Sunday, February 11, 2018

Not Even Not Zen 109: A Bandit Accountant, 18.1

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Third Semiperfect

Scene One: Nearly Geology

It was late in the morning when Denario said goodbye outside the south gate of Furlingsburg. Valentina and Hermann stood off to the side of the crowd. A dozen other people, mostly women, had come along. At least four of them he recognized as street beggars.

They pressed him with clothes to deliver, messages to remember, and gifts. He did his best to memorize their exact words and the names of their relatives. He had a feeling he'd need to stop after he cleared the first rise so he could jot down a note to help him keep it all straight. The Mundredi were fierce and proud, even the women. They were reluctant to show affection. That made their embraces more touching.

"They know you," Valentina murmured. She sounded surprised.

Denario was astonished to be honored by some of the folks he'd written up in his tax report. They knew about it, too, and still they had come. His luck had extended even to the weather. The sun was warm. The breeze was cool. He'd left off his leather armor because the mail shirt was plenty. In the clan mail sack, he carried a dozen notes including one from Ilse Richter in North Ackerland to her relatives in Ruin Thal. Two of the Furlingsburg letters were written on birch bark, the rest on scraps of parchment. In his own bags, he kept his writ of free passage from the head of the Hammer Clan and a letter of protection from Mayor Jolli, the latter given grudgingly but legible and official.

Among the other letters, Denario noticed love notes from three smitten teenaged boys to girls they knew in Ruin Thal. Two of them, he noticed, had written to the same girl. Denario himself had written another message to Pecunia. He'd paid to have it carried toward Ziegeburg, or so he hoped, but he knew it was a hopeless gesture. Pecunia was beautiful. Soon she'd have other, more handsome or more wealthy suitors. She was surrounded by strong, young men who weren't wanted for robbery.

“Are you feeling better?” Valentina asked as she straightened the mail pouch slung over his shoulder. He nodded, understanding. She would never have inquired as to his bruises from the fight. However, Denario's fever was an acceptable subject.

When he'd contracted an illness the day before, he'd felt paralyzed by the fear of it. His body was racked with sweats for hours. That night, the Hammer Clan had sacrificed to their gods in his honor. It had seemed to do the trick. His brow and cheeks had cooled by morning. Today, as he flexed his arms, he noticed he was as fit as he'd been in a month. The clan had fed him well. He'd gained weight.

“Watch out for magical creatures as you head down the Furlings Brook,” warned Hermann Ansel from behind his wife.

“I'll be careful,” Denario promised. Two months ago he would have trembled at the idea of passing through magical lands. Now he knew he'd find his way through the menagerie of creatures in No Map Creek. Because he had to. He'd survived in magical places already. The evening of the glue snow on Tree Stump Hill had seemed dangerous at the time. In hindsight, it seemed comical.

At the top of the rise in the road, he turned and waved to the gate. Most of the Mundredi had left. There were two beggar women watching. They and the gate guards waved back. Finally, Denario was free. He continued his march. Three hillocks later, he stopped and scribbled out the messages he'd been given by the clan's poor and illiterate. In order to keep from using any more of his precious supply of paper, he dug to the bottom of his accounting bag for his wanted poster. He hadn't had a chance to scrape it clean yet, not with so many people watching. He hadn't dared to take it out in front of Wilfried. Now the back of it, at least, served him.

Mrs. Wikfort To Dona Abrams Any sign of my husband?
Khrys Hamgen To Zytel Hamgen Your cousin Greta is sick.
Evangeline Burke To Piotr Burke Here is the shirt you left. Send food or money.
Mrs. Crumkill To Johann Crumkill You are a father again. Send food or money.
Mrs. Crumkill To Piotr Burke I swear if you don't send money to Evangeline I will tell everyone.

Denario had tried to slip a silver piece into Evangeline Burke's hand but she had given it back with a funny look on her face. She'd mumbled something about not being able to trade. Then, as the other women had stared at her, she'd blushed. There was a long, awkward silence among the beggars. In that silence, it seemed to the accountant, there was a mystery.

There had been many mysteries in Denario's life but most of them had involved mathematics. Lately, he'd encountered more and more of them involving women. He'd counted two dozen in the last eighteen months. Unfortunately, it seemed to be a fruitless task for Denario to try to figure them out. Arithmetic came more naturally.

For half a mile, he tried to tackle the problem of proving that 3 = 3. He couldn't concentrate on the logic. His imagination kept recalling the odd expression on the oval face of Evangeline Burke. He pictured it again and again. He listened to the wistful lilt in her voice. He replayed the scene in his mind from different angles because he found that he could remember and focus on the expressions of the other beggar women. Those were telling, those shocked, approving, scandalized, and above all knowing countenances. They knew Evangeline had been forced to trade her body for food or other favors. They approved of her turning down Denario's money.

They were surprised, too. Denario felt flattered by their reaction. But he felt a little insulted. He told himself he was being silly.

I'm engaged, he thought. At least, I might be. Probably not any longer, in fact. But I wouldn't have taken advantage of Evangeline, not even if she'd made the offer.

He strolled a few paces and reconsidered. Fraulein Burke had such a sincere face. She kept herself clean and reasonably attractive.

No, I really wouldn't have, he concluded. It would be icky. And there were all those other people there.

A few minutes later, he found himself mentally reviewing the account totals for the shopkeepers in Furlingsburg. His mind had relaxed. His last returning thought for Evangeline Burke was, That's a mystery solved.

For a mile, the road stayed level. Denario passed a farm boy pushing a barrow of onions the other way into town. Then the path narrowed. Farm lands gave way to wild woods. A hill rose up and the road curled around it. As the way narrowed further, barely enough for a man with baggage, it turned toward a clearing on the side of the hill where Denario would need to walk sideways across a rocky cliff face. He cursed his luck. It was a long, slow walk. At one point, he peered over the edge. Below him, he saw that the cliff ended forty feet down in a muddy rivulet of water that had been eating away at the side of the hill for ages.

It was the Furlings Brook, of course. Denario had been told his path would run parallel to it. He'd also been warned against the area's magic but he didn't see any problems. The walk had been tough but uneventful. The air had grown quiet, barely a breeze in the clearing. That was unfortunate but not sinister. Up high on a rise and in the morning, the weather felt good. When he got back down to the Ruin Thal farms, the heat would undoubtedly become draining.

Maybe it was the thought of the hike ahead or maybe it was the way he could see so much of the land from the heights but he decided the hill he was on would be a good place to stop and draw maps. With luck, he'd think of something to write in his journal. He inched away from the cliff face until he felt safe a few yards into the tall grass. There was shade under the tree boughs. He even saw a pair of boulders past the bushes that would make for a seat and desk. He unpacked his pens, scrolls, and accounting books and laid them out on the lower boulder. It had a curve to it and a useful set of nooks and prominences. It was a bit like using the back, shoulders, and head of a giant stone man.

On the larger rock, which was curved and angled in a way unsuitable for a work bench, Denario struggled to find a comfortable spot. Eventually, he nestled into the crevices at the front so that his body was pointed toward the stones he would use to write. He took a deep breath and turned his mind back to formal logic. He scribbled in the dirt between the stones.

Unfortunately, he had a hard time arriving anything worthy of the journal. When he didn't get anywhere with formal proofs of 3 = 3, his attention drifted to his problems in the Furlingsburg accounts. No one else minded them, of course, but he regretted not being able to do the sort of job that noblemen should expect.

He wrote a quick paragraph about the affects of taxes on the types of businesses in Sir Fettertyr's district. The history of the Mundredi Sickel clan stood out. The way that group had degenerated from skilled craftsmen to peasant farmers alarmed him. He hoped their example would resonate with other accountants. He added details on the belt leather accounting system, too, because he knew the guild members would find the ancient history of it interesting.

Denario shifted. The crevice had begun to feel like it was squeezing his buttocks. Then, as he sat up, the rock shifted. He hopped to his feet and spun around. The stone changed shape as he stared.

In reality, the shape didn't change so much as his impression of it did. What he'd regarded as movement was something different. The boulder’s surface seemed to soften. The curves and lumps became body parts, a magic as much in his mind as in the creature. The slope of smooth stones became hips and legs. Knobbly parts digging into the dirt became fingers and toes. The oval of granite on one end became a wide, expressive face with a flat nose. The beast opened her eyes. Denario was pretty sure this was a troll. He'd never seen one before. He was also sure the troll was a female although he couldn't say why. Her eyes were as dark as onyx. Maybe they were made of stone. They looked it. Her lips smacked and the noise they made was like bones clicking together covered by aged, cracked leather.

