Sunday, August 28, 2016

Not Even Not Zen 48: A Bandit Accountant, 8.3

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Two Cubed
Scene Three: Pudding Nap

No people of any tribe occupied the log cabin that the bandits called Fort Fourteen. The make-shift dwelling sat at the top of a clearing on the western face of Mount Ephart. Surrounding the structure was a crude wall made of pointed sticks. Vir stepped through a gap in the wall, peered through the open fort window, and motioned for Denario to join him. Denario helped untie the cowhide door.

Inside, the accountant couldn’t help but think that the place couldn't have served more than a half-dozen men at once. They’d have had to sleep on the floor, too, because there were no beds. The ground was covered by straw, blankets, a burned-out campfire, and cooking utensils. A small stew pot hung on a hook in the ground. Vir ran his hands through it all. He dug under the fire pit and came up with a crude stone amulet but he restored it to the ground. He pulled away a chunk of mud mortar from the east wall. Between the gap it left in the logs he found a slip of birch bark. But it was empty, nothing written on it. He put it back and fitted the mortar over the gap again.

Finally, the big man took them to the trench on the downslope of the fort. It stunk of feces and urine but he dug up one end of the rich soil with his spear.

“No sign,” he sighed after he'd turned the ground over. “Alaric was never here.”

Vir marched them out of the fort while it was still noon. He didn't want to wait to find his missing men. The problem was that Denario had gotten hungry. Moreover, his burst of adrenaline from the battle had faded. In less than a mile, all of the weariness of his travels seemed to catch up to him all at once. Denario staggered and fell.

He lay in peace for a moment, wondering why he was looking at the sky. Then he decided it was a nice sky, very blue, and the wisps of clouds were only there to give it a bit of texture. He felt dizzy and happy. He wondered about his place in the world and if he'd become a flower.  That is, he wondered until Vir's face rose into view. The big man blotted out the sun and clouds.

Yew rye? said the captain, or something like it.

There were bags under Vir's eyes. He looked as tired as Denario felt. But he wasn't happy. That made Denario try to get to his feet. 

“I'm fine,” he said. It came out of his mouth as, “Mmmfy.”

Vir had to lift him. When he was upright, though, Denario found that he really felt quite well. The slope of the trail seemed to give his feet a bit of a problem. Otherwise, he felt loose-jointed and nimble.

“Ye gets this way after a battle sometimes.” Captain de Acker yawned. “I feel it, ta, I mean, too.”

They wandered down the slope and onto level ground. Denario recognized this patch of sparse woodlands. They had passed it on the way from their morning battle. Nothing but fir trees grew here. The forest floor was covered by several inches of pine needles. 

“We're not fit,” Vir announced. He unslung his biggest pack and threw it down. “'S my fault. I made us march for the right timing. Had to get to the trail by today at dawn. But we haven't slept enough. What if we did run into Alaric's bunch today? Are we in any shape to help them? No.” 

“No?” said Denario.

“No. Especially not ye.” The Mundredi gave him a calculating squint. “It's as warm as it's going to get, right now. Can ye sleep without a fire?”

“Sure. Did that out of Ziegeburg.”

“Good. Ye must be tougher than ye look. Lots of me men complains when I orders a camp with no fire.”

Denario didn't feel tough. He wanted to tell Vir that the reason he'd slept without a fire is that he didn't know how to make one. But that kind of honesty seemed excessive. The better thing to do would be show that he was as strong as Vir thought.

When he sat down to take off his packs, he thought about pudding, for some reason. He could smell the warm rice pudding made by the women in the house next to Master Winkel's home. They often sold bowls of their sweetest stuff to the apprentices. Pudding is nice. It's fluffy, he thought. The next thing he knew, his eyes were closed. After a long while, hands as big as his head lifted him by shoulders and knees. He became aware that his body was floating off of the rocks and pine cones. His limbs came down to rest on a bed soft pine needles. Someone covered him in a pine needle blanket, too.

Just give me a moment, he thought. I'm getting up.

“Pudding!” he shouted. Then he frowned because he knew that was wrong.

“No, no, soup,” answered a deep voice. “Bacon-fat soup.”

A heavy, stinky animal flopped down next to Denario in the pine needles. It grunted for a few seconds, snuffled, and belched. Then, with a bellowing fart, it pressed flat in relaxation, which made a few more dry needles pop. The forest held still for the creature. After a few seconds, it started to snore. Birds that had hushed started singing again. The last thought in Denario's head was, bacon pudding, mmm.

