A Bandit Accountant
Chapter Root Two Squared
Scene Six: Quit While Ahead
The second part of Denario's plan, well, his newest plan, fell into place after they shot to go first. Not only did the wizard win – he could hardly miss after he made his intentions clear to his enchanted missiles – he ignored the score, which wouldn't matter to the game. Tremelo the Miscreant turned his back and helped himself to another flagon of wine. He was treating Denario as his servant. That was fine. Denario didn't mind retrieving the wizard's darts.
“See this?” whispered Denario to the first dart. He showed it the steel tips on his brand-new set of three. “Feel it. If you're on the board when I shoot, I'm going to hit you with it.”
He tapped the steel against the gold. Although he hadn't filled the heavy shafts with poison, he imagined they had a deadly force anyway. If the magic darts could read his intentions now, they should be scared. He held the image of a steel point splitting the gold in his mind He knew the steel could crack it, shave it, cut off a flight feather, and shear off the tip. He pictured it all.
He was sure the golden ones could figure out what he was planning. They were, in a weird way, a bit alive. Something about how they'd been created gave them a spark of intelligence. And like any other creatures that could think for themselves, or so Denario reasoned, the golden darts would try to save their own lives.
He felt one of them tremble. Denario noticed a mark on the shaft, the letter 'D' embossed in gold. How tacky, he thought. He added it to the sense of hatred he tried to project to the darts.
“You'd better miss,” he whispered. “You'd better not be on the board when I throw.”
Something about the way Denario hid his hand from the crowd must have made one of the wizard's friends suspicious. He was a short, hawk-nosed man who Denario hadn't noticed before now, when he scowled and pointed.
“Hey, Tim,” he drawled. “That accountant is touching your golden darts.”
“Heh,” Tim chortled. He waved his long, thin arm. “This simpleton's got as much magic as my bootlaces. He can't hurt them.”
All the same, he grabbed his staff – an item which, Denario had noticed, the wizard couldn't seem to go without for long. Tim had to have tools in his hand. He levitated his darts, clutching the air with his fingers. Denario let them go as soon as he felt the tug. They hovered for a second, long enough to give them one last flash of the mental image steel tipped darts striking them dead on the cork board.
“Are you going to use that staff this time?” Denario asked. It was a spur of the moment question but, he realized, it might be important.
“Don't be ridiculous.” Tim snorted. Once the bolts were in his grasp, he thrust his magical rod aside. “I don't need anything more than these to beat you.”
“Hey, Stanli!” Denario shouted. “He's not using the staff.”
“Oh. Right, then.” Stanli seemed non-plussed for a moment. He had caught on instantly that Denario was up to something. That was because Stanli was often cooking up schemes himself. But he didn't know how to react for a moment. “Hear that, Gordi?”
“What about it?” said Gordi, genuinely befuddled.
“I reckon I'll place another bet on the accountant to win, then,” Stanli announced.
That got laughter. But more than that, it got everyone agreeing that the wizard wouldn't use his staff. A couple of men followed Stanli to the betting tables. Incredibly, they wanted in. Even the wizard's friends shared the sense. They were uneasy as they took the bets and didn't offer the odds they'd allowed before.
If Denario lost big, a lot of men would want to lynch him.
“There he is!” came a booming voice. Jordin Lamar's huge body occupied the front door of the Bottom's Up. To his back, there was the orange and purple glow of sunset. Sundown had come to Ziegeburg. Denario's time had run out.
In strode the mayor's thug and, behind him, two more brutes. One of them wore the brown vest of the local guard uniform, complete with the embroidered gold arrow. He wore a brown cap with a matching arrow pin, which struck Denario as excessive. Everyone had to know the deputy chief of the guard anyway. Ziegeburg was home to hundreds of people, which was big for these parts, but it wasn't so big that anyone important could go unrecognized.
“This man's a thief!” the deputy shouted. “A bandit!”
“Really? Who does 'e work for then?” For some reason, this remark from one of the roughest characters in the bar drew a few guffaws. It changed the way the mayor's men stood. They relaxed a little.
The deputy glanced around him and re-assessed his audience.
“Well, the mayor says ...”
“No one 'ere cares what the mayor says.”
