weapons unlike their other peasants. And then there’s what you told me happened to Sir Blowort.”

Blowort had been a knight under Baron Blockhelm. Denario had met him once as a child. The nobleman had worn a thick mustache that hung down below his chin, plate armor over his chest and shoulders, and a tunic with his castle colors, which were red, gold, and green. He’d ridden a stallion that was almost friendly. Denario had been given a job to feed the beast, which he did with oats and a great deal of care not to get bitten or kicked. Later, he’d carried a bolt of green cloth to the horse. He’d rather liked Blowort. The man hadn’t beaten him or any other slaves that day.

He hadn't shown such gentleness to his own peasants, though. Like Sir Glaiburg under Baron Ankster, Sir Blowort had led an ethnic cleansing of his countryside two years ago. He'd wiped out half a dozen Kilmun towns. In retaliation, a group of Kilmun men invaded his castle during the winter. No one seemed to know how they’d gotten inside the walls but they'd arrived with at least a hundred men. Blowort and his family hadn’t stood a chance. Across the border of the barony, Sir Glaiburg almost met a similar fate. Only the fact that he and his immediate family had been called to Baron Ankster’s court saved him. The rest of his household was killed. And when Glaiburg returned, he gathered his men-at-arms and took back his castle. He redoubled his efforts to wipe out the Mundredi tribesmen on his lands.

Denario had been in court when the marquis got the news that, among Ankster's sworn knights, Sir Glaiburg and a few others had refused to go to war against Faschnaught. Glaiburg sent his second son in his stead. The marquis felt insulted. Anyone could see it. But he hadn't taken it out on the son. He'd merely asked the young nobleman how many footmen he'd brought along. Later, though, Denario learned that the marquis had scolded his field captains. Too many veteran knights had failed to show up against Faschnaught. When the marquis felt insulted, all of the viscounts, barons, and even the doddering, old Earl of Anghre had to suffer.

“They're in a panic about that?” The wheelwright sounded like he was explaining something to a slow-wit. “But Blowort fell to the Kilmun, not us.”

“I don’t think the knights and barons know the difference.”

Tetron had been resting. He opened his eyes. Apparently, he hadn't had a clear picture of how the Ogglian nobles thought. He still didn't understand them, of course, but he seemed to be starting to realize there was a social gulf between the nobility and peasantry. He sat up in his hammock.

“Who can’t see our tribe and clan tattoos?” he asked. “Who can’t see the god marks on our arms? Or the different hair? And who can’t just ask us? We'd explain, any of us.”

Denario had to laugh at the idea of a Ogglian nobleman asking a peasant anything. That was not the way it was done.

“When they collect taxes, do they ask politely or do they give orders?” He looked up from his scrolls as he posed the question. He wanted to make sure the wheelwright understood his point.

“They’re damned rude. Orders, I guess.” The big man gave up the concept of idleness. He swung his legs to one side of the hammock and readied himself to rise. “I don’t even like to meet those bastards. But I don’t have to anymore. For the past two years, we've just hauled everything to South Ackerland. A single knight picks up our taxes there.”

“Really?” This part was news to Denario. Usually, a squadron of each baron's knights traveled far and wide to personally collect taxes. At the very least, they sent their squires or other men at arms. How else could they discover cheating? The lack of effort implied that the marquis had gathered so many troops for his own use that the barons were hard pressed find the usual number of bullies. “Tell me, is the tax still a tenth of all harvest plus a pig or sheep or goat?”

“It’s an ox if yer late, so no one is late. And in the last two years, the Oggli men have sneered at our goats. They want sheep, they say, or pigs. But that’s not the agreement. No family has been raising those new, thick-wool sheep for more than a couple generations. They were expensive in trade, too. So we don't have them to spare. We bring goats.”

“That's a lot more than you ever pay to Vir. And now the nobles want to raise their taxes, it seems. Are folks paying?”

“Maybe not,” Tetron grunted. “There wasn't so much grain in South Ackerland last fall as there was the year before. And no sheep, neither, although it was a pretty good year for both.”

“That’s what I thought.” The peasants had stopped receiving visits from their knights so they were cheating on the taxes. Of course, unless they were pious about their oaths to the land owners, the farmers had always been willing to keep the full bounty of their fields. It was the product of their work, after all. And in lean years, taxes could be the difference between sufficiency and starvation.

Denario re-drew the map of the Seven Valleys in his head. He added in the portions of West Ogglia that were under the control of baronies. He fuzzed in the lands that were in dispute. He could see a pattern developing.

The barons had accepted Mundredi and Kilmun settlers as an unexpected bounty of tax payers. Those lands had been empty. But in time they'd noticed all of the weapons kept by the tribesmen. They'd lost a few soldiers and tax collectors to the violence in their new towns. They'd probably lost some caravans, too. They needed to deal with the usual religious fighting that accompanied the various clans, not to mention the clashes between their old peasants and the new ones. And that had been the last straw. They'd decided to clear their lands of the new settlers.

