Sunday, May 28, 2017

Not Even Not Zen 80: A Bandit Accountant, 13.3

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Baker's Dozen

Scene Three: A Math Tutorial

The inside of the animal doctor's barn looked dark even in candle light. Denario spent two evenings in the place as he worked for Jake and Hadewig Kaufmann. The barn’s decorations were odd. The inhabitants were, too. Aside from the knocker-fox, there were two pigs, a milk cow, a calf, a rather elderly dog, four goats, and a colony of flying frogs. There were bowls of water nailed to the walls of the barn. Many of the bowls rested high up near the rafters. All of them needed refilling daily. The job had to be done a certain way, too, or the flying frogs would die. Jake handled most of it by himself but Denario helped with the ladder and filled the occasional bowl under Jake's watchful eye.

The flying frogs were obviously magical but otherwise they weren't impressive. When they puffed themselves up and stretched their warty, green wings, they almost reached the size of ordinary bullfrogs. They needed to swim in a bath at least once an hour. That meant they couldn't fly far from the barn. Jake said there was only one spring on the hill and he'd built his house next to it. So the flying frogs couldn't find enough water to live elsewhere in the countryside. Even with the barn door open in good weather, most of the frogs had the sense not to leave.
Last fall, Jake had followed a female as it tried to migrate. In less than a mile, the frog had reached the edge of the dense background magic. There, her wings shrunk. She fell out of the sky. The fall nearly killed her.

“They're odd creatures,” Jake said as he added water to the bowls. “Right now, they and the knocker-fox are the only magical animals I've got but I've enjoyed raising them. I'm building a separate barn for baby griffins. The Oggli and Angrili Wizards' Guild is willing to pay me handsomely to try to farm them.”

“Do griffins really hatch from jeweled eggs?”

“Oh yes. Nowadays, people are hunting their nests a bit too fiercely. Griffins are getting scarce. It'll be good to raise some in captivity.”

Something in Jake's manner made Denario think that he had already planned to 'lose' one or two griffins to the wilds. The wizards would get the eggs and the profits, of course, but only so that Jake could continue his work creating more griffins.

The knocker-fox, as its name implied, was possessed by a friendly human ghost. Jake thought this one had been a wizard who had borrowed the fox's body, gotten over-involved in acting like an animal, and foolishly let his real body die.

“Early on, I tried a lot of names with him,” said Jake. He gave the fox a pet as if it were a dog. “He responds well to Dedric. I think that must be close to his human name.”

“Poor fellow,” murmured Denario. He started to pet the animal but hesitated, a bit frightened by its apparent smile.

“Not really.” Jake pointed to a small, black form thrashing in the straw on the floor. “He gets a lot to eat. In fact, he almost ate Hadewig's cat last year in a fight about who got to have the fallen tadpoles. But they've come to terms. Dedric gets first pick.”

The thing that was writhing on the barn floor turned out to be a tadpole. The fox took an interest in it. The slimy creature must have jumped from its bowl. Maybe it had tried to fly. It was a rather large tadpole with legs and wings. When it saw the fox coming it tried to burrow into the straw. The fox put a paw down and stopped it in a rather human manner. Then it sniffed.
A pale orange cat appeared from the shadows. It turned its head away as if uninterested in what the fox was doing. It peeked, though, as the fox snuffled into the inches of straw and clacked its jaws. The fox had swallowed the winged tadpole in one bite.

“It's funny how the frogs let the fox and cat do that,” said Jake.

“Can they stop it?” Denario glanced up to the rafters, where a dozen frogs perched. One of them turned its lazy gaze downward.

“They can stop the cat, yes. Roughbottom doesn't want to incur the wrath of the adult frogs. But they don't seem to mind when he eats a fallen tadpole or even a frog that's been injured in a mating fight. If it's dropped to the floor, they don't care. But if Roughbottom climbs high enough to approach a bowl of eggs or tadpoles, the frogs dive at him. They've knocked him off the perches more than once. I think he's learned his lesson.”

“They wouldn't be so aggressive with the fox.”

“No, they wouldn't. Partly because the fox can eat them out of the air. He does it when they fly too low. But mostly because, unlike the cat, he can't climb.” Jake put a hand over his belly and laughed. Denario shook his head. He hadn't thought that out.

“In the wild areas, flying frogs can grow quite big.” Jake turned with his watering can raised high. He poured water into a bowl with elaborate care. “With enough magic, the frogs grow too large for even a fox to bother.”

They worked for over an hour on the frogs. Denario mostly held the ladder and fed the droopy-eared dog with a set of snacks that met Jake's approval. Denario also learned to use a pitchfork well enough to nearly kill a goat when he dropped it. After that incident, Jake stopped asking him to feed the big animals.