Chapter Eight, Scene Four

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Not Even Not Zen 47: A Bandit Accountant, 8.2

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Two Cubed
Scene Two: Imprecise Aims

“Well, now I know,” murmured Vir as he wrapped a bandage around Denario's head.

“Know what?  What are you talking about?” Denario asked.  He tried to hold still.  It was too bad he hadn't been wearing a helmet.

“How you killed those bounty hunters before.”  For such a large man, Vir had a deft touch.  In Oggli, everyone would have placed him by sight as a butcher or livestock handler but, by his skills, he could have been a doctor.  His eyes saw human bodies shrewdly.  “Now I see how an accountant thinks.  You did it with the darts, right?”

Denario considered explaining. Vir deserved to understand.  The story strained his verbal abilities, though, and his head hurt too much already.  He didn't think he could tell the whole tale without revealing the gold he carried.  And he couldn't trust any of these bandits with that.

“Yes,” was what he settled for.  “It was darts.”

“Well, maybe I don't have the whole story.”  Vir hesitated a moment. But he resumed wrapping Denario's head.  “Yesterday, I might have knocked you senseless for holding back.  Yer lucky.  Today, you can tell it all in yer own time.  Ye did the right thing.  Tried to, at least, when ye ran at Piotr.”

“You saw that?”

“Some.”  Vir made a wry face.  “Ye were awful.  Ye were falling to one side and off your back foot.  Klaus was better even though he was dying.  He got a good stab in on that traitor.”

“He did?” Denario couldn't shut up, apparently.

“We'll have to go find his body, by the by.”  Vir tucked a bone needle into Denario's head bandage to hold it tight.  Then he put his hands on his hips and surveyed the corpses around them.

None of the Raduar had escaped Vir.  After the biggest spearman had fallen to Denario's dart, Vir had rushed the other one and wounded him in the shoulder.  While that fellow scrambled to get away, Vir turned and stabbed the swordsman running up from behind.  That had seemed easy for him.

The only hard part for Vir, in fact, had been protecting the accountant.  Since, in his cowardice, Denario had left his original attacker on the ground without finishing him off, that man got up and tried again.  He'd come at Denario left handed, which was why he'd missed – or  mostly missed, anyway.  Denario patted the scrape under his bandage.  It felt clean.  He was lucky.

Vir had finished that fellow, too.  The final score was: Vir 5, Raduar 0.  Denario stood at minus 2 since he'd had to be rescued twice.  How Piotr and Klaus figured into things was hard to say.  If Piotr was alive and had any brains at all, he was running hard for the Raduar territories by now.

“There's no hope for Klaus?” Denario asked, afraid to hear a definite answer.

“Not really.”  Vir grabbed Denario by the shoulder.  “Come on, let's get moving.”

The Mundredi captain was willing to wait for a few minutes while Denario re-packed his bags.  After all, the trick with the darts had saved them both.  Denario studied his equipment before moving.  He knelt to the open case.  It made him nervous to re-seal the poison.  But he had to do it.  It was too useful to throw away.  And without any new wax available, he had to re-use the stuff he had.  He gathered green leaves as gloves to keep from getting even a drop of poison on his skin.  That was awkward.  Vir grunted his approval.

“Deadly stuff,” he said when Denario was done.  “Not exactly instant but as close as I've ever seen without magic.  My men would hate it and hate you for using it.  They'd say it wasn't honorable.”

“Sorry,” said Denario.

“Don't apologize.  I said that's how my men are, not me.  I don't hold with any of that 'death before dishonor' crap.  That's for them barons and knights and other folks like that.  I wish my own folk hadn't gotten it into their heads.”

“Oh.”  Denario's head bobbed in agreement as he began to pack in earnest.  “Then I'm sorry that we needed it.  I'm just not much of a spearman.”

“If ye apologize any more,” the captain warned, “I'll kick ye in yer wounded head.  And as far as using a spear goes, did ye expect to get good at it in only an hour?”

“I did.”

“Well, it takes months and months and a lot of battles to learn.  Ye've lived through yer first one.  That's a start.  And ye'll learn more spear work or ye'll die.  That's how it goes.  In the valleys, even an accountant has to know stuff besides math, ye see.”