“Stupid human,” she said. “You sit on me.”

“My apologies,” said Denario. He backed away. But he couldn't leave. His accounting materials were spread out on the other boulder. He glanced to his right. I've put everything on another troll, he guessed. He hoped that one wouldn't wake up. He was sure that trolls were supposed to sleep during the day. It didn't seem fair to have to deal with one mid-morning. Maybe the problem was that he'd chosen a cool, shaded spot. Or maybe it really was just that he'd sat on her.

“Oh, hungry,” said the waking troll. She sat up and itched her belly.

Denario wasn't sure what trolls ate but he hoped it wasn't people. He fumbled in his pouches for something to placate her. Rocks, he thought, would be the thing. Didn't they eat rocks? Their mouths were full of diamonds and other hard things for chewing, he'd heard. A glance at her mouth told him it was true. However, the only rocks he could find in his traveling materials were a few bits of coal from the Hammer Clan ovens in Furlingsburg. He offered them up.

“Oh, thanks,” said the troll. Gingerly, she plucked them from his hand. Her fingers were each as big as four of Denario's own. “Mmm. Dat's nice.”

The creature munched coal the way a human child might masticate a crumbly bit of sweetbread. It was low quality stuff, too, the kind that could barely be used to bake bricks. A human wouldn't want to put it into a food oven, hearth fire, or anything else that required a clean flame. It billowed poisons as it cooked. Sometimes it popped, too, from gasses trapped between the veins of coal and shale, not unlike the sounds it was making in the troll's mouth.

“Got more?” she said. Crumbs of shale dribbled from her chin.

“Just one.” Denario handed over his last piece.

“Lignite.” She hmmm-ed to herself and made a pleasant face. “'S not as good as anthracite. But nice.”

“I wish I had more,” Denario said truthfully.

“You nice.” The troll decided. But she leaned toward him dangerously. He understood that she could rise up and rip him in half at any second. “Got nothin' else?”

“Chalk? Quartz?” He remembered that he had pyrite, too, but he couldn't give it up. That was the main resource in his fire starting kit.

“Bah, quartz.” She waved off the idea. “Let me see chalk.”

It took him a minute to find the wax wrapper with the six shards of greyish mineral. Most of the pieces were left over from Ziegeburg. There hadn't been much of it to find in any of the Mundredi settlements, not even these large towns to the west and south of the valleys. No one bothered to mine it. Caravaners apparently didn't find any trade by hauling it.

The troll sniffed at his offering. With fingers as wide as two of his own, she plucked up a long shard, his cleanest, whitest one. Her diamond-edged teeth nibbled off the end. Then she put the piece back onto the wrapper with the others. He had the impression that she knew in advance that his chalk wasn't much good for eating but she was trying to be polite.

“You female?” said the troll. “Cause I don't eat females.”

“Can't you tell?” Denario asked. He closed the wrapper around his chalk pieces.

“Humans all look same.”

“Oh, I'm definitely female,” he decided. He drew tight a small, clean knot in his string around the wrapper. Then, in case the troll needed a reminder, he added, “The kind of human you don't eat. That's the kind I am.”

“Oh. Okay.” After a while, the troll pointed to the southeast and said, “Youse goin' dat way?”

“Yes.”

“Deze two trails.”

“Yes?” He'd heard that the road to Ruin Thal forked, east and south. The eastern route was safer.

“That one,” she said as she pointed to the unseen eastern fork in the path. It was somewhere far ahead of them, down off of this rise. “Deze lots of men in armor. Too many. Enough to hurt me. Take the little one. Deze just three men there.”

“Three.” Denario's heart sank. He'd been nearly killed several times. There was a reward on his head. This could be his last, fatal encounter with mercenaries. Still, he supposed he could walk off of the path to get around a small contingent of them. It was dangerous because, if he got lost, he might starve before he found a safe town. He'd have to risk it. Even one man in armor was too much for him.

“Stomped them flat.” Perhaps she read his body language. She couldn't seem to read his face but she understood his hesitation. “Dey is no problem.”

“That's, uh, fine. I-I mean, it's wonderful for me.” He stammered as he envisioned the poor soldiers. That was countered in his imagination by the prospect of those same soldiers killing him. Caught between horror and relief, he settled for a bowing to the troll. His body did it, actually, before he could think too much about using courtly manners on a beast. She seemed to understand the gesture and watched patiently, if a bit sternly, as he removed his books and papers from the back of her traveling companion, currently asleep.

When Denario got to the fork in the cart paths later that day, he turned to the right. This was the long way, they'd told him in Furlingsburg, and dangerous due to lingering magicks in the area. But Denario guessed there would be no other option that allowed him to avoid the mercenaries outside the main walls of the town. Probably the troops were engaged in a standoff with Ruin Thal, much as they were with the other Mundredi towns in Sir Fettertyr's district. In theory, Denario's letters of passage should protect him, especially the one from Lieutenant Dvishvili. He doubted, though, that anything would help if someone recognized his face from a wanted poster.

Besides, there was no point in getting slain and then making the the soldiers regret it. They might feel sorry for what they'd done after they'd found his papers but it wouldn't help. Only his ghost would return to his apprentices – if ghosts existed and were allowed to do things like that. His visions of Winkel probably weren't real. Even if they were, he didn't like his prospects for an afterlife. If ghosts didn't do math, he'd have no way to occupy the time.

The narrow trail became an animal path. Denario, a city dweller, had been traveling on foot long enough to recognize deer tracks. He saw signs, too, of a raccoon or a bear or something large enough to make the hairs on his arms and neck stand up. He expected a creature to charge from the underbrush at any second. That was why, when he stepped on leaves and something hard wobbled beneath them, he hopped back and bumped into a spider web. The sight of the fist-sized black-and-green spider in the web made him dance for a minute until his panic subsided. The spider retreated to a nearby tree and clicked its mouth at him resentfully.

When he recovered enough to see what he'd stepped on, he picked it up for closer inspection. He normally didn't see helmets in this shape – flat. A creature of tremendous strength, presumably a troll, had plucked it off of a man's head, squeezed it, and then had taken a bite out of it like a fruit pancake. Maybe the trolls had gotten hungry and the armor had look as tasty to them as a soldier. Metals might be better for their diets than human bones for all Denario knew.

“Poor fellow,” Denario whispered. He set the steel pancake back on the forest floor. Then he thought better of it. This was no time for squeamishness.

A careful search recovered five bodies instead of three. Troll math was not the most reliable. But the soldiers had been, as promised, thoroughly stomped. Their organic possessions, such as food, papers, clothes, and limbs were strewn everywhere. Denario had to fight off a pair of foxes who were determined to worry at the bodies. He couldn't make them leave the corpses entirely. The cur and vixen kept eating the bits farthest from Denario. He tried not to mind. They were probably very economical and family minded, from their point of view, taking those bits back home to their litter.

It took the accountant a full hour to build a sledge out of fallen branches. The huge, green-and-black spider jabbered at him as he gathered his materials. He almost didn't have enough twine to pull off the job. It was a great lesson in thrift. Vir and Alaric had taught him about sledges. They were good for pulling loads. He gathered a fortune in armor, most of it barely eaten, and loaded it on.

Back when he was with the Mundredi army, Denario hadn't pulled a sledge. Today, he learned why. He could barely move one. But he kept at his task, inch after painful inch. He felt stubborn about the money. The last mile into town, unfortunately, went straight up a hill to a spiked, wooden wall. There was no visible door in the wall but, when he got there, Denario shouted until someone showed up anyway.

“It's a foreigner!” someone called. There was a general rustling and bumping of armor behind the wooden poles.

“Don't shoot!” Denario hastily clarified. “I'm only a little foreign. I've been sent by Furlingsburg.”

“Aha! I thought so,” said a more mature voice. A moment later, a face with a helmet on top appeared above the wall. There was a bit of gray in the brown hair that poked out around the helmet. The eyes, from a distance, looked wide and blue and perhaps a little amused. “He sounds foreign but he doesn't look it.”

“Are you crazy?” A younger, narrower face popped up. The man took a look at the accountant, saw the accountant looking at him, yelped, and ducked back down. “He looks like a damned bandit, Werter.”

“My uncle Morris did, too.”

“Your uncle Morris was a bandit.”

“Not really. Because he got away with it.”

“Except once.”

“Sad ending, that.” The older man sighed. “Well, well. How did you get past those mercenaries, stranger?”

“They're all dead!” Denario shouted. “Are you going to let me in? Because I can't very well go around to the front and I've got a fortune in armor to share.”

“Oh, you do, do you?”

