Sunday, September 25, 2016

Not Zen 189: Flood of Wisdom

"Two inches of rain in an hour," she said. "It's the beginning of the hurricane."

"You again? Stop calling." Aidan lifted his head from his pillow. He grabbed the edge of a blanket that had escaped while he slept to pull it up under his collarbone.

"Well now, you're the council member, not me," said Margaret. "I have to call you for action. When I was a member, I voted to build flood locks for the creek downtown. Then you won the election. And you changed my vote."

"Margaret," he said. If he'd been more awake he might have teased her with one of her nicknames. None of them seemed to bother her, anyway. A groan escaped him. He sounded sleepy to his own ears. "The locks were a shady enterprise from the beginning. They amounted to half the town's budget. The money went right to your friends."

"It's not that big a town, honey," the older woman said. "I'm friends with everyone."

He sighed, said goodbye, and hung up. It was dark. He glanced at the night out his window but not at his clock. He didn't want to know what time she'd woken him. For a moment, he studied the spatters against his pane. They didn't look like much. He listened. The drumming against his roof only sounded like rain. Perfect weather for staying in bed, he thought. He closed his eyes.

Aidan didn't mind constituents, not even his former council rep, calling him during the day. In fact, he sort of liked Margaret. She was like having a second, crankier mother. But waking him up in the middle of the night was too much.

"Sheesh." He rolled into the blankets. A moment later, he squeezed shut his eyes.

Again, his phone started to make noise. This time it was one of his friends. He recognized the ring. It was what they'd chosen for their secret code. How much time had passed? The rain sounded different to him. The wind had picked up. In fact, it was howling. He blinked at the clock. It was 5:30 in the morning already. The air smelled thick and damp.

"Is this important?" he grumbled as he picked up the line.

"Of course it is," Leticia snapped back. Her voice sounded rough. She had probably just woken up. She was always moving a little earlier than him. "The center of town is starting to flood."

"Ugh." He tried to sit up. "Hold on. There's nothing we can do about, is there?"

"I don't know. Folks are trying." She huffed. "It could be a problem. Another council member got up early. He's building a sandbag dike in front of the library."

"Which councilman? Margaret?" No, it couldn't be her. She wasn't on the council anymore. Leticia was aware of it. She wouldn't make the mistake.

"It's Francis," she said.

"Damn it." Francis Ipswitch was an old, short, pudgy man who the younger generation had failed to unseat in the last election. It seemed totally unfair. Everyone suspected Francis of being as corrupt as the rest. But no one could prove it. No one could prove anyone against anyone in this town, it seemed. The man had even been investigated twice by his allies. That purge had ended more than a decade ago. No payments for votes had been uncovered. And the voters had forgiven Francis.

"Are you getting up?"

"I'm already up." Aidan's feet hit the floor. His right elbow knocked aside the comforter. "See you at the library."

"Are you going to join him?"

"No." He was certain he didn't want that even if it was the politically smart thing. Francis was a smug bastard. He'd voted to build the locks. All of the old guard had. They weren't going to let Aidan help them without making him admit they'd been right. 

"Then what?"

"Who do we know who has sandbags?" A picture started to form, a plan of action. He rubbed his chin.

"I'll ask around."

"Okay, have them meet me downtown." His eyes went to his closet. In theory, he had boots in there somewhere. He hadn't worn them in years. He had work jeans, too, sitting at the bottom of a dresser drawer. "What's the building next to the library?"

"Across? A church."

"No, I mean downstream of the library is a clinic. But it's low-lying. That's going to be hard to save. Upstream is something else."

On the other end, Leticia paused. Her mental map of the infrastructure was better than his.

"About half a block up, there's the fire house," she concluded.

"Perfect. As you find folks with connections to sandbags, have them meet me there."

The next half an hour moved so quickly that Aidan felt later as if he woke up in front of the firehouse with a sandbag in his hands. Raindrops smashed his face despite his expensive raincoat with its practical rubberized hood. Swirling winds seemed to drive the water everywhere. But the worst was the sandbag itself. The delivery truck driver was a construction foreman. He was twice Aidan's age, half Aidan's size, a short, thin man, and he got out of his truck and watched Aidan pick up the sandbag with a sense of anticipation.

