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.

“Really?”

“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

Monday, December 21, 2015

A Nerd in a Warrior Culture - Three Chapters

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Thirty-Two Minus Thirty-One


Chapter Root Two Squared

Chapter Pi, Roughly 

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Not Even Not Zen 24: A Bandit Accountant, 4.1

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Two Pair
Scene One: Deadly Aim


“Run if you want,” Warren said. “We got horses. It won't help.”

Denario fumbled at the drawstring of his waist bag. His poison darts were inside, wrapped in their goat leather.  But they weren't actually poisoned yet. That was a problem.  He should have re-arranged everything in his pack this morning so the poison would be available.  It was too late for regrets.

“And you, boy,” said Warren when he spared Kurt a glance.  “You're dead if you stay here.  You'd better leave.  Now.”

As he felt around for the darts, Denario noticed how Kurt was trembling like a plucked bowstring.  Why wasn't he running home?  Maybe he was too scared to move his legs.  His arms twitched but he stayed where he was.

Denario grabbed the goat leather and unwound it.  Warren took another step.  He raised his dagger.  Far from trembling, Warren's hand looked steady and ready to strike.

Denario succeeded in finding his weapons.  Unfortunately they were the wrong ones.  He could tell by the feel.  They didn't have the steel-tipped, hollow point heads. They had to be his copper darts.  No, they couldn't be.  He'd switched places between the steel and copper darts.  So what ones were these?

He felt one tremble.  Then he understood.

In the confusion of his escape, he must have grabbed the golden darts that belonged to the wizard.  Yes, that was it.  The wizard had returned them to a goat-leather wrap nearly identical to Denario's own.  Now the darts writhed in his hand.  Phoenix-feather flights wiggled against his fingers.

He tried to remember how this had happened.  He hadn't paid close enough attention.  And now wasn't the time to think.  Warren stepped closer, only seconds away.

Denario pulled out a dart and raised his arm to throw.  He was shaking so much, he didn't think he could hit anything.  Warren was too close for a good shot.

“Heh, heh, heh.” Warren chuckled quietly.  He didn't stop advancing.  “You brung the wrong thing to a knife fight.”

Denario had kept backing up but Warren had kept on coming, too, so that if he leaped forward at almost any point now he would be sure to grab and stab.  He leaped. Denario jumped away from the knife point but he tripped on a rock.  He fell to his back and his skull rang against the hard ground.  He caught a brief glimpse of spectacular, colored lights.  Then he blinked and stared up at Warren and the dagger, raised high.  He knew this was it.

The eye, Denario thought.  He focused on Warren's left eye and threw.  His desperation put more force behind the point.  But he didn't watch his shot. He squinted so hard the world went dark in anticipation of his death.

There was a hideous scream.  It took Denario a second to realize it wasn't from him.  He lifted his head in time to see Warren stagger.  The gambler's legs didn't seem under his control.  A trio of flight feathers jutted out of his left eye.  Blood and other liquids ran down one side of his face.  His hands flew up, possibly under his brain's last, reflexive command, then stopped in mid-air, about shoulder height.  The scream came to a halt.

Later, Denario would wonder if Warren was dead before he hit the ground.  No one moved.  No one said anything for a moment.  Warren's body spasmed and it looked like it would go on with spasms for a while.

“I'll kill you!” screamed a voice from behind.  It was the man who'd stood at the bridge.  He was charging.

Denario didn't look around.  He just screamed and sprinted away.  Belatedly, he reached into his waist bag again.

A shout from behind got him to turn.  He'd been running for a few seconds and not really paying attention to anything except the grass and sticks in front of him.  Still, a part of his hindbrain recognized that the high voice couldn't come from one of the gambling men.  It had to be Kurt.  It was a screech of pain.

Denario's feet turned him around of their own accord.  He found himself running back towards the three figures.  It looked like Kurt had decided to fight their attackers but he'd gotten his right arm bloodied.  The man who'd come directly from the campfire had slashed it open, elbow to wrist.  Nevertheless, Kurt managed to raise his fists again in self-defense.  Maybe he thought he could grab the short, wide blade.  But he wasn't even looking in the direction of the second man.

The bridge guard hit the teen on the side of the head at a full sprint. The force of it snapped Kurt's neck so hard, Denario froze at the sight.  But Kurt reacted as he went down. He tried to turn and defend himself with his bloodied arm.  He wasn't dead yet.  He looked only half-conscious, though, when he thumped the ground.

“Kick him!” said the one with the knife.  In the heat of the moment, he and his friend ignored Denario.

His fingers found the remaining two darts in their pouch.  One of them wriggled as he grasped it.  Its tail flopped like a fish.

“Hold him!”

“Stand on 'im.”

“No, like this.”  The fellow with the knife put his knees onto Kurt's chest and stomach.  The teen started to wake and struggle as the breath squeezed out of him in a rush.  He got frantic as his eyes focused on the knife.

Against Kurt's futile resistance, the tall man grabbed the boy's jaw and lifted hard to expose his neck.  Denario could see Kurt's throat would be slit.  He drew back his arm for a dart throw but he was looking at his target from the side.  He didn't have a good view of the man's eyes.  And he didn't think the dart could change its flight path ninety degrees, which is what it would take.  He couldn't risk it.

Ear, thought Denario as he threw.  It was the most obvious part of the man available.

“Yaaarrh!” the stricken man swatted at the dart.  He forgot about gutting the boy. He jostled the bolt stuck in his head, which only made his pain worse.  He ripped a chunk of flesh from his inner ear as the point ripped through it.  Then he stabbed himself on the other side of his jaw out of reflex motion with his weapon hand.  He howled again and dropped the knife.  But he didn't fall. In fact, he stood, enraged, probably deafened, and ready to fight.

His friend also turned on Denario.

“Tricky bastard!”  The man from the bridge moved his mouth as if he would say something more.  No words occurred to him.  He scooped up the fallen knife.

“Denario!” Kurt shouted.  He grabbed for the knife and missed.  He got a swift kick in the side of his head.  Then, taking care not to get caught by Kurt writhing on the ground, the man set his stubbly jaw and advanced.  He kept his blade low.

In a second, Denario was backpedaling and pulling out his last dart.  Eye, he thought, as he threw.  This time, his target dodged.  The knife-hand swatted at the needle point as it swooped in.  For a moment, Denario thought the blade might have blocked the tip or swept it aside and down to the ground.  A deep-throated gurgle of pain ended that worry.  The man stumbled forward another two steps and collapsed at Denario's feet.  His limbs suffered tremors similar to the ones Warren had experienced.  Again the dart had sunk nearly to the flights.  For a moment, Denario was horrified, relieved, and fascinated.