Werter, who seemed to be the senior guard, disappeared. There was a hasty conference on the town side of the wall. A third voice joined in. Someone said, “Get a burgher.” After a minute or so, Werter's kindly face popped back up.

“Are you a hero?” Werter asked.

“What?”

“Are you a hero? You've come a long ways. Very heroic. You killed those mercenaries on the trail. Was it a big battle? Is there anyone left? We haven't been able to get anyone past them.”

“They're dead, I told you. But that ... no, I'm no hero.”

“What's your name, then?”

“Denario.” Suddenly, it seemed important to have a heroic sounding name. “Um, Denario the Dramatic.”

“Good name, that. Pretty good, anyway.”

Werter ducked back down. There was another hasty conference.

“Dramatic about what?” called someone without revealing himself.

Denario took the chain off of his neck. He held the blue coin high enough for the men on the wall to see if they were peeking through the cracks in the woodwork.

“Dramatic about anyone who denies me refuge,” he said. So there. “The Mundredi Chief and the Mayor of Furlingsburg have granted me passage. Your local rulers agreed.”

Three men stood up, a young thin one, a young fat one, and the solid fellow called Werter. Old Werter's mouth fell open. The eyes of the younger guards had gone wide.

“I haven't seen one of those in years!” Werter whispered with a smile.

“Never have, myself,” said the young thin one. “They really are blue. I thought that was just a wives' tale.”

“I didn't think the Seven Valleys were real,” admitted the young fat one.

“He's a hero, all right.” The three of them crouched lower and held another conference. The whispering went on for over a minute. Denario wondered if they were waiting for the burgher. Maybe they were but, in the meantime, the guards tied a knot into a heavy rope and threw it over the wall.

After they tied off their end behind the wall, they lowered down the knot.

“Go ahead and send up the armor you talked about,” the older one said. “Let's have a look.”

“Nice try,” said Denario. He crossed his arms. He wasn't giving them his most valuable items, especially not before their burgher got here as a witness.

“Ah, well, worth a shot.” Werter crouched again. The rope rose back up. All of the helmets visible at the top of the town wall disappeared.

A moment later, there appeared a crack in the wall. It was a hidden door. Slowly, behind a fair amount of pushing from the two younger men, the crack widened enough for a man to step through sideways. That man was the senior guard, Werter. He walked out, hands on hips, and gave the accountant a yellowed, slightly gap-toothed grin.

“I always heard that heroes were sort of dumb,” the man said. “Are you sure you're not a bandit?”

“Which one gets inside the walls?” snapped Denario. It had been a long, sweaty day. He put the blue medallion around his neck and displayed it as prominently as he could.

The guards tittered as if he'd made a joke. Denario understood. The citizens of Ruin Thal weren't going to believe that a troll had killed the mercenaries. They were looking for a hero. Denario had already half-decided to sell them on the idea that Vir, the Bandit Chieftain, had something to do with it. And in a way, he had.

Monday, February 5, 2018

A Nerd in a Warrior Culture - Seventeen Chapters

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Thirty-Two Minus Thirty-One


Chapter Root Two Squared

Chapter Pi, Roughly 


Chapter Two Pair


Chapter Full Hand


Chapter Half Dozen


Chapter Fourth Prime


Chapter Two Cubed


Chapter Three Quarters of Twelve


Chapter Binary Two


Chapter Red, Green, Yellow


Chapter Square Root of Gross


Chapter Baker's Dozen


Chapter Pair of Sevens


Chapter Fifth Triangular Number


Chapter Twice Eight

Chapter Seventh Prime



Sunday, January 28, 2018

Not Even Not Zen 108: A Bandit Accountant, 17.8

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Seventh Prime

Scene Eight: Deal with the Devil

“Then what happened?” said Torsten, head of the Hammer Clan. He had been interrupted as he was training a pair of hunting hounds so he was dressed in his heaviest pants and a light tunic over top, covered in dirt. His arms were shielded by heavy leather gauntlets from which he'd untied the gloves. His left hand rested on his hip.

Beside him and on all sides of Denario stood the other senior men of the Hammer Clan and many of their women. They were in the main hall of the clan, surrounded by whitewashed walls with ample windows, two doors, and armaments that hung from hooks. The late evening sun glowed through the western windows. Even with over two dozen people inside, there was a lot of room, too much for Denario's comfort as he stood alone at the center of attention.

“Well, he was just so ... I'm not sure exactly ...” Denario put his hands to his temples and held himself still. He tried to collect his thoughts. His right hand came away bloody when he removed it. The scar on his head had re-opened. “I-I told your mayor that I'd uncovered accounting errors, as we'd expected, and he laughed at me.”

“And then you pushed him?” The headman strolled over to a tall chair. One of his sons held it out for him. Everyone in the room shifted positions.

“No! I would never do that,” Denario protested.

“But you did.” Torsten hesitated. He put his hand on the back of the chair but he didn't take the seat.

“Yes.” The accountant felt his face flush. “I didn't mean to. I asked where Friedrich had been. I could hear those bodies swaying in the breeze outside my window all day. He'd hung them up. For nothing. For mistakes that amounted to a few pennies. I asked him why. I asked why he'd done that. On top of the killings, he'd left me there as the townspeople were getting ready to rise up for revenge. I could hear them as they shouted.”

Torsten traded glances with some men off to his left. They nodded.

“And what did Friedrich say?” he asked Denario.

“He said those men were dirty and disrespectful and they had it coming. Besides, Sir Fettertyr wanted some Mundredi men hung.”

All around the room, people gasped.

“He admitted it?” The headman almost smiled. A dangerous glint passed through his eyes.

“That's what he said.” Denario lifted his arms. “Is that admitting something? I don't know. But then he said those men were stupid and I was stupid, too.”

“Is that when you pushed him?” said another voice. Denario turned to face it. This was a burly fellow. Next to the burly fellow stood Hermann Ansel. Behind Hermann stood his wife.

“No.” Denario pulled his gaze from the Ansels and back to the fellow who had spoken. “Friedrich said I had hung them, not him. That's ... that's when ...”

“You picked a fight with the mayor.” Torsten snorted. Denario turned to his right in order to face him again.

“I didn't mean to!” Denario wiped his eyes. “I know you must think I'm a fool but I didn't kill those men. I would never have wanted to see anything like that happen. Those men were innocent.”

“Well, I don't know if Zyrich was completely innocent. But the other one ...”

A murmur swept the room as people conferred with their neighbors. Several men spoke quickly and in quiet tones.

“He just came in last year. Lived on the back of the west hill. Good fellow.”

“One of ours?”

“No, Goat Clan. All on his own except for six goats.”

“Ah,” said Torsten, having overheard it all. “Accountant, it's awful of the mayor to kill men to send a message. But still it's a damned lucky thing we had our men coming to pick you up. We need you. The mayor's guards might have killed you.”

“Yes. Thank you for the rescue. It was funny, though ...” Denario rubbed his sore chin. “Those guards let the mayor and I yell and punch each other for a long time before they did anything. They only stepped in when Wilfried started yelling at the mayor, too. Him, they knocked down. When I came to his defense, finally they came after me. That's when I got beaten.”

“You never pulled your knife?”

“No. I wasn't thinking like that. I could tell they weren't trying to kill me.”

“Maybe it's just as well. You didn't do anything too serious. You can go back to work tomorrow and finish.”

“Are you saying the mayor will accept me back?”

“Of course. You're young. And I can see you don't know Friedrich the way I do. He's the forgiving type. Compared to a Hammer man, he’s damned easy. He really had to work himself up into a foul mood to hang those men. It's not something he's done before. Oh, he's hung a few thieves and murderers but that's it. These are the first innocents he'd killed for Sir Fettertyr. So he's furious and he took it out on you.”

“But I gave him a bloody nose. He's going to be angry ...”

“Good. He did worse and he deserved worse.”

“Damned right!” someone shouted.

“Shame on Friedrich Jolli!” said a woman. To Denario's surprise, he recognized that the voice belonged to Valentina Ansel. “He's a coward, having those men hung and then hiding. And then blaming this naive fool as if he'd given the order. Shame!”

A few other women took up the cry of 'shame' and several people talked at once.

“I really would have liked to see the fight,” one of the men drawled, loudly above the noise. A few folks chuckled.

“I would have disappointed you,” Denario said truthfully. Everyone acted like he'd meant to be funny. There was laughter around the edges of the room.

“Just as well, just as well,” the headman bellowed with a grin. “As I said, you'll go back to work tomorrow. I'll make sure of it.”

“That will take some persuasive talking, I think.”

