Sunday, October 30, 2016

Not Even Not Zen 55: A Bandit Accountant, 9.3

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Three Quarters of Twelve
Scene Three: Bathing in History

The troop spent the next two days hiking through the hills between the Mundredi-controlled valleys and the Oggli lands claimed by Baron Ankster. Vir and Alaric led them east, which was the direction Denario wanted to travel.

I'm going home, he told himself. He could hardly believe it. In his elation, he hardly noticed the teasing and bullying from the bigger men. He stuck near the leaders most of the time so that the big ones like Moritz and Reinhard didn't step too far out of line.

By the third day, Vir announced they could relax. He was sure there were no more enemy raiders around. They'd seen no sign of the traitor Piotr. But Vir's idea of relaxing meant that his men could train as they hiked. It meant, more precisely, that they were required to train, any accountants who happened to be among them included.

So at dawn on the third morning, Denario found himself issued a long dagger called a baselard. It had been taken from the sledges of loot. The baselard was large enough to be a short sword if you were a small man, so it fit Denario pretty well. It had a guard and pommel. However, it wasn't as heavy as a regulation Mundredi sword – which meant, as Sergeant Alaric pointed out, that Denario couldn't be expected to spar with it. A few too many blows from a real weapon and the blade would break or the hilt would split.

“So I just go through the motions?” Denario took a practice whiff through the air. He felt discouraged about being forced to carry this heavy thing all day. Two bags, a spear, and a bow seemed more than enough. On the other hand, he experienced some relief in realizing that he'd be left out of the mock battles that were taking place around him.

“I'll show you how.” Alaric thumped him on the back. Denario's torso clinked with the muffled sound of chain mail. “Sword work is what distinguishes warriors from pretenders.”

“I don't even pretend,” Denario clarified in case it wasn't obvious.

“Well, then. Pretend that you do.” The sergeant grabbed Denario by the elbow and started to move him through the basic sword motions. With a cheery smile, he made Denario practice.

At least the sergeant didn't hold a grudge about Denario leaving his bandit army. Denario was grateful for that. The young officer could have bullied him. Instead, Alaric seemed to accept that he would let the accountant go in a nearby town. He kept Denario close for most of the day's march, partly to teach him about swordsmanship but mostly to ask about accounting, geometry, and magic. His curiosity extended to news of the nobility in Oggli, who he referred to as the 'waldi knights.'

“Is it true that their men bathe?” He seemed doubtful, as if he considered a slanderous rumor.

“Once a week, usually.” Denario never thought he'd miss the practice but he did. The last time he'd bathed, Pecunia had heated a brass basin of water for him and averted her eyes. She'd been surprised when he didn't argue.

“What about … hey, what's that?” The sergeant pointed to what Denario had just pulled out of his traveling pack.

“It's my toothbrush.” It was wood, painted red, with pig bristles pulled in tufts through holes drilled one end.

“What does it do?”

Denario found it easy to clarify how a toothbrush worked but harder to explain why it was necessary. At home, Denario had been required to practice dental hygiene. It was the law. The Marquis de Oggli had made it mandatory for all men who might stand in his noble presence to brush their teeth every day and to brush once more before seeing him. Apparently the marquis had a sensitive nose. He made people bathe twice before meeting him, too.

“Surely that's unhealthy!” Alaric exclaimed upon hearing the news about baths.

“It's done with warm water. They give you clean rags to dry off with, even. No one dies.” In these high hills, Denario realized that water was dangerous, particularly in the three-quarters of the year that it was nearly ice.

“You said the marquis prevents free men from owning slaves in your city?” To Alaric, this seemed as offensive as bathing. He looked as if he considered another doubtful rumor.

“That's traditional.” Denario smiled. The tradition, in a way, had given him his freedom. Master Winkel had bought him as a slave but had never entertained the idea of keeping one because of the Oggli law against it. “The merchants' guild asked the marquis to overturn the ban on slavery about five years ago. He declined on the grounds that slaves were dirty and smelly.”

Denario wished that the marquis had felt that slavery was morally offensive, not nasally offensive, but he was happy with the end result. Any slaves brought into the city limits were still immediately, legally set free just as tradition had held for hundreds of years.

Alaric scratched his head. “But how is the mining done? Or the tilling? Who does the jobs that no one wants?”

“If your folks here had money, sergeant, you'd understand.” Denario believed that with all of his heart. “In Oggli, there are any number of men who do nothing but clean up after the dogs and horses all day.”


“For money.”

Maybe it wasn't the best example, Denario realized. The sergeant and the captain and all the men within hearing seemed puzzled. There was no reason to clean up manure around here. In a city, on cobblestone streets, it was essential. In front of the palace or the temple, it was considered important enough for the nobles to keep a dozen men on staff for the job.

During the next two days, the Mundredi captain led his group through a few small towns, all of which were no larger than four or five families held together by a crossroads or a rocky path and a stream. They had names like Gormli, Two Cleft, Kyllburg, and Waffle Bad. The people had no food to share except turnips, cheese, and onions, although they were generous enough with those staples. The folks in Waffle Bad cooked a feast of cheeses for them, in fact.

Denario pulled out his toothbrush and set it next to his bowl as they prepared for dinner. That got chuckles from the Mundredi soldiers. They considered it a sort of entertainment to see the toothbrush in action.

The first course was bread and cheese. The second course was soup with lumps of bread, onions, and cheese in it.

“Someone came through and killed old man Worter. Stole a bunch of his pigs, too, or scared them off. You boys doing something about that, commander?” said the mayor of Waffle Bad. He sat at the end of the table, next to Vir. Denario could hear their conversation if he concentrated on ignoring the noises from Reinhard's mouth.

“Any hog meat in the Raduar supplies, corporeal?” Vir said after a moment's thought.

“We ate pork stew last night, boss.” Two seats away, Gannick hardly looked up as he answered. His intent was to get all the bites of goat cheese that he could find in his bowl.

Vir nodded to him.

“Seems like we've already taken care of your problem.” He wiped his mouth and began to tell the story of the battle, although he left most of it for Alaric and his men.

Each time his men related the story of their victory, it grew in the telling. Their enemies became deadlier. Their fallen comrades became more virtuous. Their leaders, Alaric and Vir, grew more cunning in this rosy-eyed retrospective. The men shot their crossbows better, fought better and, by golly, ate and drank better, too. It was entertaining. The only development that Denario didn't like was his role in the tale. He seemed to be evolving into a sort of comic relief character.

People all over the seven valleys were going chuckle over the misdeeds of certain accountant if these men had their way. The folks of Waffle Bad laughed at Denario's reported antics until they cried. They wiped their tears with smug satisfaction.

“They like you,” whispered Alaric, next to him. He grinned and jostled Denario with his elbow. Denario decided to hold his tongue.

The mayor told, in his turn, a few tales about the last waldi caravan that had passed through. There was no deadly violence in his account, though, and not much enchantment from the shaman who had been protecting the caravan.