“Now look, you ...” The deputy started forward towards the second heckler, who was smaller than the first, but Jordin caught him by the arm. The deputy shook it off but he stopped his advance. “You've all got to understand, this fellow here, he's a wanted man!”
“Wanted for what?” The second heckler insisted. “For math?”
“I ...” The deputy hesitated. At that moment, Denario realized there was no charge against him. This fellow would have come out with it instantly because he was that type. The mayor wanted Denario out of town but he hadn't bothered to accuse Denario of anything. “I don't remember but I know he's done something. 'Cause the mayor says. It's not your business, anyway. He's got to leave or hang here. And he hasn't left.”
“You're early,” Denario countered. He said it from behind Tremelo the Magnificent, just in case the thugs made a sudden move. “The mayor said I had until nightfall. And it's not night yet.”
“Hear that? He knows he's wanted!”
The statement didn't have the effect the deputy had hoped for. The men in the bar didn't draw away from Denario. If anything, a couple of them leaned closer. The interesting part, from Denario's point of view, was that most of the men didn't seem concerned one way or another. The mayor's associates were part of their bar's entertainment. At the Proud Pony, of course, all of the tradesmen would have been worried indeed. Even now, Gordi stood behind Stanli. And Elgin and Kingli were nowhere to be seen. But these farmhands and travelers had no worries. The mayor could take almost nothing from them. They didn't own anything.
“I'm playing darts,” said the wizard in a calm voice. He had a slight smile on his face. “I don't know the mayor. Never met him. But if he or anyone else wants to know what it's like to have green skin, swim with amazing skill, and croak all night on a lily pad, well, they only need to say.”
Instead of an uproar, the announcement caused a hush. The wizard took a slow sip from his mug. The gamblers and spectators turned to the mayor's men to see how they would react. The deputy didn't move. He gaped at the wizard, apparently just starting to realize what Tim was. A few seconds later, he didn't move all over again. After a few more seconds, the wizard touched his staff. The mayor's men and about a half dozen other fellows standing near them sat down.
“That's good,” said the wizard. With a theatrical flourish, he turned toward Denario. “Are you ready, my notorious accountant? Let's begin!”
For a moment, Denario felt ashamed about what he was going to do. Then Tremelo the Miscreant returned to his condescending insults as he proceeded to mis-fire his darts and let them do all the work. That made Denario feel better. Also, as Denario kept an eye on the mayor's men, he could tell they were intimidated by the wizard's show of status and power. Wizards ranked as high as mayors, in their book. For now, they'd forgotten about carrying out their orders.
Not too far from them stood Stanli, trying to look brave and not at all worried about his money. He pressed his fingers into a steeple and rubbed them together just beneath his chin. He kept his jaw set tight until he saw the magic. Then his mouth fell open in awe and, a moment later, outrage.
“No one can win against that!” he wailed.
“There!” The wizard spun with his arms spread wide. “Twenties are closed out. The best you can do is the nineteens, accountant.”
“That's what I thought, too,” said Denario as he stepped to the line. “But then I realized, the darts have to stay on the board. Right? That's the rule.”
The wizard cocked his head to one side. He seemed prepared to make a snappy comeback but his brow wrinkled in concentration. Denario turned from him and took aim quickly.
He knew how to throw hard. True, with him, a shot never carried much force, really, but he knew how to aim when he was at his strongest and his darts took less of an arc. It was different. For a short period of time, a few minutes maybe, it could be more accurate than his regular throw.
His shot hit deep between two of the golden darts. They began to tremble.
“That doesn't count,” said the wizard. Other voices repeated his sentiment but Denario heard suspicion in them.
“It will,” Denario told them.
He threw again, harder and straighter. This time, he had the lowest, most centered dart dead to rights. He knew it even before he released. His steel tip was going to split it down the middle.
But the magic dart dodged. It bent to the right more than Denario had thought possible. His shot caught it in its brass tip instead of the more vulnerable gold body. Then, slightly nicked and knocked about, it tumbled from the board. It clattered to the floor, followed by Denario's dart, which hadn't sunk into the remains of the brass tip. The enchanted one tried to rise. It flexed and flopped but gave up, tired. It reminded Denario of a tortoise knocked onto its back.