Finally, they finished. Jake climbed back down from the rafters. He wiped his hands on his trousers and picked up an armful of clover and hay that he had de-glued with his magic rock. He let the goats come over and eat some out of his hands.

“They certainly seem to like you,” Denario said, a bit jealous.

“They know me. And I suppose they sense that you aren't comfortable around them. That's why they shy away from you.”

“And because of the pitchfork.”

“And the pitchfork, yes. Again.” Jake rolled his eyes. Denario saw his point. The accountant had encountered problems with farm tools during the previous night’s work, too. “It's funny how awkward you are with long objects. I've seen how badly you practice with your spear. At first, I didn't quite believe you when you said you weren't a warrior. Not that I thought you were a liar exactly but I thought you might be unduly modest. Now I understand better.”

Denario sighed. There didn't seem to be much to say about the issue of combat. He knew he didn’t have much physical talent. However, there was no denying that he needed to hone his meager skills since he would depend on them to keep his body intact on the long walk to Oggli.

“You can't even string your bow,” Jake continued after a pause for thought. “It's good of you to keep trying, though.”

“I'm doing what the chief of the Mundredi told me to do. I'm not confident enough in my skills to disregard his advice.”

“You shouldn’t be. Now that I’ve met your acquaintance, I like you well enough to hope you never get into an actual fight. As you told us, you’re no warrior. But as a math tutor, you're wonderful. Hadewig and Tabitha are very happy with your lessons. That’s saying a lot for Tabitha. And you’ve done more, of course. I have to thank you for making that book of math practices for my daughter.”

“You're welcome.” Denario nodded in acknowledgment. “It's almost done.”

“You mean there's more to come? It looks quite good already. You're an amazing artist. The shapes you draw are perfect.”

“That's just a matter of having the right tools.” With a protractor, straightedge, and compass, Denario could draw almost anything. With a free hand, he was awful, not an artist at all, but that hardly mattered for a children's book.

“Your writing is incredibly precise. I've seen you making entries in your professional journals. You write in them quite a lot.”

“I've been concerned with odd questions about math. One of them, I'd have to say, I don't think anyone's formally ever asked before. It’s a question that came up when I was talking with the Mundredi war chief. Maybe there's no chance of me working out an answer but I feel bound to try. Math is my hobby as well as my profession.”

“Admirable.” Jake nodded. His agreement came as no surprise since he also was a man whose hobby was also his profession.

Denario subscribed to some interesting theories about geometry that he wanted to prove. The most important was that there was a way to approximate division by zero by using numbers that were really, really small. He drew thin rectangles inside of circles to do his basic calculations. He’d been working on that since he was nine. But the latest question to occupy his mind originated with the comment from Vir, “One apple isn't the same as another apple.” The chief hadn’t known it but he’d struck at the heart of mathematics. The axiom of x = x was a basic rule. And where did the basic rules come from? Was it possible to prove that any of them were correct? An Oggli native named Gauss had proved the assumption of primitive polynomial equations about a century ago. His name was famous in math although all he had done, in a formal way, was show that the integer coefficients of the product of two primitive equations would never be evenly divisible by any number greater than one.

It was the formal logic that had impressed everyone. Denario hoped he could use the same formal system to prove that numbers themselves were real. They had to be, he thought. But what was it about a number that gave it logical certitude? An apple wasn't the same as another apple but the number three was the same anywhere at any time. The quantity of something was a universal property. Denario had become determined to work out why.

“Might be worth taking to an engraver,” Jake muttered as he opened the barn door.

“What would?” Lost in thought, Denario hadn't followed whatever Jake kept on about. He numbly followed the animal doctor through the path in the dried glue.

In the house, Jake hugged his wife and endured squeals and squeezes from his daughter. She was always happy to see him even if he'd only been gone for a few minutes. He walked straight to the desk where Denario had made his math lessons pamphlet. Gingerly, he moved aside the protractor as if handling a rare and particularly fragile egg. Then he thumbed through the drawings beneath.

“Still a few blank pages left, I see,” he said at the end.

“Enough to do adding by tens, I think.” Denario glanced to Hadewig. “If that suits Tabitha. She seems to have the idea of adding the smaller numbers.”

“She's been at it all day,” said Hadewig with a mixture of exasperation and pride. “She won't leave me alone. It's a good thing Jake made her those wooden blocks this winter. She can count with them and let me bake.”

Although Denario slept in the barn as far away from the frogs as he could get, the Kaufmans fed him at their table. Their time alone must have seemed a bit too much because they sat on the edges of their seats for Denario's stories, even the ones about math.