“That's a good one, mayor,” said Vir generously.  He'd finished his second course but continued to masticate a stubborn crust of bread. The third course, an onion salad, wasn't ready. “But let's get down to business for a moment. Ye know I've lost troops. I need some more. Do ye have any likely lads to spare? If not, do ye have any criminals?”

“Not this time,” answered the mayor. He rubbed his belly. “Not here, anyways. I heard tell of a lad across the creek in Meklin. His mother is from the Mundredi Pashtendi but his father came from the Raduar Dorun tribe.”

“I don't much care about his parents unless they're volunteering. What did the boy do to get into trouble?”

“Stole from the church, they say. Made fun of the priest. Some of the priest's supporters beat him pretty bad. Then he caught up to them, one by one, and beat up his tormentors in return. He needs to get out of town.”

“Perfect. He can fight a little and won't be missed.” Vir nodded. “We'll take him.”

Denario noticed that the boy wasn't being given an option. Maybe that was Vir's recruiting technique. And maybe the Mundredi army had always collected the most troublesome teenagers anyone could find. That would explain why their soldiers resorted to banditry for their supplies, fought with one another, swore, and showed both disrespect and fear of the local gods, priests, and other authorities. They would have been caught and hung in any civilized country. Here, they seemed to function as a sort of police force or as close to a stabilizing corps of men as existed in this barbaric land without written laws.

That night their horde slept in a barn without a roof, which made Denario wonder why they bothered. Politeness, he supposed. And in the next morning, Vir took them downslope into a hollow between two hills. They found a stream there, hidden from above by poplar, oak, and fir trees. The water was icy and clear, at least until they filled their canteens and splashed across the shallows. They kicked up clouds of silt and sharp chunks of shale before they got back out, ankles and toes numb from the cold.

“After we pick up the recruit,” Vir explained to Denario, mid-stream. “We'll head over to Phart's Bad. That's where we'll drop you off.”

Denario almost stopped where he was, though the water was too brisk for that. He waited until he stomped his feet on the other side.

“What's that name again?” he asked, sure that he'd heard wrong.

“Phart's Bad,” Vir answered without a trace of humor.

Denario started to snicker. No one else around him joined in. He checked the faces of Alaric and Reinhard. From the puffy flesh around their eyes, they looked tired. They didn't react as if they'd just heard a joke.

“Is that a town near Mount Ephart?” asked Denario. He knew the mountain was long to the west of them now but he was searching for an explanation. There had to be logic behind such a foolish name. After all, someone in all of the tribes, surely, must understand how funny their rustic town designations seemed to outsiders. They had to know why they were the subject of so much humor in the neighboring Ogglian fiefdoms.

“No, that's Phartsburg.” Vir took off one of his boots. He turned it upside down and produced a brief shower.

“It is?” Denario's eyes widened. He thought to himself, I should have expected that. He tried to wring his left boot while his foot was still in it rather than have to undo the laces.

“Anyway, Pharts Bad sits at the bottom of Mount Bandatar, right below our Fort Six. The citizens there have got a copper mine. They've been running it for three generations, maybe. They've even found some granite and tin nearby. It's not much but they get enough tin to make bronze. They've got fine water, too. Four wells! That's why they're so big.”

“How many people?” Denario wanted to put a number on it. A big town sounded hopeful. Of course, if it was such a large and important place, someone from outside of the valleys should have heard of it. And they hadn't. If an Ogglian merchant had even heard a whisper of it, the subsequent jokes would have traveled with the caravans all the way back to Oggli. So this town probably had four or five houses like all of the others.

“Well, it's not as big as Phartsburg, Knot Bad, or Tawdri. But that's because the town is only about forty-five years old. Folks there are wealthy enough, though, and when I came through the area last year, they'd just lost their only book keeper.”

“They had a book keeper? For their mining records?” That was the best news that Denario had heard in weeks. His feet broke into a brief, wet dance.

“Well, I say book keeper.” Vir glanced at Denario's feet. “He was a tile keeper, really. He kept track of who owed what by using a system of colored tiles. But that won't be any problem for an accountant.”

That meant it was a serious problem, Denario realized. His feet settled down. The old tile keeper had probably died without revealing his secrets. Now his records would only exist in a code that no one else could read. Worse, the work that he'd done would be out of date. Whatever the miners had used for record keeping since couldn't be the same system. At least someone could help him there, though.

“Sure, no problem,” he reassured Vir. What choice did he have? He'd have to find a way to decipher the old system and reconcile the records in the new one.

“I didn't want to say too much before.” Vir leaned close and spoke in that conspiratorial whisper he had. “But I've been thinking a bit about the mine since I heard ye had apprentices to rescue. I don't want to give ye false hope. It's a hard trek through the mountains to No Map Creek, which is where I figure ye've got to go. Most men wouldn't make it. But if ye get a letter of transit from the mayor of Pharts Bad, that would help. It's what the caravans use.”

“So everyone respects a letter of transit?” That was another piece of good news.

“Not everyone.” Vir pulled away a little. His expression grew grimmer. “Me men and I have waylaid a few caravans ourselfs, letters of transit or no.”


“As long as ye stay clear of the Raduar troops ... and the Mundredi troops ... and the baron's troops ... well, that about says it. Most ordinary folks will respect such a letter, excepting the desperate.”

“How many desperate men are there?”

The captain shook his head. He wouldn't answer.

“Yer wrong about math anyway,” he said after about half a mile had passed. Where had his mind wandered? It hadn't lingered on accounting or fighting. “Math is just a trick.”

“Mathematics is holy,” Denario explained. He felt patient with Vir and not just because the man could kill him with one swing. Captain or not, he didn't know more than basic arithmetic. “It's the truth that underlies the world.”

“Just a trick. Not even a good one. Say that I've got all of my sergeants and their men together. That's about forty. And we take on one of the three Raduar armies. That's about two hundred. Do ye think we have to lose?”

“That's five to one odds against. Yes, you'd lose. And I've seen the knights of Oggli. I know that you and some of your men are as tough as them. Tougher, maybe. But you'd lose.”

“That's accountant thinking, there. One man is not equal to one man.”

“When you're counting them, you have to figure that men are pretty much equal.”

“But it's not true. Not ever. An apple is not equal to another apple, either, not anywhere in the world. All that counting is a trick.”

“Okay, I see what you mean.” Denario ambled along for a while before he had a confirming thought. “For that matter, one apprentice is not equal to another. Guilder is the best. He's only eleven but he's brilliant and happy and quick. But he's a mess when it comes to surveying. He can't hold still.”

“And the best surveyor?”

“That's funny because it's Buck, I think. He doesn't do any more math than he's forced to. But he's great at geometry and likes being out of doors.”

Denario spent a few minutes thinking about the others. Kroner was probably doing the work Curo should be doing because he was so diligent. Guilder and Shekel were probably spending most of their time learning from the older apprentices. Nevertheless, they were both likely enough to be pulling their weight with work at the docks. They counted the shipments. Even little Mark helped to count items and he was only six.

Curo would have to make appearances at the court. Denario wasn't sure what impression that would make. The knights didn't seem to like Curo very much.

