Sunday, December 25, 2016

Not Even Not Zen 61: A Bandit Accountant, 10.3

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Binary Two
Scene Three: Lost Children

Outside the mine entrance, Denario met Senli. The short, brown woman only came up to Denario's chin. Her hair had been cut carefully an inch below her shoulders. It looked like it was combed daily but Denario couldn't really tell about that sort of thing. Some people just had nice hair. Her robe was plain, as was her shawl. In general, she seemed to keep herself fastidiously clean. Her sandal straps were polished.

He tried to remember the point that Vir had made over and over in their discussions about this town. 'It's not just about the math. It's the people.' Senli was one of the important people, at least to Denario.

“You were looking for me?” she said, hands folded in front of her. She seemed alarmed.

“Yes.” Small talk had never been his best skill, as Pecunia had pointed out several times. He liked discussing math. He tried to concentrate on the other things about this book keeper that he should know. “What's the rest of your name, Senli?”

“That's it.” Her expression calmed. She felt more comfortable knowing the answer.

“No last name? No town or profession name?”

“I was born a slave, sir. Not taken.”

“Ah.” That explained some things about her mannerisms, then. Both her wariness and a sullen sort of subservience had been beaten into her throughout childhood.

“You heard that the head foreman isn't your supervisor anymore?”

She nodded cautiously.

“But you went to see him. Do you like working for him? Do you get along?”

Her expression got even more neutral. She wasn't giving away anything.

“That's fine. But if I'm in charge of you two in the counting house, I need to make sure you have everything you need. I'd say that one of those is separate rooms. I saw the hut they've given you behind the counting house. The town is trying to room you together, aren't they?”

Senli's nose wrinkled. “Hummel smells. And he has lice.”

“I'm not surprised.” Denario sighed. “Where do you really sleep, then? In the counting house behind the goat skins?”

The book keeper gasped.

“There's a wool blanket folded nearby. It's not hard to figure out.”

“Yes.” Her lip trembled as if she were about to cry.

“That must have been awfully cold in the winter. Where would you rather sleep?”

“In the winter, I have other arrangements.” Her gaze flickered back to the mine house.

“Ah.” Denario understood. There was a man involved, possibly the head foreman himself. “And are those arrangement acceptable to you? To everyone?”

“They won't last.”

“So it would be good to have a place of your own, then, or at least one with other women who would be friendly. And what else? You're doing a good job. I can see that in your books. What do you need? And what more do you want?”

“What I really want to do is to find my sons.” She put her hand over her mouth as soon as she said it. She hadn't meant to trust him with that thought, apparently.

“We'd better sit down and talk for a while.” He sighed to himself. These problems beyond the decoding looked more complicated than he'd thought. “Is there an inn around here?”

She hesitated. “Yes, but it doesn't allow women.”

“One of the temples, then?”

“Oh, good.” At that, she gave him her first smile. “I go to the Church of the Small Gods every day. The priestess will serve us tea if I ask.”

It wasn't far to the temple. But it took three servings of tea to hear the entire story. The priestess was suspicious of Denario at first. Only near the end of the session, after overhearing as much as she politely could, did she favor him with a loaf of sweetened bread and a pile of butter. He wondered if he should offer a donation to her church. Given his current situation and the lack of money around here, he'd have to give something from the counting house inventory. And then he'd record the transaction, of course.

It turned out that Senli had only lived in one other place, a town called Bumpili, far away in Wizard Valley She had grown up as a Kilmun tribal slave. Her grandparents had been captured along the borders of Wizard Valley and the magical lands directly to the east. They'd been either impressively brave or desperately foolhardy because they had taken their wagon without any guards through those hills. Denario guessed they'd been more to the foolhardy side since they'd been taken within a week of the natives realizing that their little caravan had no weapons.

The merchant tradition of book keeping had passed down through the generations. Her grandparents had done the job for their new town. So had her parents and uncles. All the while, they'd been tattooed as slaves and traded between the neighboring towns whenever such arrangements suited the Kilmun leaders.

That was how Senli had lost her children. They'd been traded away from her about a decade ago when they were seven and four years old. They'd been growing so tall and so strong that a traveling farmer decided he wanted them for field work. The town had obliged him.

“Four donkeys,” she sighed. She wiped her nose on her sleeve. “That's all it took. Because one of the burghers wanted breeding pairs.”

“Senli,” said Denario after some thought. “Your official last name must be Keeper.”

“Or it could my owner's name. What's yours?”

“Oggli. I would never use a former master's name.”

“Is this important, your thing about names?”

“Probably. I've seen the pay records for the mine slaves. Everyone in it has a full name.”

“That's different. Lots of folks in this town are descended from mine slaves and most of them still work around the mine. The mine shift foremen are all free men descended from mine slaves. The head foreman is only a generation removed.”

“They get respect. And you don't.”

She nodded. That wary look had come out again. She didn't want to give away her thoughts. He didn't blame her.

“Slaves get paid. But you didn't get paid because you're a woman, right?”

She leaned closer.

“And then Hummel didn't get paid because ... I'd guess because you weren't getting paid and because, well, he's Hummel.”

That twisted a wry grin from her lips.

“I'm going to enter you in the slave mine log sheet. And I'm going to pay you from our inventory.”

She opened her mouth. It was a long time before she made a sound.

“I thought I had the mine supervisor to do that for me,” she confessed. She must have worked hard to get that concession out of him. “But when he asked the burghers, there was an argument. His wife didn't like it, either. So he backed down.”

If she was bedding with the mine supervisor, as Denario suspected, that man's family would go against Senli when they saw the chance. It was foolish of them, though, as they'd have known if they'd ever thought about the economics of Senli's situation. The best way to get her away from the mine supervisor was to pay her well and set her free.

“I'm not going to ask permission,” he said as he realized it.

“But ... can you just do that?”

“Yes.” Suddenly, he was sure. This is what Vir had been talking to him about, in his weird, gruff way. He'd said that Denario shouldn't stand in awe of the mayor or anyone here. He had to take care of his people. Vir hadn't meant Senli, of course. She barely qualified as human in the captain's eyes. But to Denario, right now, Senli was his best book keeper. She was an important person. “They pay other slaves. So they're going to pay you. If they want my help, that's how it's going to be.”

“But you said you're going to solve the tile system.”

“Yes.”

“It can't be done.” She echoed his thoughts exactly but they were the ones to which he didn't dare give a voice. “What will they do to you when you fail?”

“It only can't be done without Mistress Clumpi,” he corrected. If there was any hope, it lay with the old tile keeper's wife.

“That's why it's impossible.” Senli clenched her fists.

Next: Chapter Ten, Scene Four

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Not Even Not Zen 60: A Bandit Accountant, 10.2

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Binary Two
Scene Two: The Old System

By that evening, the Mundredi troop had been hours gone and Denario had talked with everyone of importance in the town except for Mistress Clumpi.

First, he'd found out why the second book keeper hadn't dashed over to greet him when he entered the main doors of the counting house.  The fellow wasn't capable of running because the burghers had slapped him in leg irons.

His name was Hummel and he was the quiet, resentful sort.  Denario saw it immediately; he'd met many middle-aged men like Hummel among the accountants, physicians, priests, soothsayers, hand-servants, and noble attendants in the Court of Oggli.  They were the folks who felt keenly every slight or insult although they never said a thing about it.  They just got more quiet, more surly, and slower to offer assistance.  This was a classic case made worse by slavery.

Hummel had been an unlicensed accountant in Muntar, the old capital city of all places, before he'd been kidnapped and sold to pirates.  They'd shipped him all the way to Angrili, where it was legal to sell him at auction.  Fixed up with a haircut to look presentable, he’d fetched a fair price.  That had been six years ago.  Now he had a thick, curly brown beard, bushy eyebrows, and a mop of tangled hair.  His clothes had been nice last year, probably.  He'd allowed them to go shabby.  Denario suspected that Hummel would do that to anything, even silks.  He simply didn't care.  He neglected his body, too, which is why he had even less muscle than Denario and a good sized pot belly to carry around.

The man liked to suck on candies at his desk.  Gods knew where he got them but the licorice flavors had stained his teeth nearly black.

“This is for otter.  This is for yeti.  This is for cow.”  Hummel's accent was thick.  To make it worse, he mumbled.  He pointed to his rows of numbers without much interest.  Despite how he'd taken charge of the fur and skins trade, he'd clearly done as little work as possible since then.  He'd listed twenty-two different types of pelts on the scroll in his tiny, nearly illegible scrawl.  “Got another page for the skins.  Alligator, giant frog, snake ...”

“You're using the Yullamar accounting system, I see.”  Denario tapped the scroll in approval.  It was too easy to criticize the man.  He needed to find something good to say.

Hummel's eyes opened fully for the first time.

“You know Yullamar?” he said.

“Yes, it's a very sophisticated framework, excellent for valuations.  Of course, it shows comparative debts, which is nice.  I see that we owe considerable sums to a few of these fur traders.”

“Yes, sir,” said Hummel in a voice approaching enthusiasm, albeit from a long distance.  “I told the burghers about that.  But they didn't want to hear it.  They won't pay the traders because they remember some of them owing us furs under the old system.”

“Got it.”  Denario would have to solve that quickly.  The town could bankrupt itself if the burghers drove away the caravans who bartered with them.

“Now a few of the ones we don't owe have stopped showing up.”

“Uh-oh.”  The town's bad reputation was spreading already.

“That's what I said, too.”  Hummel sighed.  He'd had time to understand how poor the town could get without traders.

They spent a few hours on the sheets of fur counts and those of the skin counts.  Denario gave himself a tour of the corresponding inventory and noticed a few oddities.  Most of the bins and stacks were short by a count of one or two.  A few small boxes had extra pelts from rabbits or squirrels, which made the problem seem less serious.  However, one of the bear skins had been split in an attempt to make reality match the false tally of skins.  Denario tried not to suspect Hummel.  The culprit could have been a fur trader who was responsible for slipping that one by the miners.  But Hummel's vest looked like bearskin.  And the bearded, shabby man had not shown interest in checking his inventory.  In fact, he'd seemed alarmed to have anyone look through it.

