A Bandit Accountant
Chapter Root Two Squared
Scene Three: Fallen
Denario drew back. He pinched a brass tip lightly between his fingers and thumb as he took aim. To his right, a row of spectators sipped from their mugs. To his left, the wizard chuckled and rubbed his hands in front of the other row of men. Tremelo had ordered his magic darts to close out the 20 wedge and they had, leaving no chance for Denario to win the round. Some ale was already being drunk up through gritted teeth.
At that moment, as Denario squinted at the wide base of the 19, he forgot about the mayor and the threats to his life. But he was reminded. Because that was when, finally, Jordin Lamar looked up from his drink.
“You!” Jordin roared. Lager and foam sprayed from his mouth and drenched everyone within a yard. Even Denario, a dozen feet away, felt droplets. His hand twitched. The shaft veered off course. It missed the board and sunk into the post below.
“Foul!” someone cried. “That didn't count!”
The bettors were angry and one of them grabbed Jordin by the elbow. The big man hardly noticed. He was striding hard for Denario. It took the wizard's frantic waving, two men clinging, and someone's pet dog hanging off his pants to slow him down. And Denario still had to backpedal to stay out of his way.
“It is! Accountant!” The big man stopped and stretched out his arms in wonder. He didn't seemed to notice the men he dragged along. “Why?”
“Well,” said Denario. “Why not?”
That threw Jordin for a moment. He scratched his noggin. A thin man dropped off his arm and scurried away.
“You's supposed to be dead on the stagecoach,” he mumbled, as if reminding himself. “And we looked for you, yep, at your room. But you was gone. So you was stagecoach, for sure. That's what the boss said.”
“What do you mean, dead on the stagecoach?”
“By the gods, the mayor put a silver quarter price on your head. That's, uh, a lot of brass!” The huge man pulled a huge knife out of his belt. It looked small in his fist.
“Thirty six brassers,” said Denario automatically. Apparently, he was compelled to be an accountant to the end. “A silver ring is worth a dozen brassers and a silver quarter is, around here, worth three silver rings.”
“Uh.” Jordin stopped. The math prompted more head scratching, this time with the knife, but he failed to cut himself. “Well, how much is a silver dime, then? Is it more than a ring?”
“It's supposed to be. It takes two and half dimes to make a quarter instead of three rings. But I've noticed that a dime doesn't buy as much here in Ziegeburg. For instance, you can almost always get a healthy goat for a ring.”
“That's right,” an old timer's voice chimed in. “It's the standard.”
“But you hardly ever seen anyone trade the same goat for a dime. They might give you a sickly goat or a baby goat ...”
“A kid,” the same voice interrupted.
“Right, but they won't sell you a goat for a dime. Doesn't happen.” Part of him continued to work through the figures. So his life, to the mayor, was worth three goats? He felt insulted. “Just three? That's cheap. A good accountant should be worth thirty goats, at least. And I know I'm a good accountant.”
“Uh,” said Jordin. He put his hands down, including the one with the knife. Everyone relaxed. “How much is thirty goats?”
Denario didn't know how to answer that one. Thirty goats equals thirty goats. Or was the huge, slow man wondering how many silver rings that meant? Well, that was thirty, too. There were thirty-six goats to a dollar at that rate. Of course, when talking about such a huge amount, farmers usually cut better deals on a per-head basis for livestock. Denario should have been worth at least two dollars in his own estimation. It seemed wrong to explain that to the mayor's stooge, though. The man would probably kill him for a dollar – less, apparently, since he didn't understand how little he was being paid.
“It was not a foul!” someone said. “No one touched him. That shot counts.”
“It does not!”
Suddenly, two men were shoving each other and everyone, even Jordin Lamar, backed up to give them room. They fell to the center of the floor and rolled back and forth. Fortunately, after a bit of wrestling, the combatants seemed to lose interest. They huffed and grappled, but did it more slowly. Everyone else shouted at them to get up.
“Play on!” someone shouted. Other folks repeated it. They pumped their fists in the air.
“Keep playing! Play on.” They clapped and stomped.
The wizard picked up his ash-wood staff and bowed as if the commotion was all for him, which drew laughter and made the combatants hesitate to look around. Tim hammed it up, bowed some more, and levitated the two men off the floor. As they began to wail and kick to escape the magic, he made a complicated pass in the air with his hands, which stood them upright. Then he put the backs of his hands together, pulled them apart, and the two men found themselves pushed away from each other by at least twelve feet and with considerable force. One of them ended up falling over a table. The man seated there grabbed his mug of ale just in time.
