Sunday, November 18, 2018

Not Even Not Zen 141: A Bandit Accountant, 24.1

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Four Factorial

Scene One: Mathemagic

The air smelled warm. Sunlight lay like a blanket on his exposed arms. Denario couldn’t see but that no longer mattered. Guided at first by sound and smell, he poled closer to the shore. He could feel the reeds, mud, and rocks press against the right side of his body through the stalks.

“Any shape bigger than a fist,” he murmured to Torgrim, the dwarf nearest. “That’s how much I can feel.”

“You sound pleased,” said Torgrim.

“Surprised.” From the shape of the nudge under his armpit, he was pretty sure he was feeling a clump of weeds. Rocks pressed in a more definite way.

Jack’s method seemed insane. But it worked better than the accountant had dared to hope. Intimidated by Jack’s expertise, he’d been content to let Jack do the steering for most of the afternoon. He’d thought he was doomed by his lack of boating proficiency. But when he'd grown tired of waiting, he’d decided to test his skills. He’d wanted to understand the suit even though he hadn't believed it could be as simple as this.

It was. The feeling of things came naturally. Knowing what to do about those sensations given his lack of direction and rafting instincts was another matter. Still, those were problems that might be solved in time.

He had already spent a few hours at rest. He'd napped. He'd slapped at insects with no less effectiveness than usual. After a while, his blindfold had filled up with sweat. The pegs under his tunic, even rounded as they were, had dug into his armpits. He suspected the outfit could get annoying at a level he hadn't experienced since his escape from Zeigeburg weeks ago, when he had fast-marched with pebbles in his accounting shoes.

It was hard to move while dressed as a porcupine. But now, after his experiment, he found it reassuring. He could perceive the riverbank. He could feel a tree trunk. That last expectation was confirmed in the next moment when his punt struck roots in the creek bed.

“I'm getting accustomed.” He turned in the direction of his other close companion. “How are you holding up, Ragna?”

“Not too bad,” the dwarf didn't sound drowsy. All of the dwarfs had found work that they could do without using their eyes. Ragna had chosen weaving. Ulf tailored clothes. Borghild carved. Torgrim and Jofried put edges on steel tools.

“Am I the only one bored almost to death?” Brand, the former caravan chief, complained.

“Yes,” said Ragna and Torgrim without pity.

“How many times have you pried off your blindfold?” asked Denario.

“How would you know about that?”

“You got ill. I heard retching.”

“Well, I was trying to figure out when we'll get back to my trade routes. Shouldn't be too far.”

“And looking around while wondering about that made you sick.” Denario hoped the anti-cartography magic was near its peak. From comparing this to Jack's descriptions, it might be. “You swore to secrecy about Jack's methods. Weren’t you serious about the oath?”

“The oath, yes, the method of traveling through magic, no. Come on, accountant, this is insane. We heard a flock of flying frogs overhead. What if they'd been something worse? How can we defend ourselves? Other raftsmen come through here. I wish my troop had run into them instead.”

“Jack knows the methods of the other raftsmen. Or he thinks he does. He chooses not to use them.”

“They can't be worse than blindness.”

“You put your trust in magic charms, I suppose.” Denario was thinking of how Brand had used the tokens of Onuava to track them. He wondered if the caravan master had slyly left out part of the story about his travels through the forest around the lost temple. Could he have used the tokens in some way? Ideas churned in his mind.

“Not at all. Magic never does what you want it to unless you're a wizard.”

“You lied about using accounting, Brand. Now you're lying about magic.” The dwarfs hissed. To them, accusing someone so boldly was nearly a crime. “There were tokens to the goddess Onuava in the treasure you captured. Either you or Mohi had a token to help you find those others. If you hadn't, you'd be dead now.”

“Well done. Smart bastard. But I'm still right about magic and numbers. There's something wrong with using them.”

“That is a strange argument for you to make,” said Borghild to Brand. “A few dwarfs, long ago, argued that particular tools, including magicks, encourage immorality by making lives too easy. But I was not aware than you were opposed to having an easy life.”

Brand made a sullen lack of comment. Denario thought he heard the man fold his arms across his chest.

“A battle between the wisest or most clever of opponents is no more different morally, I think, than a battle between the strongest or the quickest. Are you saying that you didn't outwit your attackers even a little when they attempted to rob you?” Borghild drove the point home further. “Was it all luck, then?”

The middle raft felt the tug of the front one as it moved eastward into the center of the creek. Jack Lasker wasn't ready to set up camp, apparently. Denario ceased feeling the edge of the riverbank through the quills of his suit. Only the tap of his punt against the creek bottom let him know that his leader hadn't taken them out into the depths yet.

After a few minutes, the dwarfs in the third raft shouted to the first that they wanted to land, build a fire, and cook dinner. The first raft shouted back that they were looking for a place to moor. Jack said that he had a method for landing while blind but that he was going to proceed with care no matter how hungry anyone got.

When they were told that the raft master had a method, the dwarfs quieted. For half a day, they'd felt reassured by Jack's smooth navigation. It was almost a parlor trick, albeit one done in the world’s largest parlor, the outdoors. Intellectually, Denario understood how the man could do such a thing, but he also knew that he wasn't up to it on this scale himself. Probably no one except Jack or maybe his father could steer three vessels through sandbars, boulders, and fallen trees.

Jack guided the rafts through the deeps to the Kilmun shore. A while later, he took them back west. Denario could feel the difference. No one else could. He knew that Jack wasn't finding a spot that he liked.

Denario did math in his head for a while, mostly numeromancy. He found himself reviewing the hex codes he understood. He wanted to write real spell, one that the Guild of Accountants knew existed but had never been able to duplicate. Book keepers had reported seeing wizards cast it. They had written down their observations in the guild scrolls. But to date, no accountant had managed to create it, the magic 'echo' command. That was despite the fact it was one of the simplest spells that any wizard knew.

The echo spell detected incoming magic and exposed the hexes in it. It was the means by which wizards studied one another's creations. It also seemed to be how some wizards studied their own work and tweaked their spells. What a marvelous thing the echo hex would be in the hands of a certified accountant! Such a mathemagician could reveal the fundamental equations underlying the world.

The guild had recorded fragments of the spell. While the hexes were numbers greater than zero, the conjuration chopped up those numbers into hexadecimal digits and spit them back to be seen. It was an elegant thing, much like a geometric proof, very formal and very exact. It treated letters as if they were numbers, which made perfect sense to Denario. He didn't find coding letters to numbers and back again to be anything other than a amusing pastime.

He leaned back as best as he could in his suit. He thought to himself, What if I were reckless? How would I solve the problem if I didn't care so much about what other accountants thought? Well, he would try every hexadecimal number combination he could think of in rapid succession. No one here could see his failures. There was no guild master to warn him off. There was no wizard to stop him. He had a ready supply of magic at his fingertips. When would these circumstances ever occur again?

This was the best opportunity an accountant had ever had to figure out the math behind all life. This was it.

With that thought in mind, he started running through all of the hex codes, even the ones unknown to the guild, the total guesses. The first line was a given. That was the one that said while the incoming magic wasn't zero ...
While 'hex twenty-four hex twenty-one hex thirty-thirteen hex thirty'
because the number zero, it had been determined, was 'hex thirty' in the only magic the accountants knew. Then he needed the codes for 'shift right' and 'show.' But he already knew the code for showing. He'd used it to show magic stars. So it was really only the 'shift right' he needed to guess. Or was it 'shift left?' How did wizards decide? Did the magic decide for them? Was it hidden from them in their higher-order tongues? Whatever the command meant, the wizards used it as if numbers were mechanical, like balls in an abacus, and they could drop digits with it.
shift right
then show
Denario translated his letters into hexes. It was almost too easy. For a reason known only to wizards, letters emerged as hex numbers in a simple, positional notation. It wasn't a matter of encoding so much as it was adding a hexademical forty-one to the value of the letter you wanted. He could do that in his head.

He mumbled and drew with his finger on the deck, repeating the process over and over. He was sure of most of the spell, especially the parts that had been stolen from wizards over the many years of the guild. For the shift, he started with 'hex 1,' the second hex because there was a 'hex 0' that blanked out other hexes. He already knew that one and he knew 'hex 7,' a sort of magical alarm. He didn't need to try those.

“Um, accountant, what are you doing?” asked Brand.

“Math. Important math.”

“Oh, all right.” Apparently Brand hadn't been the only one worried. Denario could hear the dwarfs closest to him relax. Their sleeves rustled as they returned to their work.

“I'm finishing something that no accountant has completed before.”

“A good thing?” Everyone paused a little.

“It'll be something to write down when we stop.”

He returned to reciting the spell but, by the fifth iteration, he noticed a mistake. He had to back up and try again from the beginning. When Brand coughed, Denario messed up the eighth try. He started to understand why wizards got cranky when they were interrupted. The whole spell, the entire mathematical proof of it, had to be perfect. Distractions were not welcome. Denario repeated the eighth and ninth tries to ensure that he'd given them a valid test. He almost missed hex fourteen. At the end of the cast, he readied himself for a try at hex fifteen. Then he realized that he'd felt something. Had the spell succeeded? How could he know? Sickness be damned. He pulled up his blindfold.

In the air in front of him, numbers scrolled by. He read 0, 0, 7 followed by 0, 0, 7, followed by 0, 0, 7, and so on. Somehow he'd produced the alarm hex. He mumbled a cancel. The numbers stopped.

Where had he gone wrong?

He puzzled over it for a minute and then ran through his incantation once more using the hex fourteen code. Again, he got 0, 0, 7 followed by 0, 0, 7, followed by 0, 0, 7 ... and then a 0, 1, 7. He blinked. The hex was gone, scrolled off into the air, replaced by more zeros and sevens. Had it really happened? Had he seen a hex 17 instead of a hex 7? He waited. He counted.

After a couple minutes, he knew. It was real. Every sixteenth command revealed by his spell was a hex 17. What was that for? He had no idea. But it proved that he hadn't done something wrong and set off a magical bell. No, he had figured out the long-sought-after echo command.

Hex 14 was the shift hex that accountants had been looking for. He had written his spell completely in numbers. It had worked. He would never have been able to do it without coming to this swamp of high background magic.

“Thank Melcurio,” he mumbled. He made the sign of eight.

