Sunday, February 17, 2019

Not Even Not Zen 153: A Bandit Accountant, 26.2

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Sporadic Groups

Scene Two: This is the Trap

At the dock in front of East Hogsli, the accountant found himself sniffing suspiciously at a cup of peach beer that Clever Jack had handed to him. He and the boatman were discussing what could be done about Goyle. The fellow’s right leg looked hopeless. Even if it didn’t need cut off, Goyle wouldn’t be able to walk. When the rafts arrived in Oupenli only two towns downstream, the crippled man would be stranded.

“Brand says he’s going to take his other man, Schmurter, and follow the dwarfs west from the city.”

“That’s back up the road that my carriage took to Zeigeburg.”

“Right, there’s only one good way. They’ll travel on foot.”

“Definitely no Goyle, then.” When a sigh, Denario leaned back and took a swig of beer. His tongue rolled around in his mouth. It was an odd taste, more sour than a beer made from peaches should be. But it was better than the local water.

A broad-shouldered man strolled up to them on the chalky path. The metal buttons on his tunic marked him as important. His beard, although short, covered most of his face. It was entirely unlike a dwarf beard, Denario mused. Trailing behind this important man came the short, pot-bellied vendor who had sold them the beer barrels.

“Are you Jack’s accountant?” the larger man boomed. He snapped out his right hand to shake.

“Denario,” he replied. He switched his beer between hands and reached to accept the welcome. “Accountant of Oggli, yes.”

“It’s true!” The shake became almost furious. “My name is Jakob Seidel. I’m the mayor of East Hogsli.”

“What happened to the old mayor, Dickie Muller?” Jack interjected.

Jakob hesitated. “He died. Our knight didn’t appoint anyone to replace him, either, although his squire was there at the time to do it. Instead, the town voted me in, those in the town hall anyway, and Sir Negri’s secretary wrote to me to say that the knight would likely approve. It depends on the tax rolls this fall.”

“If you need the accountant for taxes, forget it.” Jack waved off the idea. “He can’t stay.”

“I only need him to take a look at our records. Really, I need a book keeper, not a full accountant. The Oggli Accounting Guild wage is terrible, too high for the likes of small towns.”

“Are we interested, Jack?” Denario smiled to his friend and business agent.

“Nah.” Jack clapped the mayor on the shoulder. “This is the best accountant in the land, Seidel. He doesn’t work for book keeper wages. Anyway, he’s rich. One of these rafts is his.”

The mayor grimaced at the heavily laden barges. The accountant noted that Jack didn’t reveal the fact that the cargo on every raft belonged to the senior riverman.

“It’s life or death.” The mayor’s lips tightened. “Doesn’t the Oggli guild take an interest in the reckoners living in Ogglian territories?”

“Maybe.”

“Well, Sir Negri’s secretary wants me to fix our records or hang our reckoner. I would swear our man, Koen, is harmless. And honest. It’s just that the system he inherited is old. There seems to be a way to cheat it. Would you audit Koen? It would clear my conscience one way or the other.”

Denario had to set his drink down. This was guild business. He paced for a few seconds, away from the other two men and back.

From the first they’d met, Winkel had insisted that reckoners, computers, clerks, book keepers, and accountants should never be punished except as the result of an audit. It was technically a rule of the land. It had been decreed by the Duke of Faschnaught and Ogglia, back when that had been one person, and it had been verified in this generation by the Marquis.

Master Winkel had enforced the rule by filing suit against the Count of West Ogglia for hanging a book keeper. In a horrible surprise for the nobility, Winkel had won. He’d argued to the point of law, which was indisputable, and he got the benefit of the count turning in an undersized tax collection to the Marquis de Oggli that year. The case had been heard in the court of the marquis.

As trials went, this one was brief. The marquis had sat in. He’d spent most of his time berating the solicitor for the Count of West Ogglia, referring to his various counts and barons as idiots, incompetents, half-wits, and criminals, and he concluded that they all deserved a stiff fine or a hard ass-kicking, maybe both. The judge, who was sitting on the left of the marquis, got the message and ruled correctly. After a glance at his boss, he’d also ordered an ‘audit of the count, the entire county, and all of his barons.’

That, oddly enough, had not resulted in additional enemies for the accounting guild. Instead of slandering guild members, the barons at the state dinner that night poked fun at their own count and sang a rude song about him. They explained to his face that he should have settled with Winkel before the matter came to trial. Then they would be in no trouble. The count’s face flushed and he tried to shove one of the barons, who promptly pushed back and knocked the older fellow back into his seat. Then the count, humiliated, hadn’t even threatened them. He left with his two senior knights as soon as he could find an excuse. His remaining staff stayed for the juggling acts and the music. They drank, sang, and danced with the impertinent barons and their knights.

“Jack,” Denario hissed. “I have to go.”

“Don’t be daft.” The taller man leaned his bald head close. He breathed his words. “Remember what our sireni friend said.”

“I know that this is the trap.” The accountant shook his head over his own foolishness. “But I can’t let them hang a reckoner without a guild audit. We’re in West Ogglia. This is serious. The town can’t overturn a rule my master fought to uphold.”

“Damn right it’s serious.” Jack found that he had to put down his drink, too. It took him visible effort to not slam the mug on the stump. “These aren’t back-woods, mayor’s-cousin bean counters. This town has connections to power. When the folks don’t like you, and they won’t, they’ll write to their knight. The knight will call on his baron. You could be arrested anywhere between here and home.”

“If they tell their knight that I turned down the offer to audit, that’s going to be seen as permission to convict and hang reckoners, computers, clerks, and book keepers all over this barony.”

“That’s not your problem.”

“I’m the accountant on the spot. Look, I see you follow the rules of the riverman’s guild. You made me set aside a tenth of my rower’s pay for them.”

