Sunday, October 1, 2017

Not Even Not Zen 96: A Bandit Accountant, 15.8

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Fifth Triangular Number

Scene Eight: A Fateful Graveyard 

They sent the boys on their way to North Ackerland in the warmth of mid-morning. Valentina fed them from her stewpot first. For traveling food, she dug deep into her pack despite the way that she'd refused to share her supplies with them the day before. From it, she brought out the last of her bread. She even persuaded Denario to sacrifice a second page from his book so that the accountant could sketch a map, separate from the military one, for the children to follow. But she forbade Hermann from giving away anything.

“We must get to Fruhlingsburg,” she said. “I trust you men to take care of me but we're still two days out. We mustn't be over-generous. There will be more refugees from Einpferd Wad. Not all of them will be like these boys.”

Before she said farewell to Franzel and Adalwolf, the woman sewed her clan sign onto their shirts as a way of offering her house protection. Denario observed with interest the way she created her spear-and-hammer shape with bleached woolen thread. She was quick with the needle.

Already that morning, she'd revealed that her backpack carried fish hooks, pins, two wooden hammers, a thimble, six packets of herbs, salt, fishing line, brass snips, wooden pliers, and five different knives. She had no axe because the Mundredi regarded it as a man's tool but one of her knives looked like an axe head with a short handle. For food, she carried turnips, onions, dried venison, and of course her stew pot.

Denario noticed that she bore a spear-and-hammer motif on her left arm but, unlike her husband, she wore no spear-and-shield tattoo. Now that he'd gotten better at reading the signs, Denario was sure that Hermann belonged to the spear-and-shield clan. Was Valentina in a different clan from her husband? That was how it looked on her arm. Shouldn't she have left her clan to join his? Maybe not. Maybe men left their clans instead. Maybe the practices differed from town to town. Denario had never been sure of how it worked and he was afraid to ask.

He reminded himself that he was never coming back anyway. He didn't need to know.

While Valentina embroidered, Denario gathered up his snares. He'd set out his collection of traps the night before. As usual, he hadn't caught any game. He made a gift of two of the easiest traps, one to each boy, in the hope that they'd have more luck than he did.

“These are nice.” Hermann said as he rubbed his fingers over the strap of a noose-snare. After a moment, he handed it back to Franzel. “Do you set up these traps every night, accountant?”

“Yes,” said Denario.

The Mundredi man strolled over to a bush where a snare remained uncollected. He twisted the twine of it to test the tension. He sat back on his haunches and studied it. Then his fingers touched his lips.

“I haven't seen traps this good in a long time. It's a pity that you don't have time to teach the boys. You must not catch much for yourself.”

“Not a lot, no. How did you know?”

“Your scent is all over this stuff. It takes a few days to fade and, from what you've told me, you never stay any one place for long. You might catch a hare or a rat or a red fox brave enough to try to steal from you. But I doubt you could catch a stoat or groundhog or anything heavy.”

“I've caught three rats,” Denario said, impressed by Hermann's good sense and correct prediction. “A few other animals have set off the snares but weren't trapped or they chewed through the ropes before I could find them.”

He left out of his description the fact that he hadn't known what to do with what he'd caught anyway. He'd had to pay a boy near a town called Hardfeld to dress two rats for him. Come to think of it, that was one of the times when Denario had camped out an extra day to work on his math theories. Hermann seemed to be right about the source of the problem.

“How long have you been trapping?”

“Less than a month. Vir taught me.” Denario sifted through his memories frantically to see if the chief had warned him about leaving scent on the traps. Yes, he had. Damn. Denario had not been mindful of the advice.

“Really? I thought you were only with him for a few weeks.”

“That's right.”

“You learned a lot, quickly.”

Denario knew he'd actually ignored many opportunities to learn from Vir. He'd picked up most of his skills during the six days that he suddenly realized he needed to pay attention. Now that felt like a shame. But he'd been practicing since then to make up for it. His sword kata was getting reasonable. He could string his bow. Surely he should have parted ways with the chief better trained than he was but at least he remembered some of the things that Vir and Alaric had taught to other men.