It was exactly the wrong moment to relax.

“RRRrrrrruh!” grunted the man with the bleeding ear as he swung.  Denario hadn't been paying attention but the tall one had pulled a cudgel from the strap at his waist and followed his partner.  Now he'd arrived, barely a second after the other had died, and only by reflex did Denario dodge enough to lessen the damage.

The blow glanced along his left shoulder and left ear.  It knocked him sideways and spun him around.  He tumbled to the ground and then tumbled some more.  The distance he traveled gave him a second to stand up.  He got as far as rising to one unsteady knee before his assailant raced to confront him again.  The stump of wood in his fist looked as large as a sapling tree.  It drew back.  Denario raised his arms out of failure to think of anything better.  He knew that the next shot would break his bones.  Then it would be only a matter of time.

The swing began.  But Kurt's adolescent form slammed into Denario's attacker.  The cudgel missed entirely.  Two figures slashed wildly at each other.  Kurt wielded Warren's dagger with astounding ineptness, missing his man almost entirely twice in quick succession.  Both the gambler and the farmer's son seemed unnaturally speedy, to Denario, which meant, probably, that he'd been addled by the knock he'd taken on the ear.

But he wasn't brainless.  He could run to retrieve one of his darts.  That was the best idea he had.  He hesitated for a moment at the sight of Warren's body.  It had stopped twitching but the feather protruding from the eye socket was gruesome.  He scrambled to find the dart that had fallen from the one fellow's ear, conscious of the precious seconds he was losing to his squeamishness.

“Kurt!  Run away!” he shouted as he found the golden bolt point down in the dirt.

He spun, hoping to find a target.  He got lucky.  Kurt had heard him and was running his direction.  Behind Kurt came the gambler.  He'd heard the shout, too.  He stopped, ten feet away, and stared at Denario like a man about to remember something.


Chapter Four, Scene Two

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Not Even Not Zen 23: A Bandit Accountant, 3.6

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Pi, Roughly
Scene Six: Strange Footprints


“Did you really steal clothes?” Kurt asked Denario as they hiked up a hill. The evening air was turning out to feel a bit moist, as if a rain storm was coming. There were a rolling clouds on the horizon but none of them, as yet, dark enough to worry about.

“As far as you know,” Denario responded. He was put out by having this adolescent along, even if Kurt was stronger and tougher than he was.

“What's it like being a thief?” Kurt teased.

“About the same as being an accountant.”

“What's it like being an accountant, then?”

“Fun,” answered Denario truthfully. Studying under Master Winkel had made it joyous. Besides, almost everything was fun compared to his duties as a slave. “What's it like being a farmer?”

“I wouldn't know,” said Kurt.

“Because you're a wheelwright? Your father said there wasn't enough business for him to work that job full time. I thought you farmed.”

He shrugged. “I don't run the place. I just do jobs. Even my older brother Wolfgang has more say than me.”

“So you think you won't inherit the fields?”

“Wolfgang is a cripple. He can't work the land by himself. But I'm not going to take orders from him all my life, either. If he inherits ...”

“Ah.” Denario began to see the problem. “Could the farm go to you?”

“Maybe.”

“Are you not sure if you want to be a farmer?”

“I'm not sure I'll wait for my father to make the decision. After all, I can become something else, can't I? It's allowed. And then I could travel.”

Denario thought about the dangers of traveling. But a young man like Kurt would just laugh those off. Same for the discomforts. No, if a man was resolved to travel, he would do it. The problem with Kurt was that he hadn't trained for any other profession. He didn't seem to be aware that five to seven years of apprenticeship was usually involved. Even then, most jobs available around here didn't lend themselves to travel. How far could a farrier get from his horses? Where did a animal doctor go besides farms? Most skilled laborers in town, like glassblowers, blacksmiths, and clock makers, stayed in one place.

“You want to see other towns?” That would limit the choices. It might be better to hire on with a merchant. “Would you travel farther, if you could, to other countries or to those islands in the Complacent Sea?”

“I don't know. Maybe when I see another big city, not just Ziegeburg, then I'll decide.”

“Ah.” Since Denario knew that Ziegeburg was tiny compared to Oggli, Angrili, or Baggi, that illuminated another problem that Kurt would experience – perspective. Sailors who came to port in Oggli spoke of Guntar and other southern cities where the original Munstabi tongue was still spoken. Those were larger than the northern cities, although they were apparently a bit run down nowadays. Sailors complained that no one in Guntar wanted to buy luxury items in the spring. Every spare penny in the ancient cities got spent on food over the winter.

“Do accountants travel much?” asked Kurt in a hopeful voice. His expression was neutral but his question hung in the air.

“It depends. Some accountants stay in one place all their lives. But they can only do that in large, rich cities. Here, in the wilderness, most accountants aren't even trained. They learn on their own and then follow the work. My old master would have called them book keepers rather than proper accountants.”

“This isn't the wilderness. This is the Ziege.”

“Um.” Denario should have known that slightly shocked comment was coming. “Right. But this is still an area in which an accountant would need to travel. In fact, if the local baron, knights, or burghers don't provide enough custom, he might need to sell other skills, too, like geometry.”

“What's geometry?”

“It means 'earth measurement.' A geometer measures the natural world.”

“Like a surveyor? I remember a couple years back when the Haphmeyers and the Smiths had a border dispute because their creek bed changed. They had to hire someone to tell them where the property lines had gone.”

“Exactly. That's a peaceful job for a geometer.”

“What? They almost killed him! What's a non-peaceful job like?”

“I meant that, in times of peace, geometers don't make war engines to tear down castle walls or things like that. Surveying is nice. I did that twice with Master Winkel. He helped decide where roads should go.”

“Huh.” Kurt had crested the hill. He kicked a stone down the slope on the other side. “I don't ...”

“What's that?” Denario pointed to a brown shape in the distance. It passed between two clumps of maple trees.

“A deer.”

“With a long tail?”

“A horse, then.” Kurt trudged down through the thick grass.

“What's it doing here?” Denario couldn't say why it worried him. He hadn't seen a rider or a saddle. It might have had reins, though, which implied a former rider nearby.

“Someone lost it, I bet.” Kurt narrowed his eyes on the trees into which it had disappeared. “Must have jumped a fence.”

“But ...” Denario considered the possibilities. There weren't many draft horses around Ziegeburg, according to the town farrier. Anyway, it had looked like a short filly, born to run fast. Who had one of those? The question nagged him.

