A Bandit Accountant
Chapter Pi, Roughly
Scene Six: Strange Footprints
“Did you really steal clothes?” Kurt asked Denario as they hiked up a hill. The evening air was turning out to feel a bit moist, as if a rain storm was coming. There were a rolling clouds on the horizon but none of them, as yet, dark enough to worry about.
“As far as you know,” Denario responded. He was put out by having this adolescent along, even if Kurt was stronger and tougher than he was.
“What's it like being a thief?” Kurt teased.
“About the same as being an accountant.”
“What's it like being an accountant, then?”
“Fun,” answered Denario truthfully. Studying under Master Winkel had made it joyous. Besides, almost everything was fun compared to his duties as a slave. “What's it like being a farmer?”
“I wouldn't know,” said Kurt.
“Because you're a wheelwright? Your father said there wasn't enough business for him to work that job full time. I thought you farmed.”
He shrugged. “I don't run the place. I just do jobs. Even my older brother Wolfgang has more say than me.”
“So you think you won't inherit the fields?”
“Wolfgang is a cripple. He can't work the land by himself. But I'm not going to take orders from him all my life, either. If he inherits ...”
“Ah.” Denario began to see the problem. “Could the farm go to you?”
“Are you not sure if you want to be a farmer?”
“I'm not sure I'll wait for my father to make the decision. After all, I can become something else, can't I? It's allowed. And then I could travel.”
Denario thought about the dangers of traveling. But a young man like Kurt would just laugh those off. Same for the discomforts. No, if a man was resolved to travel, he would do it. The problem with Kurt was that he hadn't trained for any other profession. He didn't seem to be aware that five to seven years of apprenticeship was usually involved. Even then, most jobs available around here didn't lend themselves to travel. How far could a farrier get from his horses? Where did a animal doctor go besides farms? Most skilled laborers in town, like glassblowers, blacksmiths, and clock makers, stayed in one place.
“You want to see other towns?” That would limit the choices. It might be better to hire on with a merchant. “Would you travel farther, if you could, to other countries or to those islands in the Complacent Sea?”
“I don't know. Maybe when I see another big city, not just Ziegeburg, then I'll decide.”
“Ah.” Since Denario knew that Ziegeburg was tiny compared to Oggli, Angrili, or Baggi, that illuminated another problem that Kurt would experience – perspective. Sailors who came to port in Oggli spoke of Guntar and other southern cities where the original Munstabi tongue was still spoken. Those were larger than the northern cities, although they were apparently a bit run down nowadays. Sailors complained that no one in Guntar wanted to buy luxury items in the spring. Every spare penny in the ancient cities got spent on food over the winter.
“Do accountants travel much?” asked Kurt in a hopeful voice. His expression was neutral but his question hung in the air.
“It depends. Some accountants stay in one place all their lives. But they can only do that in large, rich cities. Here, in the wilderness, most accountants aren't even trained. They learn on their own and then follow the work. My old master would have called them book keepers rather than proper accountants.”
“This isn't the wilderness. This is the Ziege.”
“Um.” Denario should have known that slightly shocked comment was coming. “Right. But this is still an area in which an accountant would need to travel. In fact, if the local baron, knights, or burghers don't provide enough custom, he might need to sell other skills, too, like geometry.”
“It means 'earth measurement.' A geometer measures the natural world.”
“Like a surveyor? I remember a couple years back when the Haphmeyers and the Smiths had a border dispute because their creek bed changed. They had to hire someone to tell them where the property lines had gone.”
“Exactly. That's a peaceful job for a geometer.”
“What? They almost killed him! What's a non-peaceful job like?”
“I meant that, in times of peace, geometers don't make war engines to tear down castle walls or things like that. Surveying is nice. I did that twice with Master Winkel. He helped decide where roads should go.”
“Huh.” Kurt had crested the hill. He kicked a stone down the slope on the other side. “I don't ...”
“What's that?” Denario pointed to a brown shape in the distance. It passed between two clumps of maple trees.
“With a long tail?”
“A horse, then.” Kurt trudged down through the thick grass.
“What's it doing here?” Denario couldn't say why it worried him. He hadn't seen a rider or a saddle. It might have had reins, though, which implied a former rider nearby.
“Someone lost it, I bet.” Kurt narrowed his eyes on the trees into which it had disappeared. “Must have jumped a fence.”
“But ...” Denario considered the possibilities. There weren't many draft horses around Ziegeburg, according to the town farrier. Anyway, it had looked like a short filly, born to run fast. Who had one of those? The question nagged him.
He trailed after Kurt, who strode onward impatiently. All of his concerns about accounting had fled. The usual background of math thoughts that flitted through his head vanished, too, replaced by hyper-awareness. He noticed the greenery, the rocks, the bracken, and three groves of small trees. He saw how the wants-to-travel, hasn't-learned-any-skills-yet teenager was lost in his own, personal misery. Kurt trounced right into the darkened underhang of branches, not far from where a horse had disappeared. Denario stopped there, unsure of whether he should go in.