“You know, a farmer on the next hill east sang me part of a story about an accountant,” Jake said as he wiped his hands on a napkin. “It sounds a bit like your adventures, only funnier.”

“It is me,” Denario sighed.

Jake howled. His wife joined in the laughter too, although she'd only heard the ballad third-hand from her husband. Their daughter laughed because everyone else was laughing. Together, they cajoled Denario into telling the details of his battles and of his accounting. They thought it was wonderful that the bards of Phart's Bad had written an saga for him. It made him 'official' in their eyes and also teased their vanity about Oggli being a city that produces great men from great guilds. Laceo had to admit he was grateful that the hill folk were paying any attention at all to math but he found it depressing that the story of his misadventures had already spread out ahead of him on his journey to Oggli.

“Don't worry, Denario.” Hadewig put a kind hand on his elbow. “You're the first accountant these folks have heard of. And you've represented your counting house very well, really.”

“If we get back to the city before you, we'll put in the good word.” Jake forgot the napkin and wiped his mouth on his sleeve. He ignored his wife's narrowed gaze.

“My father dotes on Tabitha,” she said after she sighed and visibly decided not to criticize her husband. “We'll show him your book for her.”

After Denario finished his second bowl of leek soup and devoured a loaf of Hadewig's fresh bread, he got up and grabbed the math tutorial booklet. Tabitha had announced that she was sleepy. She'd pulled on Denario's shoulder and said wanted a story. It was odd that a child would want him to read math lessons as if they were entertainment but Denario was willing. He sat next to her bedroll on the floor. He pointed to the drawings as he turned each page. Tabitha clapped when he reached the line about two ducks plus five ducks.

“Seven,” she said, eyes closed. Hadewig and Jake beamed. “Two big ducks. Five little ducks. Seven ducks.”

For a moment, Denario wondered what it might be like to be a parent. He dismissed the idea as outlandish. As it was, he had more than enough responsibility on his hands with five apprentices. He hoped Curo was reading math lessons to the youngest two, Guilder and Mark. If Curo didn't do it, he doubted Sheckel or Buck would take over the job. Maybe Kroner would. He could hope.

Finally Tabitha fell asleep. Denario managed to pry the corner of the booklet from her hand. He rose from the side of her bed and whispered, “I'll finish this tonight.”

“Just as well,” Jake said. He didn't bother to lower his voice much. “You'll be gone tomorrow.”

“You're kicking me out?”

“No. Can't you smell it above the scent of dried glue? It's fixing to storm tonight, a real rain. It's going to wash away the residual magic.”

Denario sniffed. His nose wasn't as trained as a Seven Valleys native, not even this rather non-native native. But Jake hadn't been wrong about weather or animals yet. So he checked his travel bags before he sat down to Hadewig's desk and lit a tall candle. Then he got back to his work.

Next: Chapter Thirteen, Scene Four

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Not Even Not Zen 79: A Bandit Accountant, 13.2

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Baker's Dozen

Scene Two: Strange Snow

Around the time Denario crested Tree Stump hill, he was mentally reviewing the tax accounts for Ziegeburg. There was no particular reason to do it. He had written the story of his findings in his log book already. He just enjoyed re-thinking the math.

Years ago at a temple in the town of Flieshopphen, north of Oggli, Denario had stopped with a team of accountants and surveyors from the Count of Oggli. The monks there had advised everyone to empty their minds. That was supposed to be better for noticing the world around them. Master Winkel, the survey leader, had responded that an empty mind was fine for someone who had nothing to do. An accountant always had work. He'd told Denario to keep on thinking about math. So he always did.

And in his idle time, Denario wondered about math, geometry, and business. He liked to test his cleverness and his memory. The light was waning as he marched across the flat hilltop. Denario counted his steps. He counted the flower buds among the grasses. The rest of his thought process drifted along in the Ziegeburg work:

7,342 in silver and the emperor gets 10 percent ... 

Wind rushed through a meadow of heather downhill from him. It cast the scent of the heather into his face.

That’s 734, no, 735 actually, forgot to round up ... anyway, it's too bad there's no emperor anymore because he won't get his share ... 

Beyond the meadow, a hedge bush trembled. Denario could smell a hearth fire, too, but he'd smelled other distant fires and he hadn't seen a soul all day. He put his hand on the hilt of his sword. For a moment, he listened to the noise of bushes. Vir had taught him that habit.

Plus ten for the traditional tax collector fee, which in Ziegeburg goes to Burgher Figgins, so that’s 745 ... 