He was waiting for his councilman to drop it. That's what it was. Immediately, Aidan sensed why. The bag was slippery. It was heavy. The truck driver reached into the flatbed, hauled one out, and shifted it with ease. He tossed it over his shoulder. Then he waited for Aidan.

Aidan readjusted his grip. The sandbag kept slipping. Why did this fellow keep waiting and watching?

"Where to, boss?" the man finally said.

"Oh." Aidan flushed. "The other side of the building, near the river. I don't know much about building levees, though."

"Me neither." The gray-haired fellow chuckled. He tugged on the bill of his cap and squinted as if the brim and a grimace together might keep out some water. He strode toward the open doors of the firehouse. "Who does? It's not like we have a chance to practice."

That's true, Aidan thought. He felt the pressure ease from his shoulders. The sandbag slipped. He dropped it into the inch of water around his boots, stooped, and picked it back up before the truck driver could turn around.

Over the course of the next hour, more drivers showed up with more sandbags and tarps. One of them knew how to use the tarps and supervised the stacking and wrapping. The levee, only two feet high at this point, seemed too porous to have an effect. The firehouse's raised floor got soaked. Leticia McCulley and a crew of the downtown office staff arrived to carry more bags. They were the younger staffers, Aidan noticed. One construction crew chief showed up with a truckload of horrible, drenched sand and a passenger seat filled with canvas sacks.

"Make your own," he said. He came from a small construction company that hardly ever did business with the city because of deliveries like this.

On the other hand, although he was pot-bellied, bald, smelly, and late, he was here. He was willing to try. On the side of the new council members seemed to be a lot of folks who had opposed the old guard. Some of them had fought the council for twenty years. They'd been locked out of the town business. That included the owners of two construction companies.

Francis Ipswitch, on the other hand, seemed to have the three of the biggest construction crews on his side, the most reliable ones. He had a lot of experienced volunteers, too, including members from multiple churches. The library's sandbag dike looked professional. Aidan glanced to it every now and then to check his own progress. He tried to copy Francis's design but narrower, to save time, and taller.

Once when he looked in the direction of the library, he saw a familiar figure striding his way through three inches of water. Margaret Cheney had dressed sensibly in double-overcoats. Her boots looked tall but fashionable. Only her hair color and the wobble in her step showed her age. Aidan worried for a moment that she would fall in the overflow of the river, shallow as it was on the sidewalk.

"What are you doing?" she called as she approached.

"What does it look like?" he said. "We're saving the fire house."

"Why?" She leaned close. Her voice didn't carry very strongly over the gale. "They drove the fire engines out. There's not much equipment on the ground floor. If you want to save something besides the library, try the health clinic."

"Do you think we can do that?"

"Well, no." Her attitude retreated to being motherly for a moment. "It's too far below the river level. The water is two feet high in it already even with the dike at the library sheltering it. But if you can't stand helping Francis, for gosh sakes, you could at least have your people help the doctors and nurses in the clinic move their equipment to the top floor."

"They've already done most of that. I'll stick with the fire house, thanks."

She stomped her feet in exasperation but she didn't harangue him. Margaret seemed too tired as well to bother the fire house volunteers, at least not while Aidan was watching her. She moved from spot to spot behind the sandbags. The makeshift wall had stopped being porous. It guided away at least a foot of the river overflow. Of course, more water was headed downstream to the library. The library system seemed to be able to withstand it.

Margaret offered advice to the baggers and builders. She said hellos to the people that she knew. As she would have been happy to point out, that was nearly everyone. At the end, she announced she would have her nephew deliver coffee to the fire house as well as to the library.

"She's good," Leticia observed as Margaret left. 

"Yeah. But she saw that we're pulling sand from the brick foundry. Francis's group and ours are both draining the same resource."

"Do you think she'll stop it?"

"The last guy from the brickyard said they're pretty much out anyway." He shrugged.

"Why does a foundry have sand?" Leticia's gaze narrowed. She knew there had to be a technical reason.

"No idea." It didn't matter at the moment.

Aidan had run for office on an anti-corruption platform. So had most of his political friends, Leticia included. Although they hadn't been able to unseat most of the established members, they'd taken three positions. That was enough of a voting block to put a halt to the crooked-looking deals including this one. It would look awful to the town, though, if the flood locks turned out to have been necessary. 