“I had to, since we’re going to Oupenli. They collect the dues there. But otherwise I don’t stay within the guild laws so much. I follow them when I have to do it or get caught.”

“I’m the first member of the accounting guild to pass through East Hogsli. What do you think will happen if I turn down the audit? Don’t you think news will get back and I’ll be caught?”

“Well, could be.” Jack tilted his head, his eye sockets in shadow as he considered the consequences. In West Ogglia, laws were complicated. Denario could tell that they were both trying to figure out the legal and human entanglements. He sighed at the prospect of a trap. It seemed all too likely. But he shook himself and gave up worrying.

“Besides,” he said with a wave of his hand. “It’s the right thing.”

“There!” Jack jabbed the air. His face rose to the light. His eyes glinted. “That’s the real reason. It worries me, Den. Men get killed doing the right thing.”

“I’ve got to go.”

“I’m your agent. I set the price.”

“But,” the accountant insisted, “I’ve got to go.”

“Maybe. I’ll try to keep it in mind.”

Clever Jack ambled over to the mayor of East Hogsli and hitched up the rope that served as his belt. His hand went to the docking stump to find his cup. He nodded to the beer man as he sipped. Jack didn’t even have to start the negotiation with Jakob Seidel. Seidel made an opening offer. The riverman merely shook his head no.

Within a minute, Seidel’s face started to turn pink. His arms cut through the air to emphasize his declarations of poverty. Maybe that was just Seidel being a good negotiator. But if so, he was out-classed and out-maneuvered by Jack. The boatman had a better position. He could set the price for what the mayor wanted and he didn’t mind saying no. With a calm expression, he shook his head, a sad grin on his face.

Denario leaned close enough to overhear the first round of bickering, during which Seidel agreed to the full price of the audit. The fellow walked away when Jack demanded the money up front. But in less than a minute, he returned for a second round. In that one, Clever Jack demanded the money plus a town guard for the accountant plus free room and board, to which the mayor agreed immediately. Denario listened to those details as he started to unpack and re-pack his accounting supplies. Then the boatman said the town would have to provide room and board for three accounting assistants appointed by Jack from his crew.

At that, the mayor stomped away again. Denario didn’t stop his packing. He wasn’t fooled. Sure enough, Seidel didn’t even get out of sight before he turned around. He marched back with the pale beer man trembling, wide-eyed in astonishment, behind him.

As the negotiations continued, Denario decided that he should take Jack and two dwarfs. The dwarf chief had sidled up to the corner of the raft so as to overhear as clearly as the accountant. Denario stepped in his direction.

“Boldor,” he said. “Could you spare Ulf and Torgrim for this?”

“Hmph.” The stout fellow stroked his beard. He had learned something of human bargaining. “Ulf can provide protection. But the other will be Ragna if our master boatman permits.”

“Ragna?” the accountant stood straight for a moment. He tried to understand.

“He is a great healer. He has business in town. If you must go despite the warning you’ve been given, master accountant, we must think about everyone’s protection. Ragna will improve the health of East Hogsli. That will win a few hearts. He may also save your life, of course, if it comes to violence, but he would do it in a different way from your other assistants.”

The accountant bowed. “You are a wise chief.”

“Now, now.” The dwarf spread out his hand in a magnanimous gesture. Although he seemed to be brushing off thanks, there was a smile on his lips. “It’s not a finished arrangement. If we are to stay even for a single night, we should do it with our truest intent. Jofrid will set up his forge. The local smith will pay for special knowledge or for special tools, I’m sure.”

“What should we do about the trap?” Denario didn’t feel any shame in asking. He had acted strategically once or twice but Boldor might be the better thinker in that respect.

“Tarktich is shrewd.” The chief sighed. “Unlike Jack, the siren lives in this area and can see things that the river master does not.”

“That’s my thought, yes. He’s got to be right. Yet I can’t let the reckoner be hung.”

Boldor gave the briefest glance to his own clothes, which were as good as armor to anyone but a dwarf. The steel bands in his brigandine looked perfect. Then his discerning eye fell to the accountant. Perhaps Denario wasn’t wearing the proper gear or something about his tunic looked slipshod. The chief motioned to Dodni, who caught the eye of another dwarf. They came over and, after a glance from their leader, turned to give the accountant similar inspections. They tugged their beards, looking skeptical.

“None of us know the situation in town,” Boldor continued. He motioned to the others. “We must equip ourselves. And we must have a method of sending messages. Our priest understands such codes. So does Dodni. Speak to them before you leave.”

“Yes, chief.” That was sensible.

Dodni left for a moment to fetch his brother, the dark dwarf, whom Boldor had learned to call ‘the priest,’ although not because he was one. Heilgar couldn’t be an actual dwarf priest anymore, apparently, because he had come above ground. That was the rule. But Heilgar had been studying for the dwarfish priesthood and Boldor had learned to ignore the dwarf rules for the sake of giving his companion respect as they traveled. Humans understood the title of priest, whereas the dwarf clerical positions of Light-Bringer, Breather, and Contemplator, among others, didn’t seem to have matches in the above-ground world.

On the shore, behind Boldor, the negotiations ended. Mayor Seidel nodded. His pale lips pressed tight. He was resolved. Next to him, the curly-headed beer man stood, mouth open. Clever Jack didn’t move.

Seidel stuck out his arm. Jack sighed. He glanced at his right hand. Then he lifted it and shook with the mayor. He nodded. The mayor gave him a smile that didn’t look entirely forced. The two of them, together, turned their heads toward the rafts.