“Hah.” Torsten waved off the problem. “Friedrich needs you more than ever. He's killed innocents to try to protect his reputation with Fettertyr. If he can't get you to sign off on his tax report or even if you die and Sir Fettertyr can't talk with you to vouch for your report, what good is your work? Friedrich needs you and your reputation intact. Nothing less will work for him.”

Denario was sorry that Mayor Figgins in Ziegeberg hadn't thought the same way. But Figgins had been a criminal from the start. He hadn't intended to prove his loyalty to his superiors. He'd planned to cheat them.

“My letter to Fettertyr isn't finished,” Denario said as he recalled that he had at least half a sheet of vellum to go.

“Yes, I should talk with Friedrich tonight. The time has come to raise our price.”

“Really?” Denario paused, mouth agape. He'd just reported that the Hammer Clan hadn't paid enough taxes. He'd just gotten into a fight with the mayor. He'd worried about escaping this town with his life. And Torsten was going to demand more money. All he could think was that he didn't understand how negotiations worked.

“Yes, you won't sign off without extra money from him. I'll see to it.”

“But ...” Denario could never have done it himself. He bowed his head. “Thank you, Master Torsten.”

The head of the clan gave him an indulgent smile.

“Oh, the pay from the mayor will pass through my hands,” said Torsten. “You will be thanking me. And the mayor will pay his thanks to me as well. The Hammer clan will come out on top, as it should.”

“As it should,” several of the men and women repeated as if it were a litany. To them, it was.

Denario was still standing in shock when Valentina came forward, her husband half a stride behind. Her expression was so teary-eyed and fierce that his vision flashed back to the moment four days ago when she picked up an axe. She raised her right arm, exactly as she had when she'd looked to him then. But this time she grabbed his shoulder, pulled him close, and hugged him.

He was more beloved for fighting and losing than he was hated for being an accountant. The Mundredi didn't understand math. But they understood honor.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Not Even Not Zen 107: A Bandit Accountant, 17.7

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Seventh Prime

Scene Seven: Preliminary Assessment

By the end of the second day, I achieved a reasonable understanding of the town's tax history. I found 284 taxpayers. Their reports were jumbled together in clan and house records. It took a great deal of time to tease them apart. My master table of free men, carved onto five planks of oak, puts each in a row with amounts declared this year and last. By nightfall, I achieved a simple but complete diagram. There proved to be only 58 serfs in Furlingsburg. They are not slaves but neither are they free, as they are not permitted to move elsewhere. By the duke's edict they can't leave the farms on which they work without prior forgiveness of their families' debts. This is as near to slavery as makes no difference but they pay a form of tax as well, which is seven-eights of what they produce. Naturally, none of the serfs produce finished goods. They can't afford the taxes. The price of the raw materials they need is higher than any profit they can make. So all they can do is grow food to survive.

When Sir Ulrich died without an heir, his estate reverted to Baron Ankster. The baron awarded the farms and the serfs on them to Sir Fettertyr. Fettertyr received many such farms in nearly a dozen towns but serfs are no longer enough to make a knight wealthy. Even seven-eights of their farm output is not much.

According to these records, Sir Fettertyr has executed two men in Furlingsburg, both serfs, one for witchcraft and the other for looking at the knight in a disrespectful manner. He may also have killed a Mundredi farmer according to Wilfried, who says that an unapproved farm was burned to the ground last year, three months before the razing of South Ackerland.

Despite the knight's inheritance of serfs and his treatment of free men, the majority of the town's families are rather happy free farmers, craftsmen, and merchants. Many of the Mundredi have looked at their knight disrespectfully and lived. Many have failed in their tax payments, too, as one can expect to discover in an audit. I'm sure that most of the mistakes are honest ones because a full third have resulted in slight over-payments. Mayor Jolli was shocked to discover this. I reassured him that accidental over-payments are normal. He wanted that in writing and so I have provided it for him in a introductory paragraph of the report to Sir Fettertyr.

All of this work on the knight's finances makes me wonder how Sir Fettertyr compares to Vir de Spitze in the eyes of Furlingsburg citizens. Vir has respect among the Mundredi clans and technically, he rules them. Yet many here consider him ruler only of Easy Valley and West Valley and even then, only in name. Their town is considered mostly beyond his reach.

Nevertheless, I have wondered if the citizens here might look to him to deliverer them from oppression? I would say they do. He visited this town more than once when he was a young man. He has friends here. Unfortunately, his contemporaries like Hermann Ansel and Valentina regard him as ineffective, not much more than a bandit. Counter-balancing this is the view of younger men who feel that Vir's defeat of Sir Ulrich makes him a hero.

In the chapel at the back of the great hall of Hammer Clan, there is a picture of Vir under which the word WANTED can be read. Around the edges of the picture, holy symbols have been drawn.

Next: Chapter Seventeen, Scene Eight

Not Even Not Zen 106: A Bandit Accountant, 17.6

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Seventh Prime

Scene Six: Warning About Poems

A figure moved through the darkened office. Denario squinted. He concentrated harder on the shadow. Then he realized he was dreaming. If I'm not really here, his sleepy logic told him, I should be able to see better. A moment later, he could. He watched the figure move from bookshelf to bookshelf. There was barely a sound in the room.

As soon as Denario got a view of the visitor's hair, he knew it had to be Winkel. No one had a mop of dark curls quite like his old master. The movement of elbows and hips gave it away, too. Winkel had once admitted that, even as a boy, he had walked with a distinctive gait.

The venerable fellow had dressed in his best, nearly-white tunic and his favorite sandals. He wore a master's robe over the tunic. The sash had come untied so that his torso shone white in the darkness. The double-weave cloth on his arms and back had browned from its original red, as Denario knew from experience. In the shuttered office of the mayor, the robe looked even darker. Master Winkel stroked his beard. He leaned over to read an open page. From his closed mouth came a soft, humming sound as he studied a livestock tally that was a dozen years old and had been of no use in the audit.

For a while, Denario watched the spirit of his former master. Winkel seemed to know he was being observed. He cast a glance in Denario's direction. He made his way toward Denario, in fact, but the haphazard town accounts were his main interest. His long-fingered hands caressed a leather scroll on the top of a pile on the second shelf. He surely wanted to read it but he couldn't move anything. The long-dead man ambled from place to place. He locked his hands behind his back. He found open scrolls and read them. Every now and then, a page rustled as Winkel succeeded in inducing a bit of motion in the records although the sounds were so faint that Denario wasn't sure if they came from him.

Winkel's touch drifted lovingly over a curled page. It traced the pictographs for wheat and for barley. Tallies made him smile. He smacked his lips. After a while, he wandered closer, only a few feet from the desk where Denario had worked all day.

"Shouldn't you be haunting the counting house?" Denario found his voice. "I mean, if you're here at all, I would think our practice is where your duty lies."

Winkel hesitated. A light glinted in his dark pupils.

"Your work is more interesting," he replied. He rested his hand on the top of the farm records stack.

"No it isn't. This stuff wasn't even sorted when I started out."

"Yes. That reminds me." The master nodded to himself. "I have something to tell you."

"Aha," Denario tried to lean in. It didn't work. After all, he was asleep. "You're about to give me a warning."

"What makes you say that?" Winkel backed up.

"I don't know." He threw up his arms. "Because it's what ghosts usually do, I suppose."

"You've been reading too many epic poems. Or is that Kroner?"

"It's Kroner." His master had always been hazy on details like who liked beets and who had living parents. Who liked poetry was one of those things.

"He's been telling you about them, hasn't he? Putting all those ideas about heroism in your head. You shouldn't concern yourself with emotional things. I've told you before, you must concentrate on the math. It's where reality begins. It's where it all ends, too, I'm sure."

"I'm also sure," Denario answered.

"Anyway, I have a warning for you."

"I thought you said no."

"Your assistant, Willhelm ..."

"Willfried."

"Such a careless young man." Winkel shook his head. He turned and place his right hand on top of a records stack. "Here, this scroll with no name, the one you deduced must to belong to the Harfelt family."

"Oh, yes. It matched so well with the amounts in the previous year that it could only belong to them."

"He put it in that year!" The words came out in an exasperated sigh.

"In the wrong place?"

"As he was leaving. You told him where to set it down. He dropped it into the wrong stack."

"That's my warning?"

"Yes."

"No dire portents about my journey?" The accountant gazed around at the secret office. Records of truth and lies rose in columns to the ceiling. "No caution against taking a wrong path? No doom of diseases on the waterway or murderers in the forest?"

"How would I know about any of that?" The silhouette scratched his head.

