Chapter Third Semiperfect
Scene One: Nearly Geology
It was late in the morning when Denario said goodbye outside the south gate of Furlingsburg. Valentina and Hermann stood off to the side of the crowd. A dozen other people, mostly women, had come along. At least four of them he recognized as street beggars.
They pressed him with clothes to deliver, messages to remember, and gifts. He did his best to memorize their exact words and the names of their relatives. He had a feeling he'd need to stop after he cleared the first rise so he could jot down a note to help him keep it all straight. The Mundredi were fierce and proud, even the women. They were reluctant to show affection. That made their embraces more touching.
"They know you," Valentina murmured. She sounded surprised.
Denario was astonished to be honored by some of the folks he'd written up in his tax report. They knew about it, too, and still they had come. His luck had extended even to the weather. The sun was warm. The breeze was cool. He'd left off his leather armor because the mail shirt was plenty. In the clan mail sack, he carried a dozen notes including one from Ilse Richter in North Ackerland to her relatives in Ruin Thal. Two of the Furlingsburg letters were written on birch bark, the rest on scraps of parchment. In his own bags, he kept his writ of free passage from the head of the Hammer Clan and a letter of protection from Mayor Jolli, the latter given grudgingly but legible and official.
Among the other letters, Denario noticed love notes from three smitten teenaged boys to girls they knew in Ruin Thal. Two of them, he noticed, had written to the same girl. Denario himself had written another message to Pecunia. He'd paid to have it carried toward Ziegeburg, or so he hoped, but he knew it was a hopeless gesture. Pecunia was beautiful. Soon she'd have other, more handsome or more wealthy suitors. She was surrounded by strong, young men who weren't wanted for robbery.
“Are you feeling better?” Valentina asked as she straightened the mail pouch slung over his shoulder. He nodded, understanding. She would never have inquired as to his bruises from the fight. However, Denario's fever was an acceptable subject.
When he'd contracted an illness the day before, he'd felt paralyzed by the fear of it. His body was racked with sweats for hours. That night, the Hammer Clan had sacrificed to their gods in his honor. It had seemed to do the trick. His brow and cheeks had cooled by morning. Today, as he flexed his arms, he noticed he was as fit as he'd been in a month. The clan had fed him well. He'd gained weight.
“Watch out for magical creatures as you head down the Furlings Brook,” warned Hermann Ansel from behind his wife.
“I'll be careful,” Denario promised. Two months ago he would have trembled at the idea of passing through magical lands. Now he knew he'd find his way through the menagerie of creatures in No Map Creek. Because he had to. He'd survived in magical places already. The evening of the glue snow on Tree Stump Hill had seemed dangerous at the time. In hindsight, it seemed comical.
At the top of the rise in the road, he turned and waved to the gate. Most of the Mundredi had left. There were two beggar women watching. They and the gate guards waved back. Finally, Denario was free. He continued his march. Three hillocks later, he stopped and scribbled out the messages he'd been given by the clan's poor and illiterate. In order to keep from using any more of his precious supply of paper, he dug to the bottom of his accounting bag for his wanted poster. He hadn't had a chance to scrape it clean yet, not with so many people watching. He hadn't dared to take it out in front of Wilfried. Now the back of it, at least, served him.
Mrs. Wikfort To Dona Abrams Any sign of my husband?
Khrys Hamgen To Zytel Hamgen Your cousin Greta is sick.
Evangeline Burke To Piotr Burke Here is the shirt you left. Send food or money.
Mrs. Crumkill To Johann Crumkill You are a father again. Send food or money.
Mrs. Crumkill To Piotr Burke I swear if you don't send money to Evangeline I will tell everyone.
Denario had tried to slip a silver piece into Evangeline Burke's hand but she had given it back with a funny look on her face. She'd mumbled something about not being able to trade. Then, as the other women had stared at her, she'd blushed. There was a long, awkward silence among the beggars. In that silence, it seemed to the accountant, there was a mystery.
