Sunday, August 13, 2017

Not Even Not Zen 89: A Bandit Accountant, 15.1

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Pair of Sevens

Scene One: Frau Ansel

His hands were sweating. He tried to wipe them on his trousers. But his leather hauberk, his chain mail, and his over-sized shirts all hung down so low in so many layers that he practically needed to undress in order to touch his pants legs above the knee. And below his knee, he wore studded greaves. Vir's sister-in-law approached. Denario wiped himself on his hauberk as best as he could. He waited for her with a sense of dread that had no particular reason.

“Did she like Vir?” he asked. The mayor had led them outside. Now that he was exposed to the evening air, he hoped his hands would cool down.

When Denario had first seen this place, he'd assumed that most of the buildings in town were hidden by trees. But the cedars that lined the streets were sparse. North Ackerland was smaller than he'd thought. The only lights at night were a torch in front of the Church of the Fork and another at the Temple of the Passion Gods. The clouds above had parted to reveal a glistening sugar powder of stars. And thinking of sugar made Denario feel homesick. He hadn't had a dessert since Ziegeburg on the night before he left.

“No, she didn't get along with him.” The mayor followed his gaze into the sky for a moment. She scowled at the stars or perhaps at her memory. “When Vir was young, he was quite poor. He was well-bred enough down the Robberti line but his father was a drunkard. His grandfather was, too. The family fortune had been spent ages back. Now they were all about drinking and fighting. Vir grew up wild with no mother in the house past when he was nine.”

Denario started to ask questions but Frau Richter barely paused.

“And it all happened a long ways from here, somewhere in the West Valley hills. Even there, his family farm was considered remote. It stood apart from any town. When Vir passed through North Ackerland, he told us he'd never go back up there, wherever that was. Of course, he had a hard time down in these lowlands. He refused to join another clan even though he was all alone in his. The other men didn't like him. He couldn't keep a job. A few of the girls around here thought he was exciting but that made the situation worse, as you might expect. Some of the elders considered him too handsome for anyone's good.

“Vir? Handsome?” He was healthy enough. Maybe that passed for handsome in a land where about a third of the men seemed to have lost a finger or a thumb or several teeth or, most often of all, had been disfigured by a childhood disease. It had never crossed Denario's mind that anyone would find the captain to be anything other than, well, a captain.

“Oh, he was going bald even in his late teens.” The mayor chuckled. There was a twinkle in her eye. “I remember him well, although he only spent a fortnight here. The baldness didn't seem to make a difference. For one thing, his shoulders just kept getting bigger and stronger. He worked hard at every job he could get. In time, he made some friends among the men in South Ackerland. Eventually, there were gentlemen farmers who wanted him to run their estates. He'd always had a way with farm animals. It turned out that he had a way with people, too. Like I said, he learned fast. And then there was Ekatrina.”

“Who was Ekatrina?”

“She was a youngest sister of Valentina, the woman you're about to meet. The youngest. They were sisters number three and five of the Thalberg family. The Thalbergs are very wealthy. Valentina married the son of another wealthy farmer. And Ekatrina … she married poverty. She chose Vir.”

“Didn't he choose her?”

“That's not how they tell the story in South Ackerland. It's what kept her father, Minister Thalberg, from organizing a lynch mob. Everyone knew that Vir hadn't wooed Ekatrina. Their marriage was the girl's idea. She had a few conversations with Vir when she was visiting the Ansel estate. The two of them talked about farming. Other folks were in the room the whole time. Vir didn't even smile at her, although he did seem to like what she said. He took her ideas seriously. That was enough for her. Ekatrina made up her mind.”

“Do you mean that she proposed?”

“Oh, no. She simply let Vir know she was interested. Vir was surprised because she was so smart and so rich. He warned her that she'd be poor if she married him. But she persuaded Vir to go ask her father. At the same time she let her father know that he'd better accept Vir. A few other girls were put out by how fast she arranged it. One of the mayor's daughters had her eye on Vir, too, and it made the families into enemies. At the time, we didn't know that would be a problem.”

“Did Vir get any of those interested girls, uh …?”

“Pregnant? Not that I know about. It did seem possible at the time. There was talk about the mayor's daughter, for one. But the mayor was related to Sir Ulrich, so I doubt it. That would have been very serious and Vir wasn't anybody special.”

“Ulrich is one of Baron Ankster's knights?”

“Yes. The mayor of South Ackerland was Hans Ulrich, a cousin to the knight. His kinship is what got him appointed.”

"He was chosen by your lord? That's different from most Mundredi towns.”

“The mayors of Frühlingburg, Ackfort, Bittesburg, and even as far away as Haph Fork are approved by the baron. My husband's nomination from the burghers got written approval from Baron Ankster. Around here, we've worked by noble appointments for at least two generations.”

“And there are appointments to be had for Mundredi and for ...”

“For waldi families, yes. But there's a different price to be paid. It costs eight silvers for a town to have a Mundredi man appointed as mayor, only two for a waldi.”

Where does that term for foreigners come from? Denario wondered. Since no one ever seemed to know, he had long since given up hope of an answer.

“And the Ulriches were waldi,” he said.

“Yes, and that is how things went bad. We'd never paid much attention to folks who didn't belong to our clans. There are plenty of them. They're quiet. They keep their heads low, as they say. Only the knight, Sir Ulrich, cared about such things.”

“Let me guess. He worships a different god.”

“He did do that, yes, some sort of river god. He didn't like to hear about any others. By the time Vir and Ekatrina got married, he'd driven off the few Mundredi settlers who had neighbored his farms. He'd burned their church, too. But that was miles and miles away so no one cared.”

“Vir got married,” Denario prompted. He didn't want to hear about every little conflict between the knights and peasants.

“Yes. But by the time he and Ekatrina had their son, things were bad between the Mundredi and waldi families. Sir Ulrich built a temple to his god, Tyber, just west of South Ackerland. Then he closed down the Temple of Baba Nat and sent out a decree that Baba Nat was a foreign goddess who had to stay in West Valley. She wasn't welcome in his townships. Well, there were hard feelings over that. Sir Ulrich killed the priest, too, because the priest wouldn't leave.”

“A son.” The accountant pondered how Vir had never mentioned his son.

“With another on the way. For Vir those were the best times of his life, I'm sure. He'd staked out land a long ways from anywhere, just some hilly stuff that one was using. His father-in-law gave him a generous dowry to start the farm. By all accounts, Vir raised better milk cows than anyone had seen before. And he was a wonderful father. He proved to be a fine uncle to the other Thalberg clan's children. Valentina tells me that Vir, in time, became Minister Thalberg's favorite son-in-law.”

“What happened?”

“There was bad blood between the Thalbergs and Ulrichs. We all knew where Sir Ulrich would come down on that. No one was fool enough speak ill of the mayor to his face. Still, it got hard, after a while. Hans Ulrich said vile things to the Mundredi men including slanders about their women and children. He appointed only his relatives to positions of authority. Then, one day, Theresa Thalberg got into an argument with the mayor's wife.”

“Theresa was the oldest sister?” he guessed.

“No, she was their mother. Her father Zyr Klinger had been the mayor, in fact, before Sir Ulrich put his cousin into the office. Maybe Theresa resented that. Anyway, Theresa and Greta Ulrich exchanged some words and Greta slapped her.”

The accountant stood up straight. Down at the end of the main street, he saw shadows move. He assumed that people were approaching from the Passion Gods temple. It was from the right direction.

“Theresa was a tall, strong woman. I'd seen her several times,” Frau Richter continued. She folded her arms and leaned back against the outer wall of the church. “It took her a few seconds to get enraged. By that point, I think, Greta Ulrich had tried to run. But Theresa caught her and slapped her back in the face. Several times. Quite hard.”

“Ah.” Now he understood. This was the spark to the rest of the violence.

“You might expect that Greta would refrain from telling her husband. She had to know where that would lead. But she went right to him. And Hans Ulrich sent out his guards to arrest Theresa Thalberg immediately.”

“The Thalbergs wouldn't allow it, I expect.”

The mayor turned to give him an appraising, almost approving look. “Yes, in an hour two of the Thalberg sons were dead and two of the mayor's guards, too.”

“I'll bet it wasn't fought the way clans fight. No one took hostages.”

