A Bandit Accountant
Chapter Pi, Roughly
Scene Four: Lucky Miss
“Damn,” Denario muttered to himself. There was a cart parked across the fork in the road. The folks who owned the cart had unhitched the ox. They'd tethered their beast to a tree. It grazed while the group rested.
Denario dodged off the trail to watch. He wished the three figures would finish their lunch and move on. Or had they stopped for an early dinner already? Was it that late? Denario felt the hunger that had fled upon encountering those dead bodies make an unwelcome return. He held his stomach as he waited. A minute later, when one of the figures hopped down and ran around the cart in circles, Denario realized it was a child, a boy from the look. There was something familiar about him. Denario had seen that cut of light brown hair before. The driver of the wagon seemed recognizable, too. He had a way of sitting, his elbow on his right knee, that was distinctive.
Denario got up. He was tired of tromping through the underbrush. His shoes weren't made for it. His feet had blistered. The rest of him hurt, too, although he'd only been on the march for a day.
“Gordi!” he waved as he crossed the clearing. The older man's face sprang into a smile. His youngest boy laughed and started running toward Denario.
“Den!” The boy used Pecunia's nickname for Denario. By the time he collided with Denario's stomach for a hug, Denario remembered that this one, Gordi's youngest, was named Olaf after Gordi's wife's father.
“It's good to see you, too, Ollie,” he said. He gave the boy a quick squeeze, then tried to pry him off.
“Why are you leaving Ziegeburg?” said Ollie, who had a strong hold on Denario's right leg. “Where are you going? Not to Pickle Bad? Where else is there?”
Denario tried to explain but the farthest town the boy had heard of before was Hogsburg and that only as a place to avoid. Bandits came down from the hills and stole children out of Hogsburg, or so Ollie said. Denario thought those sounded more like bogeymen than bandits.
“Ah, it's his mother that tells him those tales,” Gordi explained from the top of his wagon. He held out a slice of cheese for Denario. As he stopped moving to accept it, Ollie let go so he could keep running around. “Not that she's wrong, mind. Does a child good to be scared, now an' then. Being scared of strangers is a fine thing in it's way.”
“Does Hogsburg really have bandits?”
“Ye may get to know, lad.”
“Why?” Denario was willing to forgive Gordi for acting like his uncle. The cheese was the best in the world. Denario's mouth was probably two-thirds drool as he chewed. Anyway, the farmer really was old enough to be Denario's uncle.
“A bunch of men went down along the river trail. They figure yer going to hang a right at this fork, here, to try to get a boat or something.”
“Well, they're waiting for ye.” He shook his head. He rummaged in the sack at his belt. “Yer lucky ye got out when you did. One of the mayor's men got killed, he did, and it's ye they're blaming.”
“But everyone saw me. All I did was run away.”
“I know that,” said Gordi, sounding oddly unsure. “It's just, well, yer getting the blame for everything now.”
“Do you know that the stagecoach was robbed?”
“Ye'll get blamed for that, too,” said Gordi sourly.
“No, I mean it wasn't the kind of thing you get even near Angstburg or Hogsburg. The bandits killed everyone aboard. Arrows through them, then cut their throats.”
“Yep. We saw. I had to shield Olaf's eyes. He gets nightmares enough already.” Gordi's lower lip shook. “It's out in the open now, I suppose. The mayor figures he don't have to listen to the baron. We know how that story ends. I studied our history in the temple. The baron's troops will come, sooner or later. People around here dyin' no matter who wins. Bad for the whole town.”
“I'm not scared.” Those were the first words Gordi's oldest son had spoken. He twisted in his seat next to his dad. His chin jutted defiantly at Denario, as if daring him to a fight.
Thing is, the boy wasn't particularly big or strong. He didn't look like he'd last more than a few seconds against the mercenaries Denario had seen. Maybe he didn't understand that.
“Anyway,” said Gordi, ignoring his son. “Ye can't go near the river. Ye been lucky, so far, but the gods help the wise more than the foolish.”
“Lucky?” Denario's face got hot. “First I get tossed by the mayor's goons. Then I miss the stagecoach, I can't buy anything, and I forget to ...”
“Ah, but missing the coach was lucky.”
“Was it?” The vision of the poor young man's body in the road came back to him. “Oh, yes, it was.”
“How did ye miss, anyway?”
“I went to see Pecunia and by the time I got to the stable, the coach had gone.”
“Went for a last kiss, huh? Maybe it saved yer life.”
“I guess it did.” For the first time in a day, he remembered the good luck charm Pecunia had given to him. He touched his neck. It was still there, beneath his layered shirts. “Gordi, this is worse than I thought. Pecunia said she could buy my way back into town but now it sounds impossible. If she did, I'd never trust it.”
“Me neither. Ye got to head back to yer home. That's what I'd do. Hire a wizard to send yer report to the baron, maybe.”
“I wasn't working for the baron.”
“That doesn't mean ye can't report to him.” Gordi gritted his teeth in exasperation. “Everyone thinks ye were working for him anyway.”
“Oh. I guess I never really understood that.” He kept denying it when they asked him. But it was just like denying that Pecunia was a witch. No one believed it.
They ate in silence for a while. Gordi handed Denario a crunchy loaf of bread, a block of cheese, and a wine skin with actual wine. Then he finished off a crust of bread he'd been holding in his lap while everyone else watched his youngest son run in circles around the wagon.
