Sunday, July 31, 2016

Not Even Not Zen 45: Wordy Days

To the folks who are reading this without social media prompting, mostly in Russian and Ukrainian, I expect, I apologize for being away on travel. I don't have access to my usual backlog of writing drafts and I haven't quite finished the next Not Zen story. All I've got this week is a habit of lampooning well-known poetry.

Wordy Days

Wordy poems have we dismembered
Murdered, slurred, and mis-remembered
And all the rest were sort of fun
Excepting literary
Which has stuff we hate
But despite our drinks of private whine
To the students, we assign.

-----[ the original ]-----

Thirty Days

Thirty days hath September
April, June, and November
All the rest have thirty-one
Excepting February
Which has twenty-eight
But in leap year we assign
To February, twenty-nine.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

A Nerd in a Warrior Culture - Seven Chapters

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Thirty-Two Minus Thirty-One

Chapter Root Two Squared

Chapter Pi, Roughly 

Chapter Two Pair

Chapter Full Hand

Chapter Half Dozen

Chapter Fourth Prime

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Not Even Not Zen 44: A Bandit Accountant, 7.5

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Fourth Prime
Scene Five: Precise Aims

They set off at a time that the accountant thought of as 'high dark.' Vir deployed Piotr and Klaus to the front just as he'd done before. Denario wasn't sure why he'd expected anything different. The night sky was so overcast that he could barely see the ground in front of him much less make out enemies in the trees. Maybe that's why he'd figured to be pushed to the fore so he could be a target. He wasn't good for much else.

They were headed for an ambush and Vir seemed to know it. Yet, for some reason, the bandit captain choose to keep Denario close to him.

That gave Denario a chance to ask questions.

“No,” Vir replied to one of them. “No, there wasn't a soul killed in the fight in Hogsburg.”

“That's what Yannick told me. But it's hard to believe.” Denario lifted the butt of the spear for the hundredth time and place it in front of his feet as he continued to match pace with the captain. His lungs wheezed from the strain. His arms hung like lead weights. He could barely keep the spear upright. “Your side had more than twenty men counting those local volunteers you picked up. The Raduar had eight. The Hogz-Polieze had a dozen. How, with all of those men fighting, could no one get killed?”

“One of their side took a crossbow bolt to the leg. Others among them got cut up a bit. But no one got outright dead. It's just one of those things. Lots of battles are like that. Everyone scrambles like crazy not to get killed. Sometimes, behind a shield wall, it can take an hour for the first man to drop.”

“Shield wall? What's that?” He liked the sound of it.

“Ain't seen one? If we get out of this, I'll show ye how they work. Can't been done without quite a few men and enough space to line up, though. Half the time, we can't use them. We ambush too much. Then there's no lines. Ye just aim at someone and rush.”

“Oh, I've heard.” When he was a slave, the nobility who visited Baron Blockhelm had expressed strong opinions about such dishonorable tactics. They hadn't confided in the slaves, of course, but they'd conferred with their peers without concern for any slaves listening in. “The knights hate those ambushes.”

“Heh.” Vir chuckled to himself. “Aye, they do. If ye get them knights down from their horses, ye see, they don't know how to behave. They fight alone, each one. They don't know enough to form lines or even stand back to back.”

It sounded like the Mundredi had some experience fighting against the West Ogglia nobility. Since all of the knights around the Seven Valleys were sworn to Baron Ankster, Baron Musselli, or Baron Blockhelm and those three men, in turn, were sworn to Count Kraffli, who was sworn to the Marquis de Oggli, then Vir was essentially talking about treason against the marquis. Or about a war against him. Or about something else that it would be dangerous for Denario to know.

The thought made Denario stumble. Or maybe he was just tired. In either case, he kicked up a pebble. One of the scouts, Klaus, turned to scowl at the noise. Although it was hard to be seen in such dark, Denario tried his best to gesture his apology. Next to him, Vir hardly noticed.

“And now the best knights have all gone off,” he said dreamily. He strolled alongside Denario as quiet as a deer and probably heavier than one, too. “It would be a good opportunity for us if we united. Shame that we Muntabi tribes have to fight amongst ourselves so much.”

“Speaking of which,” said Denario after a moment. “What about this battle against the Raduar? How long before we see them, do you think?”

“If the Raduar have gone to Fort Fourteen, we'll know in a few hours.”

He nodded. He'd expected the answer because of the relaxed manner in which the captain held himself, sword undrawn and helm in his pack. Nevertheless, Vir's scouts had already strung their bows.

Denario had his darts, of course, but they wouldn't hurt anyone in armor. He felt he should have a bow. Even Vir sported the silhouette of a crossbow. It bobbed from a hook on his backpack.

If all eight Raduar had fled to the same place and set another ambush, Denario would be useless. He couldn't even run away fast enough with everything he was carrying. That's the thought that got him noticing the critical pieces he was missing. He had no plate armor. He had no gauntlets, not even gloves. He didn't have magic. The bandits didn't have those basic protections either. They were all soon to be dead, most likely.

Denario realized he should have gotten a blessing from the powerful priest in Three Gods. Anything might help. You could never know.

