Monday, March 28, 2016

Being Geek in a Warrior Culture - Fifth Chapter

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Full Hand

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Not Even Not Zen 34: A Bandit Accountant, 6.1

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Half Dozen
Scene One: Revealing Dawn

Even after the spies finished their coded conversation and presumably wandered off or went to sleep, Denario couldn't rest.  Fortunately, Vir was willing to chat about the enemy agents.  He'd guessed or somehow knew in advance that they were Raduar clansmen.

“Of course they are,” he grumbled.  “I've been expecting them.  Don't worry.”

“Don't worry?” Denario hissed.  “That isn't much better than someone from  Ziegeburg.  If they come in to kill you, they'll kill me, too.”

“If they're smart, they're planning to shoot me through the barred window with crossbows.  But yeah, you'll probably end up dead, too.”

Denario had a sudden image of the bigger man using his body as a shield.  Why wouldn't he?  Denario winced as he imagined himself skewered at the beginning of the brawl.

It was a relief to talk politics.  Vir wouldn't give his full name or tell Denario anything about what he did for a living but he was willing to explain the differences between Mundredi and Raduar.  The Mundredi were the most royal of bandits, apparently, and the Raduar were mere upstarts.  From Vir's point of view, the Raduar and the Ogglians were the aggressors against him.  The Raduar kept trying to take Mundredi territory.  The Ogglians kept killing ethnic Mundredi farmers in their lands.

Denario realized that this meant the Mundredi farmers were spreading somehow, maybe through marriage, into the Ogglian counties.

“Yeah, over the few generations, that's probably right,” Vir said after considerable thought.  “But if they pay their taxes like anyone else and they obey Ogglian laws, is it right to kill them?”

“What?  Of course not!”

The moment of silence from the large man seemed to indicate that this was a matter that he took seriously.  It implied something awful on the part of the local knights, though.  They must be killing farmers that talked funny or who didn't attend the right temple or church.

“Paying taxes is part of the contract between the nobility and commoners,” Denario continued.  He'd heard a visiting knight describe the whole wonderful government system at the baron's cloth factory.  “If a farmer pays up and his local knight accepts payment, they have an agreement.  The farmer is entitled to the full protection of Ogglian laws and to the military protection of the knight.  That's the way it's always been.”

Vir grunted.  “Not always.  But I see the point.”

“Killing a farmer or someone in his family without a reason and a trial, that breaks the contract.  The baron would have to allow some sort of revenge or impose a penalty or something.”

The big man could emit a bitter laugh even in a whisper.

“Do ye really believe that?” he asked.

“I don't know,” Denario admitted.  His cell mate probably couldn't see his shoulder roll in the dark.  “It's what I was taught.   My fiance told me that I'm not as good about people as it seemed back in Oggli.  She said I don't know how things really work.”

“Huh.  Yer what, sixteen?”

“Seventeen,” Denario asserted.  He hated when people made that mistake.

“Hard to believe ye have a woman at all.  Did ye arrange that yerself?”  He seemed to hear Denario nod.  “Lots of me men, that is, lots of men yer age don't.  I know plenty of big, strong, handsome lads ... well, maybe not handsome, just big, strong, and young.  And they ain't got no women.  Not a half of them got someone.  That's why they marry outside the clan or come to me, I suppose.  Is she older than ye?”

“Yes.  She's a widow.”

“No shame on ye, then.  She's supposed to know how things work better'n ye.  And then ye're nothing special in yer looks, ye know.  Brains, maybe, but that don't show.  The ladies usually don't care.  So ye've done all right fer yerself, I think.”

“Up to now.”  Denario pulled his knees up to his chest.

Vir chuckled.

“She gave me a good luck charm as I left.”  He looked up at the ceiling in the darkness as he envisioned her face above him.  “But I think I've mostly had bad luck.”

“Sometimes we don’t understand our own luck,” the big man replied with a sigh.  “I won’t say things happen for a reason.  Often, they don’t.  But I’ve seen men come into fortunes, say their thanks, and lose their fortunes before they can take another breath.  It happens the other way, too.  One of my men, Yannick, he wants to win glory but he’s hopeless.  Can't fight a lick.  He cursed himself for getting ill with a fever so he couldn’t go out on border patrol.”

