Sunday, May 8, 2016

Not Even Not Zen 37: A Bandit Accountant, 6.4

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Half Dozen
Scene Four: An Escape

“Is this your stable?” Yannick pointed to the dark doorway of the Hogsburg Handlers.  “Why isn't the door barred?”

“Maybe someone's keeping watch inside?” Denario ventured.

The thin man got a hitch in his step, for a moment.  Then he forced himself to continue forward.

“No help for it,” he said.  “You got the marker for your horse, I hope.”

Behind him, Denario clutched his accounting bag.  He had spent the last few minutes feeling doomed, then saved, which was followed by feeling smart, then so foolish he didn't want to look too closely at his recent memories.  If Captain Eberhardt or any of his men had recognized the accounting sigil on his bag, the Hogs-Polizei would have turned him over to Ziegeburg.  That would have been yesterday.  He'd be dead by now.

He might still get himself killed, of course, if he and Yan were caught by stray Raduar agents roaming the streets.  Denario wasn't armed.  Yan had a sword but it looked so short and light, it would probably only help them against someone who didn't know enough to pick up a stick and swing.

“We were warned not to use this stable,” whispered Yan as they came close.  The door, left ajar, looked ominous.

“Well, this was the first one I saw.”  Denario felt defensive about it.

Bright silver light shone on the buildings around the main square.  All of the windows were dark.  Denario had assumed that everyone would have woken up from the noise made by the fighting.  Maybe it had happened too far away.  Or maybe they had woken and decided to stay in their homes.  That would be smart.

He and Yan had seen no one else in the streets.

“No more talking.”  With an unsteady hand, the bow-legged bandit pulled his blade from the sheath.  As he reached the open entrance, he spun and put his back to the outer wall.  It looked professional to Denario, who knew that he knew no better.  But then Yan poked his head through to see inside and Denario half expected someone to chop it off.

After a few seconds, Yannick stepped into the stable.

“No one,” he whispered.  “There's no one here.”

His hand beckoned for company.  Denario's feet responded.

Between the left row of stalls, they proceeded in a crouch.  There were unshuttered windows high around them but the light that squeaked through was dim.  Denario started to doubt Yan's assessment that the divided barns were deserted.  Anyone could have been hiding in a corner or behind the short doors that closed the animals in their pens.  The farther they crept, though, the more Denario noticed something odd – not dangerous, necessarily, but wrong.  Three quarters of the way through the place, he was sure there was a problem.  He stopped where he was.

“No horses,” he choked.  He pointed to his own stall first, where his mare was missing.  He'd noticed other empty spots as they crept.  “There are no horses left in here at all.”

“How?”  Yannick turned around.  His mouth hung open in shock for a moment.  He licked his lips.  “The Raduar fled toward the southeast gate.  The Hogs-Polizei were in pursuit.  How could they have doubled back to do this?”

“All the mules and donkeys are here.  Not the horses.  There were at least three horses yesterday, including mine.”  Denario pointed to where a lonely burro rested its chin on the door.  But he kept walking toward the empty corner stall.  Maybe he was wrong.  Or maybe the thieves hadn't taken his saddlebags and he could recover his weapons, pots, and other heavy items, although he'd have to choose which one of them to carry.

“I can't believe it,” Yannick muttered.

Denario believed.  The closer he got, the more he knew how it was.  Part of him had expected this.  He was a stranger in town.  When he hadn't shown up the next day, the farrier had probably asked around, found out that this horse's owner was in jail, and had taken the horse for himself.

“There's no reason to hang about, then,” Yan said.

“Yes, there is.”  Denario pulled open the half-door and stepped into the stall.  For some reason, the farrier had put him in the west corner.  It was the farthest spot from the entrance.  At the time, that had annoyed Denario.  But now he was glad.

“What are you doing?”

Denario kicked aside some straw and dung.  It took him half a minute to find the loose boards.  They were about at knee height.

