A Bandit Accountant
Chapter Two Cubed
Scene Five: That's the Job
In the morning, he found himself shivering, curled up into a lump on the ground. Oggli was still ninety miles away. The closest building was thousands of yards to the northeast and halfway up a mountainside. That was how far he'd gotten from civilization. Besides that, the fort he was longing for was practically a hut. It had a stick wall, no proper name, and no permanent residents.
Next to Denario, the fire had burned out. A thin layer of frost covered everything in sight. It was a thicker layer, farther away. Vir had been right to wake them when he did. Of course, the big man had already arisen and broken camp. Denario caught him marching back to the clearing from a ridge in the slope to their south. Now he waited with some impatience as Denario clambered to his feet, cleaned his pan, and began to re-pack his travel bag. Before Denario was done, Vir started talking about which trail to take.
“Come on, hiking downhill is damn easy,” he huffed by way of encouragement. “Even for accountants.”
He was right but, within an hour, Denario's legs were so sore they were trembling. The multiple days of marching had taken their toll. To make things worse, every time Denario wanted to rest, Vir made him train with his hands. The day was spent alternating between spear training, shield training, and tracking. Every training session felt like it took an hour even if it was only ten minutes. They skipped lunch. Denario began to feel light-headed.
“There was fighting here,” Vir announced when they came to a partial clearing late in the afternoon.
“Where?” said Denario. He covered his mouth. It plainly irritated Vir that an accountant couldn't see the signs that a woodsman understood as obvious.
For a long while, Vir remained silent. He inspected the bushes. He crouched low on the ground. He looked up the trunks of any number of trees. In time, in a quiet voice, he began to describe the battle.
“The ambushers had at least nine,” Vir said as he picked up a broken birch limb that lay over a thistle bush. “But probably more.”
That would have made them an even match for the Mundredi, Vir guessed after a few minutes. He placed the number of his own troops at fifteen, plus or minus two. He didn't actually use the terms plus and minus, Denario noted. Vir said the old-language words for 'give or take.' There were no casualties on either side, as far as the bandit chief could see. That was unusual considering the apparent element of surprise. The first crossbow shots from the trees must have missed.
“Ah, here we go. I found one of the bolts.” Vir wiggled a shaft of hardwood from the trunk of a cedar sapling. He held it up for Denario. “Yep, the Raduar must have given themselves away. I'll bet the trees swayed under their weight. This isn't a good spot for an ambush, really.”
“It's too open. That makes for better shooting but Alaric's scouts had a clear view up the hill to the ambushers the whole time.”
Denario gazed down to where Vir was pointing. He could imagine walking up the slope and seeing bowmen in the trees.
Vir spent another ten minutes doing detective work. By the end of that, Denario felt he could picture the battle well enough. The archers had shot and missed. The Raduar swordsmen had rushed forward to attack the scouts. The Mundredi scouts had retreated and Alaric had pulled his entire troop back with the Raduar in pursuit.
“I'll bet Alaric didn't know where he was going, at first.” Vir seemed happier than he'd been in days. There had been an ambush as he'd expected but it hadn't killed any of his men. “He had to move fast. If the Raduar had a lot of bowmen, and it looks like they did from the broken branches in the trees, he would have kept his distance from them.”
“Couldn't he make his troops stop and fire back?”
“He gave me Klaus and Piotr, our two best archers. His folks had one crossbow and one short bow between them. He couldn't stop and trade volleys. That would have been the only certain way to lose.”
Vir led them on another hour of hiking. They reached the bottom of Mount Ephart. Even Denario could see trampled bushes and grasses there. The big man made sure there were no bodies left behind in the underbrush. Once he was sure that everyone had gone, he told Denario to set camp.
“I heard Yannick tell ye about what happened to the captain afore me,” Vir said as he tossed his huge pack down next to Denario's. “Don't pretend he didn't.”
“What of it?” Since Denario didn't know how to start a fire, he hid his confusion by gathering kindling wood. Maybe Vir would set the fuel ablaze.
“That man was Alaric's uncle.” Vir saw what Denario was doing. He picked up a dead branch and broke it in half. “Good captain, he was. Well loved. He trusted his men They trusted him. But that didn't work out so well. By the time he died, he'd already told folks that I was to take command if he was unable.”
“He must have had a good reason.” Denario paused from his gathering to give Vir a sidelong glance. The problem was, along with the many good reasons he could see for choosing Vir as captain, he could also see why most other leaders might think it was a bad idea. It was hard to imagine that Vir would take orders from anyone else, for instance.
“Aye, maybe. He knew I wasn't to be swayed.” Vir nodded to himself.
“Never ye mind. Fact is, Daric could have named anyone from our bloodline to be his successor. By tradition, that would have been a nephew, not a son.”
Denario stopped what he was doing, eyes wide. “And Alaric is the nephew!”
“A nephew, yeah, one of four. But Daric chose me instead. Because he could, although I'm so distant from him, he'd never heard of me until I showed up to join.”
They worked in silence for a while. Vir strolled in a circle around their camp.
“So I owe it to him,” said Vir. “For that matter, I owe it to Alaric. To make the right choices, that is. No one likes me, not the way they did captain Daric. And I don't like them, either.”
“Alaric likes you.” It was so obvious, Denario had to say it.
“Maybe.” Vir scrunched up his face. “He's a damn fool. But I'll make him the best he can be anyway. I'll make 'em all better men than they thought they could become when they were boys. That's my job.”
Denario knew he should have shut up. Sure enough, a moment later, Vir stopped pacing. He picked up his weapons.
“The fire can wait," he said. “Time for another lesson. Grab your spear. Put on my buckler, too."
Chapter Eight, Scene Six