"Can't ghosts predict the future?"

"Not even in epic poems, I believe. You might be thinking of scryers or oracles."

"Perhaps the ghost of an oracle, then ..." His mind couldn't help seeing the potential.

"Den. What did I tell you about the afterlife?"

"That it's probably a scam." He'd memorized that one.

"I did? Yes, I suppose so."

"Also that ghosts are a figments of our imagination."

Winkel opened and closed his translucent mouth as he pondered his past aphorisms.

"Anyway," he muttered. "I had to warn you."

"About a math error I might make in the morning."

At that, the master smiled with relief. "Precisely."

With that, Denario woke up. He rolled onto his side and wiped his mouth. His gaze drifted around his bedroom, which was the altar room at the north end of the meeting hall of the Hammer Clan. His candle had burned out. The lamp in the foyer, beyond his door, still shone.

"Ugh." He flopped back onto his bed. Why can't I dream about great ideas? he wondered. If he were a hero in a poem, he would have been haunted in a dramatic way. His mentor would have been murdered, of course, not fallen ill. The ghost would have warned Denario about a terrible plot against him or something similar.

There had been a terrible plot, of course, but it was done. It would have been foolish to warn him after it was revealed. Anyway, portents and divine epiphanies weren't Winkel's style. For a moment, Denario cursed the unjust lack of poetry in his life. Then he got more sensible and cursed his lack of sleep. He pulled the cover up to his chest.

Next: Chapter Seventeen, Scene Seven

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Not Even Not Zen 105: A Bandit Accountant, 17.5

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Seventh Prime

Scene Five: Wealth, Not Money

This is a place that has at least heard of accountants. Nevertheless, the lack of guild means the lack of a school, Denario wrote in his journal. My assistant, Wilfried, can't write more than his initials. He can't read. He doesn't know how to detect fraud in tallies. He accepts all numbers as they're given even when they contradict one another. From year to year, one farmer increased his herd of dairy cows from 15 to 30 but declared that only 2 calves had been born, none traded or inherited. This raised no suspicions in Wilfried, who never checks the old tallies. It's a stretch to call the man a book keeper when he has no books, keeps no master records, and his main qualification for the job is his birth as a second cousin to both Sir Ulrich and Mayor Jolli.

Tax figures have never been reconciled from year to year in Furlingsburg. Wilfried seems shocked by the idea that someone would do so. I found that out on my first day with him. Now I understand why Friedrich Jolli wants to revise his reports to Sir Fettertyr. He'll improve his relationship with the knight. How can updating the town's book keeping do anything else?

Still, there's a limit to how much we can achieve. It isn't practical to read back further than the last two years of tax payments. Even in sorting out the last two years, I took over the mayor's office, most of the hall outside, and part of another second floor room. My assistant moved shelves for me and brought in new ones so we didn't need to lay down leather belts on the stairs. It's amazing how much Friedrich Jolli stored in these heaps. Toward the end of the day, Friedrich and his men brought in a set of wooden tablets that a merchant had delivered to his house. Wealthy folks visit him at home more than they see him in the town hall. He keeps their records in his shed, apparently.

Merchants of the right kind can be rich in Furlingsburg. The same is true for guildsmen and for the Mundredi houses, which are usually two to six home networks, all of the homes related by blood or marriage. The town as a whole is great producer of goods even though it lives under threat from Sir Fettertyr as a result.

Perhaps I should explain my thoughts in that regard.

Once I assumed that nobles didn't understand wealth. Now I suspect that they do. They regard it as a threat. The wealthier that their peasants become, the harder it is for nobles to keep them in their place. They blame the immigrant Mundredi but the greater issue is the rise of the caravans and tradesmen. The Mundredi simply represent a convenient minority of free workers to attack. There are many others as well, some of them too powerful for the nobles to confront. Local guilds, for instance, are led by traditional waldi families. They have good connections and fix prices in their favor. They avoid taxes through barter systems. The knights, meanwhile, rely on their traditional lands farmed by serfs. Those lands have not seen improvement in one hundred years. The rest of the barony continues to bring in new technologies such as ox-plows, horse-plows, yokes, clocks, smithies, dams, and irrigation. But not the serfs. The serfs have not changed their methods.

Irrigation in various forms is known throughout the former Muntabi empire. But here, in Furlingsburg, the serfs seem to have been forgotten it. So it was re-introduced by the free farmers. Mundredi clans practiced step irrigation in the Seven Valleys for as long as they can remember. When they migrated to this area, they turned lands once thought to be useless into lush fields of barley, sometimes supplemented by peas or lentils. They've hunted bears and wolves to near extinction, which has greatly endeared them to the better-established peasants. But that doesn't matter to the knights. What I believe motivates Sir Fettertyr, his baron, and perhaps the Count of West Ogglia is that everyone's lands are improving but theirs. The serfs have not adopted the irrigation techniques, according to Wilfried. It's too much work and too little in return for them because the knights take the profits.

I find it strange that the Mundredi immigrants should be so much more productive than the better established citizens but this appears to be the case. Although the Mundredi had irrigation, they otherwise arrived with sub-standard, primitive technologies for tilling, planting, and crafting. Most of them had no oxen or draft horses when they came. They had to till by hand. Yet in only two generations they've created incomes equal to or exceeding the more established peasant families. How did they do it? Does freedom account for any part of it?

There is a particular case I find revealing and troubling.

The Mundredi Sickel clan, according to a leather rope record about twenty years old, once owned a thriving lamp and candelabra business. They imported enough metal to show up in the records of tradesmen. Making the basic wood forms took effort and the brass fittings were expensive. When taxes rose past a certain point, the clan slowly stopped making lamps, candelabras, or indeed any finished goods. Today I can see in their records that they have no craftsmen. They have become simple, peasant farmers like the more established families. They arrived poor, worked their way up, grew sophisticated, encountered a tax ceiling designed to discourage certain kinds of wealth, and settled back into trading and land-owning.

This makes me wonder: are the knights making their lands poorer? It seems possible. Moreover, it looks like a strategy. Even in the distant past, rather than avail themselves of the advances of the guildsmen and merchants, they murdered the most troublesome of those classes. They strove to keep their peasants poor rather than allow greater equality between peasants and nobility.

That brings me back to a suspicion that the nobles don't understand wealth. Despite what I wrote above, I think they only understand money. The nobles don't see how wealth is generated or how it turns into money.

For instance, a look at Sir Fettertyr's tax code shows that he doesn't comprehend bartering. He taxes his peasants as if they deal in cash. Perhaps they once did. If so, the locals are regressing to barter under the cultural influence of the Mundredi and the tax incentives imposed by their knight. The levy on cash holdings is one-eighth per year, a rate that's as ruinous as it is unenforceable. It relies entirely on spies. How else can authorities know who has coins hidden?

When the knight doesn't collect enough cash through the spy network, he simply demands finished goods from each town's tradesmen. There aren't enough tradesmen to supply what Sir Fettertyr and his superior, Baron Ankster, need to support their wars. As a result, the baron increases his taxes year to year. He's created an environment in which no skilled journeymen will move from Oggli to smaller towns, like Furlingsburg, because the taxes on goods in the farmlands have grown higher than in the cities.

I have not made friends with the mayor by telling him that his tax rates are ridiculous. He is on his knight's side in that regard. The guilds in town give him more trouble than any other groups. He feels they need kept down.

One problem with the rates is that services such as healing, book keeping, and tattooing go untaxed because the knights don't seem to know what to make of them while services such as shoe making and milling, which produce tangible products, are taxed highly. Carting is an unusual case in that it is not taxed in towns but suffers high rates for use of the roads between them.

On top of learning much about the area, I met an excellent ink maker. From him, I learned that tattoo artists are among the wealthiest of Mundredi men. They can accept money and pay no taxes. It was a surprise to me to find that there are women working as tattoo artists as well. My ink maker spoke highly of them. Such women are wealthy and respected. They touch the bodies of other women and it is considered a sacred trust. They are lent in a cautious way from clan to clan when there is a need, such as there seems to be from time to time.

The ink maker and I tested his products on an edge of vellum scroll. They do not produce the cleanest or darkest marks but his pigments will do for the final draft. For the early work, I returned to carving my math in the dirt and in wooden planks. I'll scrape the vellum clean later and use it for the letter to Fettertyr.

I asked Friedrich if I should write to Sir Fettertyr about the corruption in Ziegeburg. I thought Friedrich might be against revealing the problems of another mayor.

'Write, write,' he said. 'Tell your story. Anything to distract from Furlingsburg.'