“This wall is hollow,” he said, as he found the one that had tipped him off in the first place.  The slat had rotted and discolored.  He tugged on it.  The nail he'd pushed into it by hand popped back out.  He caught the rusted sliver of metal and dropped it into his pocket.

This was something that maybe no one who hadn't been a slave would have done.  He hadn't liked the shifty look of the farrier so he'd hidden a bag of supplies.  He'd gotten lots of practice hiding his personal belongings when he was younger.  Even when he'd gotten to be an apprentice, he'd had to deal with Curo and the younger boys as they grew jealous or inquisitive. He was good at finding crevices, gaps behind shelves, or dusty old jars that no one ever touched and could hold his tools.

“Just a minute.”  He twisted the loose board high up on its remaining nail.  Then he reach into the wall and tugged on the board beneath.  Now he could reach his pack.  “Here we are.”

It wasn't an accounting bag but, where he was going, it might be more useful.  He'd slipped his money, except for a few coppers, into it along with most of his food.  He'd included every little tool he could fit although, unfortunately, none of the big ones.

“You're a genius!” Yannick exclaimed.

“Hah.”  He felt a little uncomfortable with the praise.  But he gladly hitched the strap over his shoulder.  “Now we can go.”

“We'll be early to the west gate.”

As they reached the door to the stable, Yannick froze.  So did Denario.  They could both hear faint, distant footsteps outside.

They footfalls came quickly, like there were several pairs of heavy boots involved, someone chasing someone else.  In the empty streets, the noises echoed everywhere.  It was hard to tell if the men were coming closer or getting farther away. Yannick peered out carefully and Denario knelt to sneak a look, too.  He saw no one.  In a few seconds, the footsteps and the echoes faded.

“Right, then,” whispered Yannick.

The taller man led them down an alley to their right.  That alley connected to a wider street, on which they could see several lamps that had been lit in second story windows. They strolled through the lighted area into another dark passageway.

Yannick stumbled once in the relative blackness before they came open another wide street.  This one not only held lit windows but music, too.  A tavern sprouted up in their field of view.  A few men stood outside of its front door with flagons in hand.  They had a lady with them.  Her laughter carried a long way.  As a group, they seemed unaffected by the bandits roaming their streets.

At this point, Denario realized, he was one of the bandits.  And he wouldn't have been scared by the sight of him either.

“Nice place but we can't stop in.”  Yannick sheathed his short sword.  He led them toward the revelry.  “Not this time.”

“Do we have to go past all those folks?” Denario hissed.

“Just beyond the Hog's Head tavern is the west gate.”  Yan gestured with his empty hand.

As the voices of the singers and the strains of the ukeleles and drums grew loud, a pedestrian opened the gate of the tavern yard.  His dog hopped out.  He followed it.  Then he turned left with his dog leading the way.  He looked like an old, bent fellow in robes but he was headed toward them and he took up almost the entire road with his unsteady walk.

Yannick put a hand to the hilt of his sword.  Denario took a second look at the white-haired animal that he'd assumed was a large poodle.  As it stepped into the light of another window, he recognized it.

“Goat!” he exclaimed.

“Math teacher?”  The goat stopped moving, only two yards away, and dipped its head.  It peered up at Denario through suspicious eyes.

“Oh.  Oh, really?”  The robed figure stopped a few seconds later.  Suddenly, what had appeared to be an old man in robes leaning on a stick was now, quite obviously, a younger man weaving drunkenly with his staff.  He had dark eyes that glowed in the lamplight.  “Is this the fellow who sent and got a message, then?”

“What's going on?” asked Yan.  He glanced from the goat to the wizard to Denario.

“That's the one,” muttered the goat.  “Not the one with bad teeth.  The other one, the boy.”

The wizard started patting his robes.  The material he wore looked like heavy silk.  It was covered by eldritch patterns of stars, comets, and crescent moons, all of them yellow on a purple background.  This fellow looked like he lived a class above Tremelo the Magnificent in the magical hierarchy.  He couldn't find the right pocket, though.  He had too many.