While he was with the Mundredi, Denario had spent a lot of time resenting the way he'd been dragged into the their battles. Now he regretted not taking better advantage of the chance to learn from their woodscraft. Only caravans and armies traveled in the Seven Valleys. Everyone else lived in the same area, probably in the same town, for their entire lives. Traveling made a man 'heroic.' In that sense, Denario had learned his skills from the most heroic men around. Vir and his officers were veterans not just of battles but of living off the land.

Vir's men hunted successfully as they wandered from fort to fort. Denario had witnessed the process. He just hadn't understood it. He'd considered all of the hill denizens to be uncultured, superstitious, and pretty much at the same level mentally. But they weren't. They were rich and poor, tall and short, dunce and genius, every individual different like in any other group of people. And the widely-traveled ones were even more different. In their own eyes and probably by any fair measure, the army lads were heroes. They lived on very little. They fought with weapons they stole. They patrolled the hills around their two valleys endlessly, giving the best of their lives to keep their neighbors safe even though those neighbors, for the most part, made them unwelcome.

“You're going to love the army,” Hermann told Franzel and Adalwolf as he waved. Denario waved, too, and watched them go with mixed emotions of pride, shame, relief, and guilt.

After the boys had disappeared over a rise in the trail, the Ansels packed up their gear. They led Denario about a mile down the road and into their home city. At first, the accountant was grateful to be moving. His muscles loosened. His mind wandered to mathematics problems or at least the beginnings of them. But as the town's church spires rose into view, his spirits fell.

Hardly any of South Ackerland's buildings remained. Their main church was one of them. Its walls were stone, charred black, gutted of wooden adornments and stripped of all metalwork. That was a sign that the knights in this area were as poor as their townsfolk. The mercenaries must have yanked out the wrought iron torch sconces from the walls. Only a broken nail was left to show what had been there before. The looters had pried hinges off of the doors and thrown the burnt, cracked oak planks to the ground. It occurred to the accountant that maybe the hinges he'd been given in payment were worth something after all.

The inn and the town hall had been built with bricks. They were mostly still standing. Their structures, too, showed gaps in the destruction where bits of metal or simply anything well-made had survived the fires long enough to be stolen. The town hall seemed to be missing an entire glass window. It hadn't burned or melted. There was no sign of its frame. It had been removed whole.

The wooden huts along the main streets had been burned to the ground. Only piles of sticks and ash remained. Grasses sprouted on the piles. Patches of greenery appeared in the main streets. Denario judged that, in a few years, most of the homes would look like mounds of earth. Only a few human skeletons remained to mar the illusion of peace. Most of the bones were white, devoid of flesh, but on some there was hair, leathery skin, or even bits of clothing.

“No,” said Valentina as she knelt over a body left at what might have been the hearth of a former home. Long, curly hair remained on the skull of a little girl's corpse. Half of the body was missing, perhaps carried away by foxes or wild dogs. There were paw prints on the ground that not even an accountant could fail to notice.

Hermann Ansel nodded to his wife. Then he turned away from the sight of the bodies.

“I don't think we'll find her here,” he said.

“You mean you hope that we won't.” Valentina's voice grew colder. She stood and straightened her shoulders so that her fists hung down by her hips. She seemed ready to fight, only there was no one willing. Hermann, in contrast, sighed as he stared down the length of his devastated main street. Despite his sword and partial armor, he looked defeated.

“Come on,” he said. He led them further south down the road. Even so, he couldn't help stopping at every bone or scrap of clothing.

When he noticed the accountant by his side, he checked on the location of his wife. She stood twenty yards back.

“Val will never give up,” Hermann said.

“Give up what?” Denario whispered.

“Looking.” Hands behind his back, the taller man strode to the next mound of sticks, dirt, and ashes. “Do you remember when I wouldn't tell you the whole story of the battle here?”

“Sort of.” Denario remembered that no one had wanted to broach certain subjects.

“After the horsemen ran over me and left me for dead, I woke to find the fighting had moved into the house rows. The knight's men were killing everyone, Waldi and Oggli and Mundredi all alike, every citizen of the town they could catch. Folks were fleeing whenever they could and fighting when they couldn't escape. Bowmen shot old granddad Bierks not a hundred feet from me as he ran from his burning house. But the bowmen didn't notice me.