After Denario verified the Yullamar system, roughly, minus those few items, he helped himself to one of the shoulder-high tubes used by the old tile master.  At that point, Hummel decided it was safe to join.  They sat on the floor to take one apart.  The ends were sealed with wax plugs. Denario knifed one out.  A few beans spilled onto the dirt floor.  Immediately, he saw there were a wide variety of beans, peas, and berries.  He sifted through until he'd found thirty types.  That was more than enough for Bibbo Clumpi to match the contents to furs and skins.

Reaching a conclusion about the man's private accounting system took longer.

“Is Senli still at the mine?”  Denario rubbed his jaw and looked around.

“Yes, sir,” said Hummel.

“She and Mistress Clumpi said these tubes were part of the old master's system, didn't they?  But I don't think are.”

“Sir?”  Hummel put his hands down on the floor like a drunk trying to regain balance.  “What else can they be, sir?”

“They can be temporary count holders, parts for a manual math system, or raw pieces held in stock for a hidden bean-based system somewhere else.  But they aren't used for the fur or skins systems themselves.  Didn't the women open these and count the beans?  Didn't you?”

“They did, sir.  And me too, yes.  We all spent quite a long time on it.”

“Well, there are too many beans. I just noticed another type, so that makes thirty-one kinds of beans, berries, and peas here.  That's a good number for what you do, isn't it?”

“That's what made me believe it was the old master's count of furs, sir.”  Hummel's tone was cautious.  He seemed to doubt Denario's quick conclusion.

“Right.  But the total numbers are wrong.  There are thousands of these little brown bean, these little spheres.  No trader has got a thousand skins here.”

“Could mean something else, then.  A super-total?  A weight owed?  Senli thinks it's a weight.”

“No, I don't think that's right.  The scales and the stacks aren't that big.  What's worse, with the number of counters a factor of a hundred too high we could spend a lot of time trying to decipher this when there's nothing to decipher.”

“We already have, sir.”  Hummel slumped, visibly depressed.

“That's okay.  Time spent getting into the mindset of old Master Clumpi isn't wasted.  But I'll need to talk to his widow.”

“Better you than me, sir.”

“Really?  Maybe I'd better talk with Senli again first.  She's using the Tomaru system, a single-entry tally.  But she's put her own spin on it or she learned it a bit differently than I did.”

“About Mistress Senli ...”  The curly-haired man shook his head.  “Be careful, sir.  She's got them bewitched.  The burghers, I mean.”

Denario thought about his earlier interview with Senli.  She seemed quiet and introspective.  She clearly knew her business but she had a just-doing-the-job attitude that was much like Hummel's.  That was part of being a slave, Denario knew.  If Senli had seemed to bewitch anyone, it was by explaining things better than Hummel could.

“Why are you in leg chains, Hummel?” Denario asked.

It took a long time for the little man to respond.  That's interesting, Denario noticed as he gave Hummel time to think, I'm acting like he's shorter than me.  He's taller.  But he's acting like he's small.  Maybe that's why he keeps crouching and hanging his head.

Given that thought, Denario had no more doubts about who had crudely mis-counted and rearranged the fur inventories.

“They might say I tried to run away, I guess,” said Hummel.  “But I didn't, not really.  I had chains on from the beginning.  Never been out of them for more than a few minutes at a time.  I just sort of ... wandered around at times.”

“More than once?”

Hummel played with the dirty ringlets at the top of his head.

“No,” he said after the pause.  “I go down to the creek now and then.  But I'm allowed.”

“Who's responsible for you?”

“The mine headman.  Except, this morning, the mayor said no, not anymore.”

“Not the mine foreman?  Who, Senli?”

“Of course not!”  He looked at Denario as if he couldn't believe anyone could be so stupid.  “She's a slave, like me.  But the headman can't order us around now.  It's you.”

“Me?  I'm responsible for you?”

“Of course, sir.”

Next: Chapter Ten, Scene Three

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Not Even Not Zen 59: A Bandit Accountant, 10.1

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Binary Two
Scene One: A Token of Affection

Denario woke up in a panic. He'd had a dream that Pecunia and Curo had seen him trapped in a giant fishing net. They'd looked right at him and turned away. Then he lifted his head in real life and found he couldn't move. It took him a second to remember that he'd dozed off in a feather bed. The mattress was pinning his arms. He was fine. With a grunt of effort, he kicked up his legs and rolled out of the linen-covered pile of feathers.

The fact that he'd remained in armor made the job difficult. It was good, he realized, that the mattress wasn’t thicker. The bedding was too lavish. It was as well constructed as any he'd slept on, even the best in Oggli, even the cushions in the Marquis' palace. Barter and slavery worked well enough for this sort of thing, he supposed, although the idea of slaves being forced to stuff the pads of his room made him sad. He rubbed the quilted cover and hoped it wasn't true.

The depression he'd felt at being left alone in this strange, violent land left him as tiptoed across the chilly floor to unshutter the window. He looked down from his apartment atop the mine warehouse onto a crossroads below. There, in the pre-dawn light with an ox-led cart and crates of new baggage piled in the back, stood the Mundredi army.

Well, it was fourteen men. To Denario, that seemed more like an army than it would have three weeks ago. Vir hadn't joined his troops yet. There was just sergeant Alaric, his battle-tested platoon, and the new recruits.

Last night, Vir had hunkered down to a long discussion with the mayor of Pharts Bad. At the conclusion, he'd traded Denario's services “as an accountant until yer records get fixed” in exchange for supplies, two healthy slaves, and “a criminal to be named later.” That gave Pug some men to tease or at least a couple of draftees to deflect the worst of the army's abuse. There was no one lower in status than a slave recruit.

Now that he looked closer, Denario saw that there were only thirteen bodies milling around on the frost and dirt. Someone was missing. Behind him, he heard footfalls on the staircase. A floorboard creaked.

“You're up?” a second later, the Mundredi corporal opened the door without knocking. It was a real door, too, with a metal hinge. It reminded Denario of how well the whole town was built. “Good, the captain wants you. Come on.”

Denario turned and took in Gannick's new apparel. Phart’s Bad had given the bandit army a pile of cast-off clothing. It was quality stuff. Under his chain mail, Gannick wore a heavy linen shirt. He'd laced on a pair of new breeches, too, dyed black.

“Just let me get my hat.” Denario was in his armor but this seemed like a good time to put on a red cap with gold braid. He wanted the men to think about who he was. “My snares on the staircase didn't bother you?”

“Neh. There's light.”

“Oh.” Vir had insisted that the accountant set snares to guard himself. Apparently they wouldn't do much good here in town.

“Good that ye keep in practice. They look well pegged.”

Near the bottom of his pack, Denario found his accounting gear. His hat had taken a beating in recent weeks but the dye was bright. It told everyone that he was a professional. He felt he needed some prompting in that way himself. His guilt over leaving the dangers of bandit life to work in the counting house made him feel like a traitor. He wasn't even one of the Mundredi. He was an accountant. The mark of his guild, a yellow number eight stitched diagonally across his hat brim, reminded him of the duty to his apprentices.

The corporal nodded in approval as Denario put it on. He was familiar with the idea of a uniform. Good.

“Did ye understand the captain's advice last night?” the corporal asked as they descended the narrow staircase. They stepped over the loops of leather cord and the snare pegs.

“I think so.” There had been a lot of it. Denario couldn't absorb it all at once. For instance, he doubted that he was going to use his hunting bow or his non-existent trail-reading skills. He sure hoped he never needed his armor. He had every intention of wearing it, though. It took no expertise and therefore, he'd decided, it was perfect for him.

About the only survival skill he'd picked up from Vir and Alaric was the making and setting of snares. But none of his traps had caught anything. He couldn't light a fire. That last failing was his own because he hadn't dared to tell anyone that he didn't understand how it was done. He'd only ever used pre-packaged alchemy and magic fire-starters before.

Despite the frost on the hard dirt this morning, the wind whipping in from the south felt warm. Spring was a tangible force today. Denario smiled and waved to the soldiers as he approached.

“Do ye remember which towns?” a gruff voice bellowed in his right ear.

Denario spun. The captain stood a few feet away dressed his armor and a fur overcoat given to him personally by the mayor of Pharts Bad.

“Vir!” he exclaimed. He gave the big man a hug and then belatedly realized that these Mundredi didn't do that sort of thing. He had to back away.

“Well, accountant.” Vir gave him a stern look but there was a twinkle in his eye, too. He wasn't mad.

“Yes, sir,” Denario remembered. “I mapped out all of the towns you mentioned last night.”

“Good man.” Vir reached out to clap him on the arm.

Suddenly, all the Mundredi swarmed up to Denario and began whacking him, good-naturedly, on his shoulders and back. Someone plucked off his hat to ruffle his hair and, a second later, someone else jammed it back on. How strange, Denario thought, it's as if they like me.

He heard well-wishes from everyone, he thought, even Moritz and Reinhard, who had openly despised him. It was hard to respond to all of the kind phrases, they came so rapidly. In half a minute, he was left with nothing more coherent to do than saying, 'Thanks, thanks,' over and over again.

“Hush, now,” Vir said eventually. His men turned to him, even Pug and the former slaves.

“The accountant won't get to go home until he straightens out this mess in Pharts Bad.” Vir reached under his armor with his right hand. He fumbled through the layers of shirts beneath. “When he does leave here, though, he's got instructions from me on what to do.”

“Send three recruits!” Denario blurted.

“Yeh. If ye can. No slaves or children, of course.” Vir found a leather cord between the layers of his shirts. With his index finger, he worked it out into the open. “I meant what to do to survive, though. There's one last thing I didn't tell ye. Ye'll need to send this back to me.”

Off from around his neck, the captain pulled a pendant attached to the cord. It was a coin, really, but cast in the strangest of ways. For one thing, it appeared to be made of glassy, blue stone. The surface glowed faintly, as if from magic.

“Now, this isn't magic,” Vir warned him, maybe for the last time showing off his ability to read Denario's mind. “This is one of the tokens of Muntabar that Prince Robberti carried with him from his home in the outside lands to his new home here in the valleys. They were cast in a furnace, so I'm told. I've no idea why they're all blue but there aren't many left.”