“Doesn't your army use wizards, Vir?” he asked. The scarred visage of Tremelo the Magnificent came to mind. That fellow had traveled in the company of mercenaries.  The Mundredi Army, by Vir's admission, had worked as mercenaries outside of the valleys. He might know about Tremelo.

“For some jobs, yeah. We hire them from the caravans they protect. The problem with those wizards, though, is that they want paying. They don't like to take goats or sheep or other barter.”

“That's because they're not Mundredi. But why not use your own?”

“There aren't any wizards in our lands, not even among the Kilmun tribes or other folks who are comfortable with magic. We've got some shamans who can hold their own. And we've got any number of witches. One of them cooks for us at Fort Three.”

Denario shuddered. What if a witch decided to poison them? Or turn them into frogs? He wondered if witches could do that. He hadn't met many in Oggli. The few he'd noticed looked ancient, shoulders bent, but with fierce expressions. They made the clerical males seem positively relaxed.

“What's a shaman?” he asked. “Is that like being a priest?”

“It's a cross between a priest and a wizard, I suppose. I don't really know. A strong shaman can stand up to a wizard for a while. A little while. They can't protect the rest of us, though. That's the real problem. For that, you need battle wizards like the barons have got in their courts. That takes money. Silver money, apparently.”

“So you can't send messages with magic? You don't have floating orbs of light? You can't fly on brooms or carpets? Those carpets came in very useful to us accountants on surveying trips.”

The Mundredi grunted. He didn't seem pleased with this line of thinking.

“I'd think you'd at least get blessings before you head into battle,” Denario continued. “The priest at Three Gods would have done it, I'm sure, for a price.”

That got a grin from Vir. His teeth showed as a faint glow in the darkness. It didn't look like a happy expression.

“You think that priest can do magic?” He snorted.

“Well, we saw him.”

“You were right up next to the altar. You didn't notice anything funny about it?”

“It looked heavy.” Denario was sure of that much. He had been, anyway, until now. 

“Looked, yeh.” The big man shook his head. “I thought ye were bright. I thought Yannick was, too, but he didn't notice, either. Maybe ye have to be a suspicious bastard like me.”

“Notice what?”

“The cord. The altar has a painted cord running up the middle of it. It's black, mostly, like the black wall behind it. That's why you didn't notice it. The bottom of the cord is painted the same color as brass.”

“Oh no!” Denario slapped himself in the forehead. “It was all a trick?”

“The altar is hollow. I went and checked it when we passed through about a year ago. The priest and his deacon got upset but I had to know.”

“So ...” Denario's mind raced. “The deacon must be up in the rafters, yes?”

In the dark, a shadow nodded.

“There's a rope ladder in one of the walls. He climbs up on that into the false ceiling.”

“Okay,” said Denario, thinking quickly. “Then he must lift the altar when the priest commands it. Since the altar is hollow, they must have room in there to store some oil, too, and maybe a wick.”

“That's right.”

“But they must worry about burning the cord when they use that.”

“Good thought.” For the first time in a long while, Vir turned a genuine smile on Denario. “That hadn't occurred to me. Why doesn't the cord burn? It must be made of something pretty tough.”

“And it must be painted with a pigment that doesn't catch fire or change color in the heat.”

“Yeh. They probably have to clean it every night. I think they hide the cord in the altar, somehow, when they need to let parishioners get close.”

Denario walked in silence for a long while.

“I'm sorry I didn't notice. Now I feel like a fool.”

“Eh, yer seventeen. And ye had a trustworthy man for a master, it seems. So ye haven't learned to be suspicious. If ye live, ye'll learn.”

“If I live.” Denario didn't like the implication.

They walked on for an hour with less and less talk between them. Denario learned from Vir how to use his spear he was carrying. He even practiced with it, albeit on the march. The first thrust seemed critical. After that, it was all about keeping his opponent at a distance. A man with a spear, even a small man, could beat a man with a sword every time if he knew what he was doing.

Of course, Denario didn't really know what he was doing. Vir reminded him of that several times.

“We should run into Alaric and the others before we get to the fort anyway,” Vir reminded him. “That's the plan, although I haven't told our scouts. I guess it's okay say it now. Ye can see that I haven't marched us fast while Alaric is supposed to quick-step his men on the north road.”

“There are two roads to the fort?” Denario felt the pace was too fast for him already but he didn't want to admit that. Anyway, he was relieved that they weren't headed into an ambush. There was a plan. It would work.

“There are no roads to it, really, nothing wide enough for a cart, but there's a foot trail. We took a longer route to the trail so we could stop in Three Gods. Alaric should have left by the north gate and come by the straight uphill path.”

“When does our path meet that one?”

“Just before the fort. We'll arrive in time to see by dawn's glow whether or not Alaric's men have trod the ground in front of us.”

Denario didn't ask if Vir could tell the difference between Alaric's boots and those of the Raduar. He was starting to feel too tired to talk. There had been quite a few nights in a row like this one. Within minutes, he found himself a yard behind Vir. In half an hour, he was three yards out and struggling. When a fog rolled in, he had to nearly double his efforts in order to close the gap. He didn't want the big fellow walking away from him completely. He had to wonder if the scouts could see anything in this dark murk, though.