“No, and the duels and battles went on for days. It got hard to know who was on which side. Most of the Thalberg family friends had to go into hiding. Some Mundredi clans took the side of the Ulrich family. At least two dozen men were killed. The mayor had a Thalberg woman executed, too. That was Kamilla, the oldest sister of the five. It was an unheard of thing to most of us. Ulrich lost most of his Mundredi friends in doing it, no matter that Kamilla had killed a man. Thing is, I doubt very much that Vir and Ekatrina heard the horror stories until Minister Thalberg himself snuck out during a lull and rode on an ox to their house. He went to warn them.”

“He was followed.” Denario nodded to himself.

“Is it that obvious?”

“Even to me. So how did Vir escape?”

“By not being at home. He was out in the fields tending to his fences when Sir Ulrich's men attacked. The knight had arrived to put the town in order. Or so he'd said. What the knight meant, apparently, was that he would kill all the Mundredi he could find. His men followed Minister Thalberg, set fire to Vir's farmhouse, and then his bowmen shot Minister and Ekatrina as they came out.”

“Was Sir Ulrich there?”

“No. More's the pity, I suppose, because Vir happened on the scene. He must have seen the smoke. But then he was noticed. After all, they had a half-dozen men out searching for him. Some of those gave chase. No one knows how many but I suppose it doesn't matter. He escaped them. And one of those men never came back from chasing him. That was Sir Ulrich's squire.”

“He killed the squire? While unarmed?”

“Vir always used to travel with a walking stick. It was as thick around as my forearm. He used it for a lot of things. I suppose it was a sort of weapon, too.”

“Luck. He said sometimes you have to have luck. But ... what about his son?”

“Oh. The poor boy never left the house. That's the strangest part. They say that Vir returned the next morning after the fire burned down. He found his boy untouched by the flames but dead.”

“Too much heat?”

“Maybe. Or magic? I've never been in a house fire so I have no idea.”

At last, three travelers strode forth from the shadows into the dim light of the torch. The figure at the back was the one Denario recognized first because it was Wilmit. That man's loose collection of weapons bristled around him. Nevertheless, he moved quietly. The most striking thing about him was his eyes, white and wide as he leaned forward to whisper to the man just ahead of his left shoulder.

The man beside Wilmit was pale and tall with long, dark hair. His trim goatee had grayed at the edges. His face was lean but handsome. He had probably been an aristocrat once, or whatever passed for one among these Mundredi who were all technically peasants but didn't realize it. Wealthy or not, this man's eyes were bloodshot and tired. His boots clanked loudly on the rocks and dirt. Perhaps the size of his calves had shrunk and made his gait looser. Yes, Denario could see that the man's cloak had been tailored for a more muscular fellow, probably the same man last year before the hard times.

In front of the other two strode a nondescript character in a fine, blue woolen cowl. Denario might have taken this person to be the natural leader of the group but long-fingered hands rose up to throw back the hood. The leader revealed herself to be a handsome woman. She was not as old as the man following her. Age had barely begun to turn her beautiful features into stern ones. But like the fellow a few steps behind, this woman was relatively pale in complexion and dark in her hair. Beneath her cowl and cape, she wore a bandolier over two layers of egg-white linen robes. It was the bandolier and dagger tied to it that had made her seem masculine at first glance. But in a Mundredi way, the brass dagger handle was quite pretty and suited for a woman of wealth.

“Frau Ansel,” said the mayor with barely a nod of acknowledgment.

“Frau Richter.” The woman raised a finger to her lips. After a moment, she corrected herself. “I'm sorry, I mean Mayor Richter.”

“Oh, that's fine. We've known each other for so long.” The mayor waved it off but smiled a bit smugly. The title seemed to matter to her, most especially when it came from the lips of someone who had once regarded her as a peer.

“Yes, but ...” Valentina Ansel put her fists on her hips. She turned slightly to look at the two men who had caught up to her. “I was told that the mayor needed to see me.”

“I wanted you to meet someone.” Mayor Richter swept her arm toward Denario. He smiled to Valentina as politely as he could but when she turned her frosty gaze on him, he felt the expression fade from his face. “This young man has come from the Mundredi army.”

“What, him?” Valentina was a tall woman. She looked down on Denario in a way that made him glance to her companions for help. They were looking at her, though, not at Denario. “We must not be doing well up north.”

“Oh, I don't know. He's very smart for a waldi. And he sang a funny song about your brother in law. Vir is still alive. He's won a few more battles.”

“Hmph.” Denario had not seen many women actually turn up their nose in disdain. Valentina did it, though. “Songs about battles should be heroic, not humorous.”

“Maybe you and Herr Ansel should join us in the Church of the Fork for a while. I'd like you to hear the story. You'll make better sense of it than I can.”

At this flattery, Frau Ansel turned to her companion and nodded. The black-cloaked man gave a ferocious grin and introduced himself to Denario. He was Herr Hermann Ansel, former burgher of South Ackerland. Hermann was Valentina's husband. In the grip of his handshake, Denario noticed that Herr Ansel was cold almost to the bone. The man was trembling, too. Even the muscles in his face twitched every now and then, just below his left eye. He must have been a mighty fellow not long ago but apparently he'd been reduced to near-permanent exhaustion. His smile was the strongest thing about him.

Back in the church, the minstrel leaped to his feet upon seeing Denario. He dashed forward to pump more lyrics out of the accountant. The mayor conferred with the Priest of the Fork, a few burghers, and a group of mothers who arranged their children into a chorus. Folks were sleepy and the food had been eaten until there was no more but everyone was still working. Floors needed swept. Dishes needed cleaned. Bedrolls had to be arranged. The burghers surprised Denario by helping the peasants with some of their chores, mostly by coordinating them but also by moving benches. They sent away some families to their lean-tos. One burgher left to settle a dispute about rights to a campfire. Another burgher arranged wine for everyone.

Laughter, or at least the idea of it, was welcomed. When Denario rose to sing his ballad, he found that he didn't have to carry the tune on his own. The minstrel and a young blonde-haired woman in a robin's-egg blue linen dress not only strummed instruments but sang in harmony. Hermann Ansel slapped his knee and laughed in all of the right places although Denario had previously thought of them as the wrong ones. It was humor at the expense of accounting. Hermann seemed like a jolly man, though. Denario didn't hold it against him. Anyway, he wondered what could be wrong with the fellow. Herr Ansel wore a silvery tunic and vambraces on his otherwise bare forearms. The vambraces and an iron ring at the base of his neck, a gorget, were his only pieces of armor but clearly he'd once possessed the wealth of a knight or at least of an armsman. He had a wide, black sash that doubled as a sword belt. It was woven from silk.

Valentina never laughed. Everyone else did, even folks who were otherwise ready to sleep. Instead, Valentina busied herself with whispers to the mayor. Isle Richter seemed to be explaining the song as it went. Valentina was re-explaining it back to the mayor, focusing on what Vir might have been thinking.

“There's something important about the mining town,” Valentina said at the end, even as others were chuckling and experimenting with a re-write of the chorus. “Otherwise, Vir would never have gone out of his way to leave the accountant there.”

“Did he go out of his way?” Denario asked. Hermann moved to give him a seat on the bench, so he dared to sit next to Valentina. “I felt he might have. But he never said so.”

“He wouldn't have told you,” said the mayor.

“What's important about the place? Is it the brass works?” Valentina barely paused as she thought aloud. “I know he needs weapons.”

“Brass weapons will help against the Raduar.” Denario rested his elbows on his knees. “They won't do as well against the Ogglian troops. The knights and their men have steel. Vir knows that.”

“What, then?”

“I think maybe when he was having me draw maps for him … yes, that may have been it … when he looked at the maps and thought about all of the troop movements, he may have realized that Pharts Bad is a target for the Raduar and the Ogglian armies both. It's at the intersection of three trade routes, four if you count the stream. Anyone who crosses the hills into West Valley can't miss it.”

“So he expects a big battle there.”

“He might,” Denario conceded.

The burghers consulted with one another and with Hermann Ansel. The mayor, though, approached Valentina. Denario felt caught between. The women, both taller than he, talked around him for a minute. Eventually, the men felt the need to ask their mayor for an opinion and Denario felt he could rise and stand next to Hermann Ansel, who had also gotten to his feet. The question that concerned everyone most was the attempted assassinations against Vir. The older burghers were surprised their Raduar cousins would behave this way. They were even more surprised that Vir was still alive. The younger burghers, along with Hermann and Valentina, didn't seem shocked by either event.