The ethnic cleansing process hadn't gotten off to a good start. The Ogglian nobles had been scared by the loss of Sir Blowort. They'd taken revenge. But it wasn't enough to allay their fears. They wanted more. And the Marquis de Oggli remained unconcerned by any of the local troubles. He took all of the men at arms to which he was entitled for his duke's war against Faschnaught.

Now the taxpayers, Mundredi, Oggli, and Waldi, were cheating. Powerful mayors and burghers like the Figgins brothers in Ziegeburg were energetically scamming their collections. They were blaming tax losses on the Mundredi peasants. If they didn't blame immigrant farmers, they blamed non-existent immigrant bandits. The situation paralleled a historical pattern that Denario had seen in the logs of the Accounting Guild. In terms of money, this was how the last war against the peasantry had started.

When the marquis returned home, he would find his coffers dry. He'd realize that his towns had cheated. Worse, he'd have no money to pay his troops. His fighting men, who had endured a long campaign and who would expect to be treated as heroes, would get nothing. Down to the lowest foot soldier, they'd be bitter at finding no reward. Denario had no doubt about how everyone would react. They would do as their grandfathers had done.

“Maybe it is hopeless,” he allowed. He watched Tetron stand up straight and stretch his powerful arms. “Maybe Jan will get caught with the map. Maybe the Raduar will win. Maybe the barons are too tough for the peasants. But you said you were willing to take the risk. Have you changed your mind?”

“Neh.” The wheelwright scowled. He paced a line in the dirt. “Somebody has to do something. The writing just makes me nervous, is all. I can't read. No one can, except the nobles. I never heard that our chief had his letters.”

“He's a noble, too. He gave me this coin.” Denario touched the blue disc hanging below his collarbone. “Anyway, you wouldn't have heard that Vir can read. He keeps it quiet. One of his sergeants can read, too, and a man named Yannick.”

“He's the one with bad teeth?”

“Um, yes.” The accountant regretted mentioning that. Tetron had latched onto the shortcomings of several soldiers that Denario had mentioned. He'd demanded to hear the accounting song, too. He'd laughed at all the wrong places and he seemed to have a keen memory. Denario had finished his roll-up, so he changed the subject and said, “Would you hand me your hot taper?”

Tetron reached through his front window and grabbed his candle-holder by the wooden ring carved into its side. Like most people in the area, the wheelwright had brass tools around his house but not for his personal use. They were for his profession. His candlesticks were all wooden. The candles were cheap, too. In Oggli, most house lights were made from stearin or beeswax. Here in the Mundredi lands, tapers were formed from a kind of rendered animal fat called tallow. Even as a slave, Denario hadn't seen tallow candles this cheap. The folks here seemed to know nothing else. Candles sputtered as they burned, unprotected by glass or magic.

This one was still lit when Denario received it. But the flame was in constant danger from a breeze. He guarded it with one hand as he dripped tallow-wax from the burning end to make a seal. It took him a few minutes. He had to pull dark flakes of ash and charcoal from the seal with his fingernail. Those were part of the grubby tallow.

“Accountant! Ahoy!” someone shouted. Denario glanced up from his work to see a young man on the trail to the wheelwright's house. He waved his straight arm high over his head. “Hello, uncle! Hello, Denario! Is that my package? Do you have a letter to your girlfriend in it?”

“Ha ha.” Denario had taken some teasing from the men when he had dashed off a note to Pecunia. And when he stood up to wave his greeting to Jan, a breeze put out the candle. Well, Denario was done anyway. He handed it back to Tetron as if he'd meant for that to happen.

Jan strode up and put his fists on his hips. The middle of his chest was the height of Denario's head. He was not heavily muscled. His legs and arms seemed about average. His jaw wasn't chiseled. It was meant to hold a smile and it often did. His blonde beard, seen up close, looked almost transparent. Over his shoulders, Jan wore a leather jerkin that he probably hoped would serve as armor. He carried a sword no longer than his forearm and a spear with a stone point. Denario winced at the sight of the spear tip. As sharp as it looked, the point would chip at the first fight and need replacement.

Denario remembered that he had spare bronze spear tips in his pack. He tried to weigh his guilt over not giving them to Jan against his need to keep those spares. For sure, he'd counted on selling whatever brass he could at the end of his journey.

Behind Jan came three other boys. That was a mild surprise because Jan had said that only two of his friends were joining the army. Then Denario saw that one of the boys wasn't a boy at all but actually the High Priestess of Damnet. As she marched closer, Denario could tell that she'd tied her hair back. She didn't carry any weapons. The two boys on either side of her had hunting spears like Jan's. One had a bow as well. The shorter fellow had a sling on his belt. The priestess seemed to be talking to him in a very earnest, animated fashion.

“You don't need to leave us to do your part,” she said. She struck the air with the blade of her hand for emphasis. “There's plenty for a bright lad to do around this town. I was going to teach you how to read the temple scrolls this fall.”

“I've already said my piece,” the boy replied. “You've met the refugees, your holiness. Jan and Lothar are going to do their part. I can't see doing anything else.”

“You've not met the knights.”

“I've seen them before.”

“Yes, when you were a child.” The priestess stopped, not more than ten feet from Tetron but ignoring him in favor of her conversation. “That's not the same as meeting them in a battle.”