“My gods!” gasped Alaric. He stepped between Denario and Vir and stopped just short of grabbing the coin. He touched the cord and then barely restrained himself, it seemed, from falling to his knees in worship. “I had no idea! Your family managed to preserve your coin? They're just a legend anymore.”

“Yeah, well, my family had three, once. I don't know where the others are. I think one's under my grand-dad's shed.” Grasping the cord with both hands, Vir held it aloft for a moment, away from his sergeant's touch. Then he lowered it around Denario's neck. “This is a powerful sign, see? People know about these. Oaths have been passed down from father to son about them. So if ye use this token wisely, other Mundredi tribesmen, even those in distant villages under waldi control, will help ye. They'll hide ye. They'll feed ye. But don't show it off. Hide it until ye have a real need.”

“Yes, sir!” Confused, Denario saluted. He quickly whisked the hand down to his side and stood at attention.

“Vir!” cried Alaric.

“What?” The captain raised an eyebrow, as much as to say, 'What could you possibly have to add, Sergeant?'

“It's just that ... that's an important thing, sir. You can't just give it away. It's your proof of your inheritance.”

“What inheritance?” Vir snorted at his younger relative's simplicity of mind. “Me family was poor. I walked away from our lands. I'll not return. And the coin isn't proof of rulership of the valleys. Even if it ever were, so what? I'm Chief of the Mundredi right now and of all the clans of our tribe. The job isn't doing me any damn good. It's nothing but a duty. No one pays their taxes to me. But somehow I've got to protect ye lot anyways.”

“Well, that's true,” Alaric admitted. “You do it well, too.  But I'd bet you'd get more respect from the town mayors and the other chiefs if you showed that around.”

“Only for a few hours. Then they'd go to bed and wake up thinking, 'Why the hell did he have to show me that? Don’t he deserve no respect without it?' That's the way it works, see. Besides, there must be twenty of these left just in the Mundredi plus more in the other valleys. They were common once.”

"Not any more, sire. I mean, sir." Alaric caught himself. It was an interesting slip of the tongue, Denario thought. Did the blue coin mean that much? The disc was inscribed with the sign of the Mundredi tribes, a crown crossed by two spears.

He took at moment to lift it closer. As a coin, it seemed fairly ordinary, if ceremonial. It couldn't have been meant for spending because there was no denomination stamped on it, no number. Above the crown, between the crossed spears, were five stars. Denario had no idea what they signified. There were two inscriptions, both of them hard to read in the bluish glass. The top edge said, quinque procer unus imperator which meant in the Old Tongue, he thought, five of something under one emperor. On the bottom, there was just semper promptus pugnare. The old word pugnare meant 'fighting' or 'to fight,' he was pretty sure.

On the reverse of the coin there appeared the parapet of a castle and, over it in large letters, eternus regnum. That phrase meant 'eternal kingdom.' They must have thought so at the time, the forgers of this coin. Their empire had lasted for twenty years. That wasn't much. It was better, though, than any other force that had attempted to establish itself all the way around the Complacent Sea. In smaller letters underneath the castle, the coin-makers had inscribed, usque ornamentum in unus pars, which Denario thought translated roughly as 'all the weapons on one side.' Our side, they meant, Denario realized. That must have looked like a prescription for an empire to last forever. All the weapons had been owned by one side, sure enough. But that side had divided into factions. The empire had fought itself.

“It's beautiful,” he breathed.

“Priceless,” added Alaric.

“I'm not worth this.” He started to remove the cord. His arms were met by the unmoveable force of Vir. Just the touch of the big man's fingertips was enough to prevent him from lifting. “I don't deserve this much trust.”

“Could be,” Vir allowed. His face had that guarded expression he got when something was important enough. “Maybe ye'll never amount to anything. I don't trust slaves, even if they've been set free. But a debt is a debt. I'll honor it.”

“You've saved my life more than once ...”

“After I took ye from Hogsburg. And who knows if I would have gotten out alive if ye hadn't decoded the Raduar knocks or memorized the cell door combinations? So never mind about all that. With my folks and within my towns, this token will make ye safe. People will take ye into their homes.”

Denario turned his eyes to the coin again. With a smile, he decided to give Vir's mind-reading one more try. He couldn't resist.

“Which towns?” he asked.

Vir's face passed through a range of emotions. He'd spent all the night before giving advice and making Denario memorize the towns. And for what? Yes, Denario had never seen the captain's thoughts quite so visibly before. For a few seconds, Vir's ears turned bright red. Then, when he figured out that Denario was joking, he stopped holding his breath. He roared like a lion.

The captain gave Denario such a shoulder slap that, if Denario hadn't been standing so close to Moritz and Reinhard, he would have been knocked to the ground. The two men caught him. Everyone laughed.

“All right, accountant,” said Vir after he finished chuckling. “Stand smart.”

Denario did his best. He only came up to everyone else's chin level, though, even at his straightest.

“Ye came from a big city, sure enough. The fancy tooth brushing and baths and all spoiled ye. But we made a start on fixing ye up for valley life. Ye'll have to do the rest for yerself. If ye don't, ye won't make it back to yer apprentices.”

The words were grim. But they had to be correct. Denario bobbed his head.

“Five boys, sir,” he said.

“That's right.” Vir raised a massive fist. “Don't forget yer mission. Don't let anyone get in yer way. Ye take care of yer own. That's what ye do. Whether yer a low-down bandit like me or a sissy accountant, well, ye got take care of yer own.”

“I will.”

“Even if they're just boys, just apprentices like ye say. I respect that. We Mundredi troops ain't got no use for ye. But maybe, just maybe, that's because yer a good man.”

“Sneaky,” someone said.

“Yeh, sneaky. And that's good.” Vir nodded to himself.

Denario was so surprised that he saluted again. It was a day for that mistake, it seemed. He was doing everything slightly wrong. But Vir smiled at him in a not unkind way.

“Go to it,” he whispered in his voice that carried just exactly far enough.

Next: Chapter Ten, Scene Two

Sunday, December 4, 2016

A Nerd in a Warrior Culture - Nine Chapters


Chapter 
Thirty-Two Minus Thirty-One


Chapter Root Two Squared

Chapter Pi, Roughly 


Chapter Two Pair


Chapter Full Hand


Chapter Half Dozen


Chapter Fourth Prime


Chapter Two Cubed


Chapter Three Quarters of Twelve

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Not Even Not Zen 58: A Bandit Accountant, 9.6

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Three Quarters of Twelve
Scene Six: A Funny Kind of Freedom

When they reached Fort Six, Denario was astounded to see, nestled against the cliff below them, the town of Pharts Bad. He counted at least eighty-six homes between the trees, most of them with painted rooftops. A few had wooden shingles. One might have held slate. There were more homes upstream, too, with cruder coverings of thatch. After all this time in the wilderness, the town seemed huge. It had three churches, six totem poles, a town hall, and an oval structure with bench seats that could have been a stadium or a theater. To the southwest, the mine entrance was visible. A pair of large buildings stood in front of it, probably one of them the counting house.

There was no jail house that Denario could make out. In a land without laws, justice was probably left to those who could make it for themselves. He'd didn't think he could make any for himself but avoiding trouble would have to do. He could hardly wait to get down there and leave the group. Guilty feelings or not, he had to get back to his accounting practice and this was the first job on his path.

“Impressive, isn't it?” murmured a voice next to Denario's ear. It was Vir again.

“It is.” Denario put his hands on his hips and stared. There were two punts by the stream, each carrying a rower and a load of furs. A team of traders led four oxen, sacks tied to their backs, down the main street toward the mine. Three draft horses stood in front of the mine entrance, next to their handler and a cart. “This is a busy place. And the Raduar don't bother it?”

“Not yet.” Vir darkened. He had to expect a battle here sooner or later. “If ye look out by the south row of houses, ye'll see an outer wall.”

“I see it.” He followed Vir's gesture. “It looks awfully small, from here.”

“It looks small up close, too, but the townsfolk think it protects them. Crazy. They organize a militia now and then. That's good. And they keep armed guards patrolling the wall, about six of them. That's something.”

“Plus the fort.”

“Plus the fort, which we don't keep manned.” The captain sighed. He glanced to his sergeant.

“I can barely keep it in repair, sir,” said Alaric as he noticed the reproachful look. He had ordered his men to shore up the fort's wooden walls. He left them to it and joined his captain and the accountant.. “We need another sergeant and another cohort if you expect to protect this town, maybe more than one of each.”

For a moment, Vir seemed angry. Then he slumped.

“Ach, yer right.” He pointed past the town. “There's just too much unprotected territory. We need to get back to our old set of ranks, if we can. That's forty-five sergeants.”

“The towns have got to pay their taxes in armor and food if we're going to come close.”

“And they're not going to pay their taxes unless they see us start to win. Well, let's head on down to Mayor Quimbi and brag a little. Bring your biggest and most impressive men. And a couple of good talkers, too.”

In less than half an hour, the sergeant had assembled his premier force. It did not include Pug or any of the wounded except for Denario. Reinhard and Moritz were there, though, and they were the only two not in full chain mail. The rest of the cohort gleamed or came close. Everyone had a helmet, shield, spear, and sword. Even Denario was re-kitted. Sergeant Alaric strapped a captured buckler to his back.

The tribal signature on the buckler had been removed, scraped off by one of the men last night. If Denario hadn’t thought he wouldn’t keep the thing, he would have painted a number 8 on it in red and black.

“Follow the captain,” said Alaric after he finished tightening the buckler strap.

Vir began the descent. It didn't look easy. This side of Mount Bandatar was steep. Parts of it were sheer cliff face. The Mundredi had worn a path around the worst of it. Denario supposed the journey had to be less impossible than it seemed. After a few hundred yards, he reached a spot where he had to turn around and climb down backwards. He expected to fall to his death at any moment. Vir acted like the descent was nothing unusual. In his clipped, quiet way he kept up a stream of questions about accounting.

“What's keeping yer apprentices alive while yer gone?” he asked as he dug the toes of his boots into the footholds carved into several yards of rock.

“Well, the contracts I saved for road surveys and the cloth warehouses make good money.” Denario instinctively focused on anything but the drop below him. “I was surprised at how many merchants agreed to keep me on, actually. The senior accountants in the guild really tried hard to win the contracts. They're allowed, when a master dies.”

