Sunday, September 17, 2017

Not Even Not Zen 94: A Bandit Accountant, 15.6

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Fifth Triangular Number

Scene Six: The Story of Einpferd Wad 

“The last of the snow melted weeks ago,” Hermann said as the boys built up the campfire. Although it wasn't yet dusk, the Ansels were setting up camp because it had been a hot day's march. “I'm surprised we haven't seen others on the road.”

The boys and Valentina nodded.

All of the travelers were hungry and Hermann had carried meat that needed stewing. There probably wasn't much danger that the smoke would give them away. The boys said they hadn't seen anyone for days. The Ansels kept watch nevertheless. In the hour it took to get water from a ditch and set the blaze with a glowing coal carried from home in a freshwater clam shell, they spied no one coming from the south or the north.

“Everyone's afraid to travel,” Herman began again. He handed Valentina back her clam shell with a fresh fire ember inside. “But there are flower blossoms and nuts to eat. Anyone provisioned to keep warm can journey freely. That includes the knights and their mercenaries although we haven't seen them.”

“Oh, those. They're coming.” The younger boy, Franzel, dropped an armload of sticks. He and his friend Adalwolf were careless in their chores. It was astonishing that they'd gotten this far, nearly eight miles from their home. “They sent a messenger to Einpferd Wad.”

“You said that's your town?”

“Yes,” replied the boy. He set his hand on his hips. “The messenger told everyone that the Ogglis and Waldis were to free to take any lands held by Mundredi families.”

“Really? What about the Raduar families?” Denario interrupted. “Sorry, but I notice you have some Raduar tattoos, Franz.”

“I don't think the Ogglis know the difference between the tribes.” The boy wasn't offended. In fact, he glanced at the tattoo that had given away his heritage, the familiar sword in front of a sun.

“That sounds right,” Hermann confirmed. “None of the Ogglis, anyway, have ever shown me a sign that they know there are other tribes in the valleys. They're barely aware of the clans and houses of the Mundredi living among them.”

“There's nothing wrong with Franzel,” said the older boy, Adalwolf. He arrived carrying a rotten tree stump over one shoulder. He threw it down as carelessly as a stick or twig, though it fell with rock-cracking weight. “His granddad was a Raduar, come down to us by the way of some creek or river. But he was a hero, a real tough fighter.”

“A murderer?” Denario asked before he could stop himself. To his mind, the Mundredi equated violence with heroism too often. When he'd read the accounting histories as a boy, he'd thought many of the geometers and surveyors were brave. But no one gave them credit for it.

“With how far old Papuar traveled? I suppose. But he didn't kill anyone in Einpferd Wad.” Adal shook his head as if he thought the questions were a bit simple-minded. “Granddad Papuar married into the Mundredi Scythia clan. He adopted the house of Plow And Dagger and the house adopted him. Papuar worshiped Uroica and Melwas along with the rest of us. And it was his son, Franz's dad Tansel, who stood up to the knight's messenger.”

“He did? What did he say?” Hermann and Denario spoke two questions at once. Adalwolf hesitated. Franzel spoke up. The conversation was about his father, after all.

“My dad said that he'd worked for years to clear his land.” The boy's voice had been unsteady for a moment but he grew more sure of himself as he continued. “And his father before him, too. He asked why anyone would want to steal it.”

“Makes sense,” Hermann encouraged.

“He said there was still plenty of free land around. But the messenger told him to shut up and that none of the land was free. It all belonged to Sir Fettyrtyr now and it had belonged to Sir Ulrich before him, who was unjustly slain by a bandit.”

“Ah,” said Hermann and Valentina. They smiled at the fate of Sir Ulrich. Denario had to remind himself that it was Vir who had managed that.

“And the messenger said that any lands that didn't belong to his knight belonged to his baron because all of the lands north of Rune Kill belong to the baron.”

“That's a whole lot of ... what, are they saying forever north from there?” An entire continent stretched out northward beyond. After the ranges of hills came magical lands that no one could cross. Who in his right mind would lay claim to those? Yet Denario had to admit that it sounded precisely like what the Ogglian nobles asserted when in court with the marquis.

“According to the messenger, yes. That started an argument. Lots of men took different sides.”

“Did they fight?”

“No, my pa came home safe. I heard him tell me ma that it was only the drunks and the poorest of the Waldis who wanted to take Mundredi lands. None of them would actually do anything, really. Those poor men live as servants or as farmhands because it's easier than moving out and clearing their own land.”

“That's what my dad says, too,” chimed the older boy.