He trailed after Kurt, who strode onward impatiently. All of his concerns about accounting had fled. The usual background of math thoughts that flitted through his head vanished, too, replaced by hyper-awareness. He noticed the greenery, the rocks, the bracken, and three groves of small trees. He saw how the wants-to-travel, hasn't-learned-any-skills-yet teenager was lost in his own, personal misery. Kurt trounced right into the darkened underhang of branches, not far from where a horse had disappeared. Denario stopped there, unsure of whether he should go in.

“What are you waiting for?” Kurt asked irritably when he noticed Denario many yards behind him.

“Just listening,” said Denario. He couldn't hear any horse hooves. On the other hand, he couldn't hear any birds, either. The silence seemed alarming.

“Look, I'm the guide,” said Kurt. “I know how to get you to the Guntaffson's farm. It's less than a day away from Hogsburg and that's where you're going. But you have to follow me.”

“Shouldn't we be traveling at night? I think your father said.”

“We'll rest in the barn soon, wake in the middle of the night, and I'll get you to the Hogsburg trail before day break.” There was an undertone to his voice that said, I know what I'm doing. “See? I'll show you some hiking in the dark.”

“Well, fine.” Denario marched forward. It was only a horse, after all. If there were a rider nearby, he or she would be on foot.

As the minutes passed and they climbed the next hill, he convinced himself to relax. The sun was low in the sky. Kurt seemed to think that the farm he was taking them to was close. Down in the next culvert, they passed over a narrow stream on a sturdy foot bridge. Some farmer kept that bridge in good shape. It felt reassuring to think of the family members, any of whom could be working somewhere nearby.

Up the next slope, though, Denario noticed wisps of smoke to the north, almost directly in their path.

“Is that a campfire?” He pointed to where the the haze was most visible.

“Could be the Guntaffson home fires,” Kurt grunted. “Wait, is that right?”

“Then what's that smoke over there?” Denario pointed to a more distant spire of soot farther eastward.

“Huh.” Kurt stopped and put his hands on his hips.

Denario whirled around. He thought he'd heard a noise. A shadow next to the footbridge wavered. A bush shook in the breeze. Or was there a breeze? The bushes on the other side of the bridge weren't shaking in the wind.

“Something's ... odd,” said Denario. “There's almost a trail here in the ground.”

“That's not odd. The older Guntaffson boys come through.” Kurt laughed. It sounded forced. “They cross the bridge a couple times a week, at least.”

“Do they have a horse?”

Almost everywhere they'd gone, the grass was as high as Denario's waist.  It was worse than a forest, in a way, since it was harder to walk through than leaves and bracken. So far today, the tall grass had hidden two snakes, one fox, seventeen groundhogs, six rabbits, four large anthills, and one thing that was too big for a farm cat but had all the right markings and about the right shape. That's why Denario had grown accustomed to letting Kurt lead the way. The boy seemed to know how to avoid the dangerous animals.

Occasionally, there were bare patches of ground amidst the green. In one such place, up the slope in front of them and to their left, two rough prints had been left in the spongy ground. Denario pointed to them.

“They keep a few sheep, that's all,” said Kurt. He meandered to the patch of dirt and knelt to run his fingers inside a hoof print. “Okay, now this is odd. It really is.”

“Could that be deer?”

“No.” The teenager snorted. "Tracks from deer hooves look completely different. Ye were right the first time. It's a horse. I just don't know what it's doing around here.”
He rose and studied the distant fires. Only one of them could have come from the Guntaffson chimneys. The other, well, that was a good question.

“Maybe ole Leif Guntaffson is burning something in his west field?” Kurt ventured. But since it was a question, not a statement, he must have hoped there was a simple, peaceful explanation. He just hadn't thought of any he believed.

“Do we go check it out or do we stay away from it?” Denario saw advantages to each. “That's the thing, isn't it ... guide?”

Kurt put his fingers to his temples. He rubbed his head. Denario knew what the young man had to be thinking: if they didn't go check and it was the farmer burning a stump or an anthill, they'd be considered rude. They might run into someone from the farmer's family, who would wonder why they were crossing the Guntaffson fields without saying hello. 

“My father said to stay away from people.” Kurt nodded to himself. “So let's do that. If the Guntaffson's don't see us, they can't get in trouble with the mayor. We'll go around, directly north for a while. We probably won't get to one of their barns till sunset that way but it can't be helped.”

“Fine by me.” Denario had dropped his pack from his shoulders while they talked. He felt exhausted, nearly defeated by these hills, but the prospect of reaching a resting place lifted his spirits. He hitched his pack back up over his shoulder and took his first step in what he hoped would be the last mile of today's journey.

Directly in his line of vision, from the strand of trees in front of the campfire smoke, a man stepped into view. He was wearing a hard, leather vest that Denario had never seen before but otherwise, he looked familiar and not in a good way. He gave Denario a sinister smile.

To the left, directly north, another man stepped out from behind some trees. Denario knew him instantly, the curly-haired gambler from yesterday.

Denario glanced behind. There was a man at the footbridge now. He had his arms folded. He was there to block their retreat.

“Well, well, well,” said the curly-headed man. His name was Warren, Denario remembered. It hadn't seemed important yesterday, when the over-sized personality of Tremelo the Magnificent ruled the room. Warren strode towards Denario and Kurt with a look of self-confident humor. As he approached, he pulled a long dagger from his belt. “Everyone thought we was crazy. But we knew you'd have help. Yeah. We knew your friends would tell you to come this way.”

Chapter Four, Scene One

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Not Even Not Zen 22: A Bandit Accountant, 3.5

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Pi, Roughly
Scene Five: Holy Larceny

When Denario was nine and carried all his worldly possessions out of the slave barracks on his back, he was surprised to discover that Master Winkel traveled by donkey, and not by horse.  The master lifted Denario by the armpits and set him atop a rough saddle blanket.  The burro, whose name was Half-Stitch, barely flicked his tail.  When Winkel hit him with a rod, Half-Stitch launched into a walking pace.

“Horses are unstable,” Winkel said by way of an explanation.

“They scare me,” Denario admitted from his seat on the donkey.  No one had raised him to show false courage.  He often came out with admissions that other boys would never speak.

The master accountant nodded his head as if dreading the presence of horses was perfectly sensible.  Within the year, Denario would realize that the master feared those beasts even more than Denario did.  Their huge masses of muscle, flared nostrils, wide eyes, and the sheer reek of their sweat kept Winkel in a state of alarm.  He wouldn't touch the reins even if the owner guided him.  It was so bad that, despite sitting at his desk in the counting house, Winkel would jump when he heard a horse snort outside his window.