Denario opened his mouth to interrupt.  There couldn't be two men both named Yannick nearby, could there?  He wanted to implore the speaker for an explanation.  But this was the first time Vir had hinted at the nature of his job.  It sounded military.  Denario didn't want to stop him while he was feeling expansive.

“Yan almost died, he was so ill,” continued Vir.  “But if he’d gone out on that patrol, he’d have died in the ambush they met.  So ... was he unlucky to fall sick and miss his chance?  Or was he lucky to miss out on that chance, even though none of us knew it at the time?”

Denario smacked his dry lips.  “You mean this might work out?”

“Prepare yerself fer death,” grumbled the darkest shadow in the dark.  “But don't give up livin' just 'cause it's hard.  We're surrounded by my friends.  The two of us are in danger, yeh, especially me, but there are a lot more Mundredi clansmen and relatives in this town than the Raduar like to think about.  The longer the Raduar chief waits, the worse his chances are of winning.  Probably everyone they’ve got on their side has arrived by now.  That’s why they’ll have to move tomorrow night.”

Not from anything Vir said but from the manner in which he said it, Denario suddenly understood that his cell mate was an important Mundredi.  He was probably one of their best hired killers.
“Enough about me.”  The shadow rustled.  The big man settled with his back to the wall.  “Ye grew up in Oggli.  Never been, never wanted to go, but it might be nice to hear about the place.  Might learn something.”

Denario took a few minutes to tell his cell mate about the docks in the south of Oggli, where the Complacent Sea swept up onto beaches of white rocks and sands.  The fishermen had built trap nets around the docks to herd the sea bucca, a kind of magical traitor fish.  If you trapped the bucca and fed them treats of smaller fish, meat, or loaves of bread, the bucca would in turn offer to guide boats to the best fishing grounds.  Those were schools of rockfish, marlin, salmon, haddock, mackerel, striped bass, rays, sailfish, charr, and the different types of sea trout.  Of course, they were all species of fish that preyed on the bucca or competed with them.  One or two times, fishermen had been led to groups of sea crocodiles, sharks, or bishopi that the bucca wanted eliminated.  Those trips could end in disaster.  On the whole, though, the arrangement worked well.

“There are fresh water bucca in No Map Creek,” offered Vir.  “I been there.  They'll lead ye to the pike.”

“I don't remember that tributary,” said Denario.  He automatically imagined the maps he'd seen of the area.  The Riggli Kill had plenty of creeks and streams leading into it.

“Go on.”

“Well, when I first saw the docks, I was nine.  The sailors and the dock workers thought I was funny so they answered my questions.  Once, when I asked if there were whales in the Complacent, the young dock men laughed and said no.  But a couple old sailors spoke up to say that there were porpoises, once.  They were nearly white and of a kind only found in the Complacent, they said.  You can still see skeletons of them that have been saved by noble houses.”

Denario had been made aware by Winkel that several species of large sea animals had gone extinct under the Muntabi empire.  Aside from the porpoises, a special sort of giant clam had been harvested until none were left.  Now there was no one in the empire who had seen a living clam larger than a man.  The seamen guessed they must have been a separate species from the other large clams.  One of the Giant Clam shells still adorned the chambers of Oggli Temple to Naakia.  It was being used as a sofa.  Denario had sat in it as he worked on the temple accounts.  It had a red velvet cushion and, behind the cushion, a smooth, inner shell that was spotted brown and gold.

As he described the Complacent Sea and the city of Ogglia, Denario wondered again about Vir's accent.  He could have stepped off a ship in the Paravientri dockyard.

“Oggli is rich because we weren't conquered by Muntab,” Denario said.

Vir snorted.  “Never heard that one before.”

“It's true.  Across from us, the city of Tar-Abli resisted the conquering armies.  And the city was sacked, burned, and its people slaughtered.  But that exhausted the Muntabi troops.  That's why they let the King of Oggli sue for peace.  We paid a tribute, the king stepped down to become the emperor's governor, and our city joined the Muntabi empire without being conquered.”

“There's no such city as Tar-Abli.”