There had been many mysteries in Denario's life but most of them had involved mathematics. Lately, he'd encountered more and more of them involving women. He'd counted two dozen in the last eighteen months. Unfortunately, it seemed to be a fruitless task for Denario to try to figure them out. Arithmetic came more naturally.
For half a mile, he tried to tackle the problem of proving that 3 = 3. He couldn't concentrate on the logic. His imagination kept recalling the odd expression on the oval face of Evangeline Burke. He pictured it again and again. He listened to the wistful lilt in her voice. He replayed the scene in his mind from different angles because he found that he could remember and focus on the expressions of the other beggar women. Those were telling, those shocked, approving, scandalized, and above all knowing countenances. They knew Evangeline had been forced to trade her body for food or other favors. They approved of her turning down Denario's money.
They were surprised, too. Denario felt flattered by their reaction. But he felt a little insulted. He told himself he was being silly.
I'm engaged, he thought. At least, I might be. Probably not any longer, in fact. But I wouldn't have taken advantage of Evangeline, not even if she'd made the offer.
He strolled a few paces and reconsidered. Fraulein Burke had such a sincere face. She kept herself clean and reasonably attractive.
No, I really wouldn't have, he concluded. It would be icky. And there were all those other people there.
A few minutes later, he found himself mentally reviewing the account totals for the shopkeepers in Furlingsburg. His mind had relaxed. His last returning thought for Evangeline Burke was, That's a mystery solved.
For a mile, the road stayed level. Denario passed a farm boy pushing a barrow of onions the other way into town. Then the path narrowed. Farm lands gave way to wild woods. A hill rose up and the road curled around it. As the way narrowed further, barely enough for a man with baggage, it turned toward a clearing on the side of the hill where Denario would need to walk sideways across a rocky cliff face. He cursed his luck. It was a long, slow walk. At one point, he peered over the edge. Below him, he saw that the cliff ended forty feet down in a muddy rivulet of water that had been eating away at the side of the hill for ages.
It was the Furlings Brook, of course. Denario had been told his path would run parallel to it. He'd also been warned against the area's magic but he didn't see any problems. The walk had been tough but uneventful. The air had grown quiet, barely a breeze in the clearing. That was unfortunate but not sinister. Up high on a rise and in the morning, the weather felt good. When he got back down to the Ruin Thal farms, the heat would undoubtedly become draining.
Maybe it was the thought of the hike ahead or maybe it was the way he could see so much of the land from the heights but he decided the hill he was on would be a good place to stop and draw maps. With luck, he'd think of something to write in his journal. He inched away from the cliff face until he felt safe a few yards into the tall grass. There was shade under the tree boughs. He even saw a pair of boulders past the bushes that would make for a seat and desk. He unpacked his pens, scrolls, and accounting books and laid them out on the lower boulder. It had a curve to it and a useful set of nooks and prominences. It was a bit like using the back, shoulders, and head of a giant stone man.
On the larger rock, which was curved and angled in a way unsuitable for a work bench, Denario struggled to find a comfortable spot. Eventually, he nestled into the crevices at the front so that his body was pointed toward the stones he would use to write. He took a deep breath and turned his mind back to formal logic. He scribbled in the dirt between the stones.
Unfortunately, he had a hard time arriving anything worthy of the journal. When he didn't get anywhere with formal proofs of 3 = 3, his attention drifted to his problems in the Furlingsburg accounts. No one else minded them, of course, but he regretted not being able to do the sort of job that noblemen should expect.
He wrote a quick paragraph about the affects of taxes on the types of businesses in Sir Fettertyr's district. The history of the Mundredi Sickel clan stood out. The way that group had degenerated from skilled craftsmen to peasant farmers alarmed him. He hoped their example would resonate with other accountants. He added details on the belt leather accounting system, too, because he knew the guild members would find the ancient history of it interesting.