“No one looked my way and I saw there was no point in fighting. I had to find my family. That seemed like a futile chore but I raced to my home on the north end of town.”

“Have we already passed it?” Denario said. He turned.

“It was one of the mounds up on the hill behind town hall. You saw Valentina check it. There were no bodies inside.” Hermann tipped his head as if that didn't surprise him. “Despite the fighting back on that day, I found Valentina and my youngest daughter, Ullricka, not far from our home. My wife had the sense to take cover in our apple orchard. Valentina had brought her knife, too, and a set of leather vambraces she was tying onto her forearms. When I saw her in that instant, I smiled. But then I realized that our eldest, Claudia, wasn't with her. Valentina realized that Claudia wasn't with me at the same time.

“We talked for a minute at most and my wife swore she would hide until I returned or, if necessary, she would fight Sir Fettertyr's men to the death. For my part, I swore to her that I would find Claudia and return. Then we would run away together to the north.

“None of that happened. I wandered the streets, searching for my girl. I couldn't find her. The knight's men found me and shot at me on three occasions. They chased me, too, but in their mail and plate armor they were slow. So I continued to look. They continued to shoot. I never saw a girl of Claudia's size, not even as a body on the ground.

“Finally, Valentina broke her word and came back to our house to pack a bag just as I was returning to it myself. I held out hope that our daughter would have gone there. And as fate would have it, two men on horses came riding down the road. They'd followed me, perhaps, or they'd noticed that they hadn't yet torched my home. My wife and I cursed at them but we fled. I grabbed my youngest daughter in my arms. The armed men rode through the apple orchard and shot at us.

“One of the arrows meant for me struck Ullricka. At the time, although she cried, I had a hope that it might not be fatal. It struck her breastbone but the barbed head didn't go all the way through. We escaped our pursuers because the orchard goes right up to the edge of a dense woods. Their horses refused to pass through the bracken after us. Still we kept running until we couldn't keep up the pace. Then we walked until we had to stop. It was nearly night. We were lost. And Ullricka had died in my arms. I'd thought she was sleeping. Her chest seemed to move but I suppose the motion was all from me as I marched.

“We didn't truly, completely believe she was dead for a few hours. We lay down and shivered. It was a chilly, fall evening. Valentina and I held our youngest between us. But by the middle of the night, we knew. I got up and moved the body. Ullricka’s soul wasn’t in it. In the morning, we buried the remains as best as we could.”

“Not in the graveyard.” Denario shook his head. He seemed to be called upon to say something by the awkward silence. He didn't have any comforting words, though. He wished he were doing math.

“No. We weren't near one. The big graveyard is on this side of town. We'll see it when we turn the corner in the road up ahead.” Hermann rubbed the forelocks of his hair. “Now I'm curious. Are there new graves? Did Sir Fettyrtyr's men bury townsfolk there?”

“Would you feel better?”

“Not really. Not unless there were ghosts.”

“Is that likely?” Denario had a strong suspicion that the answer was yes. The wizards in Oggli had told the marquis about ghosts. Witches said they talked to ghosts, too.

“If the world were fair,” Hermann murmured, “there would be ghosts on these lands forever more.”

“Do you have a lot of magic around?” Denario asked, suddenly nervous. He heard footsteps behind him.

“No, not really.”

“Just in the graveyard,” corrected Valentina.

Denario turned. The woman had caught up. She'd put both straps of her backpack back on. She'd nearly brushed away the mud stains from her dress. Her expression was calm although her cheeks glistened from tears. He wasn't sure if that was good or bad. Anger seemed normal enough given what had happened and he didn't want Valentina to act as defeated as her husband.

“Oh, yes.” Hermann didn't look at his wife but he nodded. “Centuries of prayers on the graves have done something, I suppose. It's become an odd place with bits of holiness, maybe, here and there.”