Denario finished with the last item in his travel pack, the spare pants he kept on top in a roll.  He pulled the drawstring tight.

“I've been thinking about what yer sword instructor said to ye back in yer big city,” Vir continued.  “He's right.  Ye need to work on yer strength.  So we'll spend time on the spear first.”

“We will?”  Denario rose from his crouch.  He couldn't help looking around at the carnage of the battle.  This didn't seem like the best time or place for lessons.

“Yeah.  How do yer leggings feel?”

Denario gazed down at his feet.  They were covered in soft, thick hunting boots.  It had been a relief to stow his accounting slippers into the pack with his math books, drawing compass, and other tools.  It was even better than he didn't have to rob the dead himself.  Vir had done it for him.

“Wonderful,” he admitted.  He'd been surprised to see how blue and cracked his toes had gotten in his official gear.

“'S funny,” said Vir.  “Convenient that yer axeman had small feet.”

“More than convenient.  Needed.”

“Yeah.  It's just that I heard ye mention Melcurio.  And in pictures he wears boots like you've got now.  I mean the lacing and all.  Yours don't have wings on.  That would look silly.”

“Right.  That is funny.  But of course, Melcurio wears wings and lightning bolts everywhere.  He's supposed to look fast, I guess.  I'm slow.”

“He carries lighting bolts in his arms.  Which I'm told that he stole, by the way.”

“That's how the story goes.”

“And this scar on your arm.  It looks a bit like lightning, doesn't it?”  Vir had rolled up Denario's sleeves as he'd checked for hidden wounds.

“That's only from some beatings I got when I was a child.”

“When you were a slave?”

“Yes.  The scars faded and blended together like this as I got older.”

“Huh.”  Vir hitched up his pants.  His waist bag was heavy because he'd already helped himself to the spear points of the men he'd killed.  “Let's finish up here and look for Klaus.”

The despoiling of the corpses was more gruesome than Denario had imagined.  He'd seen plenty of dead men before but not like this.  The smaller spearman that Vir had killed was still twitching.  Denario did his best to avert his gaze.

In ten minutes, the Mundredi captain re-packed.  Heavier but with renewed energy, he thumped the ground with his new axe.  After that, his expression became grim and he glanced around the woods as if anxious to leave.  So that's what he did, without a word.  Denario had to run to catch up.

By a tree that stood at the edge of the forest no more than thirty yards from the fighting, they found Klaus.  The young man had propped himself up against the sturdy trunk.  He looked like he was resting with his eyes half closed.

“Ach, brave lad,” said Vir.  Only then did Denario realize that Klaus had passed away.  His chest was still.  He never took a breath.

The captain knelt by his fallen soldier and said a few words in the old tongue.  They went by so quickly and so gutturally that Denario couldn't make out the meaning, which maybe was Vir's intent.  This was a private moment for the bandit chief, Denario supposed, and he was surprised when, after nearly a minute of silence, Vir began to loot Klaus's body.

First, Vir folded the arms together over the chest.  There was still a bloody knife in Klaus's right hand.  Of the fatal arrow, there was nothing visible, not even a splinter of wood, but Denario was sure they'd find a broken shaft beneath the corpse if Vir turned it over.  The dried blood all over the grass had already attracted flies.

The captain cut the string of Klaus's money pouch, which looked nearly empty anyway, and he bothered the fingers of Klaus's left hand to remove a silver ring.  The face of the ring had been engraved with a clan symbol of some kind, spears and stars together.  Vir found Klaus's pack nearby and divested it of a comb, five debit sticks, and a sash with the same clan symbol as the ring.

After he'd finished gathering Klaus's personal effects, Vir stood and saluted the dead body.

“Died with blood on his blade,” he murmured to Denario.  “Good omen.  That's the best way to go to the netherworld.”

“You're leaving the knife?” asked Denario.  He'd gotten over the idea that Vir was looting his fallen comrade.  He could see how this was a task that had to be done.

“His family will understand.  Everything else goes to Klaus's brother, Friedrich, but not the weapon he was holding in his hand.  That stays with the body.”

“But you're taking his bow, I notice.”  Denario glanced at where the chieftan had lain all of what he'd gathered.

“Not much good where he's going.  The string won't last.  Anyway, I'm not taking it.  You are.”


Vir thrust the grip of the bow into Denario's chest.  He had no choice but to grab it.