Truly, he was blessed. He canceled the spell and ran it again to watch the results. They didn't change. There were a lot of hex 7 charms in the air, followed every sixteenth by hex 17 and only occasionally interrupted by other hexes that Denario assumed were part of the background magic.

Lots of alarms. Huh.

He hadn't taken his eyes off of the magic but he started to get a queasy stomach. He pulled the blindfold down over his eyes and wondered.

Why so many alarms?

He snapped off the blindfold to study the landscape. There was wasn't any danger that he could see on either shore. The rafts had left the east side and were drifting west. Ahead of him, Jack stood like the river master he was. His punt guided the rafts in steady strokes. The cat-tail quills of Jack's suit gave him a feel for what lay ahead. The tip of his pole told him a lot about the bottom, no doubt. It was amazing to look at. But Denario didn't stare for long.

What's dangerous? he wondered. Nothing. So why any alarms at all?

He canceled his spell. His fingers dragged across the blindfold and pulled it down. But even though he couldn't see the magic, he knew it was there. Everyone is warned to avoid areas of heavy magic this month, he remembered. Maybe there was a storm on the way. It might be as simple as that. Would that set off alarms? No. After all, danger lay all around them in this ominous and twisty creek. Only the presence of an intruder or some other special circumstance should do it.

Maybe we set off the alarm when we got too close to the temple. If so, no harm would come from it. The temple was long abandoned. There was no one to take notice of the warning.

But what if something eavesdropped in an automatic way? What if magical traps detected geometers in these lands? The spells might set off further hexes. Anti-cartography magic might tune itself according to the alarms in order to be more effective at confusion. Maybe he was feeling a different kind of magic right now and didn't know it.

He thought about the problem for half an hour as Jack in the lead raft took them to the west bank and then east bank. The riverman still couldn't find a landing spot he liked.

Denario listened to the creek. Twice, he heard fish come to the surface. Many times, he heard frogs calling from the water and from the trees above. Once, he peeked under his blindfold. He caught Brand doing the same. The dwarfs sat patiently in their assigned spots and worked on their tasks. The accountant pulled his blindfold down. He leaned back as well as he could in the suit and wondered about the alarm hexes. He'd done good math to discover them. It would be a shame to stop. If the alarms caused spells to be cast, maybe he could halt those. All he needed to do was cast a short loop of a hex.
While the incoming hex is an alarm
set the alarm to null
With that, he could create magical silence. The curses that he imagined would trigger on those hexes would remain in hibernation, waiting for signals that would never come. That would be perfect.

Denario spent a while considering the logic of the spell. Wizards might cast as easy as they spoke but for accountants, naturally, it had to be different. Aside from a smattering of words in magical tongues, hexes were all that any accountant knew. And hexes, perhaps unlike other methods, had to be written or spoken in order. Any letters that were needed had to be created from numbers. He practiced. As he created his formal spell, which took a few minutes, he reflected how lucky he was that a previous accountant had learned how two hexes, thirty-ten and thirty-thirteen, combined to make the hex for 'assign equality.' Without that fellow's hard work, Denario wouldn't have been able to continue.

When he was ready, he pulled up his blindfold to see. He whispered the incantation as he drew the numbers. At the end of it, he felt a difference. He saw a glimmer of zeros in the air before they faded.

It was working. He knew it. He felt so pleased that he squirmed in his seat.

“What did you just do?” said Brand. A few yards away, he writhed. Although a look of pain crossed his face, he didn't touch the cloth strap over his eyes. “Did you spit? I felt something.”

“Nothing like that,” Denario assured him. “Just math. I proved something.”

“What was the conjecture?” Borghild asked. He was one of Denario's best pupils in the group.

“Trade secret. This will be written down for the Guild of Accountants.”

Borghild muttered something in dwarfish. The other dwarfs made grunting sounds of resignation. They were curious but Denario could count on them to respect his craft.

Finally, with the sun long descended below the treeline but not yet turned orange at the horizon, the lead raft swung toward a broad expanse on the Mundredi shore. Denario took the opportunity to watch Clever Jack as he steered by feel. After he scraped his raft's starboard edge along the bank, Jack plucked one of the long reeds out of his suit and swept it through the sand and grass. He kept doing it as he punted left-handed to keep his raft close to the landing. After this had gone on for a minute, he yanked off his blindfold. Denario, now sick to his stomach, put his back on.

“All rafts, hove to shore!” Jack shouted. Denario enjoyed the feeling of the clumps of grass as they pushed the butts of the cat-tail reeds gently into the right side of his suit. As he felt it, he leaned into the sensation and pushed with his pole on the left side of his body.

“Blinders off!” Jack called. “Tie down!”

Denario heard the dwarfs scurry fore and aft. They gathered coils of rope, clambered over the gunwhales, and looked for rocks and roots suitable for hitching. One of the dwarfs behind him mis-stepped and fell into the creek. His friends waded in. Denario didn't. He’d been slow to untie his blindfold. He was in the midst of unbuckling his navigation suit. For every cat-tail reed that he lost in the process, he'd have to spend a minute re-inserting it and maybe whittling it again, too, so he took care. In front of him, Clever Jack unbuckled and untied himself so deftly that it was impossible to copy. He had his suit laid down on the deck, spines up, in less than half a minute. He didn't glance back to Denario. He strode to his stewpot and utensils.

Denario took so long that a pair of dwarfs came to help.

“Thanks, Ulf, Torgrim,” he said as they laid the suit down, cat-tails up to the sky. The ends drooped so that all three of them needed to crouch and step away.

“How did it work, Skilling?”

“Sensations to the sides are good. As to feeling obstacles to the front, I won't have much opportunity for that.”

“Not likely with Master Jack navigating.” They laughed. As his nausea passed, the accountant joined in. The suit was a good trick. His numeromancy had been even trickier. And even better.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Not Even Not Zen 140: A Bandit Accountant, 23.5

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Smallest Non-Twin Prime

Scene Five: Getting a Feel for It

Jack directed his crews through the process of unhitching the raft train. He and Denario left the dwarfs on the Kilmun shore to keep watch on the captives. Although the caravan leader probably could have fled, he showed no signs of an attempt. Jack sighed as he poled away. Probably, he wished Brand would run off. It would be less trouble.

Meanwhile, the mallow craft, which was partly under Denario's power and totally under Jack's command, steered to a rough landing on an island in the creek. It wasn't much of an island. It was more of a sand bar full of grass, reeds, rocks, and a few examples of a single type of bush with long stalks. Unlike most other vegetation around, this place looked temperate. The weeds would have been at home anywhere.

“This is the stuff,” said Jack as he moored to a rock. For a moment, the accountant crouched down to the mixture of clay, conglomerates, shales, and quartz pebbles. The river master snorted. He cast his arm toward the plant life. “Not the rocks, Den. Look upslope. See those bushes? Our method depends on me finding these cat-tail things. Fortunately, they're here every time, no matter what else the magic does to the landscape.”

“Cat-tails are not usually bushes.” Denario pointed to a real cat-tail downslope, not the imitation at the crest of the sand. Two rows of actual cat-tails grew along the water's edge, about a dozen plants. “They're reeds like these.”

“Right. But it's the bushes that I mean. The stalks on them are longer. They haven't got much of a feather-tail on them but it's there. As plants, they might have another name, I suppose, among accountants or wizards. To me, they're cat-tail bushes. That's as they seemed to my father and his father before.”

“The stalks at the base must be fifteen feet long.” Denario walked to within touching distance of one. It was a tough-looking plant. He didn't want to brush up against it.

“About that much. Those gossamer strands you see at the ends make them longer than you think. They're as strong, too, and sharp. Be careful.”

“Careful how?” Denario squinted. The sun was bright and hot overhead.

“We're going to harvest these.” Jack pulled out the big knife from his waistband. He knelt to one of the flowering stems.

“What for? Is this like sedge? Are you going to weave something from them?”

“Almost. You've almost got it.” He sawed at the stem with the serrated edge.

“I have?” Denario glanced up the creek at the next hundred yards of wilderness ahead of them. He peeked over his shoulder at the two rafts in the clearing on the Kilmun side. The dwarfs stood calmly near them. Brand knelt in the center of the closest raft. He seemed to be talking with one of his wounded men.

“Have you ever seen a blind man walk?” asked Jack. That brought the accountant back to what they were doing. Jack finished sawing through the base of a stalk. He set his prize down where he'd cut it.

Denario rubbed his bearded chin. He pictured his home. “There are blind beggars in Oggli. The wealthy ones have friends to pull them around. The rest get long sticks and push them out in front.”

“That's exactly right. That's what I mean.” Jack swiveled to flash him a sly smile. He returned to his task.

“Oh no.” The image that came to Denario's head wasn't believable. “You can't possibly steer the rafts with these.”

“Not with them in my hands, no.”

“Oh.” Denario felt let down. It almost made sense for a moment.

“That's why I have a pair of these suits. I wear them.” Jack tossed down the second stalk. He dropped the knife beside it. Calmly, he reached to his shoulders and unstrapped the old, brown pack he'd brought along. Denario had wondered what was in it. His companion fiddled with the rawhide knots at the top. In about half a minute, he pulled out a thick, goatskin tunic. There were holes in it. At first, Denario thought it was a rag. But the pattern of holes was regular. "My father has a suit, too. I brought it. You can wear his.”

“You put the stalks through the holes?" Denario guessed. “You dress up like a porcupine?”

“More like a beetle. I've seen a few that travel their whole lives this way. They feel around for directions by means of quills.”

“But can you feel what's happening? You're not a beetle.”

“It's hard. I don't deny it. That's why my granddad came up with the idea of these suits. It's why I wear one. Inside, you see, are these pegs.”

Denario leaned forward. There were carved bone cups woven into the holes. Those were places for the stalks to fit, he saw. On the other side of the cups were rounded pegs. “That looks uncomfortable.”

“When a cat-tail quill gets hit hard, yes, it can hurt to have the peg press into your skin. But the rest of the time, it's comfy enough.”

“So when you're fifteen feet from shore, you feel the brush of it on one side of your body.”

“A gentle caress.”

“You must punt away to starboard when you feel the riverbank to port.” He gazed at the Mundredi side of the creek. Soon there would be no Mundredi or Kilmun sides, he supposed, only Ogglian peasants. The forgotten temple acted as a divider between the lands of the invaders and those of the established settlers to the southeast.