The wind felt glorious and cool through the vents in his hauberk. A snowflake drifted down no more than ten feet in front of him. He was surprised. Protected by layers of crude armor, he hadn't noticed that the weather was harsh enough for that. He felt warm and safe. Nothing moved except the heather, the bushes, and Denario. He removed his hand from his sword.

Take away 742 ... that’s 6,600 minus 3 ... 

He tromped through the heather. Not a bird or rabbit bounded away from him. Odd, he thought. He hadn't seen many animals.

That meant 6,597 minus the duke’s share ... the duke gets the emperor's share and his own ... except the count skims a percentage off of the top ... 

Even as a child, Denario had found that he could carry out quite complex equations and sophisticated steps in logical philosophies while remaining intensely aware of his surroundings.

Another few snowflakes drifted in. He smiled at them. In his third travel pack, strapped to his pack, he had a roll of furs wrapped around a tiny bolt of linen. He could withstand a blizzard in his gear, not that he would face one. It was spring. This was just a gentle dusting of a hilltop.

As he reached the end of the meadow and headed downslope into a thicket of trees, the snow changed. It blew hard down the back of his neck. It started sticking to the ground.

He moved his spear from his left hand to the right. That is, he tried to switch hands. He couldn't. The shaft of the spear stuck to his glove.

“Aaah,” he grunted. He tried again. He wanted to use the butt of his spear to steady his scramble down the muddy patch of slope, except now it was becoming a snow-covered muddy patch.

He crouched and knelt to look at the pale swath of ground. The snow on it wasn't melting into water. It was turning into a sort of thick, white glue. He stood and managed to move the sticky spear from his left hand to his right. It nearly took his glove with it. He studied the palm of his glove. It was covered in what seemed to be glue.

He sniffed at the white stuff. It was, in fact, glue. All of it was. Flakes of glue were tumbling out of the evening sky. Damn it! The gods were mad. Or maybe he'd simply wandered into a high-magic area.

“Stupid!” He smacked himself in the forehead with his left hand. That stuck his left glove to his face for a moment. He started to panic.

“AAAaaah!” he screamed. He tried to wipe the glue from his left eye with his sleeve. But his sleeve was covered in glue. “Damn!”

He realized that he could still see if he left his face alone. He only needed to stop wiping himself with the insidious, magic snow. He ripped the glove away. He forced his arms to his side. But he was twitching. He found it hard to hold still. And in a few seconds he realized that holding still might be a very, very bad thing to do. How much magic glue could fall on him here? He didn't want to find out.

He started to run. He tried to find thickets of tall trees. He ran from cover to cover as best as he could. In a few minutes, he'd reached the relative safety of a pine grove. But the snow blew down his back in gusts even here. Did he want to hide under these boughs from the worst of the storm? Not really, he guessed. It would be bad enough to get snowed in. It would be worse to get glued in. He sniffed again. Over the smell of the glue there was the campfire that he'd noticed earlier. It was close and it would provide shelter. It had to. Anyone living near a high magic area knew what they were doing. He'd better find that person soon.

He kept running in the direction of the smoke. He tried to stay under the trees but the glue landed on his hat, his jerkin, his gloves, and everywhere else. It kept finding him. He wondered: since it was magical could it be trying to get him?

Finally, he came to a clearing. About fifty yards away stood a log hut. There was a barn behind it and a chicken coop to the side. The hut had windows, shutters closed. Light came through the slits of the shutters. Beside the house was a patch of mud that led to the barn. Not much glue had fallen there or someone had removed a part of it.

“Rrrrrraaah!” He sprinted as best as he could but he wasn't fast even in the best of circumstances. He'd been figuratively running in glue his whole life. Doing it literally was worse than he could have dreamt. He worried that if he slowed, his boots would lock in place in the inch of paste that covered the front yard.

He worried about trampling the spring crops these folks had planted but surely the wheat stalks were dead now, just as he would be if he fell.

Naturally, he slipped and fell. A window on the cabin opened. Denario glanced at it and saw a silhouette there, perhaps a woman's face. And in the moment of his distraction he stepped into a hidden pile of manure. That sent him to the ground in a splash of brown dung and white mush. The packs, the spear, the sword, his armor, the buckler on his back, and everything else conspired to drag him down, including the adhesive between him and the ground. But he got up. Covered by mud, dung, grass, snow, and glue, he rose and kept running.

“Aaah!” he screamed as he reached the closed front door. It was a good oak one, almost rectangular and cut from a single tree. “I mean, barn! Aaah! Can I take shelter in your barn? Please!”

