A Bandit Accountant
Chapter Root Two Squared
Scene Four: Friends Like These
Denario had to pay his money to the gamblers before anything else. He was glad he'd negotiated for a new limit of ten coppers. He asked for his canteen. The curly-haired man gave him a knowing smirk but nothing more. His friends pleaded for another game. They'd get him a canteen later, they said. They didn't want their audience to lose interest.
“Do you want to go first?” they asked. “Hey, Tim, do you mind if the accountant shoots first?”
“What?” roared Tim over his tankard. “Shoot to start, same as before!”
“I didn't say I would play,” Denario pointed out. “No canteen, no play.”
“Come on, you can get that later,” the tallest gambler whined. “I'll buy one off of someone here. I don't want to run home for mine.”
“Give me two brassers to buy one,” said Denario. He was taking a risk. But he'd been taking chances the whole time. Anyway, he had a plan. It was even stupider than his first plan but it depended on going last in the game. Tremelo the Magnificent had already agreed to that, basically. “Make it three.”
“What stakes?” said the gambler as he palmed the brass pieces.
“Double?” Denario was probably being too bold.
“You sure?” The tall one dropped his coins into Denario's hand. “Hey, Tim! Double the money on this one.”
The men standing around the wizard laughed and that included one of the mercenaries. The wizard, though, hesitated. His gaze focused hard on Denario. Then he threw back his head and guffawed mechanically. It was a calculated move, though. He knew Denario was up to something.
A trio of old farmhands in overalls strode to the tables to place bets, followed by a pair of newcomers. While the customers haggled, the proprietor of Bottom's Up marched from behind his bar to light the torches along the south wall. A new group of day laborers wandered in through his front door and waved. Sunset glowed fiery red behind their backs and through the corner windows. Denario knew from the color of the light that he should have left Ziegeburg already. He told himself that he was on the edge of town, still relatively safe. If he ran up the path over the nearest hill, he'd be gone.
Denario was mentally measuring his distance to the front door when Stanli Wisenheimer walked in. Stanli was a thin, wry-mouthed cabinet maker who built clocks on the side. None of his clocks ever seemed to work right but that didn't stop him. He had no competition in Ziegeburg.
Stanli's hair was fading from blond to white so gradually that hardly anyone in town had noticed. He didn't look his age, nearly fifty. He drank whiskey instead of ale. He knocked out his own teeth when he got toothaches, only five of them so far. And he fancied himself a darts player. He'd lost a fair amount of money to Denario.
“Hey there, accountant,” he drawled in a casual tone, as if it weren't unusual for him to be missing from the Proud Pony at this time of day. He waved one hand in Denario's direction. With his other, he pulled back the curtain that served as the bar's door. To someone behind him, he shouted, “They were right! He's here.”
He shuffled forward. Behind him rolled in Kingli Baker, a heavy, round-faced man. His eyes widened as he passed the threshold. Dressed in white to hide the flour stains from his shoulders to his knees, he looked exactly like the kind of man whose family had been making bread in the area since it was a stand of trees in which goat herders took refuge from wild hippogriffs. Probably none of his ancestors had ever set foot in Bottom's Up. It was beneath his class.
Next through the door was Elgin Farmar, the tailor, and finally came Gordi Smith, the farmer. Gordi’s look of astonishment made Denario feel very, very guilty for not taking the stagecoach out of town.
“What are you doing here?” Denario asked him.
Stanli gnawed on a reed in the corner of his mouth. He often kept one there against his bottom gum, where he had self-extracted a couple teeth.
“Same as you,” said Stanli. “We’re bettin’ on darts.”
“A man came into the Pony,” Gordi explained. He strode forward and clasped Denario's elbow. “He said there was a big match here tonight. Lots of money changing hands. And the unusual part was, the games were played by the best shooter he'd ever seen and a wizard with enchanted darts.”
“The best shooter was wearing a red vest,” said Kingli.
“With gold trim on it.” Gordi's voice was hoarse. “We knew it was you.”
The four tradesmen stepped a little closer. Denario was almost surrounded by them. But as short as he was, they didn't seem imposing to him. In fact, they looked small and out of place among the young farm hands, bandits, caravan guards, and other roughnecks.
“The mayor,” Stanli breathed. “He'll know, too.”
“How come you're here?” Gordi pleaded. “The stagecoach ...”
“It left this morning.”
That stopped the four tradesmen for a moment. But they were on a mission to rescue him or thought they were, so they couldn't be steered aside by mere facts. In fact, Denario was pretty sure what they were going to suggest next.
“But how about ...” began Gordi.
“No one would sell me a horse,” said Denario. “Not even a donkey.”
“But then, with the right traveling gear ...”
“Do you have any? I don't. I've been trying to buy it.”
“I don't. Not with me.” He hung his head. “Maybe at home but that's half a day away.”
“None at all, for me,” added Elgin.