“Usually. Sometimes I like to stay close to the banks if I feel the water is strange. Or maybe I want to stop for a break. Then I'll head for the shallows.”

“Do you take off your blindfold to eat?”

“Yes, it's safe enough when we're not going anywhere. If we try to think too hard about where we're going with our eyes open, bad things happen. Some people forget how to see. If you get to that point, close your eyes and give a shout.”

“This is some weird magic, Jack.” Denario sighed.

“It is. But this way of charting reminds me of my school lessons in geometry when I was a boy. It should seem familiar to you.”

“It does. It's brilliant.”

“Glad to hear it. Put on the suit.”


Sunday, November 4, 2018

Not Even Not Zen 139: A Bandit Accountant, 23.4

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Smallest Non-Twin Prime

Scene Four: Swearing

“You're feverish.” Ragna wiped Denario's brow.

“It's not bad.” The accountant pulled out his most ragged hat. It had been over-used when he got it and it had grown thin enough for him to see his fingers through the cloth. Its linen had grown soft. He used it to mop the sweat from around his ears.

“I've done what I can.” The dwarf screwed a lid onto a jar of smelly oils. Denario tried to remember the last time he'd seen a screw-on top to anything. It had probably been in Ziegeburg. “The flesh looks healthy enough, Denario. But it's going to scar.”

“It'll match the other arm, then.” If that was going to be the worst of it, he was lucky. He'd gotten the sweats but he still felt good. He stuffed his rag back in his pocket.

At the tiller, Torgrim kept the raft steady. Denario took a moment to survey the landscape. On the Mundredi side of the creek, the underbrush looked like the diagrams that wizards drew of vegetation on tropical islands. On the Kilmun side, the rafts passed row after row of spaghetti trees. Denario was amazed that anyone could be stubborn enough to build an orchard here, let alone a large one that implied generations of hard labor. Someone's great-grandfather had arrived, put his hands on his hips, and said, 'This looks like home.' Despite the heavy magic, possibly because of it, the settlers had prospered by harvesting magical pasta.

Within an hour, the sun grew bright enough to dry Denario’s wound. The scabs hardened on his arm. Medicinal oils baked into his skin. He poled for a while, handed over the duty to Borghild, switched to a wider hat, and changed into a clean undershirt before he re-donned his dwarf-tailored hauberk. Although he'd stopped wearing his mail shirt, he needed some sort of armor. Without it, he felt like he was the easiest target on board.

They took lunch on the creek because there was no good place to stop. After their meal, word came back from the lead raft that it was time to pass out blindfolds.

“Are you sure about this?” Torgrim asked him. He nodded to the other dwarfs as they cut strips of cheap cloth.

“No,” Denario replied. “But Jack comes and goes through here as much as five times a year if the creek is fast. He must know something.”

He picked up an oar. The water had gotten too deep for a pole, even on the Kilmun side where it should have been shallow. The accountant glanced over a row of tied-down packages to spy on Brand, who was lying in the shade. He knew he should either drag the caravan leader to the gunwhales and over the side, which might be beyond his strength no matter what he'd said, or he should make certain that Brand wouldn't break free to kill them all.

The dwarf Borghild had stopped poling. There was no point. So he got the duty of blindfolding Brand. He strode the middle aisle, cloth held high. Perhaps out of a sense of politeness, he paused to wave the cloth for a moment so that the caravan captain could wake and see. Then he crouched down to tie it around the man's eyes.

Despite Borghild's attempt at politeness, Brand seemed surprised. He woke to the blindfold as it went on and immediately fought against it. He shook his head from side to side. He thrashed. When his eyes were clear, he swiveled on his left hip and aimed a double-legged kick at his captor. It knocked Borghild over.

A second later, Brand swung around and kicked at nothing. Denario didn't understand it at first. But with a further whip of his body, Brand popped to his feet.

Denario scrambled forward, oar in his hands. He had to lean across the packages as he took his swing. The bigger man saw it coming. The whites of his eyes grew large. He ducked. The blade of the oar bumped his shoulder. Denario reared back to try again. But just then he saw that the caravan captain had his hands free. That was an unpleasant surprise. He would have sworn there was no way to undo those knots. The dwarfs were so careful. Yet Brand had managed. All he had to do now was unwind the loops, which he was doing as he moved.

The accountant's second swing met Brand's arms as they rose up. Brand still had his left arm wrapped and he used that to block the oar. Despite the thick layer of jute for protection, he howled in pain. At the same time, Borghild rose to his feet. One thing everyone had learned from the night before was that a human couldn't out-wrestle a dwarf. Brand had compared them to the Chim Pan-Zee people, who were short and strong but who were savages on the islands of the Complacent Sea, bereft of tools or language.

Brand blinked at Borghild, then turned to flee. Denario hopped over a box of dried meats to follow. It was awkward. He lost the oar. The oar tripped the dwarf, who fell again, cursing. Fortunately, Brand had his ankles tied. He could barely move. Denario caught him at the corner of the middle aisle.

Denario swung his fist. Brand dodged and rolled over a crate into the outer aisle of the raft.

“Damn it!” A moment later, the account vaulted to the outer aisle.

This time, he chased Brand down before the man reached the next corner. He hit Brand with a flying tackle, shoulder to shoulder, as the larger fellow paused to try in vain to undo the knotted rope around his legs. It was reassuring that the bigger man made a 'woof' sound when Denario hit.

The accountant kept driving forward with his legs. He figured that if he could knock Brand down, the dwarfs could come to his rescue. But Brand wouldn't cooperate. He was too strong. Even with his feet tied, he managed to keep hopping backwards instead of toppling over. All Denario could do was persist. He pushed harder, legs churning on the deck. He drove the fellow right up to the gunwhales. Even with the beams there to trip him, Brand refused to go down. In frustration, Denario decided to push the man overboard. As luck would have it, there was a dark shape in the water right behind Brand. Maybe it would all work out.

“No!” Brand yelled. He saw what was coming. He dug his heels against the gunwhales. But Denario had momentum on his side. He finished his thrust. The big man toppled. His arms flailed.

At that moment, Borghild leaped over a barrel and grabbed the caravan captain by his left arm.

“What are you doing?” Denario gasped. It had taken all of his energy to get this far. He took a deep breath. From the other side of the barrel, he pushed on Brand's body.

“You can't kill him!” the dwarf shouted.

“I can if you stop helping him!”

“Ragna!” Borghild cried. Denario was surprised to hear the dwarf sound desperate. “Help me! Hold back Skilling!”

“Ragna!” Denario pleaded over his shoulder. He didn't know where the heavy dwarf was but he hoped it wasn't too close. “Look at what happened. Brand got out of his ropes. We have to toss him over.”

He heard footsteps. The accountant craned his neck to see the dwarf in the heavy, brown tunic. Ragna stomped up the aisle towards Denario.

“Please, Ragna,” he said.

His plea was drowned out, though, by Brand. The caravan captain and murderer had gotten a closer look at the shadow in the water below him. He bellowed. His legs trembled. Between his strength and Borghild's, he had gotten a firm toehold. He inched back into the boat despite Denario's best efforts.

When Ragna arrived, Denario thought it was all over. He almost stopped pushing. But instead of plucking the accountant out of the struggle, Ragna reached past to push on Brand's leg. That stopped the progress that Borghild and Brand had made.

“Ragna, no!”

“Yes!” Denario felt a renewed strength. “One more shove!"

He'd thought it would take only one more. But he was working on his second shove even as he finished the words. The force he could bring to bear didn't match anyone else's.

“Ragna!” Borghild cried again.

“Please,” said Brand. He looked directly into Ragna's eyes. That made the dwarf hesitate.

“Torgrim! Jofrid!” Borghild seized the moment. “Drop the oars. Come here!"

“But I'm steering!” called Torgrim. His spot at the tiller was hidden by tall crates.

“Ragna and Skilling are trying to kill Brand!”

“But ...” The tiller oar hit the deck with a clatter. Jofrid, who had been sleeping in plain view, jumped up. He started the wrong direction, turned to see what was going on, and corrected course.

“Come!”

A moment later, all five of them, Denario, Ragna, Jofrid, Borghild, and Torgrim clustered together. And each of them push or pulled on Brand, who still hung over the gunwhales. He tried to get his second arm over to Borghild but thankfully, he couldn't with Jofrid blocking him. The thing in the water below him had surfaced to reveal the head of a snapping turtle or something similar in shape. The main difference was that it was overlarge. Its body seemed to be a third of the size of the raft. The creature looked capable of biting an alligator in half.

Denario pushed harder. The thing might take care of Brand even if the man couldn't be pushed into the water.

“Accountant, why?” Torgrim asked.

“Because we can't trust him!” Denario yelled.

“I'll swear!” volunteered Brand.

Denario backed up a step and lunged. But even after the hard shove, he was afraid that he and Ragna were losing. Brand was tilting in the wrong direction. That was happening because of Torgrim and Jofrid. The smithy had joined Ragna in pushing. Torgrim, however, had decided to pull and he'd gotten a grip on Brand's trouser leg. The only hope Denario had was the expression on Torgrim's face, which was a conflicted one. He didn't really want to rescue Brand.

“No!” Denario shouted at Brand.

“Swear what?” Torgrim asked.

“Don't listen!” shouted Ragna and Jofrid.

“Anything you want!” said Brand.

“His word's not worth anything,” counseled Denario. He gasped for breath. He backed up and tried again.

“Will you swear not to escape?”

“Yes.”

“No!” Denario knew he was losing. He tried a different tactic. Reaching over the crate, he put his hand on Borghild's face and pushed. That gave him more leverage. “It's not enough.”

“What more?” Torgrim asked.

“Anything at all,” Brand answered.

“Anything the accountant decides?”

“The accountant?” Even hanging over the edge, Brand had to think about that for a moment. He must have sensed that he'd hurt Denario's feelings. Probably it was the way Denario was trying to kill him. “As long as he doesn't have me swear to jump into the jaws of a beast.”

“Everybody stop,” Torgrim announced. To emphasize his point, he stilled his own body. “Swear the oaths right now and I'll pull you to safety. Don't, and I'll help Ragna and Skilling.”