“Go ahead,” said a woman's voice. Then the door pulled open. A matron in a gray dress and her husband, dressed in overalls and rain gear, stared at him. “It's still glue?”

“Aaaah! Yes! I mean, yes.” Denario lowered his voice.

“Come on in. We have a magic scrub for that.”

Denario stepped into the middle the doorway. He stared at the patch of bearskin carpet beneath him. He dripped a spot of glue onto it.

“Are you sure?” he said.

“He's small enough,” the man, who Denario had first take to be a farmer but who had all his front teeth, a solid jaw, and the speech of a somewhat-educated man. He waved a gray, shiny rock over Denario's head. “And he's not a murderer.”

“Really?” Denario swallowed. “Look, I need your help. But I don't want to deceive you. Your rock is broken.”

“The shaman says it's fine. But from what you're saying, I guess you've killed.” The big fellow didn't seem concerned. In his rain gear he looked a bit like a priest. Maybe he was one. That would be an explanation for his living out here. “Was it self-defense?”

Denario nodded.

“Get in here!” the woman suddenly shouted. “You're letting in the glue!”

That was a sentence Denario had never expected to hear in his life but it made perfect sense. His legs obeyed her. She shut the door behind him.

He stood and dripped on their patch of bearskin for a minute while they studied him. He knew he had to look pathetic, mostly. On the other hand, he worried how the baselard and spear would seem. This farm couple probably couldn't tell at a glance that Denario was incompetent with his weapons.

The woman giggled. She tried not to show it. She hid her smile behind an open hand.

“Sorry.” She blushed. “I think you are the shortest and skinniest warrior I've ever seen.”

“You've got an Ogglian accent!” Denario exclaimed as he realized it.

“So do you!” The woman and her husband recognized at the same time. The big fellow spoke like someone who'd had a formal education in the city. He grinned as he clapped Denario on the shoulder. Then he made a disgusted face. He'd smacked the dung and glue. Some of it had spattered onto his beard.

“I'm an accountant, actually.” Denario decided not to tell him about what was in his beard. “I'm a member of the Oggli and Anghrili guild.”

“With a shield strapped to your back?” The woman chuckled openly.

“You are on the worst assignment ever,” her husband agreed.

Priest or not, the man in the raincoat knelt as if to pray. When he arose a few seconds later, the gray stone was gone and he held a black stone in his right hand. There had to be something magic about it because whenever he waved it over Denario, the stone glowed a purplish-green color. And everywhere it went within a few inches of Denario's skin, it made the covering of glue and snow disappear. In a moment, Denario's shoulder was clear except for a few spatters of cow dung.

“That's amazing!” he said.

“It's what lets us live in a high magic area like this one,” the man said. “Otherwise, we couldn't keep any animals or grow most kinds of food. I'm Jake, by the way.”

Introductions were made all around while the cleansing process went on. The woman's name was Hadewig. As Denario listened to her talk a bit more, he realized that she had to come from Oggli's 'new rich' class – not the nobility but the merchants, tradesmen, and even wizards who had done well in the past generation. The 'old rich' families grumbled about their presence but they paid their taxes in full so the count loved them. He let the merchants start schools. Even girls could go to school in Oggli. From the words she used, Hadewig revealed that she'd been one of those girls.

“And here she is,” Hadewig said. Denario glanced to his left. The woman had been talking about someone and Denario had been paying so much attention to her mannerisms and idioms of speech that he had to mentally catch up with her meaning.

It was her daughter to whom she pointed. This little three year old girl was the reason the family had come to Tree Stump Hill.

The girl wore a green dress. Her wide, curious eyes were pale blue. And she had a river of mucus streaming from her nose to nearly her chin. She looked perfectly normal for a toddler.

“Are you an elf?” She took her fingers out of her mouth to ask the question. Her hand glistened with mucus. For once, Denario wasn't worried about a child touching him. He was clearly as much of a mess as she was, probably more.

“No, sorry.” Were elves good magical creatures or bad ones? Denario wasn't clear on that point. But he was pretty sure that if he'd been one, someone would have mentioned it. “I count things. I make calculations. And I draw pictures. I do geometry. That's lots and lots of pretty pictures.”

“Huh.” She stuck her fingers in her mouth again.

“Do you count things?” he asked hopefully. He was never sure where to start with children. But if the girl had an interest in math, he knew he could get along with her somehow.

The girl shook her head no. In case she was lying, Denario glanced at her mother. Hadewig didn't notice Denario, however, as she was too busy casting a concerned gaze upon her daughter. It looked like she had neglected Tabitha's education here in the home or parts of it, at least. That was normal for a girl child. Nevertheless, it might not seem acceptable to Hadewig.

