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

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