The river master noticed the accountant. He released the mayor’s hand and waved. The deal was done.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Not Even Not Zen 152: A Bandit Accountant, 26.1

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Sporadic Groups

Scene One: First Warning

Boldor, Dodni, and Jack conferred about the gifts due to their host. As the accountant expected, they set their offerings on the stump. Their assortment included three stone spear points and one of bronze, plus food, wine, and blankets.

Setting up camp went as it always did except for Dodni asking the accountant to light the fire. Usually, Denario let the dwarfs do it. But everyone else had already grabbed duties such as finding firewood or cutting up ingredients for the stewpot. Jofrid had given himself the job of making another spear head for Barkbark. It would have looked strange for Denario to avoid the easiest chore. He trudged back to the raft, dug into the bottom of his travel bag, and found his flint and his quartz. On the seventh strike, he got a flame going, briefly. On the eighth, he kept it burning. He built the flame with dried twigs until the edge of a log caught. In a few minutes, he’d made a real fire. One of the men, Goyle, built a pot hanger over it.

No one had laughed at him. No one seemed to think his method was odd. They cooked during the long sunset through the trees. Between light peeking through branches overhead and the glowing of two cooking fires, the clearing turned shades of orange and brown.

It wasn't until after Barkbark returned, accepted the gifts, and granted them the right to eat that they relaxed. Members of the rafting group shoveled warm food in their mouths and gazed outward at the dusk. The foliage above had darkened to shades of orange and black. Denario remembered that he’d received a warning.

“Yes, yes. You maybe should skip the next town, accountant.” Barkbark had resumed his throne-like seat. His arm swung out to encompass the crews of the three vessels in his ruling. “Others, too.”

“Nah,” said one of the men, Schmurter.

“What's this all about?” asked Jack.

“And what's with the new tattoo on your shoulder?” asked Schmurter. “It’s still bleeding. It is related? Is it a magic charm?”

“Odd, no.” The thought derailed Barkbark for a moment. His gaze fell to his left shoulder. His right hand found a dark, green triangle there about the size of his fingertip. As Schmurter had noticed, that particular spot was fresh. “Each scale is drawn by a wife.”

“Just now?”

“Yes.” The siren sighed. “There is one for each of the large magical creatures I have killed and fed to my wives. The spell long ago, the one that cursed our women, hurts their stomachs. When I feed them magic, they feel better.”

“So is this a mark of honor?” said Dodni from the other side of the fire.

“It is.”

Everyone murmured or nodded in thought. Denario did a quick re-count of the crude tattoos. Even in the dim light, he saw thirty-seven. There were as many small marks on the back of the fellow's shoulder, too, he remembered.

“I told you all,” Jack said to the crowd. He shook the chunk of bread he'd dipped in the stew. “Barkbark is why we didn't see many flying alligators. He's been working hard. Always has. And as always, he has my thanks. He should have yours, too.”

The dwarfs, of course, stood and responded, each in turn, with polite bows and acknowledgements of their host's hunting prowess.

“For a second time, I must warn the accountant,” the siren continued after the last dwarf sat back down.

“Okay, let's hear it,” said Brand. As the man next to him, Schmurter, started to speak, Brand punched him. The smaller man winced and closed his mouth.

“In the town,” said Barkbark. He paused to clench his hands into fists. He struggled for the common tongue words. “You will all look to trade. You make food by selling skills. Now I have heard that the East Hogsli town wants the accountant. Other towns, too.”

“Aha.”

“Many men desire this particular one.” The siren scratched his ear. He shook his head as if he couldn't believe his own words. His gaze fell on Denario. “No such numbers man has traveled here. So many messages have come down the river about him. Some go up the river about special kinds of counting needed. There are good men who carry and read those messages. There are some bad men who carry them, too. And there are bad men who read.”

“Are you saying that East Hogsli has gone bad? I traded there a few months ago.”

“With a new man?”

“Yes. That happens.”

“You are clever, Jack. But you did not see far enough.” Barbark rose. He gazed downstream, past the dock and into the unseen twists and bends. As he turned his back on them, Denario counted the tattoo scales for flying alligators killed. There were at least forty-seven visible from that side. “There is a cheating, a stealing in the town. Soon, there will be another hanging or a fight. They will call on the accountant to fix it. I do not trust them.”

He turned to face the assembled men and dwarfs again. His hands went to his hips.

“Another hanging?” Brand had done business there too, surely. “How many have they had?”

“They are not good people.” Barkbark shrugged. “The ones across the water are good. The ones to the west are few, but good. Not those in the south town, the one called East Hogsli. They are cheats.”

“Did they steal from you?” Jack asked.

“I insisted they keep their bargains with me. Instead, they sent a knight man. I killed him. Many other men came, after, and I killed them each in turn.” Barkbark sighed. “I may have killed too many that were good. Now the town itself is bad. Only coward men and cheating men live there. In my defense,” he said, leaning back, one elbow on a knee, as if trying out the phrase, “it is hard to tell the difference between good and bad without time. Those who came were trying to kill me.”

“This is our experience, too.” Boldor nodded seriously. “Not the killing but the rest. There are fine men and evil ones, maybe more so in the extremes than with other races.”

For the rest of the the meal, the siren and the dwarfs compared their experiences with humans. Some of their anecdotes were funny. Mostly, the stories played up the worst of humanity. Clever Jack glowered but he held his peace. Brand turned red in his cheeks and ears. By oath, he couldn't strike the dwarfs and, by strength, he was no match for Barkbark He and Schmurter, the shorter and hairier man, took their food bowls to the edge of the tree hall where they wouldn't have to listen to such truthful slanders. Goyle, although adept on a raft, was too crippled to move without help so he had to stay with Jack at the south of the semi-circle.

