Sunday, July 9, 2017

Not Even Not Zen 85: A Bandit Accountant, 14.2

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Pair of Sevens

Scene Two: A Missed Knot
Scene Three: Starting a Fight

It's unfortunate that I had to swear an oath to light no more fires on these hills, Denario wrote in his journal. That led to my decision to travel around the West Valley range, not up high in the cold. This means four days added to the projected journey time. My apprentices would be disappointed by that but I see some possible advantages.

Plains make for an easier journey. I am warm at night even without a fire and I can set a fire to cook if I like because my oath does not apply. The people here are still Mundredi for the most part. They honor the coin I carry. And their farmlands are less isolated. Lately I've behaved as strangely as a hermit. Loneliness is the cause. I've become obsessed with my inner thoughts on mathematics to the point of sharing them with every person I meet. These rural folk aren't interested but I can't seem to keep myself from talking. 

At least they are tolerant. I have been shot at only twice more, both times from a great distance. One arrow stuck in my hauberk. It was too weak to penetrate as far as my mail shirt underneath. I was not harmed and the grandfather who had hit me fell to his knees as I approached. He started crying and tearing at his tunic when he saw the coin. After I talked with him about math for a bit, he decided I was either a madman or a clever spy. Then he offered me food.

In the last few days, I've met nearly sixty people! That is a lot but the towns here are larger than those in the hills. And the natives have variously regarded me as

a) an army scout
b) a holy man
c) a wizard 
d) a lunatic

or just as often, all at once. They do not know what I mean when I say I'm an accountant. I have mixed feelings about it but I seem to have outdistanced the song about my exploits. This means I need to prove myself constantly with local tally sticks and bits of geometry that farmers understand. This includes the wooden forms that are needed for grapevine trellises or beanpoles.

Aside from my geometry, I have solved three problems on tally sticks and one on a loom. The case of the loom came to me yesterday. A house of Mundredi weavers turned their unused equipment into an accounting system. 

The loom in question is ancient. The matron in charge of it inherited the device from her grandmother. Aside from the crudeness of its mechanisms and the thickness of its skeins, it is not remarkable in any way. However, the knots on it are crucial to her accounting.

The house of Texari in the clan of Angstmock in the tribe of Mundredi runs this system: each horizontal thread on the loom represents an amount; each vertical thread represents an item owed. Thus, a knot made on the intersection of the strings for bulgar and eight represents “eight bushels of bulgar owed to this house.” In each knot is tied a token of the house that owes the money to the Texari.

Two different types of knots are used. A shroud knot represents an asset owed to the Texari. These are the most common on the loom since the weaving house is wealthy. A figure-of-eight knot is used for a debt from their house to another. There are a few of those at any one time, usually on the lower rungs of the loom since the Texari family never owes more than small amounts.

The loom is so fragile and so difficult to manipulate that it serves as the somewhat-static system of record for the town of Angstmock. (The town and the clan have the same name.) I like the system because it is the equivalent of a Komaru Chart or perhaps a Encantar Point Plot. At a glance, one can see the state of the finances for the house. In this, it is superior to a tally stick and it is nearly equivalent to writing. However, the other clans do not trust it and show no signs of taking up the system themselves. They say that writing and knotting are susceptible to fraud.

That is, in fact, what happened in this case. The matron Frau Dona Texari asked me to review her system and point out any part that might have been the object of tampering. I had to tell her that I found several knots to be incorrect in some way, either too loose or, in the case of a figure-of-eight hitch, tied incorrectly into an overhand knot. Also, the warp of the loom had been cracked and glued as if to replace the bottom two strings without leaving any obvious sign.

The matron was furious. She called in her apprentices and had them tie knots for me using a similar, old loom. She made them hurry, hurry, and hurry even faster. In a few minutes, I understood that it was her goal to press them into making mistakes. The youngest apprentice, who I will not name, made the same error with figure-of-eights that we saw on the accounting loom. When she acted in haste, she missed a loop and instead created overhand knots.

Dona Texari sent her girls away. Then she asked me if she had caught the thief. I told her she had and she knew it. We had a long talk and I learned that Dona had started to doubt herself. She alone kept the accounts on the loom. Her girls told her that if there were mistakes on it, she must be getting forgetful. That deception angered her more than anything because she had been forced to consider that she was too old for her work.

In the end, Dona Texari decided not to demand that the girl, her grand-daughter, be tattooed for a life of slavery. That was a great relief for me as I didn't know that it is the custom punishment here for thievery. I knew I would be hated by townsfolk plenty enough without a harsh sentence against the girl. In this, I was proved correct as I received threats of death “regardless of the army” as young men phrased it to me. Dona Texari sneaked me out of Angstmock by way of a streambed path. She employed her nephews, both in the prime of their lives and well-regarded as armsmen, to be my guards for the day's journey.