“Let's stop in at the fort.”  The captain turned and started walking.  “Maybe we'll pick up supplies.  Maybe we'll find out something about what happened to Alaric and his men.”

“Maybe there are more Raduar there,” Denario hissed.  But, after a second's hesitation, he followed.  There was nowhere else to go.

Chapter Eight, Scene Three

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Not Zen 188: Trust

Between the grasslands and the hills, there lived a tribe of crested boar. The sows and children kept close together as they roamed for food. The males roamed the edges of their pack. The boar territory overlapped with other animal groups, such as blackbucks, sambar, and small animals like hares. In general, the boars did not need to compete with the other groups. They were too large and too tough. When a herd of wild horses ventured upslope to try to crowd them out, the largest boar charged a stallion and lamed it. Soon, the horses migrated back down to the grasslands.

Food grew so plentifully on the eastern slopes, however, that in time larger animals moved in that could not be pushed aside. The gaur, with their mighty horns, migrated up from the south and displaced the horses. A year later, a second herd of gaur drifted in from the northeast. The two herds squeezed out other grass-eaters between them like the sambar, who decided to find a new home over to the western side of the nearest mountain. Smaller animals likewise made themselves scarce. In time, only the boars and the gaurs shared the border between the grasses and bush-laden hills.

Then a new set of predators drifted in from the east. Tigers discovered the boar valley.

At first, the boar had no defense against the mighty hunters. A lone tiger could scatter the sows and target a half-grown child. The first time it happened, a single boar rushed in to counter-attack. He was the male who had knocked down a horse. But he was only half the size of a tiger. When the beast dropped the child and turned on him, he took a grave wound. He barely escaped the deadly grip of claws and teeth and he fled, bleeding.

Other senior boars and sows conferenced. One of the sows checked on the wounded boar, whom she announced would likely survive. She suggested that the rest of them observe the gaur tactics for dealing with tigers. 

“The eastern gaur, at least, must have dealt with them before,” she said.

“Why is that?” asked her son, a member of the boar leadership.

“Did you not notice? The tigers found our home by following their herd.” 

The boars grunted and nodded. They knew the gaur must have a defense. The northeastern herd did not seem much bothered by the tigers. In the weeks that followed, the boars came to understand at least one important point from their observations. Their new predators, although nimble, detested slopes of loose stone. The sows led their herd uphill to a large rockfall. Boars placed themselves between the herd and the tigers. Every one of them, young and old, missed the roots, berries, truffles, and sweet nuts that were staples of their usual foraging grounds. 

At least they could see their food. Every morning, the sows led them downslope to feed and drink. In the evenings, they climbed to relative safety. From a bluff above the grasslands, the elders continued to study the tigers and gaur. Tigers isolated and picked off the youngest gaur calves from the eastern and southern herds.

One day, a bull gaur in the northeastern herd saw an attack beginning on a calf. The tiger took a long run. Instead of stepping aside and letting the predator take his prey, a male gaur turned and knocked the tiger from the air, mid leap. His black-furred muscles bulged. He drove the attacker into the ground, pressing with his horns. Other gaur joined in, males and females alike. They smashed the tiger, four or five times in quick succession, until it fled, mortally wounded.

The next morning, the boars migrated downslope, as had become their habit. A male boar found the tiger's body between bushes not far from a watering hole. He showed it to the others. They were impressed.

“The southern gaur have never done this,” said the senior sow.

"There are differences between the two groups," announced a younger sow. "The southern gaur are not like boars or even like other cattle. The mothers don’t share the suckling of their young."

"This, I have noticed," the senior agreed. "The females do not share food, either. They try to hide it from one another. They don't trust even their children with their secrets."

"Have you asked why?" said a boar, her son.

"They will not let sows approach." She shook her head.

"The southern bulls roam the outside of their herd," the boar observed. "Like the females, they fight over food even when there is plenty."

The boars eyed one another warily as they contemplated the emerging pattern. The youngest among them kicked a stone. It rattled down the slope.

"Is this why the southern herd has never killed a tiger?" he asked.

"Maybe," the senior sow grunted. "Mighty as they are, it took more than one to do that."

In the coming weeks, the boars lost a young male and a sickly female to different tigers, both times while the pack was rooting along the edges of the trees. The southern gaur lost more. As the boars observed, where the eastern herd members formed teams, the southerners relied on individual power. Where the eastern herd cared for their ill members, the southern herd shunned them and they fell to the predators.

