Sunday, September 24, 2017

Not Even Not Zen 95: A Bandit Accountant, 15.7

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Fifth Triangular Number

Scene Seven: Too Much Magic 

Hermann Ansel saved Denario with his axe, which he used that morning to make the boys crude spears and wooden swords. His good deed let the accountant off the hook for his hasty promise. Hermann held a training session, too. All together, it took them four hours to break camp but the Ansels didn't seem to be in a hurry to see their old town. Even Valentina got into the spirit of things. She joined the spear practice.

“You know your sword drills quite well,” Herman whispered to Denario at one point. “How is it that you're so bad with the everything else?”

“I have no idea.” Denario rubbed his brow. Maybe a spear took more balance and coordination than he had. He'd managed to bruise himself with the butt end of the pole while demonstrating a turn and thrust move. It had hurt so much that he'd sat down and let Hermann take over the teaching with the pointed stick he'd made.

“And what are you doing now?”

The accountant finished reattaching a pair of copper circles to the head of his spear. It was this arrangement, along with some rather delicate wires, that turned his weapon into a theodolite. Of course, it was a theodolite without a glass lens. He had to rely on his crude line of sight through the crosshairs made by the disks as they met.

Denario stood and gave each disk a spin to test them. Then he sighted along the vertical axis toward the closest landmark, a hillock to the southwest.

“I'm going back to being myself, an accountant and geometer,” he told Hermann. “I'm taking earth measurements.”

“Why?” the Mundredi man asked. Behind them, Valentina led the boys in a blood curdling spear thrust and scream.

“To find out where I am.”

“But you're right here!” Hermann threw up his arms, exasperated.

While Valentina led the boys on six spear charges, Denario tried to explain. The Mundredi peasants who had been exposed to West Ogglian ideas knew what maps were. They had lost the art of creating them but it was only a few generations gone. Denario talked about how Vir's grandfather had understood mapping as he pointed to the intersection of his two copper circles. He sighted the top ridge of the hillock and invited Hermann to look. It turned out that Hermann didn't know what angles were, though, so the he didn't understand how distances might be estimated with them. He didn't want to learn about inclines or declines of the ground, either. If two objects met, then they did, and that was enough.

The accountant tried to explain leveling. That, at least, interested Hermann a bit more. He thought the leveler was ingenious.

“A little bubble of water in the wax tells you if the ground is straight? Smart.” He shook the level for no apparent reason, perhaps just to see the bubbles move. “But it's still useless. I can stand on the ground and tell if it's level enough for what I want.”

“The floors in your churches and homes are dirt,” Denario pointed out.

“What of it?”

“Haven't you ever wanted wood floors? Stone floors, maybe?”

“People made floors like that in South Ackerland, yes. We had wood floors in most of the civic buildings. I've seen masons lay out pegs and ropes to do it.”

“Aha! So they used peg-and-chain surveying.”

“No, they used ropes.”

“Same thing. I mean they had a type of surveying that's good for planning a building. You can make quite large structures that way. You can even survey fields. Not many, though. For that method, you need to be able to make triangles. You would need ropes strung across every field, through trees and streams and everything.”

“No one's going to do that. Is that why our folk don't make maps?”

“I'm not sure. Your ancestors must have had better methods once. Some of your kinsmen are good at math. Superb, even. I feel that someone among them must understand angles and other geometry. For making a detailed map, what you mostly need to know about is distance measurements and angles.”

“And that's why you use your theo-thingy.”

“Yes. With the maps I've made,” Denario concluded, “I could find my way back to every town I've visited. In fact, I can find many towns that I haven't seen because you've told me where they are. I can find water for drinking. My maps show streams and ponds. I could hand them to any people who are able to read maps and they could find those things, too.”

“It's a sort of magic, then," said the boy Franzel as he walked up, winded from his exercise.

Valentina stood well back, fists on her hips. Sweat dripped from her brow. Behind her, Adalwolf took huge gasps of air, which he made more difficult by trying to hide his exhaustion. He seemed to have a keen desire to avoid looking weak in front of a woman.

“No, it's not magic, really,” Denario corrected with a wave of his finger. “It's just maps. It's marks on parchment or paper.”

“You mean you can find your way back home using a piece of paper?” Franzel looked like he'd forgotten that his father was probably dead and that he was on a forced march through a land of strangers.

“Exactly,” said Denario. “Would you like to learn to read maps?”

“No.” He surprised the accountant by putting up both hands as if trying to ward off a spell. “It's too much magic for me.”

“Me, too,” Hermann agreed.

Next: Chapter Fifteen, Scene Eight

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Not Even Not Zen 94: A Bandit Accountant, 15.6

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Fifth Triangular Number

Scene Six: The Story of Einpferd Wad 

“The last of the snow melted weeks ago,” Hermann said as the boys built up the campfire. Although it wasn't yet dusk, the Ansels were setting up camp because it had been a hot day's march. “I'm surprised we haven't seen others on the road.”

The boys and Valentina nodded.

All of the travelers were hungry and Hermann had carried meat that needed stewing. There probably wasn't much danger that the smoke would give them away. The boys said they hadn't seen anyone for days. The Ansels kept watch nevertheless. In the hour it took to get water from a ditch and set the blaze with a glowing coal carried from home in a freshwater clam shell, they spied no one coming from the south or the north.