“Hey, uh, Denario. Spread your arms and legs a bit more,” requested Jake. Denario moved without worrying about the glue so much. The magic rock kept doing its work. He could tell that anything that dripped from him would be easy to clean.

When the job was halfway done, Jake handed the rock over to Denario, who immediately cleaned up the mess he'd made on their floor. That removed a burden of guilt from his mind and met with nods of approval from Jake and Hadewig. The toddling girl, however, backed away from the rock as if she knew it too well and didn't like it. Was there something bad about its magic or was there something wrong with the girl?

“You know, I don't understand why you're here for, uh ...” He hesitated as he cleaned his boot. He searched for the name he knew that Hadewig had mentioned.

“Tabitha,” Hadewig supplied.

“Your girl looks fine. Very healthy. And you both seem so educated ...” He didn't know how to finish.

“She has a problem.” Her father walked over to Tabitha and took her hand.

“It's her stomach,” clarified Hadewig although that didn't help Denario much.

“Hadewig's father is a magical supplier of sorts,” Jake continued. “He works for wizards. Does quite well, too. Back when Tabitha was young and sickly, we took her to a few doctors. No luck. She wasn't growing. She couldn't take anything other than mother's milk. She was growing thinner and thinner. We thought she'd die. But Hadewig's father took our girl to a wizard who said she had a magic deficiency.”

“Is there such a thing?” Denario wondered, perhaps rudely.

“That's what I asked. But the wizard said that Tabitha needed a bit of steady magic to help her digest food. In the end, he was shown to be right. The problem was in our daughter's stomach.”

“My father traded something to have us sent out here,” Hadewig said.

“He didn't say what, exactly.” Jake scowled. He apparently didn't like to be in debt to his father-in-law. Denario didn't understand the feeling but he'd seen it before in married men.

“So we came out here to where there's a natural, magical background radiation. Tabitha has been fine ever since, as you can see.”

Denario crouched to eye level with the girl as he brushed the glue from his other boot. She slunk behind her father's leg to avoid him, though.

“Every now and then,” said Hadewig, “my father sends us back home to see how Tabitha handles it. She's getting better. In another two years, the wizards say, she'll be ready to stay in Oggli.”

“Oh really?” Denario immediately saw the possibilities. “That's where I'm headed. When do you go for a visit next?”

Hadewig turned her grimace on Denario. He got the impression she used that look a lot. But she didn't answer. On the other side of Denario, her husband shook his head.

“It's done by magic,” he explained. “It's just us. And we don't get any warning.”

“Ah.” Denario slumped for a moment. Then he resumed his self cleaning. He'd dripped a spot of white glue on the rug. The glowing black stone wiped it out. It didn't feel particularly magical although it had a different texture from most rocks that he'd held. It was irregular and raw. The edges were rough and occasionally jagged but it was smooth in places, too, as if it had been melted. It was heavy, like metal ore.

As he crouched, he stole a glance at Tabitha. The little girl had inched into the open. She kept one hand firmly wrapped in her father's raincoat.

“Have you seen an elf?” she asked him.

He shook his head.

“I have,” she announced.


“Not quite,” explained Hadewig. She wiped her hands on her dress, an action that naturally resulted from touching her daughter's cheek. “She's seen some things, though. That's why she's on the lookout for more. Jake is an animal doctor. He keeps pets. He's got the cutest little knocker-fox in the barn. In fact, I met Jake when he took such wonderful care of my kitty, Mister Roughbottom.”

“And is Mister Roughbottom ...?”

“Oh, he's still with us. The wizard sent him here and he doesn't get to go back. Roughbottom stayed inside all winter, poor thing, but now that the weather is nice he's decided he can live out in the barn. The knocker-fox has learned not to eat him and there are mice that the dogs and fox can't hunt, most of them not too magical. Those are perfect for a cat.”

“Roughbottom caught a mouse that changed into a little man, though,” Jake sighed. “We decided to let that one go. It was probably a gnome but thankfully not one of the powerful kind. I don't think it cast a curse on us or anything.”

Denario finished his second boot. He stood and prepared to clean his hat and his neck. He hesitated as he wondered how to reach around between his shoulders.

“Don't worry about doing your head,” Jake said. “The stone won't hurt the magic you've got up there. It only sops up the raw, natural stuff and not even all of that. Magic snow and goose down are the best things for it.”

“Goose down?” Denario had been about to ask why Jake thought he had magic in his head. But the question about weather was what came out of his mouth.

“Yes, we had a snowstorm of goose down this winter. It was awful.”

“It sounds rather warm,” Denario ventured. It would have been an improvement over glue.