Finally, the fog started to clear about the time that a blue light arose on the tree-thick horizon directly in front of them. Their path had nestled up against Mount Ephart and the march took them around the south slope of the mountain toward the east.

Denario caught sight of Piotr and Klaus. The taller soldier stood at a rise, facing northeast, as he stood guard. He had an arrow notched into the string of his bow. The younger scout knelt in the dirt and scrub grass. His nimble right hand caressed it. 

Klaus scowled at what his fingertips found.

When he noticed his captain, Klaus rose to attention. He saluted. His expression remained grim.

Vir glanced to what the young man had seen in the soil. Denario tried to understand it, too, but all he could see was a mess of footprints everywhere on the ground. That was good, wasn't it? It should mean Alaric and his men had come through here. But the Mundredi didn't seem happy.

Whatever his reasons, with a gesture, the chief sent both scouts out in front again. Denario couldn't help noticing that the bandits hadn't said a word. They didn't seem likely to speak either. Klaus reached into the leather tube strapped to his shoulder and took out an arrow. Vir moved his short spear into his left hand. His right hand rested on the hilt of his sword.

The group progressed about one hundred yards before the wide, grassy trail narrowed. Scrub bushes rose on either side of them. They were large enough to hide men. In another few yards, the Mundredi had to walk nearly single file, Klaus in the lead. The bushes became trees. Each scout faced different directions into the gloom.

Suddenly, an arrow grew up out of the ground. It hummed in the breeze right between Vir's right foot and Denario's left.

The captain pulled out his sword.

“Attack!” he cried.

At that moment, Piotr swiveled with his bow at the ready. He took aim and shot Klaus between the shoulder blades.

Chapter Eight, Scene One

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Not Even Not Zen 43: A Bandit Accountant, 7.4

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Fourth Prime
Scene Four: A Token of Affection

“All right, everyone,” Vir grumbled.  “We can see the temple.  If ye haven't got a weapon, go to the hay cart and get one.  Ye too, Elsa.”

Denario's eyes went wide with a sudden fear.  He'd had no idea that this little band of Mundredi was going to attack the Three Gods Temple.  This doesn't make sense, he thought.  He went from standing beside the cart to behind it, just in case Vir expected him to do something – not for protection at all, he told himself.

The temple was a tall, impressive structure, although made from wood rather than stone.  He could make out details in it from a quarter mile away.  It had three spires, a central hall between them, an out-building, and a double-wide door at the front.  The shutters of the door looked crude.  The structure had been built along the road at the entrance to a large hamlet of maybe fifteen houses with a few more hidden in the trees.  There was a gate across the road but, unlike Hogsburg, the town of Three Gods did not have a full city wall around it.

“You any good with a bow, accountant?” asked Vir.

“Might be.” Denario studied the bow on Piotr's back.  The tall scout had a spear in his hands, so he didn't seem intent on using his long-range weapon.  The recurved shanks had been carved from bone.  The grip was rawhide.  Overall, the primitive bow looked fearsome.  “I've always been good at aiming things.”

“When's the last time you shot?”

“You mean an arrow?”

“Ach, nevermind.  Ye've never.”  The larger man took off his hat.  He shook his bald head rather angrily.  “How the hells did ye kill those men, anyway?”

Denario tried to think of how to explain.

“No, tell me later.”  Vir reached under the stack of hay.  He pulled out a steel helm, obviously his, and donned it.  Then he reached back under the straws, fumbled for a moment, and emerged with the sleeve of a hard, leather hauberk.  It had been loaded with metal studs.  “Put this on.”

Without enthusiasm, Denario took the armored leather jacket.  Volfie had already donned similar gear, although his looked better.  Now he helped his bride-to-be as she tied a rather female-looking breastplate over her dress.

“Do I need a helmet?” Elsa asked her man.  Volfie tilted his head and considered.  Then he looked to Vir for guidance.

“He does,” the Mundredi captain answered with a nod to the Volfie.  “But not you, girl.  Let everyone see your face.  Just wear the vambraces.”

Elsa beamed.  She didn't seem worried at all.  That gave Denario a hint that they might not be gearing up for an attack.  What was all this battle preparation for, then?  Elsa had her forearm protection on in under a minute.  Then she grabbed a spear.  She playfully jabbed in the direction of her future husband.  He dodged and laughed.  A moment later, he took his own spear from the stack of straw.  He didn't tease her with it but she gave him a flirtatious look anyway.  Volfie grabbed a leather helm that had apparently been set aside for him.  It was stained a dark red color to match his chest armor.  After he plopped it on his head, he took Elsa by the hand and led her to the driver's seat of the cart.

“None of that, yet,” Vir warned.  Elsa had been about to give Volfie a kiss.  She pouted at Vir but only for a moment.  Then she clambered up.  This time, Volfie got behind the ox to drive.