Denario, alone of all of the humans, remained next to the campfire. Dinner tasted good. He wanted to keep the stewpot within reach. He enjoyed the company of the dwarfs. Perhaps his time as a slave gave him a different perspective on humankind. He wasn't offended by the judgments he heard. If anything, he felt the dwarfs were still too kindly disposed. Barkbark seemed to agree. He finished the conversation by warning Boldor against the towns downstream, especially those of East Hogsli, Fat Turnip, and Oupenli. He reckoned that the barons and knights who owned the lands were crooked. Their thefts turned the citizens crooked, too, until cheating seemed normal.

The accountant sighed. In his profession, he encountered cheaters every month, at least, sometimes every week. When his master had lived, Denario hadn’t paid much attention to them. They were Winkel’s responsibility.

At the end of the evening, as he rested his head on his pack and tried to sleep on the cold ground, Denario mentally reviewed the math he’d done in the temple. The steps in kis proof seemed complete. What he’d witnessed at the side of the goddesses, though, was better, more interesting math in its way. It was the math of the emptiness between matter. Higher up, there was more math, too, in human blood. Two different base four systems. He shook his head. The systems converted messages between them. What could the numbers have to say to one another so deep inside a human body? This is the process of your life, the goddess had said. Perhaps Ruffina had exerted her influence to let him know.

As he considered the old priestess, he slipped into other thoughts about the temple. Laying naked on a floor covered in goosedown. A room that smelled like a thousand extinguished candle wicks. Embarrassed, he brushed his memories aside.

He tried to look forward to East Hogsli. He only had Barkbark’s word that there was a trap. Maybe there wasn’t. And anyway, the other men and the dwarfs wouldn’t want to skip the place if there was work. If they did bypass the town, that would bring up Oupenli a day or two sooner. When they finally reached the big city, Denario could sell his raft, collect his wages, and buy a coach ride for the rest of the way to home. The idea frightened him. He didn’t feel ready.

For a long while, he couldn’t sleep. He considered all of the math in his life that was missing, hidden from view, and all of his questions that would go unanswered. There was at least one question that had bothered him to which there was an answer, he was sure.

Denario roused himself. Propped on an elbow, he leaned to the man closest.

“Jack,” he whispered. “Did you have a child by accident?”

The boatman had gone to rest with a hat over his face. He pulled it off. His eyes fluttered and, after a few seconds, they opened. Jack considered the question.

“Ah.” He smacked his lips. “I see why you ask. No, bless my wife. My boys were meant to be. By her, by me, by the gods, by everything. What I didn’t want to say around the dwarfs was that I was one, though. I was an accident.”

“Nice accident,” said Denario, a bit sorry he’d brought it up.

“Lucky for me, at least.” The boatman gave the accountant a not-unkind smile, closed his eyes, and pulled the hat back over his face.

Sunday, February 3, 2019

A Nerd in a Warrior Culture - Twenty-Two Chapters

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Thirty-Two Minus Thirty-One


Chapter Root Two Squared

Chapter Pi, Roughly 


Chapter Two Pair


Chapter Full Hand


Chapter Half Dozen


Chapter Fourth Prime


Chapter Two Cubed


Chapter Three Quarters of Twelve


Chapter Binary Two


Chapter Red, Green, Yellow


Chapter Square Root of Gross


Chapter Baker's Dozen


Chapter Pair of Sevens


Chapter Fifth Triangular Number


Chapter Twice Eight

Chapter Seventh Prime


Chapter Third Semiperfect


Chapter Normal Magic Hexagon


Chapter Score


Chapter Octagonal Number Three


Chapter Pi Times Seven Approximately



Saturday, February 2, 2019

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Not Even Not Zen 151: A Bandit Accountant, 25.4

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Right Hypotenuse Squared

Scene Four: Barking Up the Right Tree

“It's a bit early,” said Jack. In the front raft, he raised his blindfold. Denario saw him do it. He watched the boatmaster blink and noticed him rub his balding head. The accountant had already removed his. That left him a moment to contemplate the crippled man on the raft next to Jack. His name was Goyle. He'd come out of his fever. It seemed fairly certain, now, that he would live.

Goyle's left foot was a crippled mess, still swollen and unable to support his weight. The rest of him had taken a beating in the fight as well. The left side of his head was blue and purple with bruises. The flesh around his skull wasn't swollen, which the dwarfs said was good, but it Denario thought disease might creep in anyway.

Like the rest of the men, but not the dwarfs, Goyle lifted the cloth from his eyes. His gaze drifted down the sandy creek banks and took note of the change in greenery. His mind was apparently still clear. Denario averted his stare to avoid giving offense.

All of them gawked at a waterway straight enough and wide enough to be a river. The No Map Creek had transformed while they had poled along the unseen shoreline. The water had grown clear. Fewer flies rode the breezes. There were no biting insects at all. The vegetation had changed to low ferns and razor grasses on the shore with medium high chestnut, willow, and birch trees upslope. The rocks had diversified. Instead of slates, there were lighter shades of limestone and granites sitting atop piles of ruddy sandstone. Along the banks, Denario noticed that the sandstones were more yellow and joined by conglomerates. The only signs of magic were a pair of ravioli bushes coming into fruit.

Beyond the raviolis, there sat a wooden dock. It poked six stumps into the water and held raw log cross beams. The beams looked dark and waterlogged. The dock seemed to belong to somewhere else, in fact, a transplant from another land, but here it was. No vegetation grew on it.

“All right,” Jack said. “Blindfolds off.”

The men bowed their heads a little sheepishly while the dwarfs followed orders. The smaller fellows smiled and made comments like 'oh my,' 'this looks like camp,' and 'what lovely minnows.' None of the dwarfs remarked on how the men had disobeyed orders although Boldor and Dodni exchanged a glance and waggled their eyebrows.

“Looks like I've managed not to steer us past the stop.” Out front, Jack put his hands on his hips. He faced the out-of-place log platform.

