A Bandit Accountant
Chapter Two Pair
Scene Three: Space to Breathe
His guide shook Denario awake while it was still black-dark. The moon was busy elsewhere and the stars had disappeared overhead except for one or two of the brightest. Clouds must have rolled in while Denario slept. He sniffed the night air. It was moist with a hint of that burnt resin odor the fire had made.
“Are we going to ride?” he asked as he shook himself to wake his limbs. He rubbed his face to get the blood flowing there. His words had come out mumbled.
“Mister, we're going to walk. That's what you wanted. I put our packs on the horses. We'll lead them.”
Ah, so it's like with a donkey, Denario thought. His comfort level increased.
He experimented with his dry tongue, then fumbled for his canteen. So he was a 'mister' to Kurt now despite only four years of age difference. Had that come from the afternoon's talk about accounting or was it the evening's lucky killings that had gotten him respect? He might never know. Probably, Kurt himself couldn't answer that question. Denario wiped his mouth.
“I'm ready.” He rose to his feet. But even with Kurt doing most of the work, there was enough digging and lifting to distress his cramp-wracked body.
The fire needed buried. Kurt stamped down grassy sod on it. The bed mats needed rolled. Kurt found places to store them. The horses needed a bribe to get moving. Kurt pulled an apple from his pocket and cut it in half.
“It's cold.” Denario couldn't keep himself from complaining. How did these farmers do it? The dew was forming and it felt like a fog of barely-melted ice crystals.
“We're in luck,” said Kurt. He was staring upward. His grin was barely visible from two feet away but his shadowy arm was clear as it gestured to the heavens above. “Looks like a bit of rain. It's going to cover our tracks.”
“Oh yes. That's lucky all right.” Denario shivered and grabbed an extra shirt from his bag.
His guide gave him the easier horse to lead, as far as Denario could tell. She was a brown mare, not too much taller than Denario, a bright spark in her eye. The dappled gray ahead of them kept straining at its reins. It was half a head taller, too. Kurt almost got jerked off his feet once as the larger mare tested his strength. He re-wrapped his fist into the leather straps.
The brown one followed at Denario's shoulder as if she'd made up her own mind to travel to Hogsburg although it was, Denario admitted to himself, more likely that she'd decided to follow wherever the apples were going.
His guide, in a low voice, gave tips on the critical aspects of night hiking like taking smaller steps than normal, although Denario found that his body did this naturally. Navigating was the harder task, especially with cloud cover, but Denario had an idea of what he was missing from Kurt's instructions. He'd learn it all soon enough. Guiding by the stars sounded suspiciously like geometry. Anyway, Master Winkel had several times pointed out the architectural high points of the heavens.
The boy taught Denario to stop and listen every now and then, a practice which he found useful for getting his bearings. He noticed, too, that Kurt paused once in a while to close his eyes and let them readjust if he'd been staring at the mostly-clouded stars. During those times, he kept walking. He didn't want to let the horses lead, even for a step. He explained several times when he guided them around ruts in their path that the steeds could trip and break their legs.
“Ssh,” whispered Kurt at the top of a hill. He held them there for a minute. Denario thought the young man was listening to something but he was sniffing the air. “We smelled maple trees all the way up. But you can smell oak and willow on the down side.”
“Yes.” He sounded impatient. “Willows smell strong at night.”
What Denario smelled most strongly was a chimney. But it was faint and a fair distance behind them now.
“We've reached the other side of the Guntaffson's farm. Lucky we didn't run into the sheep. In another mile, we'll hit the Hogsburg road. Things are looking up, I'd say. We can part ways there around dawn. Maybe we'll be riding the horses then.”
Denario glanced skyward. He got hit in the eye with a raindrop.
“Everything's going to be all right.” Kurt hummed as he led the dapple gray down the slope. “I knew it. We can expect rain every morning, this time of year.”
“Every single one?” Oh no, thought Denario. The high hills weren't that different from the Ziege, were they? He wasn't dressed for damp or cold weather.
“Maybe not every morn, but most. Got to prepare for the wet. Dew is pretty much like rain when yer up high. Ye know that from night before last. Ye've got to dress for it to gather on ye and maybe freeze on ye, if it's chilly.”