He mentioned the problem to select members of his crew but they already had it in mind. They knew they had to save as much of the downtown as they could. It was a race to get the sandbags up. Unfortunately, it wasn't simply a contest with the older folks at the library. They had to match pace with the river, too. 

In the hour after dawn, the water had risen a couple of inches. By midday, it rose at a rate of a foot an hour. It started catching up to the progress they'd made. To make matters worse, the crew ran out of tarps. Those were essential to keep the structure from letting water through. One of the young men waded downstream and slogged back with a bundle of tarps. Where could they have come from? They had to be from the rival effort at the library. Aidan opted not to say anything.

In another hour, though, the sandbag wall started tilting.

"We've got to double the thickness," someone shouted over the winds.

"Can we?" Aidan yelled back. Next to him, Leticia shook her head. She didn't think they were going to make it. 

During the morning, Aidan had directed everyone to take breaks. That had practically been his entire job, standing on the back porch of the fire house, telling people to join different teams, seeing who was tired, and telling them to rest. He stopped doing that. They needed everyone to move all out, now. They had too much progress to make and probably not enough time to do it. Doubling the thickness of the wall might not be possible before the flood reached the top of the sandbags. 

They dug into the task. Some did it literally. There was a pile of dumped sand on the steps of the firehouse. A woman and two men shoveled it into bags. Other workers ran the bags out to the levee. Letitia accomplished bits and pieces of complementary chores while she held conversations via an emergeny phone with a radio. Outside, over the wind and rain, she announced there would be no coffee. Apparently, someone's truck had gotten stranded on a hill and it couldn't come down into the water.

Aidan paused to look through the windows of the fire house and out through the open doors to the other side. The silt-filled waters flowing over the road looked to be two feet deep. He couldn't see the sidewalks. Aidan realized that he'd lost track of the flood progress. That was because the temporary dike had been working. In the areas not protected, the river had overflowed its banks by forty yards on either side.

"We're sending the flood right into the library," someone groaned. 

Aidan glanced downhill. The assessment seemed to be true. The fire house project was directing water to the north face of the library building, where its protective sandbag wall was at its lowest. Everyone froze for a moment as they reacted to the announcement. Then they returned to their work. What else could they do? It was too late to join the two levee walls. 

"We should stop," Leticia hissed in Aidan's ear. She smelled less like her usual perfume and more like river and rain now. He supposed they all did.

"Why?"

"We're not going to save the fire house. Anyway, it's not worth saving. But the library has a shot. They built a thicker wall down there, right from the beginning. We shouldn't send water to their weakest point. They stopped building it high on that side because they thought we'd protect them."

"Crap." He knew it had to be true.

Everyone on his team kept moving. They used up most of the free sand. The thin, grey-haired foreman that Aidan met in the early morning grabbed a broom. He used it to sweep the fire house steps for loose dirt and mud. But he would only get another bag or two out of it.

A woman outside one of the windows, despite standing in the overflow up to her knees, used a shovel to dig up the strip of lawn between buildings. She was dumped the wet soil into a wheelbarrow that kept threatening to drift away in the current. That was innovative.

"Give the library a call. Warn them."

Leticia rolled her eyes. But she called. She didn't want to order anyone to stop, either.

A minute later, the library crew sent out a pair of workmen. Aidan could see them scramble from position to position with shoulder-loads of sandbags. But they were too late. The river, directed by the levee in front of the firehouse, had already crested the top of the library dike. Those workmen could only toss more on top and hope. But they were up to their knees on a strip of land that should have been dry.

Someone on the radio screamed at Leticia. She held the handset an arm's length away. After a few seconds, she turned it off. Her eyebrows rose. 

"They're retreating," Aidan murmured.

Behind the failing north wall of the library's dike, the men who had topped off the sandbags tried to back up. For a few minutes, they worked on a second wall, an extension of the library's brick facade. But they didn't have enough time to build it high. Hurrying, one of the workers hopped over the new row of bags. He tripped and fell.

The man's white t-shirt disappeared. His entire body sank under the water. He must have fallen into a hole, Aidan thought. 

"Come on," Leticia said. She must have been watching, too. They’d been dividing their attention between their own crew and the library.