He and Winkel took turns on the donkey as they traveled.  Sometimes they would both walk to give the donkey a bit of a rest although Denario didn't much slow down the creature with his nearly unnoticeable weight.

“Why is he called Half-Stitch?” Denario asked.

“Because I don't own him.”  The master let out a soft giggle, a noise he made when satisfied with himself.  It could have been irritating to others but Denario found it endearing.  “I share him with the tailor. You see?  That's why the name.  It's a joke.”

“You can't afford a donkey?”

“Oh, I could spend money on two or three donkeys or maybe even a pair of horses. Would you like that?”

“No.”

“Good.  Neither would I.”  He smacked Half-Stitch on the bottom.  “I don't like needless expense.  When I worked out that I only use my donkey about one quarter of the year, I searched for a way to lower the cost of owning him.  After all, it takes money to feed and house a good burro like this.  Plus I don't know how to do it and I don't want to know.  I want someone to keep my burro for me.”

“Is that a job?”  Denario's eyes widened.  He was beginning to learn about all the ways that a free man could make money.

“Yes, I pay a stable master.  He pays stable hands, buys the feed, and so on.  But why should I pay for a whole donkey myself if I can't use him even half of the time?”

“Because you can't ride half a donkey?” Denario ventured.

Winkel laughed.  "Very good.  A donkey is an indivisible unit.  That's true.  But what if I share the donkey?  That might be hard, of course.  Sharing takes some work.  But I found a tailor in town only one street from me who rented a donkey from the  stables.  He, too, only needed our little burro friend for a part of the year.  But renting the donkey was, for him, quite expensive.”

“Why?”

“I don't know.”  The master's narrow shoulders rose in a shrug.  “Maybe if you rent a donkey for a week out of a year, the stable master still has to feed the donkey all year, so that week is expensive.  Maybe the stable master says that's how it works but he just charges high prices so he can make a good profit.  Who knows?  Well, I do, actually.”

“You do?  How?”

“I do the books for the stables.  But never mind that.   The point is, it was cheaper for the tailor to share the ownership expense of a donkey with me than to rent different donkeys twenty times per year.  And I renamed our friend here 'Half-Stitch' in honor of the tailor, so the tailor was pleased.  We both come out ahead in our arrangement.”

“What's the tailor's name?”

“Ah.  You take an interest in people.  Good.  His name is Gregor Liveli.  His sons are Lukas and Hansel.  Their mother came from far-away Uberwald with quite a bit of dowry, so they have set themselves up well.  The boys are fine workers.  They make not the best clothes but they make decent ones, among the best for their price.”

The burro clopped onward up a slope.  As they headed down the other side, Denario wondered, “Which is it?  Does the stable master make a big profit on renting animals or does he only cover his expenses?”

“I won't tell.”

“I think I know,” said Denario.

“But I still won't tell.”  Winkel made his announcement with a proud sort of smile.

In the late afternoon, Winkel bade Denario to get down and walk.  Together, they led the donkey onto a narrow path off of the main trail.  The strip of naked dirt led though a thicket of low scrub and stunted trees.  A rivulet of mud and a trickle of water ran from a rocky precipice above.  Winkel led his beast up a switchback.  Denario followed.  Finally, when the ground leveled off, they had marched almost to the top of a small hill.  There were hardly any trees, only a few saplings.  The rest of the space was dirt, grass and rocks. Many of the stones were boulders as big as a man's head.  A few were as small as a fist and as craggy as a shriveled fruit.

The stones were laid out in some sort of pattern, never more than two feet high, sometimes in lines as wide as four feet or as narrow as a hands-width.  Denario had the impression that the pattern would make sense if only he had the imagination to see it properly.

In the center of the dirt paths, encircled by stacked rocks, someone had dug a well.  More likely, Denario realized, someone had found an ancient spring and built this odd  edifice around it.  Even now the water's surface lay only a few feet below the rocks.  It seemed miraculous, as if a supernatural spirit had forced water up through the rocks deliberately.

The spring was probably related to the water source that fed the rivulet they had passed earlier.  The same dribble of water collected in pools down the side of the hill and farther, across the main trail, then in fits and starts again down toward the Ghost Stream, which fed the river called Riggle Kill.

Winkel put his hand into a small, natural trough in one of the larger boulders.  It was bone dry.

“Pull up a bucket for the donkey, boy.  Then rest for a moment.”

“Master Winkel, why are we here?”  Denario trotted over to a tiny earthenware pail.  It had a hole in the bottom.  He picked it up and tested it with his fingers.  It seemed he would be able to plug the hole.  “I mean, it doesn't seem like we've come this far to rest.”

“What makes you say that?”  The master probed.

“We passed a bigger well not forty yards from the road only half an hour ago.”  His hands went to his hips as he considered the problem.  “Is the water there bad?  I don't think it can be very bad because four men were drinking from a big bowl.”

“The water there is fine.  And before you ask, the men are fine, too.  I recognized them.”

“Then why?  We made the donkey climb up pretty high.  Did you come to write more on your map?”  He scooped up a pail of water and sluiced it into a natural trough in the rocks.  The donkey had been waiting there for him to do it.  It wasn't hard to figure out.

“No, I finished my mapping here ages ago.  We've come for the temple.  Young man, these cairns of stones around you don't look like much but they mark a holy presence.  This place is sacred to Melcurio.”

“Melcurio is a god?”  Denario set down his pail.

“He's the god of accountants.  Watch now.  In silence.”

Winkel strode to the edge of the well.  He made a sign with one hand above his heart.  Then he reached into his moneybag, pulled out a copper penny, and tossed it into the rather shallow depths.  It disappeared into a clump of algae at the bottom.

“What was that for?” Denario edged closer, looking for the coin.

“Melcurio, hear our prayers,” mumbled Winkel.  “I have made this boy my own.  Now I give him to you.  I will train him into your service.”

“You're giving me away?” exclaimed Denario.  He was shocked.  He had already grown fond of the accountant's presence and thought he wouldn't need to leave.

“Only in a manner of speaking.”  Winkel gave him a sly smile but it was reassuring, too.  He was letting his pupil in on a joke.  “For the gods, we sometimes run two sets of books.  I'm writing you onto his ledger.  But I've already written you down on my own.  It's doubly entry of a sort.  But don't worry, he'll understand.”

“He?  Do you mean the god?”

“Yes.  Melcurio is the god of accounting, as I said.  He does a few other things, too, but mainly, it's accounting.”

“You're giving me to this god?”

“Of course.  Wouldn't you like to become an accountant?”

“Will I get to do that?”  Up to this point, Denario hadn't dared to hope.  For all he knew, the master might be inclined to teach Denario carry his bags, no more.  “All the math and geometry?”