“They're oath-breakers. You can see that. You said yourself that someone ought to do something about it.” The young man's face was set. Even Denario could tell that it was a lost cause for the priestess. She would never convince him.

She kept talking for a while anyway. Like the mayor of Phartsburg, the priestess felt that the Ogglian nobles ought to negotiate with the Mundredi. Denario had worked with the nobility and guessed that a knight might talk to the priestess herself if only to tell her what he expected from the village. That same knight would not talk to a simple peasant unless he needed to give a direct order. Negotiating with illiterate field workers or treating them with any kind of respect was out of the question.

The wheelwright's yard was littered with discarded hubs, broken spokes, axles, half-axles, raw pine logs, ropes, a pair of large gears with broken teeth, and unidentifiable splinters of other types of wood. Tetron had lived alone since his wife died in childbirth so he didn't bother to clean up beyond taking in his chisels, tyres, and other brass or copper parts that he was unwilling to let sit out in the rain. It was amidst this clutter that Denario, Accountant of Oggli and of the Mundredi Army, raised his right hand and took the oaths of three young men. He felt slightly ashamed as he did so. He suspected that, if Vir were here, he'd say that Denario didn't have the right to sign up recruits in such an official manner. Denario did it anyway. The young men were overjoyed.

The local priestess gave holy blessings to the oaths. Denario admired how she did the job in the face of her disappointment over losing Kris, the lad who was not only one of Jan's best friends but a confidant of nearly everybody in the village. When Kris took his oath, Jan's and Lothar's chests had visibly swelled. They were proud to have him.

Denario took leave of his senses for a moment. He dug to the bottom of his travel pack and awarded each boy a brass spear point. They were grateful – they bowed and they shoulder-hugged him – but the person most affected was Tetron, who knew how much wrought brass was worth. He almost raised his hand to thump Denario. But he paused, thought better of it, and fell into a sullen silence for a few minutes.

The group sat down to a ceremonial afternoon meal, which featured venison provided by the wheelwright. Judging by the stores he kept in his smoking shed, Tetron was an expert hunter and trapper. When they finished, the boys thanked everyone again. They loaded a cache of carefully prepared supplies onto a sledge and hiked off in the vaguely north-by-northwest direction of Fort Dred. Denario had a blinding flash of insight: they wouldn't make it. It was too far. Too much would surprise them between the plains and the hills. But he shut his mouth and waved.

“I'm bewildered to see you're not going,” the priestess whispered to Tetron. She, too, did her best to wave bravely.

“Someone's got to keep an eye on you,” the wheelwright answered. The words didn't seem to be meant kindly.

“Huh. Well, Lothar's been trouble. And I know you love Jan but I'm not too sorry to see him go. He was the ringleader. It's Kris that disappoints me. He could have been our next priest. He's so bright.”

“He wants to save the village. He thinks joining up is the way.”

“But you don't.”

“Not really. I might join up if the army came here again and had a plan to win. And they begged me.”

“That chief isn't going to beg anybody.”

“Aye. He's all right, I guess.”

“Kris is moving on to strange lands and strange gods. That's going to be awful for him to bear, even if he manages to live long enough to return. He thinks he can be a hero.”

“Maybe he can.”

“No, he's acting a fool. But fifteen year old boys are like that. I should know by now.”

Denario stopped waving. He stared at the priestess, who was ignoring him. He was tempted for the first time in his life to defend the right of boys to join the army. Even though he had been a fraud in accepting their vows, even though their cause looked like a losing one, Kris seemed to have understood the necessity of it in a way that the wheelwright and priestess didn't. Maybe they were too old and full of excuses. The boy had observed what was going on. He'd understood. Like it or not, a war was coming.

#

The town of Haph Fork was burning witches when I arrived around noon. The charred bodies dangled and twitched in the smoke, a gruesome sight. I don't know if they were truly witches or if they were sympathizers with the wrong clan in a local struggle. From the voices in the crowd, the married couple at the center may have been both. But it was hard to see why the town priest had felt necessary to burn the couple's child as well. That was the third, smaller woodpile. 

No one in Haph Fork bartered with me for math lessons. Since I didn't like the stares I got from folks in the village square, I decided not to spend my night there. Perhaps I was lucky that the ground was wet around my campsite and I couldn't start a fire because, in the middle of the night, some men thrashed through the underbrush nearby. I think they were looking for me. I held still and kept my spear close to hand. I could find no other weapon under the moonless sky. Foolishly, I'd stowed my sword out of reach between my traveling packs. I will not make that mistake again. 

This morning I found a bright side to the lack of hospitality. No one bothered me for free lessons or conversation. I had time for more math. An interesting series of vector equations came to me. It's likely that I'm remembering them from a guild library book that was donated by its author, a mathematician in Anghrili. I forget his name but the title is, "On Physicks" and it is our most advanced text on vectors. The physicks calculations describe how force is transferred between objects. The particular equations that I have in mind now have a practical application for creating armor. However, I don't think they've been applied in that area. 

The force (F) of an object is a vector projection of the imparting object (O) in its direction (X). This gives an odd-looking vector product of F = X(X • O • X).