The missing man stayed under until his partner floundered over the him, followed by a third man, the short and chubby Francis Ipswitch. Francis and the larger fellow pulled their fallen companion out of the mud and swirling water. Then, without a glance upstream, they retreated into the library. As Francis opened the rear door to the building, Aidan could see that the river water was already inside. The library had been lost.

Leticia said some bad words. She tucked the radio into her pocket and shifted a half-full sandbag. The fire house was out of sand.

Fifteen minutes later, the fire house levee started to topple. Aidan saw it coming. He yelled for everyone to get out of the way. Others hollered the same warning. They scrambled for safety. Only one woman didn't seem to notice the tilting wall. Leticia grabbed her by the arm and pulled her through the back fire house door as the levee broke open. The top pair of half-bags gave way. Then water pushed on that section of the dike like a child poking a finger into a bowl of candy. All of the pieces moved.

In another minute, everyone in the fire house had to retreat up the stairs to the second floor.

As one of the foremen observed, they were trapped. Aidan hadn't thought about it but he was relieved to see that the fire crew slept here, normally. There were cots. He spent a half-hour organizing the area into shape to accommodate everyone. Some of the folks were happy to lie down even if no one could manage to crack a smile.

Aidan was thinking of resting on a cot himself when Leticia took a call. She strode toward him, waved him over, and they sat in the corner by the window.

When the call finished, Leticia closed her eyes. She leaned her head back against the wall. For a moment, her lips trembled as if she were going to cry. He started to reach out to her. But he hesitated. Even now, in rough work clothes, she seemed smartly dressed. He'd always felt a little intimidated around her.

"Was that the police?" he asked.

"No." She turned her head toward the window. "That was the library."

"Oh." He felt awful. Margaret and Francis had to be blaming him for the disaster. "Are they okay?"

"Yeah. Margaret knows someone who knows someone in the Coast Guard of all things, so there's going to be a chopper coming." Leticia wiped her cheek. "It'll drop a rope ladder. We can climb."

"Good," he breathed. "Actually, great."

"She says she blames you for the library."

"Of course." He nodded to himself.

"Francis got everyone to promise not to blame you publicly."

"What?" He lifted his head. For a moment, he studied his friend's face. "Why not?"

"Apparently he thinks you honestly tried to save the fire house."

"Okay, okay." He was trying to figure this out. "I did that."

"Except for the honestly part." Leticia lifted her hand as if she were going to smash the radio against the window sill. Instead, she took a deep breath. She lowered her hand. "It was so stupid. Of me, I mean. But you, too."

"How can you say that? We made the same decision that they did over there!"

"No." Leticia's round, brown eyes focused on him. "Francis took a risk because he thought he could save the library. You decided to compete with him. Those are different."

"They're the same tactic."

"You are so into your heavy rationalization mode." She made a rude sound with her lips. "I used to think you were smart."

"I used to think so, too, until this job." He pulled his legs up to his chest and ran his hands through his hair.

"Well, me, I've had some realizations, last night and today." Her voice softened. "I thought you were making our council strategy decisions. That's because you won your race. I lost mine. But you know, for the last six months it's been me. I've set up the votes."

He nodded. "Yeah, that's pretty much true."

"For a while, I saw you as the hero in my story, not me. That was wrong. I was making the choices. Me. And I needed to have my heart right to make the right decisions. I didn't."

Aidan had no idea what to say. He'd always been the best at finding the right words and coming up with the winning arguments. He'd been a captain on his debate team. He found himself remembering, though, that Leticia had been on the same team, a year older than him, stronger and more sharp-witted than the boys. In the year that she'd been a leader while he'd been a backup, they'd won the state championship.

"Are you saying your heart isn't in the right place?" he asked.

"It is now, I think. Is yours? Aidan, by now you ought to know that how you try to achieve a goal affects the outcome. You can't achieve something without the right motivation."

"That's totally crap." He saw the obvious hole in that argument. "I wanted to stop this town's corruption. It was a vague motivation and it probably wasn’t up to your standards. But I crushed it. I ran for town council and won."

"Why have you never seemed happy about it, Aidan? Mostly, you've been angry. Before you won, you talked about how you wouldn't be like other the other council members. But when you were losing to Margaret, you took money from businesses to secure the seat. You owed your vote to a real estate developer just like you said you wouldn't."

