Sunday, December 17, 2017

Not Even Not Zen 102: A Bandit Accountant, 17.2

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Seventh Prime

Scene Two: The Hammer Clan 

“You won't hold a grudge about that guard shooting at you, will you?” Hermann put his hand on Denario's shoulder. “I mean, that petasos of yours has seen better days.”

Denario closed his eyes. He'd been standing at such a distance from the city gate that he could barely make out the silhouettes on top. Since he'd been at the head of the group, he'd waved his theodolite in the general direction of the figures. The men in Furlingsburg had taken it wrong. A second later, as he'd turned to ask the Ansels if it was safe to approach, an arrow had knocked the floppy hat off of his head. Three inches lower and it would have gone through his skull.

“I didn't think anyone could hit me from there,” he said.

“It wasn't more than a hundred yards, maybe one twenty. These lads in Furlingsburg have longbows that can go twice that. South Ackerland had them, too, but I didn't see any of them in the ruins. I suppose the knight's men took the bows although it could be that they burned them along with everything else.”

“I'm grateful that I haven't run up against such bowmen before.” Denario rubbed the back of his head, feeling for a phantom arrow. “They didn't need to laugh at me.”

“Well, it did look funny.”

“Not to me so much.”

“You got lucky. But you've probably been lucky before, accountant, and not known. A lot of guards are good bowmen. When you waved your spear, it looked like a challenge. These fellows did what came naturally. They thought they were continuing a fight from a few days ago when they traded arrows with some foreign men.”

“I wonder if that was Dvishvili's group. It could have been another bunch from Baron Ankhster.”

“It doesn't matter. Thank the gods we're finally getting close to the house. I'm getting too old to sleep on the ground any more.”

Hermann stopped to get his bearings. Denario halted a step behind him. They were in the center of Furlingsburg, a crowded, busy place. The Ansels seemed overwhelmed although the town wasn't much larger than North Ackerland. Hermann staggered in a small circle. Valentina trembled. She hadn't walked more than a mile this morning but her face looked haggard.

On all sides of them in the crossroads, vendors had parked their carts. They traded poor stuff, mostly turnips, leeks, onions, and nuts. Not many customers had anything to exchange and the vendors didn't seem happy to take their money. Denario noticed that one lean-looking man was attempting to swap a brass pendant for a rooster. There was a green, cut gem set into the pendant but the only chicken vendor on the street still wasn't interested. Roosters were worth more than jewelry.

Denario watched two vendors haggle with one another as they tried to establish a trade of butter for pine nuts. The amount of butter was the issue.

“There!” Hermann spun, stopped, and pointed. “That's the Hammer clan sign. That's our street and they'll let us in to Sickel house, at least, if I show my arms. They might do more since you've got that coin around your neck. We'll get a floor in the main hall to lie on, maybe even a bed. If my daughter Claudia came here from South Ackerland last winter, we'll soon hear of it.”

Did she have any tattoos? Denario almost asked. But he already knew the answer. Children didn't get any. That meant they might not be welcome anywhere. Or they might be overly welcome, free for the taking by any clan that wanted a useful member, a child bride, or a servant. He didn't think that the mention of such outcomes would be received kindly. Anyway, the Ansels had to know those things were possible.

After so many weeks of muddy paths, it was odd to feel paving stones beneath his feet. Cracks between the slabs pinched Denario. The soles of his shoes had grown thin. Maybe this was part of what made the Ansels disoriented. They marched for another half-block and halted in the middle of the avenue where crowds had worn the edges off of the pavers.

“Beggars not welcome,” muttered a man at the mouth of Hammer Clan Street. It was such an odd thing to say that Denario didn't respond. He depended on Hermann to do the explaining.

“Where'd ye get that?” the same man said as he roughly touched the coin on Denario's necklace. His next move seemed to be to yank it away. He opened up his hand to do it.

“The chief gave it to him,” Hermann warned.

The tough fellow hesitated. “Is he still around, then?”

“There's been fighting up north that we haven't heard about here. Our own clan is involved on both sides, Hammer Raduar against Hammer Mundredi.”

“Eh, right.” He lowered his hands. “Ye folks go to the main hall and tell yer story.”

It was a story Denario had told so many times that he wished he could simply write it down and be done with it. But that wouldn't work since hardly anyone could read. After a few minutes of his bungled re-telling to the local house leaders, the Ansels got out of their seats and sang the song about Vir. That forced Denario to join in because he wanted everyone to hear the last part about accounting. He knew the Ansels would have left that out.

