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.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Not Even Not Zen 93: A Bandit Accountant, 15.5

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Fifth Triangular Number

Scene Five: Refugees 

“It galled me to stay away all winter,” said Hermann. “It wasn't the back-breaking farm work, although that's something I won't miss. Never done a lot of it before. Mostly, I just felt defeated. It was hard to get up in the morning, hard to eat. With my lands gone and my girls gone, I've got nothing. There's no reason to live.”

At one point in their journey, the road to to South Ackerland narrowed from an expanse large enough for caravans to pass one another down to a trail barely wide enough for a single cart. Since then it had widened again to a caravan-sized strip of dirt, pebbles, and grass. Denario marched shoulder to shoulder with Hermann. He could stand far enough apart that he didn't have to hurt his neck to look up at the man.

“That's how you feel?” Denario asked, afraid to hear much more. He carefully avoided looking over his shoulder. Valentina had allowed the men to lead the way but he worried that she was listening. Of course, she might already know her husband's views.

“Yes. I fought for my inheritance, you see. It was hard won. It was hard to leave.”

“Your ... inheritance?” According to the barons, these peasants owned nothing, technically.

“Of course, fighting for inheritance is illegal in these towns where the knights hold sway ... they seem to think they should decide ... but it's a tradition we've kept up from the times when our families lived on the other side of the mountains, in the valleys.”

“And you had to fight to inherit? Really?” Denario had no idea how such a system could be organized. It sounded like a recipe for chaos. It would be a fancy recipe, too; if it were a cake, it would have lots of small, spectacular battles swirling in an icing of persistent hostility.

“Tanistry,” said Hermann. “It's called tanistry. That's our traditional Mundredi process of handing down lands. Lots of times, when a man dies he states in his will that his farm should go to the most fitting of his sons. Then they'll fight to the death for it. That's the most primitive sort of tanistry, of course. It's just as likely that a father will divide his cleared land into plots. The sons and sometimes the daughters, too, fight for the plots. The best fighter gets the best land, see. That's the smart way to do it. The losers have to clear their own lands, perhaps, but nothing worse.”

“It's the way your father did it, I suppose.”

“I got the second best land out of seven. Our land was so good, it was like the best land anywhere else.”

“You said that the knights don't like their peasants fighting. So has your baron forbidden tanistry? I'd think he would.”

Hermann shrugged. “Who knows? It's not really the baron's business. We never see him. I suppose the West Ogglian nobles generally aren't in favor but I don't understand why. Maybe it's because tanistry has been around longer than them. It's said that Prince Robberti himself tried to ban the practice. But on his death, it resumed.”

“I've heard about how the battles over his kingdom ended. So Robberti was proven right. It doesn't do a government much good to let property fights go on. It makes the people angry, divided and weak. The best sons may die in the act of inheritance. The daughters, too.” These Mundredi were crazy. Where else would women fight for their dowries? Well, Denario hadn't traveled outside of West Ogglia before. Maybe it happened everywhere. But he hadn't read about it in any accounting histories and he was sure that he would have.

“Divided? Maybe. Robberti thought so. I heard that from Vir. The royal bloodlines in the Mundredi, such as they are, practice inheritance by nephews in deference to the prince's wishes.”

“Ah, nephews.” Yes, Vir had told Denario about that, too. But succession through nephews didn't seem like the best of systems either. Denario wondered what system was best. In theory, there had to be an optimal one. As he marched, he started trying to imagine a formula to solve the problem. Something like (Candidate Fitness)(Charisma)/(Amount of Fighting over Succession) = Maximum Strength Inherited.

“In the other valleys,” Hermann said after a long pause, “I hear they practice inheritance by oldest sons like the Ogglis and Waldis. Still others seem to go by 'most respected.'”

“Most respected,” Denario repeated. That had to be force or personality plus a sense of ethics. But respect implied physical force, too, or at least persuasive force. “That's a sort of contest again.”

“It's a different tanistry.” Hermann held up a finger as if he'd proved his point. In his mind, Denario ran the inheritance calculation. He found that the formula still worked. Leaving the definitions of 'fitness' and 'strength inherited' a bit fuzzy helped.

The accountant hung his head down as he concentrated, a habit he'd acquired in the city and hadn't managed to fix in the wilderness. It was a habit that had probably led him to being shot so many times – and it was the reason why Hermann was the first to see silhouettes on the trail ahead of them. Denario was absent-mindedly kicking a clod of dirt when the larger man grabbed him by the arm.

“Off the road!” he hissed. “Come on.”

He dragged Denario to the right, the western side of the road. Valentina caught up with them in a few long strides. Together, she and Hermann practically lifted Denario to a spot behind some juniper bushes.

“Do you think they saw us?” Valentina huffed. She had apparently found the accountant difficult to move in his layers of armor.

“Hard to say.” Hermann drew his sword. The difference between his blade and the short baselard seemed like the difference between a surveyor's chain and a thread. Denario touched the pommel of his weapon but he didn't bother to take it out. It wouldn't be useful. “They were a long ways off.”

“How many?” Valentina's dagger was already in her right hand.

“I saw two. There could be more.”

They peered around the edge of the juniper. After a while, Denario got curious and ventured a glance between their dark-haired heads. He caught a distant glimpse of a man with a white shirt and dark breeches. The fellow carried a hunting bow in his left hand. He seemed to be approaching from beside the road rather than on it, meaning that he intended not to be seen by other travelers. That was suspicious. Denario couldn't make out any more about the man, though, so he retreated behind the bush rather than contribute to being spotted.

After considering for a moment, he set down the spear he was using as a walking stick. He removed his packs, too, and finally his bow. The effort to string the bow made him grunt. It was such a small noise he could barely hear it himself but it made Valentina whirl around.

She had been about to shush him, finger to her lips, but when she saw what he was doing she stopped. With a nod, she sheathed her knife.

"Still only two," Hermann murmured.

It took more than ten minutes before the travelers came close and, in that time, Denario and Valentina armed themselves with arrows notched and pointed in the right direction. The accountant was dismayed to find that he couldn't hold his bow drawn for very long without his arms trembling. He kept raising and lowering his weapon. Once, he felt so unsteady that he realized he was about to let go and shoot Hermann in the back. He re-aimed toward the ground.

“They're just boys!” Hermann said suddenly. He stood and waved to the approaching figures.

Boys or not, they jerked with surprise at Hermann's sudden appearance. The Mundredi man strode a step or two onto the road. The rearmost boy shot an arrow at him that sailed ten feet over his head.

“Hey, now!” he called.

The boys dropped everything they were holding except their walking sticks. Those, they swung wildly. One of them, wearing what looked like half a shirt, edged forward as if preparing to do battle with Hermann. The adult Mundredi held a sword, after all. But a stick and no armor wouldn't prove much good against Herman Ansel. As if to prove the point, the larger boy, closer to Hermann, retreated as he swung. He wanted to escape. In only a few steps, the boys drew beside each other. They kept whirling their sticks. The sticks met. The smaller boy lost his weapon. It went flying end over end into the scrub beside the trail.

“Look,” said Hermann. He noticed the sword in his hand and sheathed it. “I can see by your tattoos that you're not the knight's men. And I can see by your lack of beards that you're not really men. So don't act like you want to fight or my friends will shoot you.”

At that moment, Denario's grip gave way.

He hadn't realized that he was aiming at the younger boy, the one who'd previously held a bow. In the excitement of the moment, Denario had locked into a battle position and tracked the boys with the head of his arrow. It was a deadly, barbed tip. Luckily, Denario was a miserable archer. The arrow sunk into the ground between the two boys.

“That was a warning shot,” said Hermann, recovering instantly. “Now hold still.”