"You can't say things like that," he countered. "There was no vote trading. Besides, Leticia, I followed your guidance."

"I gave bad advice. You accepted it. And as soon as you took the money, you defeated your goal. Because your real goal wasn't to win. It was to win honestly."

He hugged his legs tighter to his chest for a moment, suddenly very tired.

"That's the same mistake as today, really," she continued. "You didn't mean to flood the library. Neither did I. Only we didn't have pure intentions. That's what made for our bad decisions."

"Even if we didn't know what we were doing," he said, leaning back. "Give us a break. Our choices weren't much different from theirs."

"It's because we didn't know what we were doing. It's because we had political intentions, not practical ones. Those are the things that made it different. Look at how it turned out. Look at the choices we made along the way to this," she gestured to the lower third of the window and the overflowing river below them, "this really crappy conclusion. Our wrong thinking went into every little decision and every consequence."

Finally, he brought himself to put his hand on hers. He pleaded, "We'll improve. I’ll have better intentions. You know I will."

She nodded but she pulled her hand back, leaving him with a hand on her knee. It took him a moment to realize it. Then he started to pull away. Before he could move, her fingers returned. They locked onto his. She held his hand against her body.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Not Even Not Zen 51: A Bandit Accountant, 8.6

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Two Cubed
Scene Six: Archer's Lament

That night, bandit chief contributed the last ropes of his sausages for dinner. Denario ate them until he felt packed full from his feet to his fingers. Vir apparently did the same. He had no concern for the days ahead although it was clear that they would have no meat left except for Denario's goat jerky.

“Ye know about the magic lands around here?” Vir asked as he slowed down, half a sausage in hand.

“Not a thing.”

“Good. They're supposed to be secret.” Vir gestured eastward into the darkness. “From the direction Alaric took, he's leading his men into one of those. It's called Archer's Lament.”

“Why is it called that?”

“There's Archer's Lament, Shaman's Lament, and Wizard's Lament, although that last one is a long ways off, barely in Mundredi territory. And there's Wrym Tract and Nixie Ditch. They're on the other side of Easy Valley. On this mountains range, farther north, there's Witch's Ditch and Witch's Divvy. There's lots more all around the valleys, too.”

“What's the difference between a ditch and a divvy?”

“A divvy has water in it. I suppose it's a place for divination. But that's for those who know how to do that sort of thing.”

“Are the magical places very big?”

Vir shook his head. He stuffed another sausage into his mouth. “Ye can throw a stone across Witch's Ditch. Well, maybe not ye. But most men.”

He said it with a smile. Denario thought it was okay to laugh a little.

“So what's the magic?” he asked after he'd had time to get curious.

“Hard to tell, in some places.” Vir finished off his meat in two bites. “It can be unpredictable. If ye smack yer head or stub yer toe in Witch's Ditch, yer mates feel it. But if ye do something nice for yerself like have a drink, no one else feels better except ye.”

“Are they dangerous areas, then?”

“Of course. The worst is Shaman's Lament. Inside it, legend tells that there's a magical hedge maze. From the outside, it looks small, just a single twist in a path. Ye can see over it to the other side. From the inside, there is no way out. Ye can't cast spells, either, they say.”

“So why the name?”

“For some reason, wizards can usually escape even without their magic. Witches get out about half the time. Shamans, never, so far.”

“Surely Alaric wouldn't take his men there!”

“No, no. Like I said, he's headed for Archer's Lament. That's a strange one. It's hard to see and the borders keep shrinking. Plus if ye go into it without a hand on yer weapon, yer in trouble. See, it all comes from a summer about sixty years ago when there was a battle there.”

“Against the Raduar?”

“No, this was a fight between some Mundredi troops and a wizard. Our side struck the wizard with an arrow early on, the story goes, so the wizard cast some sort of spell. It turned all of the pointed weapons around him into birds.”

“Big birds? Little ones?”

“Arrows turned into starlings. Axes became pigeons. The effects stretched out for half a mile. The lament was bigger back then than it is now. Well, anyway, they say that the wizard blasted our men with fire while they shot arrows at him. But the arrows turned into birds and flew away. When the birds flew far enough, they became arrows again but they weren't pointed at the wizard.”