The struggle quieted. Denario had already lost. On his side, Ragna was doing most of the work. He was overmatched by Borghild but together, they had no trouble keeping Brand suspended above the water. Jofrid and Torgrim didn't have room to maneuver so they didn't have much effect.

“First, you have to swear not to try to escape,” said Torgrim.

“I swear,” intoned Brand seriously. Denario didn't trust it at all.

“Not enough!” He raised his hands as if he were going to push again but he stopped himself. They were in a truce situation. Besides, he couldn't win. “Swear to fight on the side of the dwarfs.”

“What dwarfs? Every one here?”

“Every dwarf on this raft, every dwarf allied with Boldor, and every dwarf you meet by chance. All of them. Really all.”

“All right, I swear. I'll harm no dwarf. I'll fight on their side. All of them.” Brand said it easily. He seemed to know that he'd never meet another dwarf aside from these.

“You'll take no slaves, neither dwarf nor human.”

“What have you got against my business?”

“Swear.”

“Slavery is a tenth of my enterprise. I can't promise anything like that!”

“If you don't swear, I'll go and grab my sword.” Denario was ready to hack this slaver to pieces. His fingers itched for it. “They may pull you back onto the deck but it won't do you any damn good.”

“Do you hear him?” Brand turned to Borghild and Torgrim. “He's crazy.”

“Swear,” said Torgrim.

“Right, no slaves,” said Borghild. He had the best grip. He shook the man. “Swear.”

“You're serious?” After he finished rattling, Brand looked around for sympathy. He saw none. Behind the raft, the giant snapping turtle head appeared. The creature seemed confused for a moment by the presence of the trailing raft although it must have known about it from its visit before. It searched for the low-hanging animal it had noticed. When it turned and saw Brand, it opened its jaws. It started paddling toward the middle raft. “Oh, come on! I swear! Pull me in! Pull me in!”

“Swear to follow orders until we release you.” Denario had resigned himself to Brand's rescue but he was in no hurry.

“Will you release me? Pull, damn it!”

Denario considered the question. “I'll swear. I'm sure that Jack would never sell you off as a slave or abandon you if he had no need, but if he does, I'll gainsay him.”

“Then I swear, too! Of course! I'll follow orders! Pull!”

The beast was a slow swimmer. But when it made its final move, it proved faster and bigger than Denario had realized. He tried to pull. With the dwarfs helping, he brought Brand's outstretched form upright. They all leaped backwards when the giant turtle head rose. The monster had a long neck. As a group, they brought Brand into the boat so fast that he tumbled face-first onto the boards. Everyone else fell backwards. Then they scrambled away from the maw of the creature.

The beady, dark eyes followed Brand. There was a snap, followed by a crunching sound. The mighty beak gouged a chunk out of the oak beam next to Brand. It had missed. Even stunned by his fall, Brand was fast enough to dodge. The beast chewed the wood and spat it out. It turned its head sideways and glared at the passengers on deck with one eye. Then it sank back into the water.

Denario heard a rippling sound. Currents swept around the brown-green body as the creature dove under. A shadow moved off toward the Kilmun side of the creek. It grew fainter as it dove farther down. In a moment, it faded entirely.

“Well, that was interesting.”

Denario turned to see Jack Lasker standing on the far corner of the deck.

“How long have you been aboard?” He picked himself off of the flooring and plucked a splinter out of his trousers.

“Long enough to keep the raft from tipping.”

“Really?” Denario had thought of the possibility but not seriously. “I figured the weight of the packages would hold us level.”

“That helped. And my rafts don't tip. There was nothing in the water for the raft to hit. I thought a big rock was the only thing that could have done the job and, even then, not with you on the corner, only if you all moved to the starboard side. But as it turned out, that beast lifted up one side of the raft a few inches as it leaned over. That’s even with my weight on the opposite.”

Denario gazed around the deck at the jugs, crates, boxes, and barrels tied down in rows. They totaled over one thousand five hundred pounds of material, he estimated. To tilt them, even with the help of the men and dwarfs foolishly collected at one spot on the raft, the monster had to be of comparable weight.

He scanned the waters. The rafts floated through another twisty bend in the creek, much like the last one and the one before that.

“It was pretty big," he said with his eyes on the spot where the creature had disappeared. "Have you ever seen something like it before?”

“No. But I've had the sense not to dangle bait over the water.”

“Ah, well, that wasn't something I’d intended.”

“It was good, though. You're not the strongest warrior but you train. You have good reactions. It's a pity the dwarfs stopped you. But maybe Brand will be useful now that he's sworn to follow your orders. Who knows?”

Denario must have rolled his eyes. Jack put his hands on his hips and grinned.

“I'm going to talk to him now. One of his men has caught a fever. I'm inclined to let Brand visit him if only to lift that fellow's spirits.”

“In that case, I'll need to have further talk with him myself.” This was exactly the kind of thing he'd always been bad at. Even when it came to his apprentices who weren't tough killers, Curo had always been there to help keep things in order.

Denario forced himself. After listening to the discussion about Brand's freedom and his sick men, the accountant sat down with the dangerous fellow. He made Brand swear all over again, repeating each word formally. It took twenty minutes at the least. The dwarfs, one by one, stopped by to listen in and offer suggestions. They loved formal logic in their math lessons and they enjoyed hearing it in oaths, too.

“Yes, I swear,” Brand finished. He raised his right arm. “I'll follow your orders. Yes, Jack's too, if I must.”

“Very well. Now I'll free your legs.” It seemed the height of insanity. Would he need to tie the fellow up at night? But Brand had sworn to harm no one and to follow orders. Anyway, he'd proved that he could escape. They were going to have to kill him or trust him.

“But you're still going to blindfold me,” Brand said accusingly.

“We're all going to be blindfolded,” Denario replied. He glanced to Jack for confirmation. “And for all of that, you'll still have your hands free.”

“If you take off the blindfold, the blame for your death is on you,” said Jack. “It won't be by my hand. I only know that anyone who tries to sail by the temple with eyes open either dies or gets lost.”

“That's your secret?” Brand asked.

“Part of it.” Jack turned to Denario. He folded his arms across his chest. “You, Den, ought to know some of the rest. But only you. We've got an extra raft and many passengers. I think someone else ought to know understand how to proceed.”

“Under what circumstances? You'll come through fine. You always do.”

“I've had rafts get separated before. Wouldn't you like to stand a chance of staying alive for a while if that happens?”

“Go, accountant,” said Brand. He waved his free arms grandly. “By all means.”

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Not Even Not Zen 138: A Bandit Accountant, 23.3

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Smallest Non-Twin Prime

Scene Three: Brief Moments of Mercy

“I was going to say we should toss Brand overboard. But now ...” Denario rubbed his bearded chin. He tried to think like Vir. Letting the robbers live was a mistake because Vir wouldn't do that. On the other hand, the dwarfs objected to killing helpless men.

The accountant strolled along the deck, robbers and dwarfs on either side of him in the aisles between crates. It had turned out to be a beautiful morning. Denario was allowed to look at it and know that it was possibly his last glimpse of sunrise for a while. Clever Jack felt it was nearly time to start his secret navigation method that depended on everyone being blindfolded.

There were three rectangular aisles on the raft. There was an outer section of bare planking between the packages and the gunwhales. There was an inner ring between the rows of boxes. Then there was the core, the area for Jack's tent plus room to walk around his quarters, cook, and so on. It was all reasonably symmetric and pleasing to Denario's eye. The three captured men occupied the middle aisle. Two of them had to lie down. Brand DeLadro, however, had recovered from his beating enough to sit up. He leaned his back against a crate of rawhide. He glared at Denario in fear and anger. On the outer aisle stood most of the dwarfs. Their leader waited with his arms crossed over his hauberk.

“I can't deny your objections, Boldor,” Denario continued, “especially not after you opposed trading me into slavery on moral grounds.” Self-defense was no longer an issue. The accountant knew he couldn't argue that point. Incredible as it seemed, the dwarfs had won the fight.

The dwarf chief nodded. “That is proper.”

Denario glanced around at the weird, semi-tropical landscape. None of the dwarfs liked to walk far into it. The plants were different from those only a mile upstream. The bushes were leafier. The tip ends of plants were spikier. The flowers weren't pin-pricks of color. They were explosions of vibrant pink, red, or blue. They smelled musky. Uphill from their camp, tall mounds stood, occupied by ants with stingers. Even the insects lived differently in the heavy magic.

“I agree that the land looks hard. But there are moral considerations aside from mercy.” Denario turned his attention back to the dwarfs on board. “You demand that Master Jack Lasker feed these men. The chore will come out of his profits because these bandits don't work. On top of that, they robbed him. Jack has been injured. He's owed compensation, not an additional fine. I don't think you have the right to demand that he pay for your decision.”

“That is a very good point,” said Heilgar. He raised his right finger. But he put it down when he caught the glare from his chief.

“What you say is true,” Bolder acknowledged. “But we dwarfs have made enough additional profit for Jack to pay for them as passengers. He should speak for himself. Does he wants us to take on more of the burden? I admit that it would seem fair. He advised us rightly in every step. We are learning the ways of men from him. And none of us have died although it was a close thing last night.”

“I was just feeling that I owe Ragna my life, maybe, for patching me up,” called Jack. He didn't occupy a place on the raft. Out of a sense of duty to the others, he stood guard on the shore. He touched his bloodied shirt.

Ragna said to him, “It was a debt I owed you already. You saved me and my friends.”

“Denario did the most, along with Ulf and Torgrim and those alligators that Denario befriended. The blow Ulf struck was fantastic. Ragna, I played my part but I didn't march out across the penninsula to risk my life the way Denario did. By the way, accountant, you should let Ragna look at your arm.”

“Maybe.” He hadn't been aware of his wound when it happened. As he looked at it now, that seemed amazing. He'd been ripped down his left arm, elbow to wrist, and he'd never felt it.

As he stared at the laceration, it oozed another drop of bloody fluid from its scab.

“Do we have to decide right now?” Ragna asked.

“It'll get more dangerous as we get closer to the temple,” Boldor replied. “If we let them go now, the captain will have a decent chance of finding his men.”

“These other two will die, though.” Dodni said it casually but sadly with a wave of his arm.