During my escape, I pulled out my gambler's card deck and taught her nephews how to calculate odds. Both of them seemed to enjoy the lessons and I think the taller one understood my points on math quite well. We played a few card games when we reached the next town, which was large enough to have an ale house. The Texari men and other card players asked if I made a living by gambling. I had to admit that I didn't win enough for that. Everyone laughed at me but not in a bad way, I think. I'm starting to see the value of other men's laughter. Winkel always hated being the object of humor and he taught me his sense of pride. But I am wondering if it's necessary.

It turned out that the town mayor was among the card players. He introduced himself and asked if all accountants were as honest as me. I wasn't sure that I should denigrate our profession with my full opinion. So I replied that some are at least as honest. He said that was a tactful response. I can't recall anyone ever telling Winkel he was tactful, not in my presence.

Really, I am changing and I don't know if it's the loneliness or the journal. Master Winkel said that keeping a journal changed his life. I can see why. This has been a chance to reflect on more than accounting, more than formal logic, and more than pure math. I am learning secrets parts of my mind that I had not used before. 

I'm also learning how to make a crude theodolite, one without a lens. I can't measure steep vertical angles with it but it complements my astrolabe as I survey these lands. I must be at least a week from the river Vir mentioned. No one yet has heard of it.


“That's the Old Tongue short-hand for 'wheat' and this is the symbol used for 'hops.' Your wife's father was owed one tun of wheat and another tun of hops.” Denario pointed to carved symbols as he spoke. The mark for hops could have been mistaken for pine cones but the context made it clear.

This was an example of the tally system at its most basic. The symbols on the pinewood were a mix of Old Tongue letters, Old Tongue short-hand known as 'chop marks,' and a smattering of the West Ogglian languages. Words like 'medicine,' 'doctor,' 'horse,' and 'housecat' had been lifted straight from modern tongues. Presumably, there had been no words for those concepts before the creation of the Muntabi empire. Likewise, there had been no spice names except 'onion' and no higher math concepts like 'logarithm' or even 'multiply.' Those words were strictly modern, too.

The Seven Valleys had once been a primitive place, haunted by magical monsters, dwarfs, trolls, and herds of rough beasts. The log home around Denario looked as primitive as any city man could expect. Yet within a few minutes, Denario had noticed some surprising sophistications. The builders had stuffed large cuts of moss between the tree trunks. Mud filled the small gaps around the joints at the corners. The roof had been hastily thrown on with reeds and something sticky to hold them together. To Denario's surprise, all of these things made for an arrangement that was better insulated than most homes in Oggli.

He had come to associate crude construction with inefficiency but that wasn't the case. The morning was blustery but he didn't feel any wind inside the one-room hut. Mundredi peasant homes like this one were quite solid except for their doors and windows, if they had any. In this case, the front door was made of sticks sewn together by rawhide, a sort of curtain that rolled up or down with the pull of a string. That was clever. But it wasn't airtight, not even when the woman of the house pinned it in place with a wooden nail. Moreover, the arrangement was unwieldy enough that it was left open most of the time, rolled up to the top. It faced away from the prevailing wind. In different weather, it was probably a source of discomfort.

“The marks are clear,” Denario continued. He pulled his gaze away from the rickety door-curtain and back to the tally stick. “There's been no obvious attempt to change them. The debt is owed to your clan and specifically to your house so you should be able to recover what's owed.”

“That's not bad,” the farmer said. He opened his hand palm up to let the accountant return the stick, which Denario did. “It's better than I'd hoped.”

“That's all well and fine.” The fellow's wife folded her arms in a way that looked a bit angry. “No offense to my father, may his soul rest in peace, but this is typical. He was too lazy to travel four miles to collect his debt from the church. Now we'll have to travel five miles, maybe more, and for the last part of the return we'll have no road. How will we carry all that grain on our little cart? It's not possible. He left his big cart to my sister.”

“We could borrow her cart,” the husband ventured.

“And what will we do when we have the grain? Two tuns? It's more than the four of us can plant or use.” With that, she put a hand on her smallest child.

“In these situations, it's common to bargain down to three-quarters of the value in the form of livestock,” Denario said. “That way, the debt can walk to your house on four legs.”

“Not a bad idea.” The farmer turned toward his north wall. There, he hung up the tally stick on a peg he'd jammed into the moss. The tally had rested on his wall for over a month, apparently, waiting for the arrival of someone like Denario who could read it. The nearest semi-professional tally man lived two villages southward in Mickleburg and he demanded that his clients travel to him. “Will you walk into town to speak for us? You're a waldi with no stake in the matter. The priestess might listen.”