Once, when a southern bull met the charge of a tiger and stunned it, no other gaur in the herd came to help. The tiger retreated, hurt over its left eye. A few minutes later, the bull was strutting around the meadow triumphantly. The boars glanced to one another. They saw the worry in everyone else's eyes. They knew the tiger would live to hunt again. It would come for the young and the lame. That evening, the sows decided to lead the pack up to the rockfall before the sun set as far as the treeline.

"Come!" said a boar the next morning. "Southern bulls are fighting."

The elders trotted in twos and threes over to the bluff where they could look down over the trees to the gaur herds. Sure enough, they saw a pair of gaur bulls smashing their heads together and twisting their horns. One of them ripped a wound in the other's neck. A minute later, he head-butted the wounded gaur and knocked him down. The loser scrambled to his feet. He fled for cover.

"He's running into the woods!" a boar squeaked. "Doesn't he think about the tigers?"

"He judges that the other male will kill him if he stays."

"At this rate, by the end of the rainy season there will be no southern herd at all."

The elders grunted in agreement. That did seem to be how events were unfolding. 

The young boar was proven right over the next few weeks. Tigers took down the weakest gaurs of the southern herd, one by one. The rains fell, not too heavily, and the soil on the hills grew treacherous. Boars slipped. They hopped up, looking for predators. None came.

Food started growing on the slope where the sows preferred to stay. The boar pack grew by two litters. Yet the tigers continued to hunt the southern gaur. In time, there were only a dozen of those remaining. They were the mighty, broad shouldered, big-headed, and fast. Among them were only nine males and three females, no calves. The tigers did not seem to care to approach them but, on the other hand, the males fought one another. One bull died of wounds inflicted by his brother. The females didn't trust the males, either, because of the increase in violence among them.

Finally, one of the southern females tried to join the eastern herd. She stood nose to nose with the eastern matriarch. The boars watched as the two negotiated. After an hour or so, the herd accepted their new member. They allowed her on the outskirts of the group. Likewise, her brother and sister applied in the evening and, by dusk, they too were accepted.

The remaining southern female was driven off. The boars tried to understand why. She had been the dominant one, easily the most desirable. But she turned south, from where her herd had come, and some of her males followed. 

The number of tigers decreased that week, it seemed. A few must have followed the southern herd.

Unfortunately, at least two remained. They began to hunt the boars in earnest. A tiger ventured up the rocky slope, scattered the pack, and took a piglet.

So it was that on a warm, sunny day after the rainy season had ended, a boar approached the remaining gaur herd. He had traversed the edges of it before. He'd talked with the bulls. In time, he'd gained their acceptance although they seemed to consider him too large and dangerous to let near their calves.

"We lost one of my sons last evening," he said.

"You are part of a fearsome pack," said his friend, the bull. "Your toughest males might be a match for us. Why did you let an attack happen without consequences for the tiger?"

"That is the real question," the boar admitted. "Now I have a question for you. Several days ago, your herd rejected the best female of the southern gaur. Why was that?"

The bull snorted.

"That's between the females," he said and shook his head side to side.

"But I think you understand. And I do not."

"Very well." The bull paused to help himself to a clump of tender broadgrass. "We could not have her because we could not trust her. In fact, none of their herd rises to the right level of trust."

"Will they, in time?"

"Perhaps. It is a long process. Our herd has worked on this for my entire life and for several long generations before. We are now free to speak our minds, to express our ideas without being shouted down. We can depend on one another. When someone makes a promise, they keep it. We know our roles in the group. We don't fight over them."

"So that is how you rise to a better level than the tigers."

"It seems so."

"The southerners were fools, then." He shivered. Sweat dripped from his haunches. He knew he stank of fear and it came from what he was contemplating.

"Is that what you boars say? But I do not think you boars trust one another well enough, especially you males. I have not seen it."

"We must learn. We have to depend on one another or die, I think." He shook off the sweat. His bristles flopped from side to side. "Yet I have doubts. I don't know that the larger boars will help."

"Your tribe has not yet been scattered."

"So far. But I fear that, in the face of the tigers, it will happen."


"My friend, how does trust begin?"

"Carefully." The bull closed his eyes for a moment. "Tell the others that you are going to fight the next tiger. Ask them to come to your aid.”

