A Bandit Accountant
Chapter Root Two Squared
Scene One: Going Fourth
The bar filled with smoke. Half a dozen men joined the crowd waiting for the competition to begin. The poorest-dressed of them reached into his rawhide pouch and pinched a mixture of weeds and snuff. Slowly, his jaw grinding sideways with bits falling from the corner of his mouth, he began to chew. A friend of his did the same. The rest, not watching their companions but driven by some instinct to join in, pulled out their pipes. They crammed their weeds into the clay bowls and lit up. They solemnly shared a twig coal from the hearth. Soon they were billowing bigger clouds than the damp wood the bartender kept stacked around the fireplace.
Denario's plan had gone wrong. But he couldn't give up. Really, he felt, it should be working by now. He checked to see who among the newcomers had brought wine sacks with them. There were five. One of the men wore three sacks for a total of seven. The newcomers, except for two, seemed to be hired hands coming in from their day jobs. They laughed too much, punched one another, and spat gobs of chaw on the straw floor. Denario tried to ignore them. It was hard when they gave him suspicious looks.
The smallest of the men with wine skins seemed the most imposing. He had a chest like a beer barrel. Denario got the impression that the man could walk through a wall. In this flimsy place, that probably wasn't an exaggeration. He wore bits of leather armor underneath his clothes. His boots were stuffed with rags and laced expertly almost to his knees. He wore brass greaves up to his knees, too, not quite covered by the leather and rags, and vambraces from his wrists to his elbows. Strapped to his back was a short sword.
“Is this the fellow?” he gestured to Denario as he listened to one of his field hand companions. “Don't look like much.”
“'Taint,” mumbled the gangly farmer. His shirt would have been regarded as less than a rag in the wealthier Ziegeburg homes. “Ah knows him. Wee bit of a lap dog. The witch's man.”
“She's not a witch!” Denario objected. That got a laugh from everyone in range to hear.
“Can't tote a bale. Can't whittle. Can't do nought.” The hayseed spat his chaw onto the the dirt by the fire.
“I'm an accountant!”
“So you knows numbers?” The one who looked like a bandit or, more likely, a caravan guard took a step closer. “Then do you remember, say, how many arrows are shown up on the banner outside Hippogriff's pub?”
Denario closed his eyes as the image formed in his mind. It was a welcome distraction.
“Ten,” he whispered. “Seven on one side, three on the other. I don't know why.”
“They say a hippogriff was killed there, hundreds of years ago. That's the arrows it took to bring him down, seven to the right heart, three in the left.”
“Hippogriffs have two hearts?”
“So they say.” The man shrugged. He took another step closer and Denario caught a whiff of sweat, leather, oil, and road dust. The rest of the newcomers drifted off to the nearby tables to talk to their friends and, not incidentally, to place bets. This one showed a keener interest. He spit a hard weed stem and was careful not to hit Denario's foot. “Tell me, man, can you shoot?”
“I thought I could.” Denario shook his head. He shouldn't have come back to Bottoms Up. He should have run out of town and trusted his luck along the stream beds.
“It's going to be magic against you, you know.”
“I do now,” he said bitterly.
“You're thinking of running, I can tell.”
“Part of my job, sometimes, to know things like that. A few of the men here are waiting on it. It might be part of the fun, beating you to death. You could make it as far as the near window, I think, before the gang caught you.”
Denario glanced at the golden rectangle without a window pane. It was only there to let the smoke out, he thought. Now he felt hopeful about it.
“Don't try. There's someone waiting for you outside.”
“Oh.” He'd never make it, then.
“Better to stay and lose gracefully. Of course, everyone's making wagers. Maybe you could do a business on the side.”
“I need to win a canteen.”
“Is that all?” The man shook one of the skins that were slung over his shoulder. “Easy enough. Do well by me and I'll give you mine.”
“That sounds all right.”
“You've got a bit of confidence. Thought so. I just heard those fellows there say they want to bet on a shutout against you. I'll wager on you getting at least sixty points. Sounds safe. And they'll give me five brassers to four for it, too.”
“You're betting brassers?” It was eye-opening. Each brasser was worth three copper pennies. These poor-looking men had real money. But Denario didn't get an answer. The stranger was already walking away.