“I'll bet they pulled some tricks on ye.”

“I think they did but I was never quite sure what ones, exactly. The contract that made them really mad was the Paravienteri dock that stayed with me.”

“How many docks are there, anyway? I thought Angrili was the shipyard and port, not Oggli.”

“That's right. Oggli's shores are shallow and rocky. So our folks had to build long docks out into the water to compete, some into the river, some into the sea. There are five big docks and seven minor ones. The Paraventeri dock is a big one right in the transition between river and sea.”

“And that makes it rich?”

“The sea docks should be wealthier, really. But the Paraventeri do a better job. Captains sail a little farther into more dangerous waters to deal with them.”

“But why? Why go out of the way for this one dock?”

“Better equipment? I'm not sure. More honest deals with the captains, for sure.”

“Really?” Vir gave him a skeptical look. “But a lot of boat traffic is with new merchants or new captains. How do they know about the Paraventeri? The Paraventeri must have something that the others don't.”

Denario scratched his head. “Better prices?”

“Sounds to me like what makes that dockyard the wealthiest is yer old master and his apprentices. Honest accountants means more money for them. And that's more money for everybody. The captains go there to get richer, not because the Paraventeri are friendly.”

They climbed down in silence for a while. Denario had to admit, Vir's take on the situation seemed shrewd.

“We're going to have to brag on ye,” Vir huffed as he scrambled to stay upright over a patch of loose pebbles.

“Brag?”

“Yeah. We need to tell the mayor about how you broke the Raduar knock code, the secret geometries ye know, yer surveying, yer maps, and stuff like that.”

“The way he understands magic,” Alaric interjected from above.

“The way ye count up everything ye see.” Vir nodded. “But ye have to help. Ye have to be the one to sell yer accounting. I don't think ye've sold yer skills much.”

“I did save those Oggli city contracts, you know.”

“That was with folks what knew ye. Have ye won a contract with someone what don't?”

Denario blushed. He'd tried to do precisely that, in Oggli, and failed.

“No,” he had to admit.

“Well, then, we'll start the brag. But ye'll take it from there. Ye need these folks more than they need ye.”

“Because of the letter of transit?”

“Even that won't be enough, likely. But ye've got to have it. I've got one more trick to help.”

Denario turned around to climb backward for what looked like the last time. Below them, the trail leveled off and came to an end near the mouth of the mine. As he turned, he glanced up at Alaric. The sergeant was giving his superior officer a thoughtful look. Caught, he turned away from Denario to begin the last stage of the descent.

At the foot of the cliff, a trio of mule drivers met the troops. They shared some beer from their mule packs and some laughter, too. The muleteers recognized Vir and Alaric. As they escorted the captain to the town hall, they complained about harassment of their caravans. They didn't seem certain whether the Mundredi had robbed them or it was the Raduar but they respectfully asked for it to stop.

“Any other problems?” Vir asked.

“The town guards turned back some men a few days ago. Don't know why.”

Vir grunted and traded raised eyebrows with his sergeant.

In the town hall, Denario felt impressed despite himself. There was no gold visible but the whitewashed walls were high and clean. The ceilings and floors were pinewood, polished. The round seal of the town stood over the rounded doorway. Denario stared at it for a moment, trying to figure out what was odd about it aside from being cast in tin. Before the reason occurred to him, a medium-sized man in a white robe approached. It was the mayor.

“Chief de Acker,” said Mayor Quimbi. He shook Vir's hand. Behind him, other men in robes, burghers of some sort, tried to nod and smile to Alaric and his closest soldiers. “To what do we owe this visit?”

Not 'honor,' Denario noticed. He was trying to take Pecunia's advice about paying attention. And the smaller-town mayors had been delighted or at least 'honored' to meet Vir. They'd called him 'commander,' 'big chief,' 'captain,' 'hetman,' and 'master.' None of them had known his full name, either.

“I brought someone for yer mine,” Vir told him.

“A slave?” The mayor looked right and left. He seemed to be searching for someone in shackles or maybe with a fresh tattoo. Fear shot through Denario in the brief pause in the conversation. He realized that Vir could whimsically decide to tell the mayor just about anything.

“Nah. Remember ye couldn't tell how much was the right amount when that caravan wanted to pay ye in money?”

“That's ...” The mayor wrung his hands. To his left, one of the burghers nodded. “... a problem. Still.”

“Is he a book keeper?” The shortest burgher, farthest from the leadership group, pointed at Denario. How had he picked Denario out? Yet he had.

“I'm an accountant,” Denario corrected. He strode forward. “Not a mere book keeper.”

“He's from Oggli,” Vir sighed.

“Oggli?” Eyebrows rose up everywhere. The mayor clapped. He noticed Denario for the first time and gave him a smooth smile, as professional as any master merchant could do. “An almost mythical land. But then you've strayed a bit far from your marquis' protection. Why?”

“He's wanted for murder.” The captain grinned. Denario opened his mouth to object but it was too late. The brag was on, as he suddenly understood, and apparently a murder charge was something to play up among the bandit tribes.

Vir made Denario's minor mathematical achievements sound spectacular. Alaric pitched in, too. Even Corporal Gannick felt compelled to point out how Denario had been keeping maps during their travels.

“I can do more,” Denario offered during a pause in the conversation. “I've been trained in the Baggi double-entry system, traditional Muntab single-entry book keeping, which is also known as the 'rational' system, the Ankor process of valuation, the Tortuari method of verification, and other popular asset systems. I know how to use multiple device counters. I can calculate liabilities, income, and expenses. I can do projections. I know the theories of numeromancy.”

“Have you done any numeromancy?” The mayor's eyes narrowed. He was a sharp one.

“Only under the tutelage of senior accountants, sir. Not in the field.” Denario clasped his hands behind his back.

“Well, that's honest.” He rocked on his heels for a moment.

“I reckon he's got a chance, then,” one of the burghers said.

“I'm sure we're losing extra copper to the caravan masters,” chimed the shortest one. “But they're still mad at us and I can't figure it out.”

“None of us can. The gods know, we've tried,” the mayor acknowledged. What was he referring to, exactly? He turned to Vir and stood crisply at attention. “Chief de Acker, we will of course feed your troops as you require. But we've a few yet hours until dinner. Will you accompany us to the counting house? I would like your accountant to see our records and, of course, I know you will want something in trade.”

The counting house was, as Denario expected, one of the two large buildings in front of the mine. Although it wasn't as beautiful as the town hall, it had an impressive single room and stairs leading above it to a second floor. On ground level, amidst the support beams, there were stacks of copper sheets, ingots of tin, bolts of cloth, furs, dried fish, spices, and crates of varied goods lining the east and north walls. That was one reason the place had to be so huge, Denario supposed. The Seven Valleys had no money and that meant their counting houses needed to be warehouses, too. The bins of salt and tumeric alone took up more space than Denario's counting office at home.

The citizens of Pharts Bad were rich in their way. It was a wealth based on bartered, non-perishable goods but there seemed to be an abundance. So compared to the surrounding towns, the citizens here lived in luxury. Come to think of it, the farmers in Waffle Bad had been well-dressed in linens. They'd had plenty of brass tools, too. The wealth in this city had spread outward.

“Ah, the records system.” Denario spotted a table in the center of the north wall. On it sat hundreds, no, thousands of colored, clay tiles. They had been painted with various glazes. The effect from one tile to the next wasn't perfectly consistent. Some yellow tiles looked like gold and others looked like canary feathers but Denario was pretty sure they were all meant to be the same color.

In general, he noticed, the tiles sat in stacks of five. There were a few stacks of six or twelve. That was odd because usually systems stuck to base ten or base twelve and didn't use both. He hoped that old Master Clumpi hadn't done something as idiosyncratic as to use different types of arithmetic for different accounts. Sometimes self-trained book keepers got like that out here in the wild. Stories of it were laid down in the accounting guild records. Book keepers without anyone around to understand them got to pleasing themselves with their cleverness. That led to the invention of systems that weren't meant for anyone else to read, like one that was half in base 16 arithmetic and half in base 10, discovered in Faschnaught. Of course, that one had been decoded. It hadn't been hard. There had been many others found but left unsolved, their arrangements of knots, beans, fish scales, ink marks, or pottery shards being being more difficult than was worth anyone's time.

They could be fiendishly clever, these home-made systems. Sometimes they were positional, too, so that if a stack of tiles sat in a near corner of the desk it meant something other than if the same pile sat in a far corner.

“That's not good.” Denario was talking to himself but he caught the ear of the mayor and burghers. They whispered and pointed to the desk, where Denario had noticed that a stack of tiles had fallen over. That could be awful, since even a slight movement out of place might ruin the system, whatever it was. His fingers itched. He had to resist the impulse to neaten the stack. For all he knew, he might be destroying the evidence of how the system worked.

The important thing was to carefully record the state of the system as it was, untouched. From that point and from the hints the book keeper would have left with those around him, Denario could get into the man's state of mind. It would be tedious and hard but he had a good chance. He could do it.

“I notice two wooden tubes with beads in them.” Denario touched one carefully, afraid to disturb it. The tubes leaned against the records system desk covered by exactly as much dust as the tiles. “They don't appear to be part of the tile system but since Master Clumpi was on his own, I expect that they're probably connected somehow. Does anyone remember when these were used?”

“Oh, Clumpi used to get those out for the fur traders,” said one of the burghers. “Is that important?”

“I expect so.” Denario caught movement out of the left side of his vision. In the northwest corner, someone he hadn't noticed before had un-shuttered a window.

There were actually two people there, each at a different table, both hidden from view of the door by stacks of inventory. They must have heard everyone come in. They didn't look particularly lost in their work. The bearded man faced the open window. To his back, a woman sat facing away from the same window. She seemed to be using her desk lamps for light. Something about the way they'd positioned themselves gave Denario the impression that they didn't get along. Each of them had scrolls on their desks. Neither of them smiled.

If Denario had been a replacement book keeper, as he guessed at least one of these must be, he would have run to the door to greet his guests. Neither of them had done it. They hadn’t budged even though their guests were the most important men in town. Why? It was a mystery as big as the records system and, he suspected, connected to it.