“It is not my place. I am not the strongest boar.”

“Sometimes it can be like that,” said the bull. “Make sure the others understand. Do your part. There is no guarantee your trust will be returned. Your friends may falter. You may die. But you see, there is no other way. Someone among your group must establish trust.”

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Not Even Not Zen 46: A Bandit Accountant, 8.1

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Two Cubed
Scene One: Wrong Darts Again

A lot of things happened at once. The first thing that happened was that Vir disappeared.

Denario had been staring in shock at what Piotr had done. Vir's massive right shoulder had partially blocked his view of the two scouts. Then, suddenly, the shoulder wasn't in the way. Denario glanced to his left. The Mundredi captain was nowhere to be seen. In the bushes beyond the trail, there was no sign of movement.

Twenty yards to the front, Klaus stumbled. He began to say something. It looked as though he didn't yet understand that he was a dead man. He turned around to stare in shock at Piotr, his eyes glazed, his mouth open. He wobbled. The front of his leather jerkin was clean. There was no arrow head visible. The point hadn't gone all the way through him.

Piotr noticed that Klaus was taking too long to drop. He reached for another arrow. Klaus's gaze drifted to the rising bow. He was beginning to comprehend what had happened.

Then, suddenly, Denario's body with its recently trained reflexes took over. He was holding his spear correctly for a driving thrust. His feet were taking him toward Piotr, the traitor.

“AAAAaaaaaaah!” he screamed as his outrage caught up to him. He aimed the spear tip at the middle of the tall man's back.

Piotr turned with an arrow notched in his bow. He took aim as Denario rushed. There was a sneer of contempt on his face.

Denario thought, I've been stupid. I'm not strong enough. I'm not fast enough. I'm not going to get there before the Piotr shoots me through the head.

He braced himself as he stabbed. Something plucked his too-big gambler's hat from his head. A cool breeze ran through his hair. He gazed up at Piotr's face. The tall man had fired. He must have missed. And he seemed surprised by something, a hand on his shoulder. It was Klaus's hand. The dying man had grabbed Piotr from behind.

Klaus had made Piotr miss. He'd also made Piotr turn so that Denario's jab struck off center. The bronze spear point glanced off of Piotr's leather armor. On the rebound to the left, it nearly cut Klaus.

“Hoooaaaah!” someone cried. Denario turned his head in time to see a strange Raduar bandit charging down the trail toward him.

The moment felt like an odd one, prolonged in time. Denario had a second or so to realize this fellow was important. There was a breastplate that covered the man's shoulders. There was chain mail beneath. The helm was leather. The man's hair was black. At the end of his right arm, held high, was the bronze blade of an axe. Next to him, Klaus and Piotr fell into the bushes off to the right. That left Denario alone with the this strange man who was already swinging. Once again, Denario's body fell into the motion he'd practiced for the past hour. He stabbed. His attacker dodged to the left and chopped at the haft of the spear.

It's going wrong, Denario realized. His attacker was bigger and faster than he was. It's like Vir said, I don't know what I'm doing. The axe swept Denario's spear aside. The man lunged. Denario backpedaled but not fast enough. The first swing missed by an inch but the axe arm rose a second time. The curved blade aimed for the center of Denario's face. This was it.

As the arm came down, a sword came from out of the bushes and struck from the side.

“Vir!” Denario breathed.

In a blink, the Mundredi captain was gone. He'd crippled their attacker with single shot. Vir's sword hadn't cut off the man's arm but it had gouged deep in and broken it. The axe left the grip of the Raduar, who crumpled to the ground with a scream. His weapon tumbled a long ways to Denario's right.

Denario stood stunned for a moment. He should do something, he knew, but he couldn't think of what. The fellow who had almost killed him lay on the ground, wailing. Denario didn't want to come too close. He glanced to the spot where he'd last seen Klaus take Piotr. There were no bodies there. In the dawning light, it looked like there was blood in the dirt but nothing more. Bushes shook in the distance about fifteen yards away.

Behind him, Denario heard the clank of metal on metal.

He leaped between bushes to search for Vir. At a time like this, Denario knew that taking shelter behind a wide, strong body would be best. Someone was fighting. It had to be Vir.