“Everyone thinks that.” Jake's shoulders slumped. “It nearly killed the pigs and chickens. Nearly got me, too. I had to work with a mask on. It was lucky that I had the pens and stalls already built in the barn.”

“He sneezed for hours!” Hadewig put a hand over her heart. “Let me tell you, it was no fun for any of us. Tabitha and I were in no danger, I suppose, but it didn't feel that way. We stayed locked in for two days.”

“Finally, a rain came.” Jake nodded. He daughter tugged on his coat and, absent-mindedly, he lifted her up. “I expected it to just tamp down the stuff. Come morning, though, the down was gone completely.”

“Raw magic,” his wife snorted. “It never lasts. Not like the real stuff. That gets made by wizards and stays where it should.”

Jake turned his shoulders for a moment. It was apparent that he didn't want his wife to see him roll his eyes. But Denario noticed and agreed with Jake's sentiment. Hadewig was a smart woman. However, her excellent impression of magic was based upon her father's business and the reputable wizards involved in it.

Denario's impression of magic came from rather rascally wizards and their badly made trinkets. Those made magic seem untameable. Magic did not really stay put and do what wizards told it. It took on life of its own. A finger that a wizard magically re-attached to an axeman might get into bad moods. It might not cooperate in holding the axe. That was dangerous for everyone.

All in all, limbs coming to lives of their own was why soldiers avoided asking their wizards for medical assistance. Magic couldn't be trusted. That was why Denario paid close attention to the magic he was doing at the moment. He finished cleaning his hat. The dark lump did whatever it did to make the glue disappear. He checked it and made another pass to catch a lingering stickiness.

“Don't trust it now?” Jake murmured. He must have noticed the concern on Denario's face.

Denario glanced at Hadewig.

“It's working very, very well,” he said despite his sense of wariness about it. When he finished a few minutes later, he heaved a sigh of relief.

“Looks like you're here until the glue fades.” Jake accepted the dark, magic rock from Denario's outstretched hand. He ran two fingertips over its rough edges. Then he flipped it from his left hand to his right and slipped it into a pocket on his rain slicker.

“I don't suppose you need any accounting done?” Denario asked hopefully. He wanted a way to pay for his stay.

“You could help in the barn,” the animal doctor said with a smile.

“No, Tabitha needs a math tutor.” Hadewig put her hands on her hips. She seemed shocked by her husband's idea. She'd had hers first, probably.

“You could tutor our daughter, of course.” Jake sighed. “And maybe help a little in the barn. Just a little.”

Next: Chapter Thirteen, Scene Three

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Not Even Not Zen 78: A Bandit Accountant, 13.1

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Baker's Dozen

Scene One: Fond Farewell

Dawn turned out bright but cold. Denario shivered as he hitched up his travel pack and gazed to the east. Mist had settled over the hills. Thankfully, it didn't look magical. The haze in the air lingered only as a lining of silver over the tops of the rolling greens. By mid-morning, the sun would burn it away.

“Are you sure you don't want to take some wine?” Senli asked. She had carried a skin of it away from the party. It was too heavy, already a burden in her arms. Denario begrudged every ounce that he had packed.

“Thank you,” said Denario. He turned towards her and gave his bravest smile. “It's very kind. But no, I'll have a hard enough time on the hike without getting accidentally drunk. That's something I've done before on a surveying trip, I'm afraid.”

“I can't believe that Mistress Clumpi let us come to the gate with you.” Senli let the bag slump lower. “No one ever forbid me to come here but still ...”

Denario nodded. Every slave wanted to be free. Sometimes that's all they could think about. Perhaps Olga didn't understand the temptation of the open road or perhaps she all too rightly gaged that she had to trust her book keepers. She couldn't chase them down if they ran away.

The road that led out the gate quickly divided into three trails. One of them was wide enough for maybe two horses to pass and continued to the next hill, which the locals was called Blue Stone. After that came hills known as Cup and Tree Stump. Beyond those, Denario would have to ask the people who lived there for more hill names because no one in Pharts Bad bothered to keep track of things so far away. It was funny, Denario mused, how a day's march could seem too far to bother.

The accountant had already mapped out the land ahead of him. That is, he'd done as much of it as he could. He was sure to fill in details and expand his mapping efforts as he traveled. His journals and his log book sat at the top of the accounting bag slung around his waist. This was part of his journeyman experience, after all, and he intended to provide records of the area that were as good as any in the Oggli guild hall. No accountant had been here in hundreds of years. His contribution would be important.

