Chapter Baker's Dozen
Scene Five: Accounting by Sticks
“Well now, that smells wonderful and awful at the same time,” said the hermit. He stood well away from Denario and scratched his armpit.
“Sorry, Mister, uh, Chains,” Denario replied. It was struggle to remember the hermit's name, particularly as it had the air of being made up. “The bag doesn't have enough compartments to keep everything separated. Sweet herbs have mixed with the savory. Do you want to trade?”
“Trade spice? Or food?”
“Anything, I think.”
The fellow that Denario assumed was some sort of hermit wore a pain brown tunic that had seen better days and probably better years and, in fact, probably better hermits as well. It looked like he was the last member of his church and had inherited the traditional garb. The brown burlap was cut too large but the sleeves were too short. The hemline didn't cover the man's knees. The holes, front and back, were badly patched.
The fellow wrinkled his nose often in the span of their brief conversation. He apparently didn't think much of Denario's smell, which was to be expected. At the Kaufmann's house, Denario had scrubbed himself down and changed his clothes. But when he'd lifted his mail shirt over his head, he'd been shocked to find bits of blood on the iron rings. And his back had felt wet. He was bleeding. Why? It took him a moment or two to work out the reason. Iron rings had pressed through the cheap farmer's shirt he'd been wearing. He needed a tougher shirt underneath.
As a result, Denario had chosen a heavy linen to protect him from his armor. It kept him warm beneath the mail and the leather hauberk. The linen kept him so warm, in fact, that he stank of sweat in a matter of minutes and kept on stinking more as he walked.
He wasn't planning to change out of his armor until he got to the creek. He hoped the other hill folks he met were as tolerant as the Kaufmanns. That wasn't likely, if Mr. Chains was a fair sample. He kept sniffing as if he couldn't believe how bad things smelled.
The hermit's eyebrows were really one eyebrow. His black and grey beard merged into his hair without a noticeable difference in color or thickness. His bare arms bristled with dark fur. He wore a holy symbol around his neck, a crescent of some sort. It was probably for a harvest god who Denario didn't recognize.
“We don't get many wizards through here, just one or two a year.” The man pointed blue stone coin to the chain around Denario's neck. It seemed as strange to him as his holy symbol was to Denario.
“I'm ...” Denario struggled to explain himself. “I'm something like that but I don't do magic except for numeromancy. That's magic with numbers.”
“Is that yer trade, then? Numbers?”
“Yes. I'm an accountant.”
At that, the hermit chuckled. “I've heard a song about an accountant.”
Denario thought about that for a moment. Even this fellow all alone, miles away from any city or town, had heard the Mundredi ballad. It seemed there would be no escape from it. Denario looked at his map. Then he looked at the stranger. Then he howled. He didn't know why he did it. The wail just burst out of him in a flood of loneliness and hopelessness.
“Oh,” said the hermit with a nod of understanding. “So that was ye, was it?”
“Hooooo,” Denario agreed, not quite able to speak.
“If it's any consolation, my neighbors know the whole thing to the end. And they said the song has a bit of numbers in it. They never knew numbers was so useful.”
Denario took a deep breath. He took another, slow one and started to feel better. Then he shook his map, which he realized was mostly imaginary, and tried to guess how long his march would take.
“What is this hill called? The one I'm on, I mean,” he asked.
“Yer on Crumbling Bluff. The next one yer facing is Knob.” Chains gestured with hairy fingers to east. “Then comes Brushfire, then Flint.”
“You seem to know quite a lot of geography.” Denario fumbled into his bag for the rod of graphite, antimony, and sulphur. That was his best instrument for drawing. What he found was a pen nub with some ink left in it. He used it to scribble the hill names onto his map.
“I gets around.”
“Would you happen to know where I can find No Map Creek?”
“Never heard of it.”
Denario sighed. As he dropped the pen nub back into his bag, he realized he had at least a week's worth of foot travel left. But that wasn't so bad. He liked having the time to think and write about math. His armor and equipment didn't bother him as much as they had a month ago. He closed his eyelids and rested. After a minute, he decided to ignore the hermit Chains as politely as he could. It had been a long morning.
When he opened his eyes, though, the hermit was sitting on the ground near his feet. Denario closed his eyes one more time but it bothered him to be rude. Despite his concerns about not carrying food for two, he offered to share his lunch.
Chains hopped to his feet. It was what he'd been waiting for. Fortunately, he was content with hunks of cheese.
Now that he'd gotten the idea that Denario was some sort of priest of numbers, Chains gave him a lecture on his use of tally sticks at his old job. The hermit had kept accounts on sticks for all of his life. Some of that time had been spent in a temple where he'd helped keep the records. Carved sticks represented the only advanced math known to Mister Chains. In the hermit's opinion, all other forms of accounting were trickery. He didn't trust things that were written down. Words could be changed. A stick, he felt sure, could not be faked.
“But accounting isn't ...” Denario restrained himself. He made a gift of his last sausage as he reconsidered his words. He'd been about to say that accounting did not include split debtor sticks. Winkel would have proudly stated that. It's what every accountant in Oggli would have told a country bumpkin like this one. Accounts were complicated things, written down or, in rare cases, recorded and manipulated mechanically.
“Tell me,” he said as he tried to shift the clock-gears of his mind with mixed success. His emotions went thunk, chunk, what would others say? He plunged on. “When you split a tally stick, how do you tell who is the banker and who is the debtor?”