The order of the vector products is crucial to getting to correct result. In this equation, as the direction becomes perpendicular, the force F reaches its maximum value. As the direction of the imparting object becomes parallel to the target, F approaches zero. The latter would be an equation for "a glancing blow," as the knights tell it. This means that a surface offering the least chance of a perpendicular strike should be the best armor. 

In short, the perfect armor shape is a sphere. 

This does not immediately appear to be a useful conclusion. But unless I am mistaken, it is the correct guiding principal for armorers. The more like a sphere the armor is, the better it will be at deflecting an attack. Everything else is a compromise between the ideal sphere of metal and the human form. Oggli knights currently favor sharp edges to their armor and even artificial "stomach muscles" but I realize that, in combat, those accommodations to vanity could be deadly imperfections. I'm quite sure that armor should have rounded edges where possible.

In addition, I'm sure that vector equations can be used to describe how a spear point is more deadly than a brass ball of the same mass. I have not seen this written anywhere. My list of math chores for this journey is growing long but I shall add this one as it may make a good footnote to the text in the guild library. 


Sunday, July 9, 2017

Not Even Not Zen 85: A Bandit Accountant, 14.2

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Pair of Sevens

Scene Two: A Missed Knot
Scene Three: Starting a Fight

It's unfortunate that I had to swear an oath to light no more fires on these hills, Denario wrote in his journal. That led to my decision to travel around the West Valley range, not up high in the cold. This means four days added to the projected journey time. My apprentices would be disappointed by that but I see some possible advantages.

Plains make for an easier journey. I am warm at night even without a fire and I can set a fire to cook if I like because my oath does not apply. The people here are still Mundredi for the most part. They honor the coin I carry. And their farmlands are less isolated. Lately I've behaved as strangely as a hermit. Loneliness is the cause. I've become obsessed with my inner thoughts on mathematics to the point of sharing them with every person I meet. These rural folk aren't interested but I can't seem to keep myself from talking. 

At least they are tolerant. I have been shot at only twice more, both times from a great distance. One arrow stuck in my hauberk. It was too weak to penetrate as far as my mail shirt underneath. I was not harmed and the grandfather who had hit me fell to his knees as I approached. He started crying and tearing at his tunic when he saw the coin. After I talked with him about math for a bit, he decided I was either a madman or a clever spy. Then he offered me food.

In the last few days, I've met nearly sixty people! That is a lot but the towns here are larger than those in the hills. And the natives have variously regarded me as

a) an army scout
b) a holy man
c) a wizard 
d) a lunatic

or just as often, all at once. They do not know what I mean when I say I'm an accountant. I have mixed feelings about it but I seem to have outdistanced the song about my exploits. This means I need to prove myself constantly with local tally sticks and bits of geometry that farmers understand. This includes the wooden forms that are needed for grapevine trellises or beanpoles.

Aside from my geometry, I have solved three problems on tally sticks and one on a loom. The case of the loom came to me yesterday. A house of Mundredi weavers turned their unused equipment into an accounting system. 

The loom in question is ancient. The matron in charge of it inherited the device from her grandmother. Aside from the crudeness of its mechanisms and the thickness of its skeins, it is not remarkable in any way. However, the knots on it are crucial to her accounting.

The house of Texari in the clan of Angstmock in the tribe of Mundredi runs this system: each horizontal thread on the loom represents an amount; each vertical thread represents an item owed. Thus, a knot made on the intersection of the strings for bulgar and eight represents “eight bushels of bulgar owed to this house.” In each knot is tied a token of the house that owes the money to the Texari.

Two different types of knots are used. A shroud knot represents an asset owed to the Texari. These are the most common on the loom since the weaving house is wealthy. A figure-of-eight knot is used for a debt from their house to another. There are a few of those at any one time, usually on the lower rungs of the loom since the Texari family never owes more than small amounts.

The loom is so fragile and so difficult to manipulate that it serves as the somewhat-static system of record for the town of Angstmock. (The town and the clan have the same name.) I like the system because it is the equivalent of a Komaru Chart or perhaps a Encantar Point Plot. At a glance, one can see the state of the finances for the house. In this, it is superior to a tally stick and it is nearly equivalent to writing. However, the other clans do not trust it and show no signs of taking up the system themselves. They say that writing and knotting are susceptible to fraud.

That is, in fact, what happened in this case. The matron Frau Dona Texari asked me to review her system and point out any part that might have been the object of tampering. I had to tell her that I found several knots to be incorrect in some way, either too loose or, in the case of a figure-of-eight hitch, tied incorrectly into an overhand knot. Also, the warp of the loom had been cracked and glued as if to replace the bottom two strings without leaving any obvious sign.

The matron was furious. She called in her apprentices and had them tie knots for me using a similar, old loom. She made them hurry, hurry, and hurry even faster. In a few minutes, I understood that it was her goal to press them into making mistakes. The youngest apprentice, who I will not name, made the same error with figure-of-eights that we saw on the accounting loom. When she acted in haste, she missed a loop and instead created overhand knots.