“There's another problem, Boldor,” said Jack. “I've got trade secrets. Honestly, I figured to drop off you dwarfs before this if I decided I didn't trust you. But I do.”

“I thank you.” Boldor nodded. “Although I also understand your problem.”

“I can trust Denario to keep his word not to reveal my trade secrets. His guild has their own secrets and he’s got some more, too. But why should I trust these men? If it was my decision, I'd dump them overboard.”

“Their word is no good.” Boldor hung his head. To the dwarf chief, it was a tragic revelation. “Couldn't they entrust something of theirs to you?”

“They don't even love each other that much. What could I hold? One of them? They'd let us kill any hostage we had even if we had the stomach to be so evil. Boldor, they'd betray us if we held their grandmothers.”

“Can they pay for the trade secrets? That's a practice that's common among men as well as dwarfs, I understand.”

“Pay me? With what? They're getting their lives and my secrets. How much is that worth? Besides that, they're separated from their treasure. How much money do you think they can carry, anyway?”

Several of the dwarfs looked at their own feet. Then they looked at one another.

“They have some money?” Jack understood at a glance what Denario had been trying to figure out. “Fine. So we've already got our hands on it.”

“Oh, no. It's theirs.”

“Didn't you search them?” Denario had walked to a corner of the aisle. He turned to face the leaders. “Didn't you take their weapons?”

“We looked for obvious weapons,” acknowledged Dodni. He clasped his hands behind his back. “We didn't look for small things. That wouldn't be seemly. Even in our quick search, we couldn't help finding some valuables. When we were done, we returned everything that wasn't a weapon.”

Denario and Jack exchanged a look. The accountant felt ashamed. The dwarfs were an ethical folk. Whereas Denario had taken good morals for granted during his apprenticeship with Master Winkel, he hadn't seen them much in his travels. He'd stopped expecting them. He could appreciate the dwarfs' philosophies better because he’d met so many burghers and mayors who were cheating their citizens and so many citizens who were cheating their towns.

“The day is getting on,” Jack sighed. “We're not going to solve this in the next minute. We should head downriver.”

“Why now?” asked Boldor. “There's no reason to hurry.”

“There might be. I've been watching the bushes for Brand's men. That was the way it happened before. We're not so far from them. If they come hunting for their missing friends, they'll find us.”

“Did Captain DeLadro have more of those silver coins, Dodni?” asked Boldor.

“Yes, chief.” Dodni nodded and tugged his wispy beard.

“Everyone separate onto all three rafts, then. Right away.” Boldor clapped his hands. He lifted his own pack by his feet, by which he indicated that he intended to go with the river master. The other dwarfs scrambled to comply.

Jack Lasker issued orders making it clear that he was about to change the position of the rafts. This was a section of the creek in which he felt he needed to lead. For the sake of simplicity, he announced that he would navigate from what was formerly the middle raft, the one with his tent. Denario would continue to pilot what had formerly been the lead raft, the one with the lean-to and supplies. There would be no need to transfer possessions.

Denario marched to his position with relief. The surprised dwarfs had considerably more work to do and more questions. Jack intended to push the middle raft to the forefront by unhitching the tether lines before his launch and then by re-hitching them in the new order while midstream.

Most of the dwarf tents occupied space on the third vessel, also known as "Denario's raft," the one of mallow wood. They had built smaller tents on the other two barges but they were lonely outposts in comparison. Their troop members shifted assignments so that Ulf could be in the lead with Boldor and Jack. That was the position of honor. Ragna, in contrast, was separated out, put in the back, and eventually re-shuffled to the middle with Denario, a demotion that the dwarf accepted with grace.

“Hello, accountant,” said a rough voice. The only mobile captive, Brand, marched from one raft to another. A pair of dwarfs tethered him by his elbows. His arms remained behind his back, tied at the wrists. His hobbled gait demonstrated the strength of the rope he wore from ankle to ankle. “Seems we're to be boat mates.”

Denario glanced to Jack for confirmation. He got a nod. The balding man had the courtesy to look chagrined. He put his head down and, a moment later, plunked his travel hat on top of it, brim pulled low.

At Denario's side, Ragna turned pale. Borghild and Torgrim scowled. No one liked Brand. Yet this was the smart thing to do, Denario realized. The river master saw an advantage in keeping the caravan captain away from his men so they couldn't conspire. Since the dwarfs weren't willing to abandon the bandits to the magical wilderness, someone had to think about such things.

The accountant gestured his assent to come aboard. When the dwarfs turned their captive toward the center of the raft, though, he shouted.

“Hey! Middle aisle for him.” He gestured with the punt. Jofrid didn't like it. He grunted. But he nodded and pulled Brand along.

That meant Brand wouldn't get a tent and neither would his guard. But Denario wasn't going to have the man sleep next to him, tied up or not.

Denario could tell that most of the dwarfs didn't like the idea of saving the bandits but they couldn't speak against their chief. For that matter, the accountant couldn't disagree. Still, he knew that Vir de Acker wouldn't let anybody live who'd attacked him, not unless that man had swung around completely to his side and had proved it.

This was where Denario needed to do something like Vir, like a real leader. Jack wouldn't. He didn't think about organizing men. If he'd thought that way, he'd already own a caravan to go with his rafting business. The dwarfs wouldn't do it although Boldor showed potential for this sort of thing. Maybe someday he'd think the right way. But not now. No, it was up to Denario and that was scary. He didn't understand the how and why.

He launched the raft as he considered. Behind him, Jack untethered and ordered Denario to steer to the middle. When the rafts were in position, Jack jumped from stern to prow to re-tether the vessels in the right order. All the while, Denario pondered the ways in which Brand could kill them in their sleep. Jack was agile. He was fast. But he didn't like having people around, which meant he kept to himself pretty often. He also couldn't watch the captured men every moment of every day and night.

It wasn't only Jack who had a hard time during the re-ordering of the rafts. Everyone on the three rafts got involved with rowing, pushing, pulling on ropes, and tying. It took fifteen minutes and when Jack ran from the last raft to the middle to the first, he teetered on the final gunwhale, exhausted. Everyone slumped in relief. The pilots resumed course.

An hour before lunchtime, as they meandered along the snaking path of the creek, Denario set down his punt. His opinion had formed. It wasn’t a generous one. He motioned for Torgrim to take over with his paddle.

“Convince me, Brand.” Denario picked up an oar. He strolled into the middle aisle. When he reached his captive passenger, he sat down across from him. “Tell me why I shouldn't stab you and dump you over the side.”

The captain gave him an airy smile. “The dwarfs would object.”

“You'll have to do better than that.” He leaned in so he could whisper. “In a fair fight, you would beat me every time. Every time. You know it. I know it. But you're tied up. I'm not so small that I can't lift you over these gunwhales.”

“I'd make some noise.”

“I have five apprentices waiting for me in the city. When you attacked, you woke me from a dream about them. Did I mention that? I swore to protect them, Brand. Being away from them for so long … it’s made me crazy.”

Brand had no answer. He studied the accountant's face.

“Why wouldn't I dump you to the alligators? You were going to take me from my accounting practice, from those children, from everything I have in the world.”

“I didn't ... wait, you can't dump me overboard because you can't lose the rope.”

The look Denario gave him must have been unkind.

“I guess you're already making more ...”

Denario inched closer. He dropped his hand to his skinning knife, the one he'd never used.

“Wait, wait!” Brand squirmed away from him. “Accountant, give me time to think. Can't you give me time?”

“Some.” Denario took his hands off of the knife. He hadn't been intending to use it. The grip sat against his thigh where he'd needed to rest his hand for balance. Maybe it wasn't bad for the caravan master to think otherwise. Because Denario truly had no idea what to do.

Vir would have known. The chief would have killed Brand or turned him into a soldier on his side. There was no middle course.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Not Even Not Zen 137: A Bandit Accountant, 23.2

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Smallest Non-Twin Prime

Scene Two: Friends in Deed 

Denario had a plan by the time he found a spot to beach the raft. Unfortunately, a pair of alligators had a different plan. Moonlight made their shapes visible. They occupied the otherwise empty riverbank, pretending to be logs and probably waiting for their next meal to arrive. But logs didn't climb all the way out of the water and lay perpendicular to it like these two. The accountant knew what they were.

All the same, he had to put in to the cove. It was the right spot. He knew there could be no other, not if he intended to dash to the rescue. The creek had taken one of the snake turns that Jack described it acquiring under heavy magic conditions. This particular twist had brought them back around to the same peninsula of land they'd left. That is, it did if Denario pictured it correctly. He felt the anti-mapping magic trying to confuse him. Ordinarily, he'd have no doubts. They hadn't drifted far. He was sure they should emerge almost directly behind the Caravan of the Kill if they cut through the woods from here. But he found that he kept forgetting the urgent need to rescue Ragna. It bothered him in the moments when his mind was clear. He could feel the magic of the area urging a part of his mind to shut down.

On the other hand, Ulf and Torgrim showed signs that they'd completely forgotten where they were. Rescuing Ragna was all they could think about. They kept reminding Denario every few seconds. But the locations of things had become vague in their minds.

“Lie down,” Denario said. He motioned to Ulf.

“Why?”

“Grab weapons. We're going to have to fight alligators.”

“Right.” Ulf seemed to reach a decision. He pulled on his friend's sleeve as he lay. “To rescue Ragna.”

Torgrim allowed himself to tugged by the cuff of his leather anorak. He sunk low to the planks, lay on his back, and readied his weapons. His studded shoulders made a grinding noise against the wood. Chain mail rustled in his sleeves, too. The dark-haired fellow was more armored than any dwarf except the blacksmith.

“I'm waiting,” he grumbled.

“I'm bringing us close. Get ready to leap out and attack.”

As Denario dug the punt hard into the sand, he turned the corner of the raft toward his destination. For a moment, he worried the current was too strong. It threatened to pull the raft past the landing. But in another foot of westward progress, he discovered the difference between the mid-creek flow and the area closer to shore. His raft slipped partway behind a sandbar and everything slowed. He knew he was going to be fine. That is, he was sure until he heard the splash.

“Of course,” he cursed to himself. “A third alligator.”

The dark form came from the sandbar he'd just passed. It paddled to within a yard of the raft. Moonlight glinted of its scales. Its eyes gave off a dull glow not much brighter than the rest of its shadowy form.