“Half the Waldis and most of the Ogglis don't know how to farm. They'd starve if they tried.” Hermann nodded. Then his wife caught his eye. He hesitated. Their eyes cast guilty glances in the accountant's direction.

Denario rose from where he'd been working on his journal and his maps. He grabbed his spear, which he was pretty sure he would never use to stab anyone. That was because he'd made it into a theodolite by means of wire, a copper plate, and a notch for sighting. It's true, he thought. They think it's a weakness but I wouldn't deny it. He was well aware how little he understood about farming. For that matter, he wasn't confident about his fire starting skills. But he knew how to survey these lands. He was earning his way home.

“Now you can't find your dad, Franzel?” Hermann continued as he turned to the younger boy. “You said you were separated?”

“Our fathers are dead, I think.” The larger one, Adalwolf, stepped between Franz and Hermann. From the look on his face, he might not have admitted this part to himself before. “The Ogglis ambushed us at the Mundredi church.”

“With torches and fire?” Hermann asked.

“They waited for the dawn service. That's when most folks go. The mayor and the knight's man gathered some of the poorest waldis, a couple dozen hunting bows, and lots of wood. They had something else, too, a liquid that smelled like, I don't know ... like it burned the air.”

“Some kind of pitch?” Valentina asked.

“Turpentine?”

“Turpentine or distilled alcohol, I think,” Denario grunted. “Both smell awful. Both are good for setting fires.”

“Anyway, fire caught on the north wall. Then we saw it start up on the south, too. But we got out. A bunch of us ran right through the the front doors. Some of the men took arrows to the chest. The waldis were half-drunk, I think, but they kept shooting. So we kept running. And when Franz and I turned around, we saw a battle going on between our dads and the bowmen. There were some good Mundredi folks, mostly women, headed out of town the opposite way, toward Frühlingsburg. But we couldn't go with them. The mayor and his men cut us off. Then some of them split off from their main group and started to chase us.”

“But you were fast enough. You made it.”

“Well, Franz and I made it. There were five of us when we started. Those men caught Fatty Braun. While they were stabbing him and kicking him, the rest of us got away. Then the other two boys turned back around anyway. They said they wanted to go find their mums.”

“But you came all the way out here.”

“I knew Sourth Ackerland had a fight like ours. But I thought it would be okay. I didn't think it would be deserted. When I was younger, the caravan masters told me how big it was. All of the traders passed through it on their way to, well, nearly everywhere.”

“It was grand, once. You missed it. Now what happens to you?"

“I hoped you'd take us with you,” the boy said. “But you're headed the wrong way. You're headed right for the knight’s men.”

Hermann sat back on his haunches and sighed. He cracked a twig in half and threw both parts into the growing fire, one after the other. After a moment, he looked up at Adalwolf and Franzel. The younger boy looked particularly miserable. His shirt was too big and torn half open. His hat looked like it was a hundred years old. The brim had been cut from leather worn thin enough for the sun to shine through it.

“We must head for Frühlingsburg and Ruin Thal,” Hermann announced. “The accountant is going all the way to Oggli by way of the river when he reaches it. We're all sworn to our journeys, even my wife.”

The boys looked crestfallen. Probably they were wondering how they would survive.

“Did you see any of the knight's mercenaries aside from the one?” Hermann asked. “From what you've said so far, it sounds like a battle between groups of villagers in Einpferd Wad. Only a small parts of the Mundredi or the Waldis were involved. Maybe the knight isn't going to wage war.”

“That man ...”

“The herald. He called himself a herald.”

The Mundredi exchanged questioning looks. The adults didn't know the meaning of the title, so Hermann and Valentina turned to Denario.

“A herald is a sort of messenger,” the accountant explained. “He reads or writes messages. Sometimes he delivers them and reads them in the town squares or in the temples or churches. It's illegal to kill any of the court heralds, no matter what they say or where they say it.”

“Are you a herald?” young Franzel asked. “I saw you writing in your book.”

“An accountant writes math, not announcements.” Denario scratched his head. “Although I do send messages back to Vir and to others in the Mundredi army. That's a bit like a herald.”

“Well, the knight's herald said that Sir Fettyrtyr was going to visit the towns with his men. That was at the orders of his master, Baron Ankster.”

“He'll be killing Mundredi all the way, no doubt.” Hermann scowled and threw a rock into the fire instead of a stick.