Dona Texari sent her girls away. Then she asked me if she had caught the thief. I told her she had and she knew it. We had a long talk and I learned that Dona had started to doubt herself. She alone kept the accounts on the loom. Her girls told her that if there were mistakes on it, she must be getting forgetful. That deception angered her more than anything because she had been forced to consider that she was too old for her work.

In the end, Dona Texari decided not to demand that the girl, her grand-daughter, be tattooed for a life of slavery. That was a great relief for me as I didn't know that it is the custom punishment here for thievery. I knew I would be hated by townsfolk plenty enough without a harsh sentence against the girl. In this, I was proved correct as I received threats of death “regardless of the army” as young men phrased it to me. Dona Texari sneaked me out of Angstmock by way of a streambed path. She employed her nephews, both in the prime of their lives and well-regarded as armsmen, to be my guards for the day's journey.

During my escape, I pulled out my gambler's card deck and taught her nephews how to calculate odds. Both of them seemed to enjoy the lessons and I think the taller one understood my points on math quite well. We played a few card games when we reached the next town, which was large enough to have an ale house. The Texari men and other card players asked if I made a living by gambling. I had to admit that I didn't win enough for that. Everyone laughed at me but not in a bad way, I think. I'm starting to see the value of other men's laughter. Winkel always hated being the object of humor and he taught me his sense of pride. But I am wondering if it's necessary.

It turned out that the town mayor was among the card players. He introduced himself and asked if all accountants were as honest as me. I wasn't sure that I should denigrate our profession with my full opinion. So I replied that some are at least as honest. He said that was a tactful response. I can't recall anyone ever telling Winkel he was tactful, not in my presence.

Really, I am changing and I don't know if it's the loneliness or the journal. Master Winkel said that keeping a journal changed his life. I can see why. This has been a chance to reflect on more than accounting, more than formal logic, and more than pure math. I am learning secrets parts of my mind that I had not used before. 

I'm also learning how to make a crude theodolite, one without a lens. I can't measure steep vertical angles with it but it complements my astrolabe as I survey these lands. I must be at least a week from the river Vir mentioned. No one yet has heard of it.

#

“That's the Old Tongue short-hand for 'wheat' and this is the symbol used for 'hops.' Your wife's father was owed one tun of wheat and another tun of hops.” Denario pointed to carved symbols as he spoke. The mark for hops could have been mistaken for pine cones but the context made it clear.

This was an example of the tally system at its most basic. The symbols on the pinewood were a mix of Old Tongue letters, Old Tongue short-hand known as 'chop marks,' and a smattering of the West Ogglian languages. Words like 'medicine,' 'doctor,' 'horse,' and 'housecat' had been lifted straight from modern tongues. Presumably, there had been no words for those concepts before the creation of the Muntabi empire. Likewise, there had been no spice names except 'onion' and no higher math concepts like 'logarithm' or even 'multiply.' Those words were strictly modern, too.

The Seven Valleys had once been a primitive place, haunted by magical monsters, dwarfs, trolls, and herds of rough beasts. The log home around Denario looked as primitive as any city man could expect. Yet within a few minutes, Denario had noticed some surprising sophistications. The builders had stuffed large cuts of moss between the tree trunks. Mud filled the small gaps around the joints at the corners. The roof had been hastily thrown on with reeds and something sticky to hold them together. To Denario's surprise, all of these things made for an arrangement that was better insulated than most homes in Oggli.

He had come to associate crude construction with inefficiency but that wasn't the case. The morning was blustery but he didn't feel any wind inside the one-room hut. Mundredi peasant homes like this one were quite solid except for their doors and windows, if they had any. In this case, the front door was made of sticks sewn together by rawhide, a sort of curtain that rolled up or down with the pull of a string. That was clever. But it wasn't airtight, not even when the woman of the house pinned it in place with a wooden nail. Moreover, the arrangement was unwieldy enough that it was left open most of the time, rolled up to the top. It faced away from the prevailing wind. In different weather, it was probably a source of discomfort.

“The marks are clear,” Denario continued. He pulled his gaze away from the rickety door-curtain and back to the tally stick. “There's been no obvious attempt to change them. The debt is owed to your clan and specifically to your house so you should be able to recover what's owed.”

“That's not bad,” the farmer said. He opened his hand palm up to let the accountant return the stick, which Denario did. “It's better than I'd hoped.”

“That's all well and fine.” The fellow's wife folded her arms in a way that looked a bit angry. “No offense to my father, may his soul rest in peace, but this is typical. He was too lazy to travel four miles to collect his debt from the church. Now we'll have to travel five miles, maybe more, and for the last part of the return we'll have no road. How will we carry all that grain on our little cart? It's not possible. He left his big cart to my sister.”

“We could borrow her cart,” the husband ventured.

“And what will we do when we have the grain? Two tuns? It's more than the four of us can plant or use.” With that, she put a hand on her smallest child.

“In these situations, it's common to bargain down to three-quarters of the value in the form of livestock,” Denario said. “That way, the debt can walk to your house on four legs.”

