Chapter Seventh Prime
Scene Four: A Philosophy on Hanging
The mayor's office in Furlingsburg stood on a polished, stone floor. At first glance, Denario saw nothing unusual about it. Then he thought about how long it had been since he'd seen tiles. There had been no granite flooring in Phart's Bad despite its quarries, nor any in North Ackerland despite its sophisticated churches, nor even in Ziegeburg despite its wealth and its long history as the outermost town of the Ogglian empire.
Here in Furlingsburg, the tiles had been laid in a regular pattern of shades. Denario thought that an accountant, a geometer, or a mason must have been brought in for it. An untutored man would have had to perform a great deal of trial and error to achieve, in all probability, a useless failure of a floor. An inexpert floor would have needed redone. It was a project that could take a hundred years to complete on even a small building like this one. So amateurism was possible but Denario thought a hired hand was more likely.
He didn't discount the possibility of both mixed together. The area had hidden geniuses, folks who could work out mathematical rules and produce usable structures. The pattern of tesselations in the design, for instance, looked like a single person's inspiration. It used hexagons, which laid together naturally. Every seventh hexagon was particularly dark and it was surrounded by lighter hexagons. As geometry, it wasn't too hard. As an achievement by a self-taught tradesman, it was amazing, a leap above everything else in the area. The floor was mostly level and the roof had a small dome. At the apex of the dome hung a straw sculpture of a man. The figure seemed to be an homage to the local harvest god.
“Is that Eleus up there?” Denario asked the footman.
The young, blonde-haired fellow halted and gave him a funny look.
“I thought even us waldis knew that one. It's the hanged man. He's a magical thief who came in on wings and stole from the harvest. Eleus set a trap, caught him, pulled off his wings, and hanged him. It's a strange story.”
“Seems straightforward enough,” said Denario although he worried it might be a reference to Melcurio. There weren't many thieves or tricksters with wings.
“It's odd because the thief laughs when he's hung. He's a funny man. And he doesn't die in any of the three endings that I know. In one version, the thief tricks Eleus by pretending to die but, when he's cut down, he grabs his wings and flies away. In another, the thief begs out of the hanging by offering to protect the crops. He gets bored after a few years and forgets. Then Eleus hangs him but the thief doesn't die, so he's sent back to his guard job.”
“And the third version?”
“That's the right one!” boomed a hearty voice. A beefy fellow of middling height strode forward. Two other men hung behind, one on either side, so Denario judged immediately that this was the mayor. “I was there. I should know. I'm Friedrich, by the way, and you must be the accountant with the foreign sounding name.”
“Denario, yes.” He stuck his hand out gingerly because it seemed he was about to be the object of either a shake or a hug. He got both.
The mayor rattled him with a handshake that treated his finger bones like dice. Then came a smothering embrace. Finally, the mayor pounded him on the back and let out the sort of comfortable laugh that men got when they genuinely enjoyed the presence of other people. He leaned back and his gaze fell to the blue coin on the chain around Denario's neck.
“Hah!” His eyes glinted. “Everyone talks about it but no one will tell me why it's important. Is it a token of accounting?”
Denario put a hand to his chest. He considered for a second: was he being employed already? He might already be working for the mayor. If so, he was in a tricky situation. He wanted to lie to protect Vir but he'd taken an oath to his guild, too.
“Am I your accountant?” Denario asked. “Is that decided?”
“Yes, I've already paid a fee to your clan and I need you to sign our tax scroll.”
“Then, no, sir, the coin is not about accounting.”
Friedrich's eyes narrowed. “Interesting. Of course, I already know about the coin. It's some sort of thing from the valleys. The clans are all superstitious about it. I just wanted to see if you'd lie to me. And if I'd said you weren't my accountant, you would have told me something else, wouldn't you?”
“I might have.” Denario touched his lip as he thought about his answer. “The coin means a lot to the Mundredi tribe. And I owe a lot to the man who gave it. But my guild swears to honesty.”
“Huh. Honesty. They say the gods reward it but I don't know. Our folks have been straight with Sir Fettertyr but he hasn't come to talk to me. His sister hasn't come through in half a year. She used to stop by every month. His squire delivered the mail, upon a time, but not anymore. I've only had two messages from Fettertyr, both orders handed over by peasant men, and they're not reasonable. I can't just turn a hundred folks out to starve. Jack, tell him the third ending of Eleus and the Hanged Man.”