“You know, most Ogglian armor is steel.” It occurred to him as he pictured those knights. He stepped closer to Vir as they marched. “But in the Mundredi army, I've seen a lot of bronze armor and bronze spear points. Aren't there any towns with iron mines in the seven valleys?”

“The old mines are mostly abandoned. Take the bog iron mine, for instance ...”

“What's bog iron?”

“It's the horrible little bits of iron you get out of a peat bog. I know the secret or at least a little part of it. You cut out clumps of peat that are reddish. Then you dry them. Then you burn them up in a special oven. What's left is tiny pinpricks of metal, mostly iron.”

“I've never heard of that.”

“You've got to work awfully hard to get enough iron to make a tool. But that's the only way we can do it. Around here, there's only bog iron in the plains of Fat Valley and in between the hills around Hard Valley. The Tortuar had a regular iron mine once but it's gone. The Raduar had one, too, but their seam ran out.”

“So most of your steel weapons come from outside?”

“That's right.”

Aha, Denario thought. That fact by itself explained why the tribes had turned to banditry. Without money to speak of, they couldn't get iron in trade. They had to steal it or make it from their peat bogs. And getting iron from those bogs was a long process that hostile clans probably disrupted quite a lot.

“Hard Valley,” he remembered, “that's the one held by the Tortuar?”

“Yeah. They've got the worst place of all, that tribe. They have no copper. Not much farmland. Lots of marshes. There's a bit of granite and tin in their hills. Maybe I'm not making it sound bad enough because they've got most of the monsters that are left in the valleys. They've got vampires.”

“Ugh. Who'd want to live there?”

“The Tortuar tribes, of course. And now the Raduar.”

“Wait, you mean the Raduar are trying to invade Hard Valley?”

“They've been doing it in bits and pieces. I've traded messages with Sham Horduar, the chief there, about a truce between our valleys. We've pretty much got peace between us anyway while we're so busy with other fighting.”

Denario stopped and put his hands over his ears. For a moment, he'd heard the screams of villagers a little too keenly in his imagination.

“I don't understand people. Pecunia was right about me. She was completely right.” He put down his hands and continued. He had to jog a little to catch up.

“What now?” demanded Vir.

“Why would anyone bother to invade Hard Valley? They're killing townsfolk, too, I bet. For what?” Denario threw up his hands. “So they can have the marshes and monsters?”

“For the women. For the glory.” Vir gave Denario a cynical smile. “Sorry, lad, but that's what they tell themselves. Yer right. It's evil of them. For my part, though, I'm glad they're being so evil.”


“If they were behaving this way to only the Mundredi tribes, the Tortuar would stay out of it. Why would they care if our townsfolk get slaughtered?”

“They wouldn't,” Denario agreed. It was depressing but he knew that no one cared about slavery, either, when they couldn't see the worst of it. “It's too far away.”

“For most folks.” Vir nodded with the accumulated wisdom of a constant traveler. “Only misfits leave their towns and get to see the world. But now the Tortuar find that they care even if they haven't met us. So I won't have to worry about my border with them for a while.”

“I think I understand. Your position is stronger because the Raduar chiefs are so blood-crazy that they're attacking all of the valleys around them at once.”

“Yeah. If only the Ogglian barons would march farther north through the eastern hills of Fat Valley. Then they might meet Raduar troops and they'd fight. That would take care of both problems.”

“I've met some of the knights and barons, Vir. Despite what you say about their fighting skill when they're off their horses, they aren't stupid. Cruel, yes. And they have inflated opinions of themselves. But even though I don't like them, I wouldn't call them stupid. They won't over-extend their village raiding.”

“Do they ever fight among themselves the way we do in the seven valleys?”

“Absolutely. Vir, I know that Baron Blockhelm has a hundred men in arms at any time and more he can call up within a month. But he lives in fear of Baron Ankster, who has at least three times that number. And the knights fight each other in smaller bands at the smallest excuse. They kill peasants as they travel through each other's lands just to irritate the knights they don't like.”

Alaric appeared behind them. He'd sped up to listen in on the conversation.

“Don't the peasants ever rise up?” Vir's eyes widened in horror.

“It's not done ...” Denario felt his cheeks flush. “Yes. It's been done. When I was a little boy, I was told differently but now I'm aware that it's happened. Each time, though, the knights crush the rebellion brutally. You can't imagine the stories.”

“Oh, I think I can.”

“The last incident was eighty-one years ago according to the accounting guild books. Twenty-three known book keepers were killed.”

“Book keepers?”

“It's a guild log. That's what our folks tracked out of professional interest. But book keepers are maybe one in two thousand people out here in the countryside. So how many people were likely killed, actually?”

“I've no idea,” admitted Vir truthfully. Next to him, Alaric was moving his lips, doing the math.

“Thousands, anyway.” Denario decided to spare Alaric the effort. “And I think their purge must have cleared out a lot of farm lands. From what you showed me on the map, the Mundredi have moved into those empty fields.”

“By the gods,” Alaric breathed. He must have worked out the real number of deaths.

“Right now, a lot of the count's vassals, and that includes the your three barons, have sent men off to fight the King of Faschnaught,” Denario continued. He was estimating the numbers of troops. From what he'd heard in the court, there had to be between thirty-two and thirty-six thousand although only an eighth of those would be the professional fighters. The rest were the cooks, suppliers, engineers, battle wizards, farriers, smiths, and other necessary staff. “That kingdom is somewhere north of Ogglia. If it weren't for that fight, the purge against the Mundredi might have looked by last year the way the similar purge did eighty years ago.”

“Why?” asked Vir. “Why are they doing this to us?”

“Who cares about the reason?” Alaric spoke quickly. The tendons in his neck showed the alarm he felt. “We have to worry about that other war. About the timing of it. Don't you see, Vir?”

“See what?”

“We need to finish with the Raduar before the Ogglian war in Faschnaught is over. If we don't, it'll be twice as hard to protect our villages. More than twice.”

“Our villages pay taxes to their knights, dammit! They've got no reason to attack us!”

After Vir's outburst, the three of them walked in silence for about half a mile. The other bandits around them had noticed their captain's tone of voice. All of their teasing and punching one another had stopped.

“You said you've got four sergeants,” said Denario, remembering what the captain had told him and counting, “each with less than a dozen men. But you're picking up new recruits all the time. So it sounds like you've got four units about the right size to take on a knight and his men at arms. And they could win.”

“We know that,” huffed Vir. He probably knew it from combat against them, Denario realized. There had to be a reason that the Mundredi knew how badly the Ogglian knights fought on foot.

“You want more, though. Could you recruit from the other tribes? Is there any hope of uniting everyone for a while?”

“Not unless we beat about six or maybe eight of the Raduar chieftans,” Vir estimated.

Next to him, his sergeant nodded in agreement.

“And would other chieftans listen to you? I mean, you and Alaric are both descended from a prince of Muntabar somehow. Does that count for anything? I don't understand it.”

“Ye know the prince conquered the valleys, right?”