He held his breath, waiting for the answer.

“I don't think I've ever met anyone more suited than you.”  The patriarch beamed.  “And it's an odd coincidence, if that's what it is, that you should come along in my life now.  Two nights ago, I went to the temple of Melcurio in Oggli, as I always do before my journeys, and I prayed to Melcurio for an hour.  Then, on almost a whim, I asked for something special.  I don't usually do that.”

“Does the god listen to you?”

“I don't really know.  That's how it is with gods.  Anyway, I asked for a great task, a quest to give my life additional meaning.  And I asked for an heir, someone worthy to succeed me, someone to whom I could trust my life's work.  There has been much of it, you see.”

“What about your sons?”  Winkel's beard was at least half grey.  He was more than old enough.

“No sons, no wife.”  He threw up his arms.  “There were a few women who appealed to me but, apparently, I didn't appeal to them.  And somehow, I was always too busy to arrange a suitable marriage for myself.  My mother died long ago before she could do it.  My father tried to buy me a good woman from a family of our class but his idea of a suitable woman differed from mine.  Considerably.”

Denario must have given him an uncomprehending look.

“I prefer them to have teeth, among other things.  Did you ever have someone who shopped to give you a present?  Oh, no, you wouldn't have.  But my father, I think he was one of those people who say they're getting something for you but really, they're getting it for themselves.  He kept looking for women who he liked, never asking what I would like.  He married one of the women I turned down.  Then he stopped proposing brides to me and told me to look out for myself.”

“You're an accountant.  Aren't you rich?”

“Ah.  I see you have a basic grasp of romance.”  It was the first time Denario had seen the accountant give an ironic smile.  It wasn't too harsh.  “Yes, I am well off, as most prospective husbands go.  I could marry a woman who needed my money, if I tried.”

“But you won't.”

“I'm over fifty, now.  My father is many years dead.  Most of my friends have moved or died, too.  I'm sometimes lonely, yes,  but frankly, I've lost interest in women.  My life has been busy and good.  All I want is an heir.  I have a young man at home who helps me out but his understanding of accounting is terrible.  He has no love of math.  If I'm going to leave my work to anyone, Denario, it's to you.”

“You're going to leave math for me to do?”

“Ah, no.  You don't quite understand.  But you're nine.  And a slave.  Or anyway you were a slave for all of your life until today.  You're going to see a lot more of the world as a free man, as an accountant, than you would have as a textile worker.  You'll understand after I teach you.”

“Do you like seeing the world?  Is it good?”

“There are many nice people and nice places, yes.  I enjoy them.  Even the bad parts, I enjoy a little as I write down descriptions of them for other accountants.  Say, can you write?”  Winkel worried in beard as he considered the issue.  “That's a question I should have asked before.”

“I don't know if I can write.  I taught myself to read.”

Winkel sat on a short ridge of sacred stones. 

“I'm a fool.  You're bright.  Yes, you are.  But what am I doing?  Oh, Melcurio, what a burden!  What a gift you have given me!”  He beseeched the sky.  Denario couldn't help glancing at the clouds in case the god was coming down from them.  A beam of light broke out from behind them.  It cast a warm glow.  “How can I serve this way?  I was a fool to ask for it.  I don't know how to be a father.  And I see now that I need to be a father to this boy.”

The accountant flopped onto his back.  He had the sense not to bang his head against the stones behind him but it didn't look comfortable.  He breathed heavily, as if staving off an panic attack.

“Have you traveled anywhere at all?” he wailed.

“I've gone all the way to field number eight.  That's as far as anyone goes.”  He surveyed the sacred spring and the maze of low, stone walls.  He was a long way from home but happier than he'd thought possible.  “That is, that's as far as any of us were allowed to go, including me, until now.”

Tears appeared in Master Winkel's eyes.  His lips emitted a burbly laugh.  To Denario, the day seemed full of grown men crying without being beaten first.  Very odd.  Maybe that was a normal part of the larger world, people crying without getting any injuries.  Denario just hadn't seen it before.

While the accountant mumbled to himself, Denario strolled to the circle of stones around the fresh spring.  A few glints of pennies and half-pennies, most covered by green rust and algae, a few still half-shining, caught his eye.  He reached in for one, fumbled, turned over a few slippery stones, and finally retrieved the coin.  He inspected its corroded metal.  The denomination stamped on it was obscured by algae, at least a few weeks' worth.  He glanced at the silt he'd stirred up in the pool.  There should be more pennies here, he realized.  Some of the worshipers must steal them back.  He wondered if this particular worshiper whose coin Denario held had gotten his prayer answered.   Denario had never prayed before.  No one had ever invited him.  He supposed that gods weren't interested in slaves.  But he wasn't a slave now, according to his master.  Anyway, he'd seen how the prayers were done.

“Oh, Melcurio,” he began.  He'd forgotten to make the sign over his heart, so he paused to do so.  He'd watched his master carefully, so he was sure he was right.  “Oh, Melcurio, hear our prayers.  I give myself to your service.  Only, you know, I give myself to Master Winkel's service, too.  I'm to become an accountant.  That sounds fun.”

He tossed the coin back into the shallow well.  With a plunk, it shook the water's surface, turned over, and wobbled to the bottom among the silt and rocks.  An edge shone in the sunlight.  As he watched it, he felt an odd sensation ripple through his skin.  He looked up to the sky.  He couldn't see any birds.  There was only the sun and the clouds.  But he had a warm feeling inside.  His new master had stopped crying and mumbling.

Denario didn't move.  He felt that someone was waiting for him to say more.  Was it the god?  Was Melcurio paying attention?  His heart felt light, almost giddy.

“Oh, Melcurio,” he said to the clouds.  “I know a trick you might like.  I've figured out how to reduce a number to its prime factors.  Want to see the trick?”

He waited a requisite moment for the god to talk, just in case.  His body still felt light.  He was eager to show off.

“Let's pick a funny number.  Well, 6552 would have the factors of .... 2, 2, 2, 3, 7 ... and 13.”  He'd cheated a little on that one because he'd worked on that particular number yesterday.  “Go ahead, pick any number.”

“One thousand, seven hundred seventy-one,” whispered Master Winkel from behind him.  Denario pictured the number in his head, 1771, and realized that it had to be divisible by 11.  He started there.

“See, Melcurio, 1771 has prime factors ... 11, 23, and 7.  No more.”

“1313!”

“That's too easy because 13 is prime and it goes into 1313 exactly 101 times ... and 101 must be prime, too ... I can't seem to put any number smaller than 51 into it ... yes, it's prime.”

