Chapter Pair of Sevens
Scene One: Into the Plains
He glanced around at the grassy hillside. There weren't many trees around, thankfully. All were balsam firs of some kind with high, thick branches. None of them looked close enough to catch fire from the boughs he'd used for shelter. But maybe that depended on whether the grass would burn from tree to tree. The lack of water on the hill posed a pressing problem.
Denario backed up about thirty feet. He could feel the warmth of the fire even from this distance. A lump under his right arm reminded him that he held the pyrite and quartz. He quickly set his things down and repacked. He hid the tools that showed what he'd done at the bottom of his supplies. When he finished, his heart settled down for a moment. It was no longer beating so hard that he could feel it in his throat.
Then, with forced calmness, he put his hands on his hips and surveyed the burning fir tree. Looked at from the viewpoint of the whole hill, it wasn't too bad. What he needed to do was contain it. That meant removing anything that would burn.
That's how they found him. He was dragging away sticks and pine needles when a family of local farmers came up the hill.
“What happened?” the man shouted.
Denario ignored him and kept working. He didn't know quite what to say.
“Don't drag it uphill,” said the woman coming up behind her man. “That's where the fire is going. Don't you know anything?”
“But the tree will fall downhill,” Denario pointed out.
“Well, maybe,” she allowed. She wiped her hands on her apron. She looked like she'd just come from cooking the family dinner. “But fire burns up, not down. If the tree falls down the hill and doesn't find any fuel upslope, we'll all be safer.”
“Right.” Denario had to agree that she made good sense. He changed his direction and dragged the dead branch he was carrying sideways along the slope.
For a while, the farmer, his wife, and their three children helped Denario in relative silence. The two older boys shouted commands to each other and accepted directions from their mother. The youngest, a girl of five years, hovered around her father as he scraped away pine needles and other flammable debris.
“How did you end up here?” Denario asked as he passed by the farmer with an armful of dry grass. “I could see your farm by its chimney smoke but it's a long ways away. I figured you would be asleep before I could get there.”
“Ah.” The farmer nodded to himself. “It's funny. I heard a wolf howl. That's what it sounded like to me, anyway, although I heard no other sign of an animal near. I unshuttered the window to look out. Didn't spy any wolf or dog but I could see this tree on the west nob starting to catch fire. The wife said we might as well get up and go have a look.”
“I'm glad you did.”
“Careless with a cook fire?” the man said in a rather accusatory tone.
Denario grunted assent. He wasn't making any friends here so he might as well admit his blame. What this fellow thought wasn't even as bad as what he'd done.
“Where's your sergeant?”
“What do you mean?” The question bewildered Denario for an instant but he soon started to see the sense of it, given how he was dressed.
“Did you run away from the army?” The fellow's eyes glinted, as sharp in the reflected light as his voice had become. “Not that you'd be the first oath breaker around here but I hear they kill deserters now.”
“I haven't broken any oaths.” Denario made the holy 8 for Melcurio over his chest. “In fact, I'm traveling in this direction in order to keep my oaths to my apprentices. And I haven't run away from the army. The army left me in Pharts Bad. The Mundredi army, that is.”
The farmer leaned in close to Denario and seemed to really notice him for the first time.
“Yer a waldi!” he exclaimed.
Denario had heard this complaint many times before. Of course, those confrontations had been in the daylight and he hadn't set fire to anyone's property. He hoped this encounter wouldn't turn ugly.
“How'd a waldi get all the way into these hills?” cried the wife as she trudged toward them along the slope. Out of breath after carrying one branch, she turned and gestured to her boys behind her. “The real work to stop the fire is done. Our kids can handle the rest.”
The job wasn't as finished as Denario would have liked but apparently it was good enough for the folks who lived here. The woman's two sons had dropped their bundles and taken to swatting at each other with sticks. Beside them, the pine tree burned in a half-hearted way. It wasn't so dry as to catch on the trunk. The fuel that had stoked most of the flames had been removed. At this point, the moon provided as much light as the dwindling blaze of tinder. Soon even that feeble glow would fade to nothing.
The little girl clung to her daddy's leg. She kept an eye on her parents rather than the fire.
“Ye can tell me everything ye've told me husband,” the woman said. She finished smiling at her daughter. Her expression toughened.
“Weren't much,” her husband complained.
“All I said was that I haven't run away from the army. I'm a waldi, it's true, but I have the army's leave to travel. Plus I've got letters of transit from Phart's Bad and Double Bad.”
“We know Double Bad.” The wife raised her eyebrows but she inclined her head in acknowledgment, an expression of her wait-and-see acceptance. “But regardless, we'll have to warn our neighbors about you and your fires.”
“We should have a look at that letter.” Her husband pulled his gaze away from the embers of the tree. “One of our neighbors can read a bit.”
Denario sighed. “Fair enough. It's addressed to 'Denario, Accountant of Oggli and of the Mundredi Army' even though the mayor knew perfectly well that ...”
The middle-aged couple broke into laughter.
“What's so funny?” Denario asked.
“You're an accountant?” said the woman. “Really?”
“Ach! Hilde, I've figured it out.” The big farmer wrapped his right arm around Denario. He gave him an affectionate squeeze. “The story we heard sung is a true one. Probably all of it, from the looks of him.”