“Even the records in Oggli agree on that.”

“Right, then. Afterward, the prince decided to settle down in Easy Valley. His father's empire was falling apart. He had a brand new empire here.”

“And he had children. But the lineage wasn't traced? That's unusual for a royal line.”

“Ah, well. The prince did marry a local queen who wasn't too angry about him killing her husband in battle. But the sons of that marriage produced no male heirs themselves. Only men can inherit by Muntabi law. And Prince Robb, well, he was called the Prince of the Seven Hostages for a good reason.”

“Because he had seven hostages, I assume.”

“No, it was a lot more than that. He kept about three hundred, most of the time.”

“Then why would anyone call it seven?”

“Because the stories are about the seven valleys, really, and the former royal families there. Prince Robb kept the daughters of the local chiefs of each valley in his court. Those young women stayed with him, dined with him, and lived good lives.”

“Except for knowing that they'd be killed if their fathers misbehaved.” Denario couldn't avoid confronting that.

“That's how it started, maybe.” Vir shrugged. “But in time it turned out that all of them bore the prince's children. There were plenty of children. Bastards, of course, but the prince favored them. And when a couple of the chiefs turned traitor, he didn't put to death the hostages or his bastard children. He just slaughtered the rebel chiefs and had done with it.”

In these bandit lands, Denario judged, that passes for a happy ending. The children lived.

“So you're descended from the bastard line?”

“In my case, I'm supposed to be descended from the line of royal daughters and the bastard sons, both. There must be forty or fifty of us, almost all in Easy Valley where the prince set up Fort Knock.”

“And that includes Alaric.”

“Yes, it does.” Vir and his sergeant exchanged a look of confidence. Denario almost felt jealous of their friendship.

“Is Fort Knock one of your bigger forts, then, like Fort Dred?” he asked.

“Nah. When the prince died without male heirs, the bastards were grown men and women. Some of them had their own armies.”

“Oh no.” He kicked a pebble on the trail in front of him, in frustration.

“Oh yes, they did.”

“They fought.” Denario knew it.

“Like crazies, to the ruin of all. Most of the old forts set up by their father the prince got knocked down by magic spells or by the few siege weapons that were left in Muntabi hands. Fort Knock got magically aged by a pair of wizards, they say, so that its upper walls turned to dust. And when the fighting was over, the survivors couldn't even retreat back to their old royal estates. The townsfolk didn't want 'em. They had to fight over that, too. Many of them lost, so they settled in new towns and new forts.”

“Like the rest of the Muntab empire,” Denario mused.

“Something like,” Vir agreed.

The account contemplated the situation in the valley, all those people caught up in all their little wars, now trapped between bigger armies with larger wars coming at them. Denario started to feel guilty. He wondered why he was feeling that way. It took him a few minutes to realize that he sympathized with Alaric. He sort of felt that he shouldn't be allowed to leave the Mundredi, either.

Next: Chapter Nine, Scene Four

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Not Even Not Zen 54: A Bandit Accountant, 9.2

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Three Quarters of Twelve
Scene Two: Deadly, Playing Chicken

Later that night, Vir threw down Denario's travel bag between his own oversized pack and Alaric's padded duffel. He helped himself to Denario's food, too. He gave two handfuls of Denario's goat jerky to his sergeant.

“Not bad. Putting him between us?” Alaric glanced around at the other bandits as he chewed. “Fair enough, chief.”

“I don't need ye to tell me that. I can see how they are.”

“Yes, sir.” The sergeant stiffened a little.

“Don't get all offended, either. I only got four sergeants and yer the best. When I'm gone, yer to be captain.”

“Sir? I don't ...”

“Seriously, Alaric. There's no one else who's up to it. Can ye imagine Sergeant Kaspir becoming the chief?”

Alaric chuckled. But a moment later, he lay down on his bedroll in silence. The funny thing was, as young as the blond sergeant seemed, Denario had to agree with Vir. Alaric was a man who the other men admired. There seemed to be ample reason for it, too.

Denario laid out three spare shirts as a sort of blanket. He didn't mind using his bag of accounting books as a pillow, either. He felt amazed that he still had all of his tools.

“Why is this place between you two so good?” he asked them.

“So none of the other men get the idea to kill ye.” Vir set himself down without a blanket. He looked weary and, for the first time in all of the days that Denario had known him, not entirely alert.

“Oh.” Denario didn't want to go to sleep with that thought. He lay awake worrying about it for a minute. Then he stole another look at the message from Pecunia. I am fine, Lash. Mrs. Figgins is a darling. I hope you're doing well, wherever you are. Mistress Pecunia De Loreli Von Glaistig, Church of the Goat.

It was beginning to dawn on him that although Pecunia cared for him, she hadn't exactly sent a love note. She didn't mention their prospects of marriage. She didn't talk about him setting up practice near Ziegeburg. She didn't even say the word 'love.' Well, he'd figure out something for her anyway. He folded the pink paper and slipped it into his shirt pocket. Since the pocket was underneath a layer of chain mail, that was a chore.

“Do you really have a betrothed?” the sergeant asked him after a while. “Vir said you did. Was that a note from her that you just read? Did it come to you by magic?”

“Do you like magic?” Denario asked.

“It's useful.” Alaric cocked his head and considered. “I suppose I like it better than most.”

“Hmph.” Denario folded his thin arms. His chain mail made a sound like rough snake skins rubbing against each other. “The wizard in Hogsburg called her a sorceress. But he's wrong.”

He threw his head back on the pillow of books and nearly hurt himself. Next to him, the sergeant half sat up, apparently interested.

“Ach, people always say things like that about older women.” He waved his hand so dismissively that Denario realized Alaric must have heard something similar about an elderly mother or grandmother in his life. Although there was another possibility. Because Alaric was a handsome fellow. Maybe there had been a mature woman interested in him romantically.

“Yes, she is a bit older than I am.” He could admit that. He imagined Pecunia's smiling face, her blonde, curling locks. She still looked reasonably youthful. And her teeth were perfect. “Her first three husbands died.”

“Three?” Alaric whistled.


The sergeant was so silent that it became conspicuous. After a while, he laid his head back down on his pack.

“Are you still thinking about being captain?” Denario asked him.

“Oh, maybe a little.” There was a faint, bitter laugh in the darkness. “It's a stupid tradition to have the chiefs come from the same bloodlines.”

“You could do the job, though, if you had to.”

“Not as well as Vir does.”

“No, but … well, he's something special, isn't he?” Denario listened for a moment, his arms still folded because they were so hard to move in their armor. He heard a deep snuffle, which was a pretty sure sign that Vir was asleep. “I thought he was some kind of ox wrestler or hog butcher when I first met him. But he's so fast. I mean in his mind, not just his body. I don't know what to make of him. He's shrewd.”

“He was a farmer.”


“He was a ox wrestler and hog butcher once. You were right. He had a great way with cows, I hear.”

That gave Denario an idea. He rolled over on one elbow, his back to the captain, his face a foot from Alaric tired, half-closed eyes.

“What happened to him three years ago?” he whispered.