“Is there enough accounting work for ye to do in Hogsburg, do ye think?” Kurt's voice sounded fresh. “Ye might need an odd job or two.”
“Can ye do anything besides adding and all that?”
Denario sighed. “Not really.”
It began to pour. Drops splashed off his hat. As he slogged through the thick grass with rainwater creeping up under his pants legs, he wondered if the hill folks needed book keeping of any sort. Who cared if the peasant farmers cheated on their debts except for the knights and burghers who lent to them? Even if they wanted help, rural folks probably couldn't pay much. Master Winkel had worked his way up as an apprentice in Oggli but he'd spent the minimum twelve months and a day as a journeyman before he settled back down in his home town. It had been a year of poverty, apparently. He spoke of it often, in delight or in disgust, usually with rude gestures.
“I'm glad I have the rope,” he said.
“What has that got to do with accounting?”
“It's for earth-measuring, really.” Some of the tales his old mentor had told him dealt with the surveying he did for the rebel kingdoms around Faschnaught, north of Oggli. Tools were primitive in the mountain regions but Winkel had been able to make them do what he needed.
Denario passed the remainder of his journey with Kurt talking about the associated trades of accounting – old ones such as auditing, banking, lending, taxing, time keeping, census taking, and surveying – and new ones, such as futures trading, numeromancy, leveraged purchasing, and architecture, which was a craft more associated with masons but it had developed its own guilds in Oggli and Angrili. The Architect Guild accepted properly trained accountants as long as they performed a "year of supplemental apprenticeship." Kurt hadn't heard of any of the new professions, though. When pressed, he said he thought architecture was something performed by carpenters, not masons.
The rain let up just before sunrise. By then, there was enough light for riding. Denario was grateful to cling to a horse's back for a while. His ankles felt like they were on fire. His toes were blistered. Plus, if nothing else, the beast was warm beneath him.
“That's our road,” Kurt said as they crested a grassy mound.
“But which way to Hogsburg?” To Denario's eyes, it seemed that both directions were wrong. His guide pointed toward the rising sun.
“It looks east but curves north. Ye'll see.”
“Thanks. Things will get better from here, I guess.” Although he was tired, he managed a chuckle. “How can they get worse?”
“Bandit country.” Kurt growled at him. “Get off of the road soon.”
“Ah, right. Every time I say it can't get worse ....”
After a minute or two of hand-shaking, they managed their goodbyes. Kurt seemed quieter now that the sun was up. He looked almost as weary as Denario felt.
The road curved to the left after a while, as his guide had promised. Before the turn took him out of line of sight, he looked back. His horse sensed his movement and waited for him. At first, it seemed as if there was no one else in the countryside. In a few seconds, however, he managed to find a small figure on horseback at the top of a ridge. Denario waved but the young man apparently didn't notice. A minute later, horse and rider trotted down behind the hill. It was just as well.
Within a few hundred yards of turning north, Denario found his sense of fear settling in again. It felt worse than when he was just walking. On the back of his mare, as fast as she might be, he was a target. Riding in the middle of a road in broad daylight seemed idiotic. Soon he encountered hoof prints that had been only partially washed away by the passing rain clouds. Those meant, maybe, that someone else had been riding to Hogsburg at night.
Sure enough, in less than a mile he noticed smoke climbing above the trees. It was a campfire. Moreover, there were at least two campfires and at least two chimneys farther to the north. The closest smoke plume couldn't be more than ten yards from the road. There was no way to avoid being seen by whoever made it if he continued. Scrub and short trees on either side of the trail made going anywhere else unlikely. He let his mount plod onward. He didn't know what else to do.
For a while, he thought he might make it. It was still early. But his heart sank when he saw an eager face peer out from behind a row of budding dogwoods.
“Howdy!” The stranger waved.
Denario nodded. What else could he do? The stranger hopped out onto the road as he was pulling on his brown overalls.
“Headin' ta town?” The broken toothed grin confronted Denario and made him rein back to keep from running into it.
“Sure.” His voice sounded unsteady.
“Ye've made an early start. We're just getting on the road now ourselves.” Behind the gangly fellow in the road, the dogwoods rustled. Their branches swayed and popped. A large man emerged from behind the greenery. He marched onto the road leading two scraggly horses tied together with a very cheap cut of twine. “See?”