“Me, sir?” The young footman pointed to himself like the wanted to dodge his own finger.
“I want to hear a young man's view of it.”
“Well, I ... uh, don't believe it the way older folks do. It's what we're taught.” He turned to Denario and lowered his voice. “In the version my priest likes, the thief turns out to be Eleus's son.”
“So he's a god of some sort.” Denario rubbed his chin. It sounded again like Melcurio might involved.
“Demi-god. Anyway, Eleus follows the law and hangs him. But then he lets the thief, his son, fly away afterward with a promise not to steal from the harvest. His son is so grateful that he comes back to protect us. He gaurds our harvests for years at a time. But he always gets bored, see. That's why sometimes we get plagues of mice and rats in the grain silos. When my dad was young, we had some sort of beasts come through with noses as long as a man's body. They grabbed trees and shrubs with their noses, he says.”
“That doesn't sound right.” Denario would have heard about such beasts if they were common.
“All the old men say the same thing.” The footman shrugged. “Anyway, they busted the grain silos open and started to eat everything. Some flying men came and shooed them away toward the west. We figure that was the hanged man and his brothers.”
“And I was there!” Friedrich roared. He raised his arms. “One of those great, lumbering beasts grabbed a man with his mighty nose! Well, don't look at me like that. I know it sounds incredible. But it's still true. That thing tossed a man like you might toss a child.”
“It doesn't ...” The beasts sounded impossible. Picking up shrubs and people with noses? But maybe it wasn't any stranger than a hippogryph or a flying toad. When enough magic was involved, Denario was prepared to believe anything could happen. Suddenly the flying men sounded to him a lot like a group of rather ordinary wizards. Maybe they dressed in trousers when they flew. Maybe they couldn't keep their pointed hats on when zooming about in the sky, either, so people might be forgiven for not understanding what they were. Men didn't normally ride broomsticks. But the dwarfs in Baggi sold them to everyone, not only to the witches.
“Two years ago, Sir Fettertyr himself came through for the first and only time. It was to re-approve my appointment. He said I had to re-take my oath as mayor in front of my people.”
“What does this have to do with …?”
“The damn fool approves of the Hanged Man! In front of everyone, he said he likes the death penalty for thieving. He wants to hang anyone who steals from him and told me to hang as many thieves as I could. He implied that half my cousins are thieves! Then he had me murder a poor man at the north gate of town just to show him I was serious. Now, I'm all for killing sneaks of course but the Hanged Man stands for something different around here. If Ulrich and Fettertyr had understood that he means leniency, they'd have tried to ban him and maybe even ban Eleus. Then we'd have had a bloody battle on the spot.”
“Is Fettertyr harsher than Ulrich?”
“Yes. Ulrich was a bully and a rapist but it came naturally to him. Fettertyr works at it. He makes sure to kill a peasant wherever he visits. He thinks that way everyone will know he's serious. The Mundredi are too smart for him, though. They keep their distance from anyone on a horse. So it's his loyal serfs who the knight kills most often.”
“Can't he tell the difference?” Even as Denario asked the question, he knew the answer. He'd told the Mundredi himself, several times, that the nobility can't be bothered to understand the lower classes.
“Hah! Fettertyr sent his first written order to me after he killed all those folks in South Ackerland. He said I was to refuse anyone entrance to the town except him. Well, we can say we did it as soon as we got the order because those folks were already here from South Ackerland. I wrote back and told him, sure, we'll close our gates.”
The coin got me in despite the mayor's orders, Denario thought. He wasn't entirely surprised. He had to figure it had gotten him into at least four towns already. He'd been counting.
“Fettertyr's second order was to raise our taxes. We'd already sent everything we could. Or so we thought. Thankfully, he didn't want our grain. He demanded our animals and metals. He said we owed him four hundred sheep. Four hundred! That's more than we've got in the farms around town. I had to say that. We sent half of what we had, I think, with his troop of armed guards. We told him it was all. But he had spies in South Ackerland and I'm sure he's got them here, too.”
“Won't the spies tell him you have sheep left?”
“That's a worry, yes. Some of the folks, bless them, don't think Fettertyr is serious. They're not hiding their sheep from their neighbors very well. If I can find out they held back from him, Fettertyr can, too. Then it's my neck in the noose.”