“It does count!” someone shouted. It might have been Stanli and Elgin both together. All the gamblers began shouting.
“They have to stay on the board to count,” said Denario. “That's the rule.”
“But you're aiming at them,” complained the wizard. “That's not fair!”
“You aimed at mine. And you're the one who wanted to go first. You insisted.”
To Denario's surprise, almost the entire bar shouted, 'Yeah!' or 'You started it!' or 'Play on!' It seemed that no one really liked the wizard, not even his companions. They feared him, of course, and they laughed when he was funny or just when he was trying to be. But they didn't want to see him win. Even the men who had bet on the biggest point differences didn't seem to mind it if Denario won. Not if he actually won. In fact, that would be a lot better if he won than if he just got close, making winners of a few and losers of the rest.
How often did anyone get to see magic lose to ordinary skill? It didn't happen. Oh, every now and then you heard about some fool with more muscles than brain cells who'd cut off a wizard's head because he got lucky between spells and managed to land a blow. Otherwise, no.
“Play on! Play on!” came the shouts. Denario checked the mayor's men to make sure they weren't about to try anything. Then he put them out of his mind. He aimed and took his last shot. This time, he came close to the topmost golden dart. It leaned far away from his shot. But he didn't connect. The targeted dart, although it trembled, didn't fall.
“Tie score!” shouted someone from a gambling table.
Tremelo the Magnificent put a hand on the knob of his staff and summoned his magical flights from the board and from the floor. He did so with a deep, thoughtful frown. Denario could tell that the wizard was trying to adjust his plans. Meanwhile, the mayor's men were whispering to one another. Denario could almost overhear them as he
retrieved his shots.
The next round, the wizard mechanically fired three shots into the 19 wedge. He ignored his friends, who screamed for him to finish off the 20s. Once again, Denario checked on the mayor's men before he stepped to the line. They were wide-eyed in awe of the wizard. Denario wondered if it were possible to entertain them so much with the match that they completely forgot about killing him. Maybe it was worth a try.
In the game, Denario didn't fall for the trap of trying to close out the 20s. That shot felt like he'd miss it. What he was aiming at now was the golden darts. And they needed to feel his intentions. After he took aim, he stopped for a moment. The steel tip looked fresh, as if it had never been used. He sure hoped there was no poison on it. He let it prick him. It smarted. Then he took aim again with his blood on the dart.
“Stay up! Stay up!” the wizard hissed. He was staring at the cork board, trying to counter what Denario was doing. But, as Denario threw, two of the magical shafts wriggled out of the board. They clattered to the floor as his shot hit.
“Nineteen!” someone shouted.
“It counts! It counts!”
Half of the bar stood up and roared. Denario dared a glance around, since he figured these were the bettors who had taken a chance on him in one way or another. They weren't the young farmhands he expected. They were the older men, often wearing pieces of armor. Quickly, before he could think too much about it, he turned and fired off a shot at the 20 wedge. He hit. Then he tried back at his golden target sitting near the top of the 19 wedge and he missed high, almost off the board. It was embarrassing but still acceptable, he told himself. He was in the lead, now, 79 to 59.
The gambling tables announced the scores before the next round and, as luck would have it, their totals were correct and agreed. The wizard looked worried as he tried to calm his magic darts. One of them almost wriggled out of his hand. He took a deep breath and exerted as much patience as he could. He didn't dare yell at the things. Then he shot for the 17 wedge.
“Oh, damn,” he muttered. Apparently, he had forgotten that the nineteen and eighteen wedges were still open. He quickly put a shot into the 18 and then the 19, too. When he was finished, he stepped back from the line, hands on hips. A faint smile crossed his face. He had made things harder for Denario.
“What will you aim for?” asked the wizard.
“I don't know,” Denario admitted. But he knew a second later that the right move was obvious. He had to close out the 19s and ignore the golden darts. He wondered if that would cause a problem later, though. Who knew who those magic, almost-intelligent minds worked? They might stop dodging and dropping.
To his dismay, his first shot felt weak. At first, it seemed headed for the 19 wedge. But it dropped just shy. No points at all. The wizard laughed.