As the audience applauded, the wizard turned his attention to Denario, who had backed out of the playing area. Denario felt a tug on the darts. He turned his palm half-open to look at them. The wizard, yards away, made a grasping motion with his fist that levitated one of Denario's bolts out of his hand. Denario clutched after it. Too late. It swooped through the air, almost fell to the floor, rose again, and with a mighty but awkward looking swing, the wizard propelled it magically to the board. He whispered a word that no one could hear but which nevertheless made the hairs on their necks stand up. And the dart, at the last instant, directed itself with a thunk into the 19 wedge.
“There! Hah!” This time, it was the wizard pumping his fist, cheering for himself. His friends laughed.
That should have been Denario's shot. He opened his mouth to say something but he couldn't think of what.
“You can't complain about that, now, can you?” said the wizard. “Come on, little man. Get back out here and play.”
“Play on!” someone shouted. Others repeated it. “Play on!”
“You ain't supposed to be here.” said Jordin Lamar. But the fight had gone out of him. He slumped down, sullen, onto a bar stool. A moment later, as Denario took the final shot of the round, the despondent man began the long process of getting back to his feet. When he succeeded in rising upright, he staggered to the door of Bottoms Up.
“Missed!” cheered the wizard. At first, Denario stared at his shot, which hit the line of the 19 wedge, and said no, he was fine. But he said it quietly. His feet were taking him closer. When he closed to within an arm’s reach, he could tell the wizard was right. His dart wasn't on the charcoal line. It had fallen low by a few hairs.
“Just one hit, this round,” Denario admitted. It was the one the wizard had scored for him, which made it worse. He gathered his darts as the magic ones pulled themselves out and flew, over his head, back to their owner.
The bar seemed a little darker or perhaps it was Denario's mood. He'd noticed that the mercenaries had bet less money on him this time and at as much higher point difference. They relaxed against a wall, arms folded, and quietly waited for the wizard to trounce him. On the other side of the playing alley, the wizard's friends were enticing bets from the latecomers to Bottoms Up. They were succeeding, too, but with half-penny wagers or less. Denario saw lead rings and even smaller munis change hands. The munis were thin ovals of pot metal. Each was shaped like an egg, a reference to the fact that they'd started out as markers for poultry-based barter. Nowadays, you could buy about two eggs for a muni unless the local hens were sick.
Denario's next shot fell squarely into the 18 wedge but didn't sink deep enough. After a second, it dropped out.
“Doesn't count! Doesn't count!” The wizard did a jig.
“All right, fine.” He shook his head. It was a standard game rule in most parts of West Ogglia. Darts that dropped off the board before the end of a round didn't count. That was why, in games between bad players, there was no advantage to going first. After all, your shots had to stay up longer.
As it turned out, another one of Denario's hits dropped off the board in the next to last round and that spoiled his only chance to close out a number. Worse, it meant another 45 points for Tremelo the Malevolent. When they tallied the final score, Denario knew in advance that he'd lost 315 to 114.
“I can do better,” Denario announced. The wizard chuckled. So did a few of the gamblers. They were still checking the tally.
“Who had two hundred?” shouted one of the wizard's friends. He held up a marker scrap of parchment. “Whoever you are, you lost by a fallen dart!”
One of the mercenaries grumbled. He threw his marker scrap to the floor.
“And someone had two hundred on the over? Wow!” The same voice shouted. “You're a big, big winner. You bet early, too. Best odds!”
“Keep it down! Keep it down!” An old farmhand rose from his seat on the floor. He was trying to smile as he shushed the odds-maker but Denario guessed he was joking in earnest. He really meant to keep his winnings quiet.
“Let's see ... a half-penny down but it's five pence back!”
The old man put his hands over his ears as he ambled through the tables. That got a few guffaws from everyone. Another old farmhand got up to follow, though, and that got even more laughter. From the shouts, the old men often owed each other money, so both of them were likely to collect from the same pot.
“Look,” said Denario above the din. “Look, besides adding numbers ... not much else, really ... this is the only thing I do well. I can score better. A lot better!”
“How much?” someone shouted back.
Silently, two of the mercenaries crossed the aisle. They were smiling.
“I've never lost by more than a hundred points. Never, not even in my first game. Not even to the wizard I played in Baggi. It won't happen again.”
“What?” Tremelo the Malcontent sloshed the tankard of red wine he'd just picked up. He roared, “What's this fool saying?”
“Don't worry, Tim.” The group around him muttered reassuring praise. One of the farmhands patted him on the back. For once, the wizard didn't seem to mind.