As Denario slowed down, he thought to offer back the half of the bread loaf he hadn't finished.
“Take it.” Gordi waved him away. “Ye need the food and I've got to head home, down near the Rune Kill, where ye can't go.”
“Gordi, what will I do? I thought I could catch a ride on a boat and get as far downstream as Angstburg. That's as far as people travel by water, anyway. No one boats through the heavy magic. From there, I could walk or rent a horse.”
“Ye'll have to take to the hills for fifteen miles or more. To be safe, Denario, ye should make it twenty miles west. Pass Hogsburg before ye turn south. The mayor's men have a long reach. They know the sheriffs in all these smaller places.”
“But the bandits?”
“There are bandits, real bandits, in the hills. But ye aren't much of a target. Keep off the trails during the day and ye'll be fine.”
“You mean hike in the night-time?”
“Haw!” The oldest boy laughed at Denario's apparent fear. Denario turned inward, mentally, for a moment while he checked his feelings. Yes, he decided he was afraid to travel by night but that seemed pretty reasonable. The confidence of the adolescent bordered on cockiness.
“Is there something the matter, Kurt?” Gordi asked his son.
The dimples disappeared and the impish snile faded from young Kurt's face. Although Gordi never beat his children, which was unusual, he was a stern taskmaster. His sons lived in fear of not living up to his standards.
“No, father. It's just that he's scared.”
“He should be.”
“But not of the dark!” The boy chortled again. His breath reeked of spiced meat. “I walk alone in the dark all the time, father.”
“Far away from home?”
“No, but that's only because you never let me go anywhere.”
Gordi rubbed the gray stubble on his chin.
“Very well. Denario, ye may take Kurt here with ye for the first night. He can teach ye what he knows of traveling in the countryside. Ye should reach the Hogsburg trail before morning. Then Kurt can come back home over Green Knob hill. That's the straightest path. Is that all right, Kurt?”
“Dad!” The boy gave his father a quick, one-armed hug. Denario got the impression that Kurt didn't normally touch his parents much because Gordi was visibly surprised. His son was pushing him away before he could properly return the embrace.
Kurt hopped down from the wagon. He made a face at his brother, who was just beginning to notice that something unfair had happened, at least from a youngest child's point of view. Then they all spent a few minutes getting and giving orders, re-organizing, and re-packing. Gordi donated all the rest of his food, mostly hard tack and cheese. He had no more wine but he gave his son a canteen of brackish water.
“Ye've got chores that'll go undone,” Gordi reminded him. “Yer brothers can help but ye'll have to finish what they don't.”
“Yes, dad.” Kurt was in a good mood. He was nodding at everything his father said.
“If you see anyone what even looks like a mayor's man, give 'im a wide berth. Don't talk to 'im. But if ye've no choice, be polite. They ain't looking for ye, just the accountant.”
“Yes, dad. I'll see them coming from way off. I won't talk.”
“Ye can sleep in ole Maizie Guntaffson's barn but don't even think about taking a thing from them folks. Not even a piece of straw that ain't yers. I'll hear.”
“Speaking of which, Denario. Where did you get your new shirt? For the forest, it's better than a red vest, but ...”
Denario thought about the words carefully. “I stole it.”
“What?” Gordi grabbed him by the arm. “I think I need to talk with ye a minute before ye go.”
The boys' young faces were agape. Kurt didn't even smile. Olaf's eyes went wide with horror. Maybe he thought Denario was about to get a spanking. And maybe he was. All the same, Denario couldn't tell anyone that Farli Haphmeyer had given the clothes to him. That would be a betrayal.
“I .... I don't recognize this.” Gordi rubbed his fingers over the raggedy shirt. By some miracle, no scrap of it flaked off in his hand. “Do ye even know who ye took it from? Was it off the stagecoach?”
“I know who it's from. I left money. He knows, too. But all the same, I'm not going to tell you. He's worried about being caught helping me.” A thought struck Denario. It spread prickles into his stomach. “Oh, Gordi, I didn't even think. You shouldn't help me, either. What if you get found out?”
Gordi looked around at the edges of the forest.
“I hadn't thought of that.” He shook his head. “I reckon that most folks wouldn't report me. My neighbors ... still, I'm not sure of all of them. Not of all. Maybe yer friend is right.”
They walked back in silence. Gordi was thoughtful as he put his youngest son back onto the front seat of the wagon. Denario tried to tell Kurt to get on, too, leave him. Traveling with a wanted man would be dangerous. Kurt seemed puzzled by the idea no matter how much Denario repeated 'don't.' Gordi stopped and watched his son to see how he would respond. But Kurt wouldn't go with his father. He was determined to have his freedom and, not incidentally, prove he was man enough to be a guide. After a minute or two of the argument, Gordi turned his back on them and strolled to his ox, which he untied. While Denario was still trying to convince Kurt, Gordi hitched his ox to the wagon, flapped his reins, and turned the cart slowly around to face the downhill trail.
“Be careful, son,” he said.
Kurt and Denario shut up. They watched the cart slowly rolled away toward the Rune Kill farmlands. Kurt's mouth hung open. He couldn't take his eyes off his father and youngest brother until they were a dark shadow turning around a bend in the path, silent, then gone.
Chapter Three, Scene Five