Denario tried to ignore his self doubts. But then he took a terrible second shot, wobbly and too hard. It landed in the 19, close to the wizard's shot, but Denario knew it was luck. He was pretty sure the wizard would know, too.
He wiped sweat off his forehead, stepped back from the line, and stepped back up a second later, so as to avoid showing weakness.
“That was awkward,” murmured the wizard loud enough for Denario to hear him. “But it landed heavily. Different darts, aren't they?”
Denario stepped back. He knew the wizard was playing with his head. Tim had noticed the change right away but he hadn't cared until he started losing.
“Yes,” said Denario. He felt more resolute now. “They're steel.”
“Larger, I see. With hollow tips.” The wizard seemed to know everything.
“Yes.” He bowed his head. For a few seconds, the wizard said nothing more. Denario hopped forward and threw at the widest point of the wedge.
“It fell!” cried a voice.
“He closed it!” shouted Stanli and Gordi.
The shot had landed deep into the cork just above the golden dart, which had flickered like a fish's tail and leaped backwards.
“So that's how it is,” grumbled the Tremelo the Irritated. He grabbed his staff and summoned the golden missiles before Denario could step out of their path. They dodged around him, however, before they floated gently into the wizard's left hand.
“One hundred seventeen to ninety-five,” Denario replied.
“Is that all you can think of? Numbers?”
The anger in his voice surprised him as he said, “I want my canteen.”
There was a pause, long enough for Denario to look up at the wizard. Tim the Magnificent was staring.
“Really?” he asked.
Denario just returned the stare. After a while, Tim twitched. He seemed to hear the whistles and calls from his friends. He stepped to the line. Before he could raise his arm, however, he noticed Denario's shots still on the board. Denario dutifully marched to the target and pulled out the bolts. While he was there, he heard footsteps. But when he spun, it was only Gordi.
“You're doing it.” The farmer seemed stunned. “You're really winning. Are you going to really beat a wizard?”
“I don't know. I really don't, Gordi.”
“Well, I heard the deputy just now,” Gordi mumbled. They turned to walk back. “Me and Stanli are going to try to get in the way if anything, you know, happens.”
“Gonna stand there, at least, to give you time to run.” The diminutive farmer shrugged. “What else can we do? Anyways, keep shootin.”
Denario crossed his arms and thought while the wizard whispered the word “eighteen” twice and sent his darts to the target. He couldn't help noticing how bad the throws still were. Tim would have speared at least one man in the foot and another in the eye if he hadn't had magical help. As it was, the golden bolts swung in arcs that Denario would have liked to draw, if he had more time, in order to work out the functions that described them.
After the wizard finished with a 17, Denario stepped to the line. This time, he heard the mayor's deputy whispering to his men. His mouth formed the word 'rope' and the thug whose face Denario didn't know, leaner and more cruel looking than Jordin, smiled to show his rotten, knocked-out teeth.
The wizard was still shooting perfectly. Any more mistakes might cost Denario the match. He was losing right now, 148 to 117 and the wizard had closed out another number unless Denario could threaten his darts again. He felt exasperated. And yet, when he hesitated at the line, he heard the cheers. Strangers were pulling for him to win.
He threw for the 17 and hit it. All around the bar, men sighed or groaned. Denario wondered, didn't they understand math? If he could close out this wedge, he'd be leading 168 to 148. He didn't have to murder the magic darts to win.
Everyone's ignorance made him mad. He hit the 17 again and again. He'd closed it out. But then, as he crossed the line to retrieve his shots, one of his steel tipped darts fell out of the cork. It fell flights-down onto the dirt floor.
“By the gods!” someone screamed. “No!”
Denario froze, emotions reeling. Suddenly he was only leading by three points. And the wizard was still throwing perfectly every time.
Someone laughed. Oddly enough, it wasn't Tim the Malingerer. It was the cruel looking man with the deputy chief, the one who looked like he was unshaven all over. His crazy teeth had dark spots on them and Denario could smell his breath from ten feet away. But he didn't dare to confront him about the laughter. Instead, he gathered his fallen dart, then the others off the board.
When he got back to the shooting area, the wizard looked almost sorry.
“That was a good one,” he said. “They can't all stick.”