“Because it was destroyed.  The city of Angrili was founded where the previous city stood.   'Angre' means 'anchor.'  The place was a shipyard first because it had a great natural harbor.  Then it became the headquarters of the Inland Navy of Muntabar because the emperor didn't like his army staying in Oggli too much, where they mostly had fun and got arrested.”

“An inland navy?”

“The Complacent Sea was part of the western ocean once, the wizards say, long before there were people around.  I wouldn't know about that.  It's just the kind of thing wizards talk about and no one can tell them differently.  But I read that the empire had to build a series of canals for its navy and merchant ships so that they could reach the oceans.”

“Where are those canals?”

“Gone.  Some of the rivers they depended on changed course.  You can see it in the old maps.  The canals are dry now, filled with dirt.  The people living next to them don't recognize them anymore.”

“And all this because ye all lost yer emperor?”

“Maybe. That was hundreds of years ago.  Now the dukes and counts keep fighting their neighbors.  Some of them have been conquered by highland strangers or they've split off from Muntabi and formed their own kingdoms.  They don't keep large fleets, as a rule.  That's why there are so many pirates.”

“What's a pirate?”

It took Denario a few minutes to explain the concept.  The effort made him sleepy but it ended in laughter from his cell mate.

“Bandits, then,” Vir said.  “Bandits on water.”

“Yes.  Only two generations ago, the sailors say, there were no pirates on the sea.”  This was leading up to the similarity in language between Vir and the sailors on the Complacent Sea.  Denario felt they had to be related somehow and he'd be wiser when he figured out precisely how.  “The remnants of the Imperial Navy patrolled the waters then.  They sailed under the banners of the Duke of Muntar, the Duke of Ogglia, the Duke of Baggra, and the like.  They didn't call themselves the Imperial Navy anymore.  But they kept most of their merchant ships safe.  In the end, though, they gave up.  The island nations won.  They sank the warships that belonged to the coastal cities.  Each island controls the waters around its territory.  Each island charges tribute.”

“The empire is weak.”  Vir sounded sleepy, too.  “The barons are weak.  I know that for sure.  They can't pay to keep men in arms.  They try to hire mercenaries for spot trouble.  Then they don't let the troops loot as much as they promised.  That's fine by me. Their defectors come to my side.”

Was Vir one of those mercenaries?  Denario tried to steer the conversation back towards what the big man was doing in Hogsburg but Vir would have none of it.  Instead, he asked about map making and if accountants knew how to do it.  He asked why the county and barony borders changed.  Denario ended up describing the Duke of Ogglia, an average-looking, thin-haired man who was nearly penniless and lacked martial power.  Under him, the more powerful Marquis of West Ogglia ran his court at the city center and ordered men like Winkel and Denario to survey the roads, tax the temples, organize canal repairs, and provide maps of the changing coastline.

They talked for almost an hour.  Denario kept trying to figure out who Vir really was, right up until he fell asleep.  Even as he dozed off, he fleetingly wondered if his cell mate ever let down his guard or showed any weaknesses, ever.

In the morning, Denario found himself suddenly conscious and aware that a conversation had begun without him.  He rubbed his eyes.  His cell was filled with the blue glow of pre-dawn light.  Vir had left his seat, if he had ever slept on it.  He'd taken position halfway to the door.  On the other side of the door stood a strange young man.  He was a bit shorter than average but not much.  His eyes were higher than the window.

“How did you get in?” Vir had just said.

The young man bobbed his head as if he'd expected the question.

“The old captain still has some influence, sir,” he replied.  He took off his floppy, wide-brimmed hat to reveal shocks of white-blonde hair.  It hung down over his forehead.  In the back, a patch of it poked straight up.  “He took a couple brassers from me.  Then he told the desk officer to let me in.”

“Good ol' Hans,” muttered Vir.  “Ye know where ye stand with 'im.”

“Yes, sir.  Can't trust him at all.”

“Who told you that?”  The big man growled.

“You did.”

“Right.”  Vir nodded at this bit of good sense.

“Anyway, I got knocked about by the guards when you got arrested.  They disarmed me.  I thought the Raduar man was going to kill me but Elsa stood in his way.  So the guards just let me go.”

“Funny, that.”