The boys froze. Until the appearance of the arrow, they hadn't realized that there were other folks to contend with. Now their eyes scanned the bushes on other side of the road. They didn't dare to move their heads but Denario could see them counting the possible hiding places for foes. If you were a scared child, there might seem to be a lot.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Not Even Not Zen 92: A Bandit Accountant, 15.4

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Fifth Triangular Number

Scene Four: Companions 

“Really,” said Mayor Richter. She wiped the sweat from her brow in the hot, noonday sun. Around them, a gaggle of children warred with one another using wooden hand rakes they'd gotten to do their morning chores. “It's most unseemly of you, Valentina. Travel is not safe, not even for the men.”

“I'll have guards.” Valentina tied the silk sash around her waist. The sash held her dagger. The blade of it was at least two thirds the size of Denario's baselard.

“Yes, but one of them is me,” Denario pointed out. Like the mayor, he wiped his forehead. The day had gotten hot. It had started out as nice. It had been calm and not too dry, no dust in the air, not even from the tilled fields or from the children swatting and kicking in the dirt. The heavy dew had had taken care of that overnight. Even now, the moisture was burning off under the glare of the sun. Unfortunately, enough of it hung around to encourage Denario's body to sweat. “I'm the one who travels with guards, usually. And now I've just sworn to rescue my apprentices, thanks to you. Will that force me to run away when we get into a fight? I probably can't protect you as well as you'd defend yourself.”

“I know how to handle a short blade. And you've traveled a long ways although you're only a book keeper.”

“An accountant,” he corrected automatically.

“So it can't be that hard.”

Denario continued to adjust the straps on his leather hauberk. He'd gotten better about changing in and out of the layers of armor but it was still awkward. He knew he was lucky that most of the pieces were too big.

“Maybe. I'm guessing it's riskier than it looks,” he said. “Plenty of people almost killed me. I'm alive because I'm unimportant.”

“To us, you mean. Not to your apprentices.”

“Yes.” Denario was momentarily stalled by the unexpected words of support. He tightened the top buckle. “But the point is, I don't have much worth stealing. There's no profit in kidnapping me. No one would pay ransom.”

“You have no clan.”

“That's right. And you do. You want to travel while dressed like someone with money. You bear your clan signs on your arms. My lady, I've been shot with arrows four, no, five times so far. I'm wearing thick leather so I'm fine. Barely a scratch. But in that dress of yours, you would have been killed by the first shot.”

“You'll walk in front, then.”

He sighed.

“You should take padding and another weapon, Valentina,” said one of the older burghers. He was dressed not much better than a farmhand today. His light brown robe was stained with grass and dirt. His silk belt included a twist of cheap rope. Like several of the town leaders, he hadn't seemed surprised by the Ansels' determination to travel south. Instead, he'd wondered aloud if other former citizens of South Ackerland would try to return home or to migrate to other towns. “You may run into Sir Fettyrtyr's men, you know.”

“I'll have my husband. He'll have his sword.”

“But no armor,” someone muttered.

“Well, he can't wear the accountant's armor. It's too small.”

“And that would be immoral,” the stout burgher pointed out with just a hint of irritation, “since we've all sworn oaths to send the accountant on his way unharmed.”

“Yes, and that.”

“What I'm saying,” explained the older burgher patiently, “is that you should take a woman's hunting bow. My wife had one. She has no use for it where she's gone now, bless her. I've sent one of my son's little boys to fetch it. She had a quiver of arrows, too, five left in good shape although pretty near fifteen years old.”

“Oh.” Valentina curtsied. She did it perfectly and yet, for a moment, it seemed odd. Denario had expected her to bend at the waist with a half-salute like a Mundredi man.

“You know how to hunt, I hope?”

“I shot a few rabbits as a girl. But I preferred swords and spears. It's not very lady-like of me.”

“Very Thalberg-like, though. I always enjoyed seeing your house compete at the clan games. Your women always won the wrestling. Well, with only a few arrows at your disposal you'll have to practice carefully. The accountant has a hunting bow. I'm sure he can teach you.”

He smiled absent-mindedly at Denario, who did his best to return the expression of confidence. That would be all he needed, he thought, to fail in front of Valentina and Hermann Ansel at a skill they'd learned as children. Denario had been taught to use a theodolite when he was seven but not a hunting bow. He could survey anyone's lands to an error margin of inches. He could measure exactly where in a field anything sat in his line of sight. But he couldn't hit it with an arrow. Valentina must have sensed it. She glanced in his direction and snorted at the idea of him teaching her.

“Have ye been paid enough, accountant?” whispered one of the burghers into Denario's left ear. “Seems like escorting her may be a hardship. I know ye Ogglis and Waldis place importance on coins. We haven't got many but I've brought a few with me today to see ye off.”

Denario had already been paid in brass, more than he deserved. These people were nearly starving to death and they'd filled his backpack with acorn bread and dried meats, too.

“No, you've already been very kind.”

“Here,” the fellow said. He shook hands with Denario as he searched his pockets with his other hand. “Yer our chief's man, somehow, and ye've done well by the town. Take good word of us, will ye? This goes to the temple in Ruin Thal. It's just a bit southwest of Fruhlingsburg.”

Denario remembered that there had been towns with names ending in 'Thal' along his stagecoach route to Ziegberg last fall. So he was approaching those. Thank heavens, he thought, as he understood that he was making progress. It felt like he'd been walking an awfully long time, although it had only been a few weeks. Before he could ask about the villages to the south, however, the burgher pressed a small scroll into his hand. Denario accepted it without hesitation. He was headed to the southwest anyway, in the hope of finding the place ridiculously named No Map Creek.

“Unless I die, I'll take it there myself,” he swore. He made the sign of 8 to show he was serious. The burgher gave him a gap-toothed smile.

“That's the spirit,” he said. “Anyway, Valentina can't be as bad as all that.”

“I'm sure you're right.” She was more fit for travel than he'd been when he left Zeigburg. His problem wouldn't be getting her to keep up. It would be keeping her from harming him. But he had to do it. He wasn't sure how he'd ended up in this situation but Valentina and her husband were taking him in the right direction. Maybe it would work out for the best. “Anyway, I trust Hermann Ansel. He's a good man.”

Hermann had stood off to one side, mostly ignored by the crowd. The spectacle, after all, had come from the announcement that a free woman was going to voluntarily travel between towns without a small army. Hermann had felt humiliated by the announcement, although Denario didn't quite understand why. At least when he heard Denario's words, he stood a little taller.

The Mundredi are picking up weird notions of honor, Denario heard Vir's voice in his head. But it's honor we can't afford.

Denario felt more alien than ever in the throng of two sets of town leaders. He couldn't wait to leave the farmlands behind. He stuffed the coins and scroll into his travel pouch, thanked the burghers and everyone else around him several times, and tried to make his way down the road. Valentina had said he should lead the way, after all.

The mayor grabbed him before he could escape.

“We've been a bit hard on you,” she said as she held him by the elbow. “But it's been a tough year on us. Try to understand.”

Denario wanted to scream that he did understand. How did anyone think he could fail to see the rail-thin children?

“You haven't been paid enough for explaining those maps. And the readings. And you wrote a letter to Vir, I heard, along with letters to a woman named Olga, a woman named Senli, and a woman named Pecunia. You left payment in meat and in copper for a caravan to take it the other way. Now you're taking messages southward for us, too. So are Hermann and Valentina, of course. But they've been paid.”

“You've been very good to me. You gave me a letter of transit.”

“Shh. We don't have any more broken brass, you know. But I do have a few things. I want you to take this.”

She pried the fingers of his fist apart without much effort and sneaked a trinket into his palm.

“It's just a token of my family. It may help you if you show it off in some places although not as much as the coin around your neck. The main thing is, it's silver. If you need to, you can sell it.”

“I wouldn't ...”

“Shh. When you get to Ruin Thal, you can give it to my cousin's cousin there. He's a shopkeeper, name of Udo Vogel. He'll make good on it, see, so it stays in the family.”