“Me, neither,” Stanli drawled, the hay dangling from a gap in his bottom teeth.
“My gods, the farthest I've walked is about two miles down to the stream for the temple festival, Eve of Glaistig,” said Kingli. “Why would I have anything like that? You're the traveler, I thought.”
“I've traveled by coach and a little by horse. No one in Ziegeburg will sell marching supplies to me. Still, I could travel by foot for a few miles if I had a canteen.” At those words, most of the men nodded to one another. But Gordi was still trying to find a solution.
“If you stick near to the river, you might not need the canteen so much.” He rubbed his chin.
“On the way here,” replied Denario, “I was warned to keep away from the water.”
The locals turned to one another and exchanged puzzled glances. Then, slowly, comprehension dawned. Their open mouths closed. They remembered the problem of enchantments further downstream. Where the Rune Kill met the Riggle Kill, ancient magical springs bubbled up into the water. They added to the already potent Riggle Kill, which was fed by streams of magic from farther north. It had been that way longer than anyone could remember and when wizards traveled through, they said there had been a magical battle in the area in the ancient past, before written records.
From the battle grounds or from the springs, raw spell-force sometimes radiated. Often it took the form of purple fogs or lime-green waves of enchanted vegetation. Even the river got weird blooms in the winter every now and then. Trees would suddenly bear apples or, just as likely, cuckoo clocks.
“Oh yeah,” said Stanli. He chewed on his straw. “Flying gars live downstream, I hear.”
“And alligators,” Gordi remembered.
“And giant frogs.”
“And then there's the Naiads.” Stanli made shapes with his fingers. His friends raised their eyebrows. “They look like Nixies but instead of dragon wings, they have dragonfly wings. Naiads are human in their faces, though.”
“You don't say.”
“Ah, but they never reach more than a hand tall. And they're poisonous, of course.”
“And don't forget the poisonous snakes.” Gordi tapped his forehead.
“And the makari.”
“And the manticores.”
“And the sireni.”
“Wait, what are all those?” Denario interrupted. It was all going too fast. He remembered the names of some of those creatures from the warnings he'd heard as he passed through towns on his way here last spring.
His friends threw up their hands.
“Dunno.” Kingli shrugged. “They're downstream. Ain't seen 'em. But I heard you got to stay away from 'em.”
“And the gods, of course,” said Gordi.
“Oh yeah, the gods. Best to stay away from those. Except for ours, of course.”
“Oh, right.” Gordi looked up at the ceiling nervously. Everyone else looked up, too. You couldn't tell when a divine presence would show up. “Wouldn't hear nothing said against our own, of course. But foreign gods. That's not right.”
“Right,” everyone chimed in.
There was a slight pause, as if Denario's bar friends had to catch their breath. The talk of supernatural deities made everyone nervous, as it should when you knew for certain that they turned up for most holidays. They weren't dependable; that wouldn't seem very holy, perhaps. But from what Denario had seen and heard, there might be no appearance by Leir at the spring celebration and no goat-fish woman at the Festival of Gaistig for a season or two. But then a storm would arrive with the next equinox and a man made of ball lightning would stride the country. Or the goat-fish tribe would stop playing in the water with humans and scatter to announce the arrival of Gaistig herself.
“Forgot about all them things.” Gordi scratched his head. “Our part of the river is mighty quiet. There just 'taint much magic here that the Makari can't fight off.”
Right, that's the local name for the goat fish, Denario remembered.
“What does this have to do with playing games?” said Stanli. He hitched up his loose, cotton pants.
“Not much,” Denario explained. He put out his arms. “I thought I could win a bunch of things that I need. You know how gambling is, Stanli. You think you've got a bright idea and then it doesn't work.”
Kingli Baker stared at the unfinished walls. The heavy man catered to the wealthiest families in town and it had been a long time since he'd seen the inside of a poor person's hut, if he ever had. Likewise, Elgin Farmar made clothes for the richest Ziegeburg familes, not that anyone was truly wealthy out here, not compared to a big city like Oggli or Baggi. But Elgin gaped at his surroundings, too. The windows in Bottom's Up were uneven because they hadn't been cut so much as constructed where the felled trees had left shorter logs. Openings had appeared naturally and, although they'd been widened, they'd been left rough. The kegs of homemade beer and casks of wine weren't stored in the basement of Bottom's Up because there wasn't one. The proprietor had dug a hole in the floor behind the bar and that served to keep the drinks cold or at least slightly cool.
“I ain't seen good magic since I was a kid,” said Stanli, hands on hips. “I want to get a hand on those magical darts.”
“You see the priest cast spells all the time,” Gordi reminded him.
“Oh, well, that don't count. Anybody could do a few things with the gods on their side. I want to see darts.”
Denario glanced to the center of the room, where he saw a robed figure headed in their direction. Tim the Militant was ready to play.
“I think you're in luck,” he said.
Chapter Two, Scene Five