Denario had been so busy watching them that he found himself struggling into armor while the cart moved away.  Luckily, the jacket had been made with enough room for a fighting man.  That meant it fit loosely over Denario's layers of heavy shirts.  The armored sleeves had been cut short, probably in order to accommodate vambraces and a buckler, so they weren't too long for a short-armed accountant.

Before they got to the town gate, Yannick pushed a spear into Denario's hands.

“Carry it point up.  Grab your sack with the idols in it, too.  You've got a job to do before the wedding.”

“We're going to the wedding like this?” Denario wondered.

“How else?” answered Yannick.

When the cart stopped at the gate, Denario could see the streets and temple grounds beyond.  There were townsfolk in everywhere, mostly women, and they were headed into the church between the spires.  Some of them had managed to find their best clothes.  Two women wore gowns.  A bald gentleman walked by in an embroidered yellow vest.  Children sprinted by, laughing.  A few men dashed through the temple doors with hoes in their hands.  They had apparently just come from the fields.

The guards didn't even have armor, just staves.  They good-naturedly asked Vir and Volfie about their business in town despite the fact that Piotr and Klaus had already gone through ahead of them.  The guards must have known what was going on.  They were just delaying things a little while in order for more town folk to arrive and find seats.

After nearly half an hour, with the sun beginning to glow orange on the edge of the horizon beyond the Three Gods temple, a row of farmers at the back of the church pews stood up.  They carefully and rather rudely closed the doors on the wedding party.

At that point, the gate guards let the hay cart pass.

Vir marched in front of the cart to the main doors of the temple.  He knocked on the barred entrance.  There was no answer.  He announced who he was and that he intended to see Volfie and Elsa wed.  He knocked again.  Still, there was no answer.  Finally, he kicked the doors in.

Denario almost dropped his spear.  The force of the kick was so hard, it had shaken the ground.

This time, Vir bellowed through the doorway.  To the seated congregation, who looked as startled by the opened doors as Denario had been, he announced the wedding of Volfgang of Dred and Elsa of Hogsburg.  The farmers near the doors had frozen in shock.  One of them looked like he'd just missed getting bowled over.  Vir had cracked the wooden lock bar in half.  Behind them, a row of elderly, seated women clapped at the performance.

“You go first,” Yannick hissed in Denario's ear.

“Me?” Denario was still trembling.

“Don't show anyone the idols until you get to the front.”

Yannick didn't wait for Denario to ask questions.  Instead, he strode up beside Vir and announced that the ceremony would begin with a devotional.  Denario knew that was his cue to move.

It was a long walk down the center aisle with a bunch of strangers watching.  He struggled to keep the spear upright and he clutched the bag like a shield in front of him.  He was grateful that no one laughed.  He was afraid he must look a mess without his accounting vest and hat.  His shoes no longer looked the part, for sure.

“Welcome, traveler,” said an authoritative voice that didn't actually sound welcoming.

Denario glanced to his left.  A tall, pot-bellied priest stood there next to the altar.  He wore a black robe with silver trim, a salt-and-pepper beard down to the middle of his chest, a skull cap, and a strained expression.  In his wide eyed, careful way, the priest avoided staring at the Mundredi warriors by his temple doors.  He focused on the offerings that Denario carried.  As members of his congregation exchanged whispers, the priest sighed.  He seemed reasonably serene about the prospect of giving the idols to the gods.

Since Denario didn't know what else to do, he followed the lead of the priest.  He moved automatically to wherever the priest directed him.  He repeated the correct phrases in a stage voice for the audience.  He offered up the statuette of Naakia.  That was the one that had caught the priest's eye, apparently.  She wasn't a local goddess so her figure was a novelty item to the crowd.  Folks oohed over it for a moment.

The priest brushed a hay straw out of his beard.   Then he threw his arms wide and appealed to Naakia to hear the prayers of Three Gods and Haph Bad.  Denario thought it was his turn so he called out the phrases that the mayor of Haph Bad had made him memorize.  The priest glared a bit sternly at Denario but he nodded.  Then, impressively, the black-robed man performed his magic upon the offering to Naakia.

This fellow was better at levitation than any wizard Denario had known.  The altar looked like heavy brass and it had to weigh hundreds of pounds.  But the priest made it rise up into the air at his command.

“Holy fire!” he shouted at the idol.  A moment later, after a sputtering start, the wood-and-bird-feather figure began to burn.

He repeated the same offering ritual with the idol to Leir.  That was less impressive but only because the priest performed exactly as he'd done before.  His magical repertoire seemed limited.  Denario applauded with the rest of them anyway.  It didn't feel very holy but it was a fine show, as good as any temple in Oggli.

When it came time for the next idol, Denario felt his hand twitch.  The priest asked for the crude Melcurio figure that Denario had shown him.  But Denario's fingers found the neck of the precious vase from Glaistig at the bottom of the bag.  In fact, Melcurio seemed to have gone missing.  He fumbled around but pulled out the vase.

“A precious offering from the temple of Glaistig!” the priest shouted as he yanked it from Denario.

He held the pottery up high.  As he recited a prayer and prepared to place the vase onto his altar, his fingers slipped.  The vase spun in the air and crashed on the floor.  It cracked open with a sigh.