“Everyone's afraid to travel,” Herman began again. He handed Valentina back her clam shell with a fresh fire ember inside. “But there are flower blossoms and nuts to eat. Anyone provisioned to keep warm can journey freely. That includes the knights and their mercenaries although we haven't seen them.”

“Oh, those. They're coming.” The younger boy, Franzel, dropped an armload of sticks. He and his friend Adalwolf were careless in their chores. It was astonishing that they'd gotten this far, nearly eight miles from their home. “They sent a messenger to Einpferd Wad.”

“You said that's your town?”

“Yes,” replied the boy. He set his hand on his hips. “The messenger told everyone that the Ogglis and Waldis were to free to take any lands held by Mundredi families.”

“Really? What about the Raduar families?” Denario interrupted. “Sorry, but I notice you have some Raduar tattoos, Franz.”

“I don't think the Ogglis know the difference between the tribes.” The boy wasn't offended. In fact, he glanced at the tattoo that had given away his heritage, the familiar sword in front of a sun.

“That sounds right,” Hermann confirmed. “None of the Ogglis, anyway, have ever shown me a sign that they know there are other tribes in the valleys. They're barely aware of the clans and houses of the Mundredi living among them.”

“There's nothing wrong with Franzel,” said the older boy, Adalwolf. He arrived carrying a rotten tree stump over one shoulder. He threw it down as carelessly as a stick or twig, though it fell with rock-cracking weight. “His granddad was a Raduar, come down to us by the way of some creek or river. But he was a hero, a real tough fighter.”

“A murderer?” Denario asked before he could stop himself. To his mind, the Mundredi equated violence with heroism too often. When he'd read the accounting histories as a boy, he'd thought many of the geometers and surveyors were brave. But no one gave them credit for it.

“With how far old Papuar traveled? I suppose. But he didn't kill anyone in Einpferd Wad.” Adal shook his head as if he thought the questions were a bit simple-minded. “Granddad Papuar married into the Mundredi Scythia clan. He adopted the house of Plow And Dagger and the house adopted him. Papuar worshiped Uroica and Melwas along with the rest of us. And it was his son, Franz's dad Tansel, who stood up to the knight's messenger.”

“He did? What did he say?” Hermann and Denario spoke two questions at once. Adalwolf hesitated. Franzel spoke up. The conversation was about his father, after all.

“My dad said that he'd worked for years to clear his land.” The boy's voice had been unsteady for a moment but he grew more sure of himself as he continued. “And his father before him, too. He asked why anyone would want to steal it.”

“Makes sense,” Hermann encouraged.

“He said there was still plenty of free land around. But the messenger told him to shut up and that none of the land was free. It all belonged to Sir Fettyrtyr now and it had belonged to Sir Ulrich before him, who was unjustly slain by a bandit.”

“Ah,” said Hermann and Valentina. They smiled at the fate of Sir Ulrich. Denario had to remind himself that it was Vir who had managed that.

“And the messenger said that any lands that didn't belong to his knight belonged to his baron because all of the lands north of Rune Kill belong to the baron.”

“That's a whole lot of ... what, are they saying forever north from there?” An entire continent stretched out northward beyond. After the ranges of hills came magical lands that no one could cross. Who in his right mind would lay claim to those? Yet Denario had to admit that it sounded precisely like what the Ogglian nobles asserted when in court with the marquis.

“According to the messenger, yes. That started an argument. Lots of men took different sides.”

“Did they fight?”

“No, my pa came home safe. I heard him tell me ma that it was only the drunks and the poorest of the Waldis who wanted to take Mundredi lands. None of them would actually do anything, really. Those poor men live as servants or as farmhands because it's easier than moving out and clearing their own land.”

“That's what my dad says, too,” chimed the older boy.

“Half the Waldis and most of the Ogglis don't know how to farm. They'd starve if they tried.” Hermann nodded. Then his wife caught his eye. He hesitated. Their eyes cast guilty glances in the accountant's direction.

Denario rose from where he'd been working on his journal and his maps. He grabbed his spear, which he was pretty sure he would never use to stab anyone. That was because he'd made it into a theodolite by means of wire, a copper plate, and a notch for sighting. It's true, he thought. They think it's a weakness but I wouldn't deny it. He was well aware how little he understood about farming. For that matter, he wasn't confident about his fire starting skills. But he knew how to survey these lands. He was earning his way home.

“Now you can't find your dad, Franzel?” Hermann continued as he turned to the younger boy. “You said you were separated?”

“Our fathers are dead, I think.” The larger one, Adalwolf, stepped between Franz and Hermann. From the look on his face, he might not have admitted this part to himself before. “The Ogglis ambushed us at the Mundredi church.”

“With torches and fire?” Hermann asked.

“They waited for the dawn service. That's when most folks go. The mayor and the knight's man gathered some of the poorest waldis, a couple dozen hunting bows, and lots of wood. They had something else, too, a liquid that smelled like, I don't know ... like it burned the air.”

“Some kind of pitch?” Valentina asked.


“Turpentine or distilled alcohol, I think,” Denario grunted. “Both smell awful. Both are good for setting fires.”

“Anyway, fire caught on the north wall. Then we saw it start up on the south, too. But we got out. A bunch of us ran right through the the front doors. Some of the men took arrows to the chest. The waldis were half-drunk, I think, but they kept shooting. So we kept running. And when Franz and I turned around, we saw a battle going on between our dads and the bowmen. There were some good Mundredi folks, mostly women, headed out of town the opposite way, toward Frühlingsburg. But we couldn't go with them. The mayor and his men cut us off. Then some of them split off from their main group and started to chase us.”