“Are you all alone?” it said. “I heard voices.”

Denario paused. The raft felt it instantly. It started to turn. The back of it was still in the faster currents. He resumed his work and thought about how to respond.

“Sorry, fellow,” he said. “There's plenty of us here to fight you.”

The creature came up to the edge of the deck. It rolled its eyeballs. But that wasn't a human expression. The creature was trying to see into the raft. It found that the gunwhales blocked its view. The porcupine-style sticks around the sides did their job.

“Where are the others, then?” it asked.

“Invisible.”

“Damn it.” The alligator rolled its eyes again. It looked angry. Then it dodged, confused, as if Denario were about to strike. Apparently the lie was believable enough.

“We've got lots of armor and weapons,” Denario continued. “And we have come to rescue a dear friend so you don't want to get in our way.”

“I didn't anyway, really.”

“Not hungry?” The accountant kept up his work. The current wasn't fighting him as much but it wasn't helping, either. The raft was laden and heavy.

“Oh, it's not that. I've got my hidden stash of raccoons and fish. I won't starve. But it's different for me when I hunt men. Don't really like it. It's my upbringing. I used to be a knight.”

“Really?” Denario thought about how much he trusted knights. About as much as he trusted alligators, really.

“Promoted on the field of battle. Not that it means much, lots of men were. But I always wanted to dash to the rescue of a maiden.”

“Why didn't you? No maidens in trouble?”

“I wouldn't know. I spent my time fighting wars. A stray spell caught me and well, this happened. About a dozen of us changed altogether. Eight of us managed to flee into the nearest water, the Riggle Kill, but of course the monsters got us. Nasty river. I swam from there up into the ol' No Map because I grew up in this area.”

“Resourceful of you. Do you remember your name?”

“Of course. I'm Sir Robert Galfino.”

“Pleased to meet you Sir Robert. I'm Denario the Dramatic. I've not been knighted.”

“Maybe in time,” Robert suggested.

“Maybe.” Denario found it hard not to shake his head. “Low-born or not, I'm off to rescue a friend. We all are.”

“Not a maiden?” The alligator managed to sound disappointed. “You aren't actually rescuing a maiden?”

“No, I'm afraid not. He's a dwarf named Ragna.”

“A dwarf maiden?”

“Yes,” Ulf announced. It startled Denario to hear anyone besides him and the alligator. He kept switching his focus between the threat of an immediate attack and the prospect of the two alligators on shore fifteen yards ahead.

“Yes?” echoed Denario. He wondered if Ulf had misunderstood.

“Fantastic!” chortled the alligator.

“But Ragna, he's ... she's ... got a beard.” It was a wispy thing but it was still longer and probably fuller than Denario's facial hair.

“All dwarfs have beards, Skilling. Yet Ragna is a maiden. Half of us you've ever seen are female. All of us are equal, not like with humans. We're all strong. We're all fighters. We're all craftsmen.”

“You're all fighters?”

“I'm about to kill anyone between me and Ragna, so yes.”

“Aye,” Torgrim echoed.

“Are you fighting for the love of the maiden?” said the alligator.

There was an awkward beat of silence.

“Funny thing, that,” said Torgrim. “Everyone knows that Ragna loves Ulf.”

“It's been a nuisance,” said Ulf.

“You're not going to let that stop you, right? You're going to rescue her. You've got to.” The alligator trembled like an excited dog. Its tail wagged.

“You're right, Sir Robert.” Ulf sounded sad but resigned. “Somehow it would be even more dastardly if I didn't. Ragna is my senior. If Ragna loves me, too, well ...”

“That's it,” said the alligator. It got its legs moving as it touched sand. “We're charging in.”

“We?”

“The six of us will bite and spear anyone in our way.”

“Even with you, Sir Robert, there's only four of us.”

“Bob and Bob will help.”

“Who are Bob and Bob?” wondered Torgrim.

“I think I know,” said Denario as one of the logs slid into the water in front of him.

The other two alligators weren't the magical sort, apparently, although Sir Robert could reason with them. He was bigger and more muscular. That likely helped. The animals he named Bob and Bob backed away to allow the raft to dock. They carefully turned from the dwarfs as they disembarked. They listened to Sir Robert's orders. When he assigned them the job of guarding the flanks, they did. They led their odd military formation into the woods.

Sir Robert moved up into the point position. He steered them through a wide path that looked like alligators must have made it. The vegetation had been trampled. He kept a watch on the tree boughs. Some large animal must pass through them on occasion, dangerous even to an alligator. Gaps in the leaves let silvery light down, enough so Denario could see his feet. Sometimes he could make out the craggly shapes of individual branches. In other moments, he only felt them with his face. After what was probably one minute of marching, Denario spotted a blazing light through the trees. His mind had wandered. But when he saw campfires from the vantage point of the woods' edge, he remembered where he was and what he'd set out to do. He'd been worried he would hear fighting. Instead, he heard voices. Boldor, by his tone, was angry. Brand was acting like a livid madman in his theatrical way but it was hard to tell if he felt as incensed as he pretended. Regardless, he'd proved he would kill in cold calculation.

Ulf remembered, too. He had been muttering to himself for the entire journey. Now he lifted his axe.

“Ragna!” he screamed. His voice boomed the through the scrubs, down the clear riverbank, and across the water.

At the edge of the clearing, the men all jumped at the sound. They spun in different directions. It seemed they couldn't tell where the shout had come from, which was nice, Denario thought. But the confusion only lasted an instant. Ulf surged forward, followed by Sir Robert. Then Bob and Bob got into it. Denario and Torgrim joined.

Later, when Denario looked back on the mad charge, he found it embarrassing. That was when he learned that he wasn't as fast on on his feet as animals who spent most of their time swimming. For the twenty yards it took, the three alligators waddled faster than he ran. What's more, Torgrim did, too. The accountant couldn't keep up with a dwarf in full armor. When the group of them hit the clearing at the top of the riverbank, Ulf was in the lead. His scream of rage and his whirling battle axe propelled him like a missile. The best Denario could do was to draw his sword and ready himself to follow Ulf's blow.

Ragna's guards stood in the back of the group, which meant, now that everyone was turning around, they were in the front to face the attack. Ragna gaped. The dwarf started to smile at Ulf. But Ulf leaped from the top of the slope, a foot above the closest of the Caravan of the Kill, and swung down at the largest guard.

That man, the Ogglian deserter, got his sword up in time but the force of the axe crushed its edge against his face. He rolled backwards down the slope. His companion tried to take a swing at Ulf but got chopped in the leg by Torgrim as he did so. Torgrim's blade missed, hitting with the flat rather than drawing blood, but the contact saved Ulf. Then Denario stepped in to block the return stroke. That surprised the guard and Torgrim both. It elicited a grin from the dwarf and a grunt of dismay from the guard.

To Denario's surprise, his opponent turned and fled. That was another injury to pride. It wasn't that the man hadn't been hurt. He'd been impressed enough by Denario to flee and that was something. But the ease of his escape showed that anyone who wanted to run from the accountant could do so.

Only one soldier didn't retreat, a poor but brave soul in lamellar armor. He drew his sword to face Denario and Torgrim. An instant later he received such a blow from Ulf that he tumbled down the slope, straight through the campfire, and into the water. That got folks looking uphill at who had done that, if only to avoid him. Before they could take in the figure of Ulf, bloodied axe in hand, flanked by his allies, the alligators swarmed down the slope.

“Get them, Bob!” Sir Robert shouted to one or the other of his companions. “Drive them into the water!”

The Caravan of the Kill had already retreated from the first charge. When Bob and Bob led the second surge, the men found themselves at the edge of the creek. As they tried to decide what to do, they discovered that the dwarfs had already fled onto the rafts. Their retreat from the charge forced the caravan to try to seize the rafts from the dwarfs.

To Denario's right, one of the caravan men tripped on a snare and tumbled into the water.

To the left, Jack Lasker lifted his ancient, stone-tipped hunting arrow and shot a man. Then he dropped his bow behind him and pulled aboard a straggler dwarf onto the mallow-wood raft. He cast off the line and kept the rope. His gaze snapped to his left. He threw off his hat to reveal his bald head in the moonlight and he ran the length of the deck. With a mighty jump, he cleared the distance from his vessel to the next, which was full of dwarfs and men both. He knocked down two men and a dwarf when he landed. Denario worried that he'd injured himself. He staggered like he had. Yet Jack rose from the tumble and cast off the tie line from inside. Both rafts were free.

The dwarfs understood. One of them in the oak raft grabbed a punt and drove deeper into the creek. Behind them, the last raft had already made it. Since the two vessels were tethered by three yards of rope, the mallow raft helped the oak one. But the oak raft pilot had to endure at least three separate fights on board. Jack couldn't help; he had to defend himself from a tall man with a sword. The raft was in danger of grounding on a sandbar.

The alligators re-launched themselves over the gunwhales on the shore side. At first, one of the Bobs started to grab a dwarf in confusion. Everyone scattered. A sharp word from Sir Robert got Bob turned around to grab a human by the leg and hold on.

It was a tough fight. The humans were fast, strong, and fierce. Their speed shocked Denario. He marched down the slope with the idea that he would help but he was glad he hadn't come up against any of these fellows. They stabbed one of the Bobs. The two smaller alligators fled. In the end, the animals had to settle for drowning one man they'd mauled and hauling off the fellow wounded by Ulf. They'd fought to a sort of victory on the shore. The dwarfs had won the rafts. Boldor himself, wielding a sledge hammer, knocked the last invader of the oak raft senseless. The rest of the Caravan of the Kill fled upstream along the river banks.

Denario turned. His gaze swept over the shoreline. He crouched, baselard at the ready, but the only movement near him came from an alligator, Sir Robert. The beast emerged from the water, shoulders looking broader than ever. The droplets falling off his back made a gentle sound. He paused. Like the accountant, he surveyed his position. Then he waddled uphill to where Ulf stood, holding hands with another dwarf.

Ulf had freed Ragna of the ropes and re-equipped his friend with a human sword and axe. The hand axe looked fine, if a bit more primitive than a dwarf would normally like. The sword was one of the curved ones, a scimitar. From tip to pommel it was taller than Ragna's shoulder. The dwarfs had not been able to find a scabbard for it but a sword of any sort was a precious thing to earn by right of battle. The pair of them were plotting to contrive a wooden case for it when Sir Robert arrived with Denario and Torgrim close behind.