Without missing a beat, the priest stomped on the vase.  It popped and sprayed pieces.  Then he stomped again.  Everyone cheered.  He swept the fragments into his hands and onto the altar.  Then he said another prayer and wagged his eyebrows meaningfully at Denario.

That was the cue for Melcurio.  This time, Denario found the idol in his bag with no problem.

“Thanks to all of the gods!” shouted the priest when he was done with the last offering.  A plume of smoke arose.  Denario was irrationally happy to see a figure eight pattern in the vapors from the burning effigy of the winged messenger.

“Thanks to all!” shouted the congregation.

“And now, the father can stand forth!”

Vir marched up the aisle as if he would kill anyone in his way.  In fact, he muttered as much to the congregation.  Denario was shocked, initially, but after a minute or two of the shouting from priest to gods, Vir to gods, and then Vir to the priest, Denario got the idea that this was how it was supposed to happen.  The Mundredi wedding seemed short on flowers and lace, long on shield-pounding and spear-waving.  In fact, Elsa practically hopped down the aisle with her spear in both hands.  She slammed the bronze point hard against Vir's shield.  Then she turned and jabbed at Volfie, who had come down the aisle behind her.  He blocked her with his own heavy shield.

Then the couple bashed their spears together for nearly a minute.  It was fun to watch if you weren't too close, which Denario was.  He had to dodge to keep Elsa from skewering him.  On top of everything, the priest kept jabbering out prayers for the couple and said, by the way, would anyone care to save the bride from the bridegroom?

He asked that question three times.  No one was fool enough to step forward.  Vir and Volfie clearly would have crushed them into the dirt floor.  Probably Elsa would have helped.

Volfie and his bride locked spears one last time.  Then he caught her arms, pulled them behind his back, and captured her behind his shield in a very military looking embrace.

“She is his!  They are married before the gods!  Let no man tear them asunder without a heart of iron and a stomach for death!”  The priest waved his arms over his head.  Now he seemed to be having as much fun as his audience.

The couple kissed – although actually, their faces modestly disappeared behind the shield.  Denario stood far enough to one side that he had to assume that they kissed.  So did almost everyone else.  Only Vir and the priest could have testified to it.  Nevertheless, when Vir lifted his spear and shouted, all the men and women in the temple rose to their feet.  They applauded and whooped.  Children threw handfuls of grass and flowers into the air.

“Whew!” murmured Yannick as he led the way back down the aisle.  Children pelted them with grass as they walked.  He and the scouts made a show of pushing the townsfolk back, too, although the men of Three Gods only reached into the aisle out of their sense of ritual.  “Now comes the hard part.”

“That wasn't the hard part?” Denario wondered. How much worse could it get?

“Volfie picked me to be the best man.  That means I have to stay and guard him and Elsa tonight.  Then I have to escort them to Forte Dred.  I won't be going with Vir.  He's marching on to Fort Fourteen.”

“But ...” Denario hesitated at the main doors.  Suddenly, he was aware of how much his feet hurt.

“It's an honor,” Yannick mumbled.  He seemed to be reminding himself of the fact.  “He could have chosen anyone but Vir since Vir was standing in for the father.  And he chose me.”

“But ...” Denario realized he'd been lulled into a sense of belonging with the Mundredi when, in fact, none of them wanted him here.

Only Yannick had told Denario how the battle at the jail cell had ended.  Only Yannick had explained that the town of Three Gods hosted eight local deities.  No bandit knew which three of the divinities had given the town its name but Yannick knew that the town had been called Tridei, long ago, and Three Gods was just the most direct translation.  Without Yannick, Denario wouldn't know much of anything.  He certainly wouldn't know what to do with himself.

He judged that if he stayed with these bandits to the end of their road, he'd be killed.  Without Yannick, there would be no easier target in a battle than Denario.  He wouldn't last a minute.

Outside in the deep, red glow of the evening sun, the Mundredi gathered to hear their orders and confer.  The townsfolk soon surrounded them.  Elsa interrupted the army business in order to receive kisses on her cheeks from the local ladies, who seemed to feel it was their duty, and from local men, who seemed to think that they could get away with it.  The same men pounded Volfie on the back and congratulated him.  So the bandits formed a line of sorts.  There were handshakes and backslaps to go around.  Piotr, Klaus, and Yannick were buffeted by the farmers.  Even Denario, standing off to one side, suffered through a dozen thumps on the shoulders from the enthusiastic townsmen.  No one dared to pound on Vir, though.  Maybe they remembered the broken door and didn't want him to pound them back.

In the midst of the laughter, hugging, and handshaking, one man approached the captain.  It was the priest.  He spared a glance for Denario but not a kind one.

“A minute of your time, captain,” he said.

At the instant that Vir and the priest focused on each other, Denario surveyed the town square.  There wasn't a single person looking his direction.  This was his chance.

He knew how to do it from his childhood days.  The trick to getting away from a group was to look like you didn't want to leave.  You had to give the impression of going somewhere with a purpose, preferably to do onerous work – and that you'd be right back for more drudgery, too.