“And the spell has lasted sixty years since?” Denario licked the grease and dirt off of his fingers. He thought he understood how wizards operated but this sounded different.

“A few soldiers clubbed the wizard to death. Usually, ye'd expect the spell to fade. Don't know why this one hangs around. It's gotten smaller by half. That could mean it'll still be around for yer children and grandchildren, though.”

Denario lay back. There were no pine needles here to act as a blanket. He was going to be completely dependent on Vir's skill with fire.

“You Mundredi really don't like magic much, do you?”

“That's just me. Don't like wizards. Don't like priests. Don't like no one, much. Don't like the gods. I'm surprised ye have any truck with Melcurio, him being the god of thieves and all.”

“What?” It took a second to hear what Vir had said but it made him sit back up. “He's not! He's the god of accountants.”

“He's awfully tricky, whatever he is. He stole the crown off of the king of the gods. That's the tale.”

“Well, yes.” Denario had never really liked that one. “But it was just a prank. He gave it back later.”

“He stole other things.”

“Look, in those holy stories he also he counted all the beasts of the world, all the fish of the seas, and all the grains of sand. That's accounting, that is. He started it all.”

Vir replied, hands in his lap, “Ah, yes. But he lied, didn't he? He told the other gods the wrong numbers.”

Denario blushed. 

“That's supposed to be a secret,” he said quietly. “In Oggli, only the Guild of Accountants knows that.”

“We know the old stories here.” Vir pushed at the lumps in his pack as he tried to form it into a pillow. He was probably going to sleep on his half-loaf of stale bread. “Or we used to know them, anyway. We knew big secrets once. But we forgot some. There wasn't room in our heads. We had to learn about all the gods that ever came through the valleys and what they did here. And we had to use them to beat the monsters that used to live among us.”

“So the gods did you some good.” Denario nodded. That made sense with the way people worshiped the local gods so seriously. “Melcurio is a good one, too. He measures things. He measures the world.”

“Maybe,” Vir allowed. He lay his head on his hand, his hand on the makeshift pillow. “But he lied about the size and shape of the world.”

“You learned that too?”

“He's a tricky one.” Vir smiled at having scored his point. “But ye know, maybe that's the only part I like about him. Those tricks are something, aren't they? In the stories I heard as a boy, I liked the character of the lightning god best. He seemed so impressive. But in those same stories, Melcurio was the funny one. His tricks made me laugh.”

Denario sulked for a few minutes. 

“Do you ever pray?” he asked. “To local gods, I mean.”

“Not for the past three years. And never again.”

Vir's tone of voice was so dead that Denario was scared to ask what had happened three years ago. 

“Um,” he started. He looked for a way to steer the conversation away from gods. “How far is it to Archer's Lament?”

“Half a day.”

“And we're going to catch the Raduar from behind?”

“They keep following Alaric's troops. And we're on their trail. That's the way it looks, yeah.”

“What then?”

“Don't worry.” Vir closed his eyes. “We'll think of something.”

Chapter Eight, Scene Seven

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Not Even Not Zen 50: A Bandit Accountant, 8.5

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.”

“Why not?”

“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.

“Swayed how?”

“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

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Not Even Not Zen 49: A Bandit Accountant, 8.4

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Two Cubed
Scene Four: More Lessons from the Butcher

The smell of smoke woke him. He blinked at Vir, whose balding head and stern face were lit with an orange glow. The bandit chief had cleared a patch of ground in the darkness and built a campfire out of pine needles, pine cones, and dead wood. A ring of stones enclosed the makeshift fire pit. The single, thick log in the center had just caught and begun to crackle.

Denario sat up. Dry needles fell in clumps off of his shirt. He couldn't help noticing that they were caked with frost. Even though it was spring, up here on the high slopes there was ice in the air.

“It's brave of you to sleep without fire,” Vir murmured. “We could have maybe made it through the night that way. But it's a chancy thing up this high. Bad enough in the low lands.”

“Thanks,” said Denario. He brushed off the pine needles to keep them from catching fire as he got close to the flames. He scooted toward the heat.

“I've got a pan and some oats,” he volunteered.

“That would be welcome.”