“I thought it was Baron Ankster who would do him in,” confessed the burgher with the longest beard. “Not our own folks.”

“I thought he'd do in the baron,” said a young man, wistfully.

“Shush,” said Valentina, although she was a woman and of no rank or title. “Accountant, we need to understand why the Raduar generals are pressing us so hard. Draw a map for us.”

“Can you read maps?” Denario asked. If that were true, he should never have been hired.

“Not well,” she admitted. “Few Mundredi can, anymore. My grandfather knew maps, though. He showed me. And my father had one commissioned. You've read a map to the burghers, I believe. We all understand the basic concepts.”

The floor of the church was straw and dirt. Hermann Ansel scooped away several square feet of straw. One of the younger burghers tapped Denario's sword hilt. Taking the hint, he pulled it out of its sheath. Then, with the tip, he began to draw a familiar map.

Monday, August 7, 2017

A Nerd in a Warrior Culture - Fourteen Chapters

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Thirty-Two Minus Thirty-One


Chapter Root Two Squared

Chapter Pi, Roughly 


Chapter Two Pair


Chapter Full Hand


Chapter Half Dozen


Chapter Fourth Prime


Chapter Two Cubed


Chapter Three Quarters of Twelve


Chapter Binary Two


Chapter Red, Green, Yellow


Chapter Square Root of Gross


Chapter Baker's Dozen


Chapter Pair of Sevens








Sunday, August 6, 2017

Being Geek in a Warrior Culture - Fourteenth Chapter

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Pair of Sevens



Sunday, July 30, 2017

Not Even Not Zen 88: A Bandit Accountant, 14.8

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Pair of Sevens

Scene Seven: A Map
Scene  Eight: A Song

The town of North Ackerland, which is now called simply 'Ackerland,' is in possession of a New Wizzard's Almanack. Since the book is printed in Oggli, I felt like I was meeting an old friend when I opened it. The frontispiece declares that it is two years old. Each edition is contains eight years of weather predictions, including magical updates, so it should have six more years of usefulness. That's worth money. But the words are printed in the New West Ogglian style, which owes a bit to Frankish and Muntabi. It must seem foreign to the farmers here who know letters only from the old tongue if any at all.

This particular text was rescued from the burning of South Ackerland. Among those who make their living off of rich, rolling fields such as these, a reasonably accurate book on weather is precious.

After my initial reading, the mayor ordered me to write translations for her on several pages. If the wizards are correct, this will be a good planting season in Ackerland and I was happy to describe the details for her. The process took me two hours. By the time I was done, I felt it was time for supper. But the mayor grabbed me by the elbow and dragged me into a church. We didn't go to pray but nor did we go to eat.

There were three scrolls hidden in a panel near the bottom of the church altar. One of the scrolls was a surveying chart. The mayor offered me brass and other riches to read it. As valuable as she thought it was, the chart was not difficult.

The scroll's map depicts Ackerland's surrounding farms as claimed by the peasants. There is no mention of the rights of Baron Ankster, I noticed, although by Ogglian law he owns everything. Likewise, the castle of the closest knight, Sir Fettertyr, is not named on the map but instead appears as a mysterious blank spot at the center of the bottom edge. I don't know who created this survey but it appears to be roughly 20 years old and bears the initials BTS in the right bottom corner. The mark of the Oggli and Anghrili Guild of Accountants appears on the opposite side of the parchment, as does a scribble of a hippogriff standing over crossed spears. I think the latter mark is for the noble arms of Ankster. I can only suppose the chart was drawn by a guild member or a nobleman from the Ankster court. It was not done in an official capacity. This would have been viewed as a local religious matter and irrelevant to the baron. A surveyor might have taken a bit of cloth or silver in exchange for settling peasant disputes in this way.

Before I even finished reading the scroll, the mayor stopped me and insisted on gathering the local clan leaders to hear. At this point, I managed to get payment in the way of a meal. The priest's wife had been preparing tables for the workers' supper. My presence and that of the clan leaders meant that some folks were forced to sit on the ground to eat. No one dared to object.

The church offered meat to my table. My dish was a roasted, tiny bird. I hurt my tongue on bones twice before I learned the proper technique. Given what poor fare most of the folks had to eat, I felt grateful for my finch or whatever it was. And I was happy to find cheese with my turnips and nuts. I read the surveyor's scroll in sections as I ate, taking a few minutes to describe each compass line and boundary marker for a plot between bites of food. To my surprise, the clan leaders did not fall into fighting over what I said. They discussed things calmly and let me eat in peace. Indeed, they wondered if they could afford an updated survey from me. Luckily, the mayor persuaded them that now was not the time. I do not want to tour these lands so thoroughly. Indeed, I want to escape them as soon as possible.

I offered to translate the other two scrolls for free. That made me a popular fellow for a while, especially with the priest who had struggled with them for months. 

The first of these, made of something similar to paper, appears to have been written by a wizard. But it is about plants having sex, which is ridiculous in my opinion. Everyone knows that plants rise spontaneously from the soil. The mayor and priest thought it might be useful anyway. Farmers who had come to hear the survey results nodded and talked to themselves about sex with beans. I wanted to hold my hands over my ears. 

The third text is on medicine. It is written by “Nikon of Anghre,” which means he might have come from Anghrili before the modern form of the city's name took hold. By the letters, I judged it well over a hundred years out of date, the product of many a caravan trade, no doubt. But medicine doesn't change much so the manual is effectively current. Nikon's advice is sound. He understood how to use honey and oil on wounds, to apply tight bandages in certain places on the body but not on others, and he describes surgery on feet. He advises surgeons to leave ankles alone because they are more complicated than they appear. All in all, I felt I learned a bit from Nikon and I got paid quite handsomely as well even though I hadn't asked. No one seemed to place much value on the broken brass hinges they awarded to me, eight of them in all. Perhaps that is because they have no bronze-smith, the only one in the area having died recently. In other towns, however, the brass is worth many days' wages.

After the readings, a bard arose with a stringed instrument in hand. He insisted on playing a sad tune about the razing of South Ackerland. It was depressing. The experience was made worse by how all of the folks knew the song by heart. They sang most of the verses as a chorus, in unison. I must say that I felt a thrill of fear upon hearing their wrathful tones toward the end. Anger lies not far beneath their sadness. 

The village seems set against the baron and his knights but of course their cause is hopeless. They have no weapons, no armor, no horses, and no machines.
#

“And that's how we were saved by a tax cart,” said the mayor, Frau Richter, with a flourish. She gestured with her wine cup to the thronged church hall and the people eating their suppers. The final set of farm laborers had trudged in an hour ago. Everyone looking her direction returned her salute.

Most people simply ate. The place was lit by smoky torches in estanchions mounted onto the walls. The ceiling seemed painted black by soot. There were so many people that hardly an inch of the dirt floor showed. Entire families lay on the ground. A few ate from blankets. Children fell asleep, curled around one another or against the legs of their parents. The spring air remained warm even when the sun was down. Along the pews and short benches, women had removed their shawls. Windows lay open in each wall in hope of picking up a night breeze. Every table lay full of farm tools, food, or, mostly, bodies. There were short women and tall, middle aged and young. The men were, on the whole, slim. None of them were giants except for Wilmit's companion. They had a haggard appearance. A few older men had gone bald. Otherwise there were hardly any gray hairs to be seen, a sign Denario recognized as an indication of a lifestyle hard enough to kill.

Children numbered at least five or six per adult. A few of the urchins had finished eating and scrambled up as high as the joists near the ceiling. Denario had seen young feet and he'd heard them patter across the rafters. He worried that one of the boys or girls would fall. Apparently these half-starved, energetic children were so common now that even their parents couldn't be bothered to tell them to come down.

“You took everything from the cart? You stole the food?” Denario sighed. He sympathized with the mayor's decision but he understood, too, how the baron would feel about anyone who had diverted taxes to themselves. The penalty was death.

“Tweren't stealing,” grunted a bushy-browed burgher. “No, the wagon just came to us when we needed it. 'Twas the will of the gods.”

