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.”
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?”
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.”
“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?”
“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