“I'm sorry I'm not in there with you, sir.”

“Ye are?”  Vir looked shocked, for an instant.  But the expression fled so fast it might have been a trick of the light.  “Liar.  The food's not that good.”

“It's my fault.  You came to town to arrange my marriage.  'Cause I have no father to speak for me.”

“Yeah, well, that's a chief's job.”

“Seems like someone else knew that, sir.”

“There are Raduar agents among our men,” Vir sighed.  It took him a long time to form the rest of his reply.  “I knew that.  I should have sent someone ahead of us into town.  Then I would have found out about the new captain.  It would have changed how we went to Elsa's father.”

“How are you getting out, sir?” whispered the young man.

“Right.”  Vir sounded as if he'd made a decision.  His voice lowered.  Denario had to read lips to follow everything he said.  “Find Sergeant Alaric on Pig Treacle street, last house on the left as you approach the north gate.  Tell him that you've heard that the Raduar are attacking the jail tonight.”

“They are?” said the boy, much too loudly.

Vir reached through the bars and covered the underling's mouth for a second.

“If Alaric has questions or even if he doesn't, show him the back of your neck.”

“I don't understand.”  The boy shook his head, making the strands of his straw mop sway.

“I know you keep a pocket knife, Volfie.  Give it to me for a moment.  Then turn around and lift your hair.”

“Yes, sir.”

The boy handed pulled a knife from somewhere under his belt.  He handed it over without any sign of hesitation.  That's very trusting of Volfie, Denario thought.  From Vir's voice, the big man had been suspicious, almost hostile, as the conversation began.  Nevertheless, Volfie turned his back and held up his hair.  His boss could have cut his throat through the bars, maybe, but he didn't.  Instead, the Mundredi chief scratched something on the back of the boy's neck.  Denario re-drew the sign in his head, mentally, as he tried to figure out what it meant.

Volfie didn't make a sound during the process, although he bled a bit.

“There.”  Vir wiped the blade of the knife on his left palm.  Then he pushed it, handle first, through the bars.  “That's the rest of the message.”

“Don't you want to keep the blade, sir?”  Volfie turned around and checked the cleaning job on the knife's edge.

“Nah.  It's too small to do me any good.  I'm not going to bust out of here with a pretty toy like that.  Just get going.  To Alaric, like I said, then to the north gate.”

“Sir.”  The boy stood up straight.  He tucked the knife into his belt.  He saluted.

“Not here, boy,” said Vir.  “Now get going.”

In a few seconds, Volfie was at the other end of the cell hall, knocking to be let out.  The guard sounded like the big one in fish mail, Manfrit.  He was surly and wanted a tip before he let the boy out.  Apparently, the old police captain had left and taken his influence with him.  But Volfie had a couple pennies and that was enough.

After the boy made it out, Vir took a deep breath.  He returned to his stool.  He leaned with his back to the wall, arms folded across his chest, lost in thought.  Denario wanted to question him but didn't dare.  He felt groggy and he remembered that his first impression of his cell mate as a brutish dim-wit had been at least half wrong.

Fortunately, his fellow captive broke the silence.

“Well, if it's Volfgang who's turned on me, we're both done for,” he told Denario.

“It's okay.”  Mentally, Denario was still catching up.  He had spoken before he was ready.  But now he translated the name Volfgang into the nickname Volfie.  Then he ventured, “But I guess that until the boy came here, you thought he might be behind it.”

“I did,” admitted Vir.  “But then, well, you saw how he was.  He came to help.  I think he will.  He's not that complicated a boy.  And I know that the girl's father opposed the marriage.  He must have called the Hogz-Polizei on me like Eberhardt implied.  Makes sense.”

“Why the police?  Why not just turn down Volfie's proposal?”

“Because the father, a cloth merchant, was apparently friends with some Raduar agents.  He didn't know that, of course.  He thought his friends were just other tradesmen.  So he called the police like they told him.  He thought that I was a bandit or something.  He had no idea who I really am.  Probably still doesn't.”

“Did the Raduar know who you are?” wondered Denario aloud.

“That's the funny thing.  Their agents must have known but didn't tell anyone the real facts.  They didn't want other folks, not even the police here in Hogsburg, to know who I am.  That means the Raduar aren't sure about the new captain either.  They don't know what he would do if he had the whole story.”