“I'm going to have to go after your darts again,” Denario replied. He felt bitter. “I'm sorry about it because they're wonderful. But it's the only way I can win.”
“Right.” Tim pushed his sleeves up to his elbows. He whispered the word 'seventeen' into his right hand, which held the darts. Then he threw them all at once.
“Wow!” shouted Stanli. Even Denario's friends were impressed at the way the bolts had rocked the cork board. They slapped one another on the back.
Denario didn't stop to think much about it, an urge based on the suspicion that too much awareness would make him nervous. He directed his fear and rage to the golden targets sitting in the 17 wedge. He took a fast swipe at the center of the three. His shot sailed straight and hard. One of the magic darts leaped off the board. Another did the same but a little too slowly. Before it could fall, Denario's shot clipped its flight feathers. A small flake of gold drifted down after the rest of the magic thing, which flopped on the floor as if it were in agony.
“Yes!” Half a dozen men roared. The rest of them, the entire bar, rose to their feet. Whether they were on Denario's side or not, they shouted out their views.
“That closes 17,” Denario reminded himself amidst the noise. He took his next shot, a wobbly arc that struck the 16 at the bottom of the wedge. It was luck, the good kind. During the previous round, he'd gotten the bad kind, so that seemed fair. Denario shrugged. He finished with a perfect shot, just above the lucky one. His fingers felt fine about that. However, he hadn't realized he'd been holding his breath this whole. When he exhaled, he felt so dizzy that he staggered forward a step.
“One hundred ninety-nine to one hundred sixty-five!” shouted a gambler. “The accountant is winning!”
“Two hundred,” Denario muttered as he went to retrieve his shots.
After a heated argument and a minute of bystander shouting, the gambling tables managed to agree on the score. Even the mayor's men got involved. The deputy laid down 2 brassers on the wizard.
Tim, for his part, seemed concerned about the health of his magic darts. He petted them. He cajoled. Nothing seemed to calm them down. The one with a nick in its flight feather could barely hold still in his hand. Nevertheless, he grasped it between his thumb and forefinger and whispered, 'sixteen.'
As usual, his throw was a bit wild. He would have missed the board high and to the right. But the dart flexed it wings. It dove. The things looked like it was trying to hide. Then, probably by mistake, it swooped down into the leather boot of a spectator who had been drinking beer nearby.
He couldn't have been a totally innocent bystander, not in this bar. But he swore the way any innocent man might if he suddenly noticed he had a needle through his toe. He arms jerked and he threw his beer as he grabbed for his foot, hopped, and fell over. On his way down, he took out a rickety chair. Two legs smashed off of it.
A broad-shouldered fellow with a mouth like a frog had gotten splashed by the beer. He turned and punched the man next to him on the assumption that the thin and helpless farmhand had done it. Of course, several men were already laughing at the fellow who had fallen with a dart in his toe. One of them got a kick in the shin from the fellow in agony, which prompted more howls.
Someone threw an empty mug at the group.
Denario would remember that. The thrown mug had changed the room. Suddenly, fighting wasn't strictly local. Battles broke out everywhere. Angry gamblers filled the air with projectiles. One picked up a broken chair leg and heaved it. Of course, the man who was first beaned by the thrown mug swept it from the floor and threw it back. It wasn't likely that he hit the man who'd started it, either, so he spread the violence a bit more, not that it wasn't getting around the room just fine already.
Tim grabbed his staff and hissed, “To me!” His dart flew out of the foot of the injured man and back to him. Two men rumbled over a table not ten feet from Denario and they broke it. They crashed to the floor, punching each other. The proprietor gave a shout and leaped over the bar, cudgel in hand, ready to protect his furniture.
Elgin, Kingli, and Gordi melted away to the sides. That was what Denario noticed. Suddenly only Stanli remained between the mayor's men and Denario. He looked confused. While his head was turned, apparently looking for where Gordi had gone, the deputy shouted, “Grab the accountant!” and lunged.
Denario dodged behind the wizard. Three large men barreled through the tables, through Stanli, and over another bystander on their way to get him. Denario ducked behind a table for good measure. He crouched down low and tried to be hard to see.