“Are these your replacement book keepers?” he asked. “Why do you have two of them? And why has neither of them worked out?”

“Hey, he is good,” murmured one of the burghers as he nudged the mayor.

The dark haired and dark skinned woman may have been able to hear Denario talking. She stood up. That was hard to tell, at first, because she was shorter standing than she was in her chair. She looked plump, around thirty years old, he guessed. Her eyes met his and he could feel her sizing him up. Her expression was not kind. Nevertheless, she gave a polite nod and headed his way.

As soon as she did, the man behind her turned to see.  Then he watched her progress while he turned his back again and pretended to ignore her.

“We have two records keepers because they're both slaves,” explained the mayor as the woman approached. “We're not going to put them to death for failing us. And we can't trade them for what they're worth. There are farmers around here who have goats or oxen to trade but they don't need to buy much in the way of counting services.”

“You got these slaves even without money?” Denario asked for clarification. It was hard to believe. There seemed to be no limit to what these folks could barter. “So it was in exchange for copper?”

“We traded mostly tin for the woman, Senli. She came first.”

“But she couldn't solve old Master Clumpi's system,” one of the burghers complained. “I don't think she even much tried.”

“She said we ruined it when we tried to fix it.”

“Oh.” Denario had been waiting for the woman to come closer but she stopped while fifteen feet distant. She folded her hands together and waited. “Oh, hold on. You moved the tiles?”

“Well, we had to. Half of them were on strings.”

“You ...” Denario turned on them. He could hardly believe what he was hearing. “You took them off the strings? Why?”

“Well, to count them, of course.”

“Actually, it was Mistress Clumpi what did that.”

“Oh, yes.”

“His daughter?” Denario's mind started to race. “Can I talk with her?”

“His wife. You can try to talk with her if you like.” The burgher who said those words followed them with a cruel grin. Next to him, other burghers laughed. “Although you won't do much talking. You'll be listening.”

“Fine. That's fine.”

“It is?”

“Now for the next question,” said Denario. But as he prepared the words, he glanced to the book keeper who remained away from the group near the middle of the huge floor. “Were all of the same color of tiles strung together?”

“Oh no, not really.”

“Mostly, yes.”

“I never really looked. That's what Master Clumpi was for.”

One question, three answers. Denario reflected on that for a moment.

“And you took the system apart.” He pulled at his hair. It wasn't just that it was a difficult code. The burghers had completely unraveled the code, too. They'd made the job impossible. It simply couldn't be done.

“Is that a problem?”

“Not for him!” Vir said. He whacked Denario on the back.

The conversation paused. In that moment of time, Alaric glanced at Denario with an apologetic expression on his face. He seemed to know what a mess Vir had gotten Denario into and he was ready to pull Denario out of it. For an instant, the accountant was ready to accept his help. Then he realized that it meant he'd never get back home. No, he had to do the job. He couldn't depend on Alaric, who wanted to keep him with the Mundredi. Vir had given Denario the opportunity to go to Oggli where he could save his apprentices and rescue his counting house. Denario had to take it. It wasn't even Vir's fault that the burghers had made the task impossible.

If Denario needed to fix the records, then that's what he'd do. He looked at Alaric as he spoke.

“No problem,” he lied. He turned to the mayor and burghers. Those men bore such innocent, hopeful expressions. They had no idea what damage they'd done. “I can bring all three systems together into one.”

“Three systems?” said Vir.

The mayor was bobbing his head. He understood.

“The old system,” Denario explained with a glance to the unstrung and unstacked tiles. “And the two new systems, which aren't the same and don't reconcile records.”

He was guessing. He caught the book keeper's eye as he said it to check her reaction. She had been watching them. Although Muntabi might not be her native language, at least not this dialect of it, he was certain that she could follow the conversation.

She studied him for a moment longer. Then she closed her eyes and nodded. So he was right, three systems. And none of them were correct.

Next: Chapter Ten, Scene One

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Not Zen 190: Study

The first group arrived during a storm. They unpacked in haste, running from cover to cover in the dark with their belongings. Amidst laughter and expressions of frustration, they managed to find their places in the dormitories. Despite the wind, rain, and lightning, they eventually fell asleep.

The next day, one of the students woke in his bunk to discover that the masters with whom he'd hoped to speak had risen before him. They were, he guessed, hard at work in their areas of expertise.

Today was the beginning of a festival of artists and masters of spiritual disciplines. However, like the other early arrivals, the young man discovered that there were no events scheduled. The festival had been delayed. He’d made plans to study everything offered. In his mind, he'd filled each moment of his calendar with an activity. But so far, most of the students and some of the organizers had yet to make it to the site. He had hours of unstructured time to himself in an isolated retreat in the mountains.

The young fellow wandered around and took note of the locations in which there would be festival classes. Next to the pavilion, he saw a bearded yoga instructor leading a sunrise session. Some in the session appeared to be novices. A student like him could join. But further on, he observed a handful of women practicing martial arts. On a grassy rise above them, two men and three women sat in meditation.

In the meadow at the top of the hill, there stood a wooden tower. It looked like a fire tower and, in fact, he found a small plaque next to the structure describing it as one. He climbed it. The gate at the top was not locked. On the platform, elbows rested against the rail, he gazed down at the masters in their various disciplines.

He could see all of the things he meant to study. There was a man burning incense next to a campfire. To the west, a pair of women pointed to the next mountain and painted watercolors of its treeline. As he stood and surveyed the area, the young man noticed that he could see all the way to the nearest town, which lay far below. The town's buildings seemed distant and humble. He sighed. After a minute, he climbed down from the tower.

He returned to his dormitory. He emptied his backpack and filled it with dish rags and freshly-laundered towels that he found in the closet next to the shower.

When he was done, he slung on the full pack and marched down the main road. As he passed one of the dormitories, he smiled to a woman with a notebook in front of her. He recognized her as one of the organizers and also a scheduled lecturer. She sat on the porch with a peaceful expression on her face, her pencil poised above a blank page.

"What will you do today?" he asked her.

She put her pencil down for a moment. She let her hands fold into her lap.

"A parable has occurred to me," she replied. "Today, I am going to write."

A few steps away, on the wooden staircase below the porch, sat a man who the student recognized as a master of a meditation school.

"And what are you going to do today?" the student asked him.

"Parables are a waste. I'm at peace. I'm going to sit here."

The young man nodded. That choice seemed reasonable for someone devoted to the discipline.

"Since you've asked us," continued the meditation master, "I should ask, what will you do?"

"I don't know much, so it was my intent to study," he said. "But instead I'm going to walk into town. As we passed by last night, I noticed the storm had blown off the roof of a house. The family who lives there will be sorting through the damage. Probably I can help."

The student marched on. The master sat in meditation. After a moment or two, the fellow rose to his feet. He waved to the back of the departing student.

"Wait," he called. "Let me get my shoes."

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Not Even Not Zen 57: A Bandit Accountant, 9.5

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Three Quarters of Twelve
Scene Five: Nearly at Liberty

Pecunia towered over him. By that, Denario knew that he must be sitting down. Spiritually, she was immense. Physically she was only a few fingers taller. Now she wore a high, lace collar and an urgent expression. Her delicate brow knotted. She leaned closer.

“Where are they?” she demanded.

The scene behind Pecunia shifted. A door opened. He could see the sky and a wispy cloud. With no effort at all, he rose. He strode out the door with this beautiful woman by his side. Her collar had changed. Now it was green. Her whole dress was green. It went with her golden hair. He tried to tell her that. His fingers rose up as he prepared to speak.

“Where are the boys?” she asked.

Suddenly he knew. Guilder, Kroner, Mark, Shekel, and Buck were far away. He needed to find them. He turned, searching. He saw blue sky, tall grass, and distant forest all around. There was nothing else. He needed to find his boys.

“Home,” he breathed. “Aren't they? But which way should I go?”

He stopped moving. Pecunia circled around him. She kept studying his clothes, his shoes, his face. On her second pass behind him, her appearance began to change. Her hair darkened. Her skin turned a luxurious brown, almost like his own but with a golden undertone. Her hair straightened as much as his. She kept walking. She got shorter. She got wider. He saw she was gaining weight. Her dress changed into a plain smock.

“Find the boys,” she insisted.

“I'm trying.”

“Faster.”

Her pace picked up. She circled around him and made his head swivel. Her hair curled. Was she turning back into herself? No. Yet she was becoming lighter again. Her clothes were growing more ornate. Her dress bunched up. It looked too big, better than the smock but it was nothing like her usual high fashion. She gave him a determined smile.

When she did that, she looked up at him. She had become almost child-sized.

“Where are you?” she said.

“I don't know,” he replied. “I'm lost.”

“Hurry,” she whispered. “Hurry.”

She turned her back on him. He watched her spiral away. She was moving in an arc even though she appeared to be walking straight. What's the mathematics of the arc? he wondered. It looked like the classic one, in which the radius was equal to a constant plus another constant multiplied by the angle of departure. He estimated the angle at thirty degrees. Beautiful. But she was keeping her back to him and barely glancing over her shoulder. Her hair was growing golden. Her skin was brightening. She was returning to her usual self.

“The boys,” she said. Her voice sounded very distant.

He turned away from her. It was hard to do. His arms stretched out as he searched for his apprentices. He could feel the land. It was in the air between his fingertips. It was slipping by. It was passing through him.

The boys were too far away to reach. But he could feel their footfalls. They were marching, running, skipping, jumping, or just ambling along. They were in motion. He tried to embrace them, to catch them by the sound of their feet, a sensation so tangible he wondered if he could pull it out of the air. Each set of feet was a clump of spider silk. He thought he could smell rice pudding for a moment, as if one of the girls next door was trying to lure Buck to them with food and he'd caught the scent. But as he tried to gather all the perfumes and noises in his hands, he lost them all.

He couldn't feel the boys. He started to run in the direction of the last group of wind-blown sensations. Nothing, just a girl's laughter.

Denario woke with his feet kicking his blanket. He wiped his face. It dripped with his sweat and the early morning dew. He shivered and pulled himself closer to the fire.