“Sure.” Denario's voice didn't sound as frightened as before, he noticed with relief. He was starting to feel annoyed that these two men looked so desperate for company. They hadn't bothered to snuff out their fire. They were intent on riding with him. But he didn't want to arrive with a big group to the gates of Hogsburg. He didn't want to draw attention. What if the Ziegeburg mayor or burgher had sent a message to Hogsburg? Come to think of it, maybe arriving in town with a group would help. An incognito accountant might be less noticeable that way. The guards in Hogsburg would be looking for a single man in a red vest and red shoes, traveling on foot, not a non-descript member of a group on horseback.
“Nice morning,” said Denario, having made up his mind. These other two were mounted, so they would catch him anyway. If they intended to rob him, he couldn't do much about it. But his odds of going unnoticed were better than among a larger group. And there were those other smoke trails ahead. It might be better to ride through them in company.
“Beautiful horse you got.” The possible-robber nodded. He gave Denario a cheerful leer as he climbed into his saddle. “Looks like it could sure run away from our old nags. But if you're not going to run her, we wouldn't mind to ride beside ye for a while.”
“Of course.” He could hardly say no without being rude. And he couldn't ride away without making it clear he thought they were up to no good.
“Me name's Yannick.” He jerked a thumb at his larger companion, who was still trying to mount up. His steed looked skittish. “That's Moritz. He don't say much.”
“I'm ...” He hesitated a moment. He'd almost given his real name. But that name might have gone out on wanted posters or descriptions to the sheriffs. “I'm Furtim.”
It was the old language for 'stealth.' He wasn't sure how he'd chosen it. His old master had taught him bits and pieces of lore, mostly related to accounting, and that word had stuck in his mind. He was pretty sure no one else would know what it meant.
Yannick squinted at him. “Do folks ever call ye 'Tim?'”
“Folks just call me Yan.” He kicked his horse to draw even with Denario, whose mount had decided to stroll without him urging it on.
“How about your friend?” Denario craned his neck to see the big man getting up in his saddle. There was no danger of leaving him behind, not that it probably wouldn't be a good thing, one less stranger at his back to worry about.
“Oh, he's got someone to visit in town,” said Yan, possibly misunderstanding. “How about ye? What ye headed to Hogsburg fer, if ye don't mind? Ain't seen ye in town or on this road ... Tim.”
“That's because ...” He thought fast. “I'm a teacher. Just passing through. Might teach a few lessons and move on.”
“A teacher? Ye ain't got no robe. Well, I guess there ain't no rule about it. What do ye teach? Got books?”
“I've got math books.” He could tell by the looks on these men that he was puzzling them and they didn't like it. The big man had hurried his horse and he had caught most of the conversation. “Plus some playing cards, dominoes, and that sort of thing.”
“Oh,” said the big one. He had tattoos on his forearms, blue. Some showed letters or numbers. One displayed spears crossed behind a crown. When he saw Denario gazing at them, he grunted. He started rolling down his sleeves.
“Oooh.” Yan nodded and made an overly friendly face. “That kind of teacher. Well, why didn't ye say? No, I guess ye wouldn't. Hogsburg gets a few too many of that kind, if'n ye don't mind me saying so.”
“The math books are real, if it comes to that.” Denario was confident he could teach. He was pretty sure, too, that he should stay away from the cards or dominoes. It was just that a teacher traveling all alone didn't make much sense. Even these fellows understood. Teachers traveled in groups for safety. Only fools and desperate men traveled alone.
I'm both, Denario realized glumly.
“I know where you can find a safe game of cards in town,” volunteered Mister Friendly. “It's right in front of the poleizi.”
Denario snorted. He knew from his talks with Kurt that the Hogs-Poleiz were the local law enforcement in Hogsburg. They certainly wouldn't allow gambling in front of the guard house.
“No, really.” The thin man leaned from his horse and brought his face close enough for Denario to smell this morning's shot of whiskey. “Ye have to pay a cut of any winnins to the guards, it's true, but there's never any fightin', there. A man alone, he takes some risks playing cards just any old wheres. But in front of the Hogs-Poleiz, everyone is safe. Sort of.”
“Only sort of.” It wasn't a question. But the statement made Yannick redden a little.