“Not a bad idea.” The farmer turned toward his north wall. There, he hung up the tally stick on a peg he'd jammed into the moss. The tally had rested on his wall for over a month, apparently, waiting for the arrival of someone like Denario who could read it. The nearest semi-professional tally man lived two villages southward in Mickleburg and he demanded that his clients travel to him. “Will you walk into town to speak for us? You're a waldi with no stake in the matter. The priestess might listen.”

Denario tried not to sigh. There was nothing glamorous about jobs like these but they were providing a good living for him as he traveled. He suspected that he was eating better than most of the local men. About ten percent of the young fellows appeared to be refugees from other towns. Those towns generally lay to the southeast, where the Ogglian barons had laid waste to their countryside and where Denario needed to go. He shouldn't mind putting off that southern turn a little longer.

An hour later, they'd reached the outskirts of the village.

“So you're here for the army?” the farmer asked as he led them toward the only temple. The main road led straight up to it.

“The army gave me the coin for a safe journey,” said Denario. He touched the blue, glassy pendant that rested just below his collarbone. “But I'm only an accountant. I'm not really a soldier.”

“Do ye send letters back to the chief?”

“Yes, from every third town as I travel south and east.” It was an odd thing for him to do, maybe. He'd gone beyond Vir's requests. He'd sent coded letters describing all of the things he thought Yannick or Vir might find interesting – refugees resettling, gods and goddesses making people restless, a few men walking around in leather armor, bowyers and fletchers everywhere, flint knappers making arrow heads and spear points – he wrote to Vir about everything but his math theories. There seemed to be plenty of people headed north who would carry his letter for the price of a handful of jerky. “After I reach No Map Creek, wherever that is, I'll sail down to the Lamp Kill, then to the Riggle Kill. A bit further, where the Riggle Kill meets the Complacent Sea, I'll find my apprentices.”

“You have more than one?”

“Yes and I swore an oath to them.” Denario summarized the story he'd told many times of how Winkel had died and left his business and his obligations. “Anyway, the important part is that I need to take care of those boys. I swore oaths to the chief and to other folks to take this route home.”

“The gods protect us.” The farmer made a sign over forehead that Denario hadn't seen before. They must worship yet another a local deity around here. “If yer here to fulfill yer oaths, it's the will of them above. They'll guide ye.”

The farmwife made a similar sign over her brow and her stomach.

“Damnet,” she said.

The accountant puzzled over that for a moment. He decided not mention that one of the oaths he'd taken had been to light no fires on the hillsides of West Valley. These farm folks had liked his reading of the tally. They might worship a strange god but they'd fed him a fine lunch and they'd packed his bags full of oats, onions, cheese, and chicken sausages. He didn't want to undercut their confidence in him.

As a family group, they walked around the temple grounds and looked for the priestess, who wasn't to be found. A passer-by told them she was out gathering herbs. She wasn't in the herb garden, though, so everyone guessed that she had gone into the woods. They'd have to wait. Quite a few folks wanted to talk to Denario, whom they regarded as a curiosity. He had no visible clan markings. His gear marked him as a soldier. Some of the youngest town inhabitants had moved west or north to avoid fighting with troops sent by Baron Ankster. They couldn't believe that Denario planned to walk right through their old home towns. When they found out that he wanted to talk about math, though, they gave up and talked to the farm couple about the debts the church owed to them.

A small crowd waited for the priestess. After half an hour, Denario began to draw his most recent set of logic equations in the dirt. This was his meta-mathematics and, as he remembered it from the books by Gauss, he felt he was coming to understood why he was making mistakes. Instead of moving typographically according to the formal rules of the system, Denario had been leaping ahead to the meanings of each statement.

Denario scribbled furiously in the dirt for an hour. First, he laid out the postulates that Gauss couldn't do without. Then he laboriously stepped from equation to equation. He'd done some of this work before on paper but he'd skipped steps. In fact, he'd gotten things a bit wrong. The more he worked, the more he was sure that his work in the journal was incorrect. He'd have to start over and this time try to shut down his mathematical intuition. It was getting in the way of his proof. A proof had to be utterly meticulous ...

“Don't step there!” Denario yelled.

The next thing he knew, he was in the air. He hit something and went rolling down on the ground. In his arms he found a big farmer who had almost trod through his equations. It occurred to him, just then, that he'd just knocked the man over. He'd tackled him full force. That wasn't much, usually, but the weight of the armor had done the rest.

So he was in a sort of fight. The townsfolk started yelling and cheering. The farmer starting hitting Denario with meaty fists but he did it weakly and only on Denario's armored shoulders. The poor man was hurting himself. And Denario was wrestling with him but, really, it was because he wanted to get away. The damn chain mail under his shirt was heavy and he needed something sturdy, like this man's chest and face, to push off of in order to rise up. When he finally succeeded, it became a fight to keep the farmer off of the math equations again because the big man started rolling that direction. After all the trouble, Denario wasn't going to let him erase the work.

That's when Denario started hitting him. This is ridiculous, he thought. He had picked a fight! None of the apprentices would believe it if he told them. Although they would probably believe that it had happened over mathematics.

The scuffle ended when both men got up and fell down together again. This time, the weight of Denario's armor exhausted them both.