“But you were fast enough. You made it.”

“Well, Franz and I made it. There were five of us when we started. Those men caught Fatty Braun. While they were stabbing him and kicking him, the rest of us got away. Then the other two boys turned back around anyway. They said they wanted to go find their mums.”

“But you came all the way out here.”

“I knew Sourth Ackerland had a fight like ours. But I thought it would be okay. I didn't think it would be deserted. When I was younger, the caravan masters told me how big it was. All of the traders passed through it on their way to, well, nearly everywhere.”

“It was grand, once. You missed it. Now what happens to you?"

“I hoped you'd take us with you,” the boy said. “But you're headed the wrong way. You're headed right for the knight’s men.”

Hermann sat back on his haunches and sighed. He cracked a twig in half and threw both parts into the growing fire, one after the other. After a moment, he looked up at Adalwolf and Franzel. The younger boy looked particularly miserable. His shirt was too big and torn half open. His hat looked like it was a hundred years old. The brim had been cut from leather worn thin enough for the sun to shine through it.

“We must head for Frühlingsburg and Ruin Thal,” Hermann announced. “The accountant is going all the way to Oggli by way of the river when he reaches it. We're all sworn to our journeys, even my wife.”

The boys looked crestfallen. Probably they were wondering how they would survive.

“Did you see any of the knight's mercenaries aside from the one?” Hermann asked. “From what you've said so far, it sounds like a battle between groups of villagers in Einpferd Wad. Only a small parts of the Mundredi or the Waldis were involved. Maybe the knight isn't going to wage war.”

“That man ...”

“The herald. He called himself a herald.”

The Mundredi exchanged questioning looks. The adults didn't know the meaning of the title, so Hermann and Valentina turned to Denario.

“A herald is a sort of messenger,” the accountant explained. “He reads or writes messages. Sometimes he delivers them and reads them in the town squares or in the temples or churches. It's illegal to kill any of the court heralds, no matter what they say or where they say it.”

“Are you a herald?” young Franzel asked. “I saw you writing in your book.”

“An accountant writes math, not announcements.” Denario scratched his head. “Although I do send messages back to Vir and to others in the Mundredi army. That's a bit like a herald.”

“Well, the knight's herald said that Sir Fettyrtyr was going to visit the towns with his men. That was at the orders of his master, Baron Ankster.”

“He'll be killing Mundredi all the way, no doubt.” Hermann scowled and threw a rock into the fire instead of a stick.

“Why? I know the nobility has done this before but why?” Even though he'd been the one to point out the pattern to Vir, Denario couldn't escape the question the chief had asked. The murders didn't make sense, not in any moral or economic way. But Baron Ankster apparently didn't care. “Why kill so many?”

“Are they doing it for their gods?” Hermann asked.

“What a mess.” Denario drew a quick map on the ground. He knew he needed to pass through lands occupied by the knights on one side and by the Mundredi on the other. It was as bad as passing between the Mundredi and Raduar.

The poor Mundredi peasants had it the worst. The barons were ordering them driven out of the farmlands at the same time the Raduar were crossing down from the northern valleys and hills. That left the nearly powerless Mundredi chief, Vir, to fight a war on two fronts along hundreds of miles of border with maybe a hundred men. It was hopeless. Boys like Franzel and Adalwolf were caught in the middle with no escape.

After a while, he said, “I don't think you should turn back. Hermann's bound to be right. You've made a good start. You need to follow it with some fast marching. The baron's knights are on the move. You two need to keep going north and west to get away.”

“What's in that direction?”

“The Mundredi army, eventually. If you can reach them, they'll protect you in Fort Dred until you're older.”

“Protect us? We don't need protecting. We want to join the army. Don't we Franz?”

Franzel had nearly been in tears a minute ago. He would have said yes anything his friend proposed. “Sure.”

“Uh, you're a bit ...” Denario had been about to say, 'young.' Franzel, at least, didn't look to have hit puberty yet. Adalwolf probably had just finished his growth spurt.

The boys strolled closer to him. Except for their rags and hunger, they didn't look in bad shape. What would Vir have done in this situation? Conscript them? Probably he'd smack them on their bottoms and send them to the next town.

“Attention!” Denario shouted in the voice that Vir used on his men, or at least a bad imitation. The boys stood straight, arms at their sides. They knew precisely what he meant. Then they laughed.

“You're no taller than Franz!” Adalwolf exclaimed.

“That's right.” Denario knew he had to talk quickly. “If your chief can teach a waldi like me to use a sword and a spear, surely he can do better with lads like you. I've done this before. I've sent men to him to train. But they were older. You say you want to train?”

“Yes, sir!” they shouted in uneven chorus.

Denario was careful not to promise they'd be allowed to join the army. Vir probably wouldn't go for that. But training? Practicing with a sword and spear was mandatory for any teenaged boy who came within a mile of Vir. He'd probably slap armor on them if they weren't quick enough to dodge it.

“Right. Well, Captain Vir is a bit rough but he's good. Very good.” Denario swallowed and told a lie. “With him, maybe you've got a chance against the Ogglis.”

“But how are we going to get there?” said Adalwolf.

“It's two weeks of travel if you don't take a roundabout route like I've done.”

“We don't have letters of transit. We won't get another day more. Who will feed us? We're not doing well. We ate a bunch of mushrooms one night and we were fine. We did the same for our next lunch and we got sick. If we don't starve, someone older will grab us and lock us up.”