“That ancient barrow was heavily laden with grain tuns. Naturally, the axle broke,” said Frau Richter. “Our baron had already gotten his share. Most of the contents of the Haph Fork cart were off-loaded on the spot to their second tax cart. Haph Fork got credit in the baron's eyes. But the late cart came to Ackerland anyway. It arrived a week after the slaughter, after Sir Fettertyr had left with his men, weapons, and wagon train.”

“He thought he had all of the taxes?” The accountant tried to hope.

“Maybe. At the least, Sir Fettertyr made the decision not to wait for the broken cart. He knew he had most of the tribute.”

“The tax.”

“It used to be called tribute. Yes, the tax. Taxes to the knight. Taxes to the baron who says he owns this land that had no one on it before us. Taxes to their funny, foreign churches and to the army that's supposed to protect us but enforces the tax laws against us instead.”

If the mayor's complaint had been limited to the tax rates, Denario would have regarded it as ordinary. Everyone complained about the cost of government. But her anger at the baron's knights, especially Sir Fettertyr, was personal. Her husband, the former mayor of North Ackerland, had gone to assist South Ackerland in negotiations with their knight. Once again, the Mundredi tribesmen made the crucial mistake of believing that Ogglian nobility would talk with them.

Nobles did not negotiate with peasants. Apparently, Sir Fettertyr had been under orders to make an example of South Ackerland because it was a traditional tax collection point and a center of protest. Hecklers had lined the cart road for the past three years and berated the baron's men. Berating, in the Mundredi style, included throwing acorns at their faces.

This past year, as the farmers and a priestess gathered in their line and complained to the head collector, Fettertyr's men charged through the crowd on horseback. After the initial kills with their lances, they continued down the street to the city hall. There they slew the leaders of North Ackerland along with the South Ackerland priest, mayor, shaman, and every other person in their reach. Their final charge back up the cart path, made with Sir Fettertyr in the lead, finished off the wounded priestess who they'd failed to spear on their first run. The knight and his armsmen then dismounted to finish the resisters who remained with the priestess.

At that point, the town's citizens fled into their homes. But Sir Fettertyr had come prepared to raze the place. His armsmen reached into their tax carts and pulled out buckets of black pitch. They set the buckets on fire and used them to burn the townsfolk out of their thatch-covered huts. In their haste, though, the soldiers were careless. They set too many homes on fire at once. They hadn't brought enough bowmen to shoot everyone. They didn't have enough horsemen to ride everyone down. Most of the ordinary inhabitants of South Ackerland escaped. Fourteen fighters, two archers, and a handful of attendants weren't enough to track and slaughter the fleeing hundreds.

The incident explained the lack of elderly, though. The winter spent out of their homes had been deadly. Refugees from South Ackerland burdened the neighboring towns of Bittesburg, North Ackerland, Frühlingburg, and Ackfort. Native villagers had been pressed into giving charity but they hadn't been able to give enough. Any refugee who had been infirm had died in the past few months.

“Your chief came from South Ackerland,” Denario ventured. He wondered how Vir would react to the news of the razing. He wondered, too, if South Ackerland had been chosen not because it was a tax collection site but because it offered a chance at retribution against the Mundredi for harboring a tribal chieftain. Then there was the question of why the sergeant that Vir assigned to the Ackerland area had left. Had the Raduar attacked from the northeast? Or had it been an Ogglian feint by Sir Fettertyr to draw his opposition away? By now, Vir might know. He'd implied that he possessed a network of spies. He could have discovered the facts about South Ackerland's destruction perhaps before Denario even met him. Yet he'd remained in the mountains between Easy Valley and West Valley. That was where he felt he had to be.

“He's gone off to fight the Raduar like a damn fool,” the mayor spat.

“That's because he takes his job seriously,” Denario retorted. “There are Raduar generals with hundreds of men laying waste to Mundredi towns across both valleys. It's worst in Long Valley.”

Denario understood how a few hundred armed men could do such damage together. But the accountant still didn't understand how a dozen or so armored men could lay waste to South Ackerland. There were over ninety people taking refuge in this church and there was a temple at the other end of town, too. That made for around one hundred fifty refugees in this village alone with more in Frühlingburg, Bittesburg, and Ackfort. Yet a few armed men and their attendants had defeated them. He took a deep breath and contemplated the copycat attacks.

“The Raduar are imitating the barons, Vir says.”

“Damn them, then!” Frau Richter pounded the table. Next to her, a pair of burghers followed her lead and cursed the Raduar traitors. “They're our kinsmen!”

“They have hundreds of men gathered into at least two armies. Your chief has four groups of a dozen plus a few more he can call up to defend particular areas.” He rubbed his stubbly jaw. “They're not enough. The Mundredi won't gather together of their own free will, I think. Vir is reluctant to force them.”

“Why?”

“With all of your problems here,” Denario explained with the best example at hand, “would you send your young men to the army to defend other Mundredi towns? I'd guess that your turn to have the army back here wouldn't come for another year.”

“A year?” growled a burgher near the end of the table – although he might have been merely a wealthy land owner. Denario couldn't keep them all sorted out, he'd been introduced so fast.

“Wait. Is that all? Just a year?” The heavy fellow on the right of the mayor put his fist on his hip. “Because we might. We've more mouths than we can feed anyway.”

“It would take between one year and two. Vir keeps winning the smaller battles. He's the only real obstacle to the Raduar generals. They'll send the largest force they can to try to wipe him out. He plans to meet them on the battlefield.”

“Does he stand a chance?”

Laceo shook his head no. Then he stopped. “He's got his men so well trained. Maybe he can. One man is not equal to one man. I need to remember that. Even the Raduar elite forces were surprised by Vir and they'd prepared quite a lot for him. He's stolen armor from Ogglian troops and caravans. That was smart. His men are better trained and better equipped than the Raduar.”

“Are they as good as the baron's men?”

“Not as far as their armor, no.”

“Aahhhh,” said the heavy burgher as he sagely rubbed his beard. “The chief needs to steal more, then.”

“No. He needs to hire an armorer.”

“Kidnap one, you mean?”

“No, really, hire one. Don't you know how to hire ... oh, right, no money. Well, there are armorers in towns along the Rune Kill who your chief could hire if the Mundredi tribe really understood the concept.”

“We do understand money, you know.”

“You do?”

“Of course! It's just bits of silver, inn't it?”

“It's not really that. Money is what the silver stands for. It's supposed to represent the work you did. If you're a farmer and you got paid a silver piece for each tun of grain you produced, you've been paid for all that time and effort. If someone steals the money from you, it's like they're stealing part of your life.”

“Damn right they are!”

“That's why we don't like money. Too easy to steal.”

“Money isn't perfect,” Denario answered them. He was tempted to pull out some of his hidden coins. Instead, he opened his empty hands. “But think about what you could pay an armorer. Really, has an armorer got use for a hundred tuns of grain?”

“Is that what it would take?”

“Armor is expensive. It really is. You're paying for the work done by miners, carters, and of course the smiths. But see, if you could pay a blacksmith in grain, that would leave it up to the smith's family to turn all of that grain into something useful. They can't really bake it into a hundred thousand loaves of bread. No, the smith needs to get paid in iron, mostly, or in coins he can spend for iron.”

“We don't have iron around here.”

“That's why you need money. Well, I try to explain this everywhere I go and no one really listens. You're the first town I've seen in a while that's got any understanding of money at all.”

“Because the baron likes it,” a burgher spat. The baron's name was a curse around here, now.

“And that's why we don't, I might add.”

“The baron likes swords and armor for his men, too. Does that mean you don't?”

Denario had found he could get hot about the subjects of logic and math. Now he found that he could be the same way about coins. He might not know a halberd from a pike but he did know what money was supposed to represent. Master Winkel had taught him and he'd been taught before by Master Soldi, who'd been taught by other masters back to Jon Contanti, who'd been taught by the founder of the guild. The founder, Magister Numat, had brought coins from his old home in Muntar and had practically re-invented the art of minting them in the Ogglian lands.

So the accountant paused for a moment, partly to bite back harsher phrases he might have used and partly to let his words take effect. There was a moment of hmm-ing and humph-ing from the burghers Most of them had flecks of grey hair in their beards, Denario noticed, by far the majority of that color visible in the room. Maybe at their advanced age they hadn't gotten used to the idea of using money rather than barter, no matter what they said. Maybe from their perspective it was too new or too foreign.