“Did we make better distance than usual?” Denario asked. He instinctively kept from thinking too far ahead about where they might be going. He would write down a coded map later, or try, but he didn't let his mind linger on it.

Denario heard a man vomit into the creek. He glanced and saw Brand's billowy, white shirt leaned over the gunwhales. Next came a disgusted cough. Brand still hadn't grown accustomed to reining in his thoughts. He and his men knew the lands southwest of the lost temple. Probably Brand had started mapping them in his mind.

“We're already at Siren's Tiedown. That's about two-thirds of a day ahead.” Jack kept the line of rafts aimed a few feet from running aground.

“We never even came close to this place,” said Goyle. He shifted in his seat next to Jack.

“For good reason. No human lives in the town anymore,” explained Jack. “That's why it's just a tiedown. There was a run of bad magic. All of the homes were abandoned. But it's safe enough nowadays.”

“If no one lives here,” said Goyle, echoing Denario's thoughts, “then why's it so clean? And why are there dead bodies hanging in the trees?”

“Ah, this is another trade secret.” Jack grimaced. He switched hands with his punt and stuck an end to the deep side. He pushed the rafts toward the dock tiedown. Overhead, he squinted to see the bodies of four raccoons and three gars hanging upside down from vines in the high branches. One of the gars looked to Denario like it had wings. Was that natural or magic? “I suppose there's no avoiding it. This place is maintained by one of the sireni, a male named Barkbark.”

“Oh.”

“They have names?” asked Goyle.

“What kind of a name is Barkbark?” Brand strode up to Denario's right side. He brushed his mouth, then wiped his fingers on his pants.

“Well, it's what I call him. He refers to himself as something similar but I can't imitate it. Ah, he sees us.” Jack waved to a figure in the gloom between the nearest strand of trees. Then he bent and grabbed a coil of rope. “Say, um, we're a larger group than usual.”

“Problem?” Denario asked. He'd grown accustomed to noticing when notes of caution entered Jack's voice.

“No one else get out until I talk with him. No one is to tie down but me and you, Den.”

“Got it.” He turned to reach for his corner coil. Torgrim beat him there. The short fellow bowed and handed over the loops. The cordage had been fresh a few days ago, crafted by the riverman and the dwarfs together, but it had already weathered and developed the right amount of roughness. Sailors on the Paravienteri dock would have approved.

Jack tied the lead raft to the shallowest post. Denario swung the last boat around to finish. He had to back in to form-fit the middle craft to the deepest pillars of the pier. While he maneuvered, Clever Jack stepped up onto the dock. He strode toward the figure in the shade. When he reached a dark line cast by the tree branches overhead, he stopped. He took off his hat. The obscured form moved. Shadows changed. Denario could almost see a human face between the vines. Then the figure sauntered into the light.

Their host showed himself as a greenish man, naked except for a shoulder tattoo and a loincloth that looked as if it served as his toolbelt. He had two knives tucked in, a coil of string, a loop of rope, a hook, a separate cord that carried the spear on his back, and a gauntlet on his right wrist. There were sandals on his feet. He didn't look like he needed armor. His skin was as thick as the alligators he hunted.

He grunted something.

Clever Jack answered, “This time, I'm rich again. It happens. Do you want them to stay on the rafts?”

“No.” That word from the siren was clear. So was the gesture. He turned his reflective, green eyes on the troop of dwarfs. With a swipe of his arm, he invited them to step aboard on his dock. “Come.”

The dwarfs rearranged themselves so that Boldor could ascend first. They seemed to regard the meeting as a formal one since introductions were being made. In fact, as Denario read their postures, the event of meeting a member of a less-encountered race, perhaps one who had never seen a dwarf before, made the occasion ceremonial.

Barkbark returned to the cover of his trees and his makeshift larder. He sat on a barrel, the greatest one of four. His furnishings seemed to have been fashioned as containers in the lands to the northeast and then carried down to him on rafts. He'd worked the pieces into crude chairs, the barrel the highest of them, and placed them in a semi-circle on the ground at the end of his dock.

Clever Jack motioned Denario forward. The accountant glanced to his side and decided to give the dwarf chief room to precede. In return, the chief politely deferred to Denario. That led to both of them stepping once and bowing, each in turn.

“Well, then,” Boldor whispered. “Let’s walk together.”

The dwarf and the accountant strode toward Barkbark's meeting spot side by side although Denario made sure to keep the dwarf a half-step in front. Boldor was a ruler, after all, even if it was over a troop of eleven.

“Greetings, hero of the sireni,” began Boldor. He bowed. His cap, which had been mostly leather a week ago had since been refashioned into a metal helmet. The dwarf had grown wealthier and sturdier in the past week.

Boldor's regal attitude reflected well on Barkbark. The siren male’s accomplishments were appropriately recognized. He had established a wide swath of territory near the epicenter of water magic. He hunted the toughest of creatures, kept an full larder, and apparently attracted females despite them being in short supply.

That much, the accountant deduced by seeing that there were three beds of straw next to the upstream shore. Did Barkbark have three wives? Did they mate with him the beds? In the water? If they mated in the water, were the beds for raising the children? Was there instead only one mate but three children? The questions occurred to the accountant in quick succession but he couldn't imagine a situation in which he'd be allowed to ask.

After Clever Jack made introductions, the siren male surprised Denario by murmuring that he'd heard about the math teacher’s coming. It was the dwarfs who were unexpected from his point of view. He smiled when Boldor spoke his name, which was closer to Tarktich than Barkbark, and the dwarf got it nearly right.

“Chief of the Lost Mines, this is a joyous meeting,” said Barkbark. “And Accountant of Oggli, welcome to my tree hall.” His tongue had a problem pronouncing the 'l' sound but Boldor and Denario could understand him. “You may sit.”