It didn't take more than fifteen minutes to discover how strange the place was. In daylight, the answer was: not very. A hillock to the southeast seemed to have tumbled over a pair of grave markers. Closer to Denario, coming into view as he crested the rise, there stood at least two hundred tombstones directly beneath him at the base of the slope. They were set in clusters, probably family plots, house groups, or clans. Most of them looked old. Further to his left, he counted three shrines and two obelisks to local gods. One of the shrines held a statue of a pale, wooden bird on a marble pedestal. Ivy vines covered the structure. They grew everywhere but the bird itself. That part, the plants avoided. Someone had taken a hack at the body of the bird in the process of razing the town. On its flank sat a sword mark like a wound in real flesh. The statue looked otherwise unhurt. It's beady, hawk-like gaze seemed to focus on the visitors as they passed through the graveyard.

Soon they spotted other things that were wrong.

“Someone tried to burn the sun god!” Hermann dashed twenty yards behind the shrine to a tall, tribal totem pole. Priests had carved the symbols for five local deities on the pole. The orb of the sun stood at the top.

Piles of charred, wet wood rested in heaps around the base of the totem. The men who had set the fire had done so in the rain most likely. Even so, the flames had done serious damage. The base of the pole had blackened and cracked. Trails of ash rose up through the figures of the local farm god and rain goddess.

Hermann stood and cried in front of the totems for a while. Grave markers had been knocked down all around. Some had blackened in the fire. After a minute or so, Hermann began kicking and scattering the wood in his fury. Pieces flew. Even Valentina stood back. The man created a storm of charcoals and sticks. He made so much noise and continued for so long that the accountant turned his head to check the road.

There was still no one else visible in any direction, thank goodness. Denario returned to the spectacle. Something he'd seen nagged at him. He blinked. He swiveled back to what he'd noticed. It took him a moment to confirm that, between him and the muddy path headed southeast, the bird was missing from its shrine. He yelled.

“A thief!” Denario leapt sideways and grabbed Valentina by the arm.

“Mm?” She regarded him with an indulgent expression.

“It's been stolen.” Denario pointed to the shrine. The bird was ... back to where it had always been. “No! The pedestal was empty! I saw it. I saw it twice. The statue was really was gone.”

“You saw that?” said Valentina. She smiled. “That's special. It doesn't happen often. But I saw it, too, once when I was a girl. Everyone knows it happens.”

“But, but ...”

“It's magic. Nobody knows where it goes to. It's said that the bird goes off to scout ahead for folks in mortal danger. But that's according to the priestess. She's a bit flighty. Was. She was flighty.” The tall woman scowled as she contemplated the fact of the priestess's death.

They glanced at Hermann, who had slowed down. His chest heaved. His pale green shirt had come loose. It billowed in the wind and showed his hairy navel. His arms hung loose by his sides. His head hung down so that his goatee touched his shirt.

“Are you feeling better, husband?” Valentina said with concern in her voice.

“A little,” he allowed. He raised his eyes and gestured with his left arm toward the fields. “Mostly I'm sad to see all this. The mound they raised for the bodies. The fires. The tombstones. Look how many they turned over.”

Dozens, Denario thought instantly. He started to count them. In the stretch of land beyond Hermann, the accountant could see rows of grave markers toppled. Some of them were carved of stone, others of wood. He stopped at fifty-one because the rest were only partway knocked down. The vandals had struggled with the heaviest. Thick headstones sat at odd angles, sunk too deeply for the soldiers to move.

Grass grew over a couple of the broken markers. Others bore fresh mud. The accountant crept closer to check. He peered into a hole.

“It's not an illusion,” he murmured. “This soil is fresh. It hasn't rained since this gravestone was toppled. But it rained three nights ago, didn't it?”

“What? Let me see.” Hermann stomped over. His wife followed close behind.

“Damn,” hissed Valentina.

Denario immediately turned to look at the road.

Far to the southeast, he saw movement. It came through the budding branches of a willow tree. The sun had been behind clouds most of the time since they'd arrived in South Ackerland but now it cast a bright light on the figures at the edge of his vision, next to the willow. He saw a flash of steel. It came from a polished chest plate. There were men headed this way. And they were wearing Ogglian armor.

Next: Chapter Sixteen, Scene One

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