So I composed a short, formal report on the taxes in Zeigeburg in addition to my other duties.

Next: Chapter Seventeen, Scene Six

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Not Even Not Zen 104: A Bandit Accountant, 17.4

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Seventh Prime

Scene Four: A Philosophy on Hanging

The mayor's office in Furlingsburg stood on a polished, stone floor. At first glance, Denario saw nothing unusual about it. Then he thought about how long it had been since he'd seen tiles. There had been no granite flooring in Phart's Bad despite its quarries, nor any in North Ackerland despite its sophisticated churches, nor even in Ziegeburg despite its wealth and its long history as the outermost town of the Ogglian empire.

Here in Furlingsburg, the tiles had been laid in a regular pattern of shades. Denario thought that an accountant, a geometer, or a mason must have been brought in for it. An untutored man would have had to perform a great deal of trial and error to achieve, in all probability, a useless failure of a floor. An inexpert floor would have needed redone. It was a project that could take a hundred years to complete on even a small building like this one. So amateurism was possible but Denario thought a hired hand was more likely.

He didn't discount the possibility of both mixed together. The area had hidden geniuses, folks who could work out mathematical rules and produce usable structures. The pattern of tesselations in the design, for instance, looked like a single person's inspiration. It used hexagons, which laid together naturally. Every seventh hexagon was particularly dark and it was surrounded by lighter hexagons. As geometry, it wasn't too hard. As an achievement by a self-taught tradesman, it was amazing, a leap above everything else in the area. The floor was mostly level and the roof had a small dome. At the apex of the dome hung a straw sculpture of a man. The figure seemed to be an homage to the local harvest god.

“Is that Eleus up there?” Denario asked the footman.

The young, blonde-haired fellow halted and gave him a funny look.

“I thought even us waldis knew that one. It's the hanged man. He's a magical thief who came in on wings and stole from the harvest. Eleus set a trap, caught him, pulled off his wings, and hanged him. It's a strange story.”

“Seems straightforward enough,” said Denario although he worried it might be a reference to Melcurio. There weren't many thieves or tricksters with wings.

“It's odd because the thief laughs when he's hung. He's a funny man. And he doesn't die in any of the three endings that I know. In one version, the thief tricks Eleus by pretending to die but, when he's cut down, he grabs his wings and flies away. In another, the thief begs out of the hanging by offering to protect the crops. He gets bored after a few years and forgets. Then Eleus hangs him but the thief doesn't die, so he's sent back to his guard job.”

“And the third version?”

“That's the right one!” boomed a hearty voice. A beefy fellow of middling height strode forward. Two other men hung behind, one on either side, so Denario judged immediately that this was the mayor. “I was there. I should know. I'm Friedrich, by the way, and you must be the accountant with the foreign sounding name.”

“Denario, yes.” He stuck his hand out gingerly because it seemed he was about to be the object of either a shake or a hug. He got both.

The mayor rattled him with a handshake that treated his finger bones like dice. Then came a smothering embrace. Finally, the mayor pounded him on the back and let out the sort of comfortable laugh that men got when they genuinely enjoyed the presence of other people. He leaned back and his gaze fell to the blue coin on the chain around Denario's neck.

“Hah!” His eyes glinted. “Everyone talks about it but no one will tell me why it's important. Is it a token of accounting?”

Denario put a hand to his chest. He considered for a second: was he being employed already? He might already be working for the mayor. If so, he was in a tricky situation. He wanted to lie to protect Vir but he'd taken an oath to his guild, too.

“Am I your accountant?” Denario asked. “Is that decided?”

“Yes, I've already paid a fee to your clan and I need you to sign our tax scroll.”

“Then, no, sir, the coin is not about accounting.”

Friedrich's eyes narrowed. “Interesting. Of course, I already know about the coin. It's some sort of thing from the valleys. The clans are all superstitious about it. I just wanted to see if you'd lie to me. And if I'd said you weren't my accountant, you would have told me something else, wouldn't you?”

“I might have.” Denario touched his lip as he thought about his answer. “The coin means a lot to the Mundredi tribe. And I owe a lot to the man who gave it. But my guild swears to honesty.”

“Huh. Honesty. They say the gods reward it but I don't know. Our folks have been straight with Sir Fettertyr but he hasn't come to talk to me. His sister hasn't come through in half a year. She used to stop by every month. His squire delivered the mail, upon a time, but not anymore. I've only had two messages from Fettertyr, both orders handed over by peasant men, and they're not reasonable. I can't just turn a hundred folks out to starve. Jack, tell him the third ending of Eleus and the Hanged Man.”

“Me, sir?” The young footman pointed to himself like the wanted to dodge his own finger.

“I want to hear a young man's view of it.”

“Well, I ... uh, don't believe it the way older folks do. It's what we're taught.” He turned to Denario and lowered his voice. “In the version my priest likes, the thief turns out to be Eleus's son.”

“So he's a god of some sort.” Denario rubbed his chin. It sounded again like Melcurio might involved.

“Demi-god. Anyway, Eleus follows the law and hangs him. But then he lets the thief, his son, fly away afterward with a promise not to steal from the harvest. His son is so grateful that he comes back to protect us. He gaurds our harvests for years at a time. But he always gets bored, see. That's why sometimes we get plagues of mice and rats in the grain silos. When my dad was young, we had some sort of beasts come through with noses as long as a man's body. They grabbed trees and shrubs with their noses, he says.”

“That doesn't sound right.” Denario would have heard about such beasts if they were common.

“All the old men say the same thing.” The footman shrugged. “Anyway, they busted the grain silos open and started to eat everything. Some flying men came and shooed them away toward the west. We figure that was the hanged man and his brothers.”

“And I was there!” Friedrich roared. He raised his arms. “One of those great, lumbering beasts grabbed a man with his mighty nose! Well, don't look at me like that. I know it sounds incredible. But it's still true. That thing tossed a man like you might toss a child.”

“It doesn't ...” The beasts sounded impossible. Picking up shrubs and people with noses? But maybe it wasn't any stranger than a hippogryph or a flying toad. When enough magic was involved, Denario was prepared to believe anything could happen. Suddenly the flying men sounded to him a lot like a group of rather ordinary wizards. Maybe they dressed in trousers when they flew. Maybe they couldn't keep their pointed hats on when zooming about in the sky, either, so people might be forgiven for not understanding what they were. Men didn't normally ride broomsticks. But the dwarfs in Baggi sold them to everyone, not only to the witches.

“Two years ago, Sir Fettertyr himself came through for the first and only time. It was to re-approve my appointment. He said I had to re-take my oath as mayor in front of my people.”

“What does this have to do with …?”

“The damn fool approves of the Hanged Man! In front of everyone, he said he likes the death penalty for thieving. He wants to hang anyone who steals from him and told me to hang as many thieves as I could. He implied that half my cousins are thieves! Then he had me murder a poor man at the north gate of town just to show him I was serious. Now, I'm all for killing sneaks of course but the Hanged Man stands for something different around here. If Ulrich and Fettertyr had understood that he means leniency, they'd have tried to ban him and maybe even ban Eleus. Then we'd have had a bloody battle on the spot.”

“Is Fettertyr harsher than Ulrich?”

“Yes. Ulrich was a bully and a rapist but it came naturally to him. Fettertyr works at it. He makes sure to kill a peasant wherever he visits. He thinks that way everyone will know he's serious. The Mundredi are too smart for him, though. They keep their distance from anyone on a horse. So it's his loyal serfs who the knight kills most often.”

“Can't he tell the difference?” Even as Denario asked the question, he knew the answer. He'd told the Mundredi himself, several times, that the nobility can't be bothered to understand the lower classes.

“Hah! Fettertyr sent his first written order to me after he killed all those folks in South Ackerland. He said I was to refuse anyone entrance to the town except him. Well, we can say we did it as soon as we got the order because those folks were already here from South Ackerland. I wrote back and told him, sure, we'll close our gates.”

The coin got me in despite the mayor's orders, Denario thought. He wasn't entirely surprised. He had to figure it had gotten him into at least four towns already. He'd been counting.

“Fettertyr's second order was to raise our taxes. We'd already sent everything we could. Or so we thought. Thankfully, he didn't want our grain. He demanded our animals and metals. He said we owed him four hundred sheep. Four hundred! That's more than we've got in the farms around town. I had to say that. We sent half of what we had, I think, with his troop of armed guards. We told him it was all. But he had spies in South Ackerland and I'm sure he's got them here, too.”

“Won't the spies tell him you have sheep left?”