“Amazing!” breathed the elderly accountant.  He had risen to his feet.

“It's just a trick.”  Denario started to turn around to talk.  Then, remembering the god, he bowed a little to the well and to the sky.  “Ever since Tom told me what primes were, I've been thinking about them.”

“I must say it's well done.”  Winkel hobbled up to Denario's side.  “Get on your knees with me for just a moment.  I can almost feel the god's presence.”

“Okay.”  Denario knew what the accountant meant.  He felt it, too.  All the same, he also sensed that Melcurio didn't really go in for a lot of bowing and scraping.  He fell to one knee, only, like the visiting knights did when greeting the baron.

They were silent for less than a minute, long enough to satisfy the master.  Then they stood.  Winkel brushed dust from his robe and pants.

“How did you guess, Denario?  Or did you already know that Melcurio likes tricks?”

“I didn't.  I just felt like ... you know, like someone was amused.”

“Yes, you've certainly lightened my spirits.  Or the god has.”  Winkel glanced up a the sun.  A cloud was starting to drift over it again.  “That has to be one of the more unusual offerings the god has received, I think.  You may have gotten his notice.  What possessed you to offer yourself?”

“You said you gave me to the god as a free man.  So I thought I should give myself freely, too.  Does this mean I'm free now?  I'm not a slave?”

“That's right,” said Winkel.  “You are not my slave.  You are my apprentice.”

“I could leave if I like?”

Winkel raised an eyebrow.  “If you like.  Would you like to run away? Go somewhere else?  Be something else?”

“Never,” announced Denario.  “I will work for you to the death.”

Winkel was quiet for a long while.  The donkey had finished with its water, so he wandered over to it and took its reins.  He hopped aboard  the saddle blanket.  Without any directions from its master, Half-Stitch just stood and waited.  After a moment or two, Winkel bowed his head.  He seemed to remember what he should be doing.  So he got off the donkey and motioned for Denario to come alongside of him.  He led them all down the trail, the way they'd come.

“That's a noble sentiment of yours, Denario.”  The accountant shook his head as they walked.  “I feel blessed to have heard those words.  But you are young, so young.  We shall see.  At any rate, it'll be to my death, not yours.  By then, I'm sure you'll be a master accountant.”

“You'll raise me to be a master?”

“You?  Oh, yes.  Easily.  Stay with me and you'll be the master of all money and all maths.  You'll be a man who everyone talks about, an example for all.  I'm a top master myself.  You'll be second to none if I have anything to do about it.”

When they reached the bottom of the switchback, Winkel stretched.  He sighed with relief and glanced at the slope behind them.  Even Half-Stitch seemed relieved.  He cantered four or five paces before settling down to his usual plodding pace.

“When can I start my lessons?” Denario wondered.

“Oh, well, I hadn't given much thought on how to begin ... I suppose I should test you more on what you know already.  Do you have any questions?  Maybe we could start with those.”

“Yes.  What is 'double entry?'  I hadn't heard you mention that before but you talked about it with the god.  It seems important.”

“Ah, that's a form of book-keeping, Denario.  It was invented by Luca Pacioli, a devout Melcurio worshiper, almost two hundred years ago.  It's an excellent system for most businesses ... not all, perhaps, but I'll explain any exceptions later ...”

Chapter Three, Scene Six

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Not Zen 178: Flavors

"I thought I would be happier by now," her brother said. He spiked his dead cricket on a thorn. "Are you satisfied, yourself?"

"There is no need for the question," she replied.

The two butcherbirds fluttered from his larder patch to hers. It wasn't far, simply to the next bush. Their colony lived in a grove of paperbark trees above a thicket of wild grass and vines. It was a rich territory for the butcherbirds, full of brambles, thistles, flowers, lizards, and bugs of every kind, all attracted to the blossoms and loose, dry soil. This morning she'd found a green meadow katydid. She added it to her stash of food, which had grown bare as she'd raised her children.

Three days ago, her children had flown. She had set about replenishing her larder with pine beetles, darkling beetles, lizards, black flies, cabbage butterflies, and moths. After she added the katydid, she hopped back to admire the results of her handiwork.

"Do you think I know your mind?" her brother asked.

"I think you know your own joy." She stretched her gray wings.

"Well, then, I'd say that moments of happiness are fleeting. That is how they are to me. They seem sustained in you. But that surprises me." She cocked her head toward him. He shuffled his claws and stammered as he tried to explain. "I dread the hardness of the coming summer. My anticipation makes this spring bitter. Yes, we have plenty. But don't you fear the coming drought?"

"Don't you appreciate your easy life today? Joys may be fleeting but there are an endless number of them. Everyone's daily experience is filled with an infinite variety of delight."

"You mean like tasting different beetles?"

"I mean like experiencing the treasure of each moment." She took a deep breath. "This morning, I am refreshed by the presence of my brother. Better, there are no predators in the sky. There are no men near the thicket and no dingos."

"You are merely feeling relief."

"Reliefs from burdens are flavors of joy and should not be casually dismissed."

He glanced at a black spider as it hopped from the bark of the nearest tree. It was smaller than the tip of his talon. Since it wasn't big enough to put in his larder and he wasn't hungry, he ignored it.

"It's not that you don't have the same indulgences in your life," she continued. She'd watched him disdain what a smaller or hungrier bird would have eaten. "It's that you don't bother to appreciate them."

"How can you notice such slight feelings?"

Her head leaned back as she studied the trees and branches.

"At this moment, I see young ones in your nest," she said. "They fill me with pride in you. I hear my children singing nearby. They laugh and cause me to snicker. My mate casts a shadow from a bough above us. When I look up and see the glint in his eyes, it makes me swoon."

"I wonder if I have that effect ..." His gaze shifted to his tree.

"On your mate? Of course you do. I've seen it. Don't you remember how she danced with you? Sang with you?"

"Yes." The whole flock had seen.

"And wasn't it wonderful?"

"I think ... yes, it was." His voice softened.

"And wasn't dancing with her different than singing?"

That took him a moment of thought but the answer was definite. "Yes."

"Come, feel the separate joys. Experience the gladness in your limbs for a moment." With that, she snapped her wings for five quick beats and lifted herself between the trees. Seconds later, she rose above the treetops.

Her brother hesitated. He searched for predators in flight. Then he launched himself to meet his sister. He maneuvered along the arc of her path until he occupied a spot near her right wing. She circled the grove. He followed. He gazed down at the leaves of the trees and at the thorny grasses. His sister dipped her wings toward the northeast boughs of their home.