Next: Chapter Nine, Scene Six

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Not Even Not Even

For those reading the scenes in A Bandit Accountant every week, I apologize for the interruption in the flow of the story.  This next scene makes sense in the context of the book. On its own, it may seem difficult.

The week after this, as I post the last scene of the chapter, it will all come together.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Not Even Not Zen 56: A Bandit Accountant, 9.4

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Three Quarters of Twelve
Scene Four: Lowest on the Totem Pole

The troop picked up their new recruit, Pug, at a farm that had at least two boys and three girls working in a one-acre wheat field. To Denario, it looked like they all might be pulling up weeds but he didn't want to ask and reveal his ignorance. Anyway, the lad wasn't out in the field with the rest of his family. It took Vir a moment to chat with the father and an older brother before he found Pug at the end of the bean fences next to a totem pole with heads of local deities carved into it. Even there, the boy stayed mostly out of sight behind the pole.

Pug was hiding, perhaps, because his face was a patchwork of bruises. Denario winced to see him. His lip was healing but split. He was missing a front tooth. Although his bruises looked painful, his bones appeared to be intact except for a shattered small knuckle. Vir inspected him like man buying livestock. In Oggli, the family would have gotten offended by that. In Mekli, they threw a dinner for the troops and offered to let them sleep next to the wheat, although Vir refused that on the grounds that a few miles' march would do everyone good.

The boy's name was the same as his uncle but it was an unusual one to the rest of the Mundredi. Naturally, they began teasing him about it. To Denario's shame, he felt slightly relieved not to be the butt of their jokes for a while. He didn't feel compelled to stay close to the protection of the officers now that Pug was here.

Even so, the years of slavery in which he'd learned to anticipate casual kicks and punches served him well. The Mundredi took turns swinging at Pug. But they playfully tried to trip Denario, too. He dodged them and ignored their remarks about how short and scrawny he was. He pretended not to notice when one of the men tried to kick him.

The highlight of the evening came when Denario managed to duck as someone threw an old acorn at his head. The acorn hit Reinhard on the neck. The big man spotted the culprit instantly – it wasn't hard with the fistfulls of nuts and pebbles he was holding – and he pummeled Denario's tormentor until Gannick and Alaric told him to stop. Everyone laughed except for the fellow who'd taken the drubbing. Even Pug seemed to feel better.

The troops camped to the sound of howling wolves.

“They just moved in,” replied Pug when questioned about them. “They haven't bothered the livestock.”

Alarmed by the howling, Alaric set a watch schedule, two men at a time. Denario volunteered to go first with Reinhard. That got a smile from the sergeant, who thought his accountant was making an effort to fit in. It elicited a scowl from the captain, who knew Denario was grabbing the easiest shift. Vir constrained himself to kicking Denario's travel pack, though, as he made a spot to lie down.

And in the morning, they went to church.

It wasn't a whole church. The walls had been made of stone but someone or something had knocked most of them down. Denario realized after a few minutes there that the destruction was a tragedy. Blocks that remained showed intricate carvings. Fragments of the engraved scenes lay strewn in the clearing amidst rocks, dirt, and wild grasses.

A poplar tree had grown up in the middle of the church site because the building no longer had a ceiling – or rather, the ceiling lay on the ground in rot and rubble.

“This place was holy to Leir and Hoki back in the pre-empire days,” said Vir wistfully as he approached. “Villagers built it for protection from storms, first. Then it served them for worshiping the small gods. Then came the bigger ones. Finally, when Prince Robberti passed through, the place impressed him enough that he ordered improvements.”

“What improves a church?” Denario wondered.

“Gold, mostly.”

Alaric and a few other men snorted.

“Was this the Biscelli Church that was supposed to be so beautiful?” Alaric's attitude changed a bit. He touched one of the fallen walls and smiled. His fingers traced the etched form of a horned god.

“You know about it?” Vir smiled at his sergeant. Denario got the impression that the two were sharing a secret.

“Well, stories of a vaulted ceiling, gold leaf on the furnishings, colored glass in the main window ...”

“It had glass windows?” Reinhard seemed astounded.

“Naturally, the prince's children fought over it.” Vir sighed. He took off his helmet to scratch his bald head. “This is all that they left, the rocks. Everything else got taken away. No one desanctified the church lands, either. Followers of Hoki and the smaller gods still visit here from nearby villages. The original village of Biscelli was destroyed, of course.”

As Vir was speaking, Denario scanned a wall for pictures that weren't covered by climbing weeds. He noticed references to Melcurio twice, once with the god pointing to a number eight, the other time with him stealing the crown off of the All-Seeing King, whose hundred eyes were all looking the wrong way. Soon Denario ran out of wall, though, and had to move on through the rubble.

“They've got a temple to Leir in Waffle Bad,” Vir continued.

As Denario walked, his eyes drifted to a pale shape in the grass. It took Denario a moment to recognize that it was a goatfish of some kind. Was it a primitive version of Glaistig? This was a long way from her river. He picked it up and turned it over in his hands. Time had been kind to this piece. The figure was intact.

Denario knelt and said a little prayer of thanks to Melcurio. He was lucky to have gotten this far in his journey. As an afterthought, he thanked Glaistig, too. He'd made the decision, almost without thinking, to keep the goatfish piece. It might be crazy to carry extra weight, even though it barely amounted to a single pound, for miles and miles. Yet the thought of showing it to Pecunia made him smile. Pecunia showed every sign of detesting the priestess at the Temple of Glaistig but she nevertheless showed affection and curiosity for the goddess herself.

“It's holy,” whispered someone next to him.

“A little,” Denario allowed. He didn't have that powerful feeling he sometimes got in a church or temple. He had to admit that the place felt good, though.

“Yer not afraid of stealing from the church?” Gannick asked.

“No.” Denario slipped the carved rock into his travel pack. “Not at all.”

The Mundredi, though, seemed afraid for Denario. It was touching, if ridiculous. Several men made holy signs over themselves or over him. Even Moritz shook his head at an accountant's craziness. Pug kept his mouth closed and his hands behind his back. Denario remembered that the boy had gotten into trouble for mocking his local priest. He lived close by to these ruins, too, so he knew them well. He probably took things from this old church. After all, he was the sort who would defy the gods. Denario wondered if the superstitious talk was making him worried. For whatever reasons of religion and logic, it didn't bother Denario. He felt good about what he'd taken.

“The gods are funny about their holy places,” Alaric chimed in. “And this site is still consecrated. Be careful. They say that the sons of Prince Robb who took stuff out of here died soon after.”

“Ah, well,” said Vir. “That could be said of many folks in those times. They all died before they saw thirty. Anyway, didn't ye see the accountant saying a prayer to Melcurio? That's the god of thieves, ye know.”

“Accountants,” retorted Denario. “He's the god of accountants.”

“Same thing,” said Vir with a smile.


Next: Chapter Nine, Scene Five

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Not Even Not Zen 55: A Bandit Accountant, 9.3

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Three Quarters of Twelve
Scene Three: Bathing in History

The troop spent the next two days hiking through the hills between the Mundredi-controlled valleys and the Oggli lands claimed by Baron Ankster. Vir and Alaric led them east, which was the direction Denario wanted to travel.

I'm going home, he told himself. He could hardly believe it. In his elation, he hardly noticed the teasing and bullying from the bigger men. He stuck near the leaders most of the time so that the big ones like Moritz and Reinhard didn't step too far out of line.

By the third day, Vir announced they could relax. He was sure there were no more enemy raiders around. They'd seen no sign of the traitor Piotr. But Vir's idea of relaxing meant that his men could train as they hiked. It meant, more precisely, that they were required to train, any accountants who happened to be among them included.

So at dawn on the third morning, Denario found himself issued a long dagger called a baselard. It had been taken from the sledges of loot. The baselard was large enough to be a short sword if you were a small man, so it fit Denario pretty well. It had a guard and pommel. However, it wasn't as heavy as a regulation Mundredi sword – which meant, as Sergeant Alaric pointed out, that Denario couldn't be expected to spar with it. A few too many blows from a real weapon and the blade would break or the hilt would split.

“So I just go through the motions?” Denario took a practice whiff through the air. He felt discouraged about being forced to carry this heavy thing all day. Two bags, a spear, and a bow seemed more than enough. On the other hand, he experienced some relief in realizing that he'd be left out of the mock battles that were taking place around him.

“I'll show you how.” Alaric thumped him on the back. Denario's torso clinked with the muffled sound of chain mail. “Sword work is what distinguishes warriors from pretenders.”

“I don't even pretend,” Denario clarified in case it wasn't obvious.

“Well, then. Pretend that you do.” The sergeant grabbed Denario by the elbow and started to move him through the basic sword motions. With a cheery smile, he made Denario practice.

At least the sergeant didn't hold a grudge about Denario leaving his bandit army. Denario was grateful for that. The young officer could have bullied him. Instead, Alaric seemed to accept that he would let the accountant go in a nearby town. He kept Denario close for most of the day's march, partly to teach him about swordsmanship but mostly to ask about accounting, geometry, and magic. His curiosity extended to news of the nobility in Oggli, who he referred to as the 'waldi knights.'

“Is it true that their men bathe?” He seemed doubtful, as if he considered a slanderous rumor.

“Once a week, usually.” Denario never thought he'd miss the practice but he did. The last time he'd bathed, Pecunia had heated a brass basin of water for him and averted her eyes. She'd been surprised when he didn't argue.

“What about … hey, what's that?” The sergeant pointed to what Denario had just pulled out of his traveling pack.

“It's my toothbrush.” It was wood, painted red, with pig bristles pulled in tufts through holes drilled one end.

“What does it do?”

Denario found it easy to clarify how a toothbrush worked but harder to explain why it was necessary. At home, Denario had been required to practice dental hygiene. It was the law. The Marquis de Oggli had made it mandatory for all men who might stand in his noble presence to brush their teeth every day and to brush once more before seeing him. Apparently the marquis had a sensitive nose. He made people bathe twice before meeting him, too.

“Surely that's unhealthy!” Alaric exclaimed upon hearing the news about baths.

“It's done with warm water. They give you clean rags to dry off with, even. No one dies.” In these high hills, Denario realized that water was dangerous, particularly in the three-quarters of the year that it was nearly ice.