“Mayor Richter! Ilse, I ... I'm honored.”

“Of course you are. Because you're a good boy. I can spot the good ones from miles away, you know. The bad ones, too. It's the in-between ones like Wilmit who give me fits.”

“I've done some bad things ...” he began to confess. Of course, she'd heard the stories from him already minus the magical parts.

“Shh,” she said again. She patted his hand. “You've done what you needed to do to stay alive. Now I want you to keep my Valentina alive, too. Promise me that you'll do your best.”

“I do. I mean, I will.”

“Good. Wilmit and his men will see you on your way.”

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Not Even Not Zen 91: A Bandit Accountant, 15.3

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Fifth Triangular Number

Scene Three: Hasty Promises 

Denario half-awoke to a creak from the door. He tried to put his hand on the hilt of his sword but it took enormous effort. His eyes didn't want to open. He gave up on moving. The door had made noises several times before. There were too many people in the house and different burghers kept getting up to pee outside. Two had walked by him. Denario had learned to disregard the sounds so he could sleep.

That's why he was surprised when someone pulled on his right boot. 

“What in the world?” He woke completely. His eyes flew open. His sword came out of its sheath. 

He hadn't had any preconceived notion of what he would find and yet somehow it wasn't this. In front of him, grabbing the heel of the boot, was Valentina Ansel. She was dressed in a flannel nightgown so thick that it could have deflected Denario's blade. There was a wad of black shoulder padding on the top with something red sewed onto it. She had his heel in both hands and she was trying to pull him across the floor. Maybe. It was the only thing that made sense.

“Is there a fire?” he asked. He didn't even try to pull his leg away.

“Darling?” someone yawned in the doorway. It was Hermann Ansel. He looked puzzled and half asleep. No, more than half. He looked as dead as Denario felt. Hermann hadn't brought his sword, either. If they were up to something, it wasn't murder. But it was strange. 

“Don't just stand there!” Valentina said to her husband. 

“Don't just stand there what?” he asked, understandably. 

“What is it you're trying to do?” Denario pleaded. He decided to sheath his sword. He didn't want Hermann to get the wrong idea. Or Valentina, for that matter, because she had arms like a dockyard worker. “Will you just let go?” 

This time, Denario twisted and pulled. He managed to wrench his leg free. 

“Don't do that!” Valentina shouted. 

“Don't do what?” said Denario and Hermann both together. Herman added, “Honestly, if you were up to dishonor me somehow, couldn't you have been quieter?”

“What?” Valentina put both fists on her hips. “Oh! It's not about that! Can't you see I've been visited by the goddess Druantia?”

Denario started to laugh. Fortunately, the effort of rising to his feet stopped him. Valentina's husband didn't think it was funny. 

“Again?” Hermann complained. His hand touched his brow as if he were still trying to wake himself up completely. 

“Yes! She came to me in a dream. Druantia said the accountant had a tattoo on his right foot. If I saw the tattoo, I would know his god. And if I knew his god, Ackerland could live.” 

There was a great deal of confusion for a minute or two. Denario staggered erect. The youngest burgher, dark-haired and thin, joined the meeting. Then the short, heavy burgher came to see what the fuss was about. Finally, Mayor Richter came down the stairs. Denario realized that if he thought Valentina's flannel gown was thick, it still could not compare to what Ilsa Richter wore. The mayor's night dress was padded like the stuff warriors wore under their plate armor. Folds of the material were held up by carved bone. She had a black shoulder garment like Valentina's but embroidered in gold. She couldn't possibly have slept in all of it. Denario guessed she'd put on an extra layer before she came down. 

“Well, is it true, accountant?” asked the mayor. She folded her arms. He tried not to stare at how the gesture made her robe bunch up and her hips look as wide as two grown men. “Do you have a tattoo on your right foot?”

“Yes,” Denario admitted. He wondered if the Mundredi would understand. They mingled with West Ogglian folks enough to recognize a slave tattoo. On top of that, they had a strong disdain for slaves. “That part is right. But I don't show anyone. It's ... it's a religious thing.”

“Aha!” Ilze Richter raised a finger. She gave him a triumphant smile. Instead of laying into him about his foolish shyness, she turned to her burghers and began a religious debate. The short, heavy burgher seemed to be some kind of authority on negotiating between religions. He took the matter very seriously. The last burgher to wake up, a tall fellow in a white robe with gold brocade, at last joined the crowd and launched in with his opinions. His ideas seemed based largely on the precepts of his farming god. 

The leaders of Ackerland took Denario's beliefs so seriously that Denario started to feel ashamed for not having them. He was only trying to hide his childhood as a slave.

“It's important to know how the goddess Druantia came to Frau Ansel,” said the heavy burgher as he stroked his beard. “That's how gods establish themselves to one another through us. We must understand the extent of Druantia's presence or we will offend the accountant's strange god.”

“No one wants that,” said the mayor. The burghers murmured their agreement. Ilse Richter turned to her only female guest. “So how did the goddess appear in your dream? And before you say too much about that, I think we should know about how the goddess appeared in your previous dream.” 

Valentina and Hermann had been voicing their religious opinions along with everyone else. But when questioned directly, they closed their mouths. Husband and wife locked gazes for a while.

“It's my fault,” Hermann said at last. He sounded defeated. “I didn't listen to my wife.” 

“No, it was mine, too.” Valentina seemed relieved to be let off the hook. Her hands opened as she talked. “I thought my vision of Druantia was funny. I mean, it was an acorn talking to me. An acorn, just a thing I held between my thumb and forefinger. So I didn't think it was a true dream until the moment it started to happen.” 

“What happened?” said the burgher in white. 

“The attack,” answered Hermann. 

“The goddess ...” Valentina took a deep breath. “She warned me to leave town with my family before South Ackerland was burned to the ground. I told Hermann. We both thought it was a silly joke. We were laughing over it that morning.” 

“Until the fighting started.” Hermann spoke without emotion. Yet his words silenced the North Ackerland men for a long moment. 

“You were with the other burghers of South Ackerland when the knight's men ran over the lot of you.” The portly burgher started rubbing his beard again. “How did you escape, Hermann?” 

“I didn't. Five of us lined up with swords, even though it was a useless thing to do. I was on the end of the row, I suppose. That may have helped. The horsemen speared Burgher Rumsel to my right. They hacked or ran over the rest. Then the steeds wheeled around and headed back to trample me, too.” 

“They couldn't have missed.” 

“Two horses ran over me. Two. And something hit me in the head, probably a hoof. You've seen the scar. I don't know why I lived. I was senseless for a little while. And when I became aware of myself, I thought I was dead. I kept waiting for Druantia's angels to come take me to the afterlife. Maybe it would have been kinder that way ... to have been trampled, I mean.”

“Kinder than what?” Denario blurted.

“You wouldn't know.” Hermann hesitated. With a nod, he went on. “Kinder than missing my little girls. But that's not a story for tonight.” 

“No,” Valentina agreed emphatically. 

“I'm surprised that you got another vision, Valentina,” said the burgher. “The gods don't like to waste their interventions on folks who don't follow their bidding.”

“I know.” Valentina gritted her teeth.

“So tell us how Druantia appeared this time.”

The younger woman took a while to speak.

“The odd thing about this dream,” she said quietly, “is that I woke up. In the dream, I mean. I wasn't here in the mayor's house. In my mental picture, I woke up in my tent. I ate a mash of turnips for breakfast. Then I trudged back to the fields for another day of labor. I must do my part, after all. That's what I thought. But as I was walking, I heard a phrase inside my head. 'You didn't listen,' it said. I knew right away it was a message from Druantia. She had the same tone.”
 
“But she was just a voice inside your head? Not a vision?” 