“Every now and then, something happens. Just stand clear and ye'll be okay.”
“Are you going to this game?”
“Might be, might be.”
“What about that friend you're going to meet?”
Yannick hesitated. His big friend started to answer the question. But Yannick glared at him. Moritz shut his mouth.
“He's not quite ready,” Yannick explained. “We can't see him until later.”
Denario had the impression that these two men were up to something but he couldn't figure out what. Anyway, whatever they were hiding might be normal for Hogsburg. He didn't want to accuse them. He had the impression that Yannick was sizing him up, maybe for a fight. He spent half an hour of riding conversation being alternately respectful and mocking. Denario was accustomed to the mocking. It didn't bother him. But the respect was new and worrying. The thin, crazy-toothed fellow wasn't an impressive physical specimen. If it were just between him and Denario, a wrestling match might last for a while. There was no doubt that Moritz could squash either of them like a bug.
It was almost a relief when they passed the next campfire. One of the campers waved to the riders. Another one asked if he could jump up on back. He seemed go have decamped, too, with his pack tied to his shoulders so he was ready to hop aboard. Fortunately, Yannick and Moritz ignored his request. Denario, for an instant, had a bad vision of scores of their friends climbing up, pushing each other, jostling Denario, and finally just knocking him off his horse. Of course, they would take everything he had. He was waiting for it to happen.
He almost felt disappointed when he reached the town gates safely. His group had picked up two more riders from a side trail that swung down from a hill to their right. Those riders, one a grumpy fellow on a fat, golden pony with an expression at least as surly as that of its owner, rode ahead at a leisurely pace. In a few hundred yards, the trail curved left and into the closed gates of a town. Presumably, it was Hogsburg.
A lone traveler with a wheelbarrow of turnips was negotiating with a pair of guards. One of the guards was testing produce from the top of his barrow. He didn't appear to be enjoying himself.
“Come on, now,” said the barrow driver. “I can't pay no two pence. Ye got to take turnips.”
“These are worse than yesterday,” said the guard who had bitten one. “And that's saying something. Where did you keep these all winter?”
“Is there a problem?” Yannick smiled cheerily at the scene. “Town gates open at dawn.”
“Well, what's yer business then?” The surly guard squared off against the riders, including the surly pony. He held up his halberd crosswise to block the road, not that there was any need with the gate locked behind him.
“Ye knows us, Jim. It's the same business we've always got, seeing our friends.”
Denario thought there would be a fight. But the guards were wary of so many mounted men. Jim, the one with his pole across the way, hesitated.
“Ye know, we gots lots of friends. More than we ever had here before.” The calm words from Yannick seemed to worry the guards, not reassure them.
Again Denario felt there was something going on that he couldn't understand. The guards in their rusted chain mail gazed uneasily at the riders, none of whom wore armor. They wore arms, though, Denario realized. Everyone kept at least an axe at his belt, even Denario, who had one he'd looted from the dead gamblers. Most of the travelers had daggers or cudgels at the ready as well. The fat, surly fellow had a sword at his belt.
“It's five pence for the lot o' ye,” said the guard who wasn't named Jim. He was tall, young, and almost clean-shaven.
Moritz chose that moment to descend from his horse. The poor beast snorted with relief.
“And that's a half-penny apiece,” further explained the guard. Denario did a quick calculation and arrived at the fact that Moritz's presence was worth half-price admission. Either that or the guards couldn't do math.
Someone on the other side of the gate unbarred it. The door swung open silently. Without paying, the turnip farmer grabbed both handles of his wheelbarrow and pushed forward. The mounted men followed at a lazy pace, surly pony and its rider first. Except for that first man, who pretended not to notice, the riders tossed coins to the man behind the gate. He was a filthy-looking fellow with hair unkempt and beard badly cropped. His chain mail was no more rusted than the other guards but the rust seemed to tarnish his clothes. Denario dug frantically in his shirt to find a half-penny. He tossed it in his best imitation of Yannick's gesture. That won him a yellowed, gap-toothed smile.
Denario could smell the man's breath from ten feet away. It felt like biting into a rotten lunch but he managed to smile back. Against all odds, he'd made it safe to Hogsburg.
Chapter Four, Scene Four