“The boys are right,” said Hermann. Valentina nodded in agreement. “When they reach North Ackerland, they won't be allowed to go farther. They'll be kept.”

“As farmhands? Slaves?”

“Farmhands, not slaves. They're not criminals. But they won't be allowed to travel. They don't have the royal coin or letters of transit or anything.” Hermann rolled over the stump that the older boy had brought. He steadied it with his foot. With his left hand, he motioned for his wife to sit.

“But … suppose …” Denario didn't know what he supposed. He thought there had to be a way for the boys to hike into the hills if that's what they wanted. Hadn't Denario sworn in other, admittedly older lads to the army? Yes, he had, although he'd committed fraud in doing it. When Vir found out, he'd be mad. But that was fine because Denario would never see him again. Anyway, Vir couldn't know about them yet, not all of them. There had to be a ruse to try. “Suppose we wrote a note to Mayor Richter?”

“Not good enough,” said Valentina. “Appealing to her is a mistake.”

Hermann looked to her. The boys noticed and they did the same. Come to think of it, Denario trusted Valentina's political judgment, too. She sat down on the makeshift seat her husband was offering. With a coy smile, she looked up to Denario.

“Don't mention her at all,” Valentina continued. “Just write a letter of transit. Make it military. You've got the writing for it. Draw it up to look official.”

“I think I understand,” said Hermann. “Wilmit will see the letter, even if he doesn't read. All of the burghers will take a turn. It won't be addressed to Ilse. When she does read it, and she will, she won't turn down a military request. Or a military order, especially one that's not directed at her.”

“She'll turn it to her advantage,” said Valentina. “She's smart.”

“But look, you two, Mayor Richter knows me. She knows I'm an accountant. Would she accept my word as a military authority?” Denario touched his hand to his chest. Didn't these folks understand how insignificant he was? The boys were excused for being young and naive. Valentina should have known better. She'd seen him getting paid in broken hinges. “My letters of transit are from Raduar and Mundredi mayors. They're very important people. People have to pay attention to what they say.”

“Not really,” retorted Hermann. Beside him, Valentina nodded in agreement. “Men from one town don't much care what a mayor from another town says.”

“Then why …?” Denario left the question unfinished. If the villagers everywhere felt like that, why had he been allowed to pass among them? Was it the blue coin?

“I think, mostly, men just hope. A lot of them have heard what's happening. And they hope. They hope you're going to save them. With your magic.”

“My magic? My magic is numbers.”

Hermann shrugged.

“They just hope, all right?” Adalwolf sounded almost angry. Next to him, Franzel stood, shaking. There were tears in the younger boy's eyes.

Denario realized the these boys needed something to believe in. Even the older, tougher one, fists by his sides, looked ready to have his face kicked. He seemed to expect it. He was waiting for Denario to let him down.

What would Melcurio do? Offer them a trick.

“Okay, so I'll give you a message to carry,” he told them. “It's a military message. You'll be heralds for the army. That way, you're not to be touched. I'll write that down. You'll have news of Sir Fettyrtyr. Your chief wants that news. I'll write what you've told us down on one of my maps to make it look official. And I'll give you a letter of transit.”

“Sir!” exclaimed Adalwolf. Denario hadn't done anything except make empty promises and the boy was already impressed. But he knew the boys needed hope. He couldn't deny them that. If they didn't have it, they might lie down and die on the side of the road.

“Right now?” said Franzel. He dried his eyes. Those were the first words he'd spoken in a while and Denario wasn't sure whether he should encourage the boy or not. But little Franz expected to see miracles and he wanted them immediately. He strolled in closer.

“You have work to do,” the accountant said in a stern voice. He knew these fellows expected a bit of pomp and attitude. “Keep building up the fire so we can eat. And Adal, if there's another stump or two like that, I could use a seat and a place to write.”

“Yes, sir!” The older boy grabbed his friend by the elbow.

It didn't take more than five minutes for the boys to set up an improvised desk for the accountant. The surface was two halves of a log that had split due to disease and rot. The pieces rested on a pile of smaller branches that had been stripped of their leaves and stacked up in a hurry. Denario reflected that it might be the most useful desk he'd ever owned because when he was done, it was going to boil his stew, keep him warm through the night, and probably heat his breakfast in the fire pit, too.

He laid out his writing utensils and tried to ignore the likelihood that these boys would be kidnapped or killed regardless of what he wrote. He had to try. Unfortunately, a few days ago, his best inkwell had run out of the lampblack-and-shellac mixture. He'd refilled it with tattoo ink. It didn't seem to flow as smoothly from his pen. He shook the bottle as hard as he dared in order to liquefy it. He prayed. The tattoo artist had made the ink from clay bottles of rust, burnt bones, pine soot, and oak galls. Come to think of it, that was a formula that Denario should have jotted down in his journal. Oak galls represented a new ingredient in non-magical ink as far as he knew.

Tattoo artists in these small, clan-dominated towns normally made their ink in solid form. That had been an unpleasant surprise when he'd discovered it. They liquefied their dyes with spit.

Denario fumbled through the bottom of his traveling supplies. His fingers failed to make contact with parchment. He tried again. He leaned down so close that his head was inside the bag. He must have used his last scroll to make a message to Vir. That stumped him for a moment. He had promised. Well, there were blank pages in his journal. He would have to sacrifice one.