“The goddess said, 'Valentina, I will give you a last chance to save the people you love. Do you want to rescue all of Ackerland? You must go to the accountant.' 'The funny little man?' I said. 'Yes,' the goddess told me. 'The accountant comes from a foreign land. He is beholden to a god of tricks. You must trick him. But first, you must know his god.” 

“That's when she told you about his tattoo?” 

“'It's on his right foot. You must look. You must understand the god. But then you must do the right things, too, and I cannot tell you what they are.'” 

“What are they?” Hermann asked. 

Valentina shrugged. “'You can trust the accountant to keep his sworn word. That's why he doesn't like to make any oath. But on his oath he has carried the messages of other gods and he's been trustworthy.'” 

“Have you?” asked the burgher. He eyed Denario. “Have you carried messages for the gods?” 

“Yes.” That chore was meant to be a joke, he thought, a trick on the accounting guild. How is it that these folks know? It's probably some primitive magic, he thought. Druantia shouldn't have known about the symbol of another god. In Oggli, the deities didn't mess with each other so directly. 

“And on your right foot?” 

“Yes, I have a tattoo.” 

The fellow rubbed his beard a bit more. He murmured to the other two burghers and they whispered in their turn. In half a minute, they pulled in the mayor for a conference.
 
“Are you under a religious oath to hide the tattoo from non-believers?” 

That was a good one. Denario should have thought of using that. But he found himself reluctant to tell a direct lie. 

“No,” he admitted. “But it's private. Only believers have seen it. Not even my guild masters have been allowed.”

“But ...” the mayor began. She stopped at a whisper from the third burgher, the one who'd been in the conversation from the beginning but hadn't spoken much. He had more tattoos on his arms than any of the other men. 

“But there was one other, a witch,” Denario whispered. Then he realized that he was admitting to himself that Pecunia was probably a dabbler in magic. Maybe she was a medicine woman of sorts. She did a lot of brewing and distilling. He remembered how her house was filled with tinctures on shelves along the walls everywhere, even in the hallways. 

“I am not a shaman or a witch,” said the third burgher. He stepped to the fore. His hair was the curliest, by far. “But I am an artist.” 

“Yes?” As an accountant, Denario had a healthy respect for artists. They could do things he couldn't. But he thought there had to be something more to the burgher's meaning. 

“I'm expert in tattoos,” the fellow explained. “Valentina needs to see what's on your foot. But she may not understand it. I must interpret for her.” 

Denario raised a hand so that the man would hold his peace for a moment. Denario needed to think. Awkwardly, not only did the artist fall silent but he raised his own hand, too, and everyone else stopped talking. So it was a very long minute for Denario as he contemplated his position. He patted his stomach and thought about the pieces of leather armor he'd removed. They were all around the room. He'd trusted these people. And, in fact, they were trustworthy. They were taking care not to offend him even though him felt they might be justified in wrestling him down and cutting off his boot. In their minds, they would be saving their town. Denario would have done it for Oggli. Well, no, that wasn't quite accurate. He'd have done it for his apprentices. They just happened to live in Oggli.
 
“Will you swear to secrecy?” he asked. 

The burgher beamed. Denario would have reacted badly to a sly expression but the artist more simply relaxed. The natural appearance of his face was a slight, calm smile.
 
Everyone swore to their gods without hesitation. Even Hermann and the mayor went down on one knee and pledged oaths to keep Denario's secrets. Only Valentina held back, perhaps driven by the need in her dream to 'trick the accountant' somehow. Well, Denario had that in mind. Whatever Druantia or Valentina might be up to, he wanted to keep it in check.
 
The tall woman put her right hand over her heart. She gave Denario a rather confused vow to keep secret whatever she saw. 

“You hesitated,” he noted. “You swore to Druantia only. Everyone else swore to all of their gods. I'll bet you worship another god.”

“Yes, we worship Tannus as well.” Hermann laid a stern gaze on his wife. 

Her eyes widened in an unspoken protest of innocence. Last year, Denario guessed, he might have been fooled by it. Now he wasn't. For that matter, no one else seemed taken in. They understood that Valentina had tried to cheat, even if they had different attitudes about it. The expression on Mayor Richter's face was one of approval. Clearly, Ilse had no problem with giving false oaths in order to save her city. But the burghers looked grave. Hermann pressed his lips tight together, apparently impatient with his wife's hair-splitting morals. The men, as a whole, seemed to feel that an oath ought to be a straightforward thing.
 
“Try again, madam,” said the artist. 

“To Tannus.” Denario stepped back and waited. 

Valentina took a second oath. She couched her phrases a bit differently to Tannus. In fact, the way she crafted her words, they didn't amount to anything. Denario didn't even have to ask her to try again. The burghers did it for him. The third time, at last, she swore in the name of 'all the gods there are' that she would never tell anyone except the people in this room about Denario's tattoo. The promise upset her.
 
That was why, when Denario knelt and unlaced his boot, he wasn't surprised that he let down Valentina. After all, the mark was the size of a honeybee. She peered close at the sign of the winged messenger and shrugged. Then she stood, hands on hips. After a moment or two, she stomped her feet.
 
“That thing,” she pouted. “Just that. It's tiny. And what is it? What god?” 

“Ah, Melcurio,” murmured the artist.
 
“How did you know?” Denario dropped his trouser cuff in astonishment. “I haven't seen his tokens anywhere for weeks of travel.”

“I know my work.” The other two burghers laughed and slapped the back of the artist. Hermann thumped the man on the shoulder. “Besides, he's notorious, isn't he? God of thieves and all that.”
 
“Damn it!” Denario got hot. “I had to keep telling Vir, too. Melcurio is not a thief. He's the god of accountants. He counted all of the things in the world. He measured everything. Everything!”
 
“That he did.” The artist, like his stout compatriot, was a calm fellow and knew how to deal with religious fanatics. The fact that he leaned back and regarded Denario as one was enough to make the accountant hesitate in the middle of his explanation which, as he replayed it in his mind, sounded a bit like the beginning of a rant.
 
“I need a drink,” announced Hermann Ansel. His wife immediately contradicted him and asserted that, in fact, he didn't.
 
“Me, too,” Denario mumbled. The burghers ignored him. But the mayor took notice.
 
“It's been an odd night,” said Frau Richter. “I don't expect I'll be good for much tomorrow. But a little wine would help. With better sleep, we’ll be better later. Hermann, would you tell my kitchen staff to bring out a bottle of Ogglian Red?”
 
“That's the good stuff!” Hermann smiled, much pleased.
 
“Well, I am the mayor.” She chuckled. With a punch to his shoulder, she sent him on his way.
 
It took Hermann a few minutes to persuade the kitchen ladies that wine was needed in the darkest part of the night. Even then, the older one felt it was quite improper. She had to be mollified with the allowance of half a glass of Oupenli White, her own personal preference. In the time it took the younger lady to arrange everything, one of the burghers asked Denario to brag about his accomplishments.
 
Denario hesitated. It was a strange hour to be awake. Only the oil lamps made it possible and he'd spent enough time in the wilderness to see them as nearly unnatural as magic. They smelled good, though. The mayor scented her oil as if she were of the nobility.

“No singing, accountant,” said Mayor Richter. “It's too late for rowdiness. But I would like to hear why Captain Vir thinks mathematics could be useful. He never saw much use in it before that I ever heard.”

Could be?” Denario scowled. He felt he could get into the spirit of this bragging thing. “It's only the most useful skill in the world. Everyone needs accounting. Everyone. Math is the secret that underlies the universe. Everyone does accounting whether they realize it or not. It's what separates men from beasts. Beasts do not count ... well, except according to a few wizards.”

“But they're wizards who've transformed themselves into beasts, aren't they?” The stout burgher raised his glass. He'd been the first to fill up on red wine. “They're biased.”