At the same time, the quartet of gamblers came in through the pub door. Behind them strode a thin man, tall enough for his curly, dark hair to be seen over their heads. He wore a wizard's robe, purple, but badly faded and stained. The afternoon sun threw shadows across the many moles on his face and made his patches of beard look like a fungus. His odd facial hair cried out for some sort of explanation. Denario got one a moment later, when the wizard stepped into full light. It was obvious he'd been burned by a magical fire.
The exposed flesh on his right side was scarred and blue. That probably explained why he couldn't shave or grow hair. His right hand was bluish, too. His fingers were long-boned and knobby. His toes were a normal, pink color, but they were notable for the way they stuck out over the edge of his sandals. Despite the wizard's thin frame, his belly looked like he'd sneaked a lump of bread dough from the kitchen. It was out of place. It almost looked as if he'd tied the drawstring of his robe under it to keep it from slipping down.
His brown eyes took in the scene and marked Denario instantly. He didn't need to be told by his gambling friends. He sneered.
“Just him?” the wizard asked his companions. Denario didn't recognize this particular wizard but he remembered the attitude. Lots of magical folk who trained in Baggi had the same contempt for ordinary people.
“Look, I told you about the side bets, right?” the blond ruffian explained.
“It's hardly worth the magic.” But as the wizard said the words, he rested his staff against the pit of his arm so he could take out a white, soft leather wrap. It looked much like Denario's, small enough to fit inside a generous pocket. “I'd better get some wine out of this.”
“Done. Oi, Kev!” The gambler turned and shouted at the barkeep. “Bring out a tankard of wine. The good stuff! Not that yellow piss you serve to ladies.”
The barman looked for a moment as if he might say something but, with a glance at the wizard, he nodded. In a little while, the half-bearded fellow had his tankard of blood red wine. His friends pushed aside some farm hands who didn't have the nerve to object and cleared three tables. The blond one, apparently the ringleader, set up some kind of betting shop at the table closest to the door while his friends propped up their boots on another. The wizard claimed the cleanest table for himself. He rested his staff against his chair. Then he laid leather wrap on the rough-cut pine surface and faced the dart board.
After he drank deeply from the wine mug, he laughed in Denario's direction.
“Scared, little man?” He took another pull of wine.
“Not of darts.” It was a lie, though. Denario's breeches were starting to cling to him, he was sweating so much. But he couldn't let his opponent know. He crossed the room and plunked down his wrap of copper-tipped darts next to the wizard's own. When he opened them, the robed man gave him a sarcastic ooh of surprise.
“My, copper! Don't they look pretty.” He put his hands on his hips.
“Yes.” Denario tried to ignore him. “I won these darts from a wizard.”
Quick as an arrow, the wizard's hand went to a sack at his side. He snatched a round bauble and, before Denario could backpedal out of his reach, pressed it against the side of Denario's head.
“Blue. A bit dark. You're hiding something. But blue.”
“What on earth are you doing?”
“You did beat a wizard at darts. That's interesting.” The bauble went back into its pouch. Denario caught a glimpse of it as it went. It was blue, as the wizard said. What did that mean? It sounded like the large bead was some sort of truth-telling device. Maybe it turned a different color for a lie. In any case, the splotchy wizard had gone pink in the cheeks. “I do hope this isn't a fair fight.”
He did something complicated with his hands.
“Hey!” Denario shouted. “This is darts, not magic.”
His voice attracted the attention of some bettors who had been standing well back. Even the wizard's friends rose.
“Have you gone daft? What are you up to, Tim?” hissed the closest.
The wizard's eyes turned black. The strange effect took place not just in the irises, which went from brown to onyx, but in the whites of the wizard's eyes, too. Those turned a glowing, near-black shade of purple. The transformation lasted only a few seconds but it made the wizard's friend change his tone.
“I mean, what are you doing, Tremelo the Magnificent? Because we're trying to get these men here to lay down their money and no one's going to do it if they think you're putting a curse on this fool. Or on his darts.”
The wizard continued to spin his hands for a few seconds.
“Nothing,” he said. His arms dropped to his sides. The dark glow in his eyes faded.
“They're not magic. No sign of an aura.” The wizard chuckled softly. He reached for his wine mug. “Had myself worried for a moment. But no, these are regular brass bolts. No problems, uh, Will.”
“Warren,” corrected his friend.
