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

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