After a few seconds, the wizard exclaimed 'Aha!' and pulled out a wad of cloth.  He unfolded it into a pointed hat, muttered a magical word, and let it float up into the air to settle on his head.

“It's in your left bottom side pocket,” sighed the goat.

“What is?” said the wizard.

“The note.  You started out looking for the note to give to the math teacher here.”

“I did?”  The wizard blinked.  “Oh yes!  I did!  You're quite right, Mack.  Now, let's see ...”

He patted his robes again to the accompaniment of the goat, who urged him, 'Left, left,' a few times before saying, “The other left,” followed by an exasperated noise that an animal shouldn't make.  The sound shook the goat's wispy, white beard.

“Aha!”  Markar found the correct pocket.  He yanked out something from it and held it high.  It was a folded slip of paper.  He waved it.

“What's that?” asked Denario.

“You have a reply from the sorceress.”

“Sorceress?  What sorceress?”  He reached out for the envelope but he felt nagged by suspicion.  “I sent a message to Tremelo the Magnificent.”

“He didn't reply.”  The wizard hiccuped.  Instead of handing the envelope to Denario, he covered his mouth with the folded paper.  He belched loudly before he continued, “Only a moment after I finished the Message spell, you got a return Send from a woman named Pecunia.  Her bank wizard referred to her as the town sorceress.”

“Oh.”  Everyone in Ziegeburg assumed that about Pecunia, apparently, even folks who should have known better.  “Thanks.  Say, you must be the Amazing Markar.  It's very good to meet you at last.”

Denario stuck out his hand.

“Oh, yes.  Right.”  The wizard eyed Denario's hand uncertainly.  Then he came to some sort of decision and nodded as if remembering what he was supposed to do.  He put the paper into his staff hand, steadied himself, and shook.  Up close, he smelled like whiskey would if it could spoil.

“What do I owe you?” asked Denario.  “Or did Pecunia pay?”

“Well ...”  The Amazing Markar hesitated.  Denario could tell he'd said the wrong thing.  Fortunately, the goat intervened.

“She paid,” said Mack.  “But hold on there, math teacher.  Weren't you in jail?”

“And weren't we just leaving town?” whispered Yannick into Denario's ear.

“Well, yes,” Denario answered both of them.  “I probably shouldn't linger.”

“Sure you can't stay for one drink?”  Oddly, Markar hadn't let go of Denario's hand.  Or rather, he had started to disengage, wobbled backwards, and grabbed on tightly again.  His grip hurt Denario's fingers.  “Or we could get a different drink, different from the first.”

“He drinks to forget,” grumbled the goat.  “And sure enough, he forgets how many drinks he'd had.”

“The police captain ...” Denario began.

“The new one?”  The wizard's voice rose to a shout.

“Um, yes.”

“That stuck up bastard.  He wouldn't let Mack into the guard house.  Then he wouldn't let me in, either.  Me!”  The wizard let out a belch.  His eyes widened as if this one had surprised him.  But then he remembered what he was talking about and scowled.  “I should have turned him into a frog.”

“That never works,” said the goat.

“I can do it.  I can.  I just don't.”  Markar stood up proud and straight.  “Anyway, anyway ... what was I going to say?”

“The note.  You were going to give him the note.”

“Oh, yes.  That's right.”  He fumbled in his pocket.  Then he remembered that he'd tucked it between the fingers of his staff hand.  “Aha.  This is yours, my good chap.”

“Thank you, Markar.”  Denario bowed his head as he accepted the sealed letter.  In the silver light and shadows, however, he couldn't tell if it was on pink paper or blue.  “I didn't think about sending a note to my fiance.  I suppose I should have.”

“She's ... do you mean the sorceress?”  Markar inched backward, agog.  He started patting himself down again.