Denario hiked up his trousers.  He strode toward a barn he saw toward the east end of town.  Country folk did their business behind barns, didn't they?  With any luck, anyone who noticed him would assume he'd gone off to empty his bladder.  And when he reached the other side of the barn, he'd be out of sight.  He could run.

“There's an outhouse at the back of the inn, mister,” said a short boy in a large, hand-me-down brown coat.  He pointed to a cross street.  There, hidden by bushes between a pair of tall buildings sat a well-kept two-door privy.

“Th-thanks,” Denario stuttered.  He tried to look calm.  He gave the boy a nod but the little fellow had already walked past him.

This is good, Denario reassured himself.  The purposeful walk is working.  Any direction is a good one for escape.  Outhouse.  Fine.

Denario kept up his stride.  Part of him, though, was waiting for the Mundredi to yell for him to stop.  He had both of his bags strapped over his shoulders.  He had one of their spears.  They had nothing of his on their cart.  Would he be able to simply walk away from them in broad daylight?  It wouldn't remain light for much longer, with the sun so low over the western hills.  He could press that to his advantage for a clean escape.

“Good show,” said a farmhand as he stepped out of the privy and saw Denario.

“Thanks for your hospitality,” said Denario.  But he must have said it wrong.  The farmer gave him a suspicious look.

Denario had planned to pass by the two-door outhouse.  Now he hesitated.  Since he must have aroused at least one man's suspicions, he decided to turn towards it.  He couldn't afford to behave oddly while anyone was watching.  He might as well do some outhouse business and plan his next step.  He hadn't thought he'd get this far.

He marched through the door to his right.  Immediately, he was hit by a latrine stink.  He glanced around.  Despite the odor, the place looked well kept.  A single, lonely fly buzzed in uneven circles above the two open holes in the privy bench.  The wooden beams around Denario had been cut from cedar.  The reek of the fresh wood covered the human smell or at least gave it a try.  Lower down, the bench was only soft pine, stained by folks using the room in too much of a hurry.  It looked dry at the moment.

Denario sat.  He buried his face in his hands as he rested.  His feet throbbed.  His right shoe had begun to crack on a seam.  He was pretty sure it wouldn't last another week of this kind of travel.  And where can I go? he wondered.  He knew he couldn't head back to Hogsburg.  That left a long, hilly trip to the joining of the rivers, Riggli Kill and Rune Kill, where he could catch a boat.  So he was in for a hike through hostile towns or through the wilderness or both.  The Mundredi hadn't stopped for water today.  His canteen held no more than a swallow.  He didn't think he would survive on his own for long, especially not at this elevation.  But he had to try.

He closed his eyes and envisioned his apprentices, Kroner, Shekel, Guilder, Mark, and Buck.  Kroner was the oldest, painfully thin.  Buck wasn't as tall but he was strong and smart.  He could handle himself.  The younger three were just boys.  Even Kroner and Buck, though, were depending on him.  They all were.  Everyone knew that Curo needed help to keep the business alive.  Denario had to get home.  He had to make sure they kept the dockyard account.

He stood up, buttoned his pants, and cracked open the door to look at his escape route.

“You done?” said Vir.

Denario swung the cedar panel wide.  The Mundredi captain stood a few feet from the outhouse with an odd, expressionless look on his face.

“Everything's set,” Vir continued.  He jerked his thumb over his shoulder towards the barn that Denario had turned away from.  “Piotr and Klaus have gone to the well with a couple of buckets.  The mayor will let us rest in his barn for half the night.  Then we'll march out when the moon goes down.”

“In the middle of the night?”  Denario suppressed a groan.

“That should give us time to reach Fort Fourteen at dawn.”

“Right.  The fort.”  Denario should have known that his escape wouldn't be as easy as it looked.  He wondered if he was having especially rotten luck.  The bandit leader must have glanced away from the priest just in time to notice where his captive accountant was headed.  There wasn't much that Denario could do now except go along.

He nodded and stepped through the outhouse door.  The spear that he'd forgotten he was carrying got stuck.  There was a twanging sound.  The shaft hit him in the face.

“Ow!”  His hand covered his stinging nose.  He stumbled and fell back onto the privy seat.  As much as it hurt, Denario thought, at least he discovered that Vir had a sense of humor.  The big man laughed, fists on hips, as if seeing the accountant hurt himself had been the funniest thing ever.

Even later, in the barn, Vir chuckled some more.  He didn't tell anybody why.

Chapter Seven, Scene Five

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Not Zen 187: No Reason

"No," said the eldest, Langsam. His face grew stern. He folded his arms over his chest.

"There is no reason to be unhappy about this," Dennis, the shortest monk, replied. "So why not choose to be happy?"

"If you have no reason to be happy, it can not be taken away from you," added the youngest monk, Kwen.

"That is the smartest thing you've said all morning, Kwen," Langsam grumbled. "But is it because you understand the idea or is it because you've heard someone else say those words? Anyway, we will have an unfair advantage. That is all that matters. That is why we should not play."

"It's only for sport," countered Kwen. "Aren't you interested to see if our meditation studies have produced changes that can be measured?"