Denario shifted. The crevice had begun to feel like it was squeezing his buttocks. Then, as he sat up, the rock shifted. He hopped to his feet and spun around. The stone changed shape as he stared.
In reality, the shape didn't change so much as his impression of it did. What he'd regarded as movement was something different. The boulder’s surface seemed to soften. The curves and lumps became body parts, a magic as much in his mind as in the creature. The slope of smooth stones became hips and legs. Knobbly parts digging into the dirt became fingers and toes. The oval of granite on one end became a wide, expressive face with a flat nose. The beast opened her eyes. Denario was pretty sure this was a troll. He'd never seen one before. He was also sure the troll was a female although he couldn't say why. Her eyes were as dark as onyx. Maybe they were made of stone. They looked it. Her lips smacked and the noise they made was like bones clicking together covered by aged, cracked leather.
“Stupid human,” she said. “You sit on me.”
“My apologies,” said Denario. He backed away. But he couldn't leave. His accounting materials were spread out on the other boulder. He glanced to his right. I've put everything on another troll, he guessed. He hoped that one wouldn't wake up. He was sure that trolls were supposed to sleep during the day. It didn't seem fair to have to deal with one mid-morning. Maybe the problem was that he'd chosen a cool, shaded spot. Or maybe it really was just that he'd sat on her.
“Oh, hungry,” said the waking troll. She sat up and itched her belly.
Denario wasn't sure what trolls ate but he hoped it wasn't people. He fumbled in his pouches for something to placate her. Rocks, he thought, would be the thing. Didn't they eat rocks? Their mouths were full of diamonds and other hard things for chewing, he'd heard. A glance at her mouth told him it was true. However, the only rocks he could find in his traveling materials were a few bits of coal from the Hammer Clan ovens in Furlingsburg. He offered them up.
“Oh, thanks,” said the troll. Gingerly, she plucked them from his hand. Her fingers were each as big as four of Denario's own. “Mmm. Dat's nice.”
The creature munched coal the way a human child might masticate a crumbly bit of sweetbread. It was low quality stuff, too, the kind that could barely be used to bake bricks. A human wouldn't want to put it into a food oven, hearth fire, or anything else that required a clean flame. It billowed poisons as it cooked. Sometimes it popped, too, from gasses trapped between the veins of coal and shale, not unlike the sounds it was making in the troll's mouth.
“Got more?” she said. Crumbs of shale dribbled from her chin.
“Just one.” Denario handed over his last piece.
“Lignite.” She hmmm-ed to herself and made a pleasant face. “'S not as good as anthracite. But nice.”
“I wish I had more,” Denario said truthfully.
“You nice.” The troll decided. But she leaned toward him dangerously. He understood that she could rise up and rip him in half at any second. “Got nothin' else?”
“Chalk? Quartz?” He remembered that he had pyrite, too, but he couldn't give it up. That was the main resource in his fire starting kit.
“Bah, quartz.” She waved off the idea. “Let me see chalk.”
It took him a minute to find the wax wrapper with the six shards of greyish mineral. Most of the pieces were left over from Ziegeburg. There hadn't been much of it to find in any of the Mundredi settlements, not even these large towns to the west and south of the valleys. No one bothered to mine it. Caravaners apparently didn't find any trade by hauling it.
The troll sniffed at his offering. With fingers as wide as two of his own, she plucked up a long shard, his cleanest, whitest one. Her diamond-edged teeth nibbled off the end. Then she put the piece back onto the wrapper with the others. He had the impression that she knew in advance that his chalk wasn't much good for eating but she was trying to be polite.
“You female?” said the troll. “Cause I don't eat females.”
“Can't you tell?” Denario asked. He closed the wrapper around his chalk pieces.
“Humans all look same.”
“Oh, I'm definitely female,” he decided. He drew tight a small, clean knot in his string around the wrapper. Then, in case the troll needed a reminder, he added, “The kind of human you don't eat. That's the kind I am.”
“Oh. Okay.” After a while, the troll pointed to the southeast and said, “Youse goin' dat way?”
