A Bandit Accountant
Chapter Three Quarters of Twelve
Scene Four: Lowest on the Totem Pole
The troop picked up their new recruit, Pug, at a farm that had at least two boys and three girls working in a one-acre wheat field. To Denario, it looked like they all might be pulling up weeds but he didn't want to ask and reveal his ignorance. Anyway, the lad wasn't out in the field with the rest of his family. It took Vir a moment to chat with the father and an older brother before he found Pug at the end of the bean fences next to a totem pole with heads of local deities carved into it. Even there, the boy stayed mostly out of sight behind the pole.
Pug was hiding, perhaps, because his face was a patchwork of bruises. Denario winced to see him. His lip was healing but split. He was missing a front tooth. Although his bruises looked painful, his bones appeared to be intact except for a shattered small knuckle. Vir inspected him like man buying livestock. In Oggli, the family would have gotten offended by that. In Mekli, they threw a dinner for the troops and offered to let them sleep next to the wheat, although Vir refused that on the grounds that a few miles' march would do everyone good.
The boy's name was the same as his uncle but it was an unusual one to the rest of the Mundredi. Naturally, they began teasing him about it. To Denario's shame, he felt slightly relieved not to be the butt of their jokes for a while. He didn't feel compelled to stay close to the protection of the officers now that Pug was here.
Even so, the years of slavery in which he'd learned to anticipate casual kicks and punches served him well. The Mundredi took turns swinging at Pug. But they playfully tried to trip Denario, too. He dodged them and ignored their remarks about how short and scrawny he was. He pretended not to notice when one of the men tried to kick him.
The highlight of the evening came when Denario managed to duck as someone threw an old acorn at his head. The acorn hit Reinhard on the neck. The big man spotted the culprit instantly – it wasn't hard with the fistfulls of nuts and pebbles he was holding – and he pummeled Denario's tormentor until Gannick and Alaric told him to stop. Everyone laughed except for the fellow who'd taken the drubbing. Even Pug seemed to feel better.
The troops camped to the sound of howling wolves.
“They just moved in,” replied Pug when questioned about them. “They haven't bothered the livestock.”
Alarmed by the howling, Alaric set a watch schedule, two men at a time. Denario volunteered to go first with Reinhard. That got a smile from the sergeant, who thought his accountant was making an effort to fit in. It elicited a scowl from the captain, who knew Denario was grabbing the easiest shift. Vir constrained himself to kicking Denario's travel pack, though, as he made a spot to lie down.
And in the morning, they went to church.
It wasn't a whole church. The walls had been made of stone but someone or something had knocked most of them down. Denario realized after a few minutes there that the destruction was a tragedy. Blocks that remained showed intricate carvings. Fragments of the engraved scenes lay strewn in the clearing amidst rocks, dirt, and wild grasses.
A poplar tree had grown up in the middle of the church site because the building no longer had a ceiling – or rather, the ceiling lay on the ground in rot and rubble.
“This place was holy to Leir and Hoki back in the pre-empire days,” said Vir wistfully as he approached. “Villagers built it for protection from storms, first. Then it served them for worshiping the small gods. Then came the bigger ones. Finally, when Prince Robberti passed through, the place impressed him enough that he ordered improvements.”
“What improves a church?” Denario wondered.
Alaric and a few other men snorted.
“Was this the Biscelli Church that was supposed to be so beautiful?” Alaric's attitude changed a bit. He touched one of the fallen walls and smiled. His fingers traced the etched form of a horned god.
“You know about it?” Vir smiled at his sergeant. Denario got the impression that the two were sharing a secret.
“Well, stories of a vaulted ceiling, gold leaf on the furnishings, colored glass in the main window ...”
“It had glass windows?” Reinhard seemed astounded.
“Naturally, the prince's children fought over it.” Vir sighed. He took off his helmet to scratch his bald head. “This is all that they left, the rocks. Everything else got taken away. No one desanctified the church lands, either. Followers of Hoki and the smaller gods still visit here from nearby villages. The original village of Biscelli was destroyed, of course.”
As Vir was speaking, Denario scanned a wall for pictures that weren't covered by climbing weeds. He noticed references to Melcurio twice, once with the god pointing to a number eight, the other time with him stealing the crown off of the All-Seeing King, whose hundred eyes were all looking the wrong way. Soon Denario ran out of wall, though, and had to move on through the rubble.
“They've got a temple to Leir in Waffle Bad,” Vir continued.
As Denario walked, his eyes drifted to a pale shape in the grass. It took Denario a moment to recognize that it was a goatfish of some kind. Was it a primitive version of Glaistig? This was a long way from her river. He picked it up and turned it over in his hands. Time had been kind to this piece. The figure was intact.
Denario knelt and said a little prayer of thanks to Melcurio. He was lucky to have gotten this far in his journey. As an afterthought, he thanked Glaistig, too. He'd made the decision, almost without thinking, to keep the goatfish piece. It might be crazy to carry extra weight, even though it barely amounted to a single pound, for miles and miles. Yet the thought of showing it to Pecunia made him smile. Pecunia showed every sign of detesting the priestess at the Temple of Glaistig but she nevertheless showed affection and curiosity for the goddess herself.
“It's holy,” whispered someone next to him.
“A little,” Denario allowed. He didn't have that powerful feeling he sometimes got in a church or temple. He had to admit that the place felt good, though.
“Yer not afraid of stealing from the church?” Gannick asked.
“No.” Denario slipped the carved rock into his travel pack. “Not at all.”
The Mundredi, though, seemed afraid for Denario. It was touching, if ridiculous. Several men made holy signs over themselves or over him. Even Moritz shook his head at an accountant's craziness. Pug kept his mouth closed and his hands behind his back. Denario remembered that the boy had gotten into trouble for mocking his local priest. He lived close by to these ruins, too, so he knew them well. He probably took things from this old church. After all, he was the sort who would defy the gods. Denario wondered if the superstitious talk was making him worried. For whatever reasons of religion and logic, it didn't bother Denario. He felt good about what he'd taken.
“The gods are funny about their holy places,” Alaric chimed in. “And this site is still consecrated. Be careful. They say that the sons of Prince Robb who took stuff out of here died soon after.”
“Ah, well,” said Vir. “That could be said of many folks in those times. They all died before they saw thirty. Anyway, didn't ye see the accountant saying a prayer to Melcurio? That's the god of thieves, ye know.”
“Accountants,” retorted Denario. “He's the god of accountants.”
“Same thing,” said Vir with a smile.
Next: Chapter Nine, Scene Five