“Can't you just send him more sheep and claim you found them?” Denario almost suggested that the mayor have someone hanged as well. That seemed like a bad idea to put into the mayor's head. The only person around here who wouldn't be missed was Denario.
“It's worse than that.” Friedrich raised his meaty hands. He seemed to suddenly remember that his henchmen were listening in. With an expansive gesture, he turned on them. “Hob! Will! Jack! Get out of here. I'm talking business.”
He windmilled his arms. His men bowed, except for Jack, who had already turned his back and started out the door before his master finished speaking. Mayor Jolli waited, fists on his hips, as his men left and closed the door behind them. He remained where he was until their footsteps faded down the hall. He tapped his foot for a few seconds more until he heard a second, farther door slam shut. Then he held still a while longer.
“Right, then,” he whispered. He invited Denario to follow him with a conspiratorial gesture, palm up, fingers curled in. Through a darkened doorway they went.
Behind the crude, narrowed arch, Denario found an equally narrow hall. In fact the walls were so close that the mayor's frame didn't fit. Friedrich had to walk with his body turned at an angle. He looked a bit like a swordsman as he proceeded. That was the type of gait it took. But he kept up a quick pace. It was apparent that he'd been navigating this semi-secret hall for years.
At the end of the corridor, which had no candles or other sources of light, lay a closet with hooks. A vent at the top of one wall let in the sun. At the back of the closet, past the hooks, brooms, lances, axes, and mops, was another door to what must have once been a secret room. This was the mayor's real office, about twenty-five feet from the fake one.
How odd, Denario thought, for anyone to even attempt have a secret room in a public building. Friedrich Jolli didn't seem to take the clandestine architecture seriously. He'd left his doors and curtains open. He'd also pulled wide the tiny window at the top of his office. Whoever had built this place had wanted to avoid notice but Friedrich didn't seem to care. This was the type of room, Denario decided, that had probably served its creator well. But generations had passed since. Dozens of people, surely, knew about the secret room. Maybe even Sir Ulrich, when he was alive, had known. Whether Sir Fettertyr had been told was anyone's guess but Denario doubted that the mayor of Furlingsburg could imagine he’d escape his knight's wrath here. No, Friedrich understood that had to appease his lord.
Although it had been designed to be small and hold minimal supplies, under Friedrich's control the office had sprawled out into the closet. It threatened to throw more junk into the corridor. Surfaces had been brought in and stacked high to reach the available vertical space. There were chairs, tables, shelves – Denario was suddenly aware that he hadn't seen more than one shelf per room in over a month but here there were eight – boxes, overturned buckets, a slice from a tree stump that had been rolled up the stairs by someone quite determined, and two unmatched stools. On each surface, something vied for Denario's attention. He saw bags of money. He saw strings of counting beads. Beneath the ropes of beads sat clay tablets. Scrolls fitted into shelves and gaps. Against the walls, he noticed planks with tally marks. On some of the flat surfaces lay debtor split-sticks. The sticks were everywhere, even on the bags, bricks, wax slabs, scrolls, and tablets.
“Amazing,” said Denario. This wasn't as good as the home libraries in Ziegeburg, many of which had actual books, but to an accountant it felt like a return to civilization.
“The place is a mess, I know.” Friedrich swept a debtor stick from his chair onto the table to make himself a seat. “First, old Sir Ulrich burned down a church. Worshipers saved what they could. Ulrich torched another. More stuff came in. Then he died, of course, in that battle at River Thal. I thought that would put an end to the burning. But Fettertyr came along and sacked a temple. Ugh, we got more stuff. Fettertyr razed South Ackerland. Again, folks saved church records that weren't destroyed. It's made my office into a library. Of course, this is probably nothing like what you're used to working with. Nearly all of the tablets are in unreadable, Old Old Tongue gibberish. But the clergy say they've got god marks and we mustn't destroy them.”
Denario tried to find a seat. He picked up a clay tablet from the tree stump and stared, fascinated. He saw the goat-with-a-tail sigil for Glaistig. When he set that down, carefully because it was heavy, his fingers moved to the next on the stack. This one, near the bottom, showed the forked-lighting mark of Leir.