It wasn't an invitation as much as a command. The seats had been crafted somewhat for humans. The account felt reasonably comfortable on his. The dwarf chief had to sit at the edge of his box in order for his feet to reach the ground.

Denario's gaze rose as he noticed that the tree hollow around them had been shaped. Rowan oaks had been encouraged to grow in rows to act as loose-fitting walls. Above, the siren had fashioned a high ceiling from the leafy boughs. He’d even left a gap to let out billows from a campfire. Barkbark smoked his meat, perhaps, or played host to river captains and other guests who needed to cook. The branches of the chimney trees were black from years of soot. The hall was a grand one in its way. But nowhere in view was a house, a lean-to, or even a hole in a tree. Barkbark, unlike a human or a dwarf, felt comfortable living without a water-tight shelter.

“I've heard tales of your folk, Boldor,” he said, not quite pronouncing the name right. “But only of their deeds long ago. Do your people not travel the lands regularly?”

“Not above ground,” Boldor admitted.

“Ah. I think I understand.” He nodded gravely. On his barrel seat, which leaned against the fan of a juniper bush, Barkbark looked like a rough, green nobleman on a throne in his court. His elbows rested on his knees. “It is strange for you to come to shelter here.”

“We are grateful for the dock and for your protection,” Clever Jack interjected.

“Of course.”

“May my men approach to bring you gifts?”

The siren male gave a sad smile. “The remaining ones are bandits, really.”

“Sorry.” Jack titled his head to one side. His opened his hands. “Have you had bad encounters with them?”

“I have never met them, Jack. But I see what I see.” He sat taller and surveyed the rafts full of men and dwarfs.

“May I call a few dwarfs to us, then?” asked Boldor. “We could bring as our boat master instructs. I would like to offer a gift for you, if I may. We would take Jack's instruction on what is appropriate.”

He nodded to the raftman, who returned a cautious grin.

“Huh.” The green eyes flashed at them. “Who are the dwarfs that they be guided by men in their gifts to a host? Are you not your own people?”

“They have lived under Water Mountain, far away from here, for all of their lives,” said Jack. “They do not know the ways of men. They have asked me to advise them.”

“Jack is their agent,” added Denario. “He's mine, too.”

“Ah. Well, that is why he is Clever Jack.”

The accountant could tell by the glint in Barkbark's gaze that his humor had been tickled. He lifted a stump seat in one hand, a casual act of inhuman strength, and set it in front of him. That seemed to be a surface on which gifts to him could be placed.

“And me?” asked Denario. “And the pirates? I mean, sorry, the Caravan of the Kill?” He motioned to where the three other men were waiting on the rafts. “What is expected of us?”

“Of you, no gifts. You have paid into the magic.”

“And how do you know?”

“I listen. You gave to the temple. Besides, you have the power of numbers. Although it is a skill that I do not understand, I respect it. Instead of a fee, what I ask in exchange for my hospitality is that you think about a way for my daughters to live.”

“Your daughters?” The careless grin fled from Denario's face. All too easily, he could imagine how the request had come to be formed. The daughters born here in this hollow had grown a few months old, gotten sick, and died. It had to break the hearts of the mothers. Barkbark himself had probably tried to harden himself to those deaths. He hadn’t succeeded.

“This is terrible,” said Boldor, aghast. “Your children die?”

Although Clever Jack had recounted many tales of No Map Creek, including those of the sireni, he'd done that with Denario alone, not after the dwarfs came aboard. The omission led to an awkward pause in their conference. Jack had to restart things with the tale of the sireni damnation. It was an uncomfortable anecdote. The siren male grew tight-lipped as the boatman described the wizard's curse. But it was the dwarf's reaction that surprised Denario. Boldor burst into tears.

None of the others in the rowan hall knew quite how to react. They gave the chief a minute to compose himself.

“I'm sorry, my friends.” Boldor wiped his cheek with the tip of his long beard. “Children among the dwarfs are precious. I know it is not so with all people. Humans have children by accident, I hear.”

Jack opened and closed his mouth so quickly that it raised Denario's curiosity.

“That is quite understandable,” said their green-skinned host with a touch of emotion.

“Of course I'll do my best, Tarktich,” Denario sighed. “But this problem has defeated better men than me. You must know that.”

“Yes. But how can I fail to ask? If it defeats all men, ask women.”

“All right, I will.” He had no pride to lose.

“Do you promise?”

“I promise.” At this, Denario felt a twinge of guilt that he would never be coming back. Of all the vows that he'd made in bad faith during this journey, and there were many, this was the worst. Surely the sireni deserved better than the deaths of so many young girls.

“Good. Bring your dwarfs over, Boldor. Your bandit men too, Jack. Let them set camp.” Barkbark clapped his hands. He waited while the dwarf chief and the river captain waved to their rafts. He added, “As you prepare, I will talk with my closest woman. Singing time is past. You always choose the safe seasons, Jack. You're the best.”

“That's why I'm alive.”

“And I have a warning for the accountant.” He stood, gestured toward Denario, then strode through the west entrance of his tree hall, opposite the dock. The green underbrush hid his green, tattooed back. He was gone.

Denario glanced to Boldor and Jack. The dwarf chief had already strode toward the dock to meet Dodni. Jack flapped his hands as if to say that the coming warning from the siren male was a mystery to him, too.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Not Even Not Zen 150: A Bandit Accountant, 25.3

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Right Hypotenuse Squared

Scene Three: Return in Time

“You look sad,” said the priest. “And tired. It's been two days awake for you, hasn't it?”

“Yes, most of that.” He felt drawn out. His fingers kept rising to rub around his eye sockets.