Even Hermann and Valentina watched Denario in relative silence. They seemed surprised when he used his ruler to remove a sheet of paper cleanly. Under their fascinated stares, he wrote in large, bold letters at the top: Autorità di Transit. Underneath, he explained in more common Mundredi characters, Military Authority to Travel.

He rubbed the stubble on his chin until his fingers hurt. Even with his best writing, he worried that the title didn't look impressive enough. He took out his protractor and compass. With those, he drew a transit theodolite, basically a circle and line on top of a tripod. It was a better version of the surveying instrument he'd fashioned out of his otherwise-useless spear.

Hermann grunted. Valentina smiled. The boys did, too. Denario could feel the change in their expressions without looking up. They didn't understand it but they liked it. Good.

I, Denario of the Mundredi Army and the Oggli Guild of Accounting, appoint …

He had been about to write “these boys” but, after he glanced at them he wrote, these young men, Adalwolf of Einpferd Wad and Franzel of Einpferd Wad as heralds for the Army of the Mundredi. They are to take these messages and any other messages deemed appropriate by Mundredi officials to Chief Vir de Acker in Fort Dred. Their messages and their other belongings are property of the army. No one may delay them or hinder them upon pain of death.

They are known by these markings.

“Adal, Franz, come here and show me your left arms, please.”

The boys didn't seem able to carry out an order without questioning it but they did as he requested eventually. The taller, darker one grunted when he saw the drawings. He was fascinated by the use of the compass. The accountant made a few mistakes, partly because the tattoo ink didn't flow like the stuff sold in Oggli, but he made serviceable copies of the crossed spears, the scythe with serrated teeth, and the ox. As he struggled with the ink, the accountant reflected that the best shipments of Ogglian pigments came from the Pirate Islands. Which one of those islands was the source? He'd taken it for granted, so he'd never bothered to ask. And was the Pirate Islands ink of magical origin or could he make it himself from pine soot or squid dyes or whatever they used if he only knew the formula? The stuff was so plentiful in Oggli that he doubted it could be difficult.

Denario finished the plow and dagger sign on Adalwolf's arm. It was the last one.

“Thank you, Adal,” he said, and motioned for the younger one to step closer.

“Wow, you're a really good artist!” Franzel exclaimed as he got a better look at the letter of transit.

“I have good instruments,” said Denario. “Keep holding your arm up like that.”

The tattoos on Franzel's arm looked swollen and fresh, as if they had been completed only yesterday. Denario decided not to comment. Instead, he faithfully rendered the sword and spear crossed in front of a sun, the scythe that unlike Adalwolf's had no teeth, the ox and moon, and the plow and dagger. On both lads' right arms, he noticed, there were god and goddess symbols. Denario figured he didn't need those. Anyway, he was getting tired and his writing wasn't done.

It took him two hours to encode a message to Vir. He included every military detail he could in case the previous story of the burning of South Ackerland didn't make it. The length of his message and the need to hide some of the details made for a tedious process. It also subjected his methods to inspection. Hermann and the boys didn't ask why he did so much writing and transposing in the dirt. Valentina, however, seemed concerned.

“Will Vir be able to read what you're hiding?” she asked, rather reasonably. She was holding a torch by his side, unasked, as he finished his composition in the dirt.

“I'm not sure. Only he and one other Mundredi soldier know to look for this. Of course, anyone else can figure it out but …”

“But they won't.”

“Probably not, no.” Denario etched the last few letters into place. Then he added a few more decorations to make everything look more official. In memory of the mayor of Pharts Bad, Denario sketched the symbols of all of the four major tribes. He added a few of the most powerful Mundredi clans and one or two houses, as well. At the bottom, he finished with a variation of the Mundredi symbol he'd come to use as his trademark, the crossed spears over a crown joined in a number 8, written sideways. Let the mayors and villagers stew over that one, he thought.

Underneath the mark, he scribbled, Divine Equation of Nature, Acorns Ripen to Impressive
Oaks. and beneath that, Denario, Accountant of Oggli, Heralding the Army of the Mundredi. He finished it all with a dab of hot wax. He removed the blue coin of Mundredi royalty from his neck, pushed it into the wax, and held it until the impression set in firm detail.


He rolled it up and accepted a strand of homemade twine from Adalwolf. Outside of the range of the cooking fire, a score of crickets chirped. Denario hadn't heard crickets in half a year. There had been none during the cold months in Ziegeburg or in Easy Valley. He hadn't heard any this spring after coming down from the Long Valley hills. Their noises reminded him of West Ogglian farms. But it was past any decent hour to sleep. The sky seemed dark and starless. He'd finished his bowl of stew and a second bowl, too. Valentina, after complaining that her husband had shared too much of their food, settled down to rest. Hermann half-dozed as he sat propped against a log.

The boys, in contrast, looked too excited to close their eyes. The older one had taken it into his head to make more string for tying the letter and the map. Ribbon would have been more impressive but there was none to be had and, anyway, the two were going to have to untie and retie the scrolls many times if they made it all the way to Fort Dred. They kept making strings from a patch of grass they said was good for it.

“Can you give us weapons, too?” Franz asked as he twisted a set of green strands together.

“In the morning,” Denario blurted. Then he wished he'd kept his mouth shut.

