Sunday, December 27, 2015

Not Even Not Zen 25: A Bandit Accountant, 4.2

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Two Pair
Scene Two: Fair Trade

“There,” said Denario as he finished bandaging Kurt's head. “Did I do it right? I don't know much about medicine.”

“Well, I can't see the result,” Kurt pointed out. He was turning out to be rather more expert than an accountant in preparing wraps, poultices, and other home-grown therapeutics.  “Did ye do what I said?”

“Pretty nearly.” Denario put his hands on his hips and studied the clean cloth wrap. “I'm glad your father made you carry bandages.”

“I wish he'd given me liquor.”

“Why?” Denario stepped back. “You seem young for heavy drink. And this isn't a good time for it.”

“Ye're supposed to pour it on wounds.” The teen sounded as if he'd barely kept himself from adding, 'ye dummy' to his reply.


“That's what me mam says. Dad gets upset, says it's a waste. But it might help. Anyway, I'd like a drink now, too. So both things.”

“It's getting dark,” Denario hinted.

“I'm not looking forward to the rest of the walk, nae. But, accountant, I don't want to spend half the night near these corpses.” Kurt brushed his brown hair over his bandage to hide it. He hoisted his pack.

Denario looked down the hill. The bodies of his attackers lay where they'd died, in the grass, dirt, and rocks. Nothing had changed in the last half hour except for a few flies picking up the scent. Denario felt almost brave enough to retrieve his darts. They weren't his, though, those bits of magic weaponry. That was a problem he'd have to solve if he didn't want to remain a thief. 

“Will the bodies attract bears?” he asked. Bears were the worst animals he could think of. In Oggli, he'd seen bearskin rugs and stuffed bear heads for sale in the vendor stalls.

“Wolves, I hope.” Kurt nodded toward the wooded areas where wolves might hide, although they'd seen no sign of them and they were probably a figment of Kurt's imagination. “Anything would be better than other people finding them. These aren't the mayor's men. All the same, I'll bet the mayor takes an interest in what happens to them.”

“Ah.” That was an idea that hadn't occurred to Denario. It should have, he realized. Kurt's family was in grave danger if those bodies were discovered, not to mention the innocent Guntaffons, who might be blamed because it was convenient. “Should we get them out of sight, you think?”

“Aye, while there's light enough.” Kurt seemed eager to do a man's work. He hiked straight to the nearest body and pulled on an arm to turn it over.

Denario found the task of retrieving the darts to be disturbing. He regretted the need. Nevertheless, with the boy's help, he managed. He spent a minute or two cleaning them while he watched Kurt try to lift a body by the armpits. That didn't work, of course. The men had been too large for either of them to carry alone and Kurt had to be careful not to re-open the slash on his left forearm.

When Denario joined Kurt, he discovered that the bodies were heavier than he'd have thought possible. He wondered how he'd misjudged. It took him and Kurt working together simply to drag them, one by one, into the nearest grove of dogwood trees. There was no way they were going to be able to bury them. Kurt cut a few branches, picked up a few sticks, and did his best to cover the mess. Denario added leaves. That was the most they were going to accomplish.

“Thanks for saving me from that last fellow.” Denario said. He bent over his knees and panted. Although he was accustomed to walking a lot, he wasn't strong enough for labor like this at the end of the day.

“Well, you saved me first,” said Kurt. He pulled up bracken to lay it on the pile.

“Why did you turn and fight?” Denario blurted out. Then he heard himself and added, “Sorry. It was brave of you. I just ...”

“I don't know,” said Kurt. “I did, that's all. Maybe I'm a fool.”

Yes, thought Denario. He tried not to let the opinion show on his face. Kurt was only four years younger than he was. Those four years had been critical for Denario. They probably would be for Kurt if he lived through them. 

Denario wrapped a coil of rope around his hand. It had fallen from the tallest man's body. It got him thinking about the other equipment that the gamblers must have brought. He knew he should check more than the few items they'd left on the ground. But that would mean robbing the corpses, wouldn't it? How would Kurt respond to that? Plus it would take some work to uncover them.

“That rope reminds me,” said Kurt. “These men said they had horses nearby, didn't they?”

“Yes,” Denario allowed. He was still considering how best to broach the subject of supplies. Unlike Kurt, he wouldn't be getting home in just one day. Whatever these men had brought, he needed it.

“That made me think. We'd better go find their campsite. It shouldn't be hard. They had a fire. I'll bet we could take their horses and maybe their other equipment. Then, if we cover up their fire pit, maybe disguise it with some dirt and grass, no one will know they were ever here.”

Denario put a hand on his hip. It was mostly because he was tired. The teen seemed sensitive to his approval, though. 

“Don't look at me like that,” said Kurt, hands raised. “I don't mean we should be bandits. I just ... you know ... don't want anyone to find them.”

“You're right.” Denario supposed he should let the young man off the hook, he was so agonized. “I was only wondering how to bring it up, myself. You already think I'm a thief.”