“Right.” Denario tried to launch into a demonstration. The first idea that occurred to him was what he'd accomplished at the Paravientari docks. He and Buck had designed a new winch there. It had been built by Buck and a team of skilled workers but Denario's geometry had been important. The winch lifted cargo that was too heavy for other docks. It had made the Paravientari crew hundreds of gold pieces per year.

The accountant had trouble describing it, though. He wasn't much of a salesman. Slaves weren't expected to talk about themselves. Even long after he'd been set free, such talk didn't come naturally. Winkel had never done taught him to do it. Denario needed encouragement. He needed more than one drink. That was a problem, too, because he wasn't accustomed to so much wine. Bragging took on a sort of emotional momentum. After a few minutes, he didn't want to stop. He told them about how the docks used so much twine that Denario made them an extra twenty silvers a year by switching them to a lower-cost provider. He'd also stopped the headman's son from buying cheap scaffolding. The price hadn't made sense. Sure enough, a rival yard had bought the cheap scaffolding and it had collapsed, killing two workers and injuring four more.

Denario kept talking, aware that he'd started rambling. He shared his philosophies on how three must be equal to three, always. From the looks he got, not one person followed his thoughts. After a minute or so, he let the mayor steer him back to tales of battles and other, less consequential things.
 
“So then I killed the Raduar hetman,” he said with false bravado. He raised his cup into the air and nearly spilled some of his wine.

“With a poison dart?”
 
“Yes, and others with darts too.” He lowered the cup. He wasn't nearly as proud about that. “Well, it had to be done. I had to save the boy, Karl. Oh, but then came tile system. That was the best. When I fixed that, I knew I'd saved the town. And saving one town saved others. No one could have done anything like it with weapons.”
 
“But that was just numbers.”
 
Denario had been sitting on a stool under the arch between the hallway to his bedroom and the main meeting room. It was where the wine had been set on a dark, green table not much taller than the chairs. Naturally, the group had drifted in the direction of the bottles. Denario had begun to feel like he should return to his bed soon. But at hearing the words, 'just numbers,' the accountant shot to his feet.
 
Numbers are the key to life.” He could hear his words slurring but he went on. He tried to explain the concept of hiring people for money. Vir needed armorers. Coins were the best way to lure highly skilled craftsmen. Denario explained the concept for three or four minutes before anyone could get a question in.

“But if we have to pay them,” said the artist, “how can we know they'll be loyal?”

“If you kidnap them, they won't be loyal either,” Denario retorted.

“We'd have their families. That usually works.”

Denario had forgotten that the Mundredi were experienced criminals in their way. They didn't understand Ogglian attitudes about laws, not even after a few generations of living with them. Their ancestors had spent hundreds of years raiding villages, kidnapping one another, tearing down totems, and in general living a clan-based, semi-tribal style of life. Only the most powerful Mundredi and their caravan leaders ever traveled more than ten miles from their homes. Journeys were dangerous. When Vir had traveled alone from the West Valley hills to the Lamp Kill farmlands, he'd proved he was an exception. The mere fact of his wandering had made him a hero of sorts in the eyes of the Mundredi.

Their army couldn't really kidnap the labor it needed, could it? No, probably not. But Denario found it hard to rule out the possibility with Vir in charge. 

“You need skilled labor,” Denario said. “You don't realize how much you're missing. It isn't just math teachers, accountants, and geometers who would help you. Your towns need more doctors, midwives, masons, and other folks who can help you catch up to the big cities.”

“If we need you so much,” said Valentina, “why are you leaving?”

“Curo! There's Curo. And Kroner. Guilder. Buck … good young man, Buck, really coming around as a surveyor. And Mark. Shekel. Shekel is the smartest. He's going to be the guild master, someday, or a professor at the Academy of Muntar.”

“Oh, that's right.” She seemed slightly disappointed. “You have apprentices. Five boys?”

“Yes!”
 
“And you're going to rescue them from poverty?” 

“Yes.” 

“Very well, then.” Her eyes narrowed. “But you're leaving behind an entire land, the whole Seven Valleys. At the least, you've abandoned the chief of two valleys, Vir. And you're doing it for just five boys.” 

“Well, yes.” He could see that from her point of view it wasn't a fair trade. But that was the point. No one else was going to rescue Denario's apprentices. Other folks could rescue these peasants. Maybe they could even rescue themselves.

“Have you taken an oath to them?” 

“I took ...” Denario didn't want to admit that he hadn't. These folks set a lot by oaths. “I took an oath to my old master.”

“But not to your god.”

“No. Nor to my guild, if that's what you're going to ask next.”

“I wasn't.” The tall woman seemed to read his body language with precision. She allowed herself a slight smile. “Guilds are a big city thing, I suppose. Around here, the carpenters have a guild. The farm workers tried to get one together too but the knight wouldn't allow it. Mostly, they aren't important here. Honor is important. Keeping oaths is important. And your master is dead. That frees you from your old oath.”

“Um ...” Denario tried to think fast. The hour of night and the wine weren't helping.

“So you could stay.”

“But ...”

“Unless you took another oath.”

“Yes.” He nodded but without quite comprehending.

“After all, we all took oaths for you. Surely you could go now to the temple and make an oath to your apprentices. Then no one can gainsay you.”

Denario tried out the idea. He set down his wine. This was the trick, he was sure. Somehow, it was what Druantia and maybe all the other little gods and goddesses around here wanted. But there was nothing wrong with it that he could see. Saving the boys was his goal, after all. It was why he'd set out from Ziegeburg – well, aside from the fact the mayor there had tried to kill him. The reason he'd gone in the first place was to save the practice for his apprentices. He wouldn't mind swearing to it.

He nodded. A moment later, there was a brief stumble out into the streets and through the North Ackerland night. To Denario's mind, it was an unsteady journey and a bit unclear in direction. The people up front, the mayor and a tall burgher, kept up a chatter in low voices. Denario got chilled to the bone because he wasn't wearing armor or many clothes, either. The group ducked down several alleys and changed direction once. Denario kept up by focusing on Hermann's back and by refusing to be distracted. Eventually, they stopped at the Temple of the Passion Gods. The doors opened and the group trudged in. Valentina poked Denario in the back to make him move. She herded him and the other men, too, toward the altar. On the way, they stepped over the bodies of rail-thin children sleeping on the temple floor.

A sleepy-eyed priest met them on the dais. He didn't speak crossly to the mayor but, in some manner of revenge for having been woken, he took his time preparing for the oaths. Whoever the Passion Gods were, the priest required that everyone present say a prayer to them while he rather awkwardly sacrificed of loaf of bread. He burned a crumb of the loaf in a candle flame.
 
“I really should have been given time to go catch a bird, mayor,” he grumbled at the end of the ritual.

“None of the children who are good at it are awake.” Ilse folded her arms. “And I'm not about to have you rouse them. Let's get on with it.” 

“Very well. Who is taking the oath?”
 
“The accountant!” all of the men and women said together. They pointed to Denario, who felt himself trying to shrink. The crowd parted for him. He walked up the aisle they made and was reminded of the wedding of Volfie and Elsa. He wondered if he would ever get married in a church like this. Probably not, if he couldn't persuade Pecunia. Most women didn't want to put up with a lot of math, much less enjoy it.

In front of the priest, between Mayor Richter and former burgher Ansel, the accountant made a holy “eight” symbol above his chest and head. The bitter tang of burnt acorns, which must have supplied half of the flour for the bread, hung in the air. The smell made him light headed. Or maybe that was the wine. The priest's voice rasped as he chanted the opening invocation. It was like standing in front of the breathy rumble of a bassoon played by someone who had downed a glass of sour beer. 

Then, when it became Denario's turn to speak, sobriety hit. He opened his eyes, looked around at the town leaders, heard the sniffles of refugee children in their sleep, listened to their parents rustling nearby, and noticed the sputter of the candles. The heat of the alcohol moved from his chest and temples into his hands and into his skin all over, especially his nose. He smiled as the priest handed him a lit taper.
 