“I still don't see why our chief couldn't stay here,” complained the mayor. She wasn't one to let up on the point of the conversation as she saw it. “Vir could have sent his sergeants and captains and whatnot up north. He didn't have to go himself.”

Denario massaged his brow. He tried to smile at Frau Richter. But he struggled with the problem of how to explain the military situation. Earlier, during their meal, he'd tried to draw a map. But of course that didn't work. If the mayor could read maps, she wouldn't have hired him to read the surveyor's chart. Frau Richter and her burghers watched him as he stammered. Perhaps the expressions on their faces gave him the idea.

The accountant stood. Everyone nearby turned to look at him. Then he began to sing.

He wasn't a good singer. But it was a pretty good folksong anyway. It was the story of an clueless accountant who had fallen in with a pack of bandits. The bandits turned out to be heroes. The clueless fellow turned out to be particularly lucky.

He thought he'd left the ballad behind him. Yet here he was bringing it up himself. To his surprise, some folks in his audience started to sing along. The bard started to play it. How do they know? he wondered. Then he realized that the bard knew the tune because it was a traditional one for them. Plus the chorus was easy to memorize. Even the children could learn it. Denario's ears turned red as more and more people joined in. But he kept singing Even though he was announcing his own ineptness, there was no backing out. He had to tell it to the end.

To his surprise, he found that he remembered very nearly all of the words and got through without much stumbling. He even told the tale of the accounting he'd done for the town of Pharts Bad.

As he wound down his song, he dared to glance at the mayor. Frau Richter was dabbing her eyes. He didn't think she was crying out of sorrow.

“Whew!” she said, a few seconds after Denario finished the final chorus. Hordes of children popped up around his feet and began to scream for more. “It's been a while since we've heard a funny tune. Hasn't it?”

She glanced to the oldest burgher, two down from her, who had laughed until he coughed. He was thumping himself on the chest.

“I wish the rest of the village had heard that.” The mayor looked down at the children. Some of them were bouncing up and down, shouting the chorus not quite in tune or in time with one another “We'll have to sing it again, I think. I'm sure the bard knows it already. In the meantime, though, there's someone you should meet. Wilmit?”

She stood and waved. The bowman was standing not too far away. He had barely eaten, Denario noticed. He seemed to take his meals last in line.

“Wilmit, go to the Passion Gods temple. Get Frau Ansel. Tell her there's someone here who's met her brother-in-law.”

“No, I haven't,” said Denario. He raised a hand to stay Wilmit although the man was too far away to touch. “Begging your pardon mayor, but I never met anyone from this town until this morning.”

“You've met Vir De Acker and told a good story on him, too.”

“But ...”

“Frau Valentina Ansel is the older sister of Vir's dear, departed wife.”

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Not Even Not Zen 87: A Bandit Accountant, 14.6

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Pair of Sevens

Scene Six: Ackerland

“What town is that?” Denario gestured past the man who was, even yet, pointing a loaded bow at him. A church spire rose in the distance. An row of huts lined the road in front. They were all thatched and sealed with pitch on their roofs, which meant there had to be a natural supply of tar somewhere close.

“Ackerland.” The fellow swiveled to peer down the trail. Then he thought better of it and turned his attention back to Denario.

“Really?” A spark of memory awoke in the accountant's mind. “North or South Ackerland?”

The farmer lowered his bow slightly. Then he lowered it more until it was almost at his feet.

“Step forward,” he said.

“What about your friends?” Denario nodded to the trees. Only a month ago, he would never have noticed the signs of their occupation.

“Well, is that a Mundredi coin?” the farmer asked. “You wear it boldly enough. If it's yours, we won't hurt you.”

“It was given to me by the chief of the Mundredi to aid me in my mission.” Denario began his stroll up the low slope of grass toward the farmer. He touched the blue disc on his chest. A moment later, he halted and dropped his hand to the pommel of his sword. The men who came out of the bushes and trees were not the farmer's sons. They looked like brigands. Some of them had bits of armor, mostly leather hauberks like Denario's own. “You haven't answered my question. I have an interest in passing through South Ackerland. Is this it?”

“South Ackerland is dead.” The farmer un-notched his arrow. He ignored the men on either side of him, one a head taller than he. His eyes glistened in the morning sun as he remembered, perhaps, a battle. “It was laid to waste last year and all of its fields with it. The baron's men burned the temples and halls and homes to the ground.”

“Oh.”

“They came only a week after Sergeant Kaspir and his band left. Someone must have told them.”

“A traitor,” Denario whispered. The leader heard him, though, and nodded.

“Aren't we going to rob him?” complained a thin-looking man in a studded vest. He put his hand on the elbow of the man who Denario no longer regarded as a farmer.

In answer, his leader sighed and rolled his eyes. He patiently unstrung his bow.

The hungry-looking fellow had stained teeth. He wore bright yellow, brown, and gold clothes. They'd been fine once but they'd faded. His straw-colored hair stood on end and askew to his left. All in all, he looked a bit like a lopsided, perhaps wounded, tropical bird, perhaps a canary drunk with attitude.

“Come on, Wilmit,” pleaded the giant beside the canary. He didn't take his eyes off of Denario. “I didn't get any meat yesterday. Nothing but turnips.”

The fourth member of the troop, a long-bearded fellow who hovered behind the giant, smiled to show his black and broken teeth.

“Here's how it is,” the leader Wilmit explained. He seemed to be talking to both Denario and to his allies. “Everyone around here is starving and broke. We know ye've a lot of goods with ye, traveler. Yer belly is full and so's the packs on yer back. But we understand that the army is looking after ye. We're not going to violate our oaths.”

“Uh.” The giant let out a defeated sigh. On the other side of the leader, the thin, yellowish man spun in a circle.

“But we've got lots of knives and arrows,” he complained.

“We'll walk him into town.” The leader stared down the thin fellow, who backed away and spun in another circle.

Even an accountant could see that further conversation would lead to blows. The hungry man seemed quick, too, and bristling with pointed weapons. Yet he didn't carry a sword. Swords were for gentlemen or for hired men at arms. They were a sign of a professional soldier, which was probably why folks hadn't bothered Denario as much as they might have otherwise, that and his lack of clan status.

“I could trade,” Denario offered.

“We haven't got anything.” Wilmit dismissed the idea to the groans of his men.

“Well, I could share, then. I've got a bit of hard tack. Also some cheese. Butter? Well, I may be out of that. But I've got some spare oats.”

“Oats!” one man shouted.

“Butter,” said another, the giant. “By the gods, I'd sell my granny for a bit of butter. Can you ... can you look, man? Along the way.”

“Along the way or at the mayor's house.” Wilmit nodded. He hitched his unstrung bow to his back and marched to the southeast path.

Denario fell in beside the leader as quickly as he could. The path was wide enough for them both. And he wanted to keep everyone happy and relaxed. It wasn't Denario's first encounter like this. In fact, he felt he was getting into the rhythm of them.

It was funny that no one ever wanted his money. From town to town in the Mundredi lands, the peasants asked him for things they could really use. Here, beyond of the Seven Valleys, these were still Mundredi lands. Yes, the folks had learned what money was. They knew that their knights and barons coveted it. But no one wanted to trade him anything for it. No one even cared to steal it.

Today's breeze was cool. It made Denario glad for all of his layers of clothes and armor. The land smelled full of life, musty and sharp. It was planting season. Wilmit led them across two shortcuts in the path. They passed four small fields separated by meadows or trees. In each field, there were peasants turning the soil or watering it or planting something.

Despite how Wilmit had said that they had no possessions, his men found things to trade with Denario. The giant exchanged three turnips for a glob of butter. The long-bearded fellow gave Denario a pair of black sticks that turned out to be badly-dried snake jerky. Probably no one else wanted the stuff but the accountant wasn't going to risk offending the man. At any rate, Denario's rather mundane oats proved popular with the men, Wilmit included. Their mayor had declared all of the remaining oats in the local vicinity to be part of the seed stock. Oat florets were being sown back into the ground. It was good civic planning but it was an unpopular decision. Not a single person wanted to give up their carefully saved food.