“Why? I know the nobility has done this before but why?” Even though he'd been the one to point out the pattern to Vir, Denario couldn't escape the question the chief had asked. The murders didn't make sense, not in any moral or economic way. But Baron Ankster apparently didn't care. “Why kill so many?”

“Are they doing it for their gods?” Hermann asked.

“What a mess.” Denario drew a quick map on the ground. He knew he needed to pass through lands occupied by the knights on one side and by the Mundredi on the other. It was as bad as passing between the Mundredi and Raduar.

The poor Mundredi peasants had it the worst. The barons were ordering them driven out of the farmlands at the same time the Raduar were crossing down from the northern valleys and hills. That left the nearly powerless Mundredi chief, Vir, to fight a war on two fronts along hundreds of miles of border with maybe a hundred men. It was hopeless. Boys like Franzel and Adalwolf were caught in the middle with no escape.

After a while, he said, “I don't think you should turn back. Hermann's bound to be right. You've made a good start. You need to follow it with some fast marching. The baron's knights are on the move. You two need to keep going north and west to get away.”

“What's in that direction?”

“The Mundredi army, eventually. If you can reach them, they'll protect you in Fort Dred until you're older.”

“Protect us? We don't need protecting. We want to join the army. Don't we Franz?”

Franzel had nearly been in tears a minute ago. He would have said yes anything his friend proposed. “Sure.”

“Uh, you're a bit ...” Denario had been about to say, 'young.' Franzel, at least, didn't look to have hit puberty yet. Adalwolf probably had just finished his growth spurt.

The boys strolled closer to him. Except for their rags and hunger, they didn't look in bad shape. What would Vir have done in this situation? Conscript them? Probably he'd smack them on their bottoms and send them to the next town.

“Attention!” Denario shouted in the voice that Vir used on his men, or at least a bad imitation. The boys stood straight, arms at their sides. They knew precisely what he meant. Then they laughed.

“You're no taller than Franz!” Adalwolf exclaimed.

“That's right.” Denario knew he had to talk quickly. “If your chief can teach a waldi like me to use a sword and a spear, surely he can do better with lads like you. I've done this before. I've sent men to him to train. But they were older. You say you want to train?”

“Yes, sir!” they shouted in uneven chorus.

Denario was careful not to promise they'd be allowed to join the army. Vir probably wouldn't go for that. But training? Practicing with a sword and spear was mandatory for any teenaged boy who came within a mile of Vir. He'd probably slap armor on them if they weren't quick enough to dodge it.

“Right. Well, Captain Vir is a bit rough but he's good. Very good.” Denario swallowed and told a lie. “With him, maybe you've got a chance against the Ogglis.”

“But how are we going to get there?” said Adalwolf.

“It's two weeks of travel if you don't take a roundabout route like I've done.”

“We don't have letters of transit. We won't get another day more. Who will feed us? We're not doing well. We ate a bunch of mushrooms one night and we were fine. We did the same for our next lunch and we got sick. If we don't starve, someone older will grab us and lock us up.”

“The boys are right,” said Hermann. Valentina nodded in agreement. “When they reach North Ackerland, they won't be allowed to go farther. They'll be kept.”

“As farmhands? Slaves?”

“Farmhands, not slaves. They're not criminals. But they won't be allowed to travel. They don't have the royal coin or letters of transit or anything.” Hermann rolled over the stump that the older boy had brought. He steadied it with his foot. With his left hand, he motioned for his wife to sit.

“But … suppose …” Denario didn't know what he supposed. He thought there had to be a way for the boys to hike into the hills if that's what they wanted. Hadn't Denario sworn in other, admittedly older lads to the army? Yes, he had, although he'd committed fraud in doing it. When Vir found out, he'd be mad. But that was fine because Denario would never see him again. Anyway, Vir couldn't know about them yet, not all of them. There had to be a ruse to try. “Suppose we wrote a note to Mayor Richter?”

“Not good enough,” said Valentina. “Appealing to her is a mistake.”

Hermann looked to her. The boys noticed and they did the same. Come to think of it, Denario trusted Valentina's political judgment, too. She sat down on the makeshift seat her husband was offering. With a coy smile, she looked up to Denario.

“Don't mention her at all,” Valentina continued. “Just write a letter of transit. Make it military. You've got the writing for it. Draw it up to look official.”

“I think I understand,” said Hermann. “Wilmit will see the letter, even if he doesn't read. All of the burghers will take a turn. It won't be addressed to Ilse. When she does read it, and she will, she won't turn down a military request. Or a military order, especially one that's not directed at her.”

“She'll turn it to her advantage,” said Valentina. “She's smart.”