“Ruffina looks fine.” The large man leaned to one side. He peered into the chapel, where the feathers had almost disappeared but not quite. “But you?”

“You're asking?”

The priest shrugged. “Some men take it badly.”

“I thought I was betrothed.” Denario forced himself to stop rubbing his eye.

“You still are. What the gods did with your bodies was done in holiness. You are innocent.”

“No.” He couldn't explain. He wasn't as innocent as all that. “I'm sure you're right about the godly part but no, I'm different. My betrothal is undone. It has been for a while but I didn't realize.”

“Well, it takes some men that way, too.” He didn't seem too put out by the idea. Perhaps he had a limited vision of the type of women who could be betrothed to men wandering the wilderness. “Are you fit to walk?”

“I could manage some speed if it’s needed.”

“If you want to see your friends on those boats again, it is.” The bigger man hiked up the rope he used as a sash around his waist. “Ruffina took you through the spiral path for a reason. That reason was so that she could take you back to where you started.”

“She can do that?” Denario mentally revised his idea of a timeline. He would have to write about this in his accounting log.

“Not now. But only because she's too … tired.” Seigfried seemed on the verge of saying something else, perhaps that Ruffina was too old. He stared down at the dirt for a moment. When his gaze lifted, he waved a thick arm toward the door.

“Come on,” he said. He marched out through the rooms into the main courtyard, the one with the garden that Denario had visited on the way in. He wandered through the green shoots and purple flowers until he paused and dug a hole in the soil with the back of his sandal. “We'll start here.”

The priest set a leisurely pace on a path that was roughly, but not exactly, backwards from how Denario had arrived. They took a lot of the same twists and turns but reversed. They passed among the tallest flowers of the season. They skirted the fringe of small, yellow blooms at the edge of the courtyard.

Together, they climbed the first rise as the sun set over the western horizon. Denario turned to say a silent goodbye to the white walls of quartz. Disconcertingly, they glowed orange in the afternoon light. Next down the path, they passed gardens, some of them gone wild. The accountant gazed over a chunk of milky rock as big as his arm. It was followed by a burst of soft, fat wildflowers. The brightness of the temple clearings gave way to duskiness in the forest canopy. Birches gave way to oaks. Grass dropped to stubble. Soon, there was no grass, all of it replaced by ferns and creeping vines. The ground beneath his boots was damp. The air felt heavy.

Siegfried started to get far ahead. Denario worried and doubled his pace.

The priest swerved right. Shadows moved with him. The priest swerved again. A ray of sunlight shifted from one broad shoulder to the next. The more winding the path Siegried chose, the faster the roots and plants seemed to shift. They walked between rows of stunted juniper bushes and sunlight burst through from overhead. The sun looked higher and whiter than at the start of their journey only minutes ago. Soon they passed the clearing into dense underbrush. Denario felt encouraged by the change.

In time, thick boughs overhead gave way to shafts of light between thinner trees, ash and birch. The roots that gnarled the ground looked smoother. The rocks they turned up were shale.

When the shadows changed again, Denario could smell the water. He could hear it, too, a rush in the distance. A river bird squawked on a branch overhead. They had come to within thirty yards of No Map Creek.

Seigfried raised a hand. The accountant paused.

“This is as far as I go.” The priest nodded to himself.

Denario reached out. He didn't know the other man well. Hardly at all, in fact. But he gripped the fellow's outstretched arm. When he turned his attention to the path in front of him, he let go. Seigfried stepped back along the trail the way he'd come. The shadows shifted.

The no-mapping spell slammed down on Denario's mind with force. He'd gone without it for so long that, perhaps like Seigfried, he'd taken his ability to find his way for granted. What started as a thrill of fear, a sense of being lost, grew into vertigo. He wobbled. His memory reached back to his childhood on the Paravientri docks, where the sailors described 'finding their land legs' or the reverse, enduring their nausea from sea-sickness. The ground wasn't moving but, for a few seconds, Denario felt that it was.

He snatched at the branch of an ash sapling and clung on. It steadied him. He couldn't cast his spell to blank out other spells. The idea certainly occurred to him. But his oath to Ruffina removed the option. Instead, he closed his eyes. He listened.

In a moment, his vertigo eased. He peeked at the ground beneath his boots. His left foot slid forward, then his right. He eased through a gap between bushes. He closed his eyes and listened. He opened them and stepped in the direction of the water. There seemed to be a sandy trail through the rocks. Likely enough, he couldn't go far wrong. For a few more yards, he crept forward. He heard a slap against the water. It sounded as if someone had tossed a rope into the creek.

“Jack?” he called. “Boldor?”

Another three steps took him through trees and scrub. He found himself looking downslope at grayish mud and yellow weeds. Beyond that lay sand, rocks, and water. On a dappled rock stood a short person in a white shirt and leather vest. It was Dodni. The thin-bearded dwarf faced the accountant. It took a moment for Dodni to really see Denario. When he did, his eyes widened. His mouth opened. His fingers began to shake.

“Skilling!” he shouted. He pointed. Then he turned to the dwarfs near him as he stepped from the rock and out of Denario's sight. “I saw Skilling!”

Denario trod down the rocky incline toward the water. He heard voices as he approached, most of them the rumbling and raspy tones of the dwarfs. For the moment, he didn't have to think about where he was going. His feet carried him toward his companions. The other members of the rafting crews, however, seemed to have considerable doubts about coming out to meet him. At least one of the dwarfs didn't believe Dodni and repeated, “Skilling's lost. Skilling's lost.” Brand agreed, although not with the sort of contempt Denario was accustomed to hearing.

“Can't see how he'd get away from the witch,” grumbled the privateer.

“Must have,” Dodni insisted.

“But then he would be confused by the anti-mapping spells.” The observation was made in calm tones. It was Clever Jack.