Not only were oats in short supply but none of the native farmers had wheat left after the harsh winter. Wheat spikelets had been reduced to handfuls. The peasants couldn't make bread. They were living on year-old acorns, pine nuts, and turnips. Many folks were growing spring onions and peas but there weren't enough. Bitter acorn flour had become the filler used in everything. Denario was glad to re-stock his travel packs with pine nuts and onions and what few wild herbs the townsfolk had found. He rather liked nuts, except acorns, and he privately considered most nuts to be better eating than dried meat. He was sure he'd finish his new batch of pine nuts before he ate any snake jerky.

“Yes, the children who gather these nuts and berries are saving our lives,” said Wilmit. “Without their work, the mayor would have had to hang a dozen more folks. Like maybe Tabner here.”

Tabner spun in a circle as he walked. He still looked half-mad and, although he smiled at the use of his name. And he did not look scared of Wilmit. In fact, he seemed eager for action. He'd added to his ruffled look by leaving a few oat kernels in his blond mustache, leftovers from his hurried eating a moment earlier.

“It turned to fighting this winter,” Wilmit continued. “And it wasn't the usual clan warfare. No declarations, no totems torn down. But when the snow melted, we found nineteen bodies. Folks were out-and-out murdered. Their household belongings were stolen. The mayor hanged one man for that, although we know there must be more. She hanged two others who were caught stealing pigs. Both of those were refugees from South Ackerland. Another fellow was killed in an argument with his neighbor about a cow they shared. Even our local herds of sheep and goats have been thinned. And of course the baron still wants his tenth of everything.”

“Will he get it?”

“The mayor says no.”

“But ...” Denario had been all for tax resistance up to when he considered the consequences. “Won't the baron send his men? Won't they raze the town?”

“Could be. He might try. But we have more men with us now, all desperate. We'll be ready this time. And we don't have any food to spare for the baron. It don't matter what the priests say or what orders the knights give us.”

The temple fields to their left gave way to the temple spires and a shed. Soon after, the winding trail to Ackerland ended in a sort of town square. The space wasn't rectangular. It was a circle of dirt and dust. Lean-tos had been built around the edge of the area. These, Denario guessed, were the homes of refugees from South Ackerland and other towns ransacked by Baron Ankster.

At the south end of the dirt circle, there stood a well head constructed of loose stones with a board laid across. Two children lay near the well. They faced the temple, eyes closed.

To the accountant, the boy and girl looked lean to the point of sickly. Wilmit and his men had no pity on them, though. They prodded the children with their toes. When they roused, the men told them to get back to the fields, “And no complaining neither!” The girl got to her feet. The boy held his stomach and didn't move until the giant kicked him lightly in the rear end. Then he, too, got up and headed back to work.

"What are you lazy bums doing besides berating kids?” Suddenly a woman appeared from the trail on the other side of the well. She wore fine yet rather severe dress in shades of white, gray, and black. Her layers of clothing above it, including a vest, shoulder wrap, and wide belt that included a hammer strapped on with a loop of string, obscured her figure somewhat.

Denario could tell by her shoulders, though, and the width of her arms that she was strong. She walked like a woman of authority. Her black head scarf reminded him of what some priestesses wore.

“Are you waylaying caravans again? If you are, Wilmit, I'll have you in the stocks this time.” Her voice penetrated like Olga Clumpi's. For a moment, Denario thought he might have been transported back to Pharts Bad among the stern grandmothers. But this woman was younger, somewhere in her middle years. She reminded Denario of some city women in Oggli who ran their own shops. She had similar, quick hand gestures.

“No, mayor, my men were doing exactly what you said to do. We were patrolling the fields. Weeding, too. But you have to admit, getting a visitor traveling all on his own nowadays is strange. And we have one.”

This time, the woman turned full-on towards Denario and inspected him with her round, brown eyes. Her strong jaw grew tight. Her thin lips curled in a sneer. Well, maybe she could tell that he wasn't much of a fighter. She put her fists on her hips.

“He says he's on an army mission and he looks it in his way.” Wilmit took off his hat and bowed to the mayor. Then he jostled his companion. Tabner did the same but in a way that was quite angry and jaunty at the same time. The other two did their best to follow suit.

Denario found himself taking off his traveling hat. He discovered his accounting cap beneath it. So he doffed that, too.

“I said I've been given leave by your army,” Denario corrected. “It's different than working for them, exactly. I'm an accountant. Do you know what that is? I do maths. I draw maps. I write out calculations and geometries.”

“I know what those are.” When the woman nodded, her firm jaw barely moved. At least she didn't seem insulted – or bewildered, which might have proved worse. “If you can write charts, surely you can read them.”

“Yes, ma'am.” He bowed again. It occurred to him that this was the first lady of any social class he'd met in a position of secular leadership. He'd met priestesses, maybe a pair of unannounced witches, several wealthy clan matriarchs, and one or two shopkeepers who showed a facility for math, but this was the only Mundredi woman he knew as a burgher or mayor.

She didn't even wait for him to rise from his bow. While his eyes were still on her cloth-covered shoes, she turned and strode away. After a second or two, Wilmit followed. They headed back to where she came from. Denario rushed to keep up. He finally caught them as the mayor marched up the stone steps of a building across the fountain from the church. He glanced up and saw a seal above the arched doorway. It was the town hall.

Next: Chapter Fourteen, Scene Seven

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Not Even Not Zen 86: A Bandit Accountant, 14.4

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Pair of Sevens

Scene Four: Swearing
Scene Five: Force of an Object

Tetron the Wheelwright lives between Bow Spit and West Bow. I am writing to you, Vir, to recommend him in the case that your army has need of a friendly house in this area. Tomorrow I will reach the northernmost war lands, so this may be my last message. I am confident that this note and accompanying documents will reach you because I am sending them with Tetron’s nephew, Jan, who wishes to join your army.

As he usually did when sending to Vir or Yannick, Denario scribbled his raw note in the dirt. The soil of Tetron’s front yard happened to be grayish with pebbles in it. The family’s boots had worn away the grass, which made for easy drawing. The next step in Denario’s process was to write out the encoded version next to the original, also in the gray dirt.

Since he was hiding his message inside another, the process took creativity and time. Finally, he transcribed the result onto a scrap of parchment provided to him by Tetron. The scrap was so old as to be a family heirloom but the accountant couldn’t turn it down.

“I see that you’re hiding your true meaning,” rumbled Tetron from his porch hammock. “But then you’re wrapping up the parchment into your map that shows my farm. What’s to stop someone from killing Jan and reading the map?”

"Nothing.” Denario shook his head. He continued to roll his message into the map. “But you told me that you can’t read the map without my help. Most folks around here can’t read it. And I can’t encode the map in a way that I know Vir or Yannick will understand.”

“Is there a way to make a map into numbers and letters?”

“Yes. The Guild of Accountants in Oggli knows a method. I assume that the Marquis of Oggli employs someone who knows, too.”

Tetron groaned. “Ye Ogglians are smarter than we are.”

“No.” Denario had talked with enough of the Mundredi to see that they were as bright as any other group of people. They lacked some basic resources, like iron, that the rest of the old empire had in abundance but what they mostly suffered from was a dearth of medicines, schools and books. They had geniuses like old Bibbo Clumpi in their midst but the Mundredi didn’t train them. They had no tradition of education except in martial arts. “Are you thinking of the math I taught you? Or are you thinking of the Ogglian armorers?”

“Those both and the war horses yer duke has, too. I came up against those when I was younger. Went for a bit of fun against a caravan. They slaughtered us.”

“Vir managed to beat some horsemen.” Denario’s dark eyebrows knotted together. He didn’t think Vir would find the method easy to repeat. “Maybe as long as the main cavalry are fighting elsewhere …”

“But yer not hopeful of that, I kin tell.”

“I don’t want to discourage your nephew. Or you.” The accountant hid his face from the veteran farmer for a moment. “No, I'm not hopeful. Vir has got to beat the Raduar first. And he has to do it within the year. The duke’s campaign against the King of Faschnaught has lasted fifteen months already. I don't think he can press on much longer. Your tribes and all of the clans in them need to be ready when the Ogglian soldiers return.”

“Sounds impossible.”

