A Bandit Accountant
Chapter Pi, Roughly
Scene Three: Lucky Find
By noon, Denario felt too famished to be exhausted. He could have eaten a whole cow. Well, no, he probably couldn't. He'd passed them in the fields and they were huge. They snorted when he got close. He was sure they were looking for an excuse to trample him. Then their owners would trample him further. But he was hungry enough to wish he understood how cows were raised. It looked like they just ate grass but he knew it couldn't be that simple. It never was.
As he strolled along the cart path, he gave up on a tricky geometry problem regarding how to define curves and, instead, counted common objects to relax. He counted ox poop for a while but it depressed him. He stopped at sixty-three piles of poop.
The Marquis should have someone clean this place, he thought, as he stepped over another pile. He shuddered at the thought of writing to the Palace of the Marquis. Even if someone read his complaint, he'd likely be ordered to do the job himself.
Another item he counted during his hike was fences. There had been seven fences so far, one hundred sixty-one fence posts along the road, nineteen cattle, four horses, one of them gray, thirty seven sheep in a single flock, and two streams, both full of fish too fast to count.
Denario had filled his canteen at the first stream. The water tasted so good he'd turned around and headed back to it after he drained the canteen. He hadn't thought to grab for a fish.
At the second stream, he tried it.
"Damn!" After his sixth failure to even touch a fin, he gave up. His face had gotten wet. His sleeves dripped. Beneath them, his arms shivered up to his elbows. Shivers crept to his shoulders before they faded.
He hiked a quarter-mile with a stone in his shoe. He paused, removed the stone, and limped for another half-mile as if it were still there.
At one of the fences, behind thirty seven sheep, there was a girl too young to be a shepherdess. At least, that's what he thought when he noticed her, although she seemed to be watching a flock. She noticed Denario, too, and stared at him for a while. Since she didn't say a word, Denario didn't feel right trying to start a conversation. That kind of thing could get misinterpreted, which might lead to fathers and brothers with angry expressions and thick wooden staves that they'd use to protect their girl. As soon as he'd passed her, though, and she was on the other side of a hill, he wished he'd asked her for food.
Denario followed a wooded turn in the path. Trees grew thicker here. Even with the sun directly overhead, the grove was dark. He trudged on and wondered how many miles lay between Ziegeburg and the next town, which he remembered as a crossroads with four houses and two barns.
He accidentally kicked a piece of metal in the road.
It pinged off a rock. He crouched at it and rubbed off the dirt and mud. The object was the right size for a penny. But no, it was part of a buckle. It had been broken with considerable force.
He stood and looked around. There, by the side of the cart road, was a wooden chest. Its sides were inlaid with fine woods and a metal that might have been gold. Amazing. But the strangest thing was that it had been smashed and thrown away in the brush. It made no sense and, as he approached it, he glanced around again to make sure the road was deserted. Odd, he thought, that the owner hadn't tried to keep the chest and repair it. It had been worth sixty pence, at the least, when it was whole.
He hefted it onto his shoulder. It pressed a broken edge into him but he was determined to take it as far as the next town. He was sure he could trade it for something.
Unfortunately, he'd overestimated himself. The chest was small and it wasn't heavy but a hundred yards was enough for him to realize he wasn't going to make it. He set it down, rested, and hoisted it again. A few yards later, as he rounded another bend in the path, he noticed the dead body.
It didn't completely surprise him.
“Hello?” he said, even though he knew the blonde-headed figure was dead from the smell. He set down the wooden chest and approached. The corpse must have been lying in the road for hours. It rested in the ruts left by a recent cart and Denario could easily imagine that this man had staggered out of the trees in order to flag down the cart but had been too slow. Maybe he had tried to crawl after it. Anyway, he'd left a trail of blood behind him.
Despite the smell, Denario knelt and turned the dead face so he could see it. To his relief, he didn't recognize the man. Denario felt around the neck and the wrist for signs of a pulse. None. He listened for breathing. There was none of that, either. There was a lot of blood on the brown pants and tan shirt. It had crusted. Flies landed on it, rubbed their forelegs, and buzzed away.
As he leaned down lower and lower, concentrating on hearing a breath or a heartbeat, Denario realized he could hear a horse on the road in front of him. Someone was headed his way.
“Ahoy, there!” he shouted. He hopped to his feet and waved. There was no one he could see but surely any traveler would help. Then, as he saw a distant figure appear on the path, he doubted himself. Who had killed this man? A bandit?
“Ahoy?” he said more quietly. He squinted. The figure on the horse didn't seem to be getting any closer. There was motion around the horse, too, another person or an animal.
Denario ducked off the path. With a glance at the horseman, he darted back to the splintered wooden chest, hefted its remains, and took them with him into the underbrush.