For a few seconds, Denario ran through the undergrowth and dodged tree branches as he made his way in the direction of the noise. Then a voice in his head asked, How stupid is it to rush into a fight? and he slowed down. Less than a minute later, as he peered around a tangled shrub-pair of poplar and copperleaf, he saw them.

Vir stood surrounded by three men. A fourth man lay at his feet. It wasn't anyone Denario recognized. From the bashed-in look of his head, it wasn't anyone Denario would ever meet.

The three standing Raduar bandits focused their weapons on a single target. Everyone had traded blows or done a bit of running, it seemed, because they were all breathing hard. One of the Raduar, shorter than Vir but just as strong, jabbed at him with a spear. Vir blocked and tried to close with his sword but, just as Vir had taught Denario, the Raduar backed up and kept out of Vir's sword range.

Another spearman took his turn while a third, blonde fellow with a delicate but deadly-looking longsword, tried to get behind the Mundredi captain. Vir was too smart for that. He dodged while keeping a tree between himself and the swordsman.

This can't end well, Denario realized. As good as Vir is, it's three to one. They all look smart.

His instincts told him to run. Denario froze for a second while he tried out the idea of fleeing blindly into the forest on the edge of a mountain surrounded by hostile bandits. That didn't seem to lead anywhere good. He had to come up with something better. But what? With no real idea, he put down his spear and fumbled in his travel pack.

As his fingers roamed through the packets of food, clothes, flints, brushes, and utensils, he remembered that he'd snuck his golden darts to the bottom. They were carefully wrapped in his smelliest shirt. He dug deep into the leather folds. But as he moved other things out of the way, he recognized the corners of a thin wooden box.

Poison, said the same little voice inside that had wanted him to run. Poison might work. Carefully, Denario slipped the pack off of his shoulder. He knelt down behind the bush. He excavated the set of poison darts as neatly as he could.

The cherrywood case looked so delicate. When he'd gotten it, he'd thought it was too thick and heavy. Now it seemed beautiful and fragile. The top swung on a finely-made brass hinge. Denario flipped it open with his thumb to reveal the three hollow-point darts. Next to them rested the vial of blue frog poison.

Another clank of metal against metal startled Denario. He peered through the bush to see Vir beat back the two Raduar spearmen. Vir even got in a good kick on the second one. But he had to leap to the safety of the tree trunk to keep from getting gutted from behind.

The Raduar men weren't in full chain mail. That was something Denario hadn't noticed at first. Their lower arms, heads, necks, and lower legs were all bare flesh or cloth. The darts would work on them. If they worked at all.

He pulled one out, dropped it, picked it up, and set it on his knee. Then he fumbled with the vial. The hook of wood that held it in place didn't seem to want to let it go. When it finally released from the clip, there was a cracking sound. Denario flailed for a moment, alarmed. He tried to escape his own grip. His hand was shaking so much that he was certain he was about to poison himself. Naturally, if he cut his fingers on the broken glass, his wounds would be fatal. But he calmed down, studied the vial in his hand, and saw that it was unharmed. The seal on top was safe.

He punctured the wax seal with the point of the dart. Oily poison immediately ran up inside. He started to rise, ready to fire. Wait, I have two hands, he thought, and crouched back down. He loaded a second feathered shaft. Then he set his belongings down carefully, picked up the poisoned weapons in either fist, and stood.

Now he didn't care if he were seen. Or at least the idea didn't force him to crouch in terror.

Vir and the three Raduar were about twenty feet away, as a group. That was twice the distance that Denario usually threw with something as light as a dart. His right hand twitched as he considered. He might have to run up to the closest spearman to be sure of his shot. Even then, he wasn't sure if he should try for the man's head or a leg. The legs were big targets but they were in constant motion.

He meant to dash forward. But that didn't happen. His legs felt like they were tied to the ground. He forced himself to emerge from behind the bush but the animal part of him that didn't want to be noticed made it a slow and quiet movement.

After three steps, maybe four, the second spearman noticed him. But the first spearman still had his body turned three-quarters away.

Denario raised his hand. It resisted him just like his legs did. He could see his fingers tremble.

The second spearman moved but Denario's focus remained centered on the first one. He felt like he couldn't really see anything else but his target anymore.

At the last moment, as he pulled back to throw, he found that all the energy in his body had switched from nervousness to a sort of calm force. His biceps felt smooth and full of strength. His eyes could make out every hair on the leg of the spearman.

He let fly.

Chapter Eight, Scene Two