“I see what they mean.” Denario nodded. He moved through the stack, hoping for a glimpse of Melcurio. His patron god wasn't there unless it was in the figure 8 that adorned what otherwise seemed to be a tablet devoted to the ancient symbols for math. The modern 8 hadn't been invented when so many other symbols were hash marks, he thought, but it was hard to be sure. “Do you believe them? It's nice to have the tablets but they're crumbling and, as you said, no one can read them.”
“How would I know if the priests are right or wrong? That stuff is beyond me. The gods are more like magic than people. If they were people, I could chat them up.”
“That's not a bad idea.” Denario didn't understand magic either but he felt that the gods, being not quite divine, would listen to human bargaining. And Furlingsburg needed to make all of the deals it could.
“Anyway, if you ask the priests,” Friedrich continued, “it was Sir Ulrich's blasphemy that finally got him.”
“I thought it was Vir who got him.”
“Your boss?” The mayor chuckled. “That seems nearer to the truth, doesn't it? But the priests tell me Vir was the instrument of the gods even if he doesn't believe in them.”
“You know about his atheism?”
“I know a few things.” Friedrich stroked his stubbly, short-bearded chin. His calm grin revealed his confidence. “Just a few.”
Denario had a flash of intuition. The mayors, he understood, couldn't leave their towns. No one could move around because the knights didn't like it. The knights taxed the caravans for conducting commerce even though commerce was essential. Nobles killed wanderers, too, as examples. On top of the basic problems imposed by the aristocracy, Mundredi peasant tribesmen murdered each other due to the tribal habits they'd retained from their valley cultures. Yet from farm to farm, town to town across West Ogglia, messages still passed. News found its way to the mayors. It didn't come from a network of spies. Well, maybe some of the participants were informers but mostly the news came along the usual route of caravans and professional travelers. Additional bits came from the lines of communication among the farms and clans. They were like spidery tendrils, a web from the valleys to the rivers and back. Even the waldi and oggli families must participate. Why not? The closer one traveled to the river, the more the serfs were born to traditional families, not immigrants. And they wanted news, too. They liked gossip.
How accurate could rumors be if they passed from lips to lips twenty times per mile? Not very, he thought. Stories from afar might as well be myths. Likewise, the military intelligence of Vir's forces couldn't be good. He and the Raduar generals were like blind fighters taking swings at each other based on the directions shouted from their friends. At least the Ogglian forces, when they arrived, would have maps.
Denario's fingers itched. He cleared a debtor stick from the stump and sat. Instinctively, he read it as he set it on the table.
“House of the Duck, Clan of the Hammer, owes two goats to House of the Spade, Clan of the Hammer, sworn on this 13 of Grune, Year of the Frog.” He turned it over. It definitely referred to only two goats with no hidden marks. “Friedrich, when was the Year of the Frog? Oggli uses numbers.”
“You can read that?” Mayor Jolli gasped. “I thought that was only for priests. They told me you figured numbers and shapes. I didn't know you did more.”
“How did you expect me to figure out your taxes without reading your records?” Denario said, avoiding the unfortunate fact that he hadn't learned about debtor sticks or these mostly-forgotten methods of accounting until he'd reached Long Valley a month ago.
“I hadn't thought ahead that far.” The mayor gave him a slightly abashed but mostly unapologetic grin. No doubt about it, Friedrich was charming. His charisma would be lost on Sir Fettertyr, though, so it was up to Denario to help the town survive.
“Tell me more about your plan.” The accountant turned and lifted a wooden slab with tally marks on it. This one was a summary of the Sickel house holdings. They had cows, barley, rye, and some way to make vinegar from malt. Denario didn't understand how vinegar was made but that didn't matter. The Sickels had forty tuns of the stuff and less than a tun of malt.
“Well, now, mostly my plan is to get you to vouch for our taxes. I want to show the knight that we're making more effort than other towns.”
“You think he'll spare you?”
“He knows his own interests, I'm sure.”
Denario doubted it. He'd never met Fettertyr but he knew a score of other knights. None of them thought like merchants. They didn't understand money beyond wanting it. They thought wealth was gotten by conquering their neighbors and taking what they could. They saw the merchant class as bloodsuckers when, in fact, merchants and tradesmen generated the wealth. It was the knights who were parasites. Carters, tinkers, traders, farmers and skilled workers like tooth doctors kept the knights healthy and armored. The only service the nobility provided was protection from thieves and other nobles.