“Maybe not. The duke and the marquis don’t care about the Mundredi. The highest nobles are perfectly happy to take your tax money. It’s only Baron Ankster and a few others who want to kill you. They care about the religious differences. They see a threat in how your men keep weapons unlike their other peasants. And then there’s what you told me happened to Sir Blowort.”

Blowort had been a knight under Baron Blockhelm. Denario had met him once as a child. The nobleman had worn a thick mustache that hung down below his chin, plate armor over his chest and shoulders, and a tunic with his castle colors, which were red, gold, and green. He’d ridden a stallion that was almost friendly. Denario had been given a job to feed the beast, which he did with oats and a great deal of care not to get bitten or kicked. Later, he’d carried a bolt of green cloth to the horse. He’d rather liked Blowort. The man hadn’t beaten him or any other slaves that day.

He hadn't shown such gentleness to his own peasants, though. Like Sir Glaiburg under Baron Ankster, Sir Blowort had led an ethnic cleansing of his countryside two years ago. He'd wiped out half a dozen Kilmun towns. In retaliation, a group of Kilmun men invaded his castle during the winter. No one seemed to know how they’d gotten inside the walls but they'd arrived with at least a hundred men. Blowort and his family hadn’t stood a chance. Across the border of the barony, Sir Glaiburg almost met a similar fate. Only the fact that he and his immediate family had been called to Baron Ankster’s court saved him. The rest of his household was killed. And when Glaiburg returned, he gathered his men-at-arms and took back his castle. He redoubled his efforts to wipe out the Mundredi tribesmen on his lands.

Denario had been in court when the marquis got the news that, among Ankster's sworn knights, Sir Glaiburg and a few others had refused to go to war against Faschnaught. Glaiburg sent his second son in his stead. The marquis felt insulted. Anyone could see it. But he hadn't taken it out on the son. He'd merely asked the young nobleman how many footmen he'd brought along. Later, though, Denario learned that the marquis had scolded his field captains. Too many veteran knights had failed to show up against Faschnaught. When the marquis felt insulted, all of the viscounts, barons, and even the doddering, old Earl of Anghre had to suffer.

“They're in a panic about that?” The wheelwright sounded like he was explaining something to a slow-wit. “But Blowort fell to the Kilmun, not us.”

“I don’t think the knights and barons know the difference.”

Tetron had been resting. He opened his eyes. Apparently, he hadn't had a clear picture of how the Ogglian nobles thought. He still didn't understand them, of course, but he seemed to be starting to realize there was a social gulf between the nobility and peasantry. He sat up in his hammock.

“Who can’t see our tribe and clan tattoos?” he asked. “Who can’t see the god marks on our arms? Or the different hair? And who can’t just ask us? We'd explain, any of us.”

Denario had to laugh at the idea of a Ogglian nobleman asking a peasant anything. That was not the way it was done.

“When they collect taxes, do they ask politely or do they give orders?” He looked up from his scrolls as he posed the question. He wanted to make sure the wheelwright understood his point.

“They’re damned rude. Orders, I guess.” The big man gave up the concept of idleness. He swung his legs to one side of the hammock and readied himself to rise. “I don’t even like to meet those bastards. But I don’t have to anymore. For the past two years, we've just hauled everything to South Ackerland. A single knight picks up our taxes there.”

“Really?” This part was news to Denario. Usually, a squadron of each baron's knights traveled far and wide to personally collect taxes. At the very least, they sent their squires or other men at arms. How else could they discover cheating? The lack of effort implied that the marquis had gathered so many troops for his own use that the barons were hard pressed find the usual number of bullies. “Tell me, is the tax still a tenth of all harvest plus a pig or sheep or goat?”

“It’s an ox if yer late, so no one is late. And in the last two years, the Oggli men have sneered at our goats. They want sheep, they say, or pigs. But that’s not the agreement. No family has been raising those new, thick-wool sheep for more than a couple generations. They were expensive in trade, too. So we don't have them to spare. We bring goats.”

“That's a lot more than you ever pay to Vir. And now the nobles want to raise their taxes, it seems. Are folks paying?”

“Maybe not,” Tetron grunted. “There wasn't so much grain in South Ackerland last fall as there was the year before. And no sheep, neither, although it was a pretty good year for both.”

“That’s what I thought.” The peasants had stopped receiving visits from their knights so they were cheating on the taxes. Of course, unless they were pious about their oaths to the land owners, the farmers had always been willing to keep the full bounty of their fields. It was the product of their work, after all. And in lean years, taxes could be the difference between sufficiency and starvation.

Denario re-drew the map of the Seven Valleys in his head. He added in the portions of West Ogglia that were under the control of baronies. He fuzzed in the lands that were in dispute. He could see a pattern developing.

The barons had accepted Mundredi and Kilmun settlers as an unexpected bounty of tax payers. Those lands had been empty. But in time they'd noticed all of the weapons kept by the tribesmen. They'd lost a few soldiers and tax collectors to the violence in their new towns. They'd probably lost some caravans, too. They needed to deal with the usual religious fighting that accompanied the various clans, not to mention the clashes between their old peasants and the new ones. And that had been the last straw. They'd decided to clear their lands of the new settlers.

The ethnic cleansing process hadn't gotten off to a good start. The Ogglian nobles had been scared by the loss of Sir Blowort. They'd taken revenge. But it wasn't enough to allay their fears. They wanted more. And the Marquis de Oggli remained unconcerned by any of the local troubles. He took all of the men at arms to which he was entitled for his duke's war against Faschnaught.

Now the taxpayers, Mundredi, Oggli, and Waldi, were cheating. Powerful mayors and burghers like the Figgins brothers in Ziegeburg were energetically scamming their collections. They were blaming tax losses on the Mundredi peasants. If they didn't blame immigrant farmers, they blamed non-existent immigrant bandits. The situation paralleled a historical pattern that Denario had seen in the logs of the Accounting Guild. In terms of money, this was how the last war against the peasantry had started.

When the marquis returned home, he would find his coffers dry. He'd realize that his towns had cheated. Worse, he'd have no money to pay his troops. His fighting men, who had endured a long campaign and who would expect to be treated as heroes, would get nothing. Down to the lowest foot soldier, they'd be bitter at finding no reward. Denario had no doubt about how everyone would react. They would do as their grandfathers had done.

“Maybe it is hopeless,” he allowed. He watched Tetron stand up straight and stretch his powerful arms. “Maybe Jan will get caught with the map. Maybe the Raduar will win. Maybe the barons are too tough for the peasants. But you said you were willing to take the risk. Have you changed your mind?”

“Neh.” The wheelwright scowled. He paced a line in the dirt. “Somebody has to do something. The writing just makes me nervous, is all. I can't read. No one can, except the nobles. I never heard that our chief had his letters.”

“He's a noble, too. He gave me this coin.” Denario touched the blue disc hanging below his collarbone. “Anyway, you wouldn't have heard that Vir can read. He keeps it quiet. One of his sergeants can read, too, and a man named Yannick.”

“He's the one with bad teeth?”

“Um, yes.” The accountant regretted mentioning that. Tetron had latched onto the shortcomings of several soldiers that Denario had mentioned. He'd demanded to hear the accounting song, too. He'd laughed at all the wrong places and he seemed to have a keen memory. Denario had finished his roll-up, so he changed the subject and said, “Would you hand me your hot taper?”

Tetron reached through his front window and grabbed his candle-holder by the wooden ring carved into its side. Like most people in the area, the wheelwright had brass tools around his house but not for his personal use. They were for his profession. His candlesticks were all wooden. The candles were cheap, too. In Oggli, most house lights were made from stearin or beeswax. Here in the Mundredi lands, tapers were formed from a kind of rendered animal fat called tallow. Even as a slave, Denario hadn't seen tallow candles this cheap. The folks here seemed to know nothing else. Candles sputtered as they burned, unprotected by glass or magic.

This one was still lit when Denario received it. But the flame was in constant danger from a breeze. He guarded it with one hand as he dripped tallow-wax from the burning end to make a seal. It took him a few minutes. He had to pull dark flakes of ash and charcoal from the seal with his fingernail. Those were part of the grubby tallow.

“Accountant! Ahoy!” someone shouted. Denario glanced up from his work to see a young man on the trail to the wheelwright's house. He waved his straight arm high over his head. “Hello, uncle! Hello, Denario! Is that my package? Do you have a letter to your girlfriend in it?”