“I was just kidding.” The look in Kurt's eyes said that he wasn't. But at least now he cared enough to lie politely.

It took almost half an hour to find the gamblers' camp. Their fire had died out and, in the dark of the woods with the sun setting, the job grew nearly impossible. His guide chewed on his lower lip. Denario gathered bruises with his shins as he located tree roots, rocks, and brambles. He was sure they were lost. Thankfully, the horses were smart enough to hear them coming and whinny. They followed the whinnies, snorts, and thumps made by their hooves into a peninsula of grass and barren dirt.

“I think these fillies deserve some oats,” announced Kurt as they emerged. The relief on his face would have been readable without any light at all. Now that there were no boughs overhead, twilight seemed bright as midday. The peninsula opened up into a wide river of grass that flowed up the slopes between strands of trees.

“Only two of them.” Denario shook his head. There were three gamblers but only two horses in the clearing. That explained the horse they'd seen running free.

Kurt murmured kind-sounding words to the beasts and stroked their manes. Denario, a trifle shy of large animals, even friendly ones, left him to it. He concentrated on the leather packs lying on the ground around the dead fire.

All of the traveling supplies that Denario had ever dreamed about seemed to be stored in the packs. There were wraps of beef jerky, wine, string, rope, and clothes, including someone's precious spare hat. It was brown and unfit for accounting but it looked perfect for travel. There were several playing cards on the inside brim. Denario didn't see their purpose – maybe they formed an interior sideband – but he left them in and donned the hat with unsettling glee. He was even happier to find a sewing kit in one of the wraps. He'd left his in the boarding house like a fool, although that had turned out lucky, maybe, as Gordi had asserted.

In one of the packs, he found a pair of gloves and two pairs of socks. The socks were essential. Denario's soft-soled accounting low-boots had picked up cuts from sharp rocks. None had drawn blood yet but the constant rub of the stones was wearing holes in the bottoms of his stockings. He unslung his backpack and stuffed the newfound supplies inside.

Then he found the cooking gear. The heaviest pack held a thin skillet, three wooden bowls, and a cast iron stew pot that Denario could barely lift. There was no question of carrying it with him. He couldn't even carry the skillet, although the bowls were welcome, he guessed, along with the wax-wrapped block of butter and two different wedges of cheese, one yellow, one white with purplish veins running through it. A dense loaf of bread found its way to his mouth before he could think to save it for later.

“Wan' shome?” He offered it to Kurt. To Denario's disappointment, the teen grabbed it and broke it in half. He returned the smaller half to Denario, the one with a bite out of it.

“Nut bread!” he exclaimed. “These fellows knew how to eat!”

Two seconds later, Kurt spun to his left and threw up. He'd barely had a taste.

“What's the matter?” Denario stood. For a moment, he thought his guide might be coming down with a fever, which would be nearly the worst luck possible. Late spring wasn't a time to fall ill.

“The bodies.” His brown head of hair shook from side to side. “Sorry. They came to my mind right then.”

“Oh.” Denario knew what he meant. For his part, he was too hungry to care. Anyway, unlike Kurt, he'd seen men die before. When he was five, a slave named Werter had tried to run away. One of the baron's knights caught him, brought him back to the barracks, and beat him to death where everyone had to watch. Later, two other men had fought with their foremen and had met similar fates but Denario hadn't cried then. He'd been older and anyway, those men hadn't been as kind or gentle as Werter.

“I don't think I can eat.” Kurt handed back the nut bread.

Denario laid it on the ground for later. He'd organized more equipment from the gamblers' packs than he could carry. If he wanted it all, he would have to accept a horse. The great beasts seemed friendly enough. He'd overcome his fear of them many times before. But there could be a problem in riding the steed of a man he'd killed. The animal itself could be recognized. A small town sheriff might wonder how the horse and rider had been separated.  He might wonder who the new rider was – although not for long if the mayor of Ziegeburg had sent notice that a certain accountant was wanted dead, not alive.

“I don't think we can take everything.” He set aside the rest of the frying pans, one by one.

“We'll need to bury the rest. At least there's a hand shovel here.”

Denario sighed. He didn't want to burden himself with heavy tools. 

“Don't worry, I'll carry the shovels and a few other things home. If my father worries about it, I can bury them there. I don't think these were the sorts of men to be recognized by their tools. Not these kind of tools, at least. They have no marks on them. The hat or the shirt with the funny sleeves are both more dangerous.”

“I'm keeping the hat,” Denario said stubbornly. He made a mental note to not wear it in Hogsburg, not even if it was raining. The boy was likely enough to be right.

“Too bad about the boots,” Denario added. They were conspicuously missing from his inventory.

“There are no boots,” Kurt countered.

“That's what I mean. I need something better on my feet. But it's too late to take anything from the dead men, I suppose. They had those boots that were made to travel. Probably, they had their money on them, too, because I don't see much here. They had weapons, naturally, not that I know how to use any.”