The wizard raised his arms. Everyone hit the floor. It wasn't a choreographed fighting move that all the patrons had decided on. No, it was the wizard's doing. He waggled his staff, mumbled something in a language that pricked Denario's ears, and then an invisible weight caught everyone by the shoulders and forced them down.
It wasn't too hard on Denario. He'd already been nearly lying down anyway. He just flattened his small body deliberately and hoped no one would notice. An unhappy result of the spell was that the mayor's goons, with their cheeks pressed to the straw floor, were looking him in the eye. But they were too far away to kill him. The force of the magic had hit them hardest, perhaps because they'd lunged in the wizard's direction. He might be doing whatever he was doing mostly to them. They weren't able to crawl, at least not yet, but they were trying. Their arms stretched. Their fingers clutched.
As he panicked, Denario felt a weight lift from his shoulders. The spell had relaxed or shifted a bit, somehow, and he was free. He hopped up, although not like a nimble deer, more like a drunk sheep, because his legs felt numb. He knocked over a stool and nearly lost his balance. A roar of outrage from the deputy got him skipping over the furniture. Even sheep try not to become mutton.
He lumbered towards the door, trying to be careful not to step on anyone but not succeeding. He murmured, “Sorry, sorry,” to someone in a burlap shirt when he trod on the poor fellow's fingers.
Halfway across the room, he noticed that he was the only man standing besides Tremelo the Magnificent. He turned and locked gazes with Tremelo but the wizard was too good an actor for Denario to tell what he was thinking. Without even a blink, Tremelo pounded his staff on the dirt. He seemed to increase the force of his spell. Denario could feel a buzz in the air like the muted hum of a thousand beehives. It set the hairs on his arms tingling. Still, a few men near the walls were rising to their feet despite the pressure. The chief's men were down but not for much longer.
Denario hesitated. Then, hardly believing himself, he turned back. He'd almost forgotten his accounting case. He couldn't leave it behind.
“What are you doing?” someone rasped from the vicinity of the floor. Denario picked up speed. He leaped over the fallen chair. He grabbed the case and spun around.
From a few feet away, the mayor's deputy howled at him. Denario threw the bag strap over his shoulder. Then, as he took his first step back toward the door, he noticed his darts case lying on the table. He had his darts in his hand because of the way everything had gone wrong so abruptly while he was playing. He needed the case. So he scooped it up as he ran.
Someone in front of the open doorway grabbed Denario by the pants. He lashed out with a dart. The sharp metal tip connected with flesh. Drops of blood spattered his forearm. The grip on his pants leg loosened. He stumbled out into the the open air.
Sunset, he thought. The breeze was cool. Azure clouds hovered overhead. There was an amber glow from behind the hills.
Most people who say things like 'he ran for his life' have never run from danger. If they had, Denario realized, they would have known that desperation doesn't add as much speed as it should. Denario went huffing and puffing up the nearest hill in his trademark, legs-barely-lifting-off-the-ground gait. It was his fastest, yes, but it wouldn't win races. In fifteen seconds, he was still close enough to hear someone laughing at him.
Denario turned around just in time. Otherwise, he wouldn't have gotten hit in the forehead.
“Ow,” is what he said as his jaw clacked shut.
The thing rebounded into the air and landed a yard in front of his feet. It was a wooden canteen. Denario rubbed the spot between his eyes. He wasn't badly hurt. The canteen was waxed and covered by soft wool. It was tied to an assortment of other items on two loops of string but Denario hardly noticed them. He was thinking about the water he could carry. He might die of hunger in the wilderness but, with this, he wouldn't die of thirst.
He stooped for the canteen and squinted down the hill to see who had thrown it. The light was poor but Denario could see a mercenary soldier in front of the door to Bottoms Up, about thirty yards away. It was the short one. He studied Denario with a grin. He waved his fist. There was no one else nearby.
Denario waved back. The mercenary had hit Denario in the head at a good distance while he was running uphill. He was a better shot than Denario. Luckily for Denario, the soldier hadn't been trying to hurt him. Or playing darts. The fellow finished waving. He turned his stout back and stepped back into the alehouse.
Denario watched the figure disappear through the door. Then he headed up the hill to get on with his business of starving to death in the woods.
Chapter Three, Scene One