"I'm curious," Langsam conceded. "But we could come back when they are not holding a tournament."

"We came today." Kwen gestured in the direction of the museum sign. "This is how we can use the brainwave measuring apparatus. It's the only way. And we have already paid for our visit."

The sign announced that the science museum had organized a day of games. Children 'of all ages' were invited and, indeed, many teenagers, adults, parents, and grandparents seemed to be joining in. There were signup lists of visitor names in front of many interactive exhibits. That included the one advertised as 'mindball,' which measured brainwave activity.

In the game, contestants wore headbands that monitored their mental activity. The lower the amplitude of their brainwaves, the more electrical force the apparatus generated on the magnets under the table between them. Those magnets moved the ball. So the calmer a contestant's mind was, the more they moved the ball toward the opponent's goal. When they calmed their mind more than their opponents for long enough, they scored the goal and won.

A casual glance at the children playing mindball revealed no ethnic or social patterns about calm minds except that there were no toddlers who could compete. A few pre-teens, however, seemed to display better mental control than their parents.

"Many exhibits have been turned into games," Kwen observed. He lifted his arms to indicate the other displays in the brain science section. "It's not just this one."

His older companions nodded. All three had expressed interest in various aspects of neuroscience. They could not avoid the crowds here. They could decline to participate in the games but, if they intended to read and learn from each exhibit, they would have to watch the contests. They could see, straight in front of them, a pair of grandparents, their daughter, and three grandchildren dressed in vibrant, primary-colored shirts as they stood in line for mindball. The family divided into two teams. Each team consisted of three players to a side.

There were three monks who had come to the musuem, so Kwen laughed and argued that they had been fated to form a team and join in.

"Fine," Langsam conceded. He wanted to understand brain activity and measure his own. "But let's try to not play against teams of children."

"I agree," said the Dennis. He was the only one of them who had been married and a father. "If we're being sporting, let's seek out other meditators or at least adults."

"I'll ask the museum staff," sighed Kwen.

To the monk's surprise, the science exhibit coordinators agreed. One of them, as she revealed in their conversation, was an adjunct professor at the city university. She knew about their school's meditation classes. She'd met their sensei. She'd hosted one of his talks at a university cognitive science seminar. She was eager to observe how well the monks performed in a game like mindball.

"I can arrange the brackets for you in the first three rounds," she said.

"That's enough." Satisfied, the two older monks agreed with Kwen. However, Langsam silently decided he would drop out after three rounds.

A few more questions to the museum staff revealed the story of how brainwaves came to be measured, which was not part of the exhibit. They gave Dennis a pamphlet on it from a class they'd taught earlier in the year. The waves were measures of electric amplitude, he learned. When the headbands were worn tight to the skin, they detected the natural electrical signals of the brain. The measurements were crude. The sensors could only tell if there was a lot of brain activity or very little.

"When can we use the apparatus?" Dennis asked.

"The first tournament is ending now. You've been watching it. We're in the next to last match. It'll be about half an hour until the next. Don't go far."

The monks watched the rest of the competition brackets fill up for a few minutes. They decided to walk around the brain science exhibition while they waited. They saw the three mindball competition tables side by side so that each player might be distracted by the sight of the others. It could get difficult. In a corner not too far away, the staff had set aside a special, smaller table where only the youngest children were allowed to practice. Unfortunately, the headbands at the table were too small for an adult. The monks checked.

Beyond the mindball tables, they saw an optical illusion game with holograms. The monks shook their heads at that. It was poorly lit. The illusions gave Langsam a headache. Farther on there were memory games, followed by a maze race made from lines on the floor that changed. At the far end of the exhibits, they came to a rock wall that had been transformed into a game organized around exploring and finding clues.

In half an hour, they returned to find a crowd milling around the mindball exhibit. The staff were assigning matches to the teams.

The monks meditated for a few minutes until they were told it was their turn. They rose to go to the tables. At the same time, they found their opponents striding up to meet them. These adults, conventionally dressed, found the monks' robes amusing. They all wanted to shake hands and introduce themselves.

"You are schoolteachers?" Langsam smiled as they finished shaking. "That is good, very noble."

In the first match, the least experienced and most experienced of the monks moved their balls with ease. Only Dennis struggled. He couldn't tell if it was because his opponent was calm-minded or because he was not as good at calming himself as other monks.

"How do you know each other?" Kwen asked their opponents before their second match. The computer scientist, his homemaker wife, and the young woman with them were all members of the same family. The young woman was a college student. She was also good at this sort of meditation. She started out beating the Kwen. She moved the ball in his direction so fast, in fact, that Dennis noticed and grew alarmed. He started to lose, too.

Fortunately, the monks were able to calm their minds. Dennis and Kwen stopped the balls from going the wrong direction and turned them around. It happened so fast that their opponents gave up. The college student was a good sport about it. She shook hands afterward.

"I know you," said the eldest, Langsam, as they bowed to their next opponents t the beginning of the third round. "You came to our meditation class."

"You are the yoga teacher, yes?" said Kwen to the thin woman in front of him.

"You're the psychology professor who told us about this," said Dennis to his opponent. "Are you a meditator as well?"