“Bob and Bob won't return over land, especially since big Bob is hurt,” said Sir Robert. “They want to collect their food and rest. But I won't feel this business is done until I see the rescued maiden onto your boat.”

When it was explained to Ragna that she was the maiden, the dwarf’s eyes narrowed in anger. Torgrim turned away from the glare.

“I'm grateful for the rescue.” Ragna forced a return to dwarfish politeness. It took visible effort. “You're a very gallant creature, Sir Robert.”

The march back to the lead raft was a bit chilly, and not only due to the time of night. Ulf and Torgrim had overstepped the bounds of propriety. Had the circumstances been different, it seemed likely that Ragna might have challenged them to a duel. As it was, the heaviest dwarf plodded in their midst with a grim silence. Ulf talked about how he kept forgetting where he was. Torgrim kept off to one side with the accountant between him and the others. It was Ulf's worry about finding the raft that kept Denario's mind on the task.

When they arrived at their beachhead, they found Jack Lasker in the process of landing the other rafts. He’d figured out what the accountant had done and knew to match it. But with two rafts, the feat could not have looked more difficult even if Denario could have seen it better. In the dark, in the shadows of the cove, with not enough bare land for three rafts, the riverman poled, leaped, shouted orders, tied knots, shouted again, ran to a different place, and tied again. It sounded like Dodni had taken responsibility for the mallow raft. The dwarf shouted that he couldn't tie down.

“Where's all the rope?” Denario wondered as he approached. Jack had moored the second raft. He was in the process of tethering the lead raft to it. The pieces he was using looked too short. They were scraps, not proper equipment.

“Did you bring what we left upstream?” Jack asked.

“Torgrim did, yes.”

“Good. The rest is in use. The dwarfs wouldn't let me toss the unconscious men over the side.”

Jack finished his knot. He stood back, turned sideways, and swung his arm to gesture to the forms in the darkness behind him. Denario could see five dwarfs clustered in the clear section near the center. Laying on the planks below them were three men. They lay belly down, hands and legs tied. The team that had done the job hadn't stopped there. The men had their elbows bound hard to their sides. Their thighs were wrapped as tight as their ankles. In fact, one man had been left with his left foot relatively free. But it had been mangled, possibly by an alligator, so he didn't seem likely to run away or, for that matter, to survive the night.

Denario leaned closer to Jack. The riThe Bandit Accountant

Chapter Smallest Non-Twin Prime

Scene Two: Friends in Deed

Denario had a plan by the time he found a spot to beach the raft. Unfortunately, a pair of alligators had a different plan. Moonlight made their shapes visible. They occupied the otherwise empty riverbank, pretending to be logs and probably waiting for their next meal to arrive. But logs didn't climb all the way out of the water and lay perpendicular to it like these two. The accountant knew what they were.

All the same, he had to put in to the cove. It was the right spot. He knew there could be no other, not if he intended to dash to the rescue. The creek had taken one of the snake turns that Jack described it acquiring under heavy magic conditions. This particular twist had brought them back around to the same peninsula of land they'd left. That is, it did if Denario pictured it correctly. He felt the anti-mapping magic trying to confuse him. Ordinarily, he'd have no doubts. They hadn't drifted far. He was sure they should emerge almost directly behind the Caravan of the Kill if they cut through the woods from here. But he found that he kept forgetting the urgent need to rescue Ragna. It bothered him in the moments when his mind was clear. He could feel the magic of the area urging a part of his mind to shut down.

On the other hand, Ulf and Torgrim showed signs that they'd completely forgotten where they were. Rescuing Ragna was all they could think about. They kept reminding Denario every few seconds. But the locations of things had become vague in their minds.

“Lie down,” Denario said. He motioned to Ulf.

“Why?”

“Grab weapons. We're going to have to fight alligators.”

“Right.” Ulf seemed to reach a decision. He pulled on his friend's sleeve as he lay. “To rescue Ragna.”

Torgrim allowed himself to tugged by the cuff of his leather anorak. He sunk low to the planks, lay on his back, and readied his weapons. His studded shoulders made a grinding noise against the wood. Chain mail rustled in his sleeves, too. The dark-haired fellow was more armored than any dwarf except the blacksmith.

“I'm waiting,” he grumbled.

“I'm bringing us close. Get ready to leap out and attack.”

As Denario dug the punt hard into the sand, he turned the corner of the raft toward his destination. For a moment, he worried the current was too strong. It threatened to pull the raft past the landing. But in another foot of westward progress, he discovered the difference between the mid-creek flow and the area closer to shore. His raft slipped partway behind a sandbar and everything slowed. He knew he was going to be fine. That is, he was sure until he heard the splash.

“Of course,” he cursed to himself. “A third alligator.”

The dark form came from the sandbar he'd just passed. It paddled to within a yard of the raft. Moonlight glinted of its scales. Its eyes gave off a dull glow not much brighter than the rest of its shadowy form.

“Are you all alone?” it said. “I heard voices.”

Denario paused. The raft felt it instantly. It started to turn. The back of it was still in the faster currents. He resumed his work and thought about how to respond.

“Sorry, fellow,” he said. “There's plenty of us here to fight you.”

The creature came up to the edge of the deck. It rolled its eyeballs. But that wasn't a human expression. The creature was trying to see into the raft. It found that the gunwhales blocked its view. The porcupine-style sticks around the sides did their job.

“Where are the others, then?” it asked.

“Invisible.”

“Damn it.” The alligator rolled its eyes again. It looked angry. Then it dodged, confused, as if Denario were about to strike. Apparently the lie was believable enough.

“We've got lots of armor and weapons,” Denario continued. “And we have come to rescue a dear friend so you don't want to get in our way.”

“I didn't anyway, really.”

“Not hungry?” The accountant kept up his work. The current wasn't fighting him as much but it wasn't helping, either. The raft was laden and heavy.

“Oh, it's not that. I've got my hidden stash of raccoons and fish. I won't starve. But it's different for me when I hunt men. Don't really like it. It's my upbringing. I used to be a knight.”

“Really?” Denario thought about how much he trusted knights. About as much as he trusted alligators, really.

“Promoted on the field of battle. Not that it means much, lots of men were. But I always wanted to dash to the rescue of a maiden.”

“Why didn't you? No maidens in trouble?”

“I wouldn't know. I spent my time fighting wars. A stray spell caught me and well, this happened. About a dozen of us changed altogether. Eight of us managed to flee into the nearest water, the Riggle Kill, but of course the monsters got us. Nasty river. I swam from there up into the ol' No Map because I grew up in this area.”

“Resourceful of you. Do you remember your name?”

“Of course. I'm Sir Robert Galfino.”

“Pleased to meet you Sir Robert. I'm Denario the Dramatic. I've not been knighted.”

“Maybe in time,” Robert suggested.

“Maybe.” Denario found it hard not to shake his head. “Low-born or not, I'm off to rescue a friend. We all are.”

“Not a maiden?” The alligator managed to sound disappointed. “You aren't actually rescuing a maiden?”

“No, I'm afraid not. He's a dwarf named Ragna.”

“A dwarf maiden?”

“Yes,” Ulf announced. It startled Denario to hear anyone besides him and the alligator. He kept switching his focus between the threat of an immediate attack and the prospect of the two alligators on shore fifteen yards ahead.

“Yes?” echoed Denario. He wondered if Ulf had misunderstood.

“Fantastic!” chortled the alligator.

“But Ragna, he's ... she's ... got a beard.” It was a wispy thing but it was still longer and probably fuller than Denario's facial hair.

“All dwarfs have beards, Skilling. Yet Ragna is a maiden. Half of us you've ever seen are female. All of us are equal, not like with humans. We're all strong. We're all fighters. We're all craftsmen.”

“You're all fighters?”

“I'm about to kill anyone between me and Ragna, so yes.”

“Aye,” Torgrim echoed.

“Are you fighting for the love of the maiden?” said the alligator.

There was an awkward beat of silence.

“Funny thing, that,” said Torgrim. “Everyone knows that Ragna loves Ulf.”

“It's been a nuisance,” said Ulf.

“You're not going to let that stop you, right? You're going to rescue her. You've got to.” The alligator trembled like an excited dog. Its tail wagged.

“You're right, Sir Robert.” Ulf sounded sad but resigned. “Somehow it would be even more dastardly if I didn't. Ragna is my senior. If Ragna loves me, too, well ...”

“That's it,” said the alligator. It got its legs moving as it touched sand. “We're charging in.”

“We?”

“The six of us will bite and spear anyone in our way.”

“Even with you, Sir Robert, there's only four of us.”

“Bob and Bob will help.”

“Who are Bob and Bob?” wondered Torgrim.

“I think I know,” said Denario as one of the logs slid into the water in front of him.

The other two alligators weren't the magical sort, apparently, although Sir Robert could reason with them. He was bigger and more muscular. That likely helped. The animals he named Bob and Bob backed away to allow the raft to dock. They carefully turned from the dwarfs as they disembarked. They listened to Sir Robert's orders. When he assigned them the job of guarding the flanks, they did. They led their odd military formation into the woods.

Sir Robert moved up into the point position. He steered them through a wide path that looked like alligators must have made it. The vegetation had been trampled. He kept a watch on the tree boughs. Some large animal must pass through them on occasion, dangerous even to an alligator. Gaps in the leaves let silvery light down, enough so Denario could see his feet. Sometimes he could make out the craggly shapes of individual branches. In other moments, he only felt them with his face. After what was probably one minute of marching, Denario spotted a blazing light through the trees. His mind had wandered. But when he saw campfires from the vantage point of the woods' edge, he remembered where he was and what he'd set out to do. He'd been worried he would hear fighting. Instead, he heard voices. Boldor, by his tone, was angry. Brand was acting like a livid madman in his theatrical way but it was hard to tell if he felt as incensed as he pretended. Regardless, he'd proved he would kill in cold calculation.

Ulf remembered, too. He had been muttering to himself for the entire journey. Now he lifted his axe.

“Ragna!” he screamed. His voice boomed the through the scrubs, down the clear riverbank, and across the water.