Yesterday, he'd thought to slip his magic darts into his accounting bag, which Vir ignored because he considered it useless. Denario felt lucky that he'd thought so far ahead. The Mundredi chief no longer had a cart full of supplies with him. He took more interest in Denario's travel supplies. In fact, he leaned close while Denario dumped out the half of the kit to sift through the important packages. Vir's hands joined his own as they unwrapped the cheese, the pad of butter that was going bad, the goat jerky, and the dried apples.

“Nice. Ye travel better than I'd realized.”

“I can't take credit.” Denario gestured with an arm toward the bountiful goods. “Some of this came from friends. Some was luck.”

“Ye mean loot from those bounty hunters? That kind of luck?”

“They were gamblers, mostly, not soldiers like you.”

Denario's gaze drifted to the playing cards, dice, and other game tools that had spilled out along with the packs of food. Vir made a clucking noise with his tongue. He picked up a ball of string and put it back into Denario's bag. He played with a bit of wire that he found interesting.

“I'm sorry that I wasn't thinking straight before,” Denario offered by way of apology while he unwrapped fat for the pan. He remembered his odd thoughts of his home in Oggli and the puddings from the family next door.

Vir grunted. He was never much interested in excuses or apologies, Denario realized. They probably needed to be there to fill some sort of politeness requirement but they were irrelevant to him or maybe a sign of weakness. He continued to fiddle with the hooked wire. Back and forth it swung between his fingers.

“I can see that this holds a playing card,” he said. “But what's it really for? Cheating?”

“I don't know how the previous fellow used it,” Denario replied. “I've used it to poke myself in the eye while I tried to figure it out.”

“Uhn.” Vir grunted and tossed aside. He continued to rummage through Denario's bag. Denario didn't feel he could say anything about it.

All he could do was cook. He wasn't much good at it, or so his old master had maintained, but at least he had fine ingredients this time. While he and his companion tried to render the oats edible with butter and beef fat, they discussed how to track Alaric's missing Mundredi troops.

Vir did most of the talking. He described the slopes, trails, and streams on the mountain. He thought aloud about the possibilities, some of them grim, some not. There were patches of magical lands in the area where Alaric could have taken his men to hide after an ambush. But he could have been ambushed while passing one of them, too.

After a few minutes, Vir changed the subject to describe how an accountant would need to train to become a spearman. He had definite plans that way. Funny, Denario thought, I'd worried that the bandits would kill me out of hand because they didn't like my looks. He hadn't considered the possibility that they might simply work him to death.

As the meal wound down, Vir hunkered as close as he could get to the fire.

“That's better,” he said. He wiped a bit of oatmeal from his mustache. “Let the pan cool down, save the grease, and then let's sleep until dawn.”

“Really? That long?” Denario hadn't meant to be sarcastic. The words had slipped out. Luckily, Vir didn't notice.

“We've got no choice,” he growled. “Got to see the footprints in the trails, if there are any. I suppose we're lucky that the sky is clear. No rain coming.”

“I knew I had to have some good luck.”

“More than ye know.” Vir lay on his back. He stopped staring into the fire and glanced around them for a few seconds. He made a sign of demon warding over his chest. Whether that was superstition or whether he knew real magic, Denario wasn't sure. In either case, he supposed Vir was trying to keep any wandering spirits out of the warmth of the fire. “I'm sure that you being out here is no accident, at least.”

“You mean it was fate?” Denario raised his eyebrows in doubt.
“Someone planned it. Not ye, not yer master, I think, but maybe the gods. It can be hard to tell about them kind of things. Could be other types of magic in men's minds. Could be the maliciousness of yer elders with no magic spirits involved. That happens. But doesn't it strike ye as odd that the Mayor of Ziegeburg had to send all the way to Oggli for an accountant?”

“Not really. It's not so easy to find an independent accountant outside of the big cities. The contract specified someone who was an independent journeyman or master accountant. If you were a member of a nobleman's court, you weren't eligible.”

“From the mayor's point of view, that makes sense. But I know there are plenty of towns between Ziegeburg and Oggli. Some of them are large, too. They've got men who can do numbers. Why do ye think the mayor didn't hire them?”

“I don't know. He could have, I suppose. He only needed a book keeper. He didn't have to specify a journeyman accountant. Never figured out why he did.”