Furlingsburg had gray-haired men, at least in this clan, and they whispered to one another and stroked their beards after the storytelling was done. It was a common reaction. Contrary to the prospect of respite that had been Hermann’s hope, the leaders decided to send them from the main hall to go visit other places. Valentina rose to interrupt with an impassioned speech about looking for her child. The old men seemed impatient but they glanced to their own wives, off in the corners of the room, and the women nodded. The Ansels would be allowed to search for their child. And yes, Valentina could visit anywhere that would admit her.

So the three of them spent the day traveling. It was never very far between houses, only a few blocks at most. Sometimes they visited homes in the same building. The city dwellings had been built high, sometimes three stories, and they were packed close together. But each trip took careful negotiation. There were clans and houses that needed bribed for right of passage through the alleys. There were questions asked of Hermann and Valentina but never of Denario, who was allowed to sit off in a corner most of the time so he could write in his books. House leaders liked to look at the coin that hung around his neck. One man asked to see his maps. The fellow didn't understand them, though, and grew irritated at having them explained. He excused himself. All afternoon inside the influential houses, serving girls and grandmothers brought Denario tea. It was an enjoyable day punctuated by trips to outhouses. He made progress in his attempts to approximate dividing by zero.

Outside, the atmosphere was never calm. During every trip, more peasants introduced themselves. Most of them had known Hermann and Valentina in South Ackerland. They were beggars here. Some alleys held a dozen of the poor wretches. These were the unluckiest of the refugees from South Ackerland but the Ansels weren't cruel or standoffish to them. They stopped to talk to each person who approached.

Valentina liked to hold hands or embrace the beggar women. Her old friends and acquaintances had been wealthy, once. But the mayor of Furlingsburg was not like Frau Richter in North Ackerland. He'd panicked at the influx of mouths to feed and, after a few days, had refused to share the town's resources. He'd barred the gates. Three weeks later, the situation had worsened when the mayor received written orders from Sir Fettyrtyr not to take in travelers. The orders had arrived too late but it caused the mayor to fear he'd be hung as a traitor if Fettertyr visited. He tried to turn out the newcomers. The clans refused. They'd already offered their homes to their distant cousins. In two cases, they'd intermarried. Another half-dozen marriages followed shortly after, despite the mayor's proclamation forbidding the unions.

Lacking any moral authority or physical force, the mayor turned to a more desperate plan. He pretended that everyone had been there all along. He ignored the refugees who needed help because there were no refugees, only beggars. If your clan or house couldn't care for you, well, you'd best move on down the road. The south gate was open. Ruin Thal was only a day's march away. If your clan had homes there, he advised that you go to them.

A few luckless souls did move on. More elected to stay. Furlingsburg had been a rival of South Ackerland before the latter was destroyed. The place had money. It had jobs. Skilled craftsmen could find work. Young farmers could toil in other men's fields as servants. Others did odd jobs and begged in the streets. Furlingsburg had laid in more winter stores of grains than they'd needed so the town had been able to feed everyone. Despite how poor and hungry they felt, folks here were better off than in most of the neighboring villages.

Like the mayor, though, Denario could smell a fight brewing. New settlers were hacking down trees, clearing lands in all directions, and acting as if they had the right to do it. Sixteen new houses had gone up outside the town walls. Other families were clearing more land to expand existing farms and they, too, acted like they didn't need approval from Sir Fettertyr. The men had hunted all winter and had wiped out most of the large game animals including deer, black bear, a colony of flying toads, and even a troll although no one could eat the troll. Everyone knew that Sir Fettertyr, like Sir Ulrich before him, would regard all of this activity as poaching. Most of the older Furlingsburg families viewed the beasts as a nuisance and were happy to see them go. But there remained in everyone's minds the threat: their knight would visit and he wouldn’t like it.

“No sign,” said Valentina as they left the house of Hermann's cousins thrice-removed. She stopped in the street to wrap her shawl around her despite the warmth of the afternoon. “If Claudia were here, we'd have heard something by now.”

Her husband only grunted. After a moment, he continued on his way.

The beggars stayed out of Valentina's path. They knew about her mission. They must have known it wasn't going well. In the end Valentina took them to the Hammer clan main hall. It was Valentina's native clan and it recognized worshipers of Tannus and Druantia. There, among her distant second cousins, Valentina broke down and cried. Denario was shocked. He retreated to a corner of the room while she said a prayer at an altar with a statue of a tree. Then, tears in her eyes, she arose. Hermann stiffened. Denario felt he should be on his guard, too. Sure enough, Valentina grabbed an axe off of the wall.

“Damn.” Hermann hopped out the window. He hardly made a sound doing it.