Denario tried not to sigh. There was nothing glamorous about jobs like these but they were providing a good living for him as he traveled. He suspected that he was eating better than most of the local men. About ten percent of the young fellows appeared to be refugees from other towns. Those towns generally lay to the southeast, where the Ogglian barons had laid waste to their countryside and where Denario needed to go. He shouldn't mind putting off that southern turn a little longer.

An hour later, they'd reached the outskirts of the village.

“So you're here for the army?” the farmer asked as he led them toward the only temple. The main road led straight up to it.

“The army gave me the coin for a safe journey,” said Denario. He touched the blue, glassy pendant that rested just below his collarbone. “But I'm only an accountant. I'm not really a soldier.”

“Do ye send letters back to the chief?”

“Yes, from every third town as I travel south and east.” It was an odd thing for him to do, maybe. He'd gone beyond Vir's requests. He'd sent coded letters describing all of the things he thought Yannick or Vir might find interesting – refugees resettling, gods and goddesses making people restless, a few men walking around in leather armor, bowyers and fletchers everywhere, flint knappers making arrow heads and spear points – he wrote to Vir about everything but his math theories. There seemed to be plenty of people headed north who would carry his letter for the price of a handful of jerky. “After I reach No Map Creek, wherever that is, I'll sail down to the Lamp Kill, then to the Riggle Kill. A bit further, where the Riggle Kill meets the Complacent Sea, I'll find my apprentices.”

“You have more than one?”

“Yes and I swore an oath to them.” Denario summarized the story he'd told many times of how Winkel had died and left his business and his obligations. “Anyway, the important part is that I need to take care of those boys. I swore oaths to the chief and to other folks to take this route home.”

“The gods protect us.” The farmer made a sign over forehead that Denario hadn't seen before. They must worship yet another a local deity around here. “If yer here to fulfill yer oaths, it's the will of them above. They'll guide ye.”

The farmwife made a similar sign over her brow and her stomach.

“Damnet,” she said.

The accountant puzzled over that for a moment. He decided not mention that one of the oaths he'd taken had been to light no fires on the hillsides of West Valley. These farm folks had liked his reading of the tally. They might worship a strange god but they'd fed him a fine lunch and they'd packed his bags full of oats, onions, cheese, and chicken sausages. He didn't want to undercut their confidence in him.

As a family group, they walked around the temple grounds and looked for the priestess, who wasn't to be found. A passer-by told them she was out gathering herbs. She wasn't in the herb garden, though, so everyone guessed that she had gone into the woods. They'd have to wait. Quite a few folks wanted to talk to Denario, whom they regarded as a curiosity. He had no visible clan markings. His gear marked him as a soldier. Some of the youngest town inhabitants had moved west or north to avoid fighting with troops sent by Baron Ankster. They couldn't believe that Denario planned to walk right through their old home towns. When they found out that he wanted to talk about math, though, they gave up and talked to the farm couple about the debts the church owed to them.

A small crowd waited for the priestess. After half an hour, Denario began to draw his most recent set of logic equations in the dirt. This was his meta-mathematics and, as he remembered it from the books by Gauss, he felt he was coming to understood why he was making mistakes. Instead of moving typographically according to the formal rules of the system, Denario had been leaping ahead to the meanings of each statement.

Denario scribbled furiously in the dirt for an hour. First, he laid out the postulates that Gauss couldn't do without. Then he laboriously stepped from equation to equation. He'd done some of this work before on paper but he'd skipped steps. In fact, he'd gotten things a bit wrong. The more he worked, the more he was sure that his work in the journal was incorrect. He'd have to start over and this time try to shut down his mathematical intuition. It was getting in the way of his proof. A proof had to be utterly meticulous ...

“Don't step there!” Denario yelled.

The next thing he knew, he was in the air. He hit something and went rolling down on the ground. In his arms he found a big farmer who had almost trod through his equations. It occurred to him, just then, that he'd just knocked the man over. He'd tackled him full force. That wasn't much, usually, but the weight of the armor had done the rest.

So he was in a sort of fight. The townsfolk started yelling and cheering. The farmer starting hitting Denario with meaty fists but he did it weakly and only on Denario's armored shoulders. The poor man was hurting himself. And Denario was wrestling with him but, really, it was because he wanted to get away. The damn chain mail under his shirt was heavy and he needed something sturdy, like this man's chest and face, to push off of in order to rise up. When he finally succeeded, it became a fight to keep the farmer off of the math equations again because the big man started rolling that direction. After all the trouble, Denario wasn't going to let him erase the work.