"I practice now and then." The professor nodded.

This team of three meditators appeared to be the most difficult. However, the two who should have been the strongest seemed to be the most intimidated. The man who knew the eldest monk switched to play against the youngest, Kwen. The professor had trouble sitting in his seat. He sweated profusely and couldn't calm himself, not even when Dennis took pity and ended his meditation. The professor simply couldn't calm his mind from his excited state.

All of the monks succeeded in moving the balls into their opponents goals. The yoga teacher put up the most resistance. It took a long time for her to lose to Langsam. She was not gracious in her defeat.

"I see that our next opponents are children," Langsam said as the yoga teacher turned her back on him. "So I think we will stop here."

"Oh, you can't!" The staff member who had arranged the brackets hurried over. She pounded her fist into her hand. "The children and parents will be disappointed. They've all stayed to watch."

"What, to see us?" Langsam looked aghast at the crowd.

"Yes. Well, partly. The next match is for the championship. The children are waiting for prizes."

They pondered the throng of waiting children. The smallest ones were hopping in place or pulling on their parents' arms. The mothers gave them brave smiles. They tried to be patient. The fathers paced or talked to one another. They sweated, generally unsmiling, in their collared shirts. The teenagers stood in clusters, except for a few on their own, and they seemed to be in good spirits despite losing to younger children. Off to one side of the crowd, the monks noticed, for the first time, a stack of museum gift shop prizes. The littlest children ogled the colored boxes.

"There were only four rounds?" Langsam sighed as he contemplated the inevitable. It served him right for taking meditation lightly in the first place.

"That's forty-eight people in a tournament." The contest organizer raised her voice. "Even with six to a match, that's fourteen matches all together. It's as much as we can organize."

"You will have another contest later."

"After a break, in another hour." Her tone softened. "Please don't sign up again unless we need you. Try some other games first. Come back late in the day after more people have had a chance."

"Can't our previous opponents play these children?"

The team of lay meditators had already left. After another minute of discussion, the monks agreed to play the last round. The children on the opposing team didn't want the monks to forfeit, nor did the parents. The monks tried to gently dissuade the mother of one of the pre-teen opponents but she didn't seem to understand the monks' reluctance.

"We should simply finish this," said Kwen. The others nodded.

"We should not really meditate," Langsam muttered.

"That would be a disaster." Dennis, who'd lived many years as a father, knew that everyone else in the contest would sense the difference and get angry. It was not in the spirit of the game. Besides, the children vying for the championship had to have good self-discipline to have beaten so many others. They would likely consider anything less than a strong effort against them to be an insult. "We should take this as seriously as any other match."

"It's too easy," Kwen protested. He flapped his arms for emphasis. "Not a challenge at all."

"I don't want to discourage anyone." Langsam shook his head.

"Let's meet them."

Dennis found himself alone as he walked to the other side of the mindball tables. The others hadn't stepped forward. The children hadn't come over to introduce themselves. Nevertheless, he shook the hand of the closest boy.

"You look pleased," he said. "What makes you so calm within yourself?"

"I like games. I like winning."

"Excellent!" This was a boy who, when he saw his teammates losing, might find his calmness would disappear.

"And why are you so happy?" Dennis strode to the next spot. The girl who occupied it was as tall as he although she seemed fresh-faced and energetic. The brightness of her clothes and her smile dazzled him.

"My friends." She laughed. "They're cheering for me. I can see them waving. See?"

He bowed his head toward her friends. He knew the crowd around the game would press close. This was a throng larger than the rest. Her friends would not be visible. Perhaps, they would not even be audible.

"And you?" He stuck out his hand to the last contestant, the girl nearest to the prize table. "Why are you cheerful?"

As he said it, he realized that her expression wasn't as pleasant as he'd assumed. She didn't seem irritated with him or insulted. But as she processed his words, her brow creased just slightly.

"Is this a trick question?" she asked. Although she was short, she seemed older than the others. It was the way she carried herself. She dressed in dark hues. Her expression seemed more stern than happy. Her hands moved to her lap with a calm, precise sense of motion.

She reminded the monk of a woman he'd met at a meditation retreat. That one, too, had always seemed completely in control.

"No trick," said the monk. He frowned. "Maybe I am being unclear. What do you think makes you happy and peaceful?"

"I don't have a reason. I just learned how."

"If you have no reason to be happy," he said as he bowed his head. "Then I think we have a good match for you."

He meandered back to his own side of the tables. Along the way, he shook hands with one of the school teachers he'd played earlier.. The computer scientist in his white, collared shirt stepped forward, too, and shook. His family followed. The daughter gave Dennis a hug and wished him good luck.

When Dennis returned, he found his teammates waiting, hands on hips. They did not seem entirely patient. Kwen rolled his eyes.

"The contest would be over," the young man said. "If not for these interruptions."

"Perhaps," Dennis allowed.

"Did you learn anything? Are they ready to get on with it?"

"I did learn something." He rubbed his chin. "You see the child sitting nearest the prizes?"

"The short girl? The one who looks grumpy?"

"She's all yours," Dennis replied.