"As I hover above the flock," she said. "I'm inspired by the beauty of it. Each and every butcherbird is magnificent. The branches of the trees entice me. The brambles below seem sweet. The thistles among them are sublime. You may think of it all as mundane but such moments are precious to me."

"I've felt the way you describe," he sighed as he remembered. "It was in a morning fog."

"I recall a day like that, a heavy mist."

"Yes. And for me, there was a quiet wonder of stillness." He nodded to himself as he flew.

"What made the moment special was how you took time to appreciate it." She inclined her beak to the horizon. "There are so many joys. There is pleasure in each taste of food, in each sense of the body. There is wonder in hopping on supple branches and dancing. There is a thrill in abstinence from food, from stopping before eating too much and feeling slow. There are so many things, each unique. I can't possibly list them all."

"The joy of wisdom?" he offered.

"Really?" She hesitated. "I hadn't thought of it but I suppose so."

"Well, perhaps there's a joy in seeing someone you care for grow wise."

"That seems like a different flavor."

"So it is," he said in a sly tone.

Their path swung them around the edge of the paperbark thicket and the roosts of their flock. They stopped flapping to gain altitude and glided along in silence. She absorbed scents in the winds and the colors in the clouds and boughs. Her brother thought of nothing at all. In time, he noticed a young butcherbird below. He caught a glimpse of it as it passed among the leaves. It hopped to the fork of a branch. The branch trembled.

"That's one of yours," his sister said. She'd caught the distinctive motion too. "This is a special moment. Your first child has left the nest. She is not yet flown but that day will come soon. Go to her now. Be her proud father."

It was, as his sister said, his tree, his branch. He circled down and alighted on the bough directly above his fledgling. He didn't want to disturb her. He merely watched. When he saw that her position was secure and that she was followed at a distance by his mate, he cooed to her. She gazed up at him.

"Beautiful child," he said. His mate cooed in agreement.

With care, he fluttered down to his daughter. He landed without shaking the branch. His mate held still. His daughter stared.

Then his daughter did an unexpected thing. She turned her back on him and walked farther down the thinnest fork of the branch. A few, long seconds passed before she turned around. Her eyes locked with his. She asserted her confidence in herself without a word. He felt amazed by her bravery, walking so far before she could fly. He felt awed by her fierceness of spirit.

For a moment, his child resembled his sister. Her gaze was so clear. Already, she knew her mind. He told himself to be thankful for the moment because it held a flavor of joy unlike any other. His daughter would fly away soon.

But he found the moment too easy to appreciate. He didn't need to remind himself of anything.

"I could have missed this," he breathed.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Not Even Not Zen 21: A Bandit Accountant, 3.4

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Pi, Roughly
Scene Four: Lucky Miss

“Damn,” Denario muttered to himself. There was a cart parked across the fork in the road. The folks who owned the cart had unhitched the ox. They'd tethered their beast to a tree. It grazed while the group rested.

Denario dodged off the trail to watch. He wished the three figures would finish their lunch and move on. Or had they stopped for an early dinner already? Was it that late? Denario felt the hunger that had fled upon encountering those dead bodies make an unwelcome return. He held his stomach as he waited. A minute later, when one of the figures hopped down and ran around the cart in circles, Denario realized it was a child, a boy from the look. There was something familiar about him. Denario had seen that cut of light brown hair before. The driver of the wagon seemed recognizable, too. He had a way of sitting, his elbow on his right knee, that was distinctive.

Denario got up. He was tired of tromping through the underbrush. His shoes weren't made for it. His feet had blistered. The rest of him hurt, too, although he'd only been on the march for a day.

“Gordi!” he waved as he crossed the clearing. The older man's face sprang into a smile. His youngest boy laughed and started running toward Denario.

“Den!” The boy used Pecunia's nickname for Denario. By the time he collided with Denario's stomach for a hug, Denario remembered that this one, Gordi's youngest, was named Olaf after Gordi's wife's father.

“It's good to see you, too, Ollie,” he said. He gave the boy a quick squeeze, then tried to pry him off. 

“Why are you leaving Ziegeburg?” said Ollie, who had a strong hold on Denario's right leg. “Where are you going? Not to Pickle Bad? Where else is there?”

Denario tried to explain but the farthest town the boy had heard of before was Hogsburg and that only as a place to avoid. Bandits came down from the hills and stole children out of Hogsburg, or so Ollie said. Denario thought those sounded more like bogeymen than bandits.

“Ah, it's his mother that tells him those tales,” Gordi explained from the top of his wagon. He held out a slice of cheese for Denario. As he stopped moving to accept it, Ollie let go so he could keep running around. “Not that she's wrong, mind. Does a child good to be scared, now an' then. Being scared of strangers is a fine thing in it's way.”

“Does Hogsburg really have bandits?”

“Ye may get to know, lad.”

“Why?” Denario was willing to forgive Gordi for acting like his uncle. The cheese was the best in the world. Denario's mouth was probably two-thirds drool as he chewed. Anyway, the farmer really was old enough to be Denario's uncle.

“A bunch of men went down along the river trail. They figure yer going to hang a right at this fork, here, to try to get a boat or something.”

“That's right.”

“Well, they're waiting for ye.” He shook his head. He rummaged in the sack at his belt. “Yer lucky ye got out when you did. One of the mayor's men got killed, he did, and it's ye they're blaming.”

“But everyone saw me. All I did was run away.”

“I know that,” said Gordi, sounding oddly unsure. “It's just, well, yer getting the blame for everything now.”

“Do you know that the stagecoach was robbed?”

“Ye'll get blamed for that, too,” said Gordi sourly.

“No, I mean it wasn't the kind of thing you get even near Angstburg or Hogsburg. The bandits killed everyone aboard. Arrows through them, then cut their throats.”

“Yep. We saw. I had to shield Olaf's eyes. He gets nightmares enough already.” Gordi's lower lip shook. “It's out in the open now, I suppose. The mayor figures he don't have to listen to the baron. We know how that story ends. I studied our history in the temple. The baron's troops will come, sooner or later. People around here dyin' no matter who wins. Bad for the whole town.”

“I'm not scared.” Those were the first words Gordi's oldest son had spoken. He twisted in his seat next to his dad. His chin jutted defiantly at Denario, as if daring him to a fight.

Thing is, the boy wasn't particularly big or strong. He didn't look like he'd last more than a few seconds against the mercenaries Denario had seen. Maybe he didn't understand that. 

“Anyway,” said Gordi, ignoring his son. “Ye can't go near the river. Ye been lucky, so far, but the gods help the wise more than the foolish.”