“Ha ha.” Denario had taken some teasing from the men when he had dashed off a note to Pecunia. And when he stood up to wave his greeting to Jan, a breeze put out the candle. Well, Denario was done anyway. He handed it back to Tetron as if he'd meant for that to happen.

Jan strode up and put his fists on his hips. The middle of his chest was the height of Denario's head. He was not heavily muscled. His legs and arms seemed about average. His jaw wasn't chiseled. It was meant to hold a smile and it often did. His blonde beard, seen up close, looked almost transparent. Over his shoulders, Jan wore a leather jerkin that he probably hoped would serve as armor. He carried a sword no longer than his forearm and a spear with a stone point. Denario winced at the sight of the spear tip. As sharp as it looked, the point would chip at the first fight and need replacement.

Denario remembered that he had spare bronze spear tips in his pack. He tried to weigh his guilt over not giving them to Jan against his need to keep those spares. For sure, he'd counted on selling whatever brass he could at the end of his journey.

Behind Jan came three other boys. That was a mild surprise because Jan had said that only two of his friends were joining the army. Then Denario saw that one of the boys wasn't a boy at all but actually the High Priestess of Damnet. As she marched closer, Denario could tell that she'd tied her hair back. She didn't carry any weapons. The two boys on either side of her had hunting spears like Jan's. One had a bow as well. The shorter fellow had a sling on his belt. The priestess seemed to be talking to him in a very earnest, animated fashion.

“You don't need to leave us to do your part,” she said. She struck the air with the blade of her hand for emphasis. “There's plenty for a bright lad to do around this town. I was going to teach you how to read the temple scrolls this fall.”

“I've already said my piece,” the boy replied. “You've met the refugees, your holiness. Jan and Lothar are going to do their part. I can't see doing anything else.”

“You've not met the knights.”

“I've seen them before.”

“Yes, when you were a child.” The priestess stopped, not more than ten feet from Tetron but ignoring him in favor of her conversation. “That's not the same as meeting them in a battle.”

“They're oath-breakers. You can see that. You said yourself that someone ought to do something about it.” The young man's face was set. Even Denario could tell that it was a lost cause for the priestess. She would never convince him.

She kept talking for a while anyway. Like the mayor of Phartsburg, the priestess felt that the Ogglian nobles ought to negotiate with the Mundredi. Denario had worked with the nobility and guessed that a knight might talk to the priestess herself if only to tell her what he expected from the village. That same knight would not talk to a simple peasant unless he needed to give a direct order. Negotiating with illiterate field workers or treating them with any kind of respect was out of the question.

The wheelwright's yard was littered with discarded hubs, broken spokes, axles, half-axles, raw pine logs, ropes, a pair of large gears with broken teeth, and unidentifiable splinters of other types of wood. Tetron had lived alone since his wife died in childbirth so he didn't bother to clean up beyond taking in his chisels, tyres, and other brass or copper parts that he was unwilling to let sit out in the rain. It was amidst this clutter that Denario, Accountant of Oggli and of the Mundredi Army, raised his right hand and took the oaths of three young men. He felt slightly ashamed as he did so. He suspected that, if Vir were here, he'd say that Denario didn't have the right to sign up recruits in such an official manner. Denario did it anyway. The young men were overjoyed.

The local priestess gave holy blessings to the oaths. Denario admired how she did the job in the face of her disappointment over losing Kris, the lad who was not only one of Jan's best friends but a confidant of nearly everybody in the village. When Kris took his oath, Jan's and Lothar's chests had visibly swelled. They were proud to have him.

Denario took leave of his senses for a moment. He dug to the bottom of his travel pack and awarded each boy a brass spear point. They were grateful – they bowed and they shoulder-hugged him – but the person most affected was Tetron, who knew how much wrought brass was worth. He almost raised his hand to thump Denario. But he paused, thought better of it, and fell into a sullen silence for a few minutes.

The group sat down to a ceremonial afternoon meal, which featured venison provided by the wheelwright. Judging by the stores he kept in his smoking shed, Tetron was an expert hunter and trapper. When they finished, the boys thanked everyone again. They loaded a cache of carefully prepared supplies onto a sledge and hiked off in the vaguely north-by-northwest direction of Fort Dred. Denario had a blinding flash of insight: they wouldn't make it. It was too far. Too much would surprise them between the plains and the hills. But he shut his mouth and waved.

“I'm bewildered to see you're not going,” the priestess whispered to Tetron. She, too, did her best to wave bravely.

“Someone's got to keep an eye on you,” the wheelwright answered. The words didn't seem to be meant kindly.

“Huh. Well, Lothar's been trouble. And I know you love Jan but I'm not too sorry to see him go. He was the ringleader. It's Kris that disappoints me. He could have been our next priest. He's so bright.”

“He wants to save the village. He thinks joining up is the way.”

“But you don't.”

“Not really. I might join up if the army came here again and had a plan to win. And they begged me.”

“That chief isn't going to beg anybody.”

“Aye. He's all right, I guess.”

“Kris is moving on to strange lands and strange gods. That's going to be awful for him to bear, even if he manages to live long enough to return. He thinks he can be a hero.”

“Maybe he can.”

“No, he's acting a fool. But fifteen year old boys are like that. I should know by now.”

Denario stopped waving. He stared at the priestess, who was ignoring him. He was tempted for the first time in his life to defend the right of boys to join the army. Even though he had been a fraud in accepting their vows, even though their cause looked like a losing one, Kris seemed to have understood the necessity of it in a way that the wheelwright and priestess didn't. Maybe they were too old and full of excuses. The boy had observed what was going on. He'd understood. Like it or not, a war was coming.
#

The town of Haph Fork was burning witches when I arrived around noon. The charred bodies dangled and twitched in the smoke, a gruesome sight. I don't know if they were truly witches or if they were sympathizers with the wrong clan in a local struggle. From the voices in the crowd, the married couple at the center may have been both. But it was hard to see why the town priest had felt necessary to burn the couple's child as well. That was the third, smaller woodpile. 

No one in Haph Fork bartered with me for math lessons. Since I didn't like the stares I got from folks in the village square, I decided not to spend my night there. Perhaps I was lucky that the ground was wet around my campsite and I couldn't start a fire because, in the middle of the night, some men thrashed through the underbrush nearby. I think they were looking for me. I held still and kept my spear close to hand. I could find no other weapon under the moonless sky. Foolishly, I'd stowed my sword out of reach between my traveling packs. I will not make that mistake again. 

This morning I found a bright side to the lack of hospitality. No one bothered me for free lessons or conversation. I had time for more math. An interesting series of vector equations came to me. It's likely that I'm remembering them from a guild library book that was donated by its author, a mathematician in Anghrili. I forget his name but the title is, "On Physicks" and it is our most advanced text on vectors. The physicks calculations describe how force is transferred between objects. The particular equations that I have in mind now have a practical application for creating armor. However, I don't think they've been applied in that area. 

The force (F) of an object is a vector projection of the imparting object (O) in its direction (X). This gives an odd-looking vector product of F = X(X • O • X).

The order of the vector products is crucial to getting to correct result. In this equation, as the direction becomes perpendicular, the force F reaches its maximum value. As the direction of the imparting object becomes parallel to the target, F approaches zero. The latter would be an equation for "a glancing blow," as the knights tell it. This means that a surface offering the least chance of a perpendicular strike should be the best armor. 

In short, the perfect armor shape is a sphere. 

This does not immediately appear to be a useful conclusion. But unless I am mistaken, it is the correct guiding principal for armorers. The more like a sphere the armor is, the better it will be at deflecting an attack. Everything else is a compromise between the ideal sphere of metal and the human form. Oggli knights currently favor sharp edges to their armor and even artificial "stomach muscles" but I realize that, in combat, those accommodations to vanity could be deadly imperfections. I'm quite sure that armor should have rounded edges where possible.

In addition, I'm sure that vector equations can be used to describe how a spear point is more deadly than a brass ball of the same mass. I have not seen this written anywhere. My list of math chores for this journey is growing long but I shall add this one as it may make a good footnote to the text in the guild library. 

Next: Chapter Fourteen, Scene Six