“Deze two trails.”
“Yes?” He'd heard that the road to Ruin Thal forked, east and south. The eastern route was safer.
“That one,” she said as she pointed to the unseen eastern fork in the path. It was somewhere far ahead of them, down off of this rise. “Deze lots of men in armor. Too many. Enough to hurt me. Take the little one. Deze just three men there.”
“Three.” Denario's heart sank. He'd been nearly killed several times. There was a reward on his head. This could be his last, fatal encounter with mercenaries. Still, he supposed he could walk off of the path to get around a small contingent of them. It was dangerous because, if he got lost, he might starve before he found a safe town. He'd have to risk it. Even one man in armor was too much for him.
“Stomped them flat.” Perhaps she read his body language. She couldn't seem to read his face but she understood his hesitation. “Dey is no problem.”
“That's, uh, fine. I-I mean, it's wonderful for me.” He stammered as he envisioned the poor soldiers. That was countered in his imagination by the prospect of those same soldiers killing him. Caught between horror and relief, he settled for a bowing to the troll. His body did it, actually, before he could think too much about using courtly manners on a beast. She seemed to understand the gesture and watched patiently, if a bit sternly, as he removed his books and papers from the back of her traveling companion, currently asleep.
When Denario got to the fork in the cart paths later that day, he turned to the right. This was the long way, they'd told him in Furlingsburg, and dangerous due to lingering magicks in the area. But Denario guessed there would be no other option that allowed him to avoid the mercenaries outside the main walls of the town. Probably the troops were engaged in a standoff with Ruin Thal, much as they were with the other Mundredi towns in Sir Fettertyr's district. In theory, Denario's letters of passage should protect him, especially the one from Lieutenant Dvishvili. He doubted, though, that anything would help if someone recognized his face from a wanted poster.
Besides, there was no point in getting slain and then making the the soldiers regret it. They might feel sorry for what they'd done after they'd found his papers but it wouldn't help. Only his ghost would return to his apprentices – if ghosts existed and were allowed to do things like that. His visions of Winkel probably weren't real. Even if they were, he didn't like his prospects for an afterlife. If ghosts didn't do math, he'd have no way to occupy the time.
The narrow trail became an animal path. Denario, a city dweller, had been traveling on foot long enough to recognize deer tracks. He saw signs, too, of a raccoon or a bear or something large enough to make the hairs on his arms and neck stand up. He expected a creature to charge from the underbrush at any second. That was why, when he stepped on leaves and something hard wobbled beneath them, he hopped back and bumped into a spider web. The sight of the fist-sized black-and-green spider in the web made him dance for a minute until his panic subsided. The spider retreated to a nearby tree and clicked its mouth at him resentfully.
When he recovered enough to see what he'd stepped on, he picked it up for closer inspection. He normally didn't see helmets in this shape – flat. A creature of tremendous strength, presumably a troll, had plucked it off of a man's head, squeezed it, and then had taken a bite out of it like a fruit pancake. Maybe the trolls had gotten hungry and the armor had look as tasty to them as a soldier. Metals might be better for their diets than human bones for all Denario knew.
“Poor fellow,” Denario whispered. He set the steel pancake back on the forest floor. Then he thought better of it. This was no time for squeamishness.
A careful search recovered five bodies instead of three. Troll math was not the most reliable. But the soldiers had been, as promised, thoroughly stomped. Their organic possessions, such as food, papers, clothes, and limbs were strewn everywhere. Denario had to fight off a pair of foxes who were determined to worry at the bodies. He couldn't make them leave the corpses entirely. The cur and vixen kept eating the bits farthest from Denario. He tried not to mind. They were probably very economical and family minded, from their point of view, taking those bits back home to their litter.
It took the accountant a full hour to build a sledge out of fallen branches. The huge, green-and-black spider jabbered at him as he gathered his materials. He almost didn't have enough twine to pull off the job. It was a great lesson in thrift. Vir and Alaric had taught him about sledges. They were good for pulling loads. He gathered a fortune in armor, most of it barely eaten, and loaded it on.
