Sunday, May 21, 2017

Not Even Not Zen 79: A Bandit Accountant, 13.2

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Baker's Dozen

Scene Two: Strange Snow

Around the time Denario crested Tree Stump hill, he was mentally reviewing the tax accounts for Ziegeburg. There was no particular reason to do it. He had written the story of his findings in his log book already. He just enjoyed re-thinking the math.

Years ago at a temple in the town of Flieshopphen, north of Oggli, Denario had stopped with a team of accountants and surveyors from the Count of Oggli. The monks there had advised everyone to empty their minds. That was supposed to be better for noticing the world around them. Master Winkel, the survey leader, had responded that an empty mind was fine for someone who had nothing to do. An accountant always had work. He'd told Denario to keep on thinking about math. So he always did.

And in his idle time, Denario wondered about math, geometry, and business. He liked to test his cleverness and his memory. The light was waning as he marched across the flat hilltop. Denario counted his steps. He counted the flower buds among the grasses. The rest of his thought process drifted along in the Ziegeburg work:

7,342 in silver and the emperor gets 10 percent ... 

Wind rushed through a meadow of heather downhill from him. It cast the scent of the heather into his face.

That’s 734, no, 735 actually, forgot to round up ... anyway, it's too bad there's no emperor anymore because he won't get his share ... 

Beyond the meadow, a hedge bush trembled. Denario could smell a hearth fire, too, but he'd smelled other distant fires and he hadn't seen a soul all day. He put his hand on the hilt of his sword. For a moment, he listened to the noise of bushes. Vir had taught him that habit.

Plus ten for the traditional tax collector fee, which in Ziegeburg goes to Burgher Figgins, so that’s 745 ... 

The wind felt glorious and cool through the vents in his hauberk. A snowflake drifted down no more than ten feet in front of him. He was surprised. Protected by layers of crude armor, he hadn't noticed that the weather was harsh enough for that. He felt warm and safe. Nothing moved except the heather, the bushes, and Denario. He removed his hand from his sword.

Take away 742 ... that’s 6,600 minus 3 ... 

He tromped through the heather. Not a bird or rabbit bounded away from him. Odd, he thought. He hadn't seen many animals.

That meant 6,597 minus the duke’s share ... the duke gets the emperor's share and his own ... except the count skims a percentage off of the top ... 

Even as a child, Denario had found that he could carry out quite complex equations and sophisticated steps in logical philosophies while remaining intensely aware of his surroundings.

Another few snowflakes drifted in. He smiled at them. In his third travel pack, strapped to his pack, he had a roll of furs wrapped around a tiny bolt of linen. He could withstand a blizzard in his gear, not that he would face one. It was spring. This was just a gentle dusting of a hilltop.

As he reached the end of the meadow and headed downslope into a thicket of trees, the snow changed. It blew hard down the back of his neck. It started sticking to the ground.

He moved his spear from his left hand to the right. That is, he tried to switch hands. He couldn't. The shaft of the spear stuck to his glove.

“Aaah,” he grunted. He tried again. He wanted to use the butt of his spear to steady his scramble down the muddy patch of slope, except now it was becoming a snow-covered muddy patch.

He crouched and knelt to look at the pale swath of ground. The snow on it wasn't melting into water. It was turning into a sort of thick, white glue. He stood and managed to move the sticky spear from his left hand to his right. It nearly took his glove with it. He studied the palm of his glove. It was covered in what seemed to be glue.

He sniffed at the white stuff. It was, in fact, glue. All of it was. Flakes of glue were tumbling out of the evening sky. Damn it! The gods were mad. Or maybe he'd simply wandered into a high-magic area.

“Stupid!” He smacked himself in the forehead with his left hand. That stuck his left glove to his face for a moment. He started to panic.

“AAAaaah!” he screamed. He tried to wipe the glue from his left eye with his sleeve. But his sleeve was covered in glue. “Damn!”

He realized that he could still see if he left his face alone. He only needed to stop wiping himself with the insidious, magic snow. He ripped the glove away. He forced his arms to his side. But he was twitching. He found it hard to hold still. And in a few seconds he realized that holding still might be a very, very bad thing to do. How much magic glue could fall on him here? He didn't want to find out.

He started to run. He tried to find thickets of tall trees. He ran from cover to cover as best as he could. In a few minutes, he'd reached the relative safety of a pine grove. But the snow blew down his back in gusts even here. Did he want to hide under these boughs from the worst of the storm? Not really, he guessed. It would be bad enough to get snowed in. It would be worse to get glued in. He sniffed again. Over the smell of the glue there was the campfire that he'd noticed earlier. It was close and it would provide shelter. It had to. Anyone living near a high magic area knew what they were doing. He'd better find that person soon.