“I'm curious,” said Denario. He glanced at Friedrich as he set down the Sickel account. “If you're so worried about the knight, why did your guards turn aside your baron's mercenaries?”
“Have we? Not that I know of.”
“Interesting.” He cocked his head and considered.
“Sir Fettertyr said to accept no one in but him and his men. Turning back foreigners in armor is positively patriotic. It's heroic, even.”
“I take your meaning. But as they're the baron's mercenaries, I don't know that Sir Fettertyr will feel the same way.”
“Well, that's what I have to say. Anyway, those bastards weren't flying the baron's colors.”
“True. I've seen them. I could attest to that.”
“Excellent.” The mayor rubbed his hands. “You are going to be money well spent. I've just got to find more taxes we can pay. But I need someone to swear that we're doing it fairly.”
“I see. You want me to make enemies. You need to squeeze more out of the clans and blame it on me.”
The mayor blushed but only a little. “Well, you are an accountant. That's how things work for you, isn't it?”
“More often than I like.”
“You know, young man, I received messages about you even before you got here.”
“I can't say. But the word is that you do honest work.”
“That’s because I do.”
“By the gods, I'll swear to send you off in style if that’s so.”
“Do you mean unharmed and with lots of money? Because sometimes people mean something else when I uncover cheaters.”
“I'll pay you in silver.”
“Really?” He sat up straighter and surveyed the bags around him. “Do you have any?”
“Lots. Most of these satchels are filled with it. We didn't send Fettertyr all of our metal, despite how he and the baron don't like to get paid with anything else. I saved a portion. But now it's hard to see why I bothered. Most people around here don't find use for coins. With everyone hungry, merchants prefer payment in meat or fish. It's easy for me to pay you cash. Times being hard, no one's going to try to rob you of anything but food.”
“I believe that.” He took a moment to reflect that the mayor's words were completely true. Denario had never been robbed of cash in the mostly-Mundredi towns.
For a few minutes, Friedrich shuffled through his bags, boxes, slates, boards, and occasionally through his tattered or partly burnt scrolls. One scroll was made of a greenish sort of paper, not parchment, and it was nearly seventeen feet long.
“I didn't know they made sheep that size,” the mayor commented.
Denario had to spend a minute or two explaining the difference between parchment made from animal skin and paper made from pressed plant fibers. He didn't think Friedrich really understood but the amiable man nodded anyway just to change the subject of the conversation.
“It's the first paper I've seen since Zeigeburg,” Denario concluded.
Then he and Friedrich leaned close over the contents of the scroll, then another scroll, then wooden tablets, and over the course of the morning they began to gather the rather haphazard picture of the town's finances. Unlike some places that had a single, strict system with flaws – even Oggli's double-entry methods had weaknesses – or several systems with errors created in the overlap and exchange of data, it would have been more accurate to describe Friedrich as having no accounting method at all. His predecessor had used a cryptic system of wooden tablets, leather belts, and hash marks.
“I mean, look at this!” The mayor unbuckled his belt and took it off. He was wearing a sample of the old accounting system. “No clan marks. Who can read this anymore?”
As Friedrich explained the holes and stitches that represented numbers, Denario stood taller and rubbed his sore neck. He gazed around him at the straps hanging from hooks on the walls. These, he realized, were not equipment like the swords and spears. They were relics of ancient ways. The Oggli and Waldi peasants had used leather records for centuries. Probably, the straps were precursors to proper vellum scrolls.
The accountant's hands grazed over the patterns in the leather stitching. The system of holes seemed to be unique but on the leather straps, the influence of immigrants could be seen. The Mundredi concept of house marks and clan marks appeared in the farm reports. It was too bad, really, that Friedrich had dropped it all in confusion. It seemed that for the past nine years he'd let each house report in any way they liked. Most reports had been oral, not even written except when half-remembered or estimated by Friedrich Jolli and his assistants as they tried to assemble the tax totals under the baleful gazes of the knight's men. It didn't help that those men had ignored the math and simply taken whatever they could. That dampened Friedrich's spirits and kept him from spending the effort to determine the right amounts. From his point of view, the farmers and merchants lied and the knights ignored the lies but then committed theft.