“Now your oath,” the fellow muttered. He ended with a throat-clearing cough. 

This was it. What would Melcurio do, trapped like this? Step into the trap. The answer came to him instantly. Take over. Make it your own. Trap them right back.

“I swear,” he said. “In the name of Melcurio and in the faith of all of the gods and goddesses here present, I shall rescue my apprentices. Their names are Mark, Shekel, Guilder, Kroner, and Buck. I know they are waiting for me to help them. And my partner, Curo. I'll take care of them, even Curo, as well as any mortal can do.”

“Unto death?” The voice was Valentina's. Naturally. Denario didn't look over his shoulder. 

“Unto death,” he said, “theirs or mine. And no one here will move me aside. Do you swear?”

“I swear,” said Hermann. All the other men and even Valentina followed. Trapped you back, Denario thought. If you have any fear of your gods, I've got you now. You can't get in my way.

“Even if they have done bad things while I've been gone,” Denario continued, “I'll take care of them. I'll make them right.”

“Even if they've forsaken you?” Valentina said.

“They're my apprentices. Their parents trusted me to act as a parent to them. They cannot forsake me.”

“Pursue them, find them, do everything you can?” she continued. "Without failing, without betraying their trust? Or the trust of their parents?”

“Yes.” 

“And you'll take me as far as Frühlingburg?” 

“Yes, I'll take you as far as … uh, what place?” He raised an eyebrow. In front of him, the priest was open-mouthed. He glanced to his right. Hermann Ansel had turned around to gawk at his wife.
 
“Where?” said Hermann. 

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Not Even Not Zen 90: A Bandit Accountant, 15.2

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Fifth Triangular Number

Scene Two: A Wanted Poster

“Thank you, Frau,” said Valentina as she hugged the mayor.

“Call me Ilse, now that we're not being official.” She patted Valentina on the back in a motherly way. Ilse Richter was the right age to have been an aunt or older sister. With Valentina's natural mother passed on during the fighting, it made sense for Ilse to take on the protective role.

The meeting had adjourned from the church to the town hall, where the mayor said she kept her quarters exactly as she had when her husband was in charge. She'd let Denario stash his spear, traveling pack, accounting pack, bed roll, and buckler in a small guest room. There were two other rooms on the ground floor as well as a kitchen and a pantry. The mayor's two female servants slept in the kitchen every night. There were windows in the rooms, all with glass panes. The walls except for the pantry were painted eggshell white so that the place appeared cheery although the paint in the farthest guest room had peeled away to reveal the cedar beams. The ceiling of the main hall was stained charcoal grey by lamp fumes. It looked like someone got up on a ladder and scrubbed but there was only so much they could do. On the whole, the place looked clean despite signs that it acted as a hotel.

Ilsa Richter must have allowed refugees to live here from time to time. Her quarters were in a loft apartment at the top of the stairs. She could bar the door and keep herself private. That was why she had invited Denario to sleep on the ground floor in the guest room.

“Madam mayor.” Denario bowed to her. When he was formal, he reverted to Ogglian city customs. He didn't seem to be able to help it. Everyone looked at him a bit strangely for a moment. The women laughed.

“Um,” he tried to recover. “Thank you for the hospitality and for your payment. You are a generous host.”

Ilsa scowled at that remark. “Not too generous, I hope.”

“Don't worry,” murmured one of the burghers next to Denario. “We are here, too. We'll bed down in the main hall.”

“And we'll take the room next to the accountant,” said Hermann Ansel. Valentina snorted at him.

It took a minute or two of conversation about the arrangements for Denario to understand that all of the other folks were here to protect the mayor from him. There was to be no hanky-panky tonight. Of course they were mostly here to protect the mayor's reputation, not her body. She couldn't be seen inviting strange men into her home. Yet she had. So her invitation to Valentina Ansel kept things looking reputable. Valentina had her husband to protect her. As to the staff, too bad for them. They were told to bar the kitchen door and guard each other's honor.

“I feel indebted that you've gone to trouble on my account.” Denario took the mayor's hand and went down on one knee. He realized that was going to far. He wasn't in court with the Marquis de Oggli. But he couldn't undo the kneeling.

“Oh, my,” she said. “How gallant. I must congratulate Wilmit tomorrow for doing the right thing and inviting you. Someone remind me.”

“Glad to, mayor!” growled a long-bearded burgher.

“You're a useful fellow. And not just because our tribal chief thinks so.” She beamed and patted Denario on the shoulder. She lifted him off his knee. “Get some rest. You've traveled a long ways and you've got many miles yet to go. Maybe being a waldi will help you if you get waylaid by the baron's men. Hard to say. You're a bright young lad. You might make it.”

It had been so long since Denario had considered any alternatives that he almost blurted out that of course he'd get back to Oggli. He had to. But he wasn't that bold so he settled for another round of handshakes. Then the mayor gave him a gift, a thin scroll with a purple ribbon. Denario unwound it.

Vir's face stared back at him from the parchment. Some magician had been hired to create the likeness, surely, because it was too good to have been done any other way. Even after the printing process, there was no mistaking the captain. His portrait sat above the word WANTED in fat, black letters.

“Highway robbery?” Denario read the charge aloud. He looked up at the mayor. “Two hundred gold pieces? That's quite a lot. Alive or dead, I notice.”

“No one's going to collect the reward. No one would even try, around here. It's just a keepsake.” She patted him on the hand. “I think it's a lovely portrait, don't you? Take it. When you see him again, maybe you can have it framed for him.”

“Ha ha.” For a moment, Denario assumed she was joking. But her jaw was set. He accepted the poster with a word or two of thanks. Even as he spoke, he felt like a fraud because he knew he would never see Vir again unless perhaps the captain was captured alive and taken back to the city for torture and execution. Even to reach that fate, he'd have to survive the Raduar.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Not Even Not Zen 89: A Bandit Accountant, 15.1

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Fifth Triangular Number

Scene One: Frau Ansel

His hands were sweating. He tried to wipe them on his trousers. But his leather hauberk, his chain mail, and his over-sized shirts all hung down so low in so many layers that he practically needed to undress in order to touch his pants legs above the knee. And below his knee, he wore studded greaves. Vir's sister-in-law approached. Denario wiped himself on his hauberk as best as he could. He waited for her with a sense of dread that had no particular reason.

“Did she like Vir?” he asked. The mayor had led them outside. Now that he was exposed to the evening air, he hoped his hands would cool down.

When Denario had first seen this place, he'd assumed that most of the buildings in town were hidden by trees. But the cedars that lined the streets were sparse. North Ackerland was smaller than he'd thought. The only lights at night were a torch in front of the Church of the Fork and another at the Temple of the Passion Gods. The clouds above had parted to reveal a glistening sugar powder of stars. And thinking of sugar made Denario feel homesick. He hadn't had a dessert since Ziegeburg on the night before he left.

“No, she didn't get along with him.” The mayor followed his gaze into the sky for a moment. She scowled at the stars or perhaps at her memory. “When Vir was young, he was quite poor. He was well-bred enough down the Robberti line but his father was a drunkard. His grandfather was, too. The family fortune had been spent ages back. Now they were all about drinking and fighting. Vir grew up wild with no mother in the house past when he was nine.”

Denario started to ask questions but Frau Richter barely paused.

“And it all happened a long ways from here, somewhere in the West Valley hills. Even there, his family farm was considered remote. It stood apart from any town. When Vir passed through North Ackerland, he told us he'd never go back up there, wherever that was. Of course, he had a hard time down in these lowlands. He refused to join another clan even though he was all alone in his. The other men didn't like him. He couldn't keep a job. A few of the girls around here thought he was exciting but that made the situation worse, as you might expect. Some of the elders considered him too handsome for anyone's good.