“We don't have time for this,” said Yannick.  He put a hand on Denario's shoulder.

“Don't be rude, man!” shouted the wizard.  “Aha!”


“A scrap of parchment.  Of course ...”

“Aha!” shouted a totally different voice.

Everyone turned to see who it was.  But even before he spun around, Denario knew.  That roar had come from the barrel chest of Captain Frederich Eberhardt.  Somehow, the Hogz-Polizei had caught up with them.

“What luck!” The policeman approached from the other side of the street.  There was no one behind him, oddly enough.  Maybe he'd outrun his fellow police officers.  “I've been chasing bandits every which way.  Now I find the math teacher.  And I didn't even know you were missing!”

His sword made a metallic grinding sound as he pulled it from his scabbard.  Denario was afraid that the man was preparing to kill him.  But the captain didn't seem to be in a hurry.  If anything, his expression was curious.  He had that look of pleasant exhaustion that some men get, although Denario had never felt it himself.  A bead of sweat ran down the side of the captain's face.  A link of chain mail had gotten twisted, somehow, above his left shoulder.  But he didn't look hurt.

Denario stared at the kink in the armor and wondered how that had happened.  Surely, any blow strong enough to bend metal would have injured the captain.  Yet he seemed unharmed.  Would a spear have done that if it caught part of the mail, lifted it, and twisted?  Would a crossbow bolt that missed – or didn't completely miss – do that?  Something had bent the rings without breaking the man inside.

When the captain stepped close, Yannick started to draw his sword.  Eberhardt responded in a blink.  It was the kind of acceleration that must have served him well on the battlefield with Sir Mekli's troops.

The captain could have cut Yan in half.  Instead, he punched with his weak hand.  At least, Denario assumed it was his weak hand.  Certainly it must have been a punch, although it snapped out and back so fast that Denario barely saw it.  The skinny bandit's head popped backwards.  A tooth flew into the air.  The man and the tooth hit the cobblestones at about the same time.

“How brutish!”  The Amazing Markar wobbled.  His eyes bulged with outrage.  He wasn't the slightest bit afraid, although his goat, Mack, had immediately hidden behind him.  The animal crouched low and gave the policeman a wary eye.

“You stay out of the way, old man.”  Eberhardt kept his eyes on Denario.  He apparently hadn't recognized the wizard.

“Well, I never!”  Markar took half a step.  That's all the distance he got before the captain popped forward to give him a push.  The wizard stumbled.  He had to grab his pointy hat to keep it from falling.

Eberhardt kept his distance from Denario as if he regarded the accountant as dangerous.  It was almost funny.

“How did you get here, math teacher?”

The captain hadn't returned to his jail.  There hadn't been enough time.  So he hadn't learned about the escape until this very moment.  He couldn't guess who had helped or how many men had left his cells.  He might even still suspect that Denario was a Mundredi bandit or a stagecoach robber.  Why wouldn't he?  His suspicions were almost impossible to disprove.

Then the wizard's hat fell to the ground.

Denario hardly glanced at it.  The Amazing Markar had been staggering even before he'd been pushed, so it was no surprise.  Captain Eberhardt, ever professional, didn't let his gaze slip from Denario for an instant.  What happened next caught them both off guard.

The wizard let out a roar of anguish.  He pounded his staff and stamped his foot against the ground.  The entire street went quiet.  The distant music stopped.  Even the rats stopped scurrying through the bracken on the other side of the gate.

“Right, then,” Markar said in the stillness.  “I've had enough.”

The captain finally realized who the old man in robes actually was.  His gaze flicked down to the hat on the ground.  The stars, moons, and comets embroidered onto it confirmed the wizard's identity.  Eberhardt stared at Markar for a second as the wizard muttered his spell.  Then he leaped forward to stop him from finishing it.

“You're a frog!” shouted Markar.  He thrust his finger in the captain's face.

