Chapter Pair of Sevens
Scene Six: Ackerland“What town is that?” Denario gestured past the man who was, even yet, pointing a loaded bow at him. A church spire rose in the distance. An row of huts lined the road in front. They were all thatched and sealed with pitch on their roofs, which meant there had to be a natural supply of tar somewhere close.
“Ackerland.” The fellow swiveled to peer down the trail. Then he thought better of it and turned his attention back to Denario.
“Really?” A spark of memory awoke in the accountant's mind. “North or South Ackerland?”
The farmer lowered his bow slightly. Then he lowered it more until it was almost at his feet.
“Step forward,” he said.
“What about your friends?” Denario nodded to the trees. Only a month ago, he would never have noticed the signs of their occupation.
“Well, is that a Mundredi coin?” the farmer asked. “You wear it boldly enough. If it's yours, we won't hurt you.”
“It was given to me by the chief of the Mundredi to aid me in my mission.” Denario began his stroll up the low slope of grass toward the farmer. He touched the blue disc on his chest. A moment later, he halted and dropped his hand to the pommel of his sword. The men who came out of the bushes and trees were not the farmer's sons. They looked like brigands. Some of them had bits of armor, mostly leather hauberks like Denario's own. “You haven't answered my question. I have an interest in passing through South Ackerland. Is this it?”
“South Ackerland is dead.” The farmer un-notched his arrow. He ignored the men on either side of him, one a head taller than he. His eyes glistened in the morning sun as he remembered, perhaps, a battle. “It was laid to waste last year and all of its fields with it. The baron's men burned the temples and halls and homes to the ground.”
“They came only a week after Sergeant Kaspir and his band left. Someone must have told them.”
“A traitor,” Denario whispered. The leader heard him, though, and nodded.
“Aren't we going to rob him?” complained a thin-looking man in a studded vest. He put his hand on the elbow of the man who Denario no longer regarded as a farmer.
In answer, his leader sighed and rolled his eyes. He patiently unstrung his bow.
The hungry-looking fellow had stained teeth. He wore bright yellow, brown, and gold clothes. They'd been fine once but they'd faded. His straw-colored hair stood on end and askew to his left. All in all, he looked a bit like a lopsided, perhaps wounded, tropical bird, perhaps a canary drunk with attitude.
“Come on, Wilmit,” pleaded the giant beside the canary. He didn't take his eyes off of Denario. “I didn't get any meat yesterday. Nothing but turnips.”
The fourth member of the troop, a long-bearded fellow who hovered behind the giant, smiled to show his black and broken teeth.
“Here's how it is,” the leader Wilmit explained. He seemed to be talking to both Denario and to his allies. “Everyone around here is starving and broke. We know ye've a lot of goods with ye, traveler. Yer belly is full and so's the packs on yer back. But we understand that the army is looking after ye. We're not going to violate our oaths.”
“Uh.” The giant let out a defeated sigh. On the other side of the leader, the thin, yellowish man spun in a circle.
“But we've got lots of knives and arrows,” he complained.
“We'll walk him into town.” The leader stared down the thin fellow, who backed away and spun in another circle.
Even an accountant could see that further conversation would lead to blows. The hungry man seemed quick, too, and bristling with pointed weapons. Yet he didn't carry a sword. Swords were for gentlemen or for hired men at arms. They were a sign of a professional soldier, which was probably why folks hadn't bothered Denario as much as they might have otherwise, that and his lack of clan status.
“I could trade,” Denario offered.
“We haven't got anything.” Wilmit dismissed the idea to the groans of his men.
“Well, I could share, then. I've got a bit of hard tack. Also some cheese. Butter? Well, I may be out of that. But I've got some spare oats.”
“Oats!” one man shouted.
“Butter,” said another, the giant. “By the gods, I'd sell my granny for a bit of butter. Can you ... can you look, man? Along the way.”
“Along the way or at the mayor's house.” Wilmit nodded. He hitched his unstrung bow to his back and marched to the southeast path.
Denario fell in beside the leader as quickly as he could. The path was wide enough for them both. And he wanted to keep everyone happy and relaxed. It wasn't Denario's first encounter like this. In fact, he felt he was getting into the rhythm of them.
It was funny that no one ever wanted his money. From town to town in the Mundredi lands, the peasants asked him for things they could really use. Here, beyond of the Seven Valleys, these were still Mundredi lands. Yes, the folks had learned what money was. They knew that their knights and barons coveted it. But no one wanted to trade him anything for it. No one even cared to steal it.
Today's breeze was cool. It made Denario glad for all of his layers of clothes and armor. The land smelled full of life, musty and sharp. It was planting season. Wilmit led them across two shortcuts in the path. They passed four small fields separated by meadows or trees. In each field, there were peasants turning the soil or watering it or planting something.
Despite how Wilmit had said that they had no possessions, his men found things to trade with Denario. The giant exchanged three turnips for a glob of butter. The long-bearded fellow gave Denario a pair of black sticks that turned out to be badly-dried snake jerky. Probably no one else wanted the stuff but the accountant wasn't going to risk offending the man. At any rate, Denario's rather mundane oats proved popular with the men, Wilmit included. Their mayor had declared all of the remaining oats in the local vicinity to be part of the seed stock. Oat florets were being sown back into the ground. It was good civic planning but it was an unpopular decision. Not a single person wanted to give up their carefully saved food.