“So why are the Raduar trying to kill you?  I mean, why you and not other Mundredi?”

Vir shrugged as if it didn't matter.

“So the girl's father has had a change of heart,” he said with a slight smile.  “That's what Eberhardt said.  But he didn't change because of his daughter, Elsa.  Oh no.  He's changed because he's learned something about his Raduar friends.”


The big man shrugged again.

“Why is he acting so scared?  Why doesn't he just ask the police for protection?”

“He thinks the Raduar have set him up.  He's right.  He's worried that the Mundredi clan will take revenge now.  He's right about that, too.”

“How do you know?”

“I know.”

“But ...”  Denario hesitated.  He knew this might not be a smart thing to say.  “But ... I don't want to be suspicious of Volfie ... but why did the girl's father let the boy go?  Especially since he hated Volfie?”

“Because his oldest daughter Elsa threatened to kill herself, most like.  I've heard enough from Volfie to know that she's been saying that.  The father is scared she'll go through with it.  He's trying to have it both ways ... stop the marriage and disgrace the boy but not actually kill him.  That's the way to keep his daughter in line, see.”

“I think I understand.  You said the Mundredi would take revenge.  Are you going to kill him?”

“Nah.  We'll just steal his daughter.”

“Kidnap her?”

“Heh.  Heh, heh, heh.”  Vir laughed until his eyes began to water.  He slapped his thigh, which made a sound like a stick snapping against a horse's flank.  “Kidnapping is for ransom.  And that's fine.  This is just stealing.  It's what she wants.”

Denario very nearly opened his mouth to say, 'people aren't property' but he had a feeling the concept wouldn't go over.  Maybe if the words came from someone else, the ox-like bandit would listen.

“How are you going to steal the daughter from him while you're here in this jail?”

His cell mate grunted and shrugged as if his temporary circumstances didn't matter.

Chapter Six, Scene Two

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Not Zen 182: Patriotism

"Are you leading an attack on this burrow?" she asked the lead female. "This is the home of your mate."

"This is one of my mates," the leader replied. "He is a liar. See the flag he flies." She pointed to the nearest tall, grey-and-white striped feather.

Their patriotism had started during the spring migration from sea to shore. On a hot, windy day, in response to a bird attack, the fiddler crabs organized themselves into a drove. Such droves were common enough for them, unlike their stone crab and emerald crab neighbors. Aided by a low tide and a narrow shelf of sand, the drove formed an especially tight formation. It couldn't be scattered by predators.

A pair of egrets tried. They waded in and endured cuts at their long legs in order to fling fiddler crabs away from the drove. From there, they could do as they pleased with their prey. The egrets were too mighty and too fast. The seagulls, fortunately, were not. The first one swooped in to grab a female from the edge of the crowd only to find a dozen males and as many females latching on. Together, the crabs dragged the bird to the middle of the drove. They took it the ground.

The predator became the prey. Other seagulls veered off to watch, warily.

The fiddler crabs fought a long battle. Although they did not take down another seagull during their migration, they wounded three others and chased off a pair of terns. They arrived inland around dusk, which gave them time to find or build burrows. The colony had lost fewer members than usual. Someone got the idea to celebrate.

Fiddler crabs are not usually self-sacrificing. Yet that day they had fought to protect one another. After dark, many fighters traveled from home to home, not challenging their rivals for territory or mates but waving their cheliped claws in praise. Some crabs gave gifts of feathers they had won. Others decorated their homes with their feathers.

By the next day, the feathers had become flags of pride. Crabs who had fought hard enough to win them achieved a sort of esteem. There seemed to be a promise associated with the flags - a commitment to come to the aid of the colony.

During mating season, crabs with such flags enjoyed great success. It was an impressive display of hardiness to have survived a bird attack, even more to have come away with a trophy. The flag-bearers declared themselves patriots among the fiddler crabs. Many of them spoke at length about it. They offered to come to the aid of the entire colony in future battles. A few brave, jealous souls launched attacks that season against small birds. They aimed to gain feathers to increase their status.