Alaric sounded like he was holding his breath. Denario waited as patiently as he could.

“I'll let him tell ye that,” the young sergeant concluded. “Or not, as pleases him.”

“Okay.” Denario knew better than to persist. “You know, for a moment there, you sounded like him.”

“He's a good man.”

“He thinks no one likes him.”

There another long silence in the conversation. Alaric did a lot of careful thinking, it seemed, or Denario was posing tough questions. Maybe he only had himself to blame for the long wait.

“You're going to leave us, accountant.” It was an accusation.

“I have to. I have to save the counting house.” This time, Denario didn't leave the conversation hanging. “You know, I can't figure out where Vir learned about this military training if he grew up as a farmer. He's really good. He works at it more than the knights in the Court of Oggli. And they're professionals.”

“We're getting to be professionals, too, in our way.”

“I can tell. Say, I didn't get the full story of the battle of Archer's Lament. You told Vir about your men. But you didn't talk about yourself. Someone said you were the last man to pass through into the magic.”

“The lament wouldn't be as much use to us if the Raduar walked in acting all suspicious. So I was trying to lead them in at a run.”

“It must have worked. And then you charged them with your cudgels?”

“Yes. But not me, actually.”

“You didn't fight?” That would explain why he hadn't talked about it.

“My sword turned into a chicken, you know. When I bent down to pick up my stick, I fumbled it because I wanted to hold onto the chicken in case it turned back to a sword during the fight. I didn't have time to chase after my club before the lead Raduar was on me.”

“Oh no. You had to fight unarmed?”

“No, I was still holding the sword.”

“But it wasn't a sword. It was a chicken.” Maybe it was a supernatural chicken but, still, Denario knew that no one could beat a man to death with a bird. Then he doubted his judgment. After all, he was no expert soldier. And if anyone could do it, it was these Mundredi.

“I had it by both legs.”

“You wouldn't really have a chance. Would you?” The count's troops in Oggli wouldn't even have tried, he knew. They had too much pride in their sword play. A good sword was the mark of an Oggli gentleman – not a chicken. Oh, definitely not.

“It was a pretty fair fight.” Alaric held up his right arm. In the ruddy firelight, Denario could make out gouge marks on his vambrace. It looked like a pointed beak had sunk deeply into the leather armor. There had been more than a dozen blows. The two men must have swung hard at each other for a while. “After all, he had a chicken, too.”

Next: Chapter Nine, Scene Three

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Not Even Not Zen 53: A Bandit Accountant, 9.1

 A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Three Quarters of Twelve
Scene One: Rich for Bandits

The sunset over the hills made Denario rise to his feet. He stretched. His body felt refreshed from his brief rest. He was surprised to feel healthy despite the hard bandit life he'd been leading. He'd had to nap on a rock, which he'd never dreamed of doing back in Oggli. Of course, it had helped that he hadn't been pressed into manual labor as Vir had done to most of his men. Instead, Denario had been treated as if he were wounded. He supposed he got away with it because of the bandage on his head.

The other two fellows who were allowed to rest looked awful. They dozed or lay unconscious under the nearby maple tree. The thinner, older fellow had lost four of his front teeth.

A flock of starlings darted by overhead. Denario followed their pattern. They settled into a grove of distant trees downslope that were part of Archer's Lament. There were birds of all sorts here. Denario was paying more attention to them now that he understood the residual magic. He wondered if any of the avian bloodlines were descended from arrows or spears that had mated after they became magical birds. They would have been able to do that while they lived within the confines of Archer's Lament.  Maybe some weapons had lived out entire lives there, half a century ago, when the lament was larger.

“I can see the borders of the lament,” he announced.

“How?” Vir had been standing ten yards away and paying him no attention. But he turned. His voice was gruff. Denario knew him well enough now to realize that this was the chieftain's default attitude toward his underlings. He didn't accept anyone's claims about anything. He demanded proof.

“Numbers,” said Denario. He pointed at the ridges of trees. “More birds of a flock land inside the border of the lament than outside. If you watch the next flock settle in, you'll see it, too.”

“Why would that be?” Vir squinted at where Denario had pointed. So did two of the soldiers next to him.

“Don't make no sense,” said the smallest of the Mundredi.

“I think there must have been some pigeons, crows, finches, starlings, and whatnot that stuck around in the original borders for a long time. They laid eggs. Another generation grew up in the lament. Now, those children and grandchildren come back here to where they were born.”

“Hah!” Vir laughed. “Okay, that part sounds outlandish but it's possible. I still can't believe they show you the border.”

“What's so funny?” A distant voice called up to them.

Denario gazed down to Alaric and his troop. They were climbing the hill toward him. Alaric's men had looted their enemies and buried three Mundredi casualties in the soil of the lament. Behind Alaric, four soldiers pulled sledges of weapons and armor. They puffed and sweated but they smiled. Victory had been kind to them. For soldiers, they were rich.

Vir explained Denario's bird theory. All of the enlisted men chuckled. To Denario's surprise, the sergeant didn't find it funny. He stopped, hands on hips, and gave Denario a respectful nod.

“The magic of being a living creature affects our weapons, I can tell you that,” he said. He shielded his eyes from the sun and scoured the treelines. “I wouldn't be surprised if the magic keeps affecting the still-living. Every damn arrow we looted is useless. The flights are off somehow.”

“Th' sergeant's right,” said one of the men. “I'd swear that my spear twitches in my hands, sirs.”

All of the Mundredi within hearing made warding signs over their hearts. It wasn't just Vir who was superstitious, then. The entire tribe of tribes seemed to think of supernatural forces as a realm inhabited by gods and priests rather than the way Denario thought of it – as a loose tradition of semi-science guarded by the bedraggled sorts of wizards you saw sitting next to you at the local ale house.

“It was damn brilliant move, Alaric.” Vir's reassured them. His praise was rare. That made it welcome among the rank and file. They could be sure that their sergeant had done the right thing because their chief had just said so. “You showed good troop discipline. You managed to keep the right distance between you and your pursuers for nearly two days.”

“Sir,” replied Alaric, stiff with pride. His men stood a little taller, too. “Thank you, sir. Anyway, I can see how the accountant may be right. It would be a handy thing if we could see the borders of the magic, especially if no one else could.”

The thought made Vir smile. He nodded and, since there were no more flocks of starlings to watch, he led the Mundredi in dividing the spoils. He had them lay out particular packages and pieces of armor on the ground. It took more than half an hour to accomplish this part of the process. The wounded soldiers woke up and made a cooking fire while it was going on. The whole time, the captain and sergeant seemed to maintain their awareness of the sky.

Finally, a flock of crows appeared. They were traveling up from the south and chose to rest in trees on the south side of their hill. After only a minute of rest, they took off again. They headed straight for the borders of Archer's Lament.

Vir and Alaric turned to watch. Soon, all of the Mundredi did the same, even the ones who didn't know what was going on. Denario thought the crows would land in a grove of firs, which was precisely where the starlings had gone. But in some way known only to birds, they sensed the presence of the other flock. The crows veered away from the starlings just before they landed. They weaved a few trees westward to settle in a grove of willow-oaks. As before, they seemed to line up with about two-thirds of them in the borders of the magical grounds.