He tied a canteen over his left shoulder and groaned at the added weight. He'd kept the heavy mail shirt because it was his best defense. Anyway, he wasn't any good at slipping it off or on. The leather armor over it kept him warm. The buckler served as a shield and he'd grown accustomed to his short sword. His spear doubled as a walking stick and he was pretty sure he could mount a theodolite on it if he needed to make surveys for his maps. In all his equipment, the only thing he felt might be useless to him was the hunting bow.

Since he'd never caught an animal in his snares, he kept the bow. He probably couldn't hunt with it. But he vowed to try. First, he'd have to learn to string it. So far he hadn't proved strong enough.

“It's good to see you so well equipped, master,” said Hummel. Senli nodded in agreement.

“Yes, I was just thinking that this bow might keep me from starving,” he replied. He didn't say that he thought he could trade it for food. “Hummel, I'd like a word with you before I go.”

“Of course, master.” The little man shuffled closer with a gait perhaps permanently crippled by years in leg irons. Senli backed up a few paces. She glanced westward, behind them, to the Haphnaught home. There, Mistress Haphnaught sat out on the porch in a rocking chair.

Denario glanced to the east, his hand on Hummel's shoulder. There was the junior Haphnaught, the captain of the guard, at the town gate. In a way, Denario was surrounded. Everyone would know he'd spoken to Hummel privately. But it couldn't be helped.

“I have a duty to you, Hummel,” Denario murmured.

“You've been so good, master.” The brown-toothed man tried to smile. But he gave up and shook his head. “I wish you weren't leaving.”

“Me, too,” Denario lied. “Look, Hummel, what's the worst that could happen to you here in town, do you think?”

“Murder?” Well, Hummel was a literal fellow, a failing that he shared with many other book keepers, clerks, and accountants. It wasn't anything unusual.

“Less bad than that, perhaps,” Denario hinted. He tried to give the man time to think.

Hummel stroked his beard, bewildered. After a moment or two, he shrugged.

“Last night,” Denario plowed on. “The mayor complained to me about all of the mouths he had to feed. It made me wonder if he wouldn't pull a trick after I left ... a trick involving you.”

“Oh, he's never talked with me, master.” Hummel's bushy eyebrows rose. His eyes pleaded for help in following this line of thought.

“I know. I don't mean he'd ask for your cooperation. I'm wondering if he might set you free. You see, last night I made sure that the burghers knew you weren't allowed to be put back in chains.”

“Thank you. Thank you, master.”

“But the mayor doesn't like that. And you'd like to be free, wouldn't you?” Denario knew that Hummel had been an unlicensed accountant in Muntar. He'd been making his living by undercutting the Muntar Accounting Guild members. They'd finally gotten sick of the independent operators like him and tipped off the slave ship captains. Most other men in his position had seen it coming, apparently, but not Hummel. Even now, he didn't see things coming, not if they involved understanding other people.

“Better than being in chains, yes.” Hummel saw that far, at least.

“Me, too,” agreed Denario. “But have you given thought to where you would go?”

At that, Hummel's face fell.

“There's no place, master. You had it pegged right from the beginning. I've got no escape from here alive, whether I'm free or not.”

“There's always the north road.”

“What would I find along there? Better farmlands?”

“Yes. But I'm thinking of a particular town. On the north road, you'd walk straight into Timbersburg.”

Hummel sucked in air. It was the only way he could whistle.

“You see what I mean?”

“I think so, sir.” He glanced in all directions to make sure no one was close. He whispered, “You think they'd give me a job?”

“I do.” Denario felt obligated to do the forward thinking for this man. If the town cut Hummel loose, he couldn't get far on his own. The caravan leaders thought it was day's stroll to Timbersburg so it would be two days of hard work for Hummel. But he would have a clear trail. He could make it.

The mayor and burghers of Pharts Bad were just crazy enough to do something like this. They'd turned aside other bright folks, too, and some of them had ended up in Timbersburg. The mining town was essentially in the process of creating its main rival.

“It's just a thought,” he said. “It might never happen. Probably won't.”

At that moment, Hummel burst into tears and threw his arms around Denario. Denario had to thump the little man on the shoulder repeatedly to get him off. Fortunately, the outburst only lasted a few seconds. Then Denario asked to speak privately to Senli.

The short, stout woman was less dramatic than her colleague. Still, after Denario promised once again to look for her sons, the conversation ended in an embrace.

Then, finally, he was off.

Next: Chapter Thirteen, Scene Two

Sunday, May 7, 2017

A Nerd in a Warrior Culture - Twelve Chapters

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

Chapter Three Quarters of Twelve

Chapter Binary Two

Chapter Red, Green, Yellow

Chapter Square Root of Gross