That's when Denario started hitting him. This is ridiculous, he thought. He had picked a fight! None of the apprentices would believe it if he told them. Although they would probably believe that it had happened over mathematics.

The scuffle ended when both men got up and fell down together again. This time, the weight of Denario's armor exhausted them both.

They lay there for nearly half a minute. Someone started walking towards Denario's equations again and Denario found the strength to jump to his feet.

“What, is it magic?” the stranger asked as the accountant waved him away.

Denario tried to explain. But the townsfolk had considered him incomprehensible already, a bit like a frothing-mad priest or a babbling wizard. The fight over his equations only confirmed their view that he was a lunatic.

By the time the priestess returned with a basket of fiddleheads, mushrooms, spring onions, and rose petals, the townsfolk couldn’t wait to get rid of Denario. They pressed the farmer's case before the priestess even put down her basket. The debtor stick was presented for all to see. Denario explained it. The priestess, for her part, listened patiently and asked a few questions that showed she understood tally marks quite well. She took the rod from Denario’s hands.

“This isn’t a debt that my temple owes,” she said. She sat down on the front step of her lodging house beside the temple. She didn’t unstring her door. That would have invited twenty people into her home or, almost as bad, excluded people who felt they had to be witnesses. “This is a debt on the part of the church in West Bow.”

“Will they make good on the debt?” Denario’s client farmer asked.

The priestess handed back the stick to him rather haughtily. “They’re sworn to Damnet to do so.”

“Will you speak for us, Priestess Vemtt?”

“For six loves of barley bread and six loaves of wheat bread.”

Somone whistled.

“Who did that?” she snapped. “Is it someone who’s going to volunteer their time? Is it a man who’ll donate more to the temple this month so we can set in our stores for the winter without traveling to West Bow?”

“Um, no, priestess.” The offender stepped forward and bowed his head. His hair was shorn. He had a scar across the middle of his nose. He looked every bit the desperado that Denario was not and yet he feared the wrath of his priestess. Through her, presumably, he feared the farm god.

“And what about this reading?” The Priestess of Dammet turned her sharp tongue to the accountant. “Have you received payment for this deciphering? I suppose you’ve taken food. You look the vagabond type. How do we know that you haven’t just said what these folks wanted to hear?”

“Counting is my profession. I swore an oath to Melcurio when I joined my guild. I’ll swear the oath again if I must. But I need payments, just as you do. To fulfill my oaths to my apprentices, I must travel east. And for that, I must have proper supplies.”

“East? Toward the bloodshed?” the priestess glanced up. She caught the glint of the blue medallion on Denario's breast. She announced, “An army spy! That’s what you are. You folks have brought a spy among us.”

Denario sighed but he didn't bother to contradict her. In every town or hamlet, the citizens assumed he was on an army mission. No one ever believed him when he said that he wasn’t.

“If so, I’m a spy for your side … for the Mundredi army, that is.”

“They’re not our army. Not our only army, anyway.” She put her hands on her hips. She didn’t care for the looks she was getting from the farmers and farmwives but, for now, she stared them down. “Yes, the Captain De Acker is a tribal chief but what does that mean?”

“You mean Chief Vir Angalic De Acker?” said Denario, wondering which of the dozens of times he’d heard Vir introduced that he remembered that entire long name from.

“That’s the rascal. He’s part of the old ways. We whose fathers left the valleys years ago need to keep to the new ways. We’re sworn, now. Some of us are, anyway. Our mayors and major land holders have sworn to uphold the laws of Baron Ankster. He says our old chief is a bandit.”

Denario hadn’t thought about that point. Up until now, none of the peasant folk had mentioned their conflicts in loyalty between the old ways and the new.

“But … and I say this as a man of Oggli,” he rebutted. “It looks like the Baron and his knights aren’t making good on their part of those oaths. They’re sworn to their gods to take taxes from you, keep the laws of the land, and otherwise let you live in peace. But they’re not doing that. They’re driving the Mundredi out of the farms. Sometimes they just slaughter and loot with no sense to it.”

“So say you and a few disgruntled boys. Who knows what those boys have really seen? I get messages from my gods and goddesses and from the other priestesses and witches in the plains. They say that most of the folks are living in peace.”

Denario shrugged. “Well, I’ll find out for sure. I’m going east. I have letters of transit from several town mayors. I suppose I can’t expect that here. But I could use a place to spend the night if anyone can spare it.”

“Ye kin stay with me,” said a rough, gray-bearded man. He was bald at the crown of his head but so furry everywhere else that he gave the impression of being a were-creature. Around here, that was possible. But magical or not, his personality was force enough to quiet everyone. He gave the priestess such a glare that she sat back down on her front stoop.

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