“I'll tell ye want I think happened. The mayor tried to hire a book keeper from the next town down the river, whatever that one is. And the book keeper refused. Why?”

 “Well, I realize now that the book keeper there probably knew that the mayor and burgher were cheating the baron out of tax money.”

“Right. So that man had to turn it down. He didn't want the baron to lop off his head. And if he didn't play along with the mayor, the Figgins brothers would kill him. Either way, the job meant death.”

“I see what you mean. Then the next fellow in line, whoever that was, probably a book keeper in Angstburg, he got offered the contract. And he probably got offered more money, too, because Angstburg is a bigger, more expensive place.”

“But he turned it down.”

“Right. He must have heard from the book keeper in Druli that there was a problem with the offer. Maybe there was even a hint that taking the contract would put him in trouble with the baron. He would be competing with the baron's accountants. No one wants that.”

“I think ye've got it now.”

“So the mayor gave up looking inside the borders of the barony. He decided to skip over the next barony, too. The book keepers are too chummy from town to town. That must be why he sent his high-priced contract to the Oggli and Angrili Guild of Accountants.”

“That's the funny part,” said Vir. “Don't the senior masters have precedence?”

“Yes,” said Denario, although the thought made him unhappy.

“How did you learn about the contract from Ziegeburg?”

“My partner, Curo, rushed in one afternoon, all excited. He'd heard a couple of the older accountants talking about it. They hadn't wanted to send anyone. They said it was too far to go. They were going to turn the offer down.”

“But you and your partner wanted in on it.”

“The Ziegeburg offer was practically made for us, Vir. We'd held onto enough of Winkel's business to get us by for a while but we were eating into our former master's savings. And were we entitled to his money? We didn't know. We were using the funds because old Winkel didn't have any relatives who showed up to claim them. But there was a real chance that we didn't even own the house we were living in. Master Winkel had a cousin outside of town and it was only a matter of time before someone from another accounting office found him. Then the cousin would lay claim.”

“He'd turn you out?”

“Probably not,” Denario admitted. “But he'd want us to buy the place or pay him rent, for sure. We couldn't do it. We'd lost some of Winkel's business and there were too many boys to feed. We could barely keep ourselves in clothes and equipment.”

“And two elders talked about Ziegeburg in front of Curo?”

“Yes ...” Denario started to follow Vir's line of thought.

“They wanted him to overhear,” concluded Vir. “He was all excited, wasn't he? It must have sounded like just the thing to build up your cash and buy yer house if ye had to do that.”

“It did.” Denario threw back his head. It sounded so obvious now.

“But the old men in Oggli knew what the book keepers and accountants along the way from Ziegeburg all knew. The job was something that would get ye in trouble with the nobles. And ye said that those old men didn't like ye.”

“Some of them resented Winkel. They were angry with me, too, since I saved so many accounts, especially the Paraventeri shipyard account.”

“Did the dock workers like you?”

Denario paused to think about the exact words spoken by the dockyard owners. They were all ship engineers, fleet owners, or sons of engineers and they'd met with him around their drafting table.

“They said they wouldn't trust anyone else.” He remembered being flattered.

“Then they were right.” Vir grunted. “The others in yer guild couldn't be trusted. Ye should have known just from that.”

“We thought we weren't being trusting.” Denario slumped almost to the point of collapse. 

“Ach, they were too smart for ye. But yer young. And ye lived through it. Ye got paid?”

“Most of the money. But not all.”

“Well done to get anything, I think. When ye get back to the city, ye'd best beware. The old men who sent you away aren't going to be pleased to see ye back.”

“I'm sure you're right.”

Denario lay down next to the fire and felt extra sorry for himself for about half an hour. Then he replayed Vir's words in his head. The bandit chief had talked about when Denario would return to Oggli, not if he would. That gave Denario hope. He went to sleep dreaming about how he'd rescue all of the boys, maybe even as they were standing outside their home waiting for some relative of Winkel's to evict them. He could see them standing on the porch in his dreams, all of them except for Curo who was off working somewhere. They were all looking towards Denario, eyes wide as if they could see across the miles.

He felt as if he could walk to them now. There were wings on his back and he was headed for home.


Chapter Eight, Scene Five