“Aren't the best accountants also magicians of some stripe?”

“Just with math.”

“That must be it.”

“If you dwarfs have a mind to go looking, we should tie up.” Brand shook something. It sounded wet. “It'll be a lot of rope work. Can it wait until I get dry?”

“Certainly not.”

“What if it's trap?” said one of Brand's men.

At this point, Denario pushed aside a thicket of weeds. He found himself staring at the backs of three men and the fronts of eight dwarfs, none of them more than eleven yards away. The long dwarf beards flapped in a breeze that swept along the stream. They seemed to be in odd states of dress, some of them half in armor, most not. Dodni's brother Heilgar looked like he was wearing a skullcap although, actually, he wasn't. He'd gotten drenched and his hair was matted. His beard dripped.

Dodni raised his arm to point. Another dwarf, Borghild, put a hand to his axe. He froze, trembling, as he stared at the accountant. Boldor and Torgrim noticed. One by one, the men turned around.

Denario stepped through the weeds and onto the stretch of sand and rocks that passed for a beachhead. Jack Lasker, the rearmost man, raised his punt as if to defend himself. He let it clatter to the stones a moment later. He sprinted two skips, a leap over a puddle, and took three more strides to meet Denario on the sands by the creek side.

“Oof.”

Jack knocked Denario sideways with a hug. The accountant hesitated before he realized he needed to return the gesture. In a moment, they were slapping each other on the back.

“How did you know I was real?” he asked.

“Who cares? Are you?” Jack said as the dwarfs and the other men scrambled to catch up. In a moment, they surrounded the accountant. Everyone touched him, some on the shoulders, some on the hauberk over his chest, others on the handles of the tools in his belt, a dwarfish gesture, and two of Brand's men touched his hair. All in all, it felt like everyone had to make sure of him.

“How long have I been gone?” He caught Boldor's gaze.

“It was not quick,” the dwarf chief said. He rubbed his beard.

“At least half of an hour,” said Dodni.

“Your hair is different.” Jack had a keen eye. “You've got something in it, too. Feathers? Goose down?”

“More than a day passed for me.” He calculated. “About twenty-eight hours, I think.”

That gave him space. The crowd stepped back except for Clever Jack, Dodni, and Boldor. Dodni stepped forward, actually, and touched the accountant on his arm.

“The witch?”

“Yes.”

“Are you harmed?”

“Changed. Not harmed, I think.” He found himself with his left hand over his chest. That was where he felt different, in his heartbeat and in his breath. A picture came to his mind of the floating lights of the temple, that peek he’d had of the inside of human bodies, and how he'd seen a human heart throbbing like a mechanical pump. How could his blood be connected to his breathing? It made no sense. He shook his head, convinced he would never understand more than a fraction of what he had witnessed. A small, white feather floated down from his hair to his nose.

“Did you see magic?”

“I saw strange things,” he decided. “The visions came to me with math, so I wrote them down. But I'll have to think for a while before I talk about them. They may be holy.”

The dwarfs, except for Bolder and Dodni, made the knocking motions over their heads, hearts, and shoulders that Denario had come to understand as signs of their superstition. They refused to talk about the gestures directly but Torgrim had once mentioned, by way of an explanation, that his people lived in darkness. They bore witness to creatures of shadow that humans never knew. Knocking on things was a way one dwarf could signal to all of the others.

“There's a bit more to write down,” Denario said. “Before we go. Before I eat, even. I don't want to forget.”

“Hah!” Boldor thumped his stomach as he laughed.

“We missed you, Skilling.” Borghild, Ulf, and Torgrim stepped closer. They touched the axes at their belts. Then they tapped his tool pouch and his baselard.

“Well, damn me,” Brand interjected. “All he did was get taken away. And escape, I suppose.”

“What of it?” Ulf squinted at the former caravan leader.

“You're shedding tears over him!”

The former caravan leader and probable pirate stamped his right boot. His arms rose. His fingers curled.

“That's right and proper for a comrade,” said Boldor. He stepped forward. “Are you saying that it's some kind of weakness? You're wrong, Brand. Entirely wrong.”

“Well, it’s not what I meant, not exactly.” Brand wiped his brow. His broad-rimmed hat was missing. Possibly that was connected with how wet and sweaty he'd become. A drop rolled down the side of his face. His arms fell to his sides. “But it's different. I haven't seen anything like it in … well, a long while.”

“Why are you wet, Brand?” Denario asked.

“Ulf fell into the creek,” the taller man grumbled. A scowl cast a shadow over his eyes. “I went in after him.”

“To the rescue?” Denario paused to try to picture the incident. Brand had quick reactions, true, but he'd never stuck his neck out for anyone. “It isn't what I'd expect.”

“You got that right,” murmured Clever Jack.

“Probably the oaths he took,” grumbled Boldor.

“All the same,” said Jack. He nodded to Brand as if it were the correct thing, a job well done. And it had been, as out of place as it seemed.

Although Denario had been informed that he'd arrived soon after he'd left, he knew it wasn't true. He'd told the others that he hadn't been magically changed but he was pretty sure that was also not correct. The smell of the water, slow but clear, seemed natural, as if the background magic no longer burned his senses. He felt no itch to weave a spell. The stink of Brand next to him, covered in algae and silt, no longer felt threatening, the way it had done when he'd left the group. The man was a danger but he felt like a very predictable one.

Denario glanced to a branch overhanging the creek. A flying frog had landed on it. The leaf-covered twig wavered under the extra weight. Not long ago, the accountant would have been frightened. At best he would have regarded it as an evil omen. Now it was just a frog. He hadn't returned from the temple quite the same person as he'd left.

“Yes, well done.” This time, Denario took a calmer look at Brand.