In a few weeks, however, a problem arose from the patriotic pride. There had been no more battles but many more promises to serve in one. Also, it was possible to attain a flag without actual service to the colony. Scraps of feather in front of a burrow became a statement of good intentions, not a tangible reminder of good deeds done.

"Too many promises were broken this morning," said the leader of the retaliation raids.

"I was near the end of the drove," the young crab replied. "I didn't see."

"If you had, you would feel the betrayal."

As the females had taken their trip along the coast to deposit eggs in the shallows that morning, an attack had come not from above but from the eastern waters. A colony of aggressive stone crabs, larger and tougher than the fiddler crabs, had lain in wait for the migration. They erupted from the surf and severed the limbs of the foremost females. The egg-layers scrambled back. A different set of females and a squad of males surged forward.

Those were the members of the colony who remembered their pledges.

Fiddler crabs had grown accustomed to defending themselves from stone crabs. They did it every year. But this attack was larger. Five giant stone crabs tore into the defenders. Several males fell to them immediately, one tossed back to a waiting family of stone crabs as a meal.

Still the defenders could have held their line had it not been for the deserters. Some fiddler crabs regarded themselves as losers in that season's mating fights, others held grudges, and many forgot their patriotism for other reasons. Fewer crabs had surged forward in defense than were needed. When another third of the contingent fled, the defensive drove cracked. The mighty stone crabs leaped into the breaches and meted twice the damage they'd ever achieved.

Among the casualties were the bravest members of the colony and the strongest, egg-carrying females, their leaders.

Afterward, the remaining fiddler crabs re-gathered their troops, deposited their eggs, and headed home. On the return trek, they plotted revenge. Those who held to their pledges felt a terrible fury toward those who had broken theirs.

"But one of your other mates didn't fight. Why do you attack the home of one crab but not the other?" the young one asked as they surrounded the burrow. "Neither came to our defense."

"One of them flew a flag promising to do so," her leader replied.

She tore down the wall of feathers in front of the home of her mate. She heard the male skittering backward, cowering inside. Another female ripped apart the fallen flags in her rage.

"We'll deal with the liar together," she promised.

"We are not the brightest or the strongest," the leader told her young companion. "Smarter animals are not as fooled, I suppose. To me, the flags stood for something noble. Real patriotism, real sacrifice for others, I admire. But this fake patriotism is worse than not coming to our defense. It claims the glory of self-sacrifice while committing the most evil selfishness. I will not abide it any longer."

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Not Even Not Zen 33: A Bandit Accountant, 5.4

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Full Hand
Scene Four: Hidden Message

In his darkened cell, Denario rolled back and forth, restless and poked by the straw. For years, he'd used the trick of doing quadratic equations in his head if he was having trouble falling asleep. But this time it didn't work. He couldn't concentrate on the math. He kept thinking of questions he couldn't answer. 

One was the matter of his horse. He hadn't fed her this afternoon. Would the stable master take care of her? He'd seemed a bit too callous. Then there was Pecunia. He missed her so terribly he could almost smell her through the stink of the dozen men in the jail. Was she thinking of him? He remembered the look on her face when he told her about the report he'd written on Figgins. It made him doubt her faith in him.

His cell mate, Vir, seemed deadly but had more self control than Denario had first guessed. Was he really a bandit? That seemed crazy. Economically, it didn't seem possible to sustain such a life.

Denario wondered about the economics of rural life for a while, then he noticed that his back itched more than just a few pokes from the straw should account for. Did a bug do something him? The burning feeling had re-awoken him when he was starting to tire. He scratched himself anxiously for a moment.

He reflected on how lucky he was that the courier sent from Ziegeburg couldn’t identify him. It meant Mayor Figgins didn’t expect Denario to flee in this direction. But the Hogs-Poliez captain would send him off to Ziegeburg anyway. That was unlucky.

It had taken the sight of the ruined stagecoach two days ago for Denario to understand his danger. He’d crossed the Figgins brothers without realizing it. He’d signed his own death warrant with them. He’d been a fool  Yet … what else could he have done? Master Winkel would have been disappointed in Denario if he’d lied or misused math. And there was an afterlife. The gods said so. People, on rare occasions, talked to the gods. Winkel somehow might know what was going on. He might understand the problems Denario faced. What would the master accountant have done in this situation?