“But look, you two, Mayor Richter knows me. She knows I'm an accountant. Would she accept my word as a military authority?” Denario touched his hand to his chest. Didn't these folks understand how insignificant he was? The boys were excused for being young and naive. Valentina should have known better. She'd seen him getting paid in broken hinges. “My letters of transit are from Raduar and Mundredi mayors. They're very important people. People have to pay attention to what they say.”

“Not really,” retorted Hermann. Beside him, Valentina nodded in agreement. “Men from one town don't much care what a mayor from another town says.”

“Then why …?” Denario left the question unfinished. If the villagers everywhere felt like that, why had he been allowed to pass among them? Was it the blue coin?

“I think, mostly, men just hope. A lot of them have heard what's happening. And they hope. They hope you're going to save them. With your magic.”

“My magic? My magic is numbers.”

Hermann shrugged.

“They just hope, all right?” Adalwolf sounded almost angry. Next to him, Franzel stood, shaking. There were tears in the younger boy's eyes.

Denario realized the these boys needed something to believe in. Even the older, tougher one, fists by his sides, looked ready to have his face kicked. He seemed to expect it. He was waiting for Denario to let him down.

What would Melcurio do? Offer them a trick.

“Okay, so I'll give you a message to carry,” he told them. “It's a military message. You'll be heralds for the army. That way, you're not to be touched. I'll write that down. You'll have news of Sir Fettyrtyr. Your chief wants that news. I'll write what you've told us down on one of my maps to make it look official. And I'll give you a letter of transit.”

“Sir!” exclaimed Adalwolf. Denario hadn't done anything except make empty promises and the boy was already impressed. But he knew the boys needed hope. He couldn't deny them that. If they didn't have it, they might lie down and die on the side of the road.

“Right now?” said Franzel. He dried his eyes. Those were the first words he'd spoken in a while and Denario wasn't sure whether he should encourage the boy or not. But little Franz expected to see miracles and he wanted them immediately. He strolled in closer.

“You have work to do,” the accountant said in a stern voice. He knew these fellows expected a bit of pomp and attitude. “Keep building up the fire so we can eat. And Adal, if there's another stump or two like that, I could use a seat and a place to write.”

“Yes, sir!” The older boy grabbed his friend by the elbow.

It didn't take more than five minutes for the boys to set up an improvised desk for the accountant. The surface was two halves of a log that had split due to disease and rot. The pieces rested on a pile of smaller branches that had been stripped of their leaves and stacked up in a hurry. Denario reflected that it might be the most useful desk he'd ever owned because when he was done, it was going to boil his stew, keep him warm through the night, and probably heat his breakfast in the fire pit, too.

He laid out his writing utensils and tried to ignore the likelihood that these boys would be kidnapped or killed regardless of what he wrote. He had to try. Unfortunately, a few days ago, his best inkwell had run out of the lampblack-and-shellac mixture. He'd refilled it with tattoo ink. It didn't seem to flow as smoothly from his pen. He shook the bottle as hard as he dared in order to liquefy it. He prayed. The tattoo artist had made the ink from clay bottles of rust, burnt bones, pine soot, and oak galls. Come to think of it, that was a formula that Denario should have jotted down in his journal. Oak galls represented a new ingredient in non-magical ink as far as he knew.

Tattoo artists in these small, clan-dominated towns normally made their ink in solid form. That had been an unpleasant surprise when he'd discovered it. They liquefied their dyes with spit.

Denario fumbled through the bottom of his traveling supplies. His fingers failed to make contact with parchment. He tried again. He leaned down so close that his head was inside the bag. He must have used his last scroll to make a message to Vir. That stumped him for a moment. He had promised. Well, there were blank pages in his journal. He would have to sacrifice one.

Even Hermann and Valentina watched Denario in relative silence. They seemed surprised when he used his ruler to remove a sheet of paper cleanly. Under their fascinated stares, he wrote in large, bold letters at the top: Autorità di Transit. Underneath, he explained in more common Mundredi characters, Military Authority to Travel.

He rubbed the stubble on his chin until his fingers hurt. Even with his best writing, he worried that the title didn't look impressive enough. He took out his protractor and compass. With those, he drew a transit theodolite, basically a circle and line on top of a tripod. It was a better version of the surveying instrument he'd fashioned out of his otherwise-useless spear.

Hermann grunted. Valentina smiled. The boys did, too. Denario could feel the change in their expressions without looking up. They didn't understand it but they liked it. Good.