He kept running in the direction of the smoke. He tried to stay under the trees but the glue landed on his hat, his jerkin, his gloves, and everywhere else. It kept finding him. He wondered: since it was magical could it be trying to get him?

Finally, he came to a clearing. About fifty yards away stood a log hut. There was a barn behind it and a chicken coop to the side. The hut had windows, shutters closed. Light came through the slits of the shutters. Beside the house was a patch of mud that led to the barn. Not much glue had fallen there or someone had removed a part of it.

“Rrrrrraaah!” He sprinted as best as he could but he wasn't fast even in the best of circumstances. He'd been figuratively running in glue his whole life. Doing it literally was worse than he could have dreamt. He worried that if he slowed, his boots would lock in place in the inch of paste that covered the front yard.

He worried about trampling the spring crops these folks had planted but surely the wheat stalks were dead now, just as he would be if he fell.

Naturally, he slipped and fell. A window on the cabin opened. Denario glanced at it and saw a silhouette there, perhaps a woman's face. And in the moment of his distraction he stepped into a hidden pile of manure. That sent him to the ground in a splash of brown dung and white mush. The packs, the spear, the sword, his armor, the buckler on his back, and everything else conspired to drag him down, including the adhesive between him and the ground. But he got up. Covered by mud, dung, grass, snow, and glue, he rose and kept running.

“Aaah!” he screamed as he reached the closed front door. It was a good oak one, almost rectangular and cut from a single tree. “I mean, barn! Aaah! Can I take shelter in your barn? Please!”

“Go ahead,” said a woman's voice. Then the door pulled open. A matron in a gray dress and her husband, dressed in overalls and rain gear, stared at him. “It's still glue?”

“Aaaah! Yes! I mean, yes.” Denario lowered his voice.

“Come on in. We have a magic scrub for that.”

Denario stepped into the middle the doorway. He stared at the patch of bearskin carpet beneath him. He dripped a spot of glue onto it.

“Are you sure?” he said.

“He's small enough,” the man, who Denario had first take to be a farmer but who had all his front teeth, a solid jaw, and the speech of a somewhat-educated man. He waved a gray, shiny rock over Denario's head. “And he's not a murderer.”

“Really?” Denario swallowed. “Look, I need your help. But I don't want to deceive you. Your rock is broken.”

“The shaman says it's fine. But from what you're saying, I guess you've killed.” The big fellow didn't seem concerned. In his rain gear he looked a bit like a priest. Maybe he was one. That would be an explanation for his living out here. “Was it self-defense?”

Denario nodded.

“Get in here!” the woman suddenly shouted. “You're letting in the glue!”

That was a sentence Denario had never expected to hear in his life but it made perfect sense. His legs obeyed her. She shut the door behind him.

He stood and dripped on their patch of bearskin for a minute while they studied him. He knew he had to look pathetic, mostly. On the other hand, he worried how the baselard and spear would seem. This farm couple probably couldn't tell at a glance that Denario was incompetent with his weapons.

The woman giggled. She tried not to show it. She hid her smile behind an open hand.

“Sorry.” She blushed. “I think you are the shortest and skinniest warrior I've ever seen.”

“You've got an Ogglian accent!” Denario exclaimed as he realized it.

“So do you!” The woman and her husband recognized at the same time. The big fellow spoke like someone who'd had a formal education in the city. He grinned as he clapped Denario on the shoulder. Then he made a disgusted face. He'd smacked the dung and glue. Some of it had spattered onto his beard.

“I'm an accountant, actually.” Denario decided not to tell him about what was in his beard. “I'm a member of the Oggli and Anghrili guild.”

“With a shield strapped to your back?” The woman chuckled openly.

“You are on the worst assignment ever,” her husband agreed.

Priest or not, the man in the raincoat knelt as if to pray. When he arose a few seconds later, the gray stone was gone and he held a black stone in his right hand. There had to be something magic about it because whenever he waved it over Denario, the stone glowed a purplish-green color. And everywhere it went within a few inches of Denario's skin, it made the covering of glue and snow disappear. In a moment, Denario's shoulder was clear except for a few spatters of cow dung.

“That's amazing!” he said.

“It's what lets us live in a high magic area like this one,” the man said. “Otherwise, we couldn't keep any animals or grow most kinds of food. I'm Jake, by the way.”