“Oh, Melcurio.” Since he couldn’t sleep, Denario got up as quietly as he could and began to pray. He stretched out his spirit to reach the god of accounting, wherever he was. Oddly, it didn’t feel to Denario like he had to spread his thoughts too far to get that golden, tingling feel.

“I just want to do the right thing,” he murmured. “I had to save Kurt’s life. I didn’t mean to hurt those men.”

He prayed silently for a while in case Vir was awake. He didn't want anyone else to hear his conversation with Winkel. All he got back from thinking of Winkel, though, was the sense that he should stop acting helpless and start trying to solve his own problems. Winkel had always been in favor of that.

“Okay, I’ll help myself,” he promised the god and his old master. “But am I doing it right? You’ve given me signs before. I wouldn’t feel talked down to or anything if you gave me a sign again.”

At that moment, there was a knock on the wall. Denario froze. Was it the god? Melcurio had a sense of humor, the old master had said.

The knock came again, then again. It was moving down the outside wall of the jail. It didn’t sound like a god now. It was a person trying to locate someone in the jail. Was it one of the wives of the drunks? Was it another bandit searching for Vir? After all, he must have bandit friends. For a moment, Denario considered answering. It wouldn’t be hard to tap out a rhythm on the wall. It might be better to wake his cell mate, though. He leaned in Vir’s direction.

“That better not be Melcurio.” Vir grumbled before Denario could touch him. He sounded like an expert whisperer. His words were perfectly clear and yet Denario didn’t doubt that no one else could hear.

“You’re awake? Never mind, that was a stupid question.” He felt embarrassed at being caught praying. “Are you expecting someone?”

“Not like this. Ssh.” The knock came again, closer. It was only a cell or two away. “Now is the time for the man we saw earlier today to reply to his friend.”

Sure enough, there was an answering knock. It had a different rhythm from the first. It seemed to make the person outside the walls excited. A rapid response followed, far louder than anyone spying should have made.

“How did you know?” Denario kept his voice so low he was nearly mouthing the words in the dark. Vir heard him anyway. Without rising from the floor, the larger man tapped Denario on the foot to remind him to be quiet. Denario closed his mouth. Together, they listened to the knocks. In half a minute, the pattern was obvious.

Denario brushed aside handfuls of straw to expose the dirt of the floor. He knocked aside a beetle, too. Maybe he really had been bitten earlier and that had got him up to pray. 

He repeated the pattern he’d heard as scratches in the dirt. The men on both sides of the wall kept making mistakes. They had to repeat themselves, which made the recording of their patterns easy to do.

“What are you scratching in the dirt?” the expert whisperer asked during a break in the action.

“Math,” mouthed Denario. “The patterns are repeating. Maybe I can figure out what they’re saying.”

Vir grunted. “Sounds crazy.” 

“Let's see,” mused Denario. He rubbed his chin. He wanted to rise to the challenge. “It sounds like positional lettering, doesn't it? Bump, bump, bump means the third letter. But that 'bong' sound could be a ten in positional notation or maybe a 'five.'”

“It's a five,” said Vir. “They'll be counting in handfuls.”

“Right, then. The first sequence of tapping sounds in the Ogglia alphabet would be .... R ... X ... T ... A ... W ... R ... but that doesn't make sense. So maybe it's not positional.” Denario scraped aside more straw. It was frustrating. He felt so close. He hoped he could work it out better as he copied more of the message.

 “Why would they use the Ogglia alphabet?” asked Vir.

“Oh, right. Could be the old alphabet. In that case, the first word would be ... M ... A ... D...E ...I ... T ... oh, that might be right. Maybe he made something.”

“What’s next?” grumbled Vir impatiently. Nothing seemed to surprise him.

“S … E …E … H … I … M.” Denario shook his head. With his right hand, he continued scratching things down but with his left, he read his own writing. Then he was able to keep a complete picture of the rhythms in his head. But the possible meanings of the words had started to worry him. “Maybe they’re talking about me. Maybe that fellow is from the Ziege, come to kidnap me.”

“Keep going.”

