Sunday, August 13, 2017

Not Even Not Zen 89: A Bandit Accountant, 15.1

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Fifth Triangular

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 Fr├╝hlingburg, 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.

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