“Eighteen on the lament side,” Denario counted along the imaginary line he guessed was the border into the occult. “Nine on the closer side. That's what I think.”

“What do you say, Alaric?” Vir asked. The rest had fallen into confused whispering.

“Gods be damned. Right on the border, I'd say.”

Vir gave Denario an appraising look.

“Eighteen to nine. That's about two out of three, then.”

It's exactly that, Denario refrained from saying.

“Did the starlings land about the same?”

“Yes.” This time, one of the men who had been watching the first time backed up Denario's idea.

“Okay, well done. Now we know a little extra. We can spot the area from a distance.” Vir walked around the campsite, hands locked behind his back. “But that's enough fooling around. Return to your cooking, men.”

 The Mundredi surprised him by sitting down to eat a dinner before they divided their loot.

“It's like I said last month,” Vir told them when he had a bowl in his hands. “We're not leaving any of this stuff behind. I'm done with awarding loot that you lot are too lazy to carry. So it's all mine, understand?”

To Denario's shock, the men nodded as they ate, even the scariest-looking ones like Moritz and the other oversized bruiser called Reinhard. They were quite a lot taller than the captain. Moreover, they and the other bandits pushed and punched one another nearly all of the time as they worked. They were an argumentative bunch. It seemed astonishing that they didn't contradict their leader.

“Good.” Vir scowled. “Now, that said, I'm thinking to award a few bits and pieces of my loot to those what deserve it.”

Most of the men took that in stride. The blonde, hulking Reinhard and the equally massive Moritz, though, sat up straighter. They must have known they had come off well during the battle.

To Denario's mild surprise, Vir started things off by telling the story of his travels from Hogsburg to Archer's Lament. He'd already apprised his sergeant of the basics but apparently he wanted the entire group to know in detail. He described aspects of their journey that Denario had missed. In Haph Bad, for instance, he'd loaded his cart with a cache of hidden weapons and armor. In Three Gods, he'd paid the temple with the pennies that Denario had earned by carrying sacrifices to the priest. 

Vir became quieter and more thoughtful as he discussed the hike to Fort Fourteen. He allowed as to how he'd felt suspicious of Klaus and Piotr. He wasn't sure which one of them might turn against him until the instant that Piotr shot his friend. At hearing that, Vir's soldiers, who had been draining their canteens of beer, stood up and raised their fists. Mostly, the fist were holding weapons.

“Traitor!'” they shouted. Then they fell to calling Piotr worse names, if there were any worse. It was minutes before the roar died down.

“He may be sneaking around and following us now,” Vir told them. “Although I've been looking for him and I've seen no sign yet.”

“Why would he hurt Klaus?” was the plaintive wail of one of the men. Denario guessed he had been a friend of the victim. “Why did Piotr turn against us? Did the Raduar take his family hostage?”

“No. Piotr's family was killed in a raid by Baron Ankster's men.” Vir dismissed the notion. It occurred to Denario that Vir must have spies among the Raduar the way they did among the Mundredi. That explained why he didn't want to drive them out of his lands. He must have known from them that he had reasons to be suspicious of Klaus and Piotr and probably others in his band, too. “All I can think is, Piotr figured that the Raduar were going to win.”

“But since you've come, we're taking our lands back from them.”

“That's true. But we've had to avoid the main force of the Raduar so far. For us, this fight today was a big battle. We took out some of their best fighters. Even the accountant got one.”

That got laughter. Denario could tell that most of the men thought that their boss was making a joke.

“Thing is,” he continued. “These men were from just two Raduar tribes, the Killimar and the Juttari. There must be a couple hundred other tribes involved in their rabble rousing. We need to recruit more from our own. That's the only way we'll get enough men to face down the Raduar and put a stop to their slaughter.”

“But we're better than them,” Moritz protested. “We don't need numbers.”

“Man for man we're better.” Vir put down his bowl. He sat on the rock next to Denario, elbows on his knees. “They're good with swords, maybe, but not much else. They haven't worked with heavy shields. That's why I've been pushing ye. Ye lot are stronger now. And ye know how to use all of yer weapons. We've even got ourselves better armor than we've had since the empire.”

Every man around the campfire grunted or voiced their assent. 

“And now I'm going to give some of ye better than ye already got. Some of them Raduar chieftans have got real armorers.”

“We need to kidnap one,” interjected Alaric.

“Someday.” The captain gave them a grim smile. “Meanwhile, we'll take what we can steal from caravans, our enemies, and other such folk.”

The sergeant lifted the biggest chain shirt they'd taken. It wasn't quite big enough for Vir, Reinhard, or Moritz. That illustrated how much the Mundredi needed an armorer who could at least adapt and repair what they had.

“Now,” began Vir. “I'm going to start by giving a few things to yer sergeant. He'll make his gifts from there.”

Vir, in fact, proceeded to divide up loot in the way he'd told Denario he did. The best armor went to Sergeant Alaric, who put on a chain shirt that made him look like a prince. He got awarded a few other pieces, too, mostly by weight. Then he was told he could take some valuables. He chose fancy packets of food and a silver-handled dagger. The Raduar tribesmen had carried no money on them. Denario found it a depressing but unsurprising fact.

Alaric was told to give out awards to his best fighters. The sergeant called forward Reinhard, Moritz, and a short, tough-looking fellow named Gannick. He let them pick out a few items each in turn. Telling the tale of their fighting was part of the ceremony, it seemed. Everyone admired Moritz's strangling, Reinhard's longstaff work, and Gannick's ability to snap mens' necks.

“'Taint nothing,” said Gannick, quietly and modestly. He seemed like such a likeable fellow. If Denario had passed him on the streets of Oggli, he'd have figured he was a peasant farmer, the kind who bought the first round of drinks for his friends and didn't worry about getting paid back. “It's just like the captain taught us. Anyway, when they're thin, they're no trouble.”

Denario covered the back of his neck for a moment. 

Alaric gave out a few other awards, mostly weapons to men who had proved they could use them. Then, hands on hips, he scowled at the heaps of armor laid out on the grass.

“Better to carry some of this on our clothes than to keep it all on the sledges.”

“Aye,” Vir nodded. “We've got more mail shirts than we'll like to lug around, for sure.”

“I don't suppose my uncle Yuri will have finished stitching those two ring pieces together for you.”

“Probably not.” The captain touched the largest fishmail piece with the toe of his boot. “Bet we could get something for Reinhard and Moritz from stitching the biggest of these, though. Reinhard's got just leather now and he's a big target. He needs better.”

“My uncle is just too slow. Vir, we need to grab real armorer.”

“A raid for one?”

“Yes. Even then, Yuri tells me that the Raduar smithies aren't as good as those in the Ankster castle. We need one from Blockhelm, Ankster, or maybe the Kilmun.”

“I've heard about the Kilmun armorers. They use magic. That can turn bad. Anyway, they're too far away to be practical.”