The captain started to grab the wizard's finger as if he were going to break it off.  Markar's face contorted with pain.  But a moment later, he sighed in relief.  Eberhardt's thick fingers changed shape.  His skin turned green.  He began to shrink.  In a few seconds, the spell was done.

“That's it?” Denario said as he surveyed the result.  “I mean, he does look a bit green but he's as big as your goat.  And he's dressed in armor.”

“So long as he thinks he's a frog.”  The wizard tucked his staff under one arm.  He rubbed his hands together as he looked down on the policeman.  “That's the important thing.”

“Ribbit,” said Eberhardt.  It wasn't a noise that he made in imitation of a frog, either.  It was a word.  He crouched on his hands and toes like a bad actor in a child's play.

“That's amazing.”  Denario suddenly realized he had nothing to complain about.  Markar had probably saved his life.  Besides, he was standing next to a wizard who could make him think he was a frog, even if he couldn't actually turn him into one.  “How long will the spell last?”

“A few minutes?  An hour?”  Markar shrugged.  “Hard to say.”

The captain, who definitely looked pale green even in bad light, stared downward.  His sword lay in front of him.  In his current state, however, he seemed unable to comprehend what he might do with it.

“Ribbit?” he said.  He gazed up at the Amazing Markar.

“Thank you.  That was wonderful.”  Denario turned to the wizard and bowed his head.  That's when he noticed the goat, Mack.

“You were helpful, too,” he told the goat.

“Hmph,” Mack replied.  The goat stepped away from his master.  “We got lucky.  A second slower and we'd be three buckets of bruises.”

“Maybe, maybe not,” echoed the wizard.  He levitated his hat back onto his head.  Denario wasn't sure if Markar was too lazy to stoop to pick it up, too proud, or just too drunk.  “That was the best I could do on short notice.  What did he want, anyway?  Is this about whatever you took from Tremelo?”

“It's ... no, not exactly but it's related.” Denario shuddered at the prospect of explaining his true situation.  The best thing he could think to do was move on to a more hopeful subject.  “I don't have money for a Send, of course.  But do you think Tremelo would pay you to return his darts?”

“Nope.  He hasn't got the money.”  The wizard laughed.  He resumed walking toward his house but bumped into the unconscious body of Yannick.  “Oops.  Oh yes.  You see, I charge two hundred gold to do a Sending of any accuracy.  But even then, the problem is ...”

“He can't do a Sending,” muttered the goat.

“Not with any accuracy,” the wizard explained.  “How about another Message?  That's what I'm best at.”

“Just for curiosity's sake ... assuming I got the money somehow and I can't think how I would ... how accurately can you Send?  Within a few feet, maybe?”

“Could be.  Or a few miles.”

“Miles?”  Denario's jaw dropped.  That wasn't a professional Sending at all.

“Miles or years, to be honest.”  Markar folded his arms as he began to pontificate.  The action seemed to have sobered him a bit.  “I've developed a bit of a temporal slice to my shot.  Always had it, really, since I was nine and made my first pass.  Back then, I'd get the object across the room within a few minutes.  It was a little embarrassing, of course, when the object I was supposed to Send popped into existence a little while before I made the effort.  But as my professor said, at least I knew I was going to succeed.  To an extent.”

“Years?  Really?”

“When I've stoked up on a lot of stored magic, I can Send reasonably far.  But my accuracy suffers.  It's still quite good on a cosmic scale, though.”

“What scale is that?”

“I mean, most of the things I Send end up circling the same star.  As far as I can tell.”

Denario paused.  He glanced up at the sky.  He thought about measuring things from tiny distances to great divides.  He wondered how many continents made up the world, how many world travels it might take to reach the sun, and whether or not the stars in the night sky were actually other suns as the wizards claimed.

“I think I'd better concentrate on the local scale.”  He prodded the unconscious Yannick with his toe.  With a sigh, he asked, “Do you think you could help me move my friend?”

Chapter Six, Scene Five

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