About that time, the horseman seemed to notice him. At any rate, Denario heard a shout that could have been meant for him. He dropped the chest near a tree and slunk back into the shadows of the deepest woods. The horse didn't come any closer, although it moved back and forth across the road. After a few minutes, Denario's curiosity overcame his fear and he snuck closer to the horse and the people moving around it.
“Is that all?” someone cried quite clearly.
“Someone else got most of it, my boy,” said another voice.
“Probably bandits,” said the first voice, the one on top of the horse.
“Probably not. Shh.”
Denario paused in his tracks. The one on foot, an elderly woman, had glanced into the woods. Her gaze passed over him but she didn't seem to take note of his presence. He was glad, now, that he'd covered his red vest with the raggedy, plain farming shirt.
“We don't have to worry,” ventured the figure on horseback. “They must be long gone to the hills by now.”
“Real bandits don't leave this much behind, my boy. Who knows what folks did this? But someone else came after, that's for sure. At least one cart came through.”
“Do you think they got the tax box?”
The woman in her shawl grunted. Now that Denario had gotten close, he could see the debris through which she walked, mostly broken bits of wood, a carriage wheel, a fine wooden door, and a dead horse. The woman removed the bit and bridle from the mouth of the dead horse. Then she strode toward a rectangular shape in the shadows at the other side of the road. It took Denario a moment to realize what he was looking at. This was the stagecoach he'd missed. What had happened to it? Everyone knew there were no bandits this close to town. Then he remembered Jordin had said, “You's supposed to be dead on the stagecoach.”
He'd been meant catch the coach out of town. He was supposed be dead.
This had been the mayor's plan all along. For weeks, maybe, Figgins had intended to put the accountant onto the stagecoach along with the baron's taxes. Then he'd have his men attack the coach, steal the money back, and blame it on bandits. But it had gone wrong. Denario hadn't played his part.
That explained why the mayor hadn't been serious about killing Denario in town. He wanted to keep to his plan and, not the least, keep his money.
Denario's escape had been narrower than he'd thought.
“Of course they got the tax box,” said the old woman. In her way, she looked sturdier than her son. “Someone came behind and got other things, too, things that bandits, real bandits I mean, wouldn't leave. They didn't even check for jewelry! Can you imagine?”
“Ugh. Mom, that's gross.” The lad turned away from his mother as she pawed at a body that had an arrow through its chest.
“I'll bet it was the Farmars. Old Gordi comes through here every other day but he's the type who wouldn't stoop to searching the bodies. Or he took a couple things, I'll wager, because there are cart tracks all around. He couldn't help himself. Hmm, no, it would be more likely that his boys did it while he wasn't watching. But they didn't loot properly, not in front of their dad. And they'll report the loss of the stagecoach.”
“No question. They're probably in Zeigeburg right now, gathering up folks to come back and clean up, maybe even to send a letter to the baron. The coach is under the baron's protection, after all.”
“Ouuh, ma.” Something his mother did made him shudder. Denario didn't like the sound of it.
“Got to do it, my boy. Do you have any idea how much this stuff is worth? And look. Look at this chain. She had it around her, well, never mind.”
“That's gold, that's what it is, or near enough. And it's jewels, too, or pretty glass. Doesn't make much difference. Someone will pay well. Get down and search the driver. Make yourself useful.”
“He won't have nothing,” the young man complained as he dismounted.
“If bandits searched these folks, they weren't any bandits we know.”
“Do we know any, ma?”
“Oh! Like you don't know your uncles! Just keep looking.”
Denario felt sorry for the young man, who was trying to brush away flies and not look at the body he was pawing rather ineffectively. The driver had dressed in a classic black suit jacket that hid most of the damage from view, Denario was pretty sure. Well, there was no point in sticking around. Part of him itched to rush at these grave robbers and give them a scare. Maybe they would think he was a bandit and flee. Or maybe the boy would turn and stab Denario. Or maybe his mother would do it. That seemed more likely.
He could hit them with poison darts. The idea struck him as he took his first step away. But that didn't make sense. Probably they weren't bad people. They just saw a chance at free money. And if he killed them and then took their money and their horse, what would that make him? No, it was better to keep going. He would come to the fork in the trail soon. Then he'd make his way downhill to the Rune Kill and, with any luck, find a boat to carry him to Oggli, where his life would be sane.
That was a prospect he could look forward to. He would have skipped through the forest except for his need to be quiet. He'd almost forgotten that his partner Curo had gotten most of the money from this venture. Curo would have needed to spend some of it but still there would be a tidy sum awaiting Denario when he got back. He rubbed his hands together as he contemplated it.
Chapter Three, Scene Four