They lay there for nearly half a minute. Someone started walking towards Denario's equations again and Denario found the strength to jump to his feet.

“What, is it magic?” the stranger asked as the accountant waved him away.

Denario tried to explain. But the townsfolk had considered him incomprehensible already, a bit like a frothing-mad priest or a babbling wizard. The fight over his equations only confirmed their view that he was a lunatic.

By the time the priestess returned with a basket of fiddleheads, mushrooms, spring onions, and rose petals, the townsfolk couldn’t wait to get rid of Denario. They pressed the farmer's case before the priestess even put down her basket. The debtor stick was presented for all to see. Denario explained it. The priestess, for her part, listened patiently and asked a few questions that showed she understood tally marks quite well. She took the rod from Denario’s hands.

“This isn’t a debt that my temple owes,” she said. She sat down on the front step of her lodging house beside the temple. She didn’t unstring her door. That would have invited twenty people into her home or, almost as bad, excluded people who felt they had to be witnesses. “This is a debt on the part of the church in West Bow.”

“Will they make good on the debt?” Denario’s client farmer asked.

The priestess handed back the stick to him rather haughtily. “They’re sworn to Damnet to do so.”

“Will you speak for us, Priestess Vemtt?”

“For six loves of barley bread and six loaves of wheat bread.”

Somone whistled.

“Who did that?” she snapped. “Is it someone who’s going to volunteer their time? Is it a man who’ll donate more to the temple this month so we can set in our stores for the winter without traveling to West Bow?”

“Um, no, priestess.” The offender stepped forward and bowed his head. His hair was shorn. He had a scar across the middle of his nose. He looked every bit the desperado that Denario was not and yet he feared the wrath of his priestess. Through her, presumably, he feared the farm god.

“And what about this reading?” The Priestess of Dammet turned her sharp tongue to the accountant. “Have you received payment for this deciphering? I suppose you’ve taken food. You look the vagabond type. How do we know that you haven’t just said what these folks wanted to hear?”

“Counting is my profession. I swore an oath to Melcurio when I joined my guild. I’ll swear the oath again if I must. But I need payments, just as you do. To fulfill my oaths to my apprentices, I must travel east. And for that, I must have proper supplies.”

“East? Toward the bloodshed?” the priestess glanced up. She caught the glint of the blue medallion on Denario's breast. She announced, “An army spy! That’s what you are. You folks have brought a spy among us.”

Denario sighed but he didn't bother to contradict her. In every town or hamlet, the citizens assumed he was on an army mission. No one ever believed him when he said that he wasn’t.

“If so, I’m a spy for your side … for the Mundredi army, that is.”

“They’re not our army. Not our only army, anyway.” She put her hands on her hips. She didn’t care for the looks she was getting from the farmers and farmwives but, for now, she stared them down. “Yes, the Captain De Acker is a tribal chief but what does that mean?”

“You mean Chief Vir Angalic De Acker?” said Denario, wondering which of the dozens of times he’d heard Vir introduced that he remembered that entire long name from.

“That’s the rascal. He’s part of the old ways. We whose fathers left the valleys years ago need to keep to the new ways. We’re sworn, now. Some of us are, anyway. Our mayors and major land holders have sworn to uphold the laws of Baron Ankster. He says our old chief is a bandit.”

Denario hadn’t thought about that point. Up until now, none of the peasant folk had mentioned their conflicts in loyalty between the old ways and the new.

“But … and I say this as a man of Oggli,” he rebutted. “It looks like the Baron and his knights aren’t making good on their part of those oaths. They’re sworn to their gods to take taxes from you, keep the laws of the land, and otherwise let you live in peace. But they’re not doing that. They’re driving the Mundredi out of the farms. Sometimes they just slaughter and loot with no sense to it.”

“So say you and a few disgruntled boys. Who knows what those boys have really seen? I get messages from my gods and goddesses and from the other priestesses and witches in the plains. They say that most of the folks are living in peace.”

Denario shrugged. “Well, I’ll find out for sure. I’m going east. I have letters of transit from several town mayors. I suppose I can’t expect that here. But I could use a place to spend the night if anyone can spare it.”

“Ye kin stay with me,” said a rough, gray-bearded man. He was bald at the crown of his head but so furry everywhere else that he gave the impression of being a were-creature. Around here, that was possible. But magical or not, his personality was force enough to quiet everyone. He gave the priestess such a glare that she sat back down on her front stoop.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Not Even Not Zen 84: A Bandit Accountant, 14.1

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Pair of Sevens

Scene One: Into the Plains

He glanced around at the grassy hillside. There weren't many trees around, thankfully. All were balsam firs of some kind with high, thick branches. None of them looked close enough to catch fire from the boughs he'd used for shelter. But maybe that depended on whether the grass would burn from tree to tree. The lack of water on the hill posed a pressing problem.

Denario backed up about thirty feet. He could feel the warmth of the fire even from this distance. A lump under his right arm reminded him that he held the pyrite and quartz. He quickly set his things down and repacked. He hid the tools that showed what he'd done at the bottom of his supplies. When he finished, his heart settled down for a moment. It was no longer beating so hard that he could feel it in his throat.