Next: Chapter Fifteen, Scene Seven

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Not Even Not Zen 93: A Bandit Accountant, 15.5

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Fifth Triangular Number

Scene Five: Refugees 

“It galled me to stay away all winter,” said Hermann. “It wasn't the back-breaking farm work, although that's something I won't miss. Never done a lot of it before. Mostly, I just felt defeated. It was hard to get up in the morning, hard to eat. With my lands gone and my girls gone, I've got nothing. There's no reason to live.”

At one point in their journey, the road to to South Ackerland narrowed from an expanse large enough for caravans to pass one another down to a trail barely wide enough for a single cart. Since then it had widened again to a caravan-sized strip of dirt, pebbles, and grass. Denario marched shoulder to shoulder with Hermann. He could stand far enough apart that he didn't have to hurt his neck to look up at the man.

“That's how you feel?” Denario asked, afraid to hear much more. He carefully avoided looking over his shoulder. Valentina had allowed the men to lead the way but he worried that she was listening. Of course, she might already know her husband's views.

“Yes. I fought for my inheritance, you see. It was hard won. It was hard to leave.”

“Your ... inheritance?” According to the barons, these peasants owned nothing, technically.

“Of course, fighting for inheritance is illegal in these towns where the knights hold sway ... they seem to think they should decide ... but it's a tradition we've kept up from the times when our families lived on the other side of the mountains, in the valleys.”

“And you had to fight to inherit? Really?” Denario had no idea how such a system could be organized. It sounded like a recipe for chaos. It would be a fancy recipe, too; if it were a cake, it would have lots of small, spectacular battles swirling in an icing of persistent hostility.

“Tanistry,” said Hermann. “It's called tanistry. That's our traditional Mundredi process of handing down lands. Lots of times, when a man dies he states in his will that his farm should go to the most fitting of his sons. Then they'll fight to the death for it. That's the most primitive sort of tanistry, of course. It's just as likely that a father will divide his cleared land into plots. The sons and sometimes the daughters, too, fight for the plots. The best fighter gets the best land, see. That's the smart way to do it. The losers have to clear their own lands, perhaps, but nothing worse.”

“It's the way your father did it, I suppose.”

“I got the second best land out of seven. Our land was so good, it was like the best land anywhere else.”

“You said that the knights don't like their peasants fighting. So has your baron forbidden tanistry? I'd think he would.”

Hermann shrugged. “Who knows? It's not really the baron's business. We never see him. I suppose the West Ogglian nobles generally aren't in favor but I don't understand why. Maybe it's because tanistry has been around longer than them. It's said that Prince Robberti himself tried to ban the practice. But on his death, it resumed.”

“I've heard about how the battles over his kingdom ended. So Robberti was proven right. It doesn't do a government much good to let property fights go on. It makes the people angry, divided and weak. The best sons may die in the act of inheritance. The daughters, too.” These Mundredi were crazy. Where else would women fight for their dowries? Well, Denario hadn't traveled outside of West Ogglia before. Maybe it happened everywhere. But he hadn't read about it in any accounting histories and he was sure that he would have.

“Divided? Maybe. Robberti thought so. I heard that from Vir. The royal bloodlines in the Mundredi, such as they are, practice inheritance by nephews in deference to the prince's wishes.”

“Ah, nephews.” Yes, Vir had told Denario about that, too. But succession through nephews didn't seem like the best of systems either. Denario wondered what system was best. In theory, there had to be an optimal one. As he marched, he started trying to imagine a formula to solve the problem. Something like (Candidate Fitness)(Charisma)/(Amount of Fighting over Succession) = Maximum Strength Inherited.

“In the other valleys,” Hermann said after a long pause, “I hear they practice inheritance by oldest sons like the Ogglis and Waldis. Still others seem to go by 'most respected.'”

“Most respected,” Denario repeated. That had to be force or personality plus a sense of ethics. But respect implied physical force, too, or at least persuasive force. “That's a sort of contest again.”

“It's a different tanistry.” Hermann held up a finger as if he'd proved his point. In his mind, Denario ran the inheritance calculation. He found that the formula still worked. Leaving the definitions of 'fitness' and 'strength inherited' a bit fuzzy helped.

The accountant hung his head down as he concentrated, a habit he'd acquired in the city and hadn't managed to fix in the wilderness. It was a habit that had probably led him to being shot so many times – and it was the reason why Hermann was the first to see silhouettes on the trail ahead of them. Denario was absent-mindedly kicking a clod of dirt when the larger man grabbed him by the arm.

“Off the road!” he hissed. “Come on.”

He dragged Denario to the right, the western side of the road. Valentina caught up with them in a few long strides. Together, she and Hermann practically lifted Denario to a spot behind some juniper bushes.

“Do you think they saw us?” Valentina huffed. She had apparently found the accountant difficult to move in his layers of armor.

“Hard to say.” Hermann drew his sword. The difference between his blade and the short baselard seemed like the difference between a surveyor's chain and a thread. Denario touched the pommel of his weapon but he didn't bother to take it out. It wouldn't be useful. “They were a long ways off.”

“How many?” Valentina's dagger was already in her right hand.

“I saw two. There could be more.”

They peered around the edge of the juniper. After a while, Denario got curious and ventured a glance between their dark-haired heads. He caught a distant glimpse of a man with a white shirt and dark breeches. The fellow carried a hunting bow in his left hand. He seemed to be approaching from beside the road rather than on it, meaning that he intended not to be seen by other travelers. That was suspicious. Denario couldn't make out any more about the man, though, so he retreated behind the bush rather than contribute to being spotted.