Introductions were made all around while the cleansing process went on. The woman's name was Hadewig. As Denario listened to her talk a bit more, he realized that she had to come from Oggli's 'new rich' class – not the nobility but the merchants, tradesmen, and even wizards who had done well in the past generation. The 'old rich' families grumbled about their presence but they paid their taxes in full so the count loved them. He let the merchants start schools. Even girls could go to school in Oggli. From the words she used, Hadewig revealed that she'd been one of those girls.

“And here she is,” Hadewig said. Denario glanced to his left. The woman had been talking about someone and Denario had been paying so much attention to her mannerisms and idioms of speech that he had to mentally catch up with her meaning.

It was her daughter to whom she pointed. This little three year old girl was the reason the family had come to Tree Stump Hill.

The girl wore a green dress. Her wide, curious eyes were pale blue. And she had a river of mucus streaming from her nose to nearly her chin. She looked perfectly normal for a toddler.

“Are you an elf?” She took her fingers out of her mouth to ask the question. Her hand glistened with mucus. For once, Denario wasn't worried about a child touching him. He was clearly as much of a mess as she was, probably more.

“No, sorry.” Were elves good magical creatures or bad ones? Denario wasn't clear on that point. But he was pretty sure that if he'd been one, someone would have mentioned it. “I count things. I make calculations. And I draw pictures. I do geometry. That's lots and lots of pretty pictures.”

“Huh.” She stuck her fingers in her mouth again.

“Do you count things?” he asked hopefully. He was never sure where to start with children. But if the girl had an interest in math, he knew he could get along with her somehow.

The girl shook her head no. In case she was lying, Denario glanced at her mother. Hadewig didn't notice Denario, however, as she was too busy casting a concerned gaze upon her daughter. It looked like she had neglected Tabitha's education here in the home or parts of it, at least. That was normal for a girl child. Nevertheless, it might not seem acceptable to Hadewig.

“Hey, uh, Denario. Spread your arms and legs a bit more,” requested Jake. Denario moved without worrying about the glue so much. The magic rock kept doing its work. He could tell that anything that dripped from him would be easy to clean.

When the job was halfway done, Jake handed the rock over to Denario, who immediately cleaned up the mess he'd made on their floor. That removed a burden of guilt from his mind and met with nods of approval from Jake and Hadewig. The toddling girl, however, backed away from the rock as if she knew it too well and didn't like it. Was there something bad about its magic or was there something wrong with the girl?

“You know, I don't understand why you're here for, uh ...” He hesitated as he cleaned his boot. He searched for the name he knew that Hadewig had mentioned.

“Tabitha,” Hadewig supplied.

“Your girl looks fine. Very healthy. And you both seem so educated ...” He didn't know how to finish.

“She has a problem.” Her father walked over to Tabitha and took her hand.

“It's her stomach,” clarified Hadewig although that didn't help Denario much.

“Hadewig's father is a magical supplier of sorts,” Jake continued. “He works for wizards. Does quite well, too. Back when Tabitha was young and sickly, we took her to a few doctors. No luck. She wasn't growing. She couldn't take anything other than mother's milk. She was growing thinner and thinner. We thought she'd die. But Hadewig's father took our girl to a wizard who said she had a magic deficiency.”

“Is there such a thing?” Denario wondered, perhaps rudely.

“That's what I asked. But the wizard said that Tabitha needed a bit of steady magic to help her digest food. In the end, he was shown to be right. The problem was in our daughter's stomach.”

“My father traded something to have us sent out here,” Hadewig said.

“He didn't say what, exactly.” Jake scowled. He apparently didn't like to be in debt to his father-in-law. Denario didn't understand the feeling but he'd seen it before in married men.

“So we came out here to where there's a natural, magical background radiation. Tabitha has been fine ever since, as you can see.”

Denario crouched to eye level with the girl as he brushed the glue from his other boot. She slunk behind her father's leg to avoid him, though.

“Every now and then,” said Hadewig, “my father sends us back home to see how Tabitha handles it. She's getting better. In another two years, the wizards say, she'll be ready to stay in Oggli.”

“Oh really?” Denario immediately saw the possibilities. “That's where I'm headed. When do you go for a visit next?”

Hadewig turned her grimace on Denario. He got the impression she used that look a lot. But she didn't answer. On the other side of Denario, her husband shook his head.

“It's done by magic,” he explained. “It's just us. And we don't get any warning.”