“If you had money,” Denario couldn't resist pointing out, “you could hire an armorer.”

Vir gave him a stern look. Everyone hushed for a moment and Denario thought he might feel the back of the captain's hand. These bandits seemed to expect it. He caught a few expectant smiles on their faces.

“Despite ideas like that,” Vir growled. “The accountant's been useful in his way. Any of this mail fit on him?”

“Sure.” The sergeant pointed to one of the ringed shirts that wasn't rusted at all. “Let's put that short one on the accountant. It's a good size.”

“No!” shouted one of the men who hadn't been awarded anything yet. He'd been been the one to complain about his spear acting like it was alive. “He's not even one of us! And what did he do? I saw him. He was hiding behind our captain when those cowards came running his way. He didn't do any work.”

“He just pulled some kind of trick.” The agreement came from another man who hadn't been awarded booty. Denario agreed with him, too. He knew he didn't need a mail shirt. It would weigh him down on the way to Oggli and it would be worse than useless in the city.

“Why is he even still here?” said Moritz. “Fritzie and Burtram are dead. Dead! And Niles. And Klaus, too. And Piotr is gone, the traitor. But this waldi is still here. Why?”

“Here's here because fights dirty,” replied Vir. “And he was luckier than Klaus. That's the long and short of it. Luck and smarts. He may be a bit of a coward but not without reason.”

“Did he do anything?”

“Killed a man. Saved my life.”

“Him?” Moritz got to his feet and pointed. Denario felt ashamed although, as far as he could remember, he hadn't done anything terribly wrong. He felt like he must have done, though. “If he did, we need to know. And you've paid him back many times over, I'll bet.”

Denario had to nod in agreement. He tried to say a few words to that affect but no one heard him. The rank and file members who hadn't been honored yet all started shouting. Reinhard and Gannick, who had been acknowledged as heroes by Alaric, seemed to join different sides. Gannick stood next to Alaric. He spoke calmly but sternly to Reinhard, who raised his voice in response.

It was Moritz who, in pointing at nearly everyone, dared to point his finger at Alaric. The sergeant saw the gesture coming and stepped into it so that the big man hurt himself. Moritz's teeth showed as he winced.

In an instant, Vir's arms pushed between them. He moved his soldier and his sergeant apart.

“Moritz,” he said. “Get the shirt and give it to the accountant. It's too small for anyone else. Then let's get on with the rest of it.”

The big man paused. He had appeared ready to strike but the captain's intervention gave him time to think.

“Sir,” he said. “You say he killed his man.”

“Yes. And he tried to kill Piotr.”

That made Moritz rub his chin. His thoughts seemed to take a while to reach a conclusion.

“Good for him, then.” He nodded.

“Come on, captain,” demanded Reinhard. “We've seen the way he waggles a spear. How did this little fellow hurt anyone?”

“Poison.” Vir sighed. His men gasped. Denario felt surprised by their reactions. After all, they had just beaten their opponents to death with cudgels and staves. Nevertheless, most of them seemed shocked.

The captain had to spend a minute or two describing what Denario had done in battle. Most of them had seen the tripline, of course, but they considered it a child's trick, not worthy of imitation. They reacted with superstitious horror to the idea of a poison dart. They laughed at how Denario had nearly been killed, too, because he hadn't finished off the man that Vir had left wounded on the ground. 

“Serves ye right,” mumbled one of the wounded. He was the older fellow with the missing teeth. He gave Denario an evil squint.

For some reason, Vir worked backwards in the story to Denario's idiotic charge at Piotr. It was the only part that the men seemed to respect.

“Next time, thrust from up underneath,” said the same wounded man.

“Yeah,” Gannick agreed. “You're small. Learn to push up into the gut.”

For about a minute, Denario suffered a barrage of advice that he couldn't possibly follow. Didn't they understand who he was? He'd never learned to kill farm animals or hunt wild game or any of the other skills they took for granted. Denario would have bet that a farm hog would kill him, not the other way around, whether he had a weapon or not.

The advice dissolved into laughter when Moritz picked up the smallest chain mail hauberk and tossed it to Denario. The weight of it bowled him over.

“Heh.” Even Vir chuckled. “It'll be easier to carry over your clothes, accountant. Don't matter too much, though. We'll see you off soon enough.”

“What? You're letting him go?” shouted Alaric.

“Ye hear what everyone thinks,” Vir answered in a mild tone. He probably couldn't be heard by anyone but his closest soldiers. Denario was at the ground near their feet, though, and Moritz wasn't far away either. “They don't like the way he fights.”

“Or doesn't fight.”

“Or doesn't, yes. Why would ye want to keep him, sergeant?”

Denario could see that Alaric felt an accountant was useful somehow. The young officer was willing to hold Denario captive, in fact, to make him help the Mundredi cause. It was lucky for Denario that no one else felt that way.

“It's like you keep saying.” Alaric leaned over Denario as he spoke. Denario started to get to his feet. “We've got to save the villages. The people depend on us.”

“Fair point.” Vir nodded. “But I'm letting him go.”

“Good riddance,” said Moritz. He seemed to regret saying anything, a moment later. But he made himself go on under the glare of the captain. “Well? He's a poisoner and a cheat.”

Denario finally stood. The weight of the chain mail shirt was like a full load of wood in his arms. Wearing it for long seemed out of the question, no matter what anyone said. Vir gestured toward Denario as he staggered.

“Look, men,” he called in a loud voice. The bandits stopped chuckling. “This here is a city bred accountant. Take a close look. Do you think he'd be alive if he fought honorably?”

They all studied him. Denario felt very small.

“Sir, he hasn't been trained hardly at all and yet he's made it through, what, three battles?” Alaric pointed backwards to the Archer's Lament. “I think there are other ways he could be useful, too. With Yannick gone to Fort Dred, we don't have many folks with their letters and numbers. That's probably why we've never figured out a way to see Archer's Lament before. And we can make him stay. He won't get anywhere without us.”

“That's too close to the truth,” said Vir. He gave Denario a look like he was measuring up the accountant in a way that used no math. “All of it. And ye know that I don't care about any of this 'honor' stuff, don't you?”

“Yes, sir,” Denario croaked.

“I could make you stay.”

“Sir. Five boys, sir.” He clutched the mail shirt to his chest so hard that his knuckles turned white. It was all Denario could think to say. He had five boys depending on his income to survive. And Vir knew it.

“Look at him.” Vir pointed to Denario's face. Moritz started to smile. “Look, even now, he's thinking of fighting me. See?”

All of the men laughed. Denario's ears turned red.

“Yeah, that's funny. He's got five apprentice accountants. That's what he's talking about. And he wants to do the right thing, to go keep them from starving to death.” Suddenly, the veins on the captain's neck stood out. He turned on the men who were la    ughing. “Are any of ye man enough to do that? Any of ye?”

They fell silent, stunned.

“He's the youngest of ye lot and he's puny but he's ready to stand up for his family. Are ye?”

One of the shorter men, Gannick, had the presence of mind to stammer, “Y-yes, sir.”