Friedrich seemed to have only a little idea of what other mayors were doing. Sir Fettertyr, like Sir Ulrich before him, didn't like the mayors or burghers from different towns to get together. So Friedrich heard rumors from his neighbors in Einferd Wad, Haphbruck, South Ackerland, Erlang, Ruin Thal, Ackfort, Zweibrucken, and a few other places. Aside from word of mouth, he had no idea what went on in the rest of his baron's realm, much less the wider realms of his count, marquis or duke. He'd heard of Zeigeburg but barely. To him it was a town 'somewhere out west' and completely unreachable. It was as mythical as Oggli or Muntab, which was far across the Complacent Sea.
Yet the mayor knew about No Map Creek. He understood that the waters of Furlings Brook, which ran through his town, ended up in the creek. When he'd been a young boy, he'd gone off one day to wade toward those magical lands 'at the end of the natural water.' That had been an adventure for him, knowing he was leaving behind the ordinary world for one inhabited by flying alligators, lost temples, foreign gods, and strange, seductive priestesses.
“I'd rather hoped to meet those priestesses.” Friedrich sighed wistfully. “I heard them singing that evening, I think. But the sounds frightened me somehow. They were faint and far downstream but they ached my bones. So I started a big campfire that night as a defense. Naturally, a farmer came to investigate. His family surrounded me. At spearpoint, they forced me to break camp and head back home.”
“No, they said it wasn't safe at night when those sounds were in the air. They blamed them on the Kilmun tribesmen.”
“Are the Kilmun near No Map Creek?”
“Yes, just on the southern side. The creek divides the tribes although there's been a fair bit of mixing of the families these past hundred years. Immigrants intermarried with locals despite the objections of all kinds of priests. And except for some priests and priestesses, there's no hostility between Mundredi and Kilmun.”
“None?” said Denario, impressed.
“No fighting that counts.” Friedrich opened his hands and rolled his shoulders. “Squabbles between men as you'd have anywhere, no clashes between houses, churches, or clans.”
“That's a relief,” Denario said. He touched the coin on his neck. He suspected he wouldn't be able to rely on it as much among the Kilmun. He’d use the letters of passage from the mayors and the Ogglian mercenaries.
His fingers found a leather strap wrapped into rough circle. It had been sitting on a pile of wooden tablets but Denario hadn't understood what it was before so he hadn't noticed. He unwrapped it. For a minute or two, he tried to work out the code of holes. The strip of flesh had been badly cured and had grown brittle. Cracks made the patterns hard to read. In another few years, it would crumble. Denario could see why this method of record keeping had fallen into disuse.
As the mayor tried to explain to him which records to read, Denario started adding numbers in his head. He quickly discovered that the town made an amazing amount of pickled cucumbers, pickled beets, pickled carrots, and even pickled beef. The craftsmen made bows, barrels, arrows, tar, vinegar, pitch, turpentine, and tallow candles. Farm towns like Furlingsburg should have been overflowing with wealth. But it all flowed to the nobles. Denario supposed that, in their way, these farmers made the war with Faschnaught possible. Without their products, both raw and crafted, the knights couldn't possibly buy the weaponry they needed for battle.
There were numbers all around Denario. He kept counting. There were numbers on the scrolls, on clay tablets, on wooden counting boards, on debtor split sticks, on clay pots similar to those in the ruins of South Ackerland, and even scribbled onto on stacks of sacks, each filled, he knew, with counters. Friedrich Jolli had surrounded himself with the farm reports of the past seven years and the records of nearby towns going back for much longer. All of the records had stories to tell.
“I need paper,” Denario said after a few minutes, interrupting whatever Friedrich had been saying.
“You mean blank pieces? We don't have any.”
“You have these counting boards, the planks.” He pointed to one of the tree cuts with tally marks.
“Each clan or house has a few.”
“I need half a dozen. No, a dozen. And a knife. Better make it three knives.”
“Do you have three hands?” Friedrich laughed. Denario must have given him a very serious look, though, for he then nodded and repeated, “Right, three knives.”
“I'll need an assistant, someone who understands numbers.”
“For now. And I'll need ink. We can't send boards to Sir Fettertyr. The final draft will be on parchment. We'll use pens and a roll of my own sheepskin for that.”
“The Hammer clan said you'd need those. They say their tattoo artist will arrive today. And you met Wilfried, my book keeper. I'll give a yell for him.”