“Ah.” Denario slumped for a moment. Then he resumed his self cleaning. He'd dripped a spot of white glue on the rug. The glowing black stone wiped it out. It didn't feel particularly magical although it had a different texture from most rocks that he'd held. It was irregular and raw. The edges were rough and occasionally jagged but it was smooth in places, too, as if it had been melted. It was heavy, like metal ore.

As he crouched, he stole a glance at Tabitha. The little girl had inched into the open. She kept one hand firmly wrapped in her father's raincoat.

“Have you seen an elf?” she asked him.

He shook his head.

“I have,” she announced.


“Not quite,” explained Hadewig. She wiped her hands on her dress, an action that naturally resulted from touching her daughter's cheek. “She's seen some things, though. That's why she's on the lookout for more. Jake is an animal doctor. He keeps pets. He's got the cutest little knocker-fox in the barn. In fact, I met Jake when he took such wonderful care of my kitty, Mister Roughbottom.”

“And is Mister Roughbottom ...?”

“Oh, he's still with us. The wizard sent him here and he doesn't get to go back. Roughbottom stayed inside all winter, poor thing, but now that the weather is nice he's decided he can live out in the barn. The knocker-fox has learned not to eat him and there are mice that the dogs and fox can't hunt, most of them not too magical. Those are perfect for a cat.”

“Roughbottom caught a mouse that changed into a little man, though,” Jake sighed. “We decided to let that one go. It was probably a gnome but thankfully not one of the powerful kind. I don't think it cast a curse on us or anything.”

Denario finished his second boot. He stood and prepared to clean his hat and his neck. He hesitated as he wondered how to reach around between his shoulders.

“Don't worry about doing your head,” Jake said. “The stone won't hurt the magic you've got up there. It only sops up the raw, natural stuff and not even all of that. Magic snow and goose down are the best things for it.”

“Goose down?” Denario had been about to ask why Jake thought he had magic in his head. But the question about weather was what came out of his mouth.

“Yes, we had a snowstorm of goose down this winter. It was awful.”

“It sounds rather warm,” Denario ventured. It would have been an improvement over glue.

“Everyone thinks that.” Jake's shoulders slumped. “It nearly killed the pigs and chickens. Nearly got me, too. I had to work with a mask on. It was lucky that I had the pens and stalls already built in the barn.”

“He sneezed for hours!” Hadewig put a hand over her heart. “Let me tell you, it was no fun for any of us. Tabitha and I were in no danger, I suppose, but it didn't feel that way. We stayed locked in for two days.”

“Finally, a rain came.” Jake nodded. He daughter tugged on his coat and, absent-mindedly, he lifted her up. “I expected it to just tamp down the stuff. Come morning, though, the down was gone completely.”

“Raw magic,” his wife snorted. “It never lasts. Not like the real stuff. That gets made by wizards and stays where it should.”

Jake turned his shoulders for a moment. It was apparent that he didn't want his wife to see him roll his eyes. But Denario noticed and agreed with Jake's sentiment. Hadewig was a smart woman. However, her excellent impression of magic was based upon her father's business and the reputable wizards involved in it.

Denario's impression of magic came from rather rascally wizards and their badly made trinkets. Those made magic seem untameable. Magic did not really stay put and do what wizards told it. It took on life of its own. A finger that a wizard magically re-attached to an axeman might get into bad moods. It might not cooperate in holding the axe. That was dangerous for everyone.

All in all, limbs coming to lives of their own was why soldiers avoided asking their wizards for medical assistance. Magic couldn't be trusted. That was why Denario paid close attention to the magic he was doing at the moment. He finished cleaning his hat. The dark lump did whatever it did to make the glue disappear. He checked it and made another pass to catch a lingering stickiness.

“Don't trust it now?” Jake murmured. He must have noticed the concern on Denario's face.

Denario glanced at Hadewig.

“It's working very, very well,” he said despite his sense of wariness about it. When he finished a few minutes later, he heaved a sigh of relief.

“Looks like you're here until the glue fades.” Jake accepted the dark, magic rock from Denario's outstretched hand. He ran two fingertips over its rough edges. Then he flipped it from his left hand to his right and slipped it into a pocket on his rain slicker.

“I don't suppose you need any accounting done?” Denario asked hopefully. He wanted a way to pay for his stay.

“You could help in the barn,” the animal doctor said with a smile.

“No, Tabitha needs a math tutor.” Hadewig put her hands on her hips. She seemed shocked by her husband's idea. She'd had hers first, probably.

“You could tutor our daughter, of course.” Jake sighed. “And maybe help a little in the barn. Just a little.”

Next: Chapter Thirteen, Scene Three

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