Then, with forced calmness, he put his hands on his hips and surveyed the burning fir tree. Looked at from the viewpoint of the whole hill, it wasn't too bad. What he needed to do was contain it. That meant removing anything that would burn.

That's how they found him. He was dragging away sticks and pine needles when a family of local farmers came up the hill.

“What happened?” the man shouted.

Denario ignored him and kept working. He didn't know quite what to say.

“Don't drag it uphill,” said the woman coming up behind her man. “That's where the fire is going. Don't you know anything?”

“But the tree will fall downhill,” Denario pointed out.

“Well, maybe,” she allowed. She wiped her hands on her apron. She looked like she'd just come from cooking the family dinner. “But fire burns up, not down. If the tree falls down the hill and doesn't find any fuel upslope, we'll all be safer.”

“Right.” Denario had to agree that she made good sense. He changed his direction and dragged the dead branch he was carrying sideways along the slope.

For a while, the farmer, his wife, and their three children helped Denario in relative silence. The two older boys shouted commands to each other and accepted directions from their mother. The youngest, a girl of five years, hovered around her father as he scraped away pine needles and other flammable debris.

“How did you end up here?” Denario asked as he passed by the farmer with an armful of dry grass. “I could see your farm by its chimney smoke but it's a long ways away. I figured you would be asleep before I could get there.”

“Ah.” The farmer nodded to himself. “It's funny. I heard a wolf howl. That's what it sounded like to me, anyway, although I heard no other sign of an animal near. I unshuttered the window to look out. Didn't spy any wolf or dog but I could see this tree on the west nob starting to catch fire. The wife said we might as well get up and go have a look.”

“I'm glad you did.”

“Careless with a cook fire?” the man said in a rather accusatory tone.

Denario grunted assent. He wasn't making any friends here so he might as well admit his blame. What this fellow thought wasn't even as bad as what he'd done.

“Where's your sergeant?”

“What do you mean?” The question bewildered Denario for an instant but he soon started to see the sense of it, given how he was dressed.

“Did you run away from the army?” The fellow's eyes glinted, as sharp in the reflected light as his voice had become. “Not that you'd be the first oath breaker around here but I hear they kill deserters now.”

“I haven't broken any oaths.” Denario made the holy 8 for Melcurio over his chest. “In fact, I'm traveling in this direction in order to keep my oaths to my apprentices. And I haven't run away from the army. The army left me in Pharts Bad. The Mundredi army, that is.”

The farmer leaned in close to Denario and seemed to really notice him for the first time.

“Yer a waldi!” he exclaimed.

Denario had heard this complaint many times before. Of course, those confrontations had been in the daylight and he hadn't set fire to anyone's property. He hoped this encounter wouldn't turn ugly.

“How'd a waldi get all the way into these hills?” cried the wife as she trudged toward them along the slope. Out of breath after carrying one branch, she turned and gestured to her boys behind her. “The real work to stop the fire is done. Our kids can handle the rest.”

The job wasn't as finished as Denario would have liked but apparently it was good enough for the folks who lived here. The woman's two sons had dropped their bundles and taken to swatting at each other with sticks. Beside them, the pine tree burned in a half-hearted way. It wasn't so dry as to catch on the trunk. The fuel that had stoked most of the flames had been removed. At this point, the moon provided as much light as the dwindling blaze of tinder. Soon even that feeble glow would fade to nothing.

The little girl clung to her daddy's leg. She kept an eye on her parents rather than the fire.

“Ye can tell me everything ye've told me husband,” the woman said. She finished smiling at her daughter. Her expression toughened.

“Weren't much,” her husband complained.

“All I said was that I haven't run away from the army. I'm a waldi, it's true, but I have the army's leave to travel. Plus I've got letters of transit from Phart's Bad and Double Bad.”

“We know Double Bad.” The wife raised her eyebrows but she inclined her head in acknowledgment, an expression of her wait-and-see acceptance. “But regardless, we'll have to warn our neighbors about you and your fires.”

“We should have a look at that letter.” Her husband pulled his gaze away from the embers of the tree. “One of our neighbors can read a bit.”

Denario sighed. “Fair enough. It's addressed to 'Denario, Accountant of Oggli and of the Mundredi Army' even though the mayor knew perfectly well that ...”

The middle-aged couple broke into laughter.

“What's so funny?” Denario asked.

“You're an accountant?” said the woman. “Really?”

“Ach! Hilde, I've figured it out.” The big farmer wrapped his right arm around Denario. He gave him an affectionate squeeze. “The story we heard sung is a true one. Probably all of it, from the looks of him.”

Sunday, June 25, 2017

A Nerd in a Warrior Culture - Thirteen Chapters

Chapter Thirty-Two Minus Thirty-One


Chapter Root Two Squared

Chapter Pi, Roughly 


Chapter Two Pair


Chapter Full Hand


Chapter Half Dozen


Chapter Fourth Prime


Chapter Two Cubed


Chapter Three Quarters of Twelve


Chapter Binary Two


Chapter Red, Green, Yellow


Chapter Square Root of Gross


Chapter Baker's Dozen