“Vir? Handsome?” He was healthy enough. Maybe that passed for handsome in a land where about a third of the men seemed to have lost a finger or a thumb or several teeth or, most often of all, had been disfigured by a childhood disease. It had never crossed Denario's mind that anyone would find the captain to be anything other than, well, a captain.

“Oh, he was going bald even in his late teens.” The mayor chuckled. There was a twinkle in her eye. “I remember him well, although he only spent a fortnight here. The baldness didn't seem to make a difference. For one thing, his shoulders just kept getting bigger and stronger. He worked hard at every job he could get. In time, he made some friends among the men in South Ackerland. Eventually, there were gentlemen farmers who wanted him to run their estates. He'd always had a way with farm animals. It turned out that he had a way with people, too. Like I said, he learned fast. And then there was Ekatrina.”

“Who was Ekatrina?”

“She was a youngest sister of Valentina, the woman you're about to meet. The youngest. They were sisters number three and five of the Thalberg family. The Thalbergs are very wealthy. Valentina married the son of another wealthy farmer. And Ekatrina … she married poverty. She chose Vir.”

“Didn't he choose her?”

“That's not how they tell the story in South Ackerland. It's what kept her father, Minister Thalberg, from organizing a lynch mob. Everyone knew that Vir hadn't wooed Ekatrina. Their marriage was the girl's idea. She had a few conversations with Vir when she was visiting the Ansel estate. The two of them talked about farming. Other folks were in the room the whole time. Vir didn't even smile at her, although he did seem to like what she said. He took her ideas seriously. That was enough for her. Ekatrina made up her mind.”

“Do you mean that she proposed?”

“Oh, no. She simply let Vir know she was interested. Vir was surprised because she was so smart and so rich. He warned her that she'd be poor if she married him. But she persuaded Vir to go ask her father. At the same time she let her father know that he'd better accept Vir. A few other girls were put out by how fast she arranged it. One of the mayor's daughters had her eye on Vir, too, and it made the families into enemies. At the time, we didn't know that would be a problem.”

“Did Vir get any of those interested girls, uh …?”

“Pregnant? Not that I know about. It did seem possible at the time. There was talk about the mayor's daughter, for one. But the mayor was related to Sir Ulrich, so I doubt it. That would have been very serious and Vir wasn't anybody special.”

“Ulrich is one of Baron Ankster's knights?”

“Yes. The mayor of South Ackerland was Hans Ulrich, a cousin to the knight. His kinship is what got him appointed.”

"He was chosen by your lord? That's different from most Mundredi towns.”

“The mayors of Frühlingburg, Ackfort, Bittesburg, and even as far away as Haph Fork are approved by the baron. My husband's nomination from the burghers got written approval from Baron Ankster. Around here, we've worked by noble appointments for at least two generations.”

“And there are appointments to be had for Mundredi and for ...”

“For waldi families, yes. But there's a different price to be paid. It costs eight silvers for a town to have a Mundredi man appointed as mayor, only two for a waldi.”

Where does that term for foreigners come from? Denario wondered. Since no one ever seemed to know, he had long since given up hope of an answer.

“And the Ulriches were waldi,” he said.

“Yes, and that is how things went bad. We'd never paid much attention to folks who didn't belong to our clans. There are plenty of them. They're quiet. They keep their heads low, as they say. Only the knight, Sir Ulrich, cared about such things.”

“Let me guess. He worships a different god.”

“He did do that, yes, some sort of river god. He didn't like to hear about any others. By the time Vir and Ekatrina got married, he'd driven off the few Mundredi settlers who had neighbored his farms. He'd burned their church, too. But that was miles and miles away so no one cared.”

“Vir got married,” Denario prompted. He didn't want to hear about every little conflict between the knights and peasants.

“Yes. But by the time he and Ekatrina had their son, things were bad between the Mundredi and waldi families. Sir Ulrich built a temple to his god, Tyber, just west of South Ackerland. Then he closed down the Temple of Baba Nat and sent out a decree that Baba Nat was a foreign goddess who had to stay in West Valley. She wasn't welcome in his townships. Well, there were hard feelings over that. Sir Ulrich killed the priest, too, because the priest wouldn't leave.”

“A son.” The accountant pondered how Vir had never mentioned his son.

“With another on the way. For Vir those were the best times of his life, I'm sure. He'd staked out land a long ways from anywhere, just some hilly stuff that one was using. His father-in-law gave him a generous dowry to start the farm. By all accounts, Vir raised better milk cows than anyone had seen before. And he was a wonderful father. He proved to be a fine uncle to the other Thalberg clan's children. Valentina tells me that Vir, in time, became Minister Thalberg's favorite son-in-law.”

“What happened?”

“There was bad blood between the Thalbergs and Ulrichs. We all knew where Sir Ulrich would come down on that. No one was fool enough speak ill of the mayor to his face. Still, it got hard, after a while. Hans Ulrich said vile things to the Mundredi men including slanders about their women and children. He appointed only his relatives to positions of authority. Then, one day, Theresa Thalberg got into an argument with the mayor's wife.”

“Theresa was the oldest sister?” he guessed.

“No, she was their mother. Her father Zyr Klinger had been the mayor, in fact, before Sir Ulrich put his cousin into the office. Maybe Theresa resented that. Anyway, Theresa and Greta Ulrich exchanged some words and Greta slapped her.”

The accountant stood up straight. Down at the end of the main street, he saw shadows move. He assumed that people were approaching from the Passion Gods temple. It was from the right direction.

“Theresa was a tall, strong woman. I'd seen her several times,” Frau Richter continued. She folded her arms and leaned back against the outer wall of the church. “It took her a few seconds to get enraged. By that point, I think, Greta Ulrich had tried to run. But Theresa caught her and slapped her back in the face. Several times. Quite hard.”

“Ah.” Now he understood. This was the spark to the rest of the violence.

“You might expect that Greta would refrain from telling her husband. She had to know where that would lead. But she went right to him. And Hans Ulrich sent out his guards to arrest Theresa Thalberg immediately.”

“The Thalbergs wouldn't allow it, I expect.”

The mayor turned to give him an appraising, almost approving look. “Yes, in an hour two of the Thalberg sons were dead and two of the mayor's guards, too.”

“I'll bet it wasn't fought the way clans fight. No one took hostages.”

“No, and the duels and battles went on for days. It got hard to know who was on which side. Most of the Thalberg family friends had to go into hiding. Some Mundredi clans took the side of the Ulrich family. At least two dozen men were killed. The mayor had a Thalberg woman executed, too. That was Kamilla, the oldest sister of the five. It was an unheard of thing to most of us. Ulrich lost most of his Mundredi friends in doing it, no matter that Kamilla had killed a man. Thing is, I doubt very much that Vir and Ekatrina heard the horror stories until Minister Thalberg himself snuck out during a lull and rode on an ox to their house. He went to warn them.”

“He was followed.” Denario nodded to himself.

“Is it that obvious?”

“Even to me. So how did Vir escape?”

“By not being at home. He was out in the fields tending to his fences when Sir Ulrich's men attacked. The knight had arrived to put the town in order. Or so he'd said. What the knight meant, apparently, was that he would kill all the Mundredi he could find. His men followed Minister Thalberg, set fire to Vir's farmhouse, and then his bowmen shot Minister and Ekatrina as they came out.”

“Was Sir Ulrich there?”

“No. More's the pity, I suppose, because Vir happened on the scene. He must have seen the smoke. But then he was noticed. After all, they had a half-dozen men out searching for him. Some of those gave chase. No one knows how many but I suppose it doesn't matter. He escaped them. And one of those men never came back from chasing him. That was Sir Ulrich's squire.”

“He killed the squire? While unarmed?”

“Vir always used to travel with a walking stick. It was as thick around as my forearm. He used it for a lot of things. I suppose it was a sort of weapon, too.”

