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

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