Not only were oats in short supply but none of the native farmers had wheat left after the harsh winter. Wheat spikelets had been reduced to handfuls. The peasants couldn't make bread. They were living on year-old acorns, pine nuts, and turnips. Many folks were growing spring onions and peas but there weren't enough. Bitter acorn flour had become the filler used in everything. Denario was glad to re-stock his travel packs with pine nuts and onions and what few wild herbs the townsfolk had found. He rather liked nuts, except acorns, and he privately considered most nuts to be better eating than dried meat. He was sure he'd finish his new batch of pine nuts before he ate any snake jerky.
“Yes, the children who gather these nuts and berries are saving our lives,” said Wilmit. “Without their work, the mayor would have had to hang a dozen more folks. Like maybe Tabner here.”
Tabner spun in a circle as he walked. He still looked half-mad and, although he smiled at the use of his name. And he did not look scared of Wilmit. In fact, he seemed eager for action. He'd added to his ruffled look by leaving a few oat kernels in his blond mustache, leftovers from his hurried eating a moment earlier.
“It turned to fighting this winter,” Wilmit continued. “And it wasn't the usual clan warfare. No declarations, no totems torn down. But when the snow melted, we found nineteen bodies. Folks were out-and-out murdered. Their household belongings were stolen. The mayor hanged one man for that, although we know there must be more. She hanged two others who were caught stealing pigs. Both of those were refugees from South Ackerland. Another fellow was killed in an argument with his neighbor about a cow they shared. Even our local herds of sheep and goats have been thinned. And of course the baron still wants his tenth of everything.”
“Will he get it?”
“The mayor says no.”
“But ...” Denario had been all for tax resistance up to when he considered the consequences. “Won't the baron send his men? Won't they raze the town?”
“Could be. He might try. But we have more men with us now, all desperate. We'll be ready this time. And we don't have any food to spare for the baron. It don't matter what the priests say or what orders the knights give us.”
The temple fields to their left gave way to the temple spires and a shed. Soon after, the winding trail to Ackerland ended in a sort of town square. The space wasn't rectangular. It was a circle of dirt and dust. Lean-tos had been built around the edge of the area. These, Denario guessed, were the homes of refugees from South Ackerland and other towns ransacked by Baron Ankster.
At the south end of the dirt circle, there stood a well head constructed of loose stones with a board laid across. Two children lay near the well. They faced the temple, eyes closed.
To the accountant, the boy and girl looked lean to the point of sickly. Wilmit and his men had no pity on them, though. They prodded the children with their toes. When they roused, the men told them to get back to the fields, “And no complaining neither!” The girl got to her feet. The boy held his stomach and didn't move until the giant kicked him lightly in the rear end. Then he, too, got up and headed back to work.
"What are you lazy bums doing besides berating kids?” Suddenly a woman appeared from the trail on the other side of the well. She wore fine yet rather severe dress in shades of white, gray, and black. Her layers of clothing above it, including a vest, shoulder wrap, and wide belt that included a hammer strapped on with a loop of string, obscured her figure somewhat.
Denario could tell by her shoulders, though, and the width of her arms that she was strong. She walked like a woman of authority. Her black head scarf reminded him of what some priestesses wore.
“Are you waylaying caravans again? If you are, Wilmit, I'll have you in the stocks this time.” Her voice penetrated like Olga Clumpi's. For a moment, Denario thought he might have been transported back to Pharts Bad among the stern grandmothers. But this woman was younger, somewhere in her middle years. She reminded Denario of some city women in Oggli who ran their own shops. She had similar, quick hand gestures.
“No, mayor, my men were doing exactly what you said to do. We were patrolling the fields. Weeding, too. But you have to admit, getting a visitor traveling all on his own nowadays is strange. And we have one.”
This time, the woman turned full-on towards Denario and inspected him with her round, brown eyes. Her strong jaw grew tight. Her thin lips curled in a sneer. Well, maybe she could tell that he wasn't much of a fighter. She put her fists on her hips.
“He says he's on an army mission and he looks it in his way.” Wilmit took off his hat and bowed to the mayor. Then he jostled his companion. Tabner did the same but in a way that was quite angry and jaunty at the same time. The other two did their best to follow suit.
Denario found himself taking off his traveling hat. He discovered his accounting cap beneath it. So he doffed that, too.
“I said I've been given leave by your army,” Denario corrected. “It's different than working for them, exactly. I'm an accountant. Do you know what that is? I do maths. I draw maps. I write out calculations and geometries.”
“I know what those are.” When the woman nodded, her firm jaw barely moved. At least she didn't seem insulted – or bewildered, which might have proved worse. “If you can write charts, surely you can read them.”
“Yes, ma'am.” He bowed again. It occurred to him that this was the first lady of any social class he'd met in a position of secular leadership. He'd met priestesses, maybe a pair of unannounced witches, several wealthy clan matriarchs, and one or two shopkeepers who showed a facility for math, but this was the only Mundredi woman he knew as a burgher or mayor.
She didn't even wait for him to rise from his bow. While his eyes were still on her cloth-covered shoes, she turned and strode away. After a second or two, Wilmit followed. They headed back to where she came from. Denario rushed to keep up. He finally caught them as the mayor marched up the stone steps of a building across the fountain from the church. He glanced up and saw a seal above the arched doorway. It was the town hall.