“Luck. He said sometimes you have to have luck. But ... what about his son?”

“Oh. The poor boy never left the house. That's the strangest part. They say that Vir returned the next morning after the fire burned down. He found his boy untouched by the flames but dead.”

“Too much heat?”

“Maybe. Or magic? I've never been in a house fire so I have no idea.”

At last, three travelers strode forth from the shadows into the dim light of the torch. The figure at the back was the one Denario recognized first because it was Wilmit. That man's loose collection of weapons bristled around him. Nevertheless, he moved quietly. The most striking thing about him was his eyes, white and wide as he leaned forward to whisper to the man just ahead of his left shoulder.

The man beside Wilmit was pale and tall with long, dark hair. His trim goatee had grayed at the edges. His face was lean but handsome. He had probably been an aristocrat once, or whatever passed for one among these Mundredi who were all technically peasants but didn't realize it. Wealthy or not, this man's eyes were bloodshot and tired. His boots clanked loudly on the rocks and dirt. Perhaps the size of his calves had shrunk and made his gait looser. Yes, Denario could see that the man's cloak had been tailored for a more muscular fellow, probably the same man last year before the hard times.

In front of the other two strode a nondescript character in a fine, blue woolen cowl. Denario might have taken this person to be the natural leader of the group but long-fingered hands rose up to throw back the hood. The leader revealed herself to be a handsome woman. She was not as old as the man following her. Age had barely begun to turn her beautiful features into stern ones. But like the fellow a few steps behind, this woman was relatively pale in complexion and dark in her hair. Beneath her cowl and cape, she wore a bandolier over two layers of egg-white linen robes. It was the bandolier and dagger tied to it that had made her seem masculine at first glance. But in a Mundredi way, the brass dagger handle was quite pretty and suited for a woman of wealth.

“Frau Ansel,” said the mayor with barely a nod of acknowledgment.

“Frau Richter.” The woman raised a finger to her lips. After a moment, she corrected herself. “I'm sorry, I mean Mayor Richter.”

“Oh, that's fine. We've known each other for so long.” The mayor waved it off but smiled a bit smugly. The title seemed to matter to her, most especially when it came from the lips of someone who had once regarded her as a peer.

“Yes, but ...” Valentina Ansel put her fists on her hips. She turned slightly to look at the two men who had caught up to her. “I was told that the mayor needed to see me.”

“I wanted you to meet someone.” Mayor Richter swept her arm toward Denario. He smiled to Valentina as politely as he could but when she turned her frosty gaze on him, he felt the expression fade from his face. “This young man has come from the Mundredi army.”

“What, him?” Valentina was a tall woman. She looked down on Denario in a way that made him glance to her companions for help. They were looking at her, though, not at Denario. “We must not be doing well up north.”

“Oh, I don't know. He's very smart for a waldi. And he sang a funny song about your brother in law. Vir is still alive. He's won a few more battles.”

“Hmph.” Denario had not seen many women actually turn up their nose in disdain. Valentina did it, though. “Songs about battles should be heroic, not humorous.”

“Maybe you and Herr Ansel should join us in the Church of the Fork for a while. I'd like you to hear the story. You'll make better sense of it than I can.”

At this flattery, Frau Ansel turned to her companion and nodded. The black-cloaked man gave a ferocious grin and introduced himself to Denario. He was Herr Hermann Ansel, former burgher of South Ackerland. Hermann was Valentina's husband. In the grip of his handshake, Denario noticed that Herr Ansel was cold almost to the bone. The man was trembling, too. Even the muscles in his face twitched every now and then, just below his left eye. He must have been a mighty fellow not long ago but apparently he'd been reduced to near-permanent exhaustion. His smile was the strongest thing about him.

Back in the church, the minstrel leaped to his feet upon seeing Denario. He dashed forward to pump more lyrics out of the accountant. The mayor conferred with the Priest of the Fork, a few burghers, and a group of mothers who arranged their children into a chorus. Folks were sleepy and the food had been eaten until there was no more but everyone was still working. Floors needed swept. Dishes needed cleaned. Bedrolls had to be arranged. The burghers surprised Denario by helping the peasants with some of their chores, mostly by coordinating them but also by moving benches. They sent away some families to their lean-tos. One burgher left to settle a dispute about rights to a campfire. Another burgher arranged wine for everyone.

Laughter, or at least the idea of it, was welcomed. When Denario rose to sing his ballad, he found that he didn't have to carry the tune on his own. The minstrel and a young blonde-haired woman in a robin's-egg blue linen dress not only strummed instruments but sang in harmony. Hermann Ansel slapped his knee and laughed in all of the right places although Denario had previously thought of them as the wrong ones. It was humor at the expense of accounting. Hermann seemed like a jolly man, though. Denario didn't hold it against him. Anyway, he wondered what could be wrong with the fellow. Herr Ansel wore a silvery tunic and vambraces on his otherwise bare forearms. The vambraces and an iron ring at the base of his neck, a gorget, were his only pieces of armor but clearly he'd once possessed the wealth of a knight or at least of an armsman. He had a wide, black sash that doubled as a sword belt. It was woven from silk.

Valentina never laughed. Everyone else did, even folks who were otherwise ready to sleep. Instead, Valentina busied herself with whispers to the mayor. Isle Richter seemed to be explaining the song as it went. Valentina was re-explaining it back to the mayor, focusing on what Vir might have been thinking.

“There's something important about the mining town,” Valentina said at the end, even as others were chuckling and experimenting with a re-write of the chorus. “Otherwise, Vir would never have gone out of his way to leave the accountant there.”

“Did he go out of his way?” Denario asked. Hermann moved to give him a seat on the bench, so he dared to sit next to Valentina. “I felt he might have. But he never said so.”

“He wouldn't have told you,” said the mayor.

“What's important about the place? Is it the brass works?” Valentina barely paused as she thought aloud. “I know he needs weapons.”

“Brass weapons will help against the Raduar.” Denario rested his elbows on his knees. “They won't do as well against the Ogglian troops. The knights and their men have steel. Vir knows that.”

“What, then?”

“I think maybe when he was having me draw maps for him … yes, that may have been it … when he looked at the maps and thought about all of the troop movements, he may have realized that Pharts Bad is a target for the Raduar and the Ogglian armies both. It's at the intersection of three trade routes, four if you count the stream. Anyone who crosses the hills into West Valley can't miss it.”

“So he expects a big battle there.”

“He might,” Denario conceded.

The burghers consulted with one another and with Hermann Ansel. The mayor, though, approached Valentina. Denario felt caught between. The women, both taller than he, talked around him for a minute. Eventually, the men felt the need to ask their mayor for an opinion and Denario felt he could rise and stand next to Hermann Ansel, who had also gotten to his feet. The question that concerned everyone most was the attempted assassinations against Vir. The older burghers were surprised their Raduar cousins would behave this way. They were even more surprised that Vir was still alive. The younger burghers, along with Hermann and Valentina, didn't seem shocked by either event.

“I thought it was Baron Ankster who would do him in,” confessed the burgher with the longest beard. “Not our own folks.”

“I thought he'd do in the baron,” said a young man, wistfully.

“Shush,” said Valentina, although she was a woman and of no rank or title. “Accountant, we need to understand why the Raduar generals are pressing us so hard. Draw a map for us.”

“Can you read maps?” Denario asked. If that were true, he should never have been hired.

“Not well,” she admitted. “Few Mundredi can, anymore. My grandfather knew maps, though. He showed me. And my father had one commissioned. You've read a map to the burghers, I believe. We all understand the basic concepts.”

The floor of the church was straw and dirt. Hermann Ansel scooped away several square feet of straw. One of the younger burghers tapped Denario's sword hilt. Taking the hint, he pulled it out of its sheath. Then, with the tip, he began to draw a familiar map.