“Lucky?” Denario's face got hot. “First I get tossed by the mayor's goons. Then I miss the stagecoach, I can't buy anything, and I forget to ...”

“Ah, but missing the coach was lucky.”

“Was it?” The vision of the poor young man's body in the road came back to him. “Oh, yes, it was.”

“How did ye miss, anyway?”

“I went to see Pecunia and by the time I got to the stable, the coach had gone.”

“Went for a last kiss, huh? Maybe it saved yer life.”

“I guess it did.” For the first time in a day, he remembered the good luck charm Pecunia had given to him. He touched his neck. It was still there, beneath his layered shirts. “Gordi, this is worse than I thought. Pecunia said she could buy my way back into town but now it sounds impossible. If she did, I'd never trust it.”

“Me neither. Ye got to head back to yer home. That's what I'd do. Hire a wizard to send yer report to the baron, maybe.”

“I wasn't working for the baron.”

“That doesn't mean ye can't report to him.” Gordi gritted his teeth in exasperation. “Everyone thinks ye were working for him anyway.”

“Oh. I guess I never really understood that.” He kept denying it when they asked him. But it was just like denying that Pecunia was a witch. No one believed it.

They ate in silence for a while. Gordi handed Denario a crunchy loaf of bread, a block of cheese, and a wine skin with actual wine. Then he finished off a crust of bread he'd been holding in his lap while everyone else watched his youngest son run in circles around the wagon. 

As Denario slowed down, he thought to offer back the half of the bread loaf he hadn't finished.

“Take it.” Gordi waved him away. “Ye need the food and I've got to head home, down near the Rune Kill, where ye can't go.”

“Gordi, what will I do? I thought I could catch a ride on a boat and get as far downstream as Angstburg. That's as far as people travel by water, anyway. No one boats through the heavy magic. From there, I could walk or rent a horse.”

“Ye'll have to take to the hills for fifteen miles or more. To be safe, Denario, ye should make it twenty miles west. Pass Hogsburg before ye turn south. The mayor's men have a long reach. They know the sheriffs in all these smaller places.”

“But the bandits?”

“There are bandits, real bandits, in the hills. But ye aren't much of a target. Keep off the trails during the day and ye'll be fine.”

“You mean hike in the night-time?”

“Haw!” The oldest boy laughed at Denario's apparent fear. Denario turned inward, mentally, for a moment while he checked his feelings. Yes, he decided he was afraid to travel by night but that seemed pretty reasonable. The confidence of the adolescent bordered on cockiness.

“Is there something the matter, Kurt?” Gordi asked his son.

The dimples disappeared and the impish snile faded from young Kurt's face. Although Gordi never beat his children, which was unusual, he was a stern taskmaster. His sons lived in fear of not living up to his standards.

“No, father. It's just that he's scared.”

“He should be.”

“But not of the dark!” The boy chortled again. His breath reeked of spiced meat. “I walk alone in the dark all the time, father.”

“Far away from home?”

“No, but that's only because you never let me go anywhere.”

Gordi rubbed the gray stubble on his chin.

“Very well. Denario, ye may take Kurt here with ye for the first night. He can teach ye what he knows of traveling in the countryside. Ye should reach the Hogsburg trail before morning. Then Kurt can come back home over Green Knob hill. That's the straightest path. Is that all right, Kurt?”

“Dad!” The boy gave his father a quick, one-armed hug. Denario got the impression that Kurt didn't normally touch his parents much because Gordi was visibly surprised. His son was pushing him away before he could properly return the embrace.

Kurt hopped down from the wagon. He made a face at his brother, who was just beginning to notice that something unfair had happened, at least from a youngest child's point of view. Then they all spent a few minutes getting and giving orders, re-organizing, and re-packing. Gordi donated all the rest of his food, mostly hard tack and cheese. He had no more wine but he gave his son a canteen of brackish water.

“Ye've got chores that'll go undone,” Gordi reminded him. “Yer brothers can help but ye'll have to finish what they don't.”

“Yes, dad.” Kurt was in a good mood. He was nodding at everything his father said.

“If you see anyone what even looks like a mayor's man, give 'im a wide berth. Don't talk to 'im. But if ye've no choice, be polite. They ain't looking for ye, just the accountant.”

“Yes, dad. I'll see them coming from way off. I won't talk.”

“Ye can sleep in ole Maizie Guntaffson's barn but don't even think about taking a thing from them folks. Not even a piece of straw that ain't yers. I'll hear.”

“Speaking of which, Denario. Where did you get your new shirt? For the forest, it's better than a red vest, but ...”

Denario thought about the words carefully. “I stole it.”

“What?” Gordi grabbed him by the arm. “I think I need to talk with ye a minute before ye go.”

The boys' young faces were agape. Kurt didn't even smile. Olaf's eyes went wide with horror. Maybe he thought Denario was about to get a spanking. And maybe he was. All the same, Denario couldn't tell anyone that Farli Haphmeyer had given the clothes to him. That would be a betrayal.

“I .... I don't recognize this.” Gordi rubbed his fingers over the raggedy shirt. By some miracle, no scrap of it flaked off in his hand. “Do ye even know who ye took it from? Was it off the stagecoach?”

“I know who it's from. I left money. He knows, too. But all the same, I'm not going to tell you. He's worried about being caught helping me.” A thought struck Denario. It spread prickles into his stomach. “Oh, Gordi, I didn't even think. You shouldn't help me, either. What if you get found out?”

Gordi looked around at the edges of the forest.

“I hadn't thought of that.” He shook his head. “I reckon that most folks wouldn't report me. My neighbors ... still, I'm not sure of all of them. Not of all. Maybe yer friend is right.”

They walked back in silence. Gordi was thoughtful as he put his youngest son back onto the front seat of the wagon. Denario tried to tell Kurt to get on, too, leave him. Traveling with a wanted man would be dangerous. Kurt seemed puzzled by the idea no matter how much Denario repeated 'don't.' Gordi stopped and watched his son to see how he would respond. But Kurt wouldn't go with his father. He was determined to have his freedom and, not incidentally, prove he was man enough to be a guide. After a minute or two of the argument, Gordi turned his back on them and strolled to his ox, which he untied. While Denario was still trying to convince Kurt, Gordi hitched his ox to the wagon, flapped his reins, and turned the cart slowly around to face the downhill trail.

“Be careful, son,” he said.

Kurt and Denario shut up. They watched the cart slowly rolled away toward the Rune Kill farmlands. Kurt's mouth hung open. He couldn't take his eyes off his father and youngest brother until they were a dark shadow turning around a bend in the path, silent, then gone. 

Chapter Three, Scene Five