Denario decided that was the right idea. He snuck out a side door. Other men took the hint and edged out of the hall, too, leaving the women to deal with another woman's grief. The last man through shut the door as Valentina raised the axe. She didn't seem inclined to swing it. She didn't seem inclined to do anything, in fact, but possession of the weapon was some kind of reflex. Half a dozen matrons kept her surrounded as they talked to her.

“Accountant,” said Hermann as he met Denario at the front of the Hammer clan hall.

“Herr Ansel,” said Denario since his traveling companion seemed so formal. “Your wife ...”

“I apologize.” The man bowed. He was shaking all over, worse than ever. “She is … you see, Claudia is gone but my wife, she never gave up hope … and now ...”

“Ach, we've seen it before,” said another man.

They turned to him, a fellow an inch shorter than Hermann but equally haggard. His hair was cropped in a dull-knife style, each strand cut separately. His shirt was a plain brown one without sleeves. The fellow's tattoos looked hasty and pale, as if done many years ago with cheap ink that faded. His right side was full of god symbols, one of them new and dark blue-black.

“Vilmar, isn't it?” Hermann stuck out his hand to shake. “You used to live on the southeast slope outside of town.”

“And you're Ansel, yeah.” The fellow shook but he didn't seem to enjoy it. “You're not the only couple missing a child. Lots of us …”

“Married to young Helga Kirtle?”

“Not anymore.” Vilmar frowned. “She was in town, that day. My boy, too.”

Hermann groaned. He slumped against the wall and, slowly, sank into a seated position just to the right of a shuttered window. Denario decided to take a rest. Walking all day in the city wasn't as hard as hiking through the countryside but it had worn him out.

Vilmar turned his back for a moment. Denario thought it odd. Then he saw other men doing the same and realized that they didn't want to look at Hermann in case he started to cry. When he didn't blubber, they turned back around, Vilmar first.

The eight men spent almost an hour outside the clan hall. Vilmar had a story to share in his emotionless monotone. His cousins had come running to him that day as they gathered farmers to fight the knight's men. He'd gone to get his bow. It took only a few minutes but when he and his cousins got back into town, they found the battle lost. Fires were already spreading from home to home. Then, like Hermann had done, they'd focused on finding their families. Vilmar had seemingly gotten lucky when he found his wife trying to fight off a knight's man. But the assailant killed her and one of Vilmar's cousins, too, before they could drive him off. Then Vilmar had tried to find his son and to help his remaining cousin find his family. Together, they'd managed to find his cousin's oldest girl but that was all. Vilmar saw three bodies he thought belonged to his son but he never had time to stop and check any of them.

Two other men, both of whom Hermann recognized, had similar stories. Everyone wondered if Hermann knew of missing children who had made their way to North Ackerland. It turned out that he had. The oldest son of a father who had ended up in Furlingsburg was still alive. That should have cheered them but it didn't. The men were glad for the father of the formerly missing boy but no one ran off to spread the news.

Eventually, another fellow strolled up with a clay flask of wine. He passed it around. The Mundredi continued to share their miseries. Hermann took a deep pull from the flask. Denario did, too, knowing he'd regret it later. The drink was sour and white. The taste puckered his lips and curled his tongue. When the clay bottle came around again, though, he took another drink.

The only thing that seemed to lift Hermann's spirits even a little were these stories from other men. He wasn't alone in missing his children. He wasn't the only failure as a protector.

Denario, for a few minutes, yearned to see his apprentices, at least Mark and Shekel, the youngest two. He thought about how the weeks that had gone by, six of them. He had the sense it was probably too late to fly to the rescue for some reason but he couldn't say why. Maybe it was the wanted poster of him. Maybe in Oggli they considered him a criminal. It might be hard to clear his name. But he would. The guild would help. He'd manage.

“If only I could find No Map Creek,” he said as he accepted wine for a third time. “That's what I need to speed up my trip. I'll bet I could float all the way to home.”

“No Map Creek?” said a newcomer who had brought the wine. He was a local man, dark-haired but with a face scarred by childhood disease. Something about the way he said the words felt different. Usually, folks looked at Denario blankly when he said he was trying to find the waterway that was supposed to connect to the Rune Kill.

“Have you heard of it?” asked Denario.

“Nah, you don't want to go there.” The man kept a second flask of wine on him at all times, which he didn't share. He took a swig from it. “The place is full of magic.”

“You do know it!” Denario scrambled to his feet. He fell to his hands for a moment, either from too much wine or from his legs going to sleep. “My gods, I've been walking for weeks to find it.”

“Well, you're almost there, you madman. It's three towns away.”

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