“That's a worry, yes. Some of the folks, bless them, don't think Fettertyr is serious. They're not hiding their sheep from their neighbors very well. If I can find out they held back from him, Fettertyr can, too. Then it's my neck in the noose.”

“Can't you just send him more sheep and claim you found them?” Denario almost suggested that the mayor have someone hanged as well. That seemed like a bad idea to put into the mayor's head. The only person around here who wouldn't be missed was Denario.

“It's worse than that.” Friedrich raised his meaty hands. He seemed to suddenly remember that his henchmen were listening in. With an expansive gesture, he turned on them. “Hob! Will! Jack! Get out of here. I'm talking business.”

He windmilled his arms. His men bowed, except for Jack, who had already turned his back and started out the door before his master finished speaking. Mayor Jolli waited, fists on his hips, as his men left and closed the door behind them. He remained where he was until their footsteps faded down the hall. He tapped his foot for a few seconds more until he heard a second, farther door slam shut. Then he held still a while longer.

“Right, then,” he whispered. He invited Denario to follow him with a conspiratorial gesture, palm up, fingers curled in. Through a darkened doorway they went.

Behind the crude, narrowed arch, Denario found an equally narrow hall. In fact the walls were so close that the mayor's frame didn't fit. Friedrich had to walk with his body turned at an angle. He looked a bit like a swordsman as he proceeded. That was the type of gait it took. But he kept up a quick pace. It was apparent that he'd been navigating this semi-secret hall for years.

At the end of the corridor, which had no candles or other sources of light, lay a closet with hooks. A vent at the top of one wall let in the sun. At the back of the closet, past the hooks, brooms, lances, axes, and mops, was another door to what must have once been a secret room. This was the mayor's real office, about twenty-five feet from the fake one.

How odd, Denario thought, for anyone to even attempt have a secret room in a public building. Friedrich Jolli didn't seem to take the clandestine architecture seriously. He'd left his doors and curtains open. He'd also pulled wide the tiny window at the top of his office. Whoever had built this place had wanted to avoid notice but Friedrich didn't seem to care. This was the type of room, Denario decided, that had probably served its creator well. But generations had passed since. Dozens of people, surely, knew about the secret room. Maybe even Sir Ulrich, when he was alive, had known. Whether Sir Fettertyr had been told was anyone's guess but Denario doubted that the mayor of Furlingsburg could imagine he’d escape his knight's wrath here. No, Friedrich understood that had to appease his lord.

Although it had been designed to be small and hold minimal supplies, under Friedrich's control the office had sprawled out into the closet. It threatened to throw more junk into the corridor. Surfaces had been brought in and stacked high to reach the available vertical space. There were chairs, tables, shelves – Denario was suddenly aware that he hadn't seen more than one shelf per room in over a month but here there were eight – boxes, overturned buckets, a slice from a tree stump that had been rolled up the stairs by someone quite determined, and two unmatched stools. On each surface, something vied for Denario's attention. He saw bags of money. He saw strings of counting beads. Beneath the ropes of beads sat clay tablets. Scrolls fitted into shelves and gaps. Against the walls, he noticed planks with tally marks. On some of the flat surfaces lay debtor split-sticks. The sticks were everywhere, even on the bags, bricks, wax slabs, scrolls, and tablets.

“Amazing,” said Denario. This wasn't as good as the home libraries in Ziegeburg, many of which had actual books, but to an accountant it felt like a return to civilization.

“The place is a mess, I know.” Friedrich swept a debtor stick from his chair onto the table to make himself a seat. “First, old Sir Ulrich burned down a church. Worshipers saved what they could. Ulrich torched another. More stuff came in. Then he died, of course, in that battle at River Thal. I thought that would put an end to the burning. But Fettertyr came along and sacked a temple. Ugh, we got more stuff. Fettertyr razed South Ackerland. Again, folks saved church records that weren't destroyed. It's made my office into a library. Of course, this is probably nothing like what you're used to working with. Nearly all of the tablets are in unreadable, Old Old Tongue gibberish. But the clergy say they've got god marks and we mustn't destroy them.”

Denario tried to find a seat. He picked up a clay tablet from the tree stump and stared, fascinated. He saw the goat-with-a-tail sigil for Glaistig. When he set that down, carefully because it was heavy, his fingers moved to the next on the stack. This one, near the bottom, showed the forked-lighting mark of Leir.

“I see what they mean.” Denario nodded. He moved through the stack, hoping for a glimpse of Melcurio. His patron god wasn't there unless it was in the figure 8 that adorned what otherwise seemed to be a tablet devoted to the ancient symbols for math. The modern 8 hadn't been invented when so many other symbols were hash marks, he thought, but it was hard to be sure. “Do you believe them? It's nice to have the tablets but they're crumbling and, as you said, no one can read them.”

“How would I know if the priests are right or wrong? That stuff is beyond me. The gods are more like magic than people. If they were people, I could chat them up.”

“That's not a bad idea.” Denario didn't understand magic either but he felt that the gods, being not quite divine, would listen to human bargaining. And Furlingsburg needed to make all of the deals it could.

“Anyway, if you ask the priests,” Friedrich continued, “it was Sir Ulrich's blasphemy that finally got him.”

“I thought it was Vir who got him.”

“Your boss?” The mayor chuckled. “That seems nearer to the truth, doesn't it? But the priests tell me Vir was the instrument of the gods even if he doesn't believe in them.”

“You know about his atheism?”

“I know a few things.” Friedrich stroked his stubbly, short-bearded chin. His calm grin revealed his confidence. “Just a few.”

Denario had a flash of intuition. The mayors, he understood, couldn't leave their towns. No one could move around because the knights didn't like it. The knights taxed the caravans for conducting commerce even though commerce was essential. Nobles killed wanderers, too, as examples. On top of the basic problems imposed by the aristocracy, Mundredi peasant tribesmen murdered each other due to the tribal habits they'd retained from their valley cultures. Yet from farm to farm, town to town across West Ogglia, messages still passed. News found its way to the mayors. It didn't come from a network of spies. Well, maybe some of the participants were informers but mostly the news came along the usual route of caravans and professional travelers. Additional bits came from the lines of communication among the farms and clans. They were like spidery tendrils, a web from the valleys to the rivers and back. Even the waldi and oggli families must participate. Why not? The closer one traveled to the river, the more the serfs were born to traditional families, not immigrants. And they wanted news, too. They liked gossip.

How accurate could rumors be if they passed from lips to lips twenty times per mile? Not very, he thought. Stories from afar might as well be myths. Likewise, the military intelligence of Vir's forces couldn't be good. He and the Raduar generals were like blind fighters taking swings at each other based on the directions shouted from their friends. At least the Ogglian forces, when they arrived, would have maps.

Denario's fingers itched. He cleared a debtor stick from the stump and sat. Instinctively, he read it as he set it on the table.

“House of the Duck, Clan of the Hammer, owes two goats to House of the Spade, Clan of the Hammer, sworn on this 13 of Grune, Year of the Frog.” He turned it over. It definitely referred to only two goats with no hidden marks. “Friedrich, when was the Year of the Frog? Oggli uses numbers.”

“You can read that?” Mayor Jolli gasped. “I thought that was only for priests. They told me you figured numbers and shapes. I didn't know you did more.”

“How did you expect me to figure out your taxes without reading your records?” Denario said, avoiding the unfortunate fact that he hadn't learned about debtor sticks or these mostly-forgotten methods of accounting until he'd reached Long Valley a month ago.

“I hadn't thought ahead that far.” The mayor gave him a slightly abashed but mostly unapologetic grin. No doubt about it, Friedrich was charming. His charisma would be lost on Sir Fettertyr, though, so it was up to Denario to help the town survive.

“Tell me more about your plan.” The accountant turned and lifted a wooden slab with tally marks on it. This one was a summary of the Sickel house holdings. They had cows, barley, rye, and some way to make vinegar from malt. Denario didn't understand how vinegar was made but that didn't matter. The Sickels had forty tuns of the stuff and less than a tun of malt.

“Well, now, mostly my plan is to get you to vouch for our taxes. I want to show the knight that we're making more effort than other towns.”

“You think he'll spare you?”

“He knows his own interests, I'm sure.”

Denario doubted it. He'd never met Fettertyr but he knew a score of other knights. None of them thought like merchants. They didn't understand money beyond wanting it. They thought wealth was gotten by conquering their neighbors and taking what they could. They saw the merchant class as bloodsuckers when, in fact, merchants and tradesmen generated the wealth. It was the knights who were parasites. Carters, tinkers, traders, farmers and skilled workers like tooth doctors kept the knights healthy and armored. The only service the nobility provided was protection from thieves and other nobles.