After considering for a moment, he set down the spear he was using as a walking stick. He removed his packs, too, and finally his bow. The effort to string the bow made him grunt. It was such a small noise he could barely hear it himself but it made Valentina whirl around.

She had been about to shush him, finger to her lips, but when she saw what he was doing she stopped. With a nod, she sheathed her knife.

"Still only two," Hermann murmured.

It took more than ten minutes before the travelers came close and, in that time, Denario and Valentina armed themselves with arrows notched and pointed in the right direction. The accountant was dismayed to find that he couldn't hold his bow drawn for very long without his arms trembling. He kept raising and lowering his weapon. Once, he felt so unsteady that he realized he was about to let go and shoot Hermann in the back. He re-aimed toward the ground.

“They're just boys!” Hermann said suddenly. He stood and waved to the approaching figures.

Boys or not, they jerked with surprise at Hermann's sudden appearance. The Mundredi man strode a step or two onto the road. The rearmost boy shot an arrow at him that sailed ten feet over his head.

“Hey, now!” he called.

The boys dropped everything they were holding except their walking sticks. Those, they swung wildly. One of them, wearing what looked like half a shirt, edged forward as if preparing to do battle with Hermann. The adult Mundredi held a sword, after all. But a stick and no armor wouldn't prove much good against Herman Ansel. As if to prove the point, the larger boy, closer to Hermann, retreated as he swung. He wanted to escape. In only a few steps, the boys drew beside each other. They kept whirling their sticks. The sticks met. The smaller boy lost his weapon. It went flying end over end into the scrub beside the trail.

“Look,” said Hermann. He noticed the sword in his hand and sheathed it. “I can see by your tattoos that you're not the knight's men. And I can see by your lack of beards that you're not really men. So don't act like you want to fight or my friends will shoot you.”

At that moment, Denario's grip gave way.

He hadn't realized that he was aiming at the younger boy, the one who'd previously held a bow. In the excitement of the moment, Denario had locked into a battle position and tracked the boys with the head of his arrow. It was a deadly, barbed tip. Luckily, Denario was a miserable archer. The arrow sunk into the ground between the two boys.

“That was a warning shot,” said Hermann, recovering instantly. “Now hold still.”

The boys froze. Until the appearance of the arrow, they hadn't realized that there were other folks to contend with. Now their eyes scanned the bushes on other side of the road. They didn't dare to move their heads but Denario could see them counting the possible hiding places for foes. If you were a scared child, there might seem to be a lot.

Next: Chapter Fifteen, Scene Six

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Not Even Not Zen 92: A Bandit Accountant, 15.4

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Fifth Triangular Number

Scene Four: Companions 

“Really,” said Mayor Richter. She wiped the sweat from her brow in the hot, noonday sun. Around them, a gaggle of children warred with one another using wooden hand rakes they'd gotten to do their morning chores. “It's most unseemly of you, Valentina. Travel is not safe, not even for the men.”

“I'll have guards.” Valentina tied the silk sash around her waist. The sash held her dagger. The blade of it was at least two thirds the size of Denario's baselard.

“Yes, but one of them is me,” Denario pointed out. Like the mayor, he wiped his forehead. The day had gotten hot. It had started out as nice. It had been calm and not too dry, no dust in the air, not even from the tilled fields or from the children swatting and kicking in the dirt. The heavy dew had had taken care of that overnight. Even now, the moisture was burning off under the glare of the sun. Unfortunately, enough of it hung around to encourage Denario's body to sweat. “I'm the one who travels with guards, usually. And now I've just sworn to rescue my apprentices, thanks to you. Will that force me to run away when we get into a fight? I probably can't protect you as well as you'd defend yourself.”

“I know how to handle a short blade. And you've traveled a long ways although you're only a book keeper.”

“An accountant,” he corrected automatically.

“So it can't be that hard.”

Denario continued to adjust the straps on his leather hauberk. He'd gotten better about changing in and out of the layers of armor but it was still awkward. He knew he was lucky that most of the pieces were too big.

“Maybe. I'm guessing it's riskier than it looks,” he said. “Plenty of people almost killed me. I'm alive because I'm unimportant.”

“To us, you mean. Not to your apprentices.”

“Yes.” Denario was momentarily stalled by the unexpected words of support. He tightened the top buckle. “But the point is, I don't have much worth stealing. There's no profit in kidnapping me. No one would pay ransom.”

“You have no clan.”

“That's right. And you do. You want to travel while dressed like someone with money. You bear your clan signs on your arms. My lady, I've been shot with arrows four, no, five times so far. I'm wearing thick leather so I'm fine. Barely a scratch. But in that dress of yours, you would have been killed by the first shot.”

“You'll walk in front, then.”

He sighed.

“You should take padding and another weapon, Valentina,” said one of the older burghers. He was dressed not much better than a farmhand today. His light brown robe was stained with grass and dirt. His silk belt included a twist of cheap rope. Like several of the town leaders, he hadn't seemed surprised by the Ansels' determination to travel south. Instead, he'd wondered aloud if other former citizens of South Ackerland would try to return home or to migrate to other towns. “You may run into Sir Fettyrtyr's men, you know.”

“I'll have my husband. He'll have his sword.”

“But no armor,” someone muttered.

“Well, he can't wear the accountant's armor. It's too small.”

“And that would be immoral,” the stout burgher pointed out with just a hint of irritation, “since we've all sworn oaths to send the accountant on his way unharmed.”

“Yes, and that.”