“If ye mean who does the owing, that's easy.” Chains wiggled his butt happily into his patch of ground beneath Denario's rock. He cuddled his sausage in both hands. “Ye make a cut near the bottom of the stick. That takes a special knife with teeth.”
“That's the name. Just a little saw and a little cut only halfway through the wood. Then when ye make the split of the tally, one half of the account is shorter than the other. See? The longer part is called the stock. The stock goes to the lender. The shorter part is called the foil. That goes to them what owes.”
“The debtors. So the debtor gets the short side, which fits into the long one exactly at the notch. Don't debtors try to cheat by losing their sticks?”
“They do. I can see that you're wise for a young man. Many folks try tricks like that. But the tally stick is full of the tribe markings, clan markings, and house markings. The lender side gets the clan and house marks of them that owes.”
“Ah, I see. And the short stick has marks for who they need to pay.”
“God marks, too,” Chains said in hushed tones. “Signs of them gods what will take revenge on cheaters. That's the important thing.”
His fanatically-wide eyes alarmed Denario enough that he had to glance away for a moment. Chains seemed to be a man with complete faith in the gods. It gave intensity to his alone-in-the-world strangeness. After a pause to sniff the sausage in his cupped hands, the hermit pushed his face up against his palms and ravaged the meat. He drove flecks of pork by-products into his beard.
After their lunch was finished, the hermit mentioned that he knew where there was safe water. Denario needed to fill his canteens, so he packed up and followed Chains about two hundred yards downhill to a muddy spring that Denario would never have known existed. It was surrounded by bushes and underbrush.
Inside the canopy of juniper and maple boughs, the tent-sized oasis was dark as dusk. Denario couldn't have found the water by himself even knowing it was there. The pool had collected in rocky cleft at the base of a two-year sapling.
Although it didn't look good, the water tasted fine. Denario patiently filled his bottles to capacity.
“I've been thinking about your tally stick system,” he ventured.
The hermit smiled. His eyes glowed like distant moons in the shade of the hollow.
“The carved debts are very nearly money. Do you know money?”
“Like ... carved pieces of copper? Or gold?”
“Yes, like that. They can transfer from person to person easily. That's an advantage of money. But the tally sticks come close. They mark how many sheep or goats are owed ...”
“Or pigs or other things, yes. But the debt has to stay in the same house or same clan. It can pass from father to son but not to anyone outside outside the clan.”
“Not outside the house,” grunted Chains. “Debts are personal.”
“Yes.” Denario didn't want to upset the hermit with strange ideas. Anyway, Chains was right. Debts were personal things. Master Winkel had never been comfortable with the way they were passed around like money in Oggli.
As they strolled out of the wooded area that surrounded the spring, Denario ventured, “Do people try to cheat with the tally sticks?”
“How?” The hermit raised his furry eyebrows. They formed an arch through the middle of his forehead.
“If a debtor loses his half ...”
“This time I mean if he really loses it, maybe in a fire. Then he needs to keep it secret. Doesn't he? If the lender knew he'd lost his half, the lender would cheat by adding more marks.” Denario hesitated. The hermit had crouched his shoulders. He looked uncomfortable with the idea. “Unless the gods stepped in, of course.”
“Yes!” Chains stood straighter. “The gods can help. Yer wise for a young man. Did ye really leave a wounded man on the ground and rush to help yer captain?”
“Eh?” It took Denario a moment to realize that the hermit was referring to the humorous ballad he'd heard. “Yes, something like that.”
“Wicked of the man to come back at ye after ye let him live.”
Denario touched the scar on his head. The hermit's gaze rose to it.
“I'm not much of a fighter,” Denario admitted. “I didn't think much about it. Most of my life, I've thought about math.”
“How ken ye say ye think about math when ye know nothin' much about tally sticks?” Chains wailed.
The hermit followed Denario for almost two miles. He kept describing tally sticks and quizzing Denario on what he'd just said. It made Denario worry that he'd made a serious mistake in feeding the man. In his travel bag he kept no more than a few days' worth of food. If he had to supply nourishment for a fellow drifter, they'd both go hungry by the dinner after next.
Fortunately, Mister Chains disappeared in the late afternoon.
He'd been marching behind the accountant. Both men had fallen silent. Denario had twice proved that he understood the spacing of symbols on local tally sticks. There seemed to be nothing more to learn. As they reached a furrow of land between two hills, Denario heard a rustle in the brush. He stopped and turned to ask Chains what it was. But there was no sign of the hermit. Up the hill they'd left, a grove of poplar and juniper trees stood. Chains could have been hiding there but Denario couldn't figure out why he'd bother.
The accountant spent a few minutes making sure that his unwanted guest hadn't fallen down and hurt himself. He pushed aside weeds with his bow and his spear. No one seemed to be lying on the ground. In a few minutes, he decided that Chains must have wandered away a while ago without saying goodbye.
When Denario turned back on track, he marched only a few yards before he managed to startle a ring-necked peasant. Its body was brown and white and its head, above the white ring, was as green as the grass. It hunched down to hide rather than take flight. He grabbed his bow and tried to string it. But he failed the strength test again. He lost his grip. The recurved end of the bow sprung back and smacked him in the eye. His bowstring flew up in the air. A second later, Denario tripped while grabbing for the falling string.
When he arose, oddly enough, he discovered that the pheasant had fluttered only a few feet away. He lunged after it. But his swipe with the bow missed. He tripped again. The bird took off and kept going.
He resolved to find more work as a math teacher. He wasn’t ready to live as a hunter.
Next: Chapter Thirteen, Scene Six