“I'm curious,” said Denario. He glanced at Friedrich as he set down the Sickel account. “If you're so worried about the knight, why did your guards turn aside your baron's mercenaries?”

“Have we? Not that I know of.”

“Interesting.” He cocked his head and considered.

“Sir Fettertyr said to accept no one in but him and his men. Turning back foreigners in armor is positively patriotic. It's heroic, even.”

“I take your meaning. But as they're the baron's mercenaries, I don't know that Sir Fettertyr will feel the same way.”

“Well, that's what I have to say. Anyway, those bastards weren't flying the baron's colors.”

“True. I've seen them. I could attest to that.”

“Excellent.” The mayor rubbed his hands. “You are going to be money well spent. I've just got to find more taxes we can pay. But I need someone to swear that we're doing it fairly.”

“I see. You want me to make enemies. You need to squeeze more out of the clans and blame it on me.”

The mayor blushed but only a little. “Well, you are an accountant. That's how things work for you, isn't it?”

“More often than I like.”

“You know, young man, I received messages about you even before you got here.”

“From who?”

“I can't say. But the word is that you do honest work.”

“That’s because I do.”

“By the gods, I'll swear to send you off in style if that’s so.”

“Do you mean unharmed and with lots of money? Because sometimes people mean something else when I uncover cheaters.”

“I'll pay you in silver.”

“Really?” He sat up straighter and surveyed the bags around him. “Do you have any?”

“Lots. Most of these satchels are filled with it. We didn't send Fettertyr all of our metal, despite how he and the baron don't like to get paid with anything else. I saved a portion. But now it's hard to see why I bothered. Most people around here don't find use for coins. With everyone hungry, merchants prefer payment in meat or fish. It's easy for me to pay you cash. Times being hard, no one's going to try to rob you of anything but food.”

“I believe that.” He took a moment to reflect that the mayor's words were completely true. Denario had never been robbed of cash in the mostly-Mundredi towns.

For a few minutes, Friedrich shuffled through his bags, boxes, slates, boards, and occasionally through his tattered or partly burnt scrolls. One scroll was made of a greenish sort of paper, not parchment, and it was nearly seventeen feet long.

“I didn't know they made sheep that size,” the mayor commented.

Denario had to spend a minute or two explaining the difference between parchment made from animal skin and paper made from pressed plant fibers. He didn't think Friedrich really understood but the amiable man nodded anyway just to change the subject of the conversation.

“It's the first paper I've seen since Zeigeburg,” Denario concluded.

Then he and Friedrich leaned close over the contents of the scroll, then another scroll, then wooden tablets, and over the course of the morning they began to gather the rather haphazard picture of the town's finances. Unlike some places that had a single, strict system with flaws – even Oggli's double-entry methods had weaknesses – or several systems with errors created in the overlap and exchange of data, it would have been more accurate to describe Friedrich as having no accounting method at all. His predecessor had used a cryptic system of wooden tablets, leather belts, and hash marks.

“I mean, look at this!” The mayor unbuckled his belt and took it off. He was wearing a sample of the old accounting system. “No clan marks. Who can read this anymore?”

As Friedrich explained the holes and stitches that represented numbers, Denario stood taller and rubbed his sore neck. He gazed around him at the straps hanging from hooks on the walls. These, he realized, were not equipment like the swords and spears. They were relics of ancient ways. The Oggli and Waldi peasants had used leather records for centuries. Probably, the straps were precursors to proper vellum scrolls.

The accountant's hands grazed over the patterns in the leather stitching. The system of holes seemed to be unique but on the leather straps, the influence of immigrants could be seen. The Mundredi concept of house marks and clan marks appeared in the farm reports. It was too bad, really, that Friedrich had dropped it all in confusion. It seemed that for the past nine years he'd let each house report in any way they liked. Most reports had been oral, not even written except when half-remembered or estimated by Friedrich Jolli and his assistants as they tried to assemble the tax totals under the baleful gazes of the knight's men. It didn't help that those men had ignored the math and simply taken whatever they could. That dampened Friedrich's spirits and kept him from spending the effort to determine the right amounts. From his point of view, the farmers and merchants lied and the knights ignored the lies but then committed theft.

Friedrich seemed to have only a little idea of what other mayors were doing. Sir Fettertyr, like Sir Ulrich before him, didn't like the mayors or burghers from different towns to get together. So Friedrich heard rumors from his neighbors in Einferd Wad, Haphbruck, South Ackerland, Erlang, Ruin Thal, Ackfort, Zweibrucken, and a few other places. Aside from word of mouth, he had no idea what went on in the rest of his baron's realm, much less the wider realms of his count, marquis or duke. He'd heard of Zeigeburg but barely. To him it was a town 'somewhere out west' and completely unreachable. It was as mythical as Oggli or Muntab, which was far across the Complacent Sea.

Yet the mayor knew about No Map Creek. He understood that the waters of Furlings Brook, which ran through his town, ended up in the creek. When he'd been a young boy, he'd gone off one day to wade toward those magical lands 'at the end of the natural water.' That had been an adventure for him, knowing he was leaving behind the ordinary world for one inhabited by flying alligators, lost temples, foreign gods, and strange, seductive priestesses.

“I'd rather hoped to meet those priestesses.” Friedrich sighed wistfully. “I heard them singing that evening, I think. But the sounds frightened me somehow. They were faint and far downstream but they ached my bones. So I started a big campfire that night as a defense. Naturally, a farmer came to investigate. His family surrounded me. At spearpoint, they forced me to break camp and head back home.”

“That night?”

“No, they said it wasn't safe at night when those sounds were in the air. They blamed them on the Kilmun tribesmen.”

“Are the Kilmun near No Map Creek?”

“Yes, just on the southern side. The creek divides the tribes although there's been a fair bit of mixing of the families these past hundred years. Immigrants intermarried with locals despite the objections of all kinds of priests. And except for some priests and priestesses, there's no hostility between Mundredi and Kilmun.”

“None?” said Denario, impressed.

“No fighting that counts.” Friedrich opened his hands and rolled his shoulders. “Squabbles between men as you'd have anywhere, no clashes between houses, churches, or clans.”

“That's a relief,” Denario said. He touched the coin on his neck. He suspected he wouldn't be able to rely on it as much among the Kilmun. He’d use the letters of passage from the mayors and the Ogglian mercenaries.

His fingers found a leather strap wrapped into rough circle. It had been sitting on a pile of wooden tablets but Denario hadn't understood what it was before so he hadn't noticed. He unwrapped it. For a minute or two, he tried to work out the code of holes. The strip of flesh had been badly cured and had grown brittle. Cracks made the patterns hard to read. In another few years, it would crumble. Denario could see why this method of record keeping had fallen into disuse.

As the mayor tried to explain to him which records to read, Denario started adding numbers in his head. He quickly discovered that the town made an amazing amount of pickled cucumbers, pickled beets, pickled carrots, and even pickled beef. The craftsmen made bows, barrels, arrows, tar, vinegar, pitch, turpentine, and tallow candles. Farm towns like Furlingsburg should have been overflowing with wealth. But it all flowed to the nobles. Denario supposed that, in their way, these farmers made the war with Faschnaught possible. Without their products, both raw and crafted, the knights couldn't possibly buy the weaponry they needed for battle.

There were numbers all around Denario. He kept counting. There were numbers on the scrolls, on clay tablets, on wooden counting boards, on debtor split sticks, on clay pots similar to those in the ruins of South Ackerland, and even scribbled onto on stacks of sacks, each filled, he knew, with counters. Friedrich Jolli had surrounded himself with the farm reports of the past seven years and the records of nearby towns going back for much longer. All of the records had stories to tell.

“I need paper,” Denario said after a few minutes, interrupting whatever Friedrich had been saying.

“You mean blank pieces? We don't have any.”

“You have these counting boards, the planks.” He pointed to one of the tree cuts with tally marks.

“Each clan or house has a few.”

“I need half a dozen. No, a dozen. And a knife. Better make it three knives.”

“Do you have three hands?” Friedrich laughed. Denario must have given him a very serious look, though, for he then nodded and repeated, “Right, three knives.”

“I'll need an assistant, someone who understands numbers.”

“Just one?”

“For now. And I'll need ink. We can't send boards to Sir Fettertyr. The final draft will be on parchment. We'll use pens and a roll of my own sheepskin for that.”

“The Hammer clan said you'd need those. They say their tattoo artist will arrive today. And you met Wilfried, my book keeper. I'll give a yell for him.”

Next: Chapter Seventeen, Scene Five