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, Fr├╝hlingburg, 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 Fr├╝hlingburg, 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.”

Next: Chapter Fifteen, Scene One

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