I, Denario of the Mundredi Army and the Oggli Guild of Accounting, appoint …

He had been about to write “these boys” but, after he glanced at them he wrote, these young men, Adalwolf of Einpferd Wad and Franzel of Einpferd Wad as heralds for the Army of the Mundredi. They are to take these messages and any other messages deemed appropriate by Mundredi officials to Chief Vir de Acker in Fort Dred. Their messages and their other belongings are property of the army. No one may delay them or hinder them upon pain of death.

They are known by these markings.

“Adal, Franz, come here and show me your left arms, please.”

The boys didn't seem able to carry out an order without questioning it but they did as he requested eventually. The taller, darker one grunted when he saw the drawings. He was fascinated by the use of the compass. The accountant made a few mistakes, partly because the tattoo ink didn't flow like the stuff sold in Oggli, but he made serviceable copies of the crossed spears, the scythe with serrated teeth, and the ox. As he struggled with the ink, the accountant reflected that the best shipments of Ogglian pigments came from the Pirate Islands. Which one of those islands was the source? He'd taken it for granted, so he'd never bothered to ask. And was the Pirate Islands ink of magical origin or could he make it himself from pine soot or squid dyes or whatever they used if he only knew the formula? The stuff was so plentiful in Oggli that he doubted it could be difficult.

Denario finished the plow and dagger sign on Adalwolf's arm. It was the last one.

“Thank you, Adal,” he said, and motioned for the younger one to step closer.

“Wow, you're a really good artist!” Franzel exclaimed as he got a better look at the letter of transit.

“I have good instruments,” said Denario. “Keep holding your arm up like that.”

The tattoos on Franzel's arm looked swollen and fresh, as if they had been completed only yesterday. Denario decided not to comment. Instead, he faithfully rendered the sword and spear crossed in front of a sun, the scythe that unlike Adalwolf's had no teeth, the ox and moon, and the plow and dagger. On both lads' right arms, he noticed, there were god and goddess symbols. Denario figured he didn't need those. Anyway, he was getting tired and his writing wasn't done.

It took him two hours to encode a message to Vir. He included every military detail he could in case the previous story of the burning of South Ackerland didn't make it. The length of his message and the need to hide some of the details made for a tedious process. It also subjected his methods to inspection. Hermann and the boys didn't ask why he did so much writing and transposing in the dirt. Valentina, however, seemed concerned.

“Will Vir be able to read what you're hiding?” she asked, rather reasonably. She was holding a torch by his side, unasked, as he finished his composition in the dirt.

“I'm not sure. Only he and one other Mundredi soldier know to look for this. Of course, anyone else can figure it out but …”

“But they won't.”

“Probably not, no.” Denario etched the last few letters into place. Then he added a few more decorations to make everything look more official. In memory of the mayor of Pharts Bad, Denario sketched the symbols of all of the four major tribes. He added a few of the most powerful Mundredi clans and one or two houses, as well. At the bottom, he finished with a variation of the Mundredi symbol he'd come to use as his trademark, the crossed spears over a crown joined in a number 8, written sideways. Let the mayors and villagers stew over that one, he thought.

Underneath the mark, he scribbled, Divine Equation of Nature, Acorns Ripen to Impressive
Oaks. and beneath that, Denario, Accountant of Oggli, Heralding the Army of the Mundredi. He finished it all with a dab of hot wax. He removed the blue coin of Mundredi royalty from his neck, pushed it into the wax, and held it until the impression set in firm detail.

“There.”

He rolled it up and accepted a strand of homemade twine from Adalwolf. Outside of the range of the cooking fire, a score of crickets chirped. Denario hadn't heard crickets in half a year. There had been none during the cold months in Ziegeburg or in Easy Valley. He hadn't heard any this spring after coming down from the Long Valley hills. Their noises reminded him of West Ogglian farms. But it was past any decent hour to sleep. The sky seemed dark and starless. He'd finished his bowl of stew and a second bowl, too. Valentina, after complaining that her husband had shared too much of their food, settled down to rest. Hermann half-dozed as he sat propped against a log.

The boys, in contrast, looked too excited to close their eyes. The older one had taken it into his head to make more string for tying the letter and the map. Ribbon would have been more impressive but there was none to be had and, anyway, the two were going to have to untie and retie the scrolls many times if they made it all the way to Fort Dred. They kept making strings from a patch of grass they said was good for it.

“Can you give us weapons, too?” Franz asked as he twisted a set of green strands together.

“In the morning,” Denario blurted. Then he wished he'd kept his mouth shut.

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