“You said the marquis prevents free men from owning slaves in your city?” To Alaric, this seemed as offensive as bathing. He looked as if he considered another doubtful rumor.

“That's traditional.” Denario smiled. The tradition, in a way, had given him his freedom. Master Winkel had bought him as a slave but had never entertained the idea of keeping one because of the Oggli law against it. “The merchants' guild asked the marquis to overturn the ban on slavery about five years ago. He declined on the grounds that slaves were dirty and smelly.”

Denario wished that the marquis had felt that slavery was morally offensive, not nasally offensive, but he was happy with the end result. Any slaves brought into the city limits were still immediately, legally set free just as tradition had held for hundreds of years.

Alaric scratched his head. “But how is the mining done? Or the tilling? Who does the jobs that no one wants?”

“If your folks here had money, sergeant, you'd understand.” Denario believed that with all of his heart. “In Oggli, there are any number of men who do nothing but clean up after the dogs and horses all day.”

“Why?”

“For money.”

Maybe it wasn't the best example, Denario realized. The sergeant and the captain and all the men within hearing seemed puzzled. There was no reason to clean up manure around here. In a city, on cobblestone streets, it was essential. In front of the palace or the temple, it was considered important enough for the nobles to keep a dozen men on staff for the job.

During the next two days, the Mundredi captain led his group through a few small towns, all of which were no larger than four or five families held together by a crossroads or a rocky path and a stream. They had names like Gormli, Two Cleft, Kyllburg, and Waffle Bad. The people had no food to share except turnips, cheese, and onions, although they were generous enough with those staples. The folks in Waffle Bad cooked a feast of cheeses for them, in fact.

Denario pulled out his toothbrush and set it next to his bowl as they prepared for dinner. That got chuckles from the Mundredi soldiers. They considered it a sort of entertainment to see the toothbrush in action.

The first course was bread and cheese. The second course was soup with lumps of bread, onions, and cheese in it.

“Someone came through and killed old man Worter. Stole a bunch of his pigs, too, or scared them off. You boys doing something about that, commander?” said the mayor of Waffle Bad. He sat at the end of the table, next to Vir. Denario could hear their conversation if he concentrated on ignoring the noises from Reinhard's mouth.

“Any hog meat in the Raduar supplies, corporeal?” Vir said after a moment's thought.

“We ate pork stew last night, boss.” Two seats away, Gannick hardly looked up as he answered. His intent was to get all the bites of goat cheese that he could find in his bowl.

Vir nodded to him.

“Seems like we've already taken care of your problem.” He wiped his mouth and began to tell the story of the battle, although he left most of it for Alaric and his men.

Each time his men related the story of their victory, it grew in the telling. Their enemies became deadlier. Their fallen comrades became more virtuous. Their leaders, Alaric and Vir, grew more cunning in this rosy-eyed retrospective. The men shot their crossbows better, fought better and, by golly, ate and drank better, too. It was entertaining. The only development that Denario didn't like was his role in the tale. He seemed to be evolving into a sort of comic relief character.

People all over the seven valleys were going chuckle over the misdeeds of certain accountant if these men had their way. The folks of Waffle Bad laughed at Denario's reported antics until they cried. They wiped their tears with smug satisfaction.

“They like you,” whispered Alaric, next to him. He grinned and jostled Denario with his elbow. Denario decided to hold his tongue.

The mayor told, in his turn, a few tales about the last waldi caravan that had passed through. There was no deadly violence in his account, though, and not much enchantment from the shaman who had been protecting the caravan.

“That's a good one, mayor,” said Vir generously.  He'd finished his second course but continued to masticate a stubborn crust of bread. The third course, an onion salad, wasn't ready. “But let's get down to business for a moment. Ye know I've lost troops. I need some more. Do ye have any likely lads to spare? If not, do ye have any criminals?”

“Not this time,” answered the mayor. He rubbed his belly. “Not here, anyways. I heard tell of a lad across the creek in Meklin. His mother is from the Mundredi Pashtendi but his father came from the Raduar Dorun tribe.”

“I don't much care about his parents unless they're volunteering. What did the boy do to get into trouble?”

“Stole from the church, they say. Made fun of the priest. Some of the priest's supporters beat him pretty bad. Then he caught up to them, one by one, and beat up his tormentors in return. He needs to get out of town.”

“Perfect. He can fight a little and won't be missed.” Vir nodded. “We'll take him.”

Denario noticed that the boy wasn't being given an option. Maybe that was Vir's recruiting technique. And maybe the Mundredi army had always collected the most troublesome teenagers anyone could find. That would explain why their soldiers resorted to banditry for their supplies, fought with one another, swore, and showed both disrespect and fear of the local gods, priests, and other authorities. They would have been caught and hung in any civilized country. Here, they seemed to function as a sort of police force or as close to a stabilizing corps of men as existed in this barbaric land without written laws.

That night their horde slept in a barn without a roof, which made Denario wonder why they bothered. Politeness, he supposed. And in the next morning, Vir took them downslope into a hollow between two hills. They found a stream there, hidden from above by poplar, oak, and fir trees. The water was icy and clear, at least until they filled their canteens and splashed across the shallows. They kicked up clouds of silt and sharp chunks of shale before they got back out, ankles and toes numb from the cold.

“After we pick up the recruit,” Vir explained to Denario, mid-stream. “We'll head over to Phart's Bad. That's where we'll drop you off.”

Denario almost stopped where he was, though the water was too brisk for that. He waited until he stomped his feet on the other side.

“What's that name again?” he asked, sure that he'd heard wrong.

“Phart's Bad,” Vir answered without a trace of humor.

Denario started to snicker. No one else around him joined in. He checked the faces of Alaric and Reinhard. From the puffy flesh around their eyes, they looked tired. They didn't react as if they'd just heard a joke.

“Is that a town near Mount Ephart?” asked Denario. He knew the mountain was long to the west of them now but he was searching for an explanation. There had to be logic behind such a foolish name. After all, someone in all of the tribes, surely, must understand how funny their rustic town designations seemed to outsiders. They had to know why they were the subject of so much humor in the neighboring Ogglian fiefdoms.

“No, that's Phartsburg.” Vir took off one of his boots. He turned it upside down and produced a brief shower.

“It is?” Denario's eyes widened. He thought to himself, I should have expected that. He tried to wring his left boot while his foot was still in it rather than have to undo the laces.

“Anyway, Pharts Bad sits at the bottom of Mount Bandatar, right below our Fort Six. The citizens there have got a copper mine. They've been running it for three generations, maybe. They've even found some granite and tin nearby. It's not much but they get enough tin to make bronze. They've got fine water, too. Four wells! That's why they're so big.”

“How many people?” Denario wanted to put a number on it. A big town sounded hopeful. Of course, if it was such a large and important place, someone from outside of the valleys should have heard of it. And they hadn't. If an Ogglian merchant had even heard a whisper of it, the subsequent jokes would have traveled with the caravans all the way back to Oggli. So this town probably had four or five houses like all of the others.

“Well, it's not as big as Phartsburg, Knot Bad, or Tawdri. But that's because the town is only about forty-five years old. Folks there are wealthy enough, though, and when I came through the area last year, they'd just lost their only book keeper.”

“They had a book keeper? For their mining records?” That was the best news that Denario had heard in weeks. His feet broke into a brief, wet dance.

“Well, I say book keeper.” Vir glanced at Denario's feet. “He was a tile keeper, really. He kept track of who owed what by using a system of colored tiles. But that won't be any problem for an accountant.”

That meant it was a serious problem, Denario realized. His feet settled down. The old tile keeper had probably died without revealing his secrets. Now his records would only exist in a code that no one else could read. Worse, the work that he'd done would be out of date. Whatever the miners had used for record keeping since couldn't be the same system. At least someone could help him there, though.

“Sure, no problem,” he reassured Vir. What choice did he have? He'd have to find a way to decipher the old system and reconcile the records in the new one.

“I didn't want to say too much before.” Vir leaned close and spoke in that conspiratorial whisper he had. “But I've been thinking a bit about the mine since I heard ye had apprentices to rescue. I don't want to give ye false hope. It's a hard trek through the mountains to No Map Creek, which is where I figure ye've got to go. Most men wouldn't make it. But if ye get a letter of transit from the mayor of Pharts Bad, that would help. It's what the caravans use.”

“So everyone respects a letter of transit?” That was another piece of good news.

“Not everyone.” Vir pulled away a little. His expression grew grimmer. “Me men and I have waylaid a few caravans ourselfs, letters of transit or no.”

“Oh.”

“As long as ye stay clear of the Raduar troops ... and the Mundredi troops ... and the baron's troops ... well, that about says it. Most ordinary folks will respect such a letter, excepting the desperate.”

“How many desperate men are there?”

The captain shook his head. He wouldn't answer.

“Yer wrong about math anyway,” he said after about half a mile had passed. Where had his mind wandered? It hadn't lingered on accounting or fighting. “Math is just a trick.”

“Mathematics is holy,” Denario explained. He felt patient with Vir and not just because the man could kill him with one swing. Captain or not, he didn't know more than basic arithmetic. “It's the truth that underlies the world.”

“Just a trick. Not even a good one. Say that I've got all of my sergeants and their men together. That's about forty. And we take on one of the three Raduar armies. That's about two hundred. Do ye think we have to lose?”

“That's five to one odds against. Yes, you'd lose. And I've seen the knights of Oggli. I know that you and some of your men are as tough as them. Tougher, maybe. But you'd lose.”

“That's accountant thinking, there. One man is not equal to one man.”

“When you're counting them, you have to figure that men are pretty much equal.”

“But it's not true. Not ever. An apple is not equal to another apple, either, not anywhere in the world. All that counting is a trick.”

“Okay, I see what you mean.” Denario ambled along for a while before he had a confirming thought. “For that matter, one apprentice is not equal to another. Guilder is the best. He's only eleven but he's brilliant and happy and quick. But he's a mess when it comes to surveying. He can't hold still.”

“And the best surveyor?”

“That's funny because it's Buck, I think. He doesn't do any more math than he's forced to. But he's great at geometry and likes being out of doors.”