At the edge of the clearing, the men all jumped at the sound. They spun in different directions. It seemed they couldn't tell where the shout had come from, which was nice, Denario thought. But the confusion only lasted an instant. Ulf surged forward, followed by Sir Robert. Then Bob and Bob got into it. Denario and Torgrim joined.

Later, when Denario looked back on the mad charge, he found it embarrassing. That was when he learned that he wasn't as fast on on his feet as animals who spent most of their time swimming. For the twenty yards it took, the three alligators waddled faster than he ran. What's more, Torgrim did, too. The accountant couldn't keep up with a dwarf in full armor. When the group of them hit the clearing at the top of the riverbank, Ulf was in the lead. His scream of rage and his whirling battle axe propelled him like a missile. The best Denario could do was to draw his sword and ready himself to follow Ulf's blow.

Ragna's guards stood in the back of the group, which meant, now that everyone was turning around, they were in the front to face the attack. Ragna gaped. The dwarf started to smile at Ulf. But Ulf leaped from the top of the slope, a foot above the closest of the Caravan of the Kill, and swung down at the largest guard.

That man, the Ogglian deserter, got his sword up in time but the force of the axe crushed its edge against his face. He rolled backwards down the slope. His companion tried to take a swing at Ulf but got chopped in the leg by Torgrim as he did so. Torgrim's blade missed, hitting with the flat rather than drawing blood, but the contact saved Ulf. Then Denario stepped in to block the return stroke. That surprised the guard and Torgrim both. It elicited a grin from the dwarf and a grunt of dismay from the guard.

To Denario's surprise, his opponent turned and fled. That was another injury to pride. It wasn't that the man hadn't been hurt. He'd been impressed enough by Denario to flee and that was something. But the ease of his escape showed that anyone who wanted to run from the accountant could do so.

Only one soldier didn't retreat, a poor but brave soul in lamellar armor. He drew his sword to face Denario and Torgrim. An instant later he received such a blow from Ulf that he tumbled down the slope, straight through the campfire, and into the water. That got folks looking uphill at who had done that, if only to avoid him. Before they could take in the figure of Ulf, bloodied axe in hand, flanked by his allies, the alligators swarmed down the slope.

“Get them, Bob!” Sir Robert shouted to one or the other of his companions. “Drive them into the water!”

The Caravan of the Kill had already retreated from the first charge. When Bob and Bob led the second surge, the men found themselves at the edge of the creek. As they tried to decide what to do, they discovered that the dwarfs had already fled onto the rafts. Their retreat from the charge forced the caravan to try to seize the rafts from the dwarfs.

To Denario's right, one of the caravan men tripped on a snare and tumbled into the water.

To the left, Jack Lasker lifted his ancient, stone-tipped hunting arrow and shot a man. Then he dropped his bow behind him and pulled aboard a straggler dwarf onto the mallow-wood raft. He cast off the line and kept the rope. His gaze snapped to his left. He threw off his hat to reveal his bald head in the moonlight and he ran the length of the deck. With a mighty jump, he cleared the distance from his vessel to the next, which was full of dwarfs and men both. He knocked down two men and a dwarf when he landed. Denario worried that he'd injured himself. He staggered like he had. Yet Jack rose from the tumble and cast off the tie line from inside. Both rafts were free.

The dwarfs understood. One of them in the oak raft grabbed a punt and drove deeper into the creek. Behind them, the last raft had already made it. Since the two vessels were tethered by three yards of rope, the mallow raft helped the oak one. But the oak raft pilot had to endure at least three separate fights on board. Jack couldn't help; he had to defend himself from a tall man with a sword. The raft was in danger of grounding on a sandbar.

The alligators re-launched themselves over the gunwhales on the shore side. At first, one of the Bobs started to grab a dwarf in confusion. Everyone scattered. A sharp word from Sir Robert got Bob turned around to grab a human by the leg and hold on.

It was a tough fight. The humans were fast, strong, and fierce. Their speed shocked Denario. He marched down the slope with the idea that he would help but he was glad he hadn't come up against any of these fellows. They stabbed one of the Bobs. The two smaller alligators fled. In the end, the animals had to settle for drowning one man they'd mauled and hauling off the fellow wounded by Ulf. They'd fought to a sort of victory on the shore. The dwarfs had won the rafts. Boldor himself, wielding a sledge hammer, knocked the last invader of the oak raft senseless. The rest of the Caravan of the Kill fled upstream along the river banks.

Denario turned. His gaze swept over the shoreline. He crouched, baselard at the ready, but the only movement near him came from an alligator, Sir Robert. The beast emerged from the water, shoulders looking broader than ever. The droplets falling off his back made a gentle sound. He paused. Like the accountant, he surveyed his position. Then he waddled uphill to where Ulf stood, holding hands with another dwarf.

Ulf had freed Ragna of the ropes and re-equipped his friend with a human sword and axe. The hand axe looked fine, if a bit more primitive than a dwarf would normally like. The sword was one of the curved ones, a scimitar. From tip to pommel it was taller than Ragna's shoulder. The dwarfs had not been able to find a scabbard for it but a sword of any sort was a precious thing to earn by right of battle. The pair of them were plotting to contrive a wooden case for it when Sir Robert arrived with Denario and Torgrim close behind.

“Bob and Bob won't return over land, especially since big Bob is hurt,” said Sir Robert. “They want to collect their food and rest. But I won't feel this business is done until I see the rescued maiden onto your boat.”

When it was explained to Ragna that she was the maiden, the dwarf’s eyes narrowed in anger. Torgrim turned away from the glare.

“I'm grateful for the rescue.” Ragna forced a return to dwarfish politeness. It took visible effort. “You're a very gallant creature, Sir Robert.”

The march back to the lead raft was a bit chilly, and not only due to the time of night. Ulf and Torgrim had overstepped the bounds of propriety. Had the circumstances been different, it seemed likely that Ragna might have challenged them to a duel. As it was, the heaviest dwarf plodded in their midst with a grim silence. Ulf talked about how he kept forgetting where he was. Torgrim kept off to one side with the accountant between him and the others. It was Ulf's worry about finding the raft that kept Denario's mind on the task.

When they arrived at their beachhead, they found Jack Lasker in the process of landing the other rafts. He’d figured out what the accountant had done and knew to match it. But with two rafts, the feat could not have looked more difficult even if Denario could have seen it better. In the dark, in the shadows of the cove, with not enough bare land for three rafts, the riverman poled, leaped, shouted orders, tied knots, shouted again, ran to a different place, and tied again. It sounded like Dodni had taken responsibility for the mallow raft. The dwarf shouted that he couldn't tie down.

“Where's all the rope?” Denario wondered as he approached. Jack had moored the second raft. He was in the process of tethering the lead raft to it. The pieces he was using looked too short. They were scraps, not proper equipment.

“Did you bring what we left upstream?” Jack asked.

“Torgrim did, yes.”

“Good. The rest is in use. The dwarfs wouldn't let me toss the unconscious men over the side.”

Jack finished his knot. He stood back, turned sideways, and swung his arm to gesture to the forms in the darkness behind him. Denario could see five dwarfs clustered in the clear section near the center. Laying on the planks below them were three men. They lay belly down, hands and legs tied. The team that had done the job hadn't stopped there. The men had their elbows bound hard to their sides. Their thighs were wrapped as tight as their ankles. In fact, one man had been left with his left foot relatively free. But it had been mangled, possibly by an alligator, so he didn't seem likely to run away or, for that matter, to survive the night.

Denario leaned closer to Jack. The riverman had blood on the side of his face and on his arm. He'd been cut. His heavy breathing didn't come from the exertion of mooring the rafts, as tricky as that had been. He was still full of anger and nerves from the battle. He'd been wounded. He wanted revenge. Denario didn't blame him.

Behind Jack, in front of the dwarfs, one of the human bodies rolled over from front to side. Eyes opened, bright pupils in the dark. It was Brand DeLadro.

“So, accountant,” Jack murmured into Denario's ear. He gestured to Brand. “Do your alligator friends want more to eat?”
verman had blood on the side of his face and on his arm. He'd been cut. His heavy breathing didn't come from the exertion of mooring the rafts, as tricky as that had been. He was still full of anger and nerves from the battle. He'd been wounded. He wanted revenge. Denario didn't blame him.

Behind Jack, in front of the dwarfs, one of the human bodies rolled over from front to side. Eyes opened, bright pupils in the dark. It was Brand DeLadro.

“So, accountant,” Jack murmured into Denario's ear. He gestured to Brand. “Do your alligator friends want more to eat?”

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Not Even Not Zen 136: A Bandit Accountant, 23.1

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Smallest Non-Twin Prime

Scene One: Not Giving Up 

No one on shore had noticed. The conversation continued, now more distant.

“And that's why it's good to follow Boldor Sonsonson,” whispered Ulf.

“Aye,” Torgrim agreed. He stepped around a tied-down box to edge closer to Denario. “Smart of you to cut the line, Ulf. I love Heilgar. Of course I do. But I don't trust him to see the simple thing. If we trade Skilling, we're damned. We would deserve to fail.”

Denario examined what he'd just heard. Among other things, he realized he'd just been told the name of Dodni's brother, Heilgar.

“What now?” he asked. He checked the campfires. They were nearly twenty yards away. He could see movement around them. Probably the people there had noticed the missing raft.

“Can you steer us back to shore, Skilling?” Ulf tried to hand him the punt. “We don't want to get too far. We'll give ourselves up.”

“To Boldor?”

“To Brand, most like,” said Torgrim. “We won't let Ragna live as a captive alone. Boldor would rather trade us all into servitude than to foresake anyone who trusted him. It would be different if Ragna was dead. We would mourn, of course. But we all understood that death was a risk we took when we left to form our kingdom.”

“You're just going to give up? Let go of your dream in order to be slaves together?”

“It sounds grim when you say it like that. But we don't have much choice.”

“You could fight.” Denario felt like an idiot for saying it. He knew it made him seem like the expert he wasn't. What would Vir have done in a situation like this?

“How?”

“We've got a few minutes to think of how.” He knew that Vir would have acted quickly, for sure. “You're stronger than any human, for one thing. I've seen you work. You've got a hammer and an axe. Too bad that Ulf has only his axe.”

“An axe is enough,” said Ulf. “If you show us the way, I'll fight.”