“What are you waiting for?” Kurt asked irritably when he noticed Denario many yards behind him.
“Just listening,” said Denario. He couldn't hear any horse hooves. On the other hand, he couldn't hear any birds, either. The silence seemed alarming.
“Look, I'm the guide,” said Kurt. “I know how to get you to the Guntaffson's farm. It's less than a day away from Hogsburg and that's where you're going. But you have to follow me.”
“Shouldn't we be traveling at night? I think your father said.”
“We'll rest in the barn soon, wake in the middle of the night, and I'll get you to the Hogsburg trail before day break.” There was an undertone to his voice that said, I know what I'm doing. “See? I'll show you some hiking in the dark.”
“Well, fine.” Denario marched forward. It was only a horse, after all. If there were a rider nearby, he or she would be on foot.
As the minutes passed and they climbed the next hill, he convinced himself to relax. The sun was low in the sky. Kurt seemed to think that the farm he was taking them to was close. Down in the next culvert, they passed over a narrow stream on a sturdy foot bridge. Some farmer kept that bridge in good shape. It felt reassuring to think of the family members, any of whom could be working somewhere nearby.
Up the next slope, though, Denario noticed wisps of smoke to the north, almost directly in their path.
“Is that a campfire?” He pointed to where the the haze was most visible.
“Could be the Guntaffson home fires,” Kurt grunted. “Wait, is that right?”
“Then what's that smoke over there?” Denario pointed to a more distant spire of soot farther eastward.
“Huh.” Kurt stopped and put his hands on his hips.
Denario whirled around. He thought he'd heard a noise. A shadow next to the footbridge wavered. A bush shook in the breeze. Or was there a breeze? The bushes on the other side of the bridge weren't shaking in the wind.
“Something's ... odd,” said Denario. “There's almost a trail here in the ground.”
“That's not odd. The older Guntaffson boys come through.” Kurt laughed. It sounded forced. “They cross the bridge a couple times a week, at least.”
“Do they have a horse?”
Almost everywhere they'd gone, the grass was as high as Denario's waist. It was worse than a forest, in a way, since it was harder to walk through than leaves and bracken. So far today, the tall grass had hidden two snakes, one fox, seventeen groundhogs, six rabbits, four large anthills, and one thing that was too big for a farm cat but had all the right markings and about the right shape. That's why Denario had grown accustomed to letting Kurt lead the way. The boy seemed to know how to avoid the dangerous animals.
Occasionally, there were bare patches of ground amidst the green. In one such place, up the slope in front of them and to their left, two rough prints had been left in the spongy ground. Denario pointed to them.
“They keep a few sheep, that's all,” said Kurt. He meandered to the patch of dirt and knelt to run his fingers inside a hoof print. “Okay, now this is odd. It really is.”
“Could that be deer?”
“No.” The teenager snorted. "Tracks from deer hooves look completely different. Ye were right the first time. It's a horse. I just don't know what it's doing around here.”
He rose and studied the distant fires. Only one of them could have come from the Guntaffson chimneys. The other, well, that was a good question.
“Maybe ole Leif Guntaffson is burning something in his west field?” Kurt ventured. But since it was a question, not a statement, he must have hoped there was a simple, peaceful explanation. He just hadn't thought of any he believed.
“Do we go check it out or do we stay away from it?” Denario saw advantages to each. “That's the thing, isn't it ... guide?”
Kurt put his fingers to his temples. He rubbed his head. Denario knew what the young man had to be thinking: if they didn't go check and it was the farmer burning a stump or an anthill, they'd be considered rude. They might run into someone from the farmer's family, who would wonder why they were crossing the Guntaffson fields without saying hello.
“My father said to stay away from people.” Kurt nodded to himself. “So let's do that. If the Guntaffson's don't see us, they can't get in trouble with the mayor. We'll go around, directly north for a while. We probably won't get to one of their barns till sunset that way but it can't be helped.”
“Fine by me.” Denario had dropped his pack from his shoulders while they talked. He felt exhausted, nearly defeated by these hills, but the prospect of reaching a resting place lifted his spirits. He hitched his pack back up over his shoulder and took his first step in what he hoped would be the last mile of today's journey.
Directly in his line of vision, from the strand of trees in front of the campfire smoke, a man stepped into view. He was wearing a hard, leather vest that Denario had never seen before but otherwise, he looked familiar and not in a good way. He gave Denario a sinister smile.
To the left, directly north, another man stepped out from behind some trees. Denario knew him instantly, the curly-haired gambler from yesterday.
Denario glanced behind. There was a man at the footbridge now. He had his arms folded. He was there to block their retreat.
“Well, well, well,” said the curly-headed man. His name was Warren, Denario remembered. It hadn't seemed important yesterday, when the over-sized personality of Tremelo the Magnificent ruled the room. Warren strode towards Denario and Kurt with a look of self-confident humor. As he approached, he pulled a long dagger from his belt. “Everyone thought we was crazy. But we knew you'd have help. Yeah. We knew your friends would tell you to come this way.”
Chapter Four, Scene One