Denario spent a few minutes thinking about the others. Kroner was probably doing the work Curo should be doing because he was so diligent. Guilder and Shekel were probably spending most of their time learning from the older apprentices. Nevertheless, they were both likely enough to be pulling their weight with work at the docks. They counted the shipments. Even little Mark helped to count items and he was only six.

Curo would have to make appearances at the court. Denario wasn't sure what impression that would make. The knights didn't seem to like Curo very much.

“You know, most Ogglian armor is steel.” It occurred to him as he pictured those knights. He stepped closer to Vir as they marched. “But in the Mundredi army, I've seen a lot of bronze armor and bronze spear points. Aren't there any towns with iron mines in the seven valleys?”

“The old mines are mostly abandoned. Take the bog iron mine, for instance ...”

“What's bog iron?”

“It's the horrible little bits of iron you get out of a peat bog. I know the secret or at least a little part of it. You cut out clumps of peat that are reddish. Then you dry them. Then you burn them up in a special oven. What's left is tiny pinpricks of metal, mostly iron.”

“I've never heard of that.”

“You've got to work awfully hard to get enough iron to make a tool. But that's the only way we can do it. Around here, there's only bog iron in the plains of Fat Valley and in between the hills around Hard Valley. The Tortuar had a regular iron mine once but it's gone. The Raduar had one, too, but their seam ran out.”

“So most of your steel weapons come from outside?”

“That's right.”

Aha, Denario thought. That fact by itself explained why the tribes had turned to banditry. Without money to speak of, they couldn't get iron in trade. They had to steal it or make it from their peat bogs. And getting iron from those bogs was a long process that hostile clans probably disrupted quite a lot.

“Hard Valley,” he remembered, “that's the one held by the Tortuar?”

“Yeah. They've got the worst place of all, that tribe. They have no copper. Not much farmland. Lots of marshes. There's a bit of granite and tin in their hills. Maybe I'm not making it sound bad enough because they've got most of the monsters that are left in the valleys. They've got vampires.”

“Ugh. Who'd want to live there?”

“The Tortuar tribes, of course. And now the Raduar.”

“Wait, you mean the Raduar are trying to invade Hard Valley?”

“They've been doing it in bits and pieces. I've traded messages with Sham Horduar, the chief there, about a truce between our valleys. We've pretty much got peace between us anyway while we're so busy with other fighting.”

Denario stopped and put his hands over his ears. For a moment, he'd heard the screams of villagers a little too keenly in his imagination.

“I don't understand people. Pecunia was right about me. She was completely right.” He put down his hands and continued. He had to jog a little to catch up.

“What now?” demanded Vir.

“Why would anyone bother to invade Hard Valley? They're killing townsfolk, too, I bet. For what?” Denario threw up his hands. “So they can have the marshes and monsters?”

“For the women. For the glory.” Vir gave Denario a cynical smile. “Sorry, lad, but that's what they tell themselves. Yer right. It's evil of them. For my part, though, I'm glad they're being so evil.”

“Why?”

“If they were behaving this way to only the Mundredi tribes, the Tortuar would stay out of it. Why would they care if our townsfolk get slaughtered?”

“They wouldn't,” Denario agreed. It was depressing but he knew that no one cared about slavery, either, when they couldn't see the worst of it. “It's too far away.”

“For most folks.” Vir nodded with the accumulated wisdom of a constant traveler. “Only misfits leave their towns and get to see the world. But now the Tortuar find that they care even if they haven't met us. So I won't have to worry about my border with them for a while.”

“I think I understand. Your position is stronger because the Raduar chiefs are so blood-crazy that they're attacking all of the valleys around them at once.”

“Yeah. If only the Ogglian barons would march farther north through the eastern hills of Fat Valley. Then they might meet Raduar troops and they'd fight. That would take care of both problems.”

“I've met some of the knights and barons, Vir. Despite what you say about their fighting skill when they're off their horses, they aren't stupid. Cruel, yes. And they have inflated opinions of themselves. But even though I don't like them, I wouldn't call them stupid. They won't over-extend their village raiding.”

“Do they ever fight among themselves the way we do in the seven valleys?”

“Absolutely. Vir, I know that Baron Blockhelm has a hundred men in arms at any time and more he can call up within a month. But he lives in fear of Baron Ankster, who has at least three times that number. And the knights fight each other in smaller bands at the smallest excuse. They kill peasants as they travel through each other's lands just to irritate the knights they don't like.”

Alaric appeared behind them. He'd sped up to listen in on the conversation.

“Don't the peasants ever rise up?” Vir's eyes widened in horror.

“It's not done ...” Denario felt his cheeks flush. “Yes. It's been done. When I was a little boy, I was told differently but now I'm aware that it's happened. Each time, though, the knights crush the rebellion brutally. You can't imagine the stories.”

“Oh, I think I can.”

“The last incident was eighty-one years ago according to the accounting guild books. Twenty-three known book keepers were killed.”

“Book keepers?”

“It's a guild log. That's what our folks tracked out of professional interest. But book keepers are maybe one in two thousand people out here in the countryside. So how many people were likely killed, actually?”

“I've no idea,” admitted Vir truthfully. Next to him, Alaric was moving his lips, doing the math.

“Thousands, anyway.” Denario decided to spare Alaric the effort. “And I think their purge must have cleared out a lot of farm lands. From what you showed me on the map, the Mundredi have moved into those empty fields.”

“By the gods,” Alaric breathed. He must have worked out the real number of deaths.

“Right now, a lot of the count's vassals, and that includes the your three barons, have sent men off to fight the King of Faschnaught,” Denario continued. He was estimating the numbers of troops. From what he'd heard in the court, there had to be between thirty-two and thirty-six thousand although only an eighth of those would be the professional fighters. The rest were the cooks, suppliers, engineers, battle wizards, farriers, smiths, and other necessary staff. “That kingdom is somewhere north of Ogglia. If it weren't for that fight, the purge against the Mundredi might have looked by last year the way the similar purge did eighty years ago.”

“Why?” asked Vir. “Why are they doing this to us?”

“Who cares about the reason?” Alaric spoke quickly. The tendons in his neck showed the alarm he felt. “We have to worry about that other war. About the timing of it. Don't you see, Vir?”

“See what?”

“We need to finish with the Raduar before the Ogglian war in Faschnaught is over. If we don't, it'll be twice as hard to protect our villages. More than twice.”

“Our villages pay taxes to their knights, dammit! They've got no reason to attack us!”

After Vir's outburst, the three of them walked in silence for about half a mile. The other bandits around them had noticed their captain's tone of voice. All of their teasing and punching one another had stopped.

“You said you've got four sergeants,” said Denario, remembering what the captain had told him and counting, “each with less than a dozen men. But you're picking up new recruits all the time. So it sounds like you've got four units about the right size to take on a knight and his men at arms. And they could win.”

“We know that,” huffed Vir. He probably knew it from combat against them, Denario realized. There had to be a reason that the Mundredi knew how badly the Ogglian knights fought on foot.

“You want more, though. Could you recruit from the other tribes? Is there any hope of uniting everyone for a while?”

“Not unless we beat about six or maybe eight of the Raduar chieftans,” Vir estimated.

Next to him, his sergeant nodded in agreement.

“And would other chieftans listen to you? I mean, you and Alaric are both descended from a prince of Muntabar somehow. Does that count for anything? I don't understand it.”

“Ye know the prince conquered the valleys, right?”

“Even the records in Oggli agree on that.”

“Right, then. Afterward, the prince decided to settle down in Easy Valley. His father's empire was falling apart. He had a brand new empire here.”

“And he had children. But the lineage wasn't traced? That's unusual for a royal line.”

“Ah, well. The prince did marry a local queen who wasn't too angry about him killing her husband in battle. But the sons of that marriage produced no male heirs themselves. Only men can inherit by Muntabi law. And Prince Robb, well, he was called the Prince of the Seven Hostages for a good reason.”

“Because he had seven hostages, I assume.”

“No, it was a lot more than that. He kept about three hundred, most of the time.”

“Then why would anyone call it seven?”

“Because the stories are about the seven valleys, really, and the former royal families there. Prince Robb kept the daughters of the local chiefs of each valley in his court. Those young women stayed with him, dined with him, and lived good lives.”

“Except for knowing that they'd be killed if their fathers misbehaved.” Denario couldn't avoid confronting that.

“That's how it started, maybe.” Vir shrugged. “But in time it turned out that all of them bore the prince's children. There were plenty of children. Bastards, of course, but the prince favored them. And when a couple of the chiefs turned traitor, he didn't put to death the hostages or his bastard children. He just slaughtered the rebel chiefs and had done with it.”

In these bandit lands, Denario judged, that passes for a happy ending. The children lived.

“So you're descended from the bastard line?”

“In my case, I'm supposed to be descended from the line of royal daughters and the bastard sons, both. There must be forty or fifty of us, almost all in Easy Valley where the prince set up Fort Knock.”

“And that includes Alaric.”

“Yes, it does.” Vir and his sergeant exchanged a look of confidence. Denario almost felt jealous of their friendship.

“Is Fort Knock one of your bigger forts, then, like Fort Dred?” he asked.

“Nah. When the prince died without male heirs, the bastards were grown men and women. Some of them had their own armies.”

“Oh no.” He kicked a pebble on the trail in front of him, in frustration.

“Oh yes, they did.”

“They fought.” Denario knew it.

“Like crazies, to the ruin of all. Most of the old forts set up by their father the prince got knocked down by magic spells or by the few siege weapons that were left in Muntabi hands. Fort Knock got magically aged by a pair of wizards, they say, so that its upper walls turned to dust. And when the fighting was over, the survivors couldn't even retreat back to their old royal estates. The townsfolk didn't want 'em. They had to fight over that, too. Many of them lost, so they settled in new towns and new forts.”

“Like the rest of the Muntab empire,” Denario mused.

“Something like,” Vir agreed.

The account contemplated the situation in the valley, all those people caught up in all their little wars, now trapped between bigger armies with larger wars coming at them. Denario started to feel guilty. He wondered why he was feeling that way. It took him a few minutes to realize that he sympathized with Alaric. He sort of felt that he shouldn't be allowed to leave the Mundredi, either.


Next: Chapter Nine, Scene Four