“Go on, now, shoo.” Still chuckling, the robed man waved off all of his companions. “Ah, these farmhand rapscallions. What will they get up to next?”
“A robbery?” wondered Denario aloud. He winced when he realized that he was giving everyone bad ideas.
That only made his opponent laugh louder.
“Look, little man,” he said. He sloshed red wine on his robe as he plunked down his nearly empty mug. “Look, look. Have you ever seen darts like this?”
With that, he reached across to the folded lambskin sheath, flipped back the top flap, and opened the inside cover. What shone from the recesses were three golden darts. Even the flight feathers were cut from a golden bird, probably a phoenix.
“Watch,” he whispered. A robed sleeve flopped over the lambskin as he chose the middle bolt and lifted it by the the tip. He stroked the shaft and the flight a few times. His lips mumbled what might have been magic words or could have been, Denario admitted to himself, utter nonsense. Then the wizard added, “Come on, now, show him how it's done. Right in the center.”
He whirled and threw. Immediately, Denario could tell that Tim – or Tremelo the Magnificent, as apparently he liked to be called – was a terrible darts player. He used a kind of three-quarter swing, not an overhand, underhand, or sidearm motion. It definitely wasn't a straightforward push, which is what almost everyone else used. On top of the weird swing, he was being deliberately awful. The gold peg left his hand with a wobble, headed for the chair beneath and to the right of the cork wood, but then the magic took over. The body of the dart curved, then straightened. It arched toward the center of the board, flexed its feathers to correct its path, and swooped into the center.
“Bang!” screamed Tim. The needle tip thunked into the wood at the edge of the crudely drawn inner circle. “Ha!”
He slapped his knee and chortled. Then, grabbing his mug, he sloshed his beard and robe with the red stuff. While Tim drained his cup and bowed to some smattering of applause from the other customers, Denario decided to walk over to the board. He had nothing better to do. Anyway, he was curious. He leaned on his tiptoes to see that the magic point had sunk into the wood to the depth of forty hairs, which was as deep as Denario's brass points got on these cheap corkwood cuts. He wondered how anything made of gold managed to make itself hard enough to do this.
“More wine!” Tim roared. He waved his arms and yelled at his friends. He shook his head and called to the barkeep, too, who shouted back a few words that didn't seem polite. While everyone glared at one another, Denario put his fingers around the stem of the golden dart and tugged. It gave a faint hum that startled him. He almost dropped it when it slipped from the wood.
He cursed. The golden shaft vibrated in his open hand. He was scared to clamp down too tightly on it since it acted like it was alive. He thought it might stab him if he hurt the feathers. But as he walked and stared, he noticed that the tip wasn't made of the same metal as the body. The sharp part was brass. It was no different than the tips Denario had been using.
“Ready?” shouted the wizard. He levitated the bolt out of Denario's open palm and laughed when Denario jumped backwards from sheer surprise.
“I suppose I am,” said Denario. What else could he do? The thing hovered in the air for a moment and floated down gently into the wizard's hand.
There were shouts from the bar as another trio of farmhands wandered in. The gamblers shot out of their seats to greet them, which immediately made the newcomers suspicious. However, everyone immediately began to bellow out their own opinions and advice. That led to laughter and more bellowing, which made Denario red-faced, and the chaos led to another round of drinks. Denario's mouth was dry but he wasn't thirsty. Anyway, another customer walked in, greeted by more shouts. The wizard announced that the contest was about to begin and some of the patrons passed that on to the latest arrivals.
Denario drew sharp looks from the caravan guards. They would be sure to help the farmhands and bandits hunt him down and kill him if he tried to escape. As the short one had mentioned, they seemed to be looking forward to it.
“You said you're starting, Tim?” The blond gambler approached. He tucked his thumbs into the drawstring of his trousers and hiked them up. “Might as well You pretty near scared everyone off. They want to see the first game before they'll bet heavily.”
“I'll go first,” said Denario and the wizard at the same time. That got another laugh from the wizard, who was dripping with wine and confidence.
“Don't win by too much, hey?” The gambler tried to clap Tremelo the Magnificent on the shoulder. But something on the wizard's robe stung him or burned him so that he gave a yelp. He trotted back to his table, holding one hand with another and cursing.
“Tell you what," said the wizard. He rubbed his hands together and winked at Denario. “We'll shoot to go first.”
Chapter Two, Scene Two