“H … E … I … S … I … N … C … O … R … N … E … R … C … E … L … L.” Denario stopped. He wasn’t tired but he found himself breathing a little too hard.

The knock rapped again. It was the same pattern the outside knocker had attempted before but botched. That let Denario collect his thoughts. He returned to writing and decoding.

“That was G … U … D … J … O … B,” he told Vir. “Now the other knocker, our man inside … D … O … W … E … H … A … V … E … N … U … F.”

“Do they have enough?” asked Vir.

“I guess that’s what they mean.” Denario had to pause from decoding to make sense of the words. “Right. It’s a question.”

They sat together in the dark for another minute and listened to the two, quiet wall knockers continue to make mistakes. The code was primitive and they still kept getting it wrong.

At this point, Denario knew their system so well that he didn’t have to write down the rhythms. He just spoke each letter as it occurred. In a little while, he didn’t need to do even that because Vir was keeping up with him. For a brute, he was awfully bright.

"Damn,” said Vir before the outside knocker finished the first word of his answer.

“Y … E … S … W … E … E … L … A … T … T … A … K … T … M … O … R … R … O … W.”

“They'll attack?” the big man asked.

Denario nodded. Then, because he was pretty sure Vir couldn’t see him even though the man could apparently hear a blade of grass bending from across a meadow, he added, “Yes, I think he meant ‘attack.’”

“And they’ll do it tomorrow. But when? Day or night?” Vir cursed softly.

They waited about a quarter of a minute for the man on the outside, who had broken off from his drumming, to finish. Maybe he had been spotted by a guard. Or maybe he'd only paused to worry about a passer-by overhearing.

“T … M … O … R … R … O … W ... N …I …H …T,” came the knock.

“Okay,” said Vir. “Nice of them to tell us. We've got some time. We'll be ready.”

Chapter Six, Scene One

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Not Zen 181: Ideal Journey

A young man roamed through high mountain passes in his attempt to duplicate the journey of a famous monk. It was an arduous trip that lasted for many weeks. On some days, he found himself in danger from thirst. He begged for water at the villages he encountered. 

More frustrating than the lack of food, water, and shelter were the missing landmarks he'd expected. The sights described in the monk's account no longer existed.

One day, he looked down from a high hill and saw a man pushing a cart along in a field. The fellow got his wheels stuck every few yards. He seemed in need of help. The young man waved. The cart driver waved back. And so the traveller descended into the valley below.

"Venerable fellow," he said after after establishing what language they could use, exchanging greetings, and understanding the advanced age of the farmer. "Why do you drive your cart here? I can't see your home ahead of us."

"My home is behind," replied the farmer. "This is the road over the next hill and to the village."

The traveller crouched. He studied the land with care. But his view from above had not misled him. This was a barren, uneven field, not any kind of road. If anything, this rock-strewn, shallow gully the farmer had chosen provided worse terrain for carts than the rest of the landscape.

"There are so many holes and stones this way," he said. "It's hard to believe this is the best path to the village."

"Perhaps it isn't," the old fellow admitted. "But I've used it a long time. This month, I've tried the journey twice. The cart broke down both times. Yet it's a good cart."

They both looked at the imposing mountains. If the direction the farmer had been headed was any indication, he had a long way to go around.

"This reminds me of when I was a boy," the young fellow ventured.

"Did you grow up around here?" The farmer gave him a doubtful glance.

"No. My father encountered a similar problem, though. He drove along a shortcut every morning. It had been part of a private road. The farmer who made the road was finished with it. He let the path fall into disrepair. That didn't stop my father. He kept driving on it. He took it every day for years."

"What happened?"

"One wet day, my father got stuck. He needed help to get out. I remember him wailing about the expense of the towing and the time he'd lost. My mother showed no sympathy. She kept telling him, 'This is no longer a road. You've been driving on only the idea of a road.'"

"Are you saying this is no longer a path?"

"Perhaps it's the idea of one. I think I should help you walk this cart around the mountain or to a smoother path."

For a while they strolled together through the gully, side by side. The young man stopped to lift the cart wheels out of holes twice.

"To where are you travelling?" the old man wondered after they cleared the second hole.

"I'm embarrassed to say," replied the young man.