The men in leather armor eased into place on either side of Denario, between two tables. The farmers around him made room. The shorter mercenary looked and talked like a native. He had hair that could be euphemistically called dirty blond although it might just as well be called greasy brown. His friend, though, a head taller and just as muscular, had hair the color of bright rust. Denario wondered where he was from and how far he'd traveled to get here and why he had bothered. In the port of Baggi, a few red-headed sailors arrived in dugout canoes each spring. They were rare visitors, though, and no one knew where they came from.
"I'm Airecht," he said as he stuck out his arm. He had similar rusty hair on his bare forearms, slightly lighter than the locks on his head. "And ye've met Kabir, I ken."
“Never less than a hundred, eh?” said Kabir, the one who was not much taller than Denario. “Still trying to win a canteen?
“Not any more.” Denario shook hands with them both. “The gamblers promised me one.”
“Really? Then why didn't they give it to you?”
“I don't know.” Denario blushed. He knew the answer had to be that they didn't intend to pay up. What could he do? “I don't know anything, I guess. Except that this is something I have to do. Because I can win.”
“Ye want to win, ye mean.” Airecht scratched his beard, which was the color of a leaf in the fall.
“Well, yes. Of course.”
“It's the magic, lad. I don't think ye can beat magic.” He sighed and hoisted his belt by his thumbs. “The wizard, now, he's none too bright. I've fought alongside his type before and against ‘em, too. Killed one, along with me old mate. Yah, put a sword right through him. But he bled some kind of magical fire. Burned us up.” He turned over his forearm and rolled the sleeve from his elbow to his shoulder. The exposed flesh was disfigured with a brownish-blue burn not unlike the burn across Tim the Malignant's pock-marked face.
“Ever faced a wizard before?”
“No.” But the instant he said it, he knew that wasn't true. He'd come up against them several times and knew what to expect – in darts, at least.
“Braggarts, the lot of 'em. But they've got the knowing of things we common folk doesn't. Like ye with yer numbers. But yer numbers won't help ye here.”
“They might,” said Denario. Adding up numbers did, in fact, help him during the first game. He supposed these fellows weren't likely to have seen that since the advantage was nearly invisible to anyone not tracking potential scores in their heads. “There's got to be some way to beat him. Those magic darts ....”
“Do you think ...?” An idea was starting to form. “Do you think that, if his darts didn't cooperate, he could do the magic by himself?”
“Could he make more o' them? Doubt it.”
“Not him,” said Kabir.
“Aye. He's not a man who fiddles with things. He got those off of another magician of some stripe, I'll wager. They're always trading magic back and forth. But if he had the knowing of making things, he wouldn't be a hedge wizard, would he?”
Would he? Denario wondered. But he had to guess not.
“At any rate, I'm sure his friends would like another round of betting." Kabir idly fingered the axe at his belt while he talked. It was a throwing axe, Denario noted, since he took an interest in things that could be aimed. Kabir looked like he could toss it fifty yards. Of course, his forearms looked good for tossing beer barrels for fifty yards, too. For hours on end. “They finally pulled in some money but they're wanting more. And I'd like another bet, too. Some of the money they pulled in was mine.”
“Sorry,” said Denario.
“I lost by a fallen dart.” His smile was menacing but, at the same time, kindly, as if the threat of violence were deflected to somewhere else.
“Oh.” Denario shuffled his feet. “That was you.”
“Don't worry it, lad.” Kabir clapped him on the shoulder, which rocked him almost off his feet. “My wagers are my own. For all you know, I'm going to walk across to those men over there and bet against you.”
Denario gave the gambling tables a look. There weren't many men waiting around them to collect. The odds for Denario winning wouldn't be good on the next game.
“Ach, he's joshing ye.” The red-haired fellow clapped Denario on the shoulder and nearly sent him tumbling in the other direction. “We're going to bet on a hundred or under. Maybe we'll even bet on ye to win.”
He winked at Denario as the two men tromped in their leather and greaves, to the farmhands. At this point, various pairs of men had set up at least three competing gambling tables. Each of them were giving different odds and the calls for bettors were loud, as were the yells of affirmation in return. Even louder was the bartender, who strove to be heard above the rest. But the loudest of all was the wizard.
Tremelo the Miscreant bellowed and threw red wine down the sides of his patchy beard. Denario stepped around an ox that someone had shaved, stood upright, and dressed in a cotton shirt as he made his way towards the wizard.
Chapter Two, Scene Four