“Are ye?” Vir called to the other men.

The rest of his soldiers stood to attention. It shouldn't have looked like much because they were a raggedy lot dressed in spare bits of armor stolen from who knows where. But Vir had given them muscles. Their bodies had force.

“Yes sir!” they shouted.

“Right then, we got business to do.” Vir rubbed his mustache. “If we can drop off the accountant in a town on our way, fine. If not, too bad for him. But we're letting him go.”

He turned to Alaric and added, “That's final.”

“Yes, sir.” The sergeant's shoulders slumped. Denario sighed with relief but he did it with his mouth closed.

Next: Chapter Nine, Scene Two

Sunday, October 9, 2016

A Nerd in a Warrior Culture - Eight 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

Chapter Two Cubed

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Not Even Not Zen 52: A Bandit Accountant, 8.7

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Two Cubed
Scene Seven: End of a Short Trip

The next day, Denario thought of a lot of things he could do to stay safe from the Raduar.  Most of them involved hiding behind Vir, running away, or somehow getting back home as fast as possible.

But in his rough, demanding way Vir was trying to help.  He stopped their hike to train Denario at every excuse.  When the two of them refilled their canteens at a stream, they trained so much that they got thirsty, drank, and had to refill again when it was over.  By noon, the wind picked up but the breeze couldn't dry out the sweat from Denario's shirts and leather hauberk.  His body had never worked like this before.  Vir made them eat bread on the march.  That was all the lunch they would get, Denario guessed.

After the bread was put away and the sun had passed its peak, they crested their second large hill of their hike.  Near the top, blue jays traded warning songs with brown warblers.  The sun pressed down hard enough to made Denario's skin hurt.  There wasn't much shade.  The trees were maple and poplar, short and young, with lots of grass between them.

Suddenly, Vir hissed, “Get down.”

Denario's body reacted before his mind had time to ask questions.  His legs kicked out behind him and he flopped down in the grass.

“What is it?”

“Folks are coming up the slope.”  Vir stared straight down the opposite side of the hill that they'd climbed.  “Someone's got a sunrise shield.  It's the Raduar.  Damn.”

“How many?”

“At least three.  And they saw us.  Ah, crap, get up.  Get your spear ready.”

Denario groaned.  His arms were tired from the constant lessons.  His feet ached and his legs seemed to have passed into a state of permanent trembling.  A grunt escaped him as he tried to push himself up off ground.  He managed it but it was far, far harder than it should have been.

He rose in time to catch a glimpse of two tall, strong men in armor.  He thought he glimpsed the helmet of a third.  All three were headed down the prominence they'd crested a couple hundred yards away on the other side of the hill.  They were in a position to see Denario, too.  One of them was carrying a golden shield and wearing a brown chestplate.  That one pointed with his sword.  All three kept marching toward Vir and Denario.  In a moment, they passed out of sight.  Denario had no doubt that they were headed up the hill with murder on their minds.

Behind them came another Raduar, a straggler with no shield.

“Four,” grunted Vir.  “They'll be on us soon, too.”

“Vir, the numbers are against us.  Can't we just run?”

“No.  They'll hunt us down.  Anyway, I can see more men coming up from behind.”

“Oh, gods.”  Denario squinted at the grassy prominence.  Sure enough, there were a couple more bandits.  “One has blonde hair beneath the helmet.”

“His armor looks familiar.”  Vir squinted at the tall figure.

“Yes, I think ...”

“It's Alaric!  That's his clan sign on the breastplate.  Hah.  He must have won.  Don't you see?  These are the last of the Raduar coming for us then.  We've got a chance to finish the battle.”

“Could we talk to them?  Maybe they'd surrender.”

“Don't be a fool.  They only came this far because they swore oaths to kill me.  And here I am.  I'll take the two on the left,” said Vir, deadpan.  He meant it.  “Ye handle the one on the right.  Slow him down.  That's all ye need to do.  My men are charging up the hill behind, remember.  They'll catch the straggler, more than likely.  All ye have to do is hold out.”

“Sure.  Fine.”  Denario was starting to panic.  He could feel unwanted nervous energy pouring into him.  His hands were trembling.  His mind felt clouded.  He could barely think of how to stand with a spear.

“Hold out,” Vir repeated.

He was going to die.  Denario knew it with complete certainty.  He knew that the bandit chief knew it, too.  Denario had gotten his run of good luck and now he was about to have bad luck.  But he couldn't fight well enough to survive even thirty seconds of misfortune against these bandit tribesmen who had trained with weapons all of their lives. He was completely outmatched.

The utter certainty of death made him think better.  Abruptly, he threw down his spear.

“What are ye doing?” Vir shouted.  “Ye'll get us both killed.”

Denario danced like a fool to remove his travel pack, the one with the loot from the gamblers.  There was a ball of string in it somewhere.  He tossed it down next to his spear and started digging into it frantically.

“How much time before they can see us again?” he shouted.

“Not even a minute.”

But Denario had the string.  He ran to the nearest tree in front of him, tied a loop around the trunk, ran to the next, tied a loop there, and left the ball behind the second tree.  He didn't even have time to cut it.

Vir hopped from foot to foot as he watched.  He had the angriest grin on his face that Denario had ever seen.

After he dropped the string, Denario ran back to his spear.

“Yer crazy.” Vir added a few choice words of sacrilege.  “Truly crazy.  Well, get yer spear point up.  Get it up!  Here they come!”

The Raduar crested the hill at a walk.  Their heads were no more than sixty yards away when they came into view.  How Vir had known they were about to appear was beyond Denario.  At any rate, the three men in front looked worn.  That gave Denario hope that they'd be inclined to surrender.  One of them was covered, head to toe, in white feathers.  The feathers had been pinched by the creases of his splint-mail armor so that some of them stuck out in jaunty tufts.  But he grinned when he saw Vir and Denario.  That made him look a bit like a maddened rooster.  He pointed his sword at Vir.  Behind him, the other two nodded and grinned, too.  Their weapons came up, axe and mace.

“Hey, uh, good fellows,” Denario began.  The Raduar looked like they were about to charge.  “Don't you want to talk?”

“It's him!” the leader shouted.  He dug his toes into the dirt and ran toward Vir.

The three warriors let out a blood-curdling war cry.  Denario had been right about them being tired.  They took ten or fifteen yards to get up to speed.  But when they did, they loomed close, fast.  These were men who had been born to size and strength.  They were utterly confident of their ability to kill.  Probably they'd had a lot of experience doing that.

Denario's hands felt wet.  He cringed with the spear in his grasp.  His fingers clenched so tight on it that his hands looked as white as bones.

The leader hit the tripline first.  Before he could fall, his closest companion ran into him.  They went down together.  The man behind them hit the string, too, about three feet to their left, and he nearly managed to stay upright.  He hopped three steps forward, tumbled with the broken tripline wrapped around his ankle, and rolled to a stop in front of Vir's feet.

That turned out to be a bad place for him to be.

Next: Chapter Nine, Scene One