“What about darts? Those are weapons. You used those.”

Denario shook his head. They weren't weapons, no matter to what use he'd put them. 

“Speaking of that, though ...” Denario remembered how poorly he'd checked his gear. “I'd better lay out my kit next to all this. It'll help me decide how much I can take. Also, I can find out how many sets of darts I brought. I hadn't expected the golden ones.”

“You have more than one set? They're expensive. You should sell them. Anyway, how can you not know what you've got in your bag?” Kurt giggled. He crept closer. The dead bodies had stopped having their effect on him, it seemed. “Didn't you pack it yourself? Or did the witch put things in?”

“She's not a witch!” Denario snapped. The boy stepped backwards, hands raised to ward him off.

“Didn't mean nothing.” After a second or two, Kurt relaxed. “It's just what everyone says. No one's being cruel. She's got to have someone, everyone says, and me mam says it's a relief when it's not a man from around here.”

“Oh?” It occurred to Denario that his friends in Ziegeburg had been too polite to tell him what they really thought. This boy might not know enough to be anything other than frank.

“Me da says you've got to have a few witches and wizards around. They keep the priestesses and priests under control.”

“Your father is pretty sharp.”

“Sometimes.” Kurt kicked a loose stone. He didn't like to think about his father, Denario could see. “It's getting too dark to work more. Those fellows left wood. I'm going to start the fire back up. If I feel better, I'd rather eat something hot.”

Kurt reinvigorated the smoldering coals in less than a minute. Denario was startled to notice there was a skill to it. He wasn't sure how much the placement of particular sticks helped the flames but Kurt's wooden structure took on a regular, geometric shape. It became a prism lying on its largest side. Denario tried to remember how it went in case he needed to make his own. 

The wood looked reasonably dry but it smoked like a wizard's chimney. Kurt didn't seem to be able to do anything about that. The air smelled like burning resin.

After he was done, the young man knelt next to Denario as he laid out the contents of his backpack. Kurt took up the job of unwrapping the remaining pieces from the gamblers' supplies. Together, they made a few discoveries. There was a bit of breakfast food, including oats to make oatmeal and a pouch of fat to stir into it, packets of salt and pepper, rope snares, twine snares, and other supplies that seemed to be meant for living off of the land, not that Denario understood how to use them.

In a sack tucked into a side pocket on one of the saddlebags, Kurt found a roll of devices including two pairs of dice, a spring-loaded item that held a double-six domino tile, and a hinged wire about the right shape to hold a single playing card.

“Interesting,” murmured Denario as he tested the spring on the domino toy. He wondered how it was supposed to be used.

“Are these darts?” Kurt asked as he picked up a leather wrap much like the one Denario used for his copper set, except stained with a dark, red dye.

“Untie it.” Denario unwrapped own of his own sets at the same time. His copper tips lay in the box that had come with the poison and the steel darts. His hollow-point steel tips had fallen into his rag of a spare shirt. Next to that lay the white leather wrap that had previously covered his copper darts. It was empty. The gold ones lay in the wrap he'd grabbed by mistake. It looked identical to his own. That was how he'd made the switch. The wizard had left out his wrap and Denario had grabbed it.

He felt the darts tremble inside the wrapping. He decided not to lay them out for Kurt to see.  Instead, he set them back into the bottom of his bag.

To his left, the gamblers' set turned out to be a quintet of carved, wooden shafts. Four of them had dark feathers, probably from a crow. The oddball dart, which used lighter wood, had gray flights. Their points were all bone. Bone points were sharp but easily broken and two had, in fact, been snapped off at about a thumb's width from the end. Probably, they'd been kept in hope of repairing them.

“They're beautiful.” Kurt petted the flights like he was holding a baby bird in his hand.

“Keep them.”

The young man made a sucking sound. “Oh, I want to. But no. Ye need two sets to play a proper game anyways.”

“Would you like my copper tipped set to go along with them?”

Kurt sat back. He stared at Denario for a few seconds, eyes unblinking. His mouth opened but it took a few seconds before words came out. 

“Did they ... uh, cost ...” He hesitated. Denario understood why. The darts were worth 60 coppers, easily, an amount which couldn't be hidden from his father. But the boy probably didn't know enough to be aware of their value. He only understood that they were precious in some vague way.

“I never spent a penny on them,” Denario asserted in the hope of cutting off that line of thinking. “I won them in a darts tournament back in Oggli.”

“Wow. Dad said ye were good. Is Oggli as big as Ziegeburg?”

“It's about eleven times larger in the numbers of people living there. Of course, we're packed closer together.” As strange as it was to contemplate, the Ziege, including its farms and Ziegeburg town, occupied almost half as much ground as Oggli.

“Ye were the best darts player in Oggli?”

“No, just in that tournament on that day. There's a bit of luck involved, no matter what people say.”

“Gosh.” Kurt picked up the copper tipped darts and clutched them to his chest. That was Denario's answer.

Chapter Four, Scene Three

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