“What I'm saying,” explained the older burgher patiently, “is that you should take a woman's hunting bow. My wife had one. She has no use for it where she's gone now, bless her. I've sent one of my son's little boys to fetch it. She had a quiver of arrows, too, five left in good shape although pretty near fifteen years old.”

“Oh.” Valentina curtsied. She did it perfectly and yet, for a moment, it seemed odd. Denario had expected her to bend at the waist with a half-salute like a Mundredi man.

“You know how to hunt, I hope?”

“I shot a few rabbits as a girl. But I preferred swords and spears. It's not very lady-like of me.”

“Very Thalberg-like, though. I always enjoyed seeing your house compete at the clan games. Your women always won the wrestling. Well, with only a few arrows at your disposal you'll have to practice carefully. The accountant has a hunting bow. I'm sure he can teach you.”

He smiled absent-mindedly at Denario, who did his best to return the expression of confidence. That would be all he needed, he thought, to fail in front of Valentina and Hermann Ansel at a skill they'd learned as children. Denario had been taught to use a theodolite when he was seven but not a hunting bow. He could survey anyone's lands to an error margin of inches. He could measure exactly where in a field anything sat in his line of sight. But he couldn't hit it with an arrow. Valentina must have sensed it. She glanced in his direction and snorted at the idea of him teaching her.

“Have ye been paid enough, accountant?” whispered one of the burghers into Denario's left ear. “Seems like escorting her may be a hardship. I know ye Ogglis and Waldis place importance on coins. We haven't got many but I've brought a few with me today to see ye off.”

Denario had already been paid in brass, more than he deserved. These people were nearly starving to death and they'd filled his backpack with acorn bread and dried meats, too.

“No, you've already been very kind.”

“Here,” the fellow said. He shook hands with Denario as he searched his pockets with his other hand. “Yer our chief's man, somehow, and ye've done well by the town. Take good word of us, will ye? This goes to the temple in Ruin Thal. It's just a bit southwest of Fruhlingsburg.”

Denario remembered that there had been towns with names ending in 'Thal' along his stagecoach route to Ziegberg last fall. So he was approaching those. Thank heavens, he thought, as he understood that he was making progress. It felt like he'd been walking an awfully long time, although it had only been a few weeks. Before he could ask about the villages to the south, however, the burgher pressed a small scroll into his hand. Denario accepted it without hesitation. He was headed to the southwest anyway, in the hope of finding the place ridiculously named No Map Creek.

“Unless I die, I'll take it there myself,” he swore. He made the sign of 8 to show he was serious. The burgher gave him a gap-toothed smile.

“That's the spirit,” he said. “Anyway, Valentina can't be as bad as all that.”

“I'm sure you're right.” She was more fit for travel than he'd been when he left Zeigburg. His problem wouldn't be getting her to keep up. It would be keeping her from harming him. But he had to do it. He wasn't sure how he'd ended up in this situation but Valentina and her husband were taking him in the right direction. Maybe it would work out for the best. “Anyway, I trust Hermann Ansel. He's a good man.”

Hermann had stood off to one side, mostly ignored by the crowd. The spectacle, after all, had come from the announcement that a free woman was going to voluntarily travel between towns without a small army. Hermann had felt humiliated by the announcement, although Denario didn't quite understand why. At least when he heard Denario's words, he stood a little taller.

The Mundredi are picking up weird notions of honor, Denario heard Vir's voice in his head. But it's honor we can't afford.

Denario felt more alien than ever in the throng of two sets of town leaders. He couldn't wait to leave the farmlands behind. He stuffed the coins and scroll into his travel pouch, thanked the burghers and everyone else around him several times, and tried to make his way down the road. Valentina had said he should lead the way, after all.

The mayor grabbed him before he could escape.

“We've been a bit hard on you,” she said as she held him by the elbow. “But it's been a tough year on us. Try to understand.”

Denario wanted to scream that he did understand. How did anyone think he could fail to see the rail-thin children?

“You haven't been paid enough for explaining those maps. And the readings. And you wrote a letter to Vir, I heard, along with letters to a woman named Olga, a woman named Senli, and a woman named Pecunia. You left payment in meat and in copper for a caravan to take it the other way. Now you're taking messages southward for us, too. So are Hermann and Valentina, of course. But they've been paid.”

“You've been very good to me. You gave me a letter of transit.”

“Shh. We don't have any more broken brass, you know. But I do have a few things. I want you to take this.”

She pried the fingers of his fist apart without much effort and sneaked a trinket into his palm.

“It's just a token of my family. It may help you if you show it off in some places although not as much as the coin around your neck. The main thing is, it's silver. If you need to, you can sell it.”

“I wouldn't ...”

“Shh. When you get to Ruin Thal, you can give it to my cousin's cousin there. He's a shopkeeper, name of Udo Vogel. He'll make good on it, see, so it stays in the family.”

“Mayor Richter! Ilse, I ... I'm honored.”

“Of course you are. Because you're a good boy. I can spot the good ones from miles away, you know. The bad ones, too. It's the in-between ones like Wilmit who give me fits.”

“I've done some bad things ...” he began to confess. Of course, she'd heard the stories from him already minus the magical parts.

“Shh,” she said again. She patted his hand. “You've done what you needed to do to stay alive. Now I want you to keep my Valentina alive, too. Promise me that you'll do your best.”

“I do. I mean, I will.”

“Good. Wilmit and his men will see you on your way.”

Next: Chapter Fifteen, Scene Five