Back when he was with the Mundredi army, Denario hadn't pulled a sledge. Today, he learned why. He could barely move one. But he kept at his task, inch after painful inch. He felt stubborn about the money. The last mile into town, unfortunately, went straight up a hill to a spiked, wooden wall. There was no visible door in the wall but, when he got there, Denario shouted until someone showed up anyway.
“It's a foreigner!” someone called. There was a general rustling and bumping of armor behind the wooden poles.
“Don't shoot!” Denario hastily clarified. “I'm only a little foreign. I've been sent by Furlingsburg.”
“Aha! I thought so,” said a more mature voice. A moment later, a face with a helmet on top appeared above the wall. There was a bit of gray in the brown hair that poked out around the helmet. The eyes, from a distance, looked wide and blue and perhaps a little amused. “He sounds foreign but he doesn't look it.”
“Are you crazy?” A younger, narrower face popped up. The man took a look at the accountant, saw the accountant looking at him, yelped, and ducked back down. “He looks like a damned bandit, Werter.”
“My uncle Morris did, too.”
“Your uncle Morris was a bandit.”
“Not really. Because he got away with it.”
“Sad ending, that.” The older man sighed. “Well, well. How did you get past those mercenaries, stranger?”
“They're all dead!” Denario shouted. “Are you going to let me in? Because I can't very well go around to the front and I've got a fortune in armor to share.”
“Oh, you do, do you?”
Werter, who seemed to be the senior guard, disappeared. There was a hasty conference on the town side of the wall. A third voice joined in. Someone said, “Get a burgher.” After a minute or so, Werter's kindly face popped back up.
“Are you a hero?” Werter asked.
“Are you a hero? You've come a long ways. Very heroic. You killed those mercenaries on the trail. Was it a big battle? Is there anyone left? We haven't been able to get anyone past them.”
“They're dead, I told you. But that ... no, I'm no hero.”
“What's your name, then?”
“Denario.” Suddenly, it seemed important to have a heroic sounding name. “Um, Denario the Dramatic.”
“Good name, that. Pretty good, anyway.”
Werter ducked back down. There was another hasty conference.
“Dramatic about what?” called someone without revealing himself.
Denario took the chain off of his neck. He held the blue coin high enough for the men on the wall to see if they were peeking through the cracks in the woodwork.
“Dramatic about anyone who denies me refuge,” he said. So there. “The Mundredi Chief and the Mayor of Furlingsburg have granted me passage. Your local rulers agreed.”
Three men stood up, a young thin one, a young fat one, and the solid fellow called Werter. Old Werter's mouth fell open. The eyes of the younger guards had gone wide.
“I haven't seen one of those in years!” Werter whispered with a smile.
“Never have, myself,” said the young thin one. “They really are blue. I thought that was just a wives' tale.”
“I didn't think the Seven Valleys were real,” admitted the young fat one.
“He's a hero, all right.” The three of them crouched lower and held another conference. The whispering went on for over a minute. Denario wondered if they were waiting for the burgher. Maybe they were but, in the meantime, the guards tied a knot into a heavy rope and threw it over the wall.
After they tied off their end behind the wall, they lowered down the knot.
“Go ahead and send up the armor you talked about,” the older one said. “Let's have a look.”
“Nice try,” said Denario. He crossed his arms. He wasn't giving them his most valuable items, especially not before their burgher got here as a witness.
“Ah, well, worth a shot.” Werter crouched again. The rope rose back up. All of the helmets visible at the top of the town wall disappeared.
A moment later, there appeared a crack in the wall. It was a hidden door. Slowly, behind a fair amount of pushing from the two younger men, the crack widened enough for a man to step through sideways. That man was the senior guard, Werter. He walked out, hands on hips, and gave the accountant a yellowed, slightly gap-toothed grin.
“I always heard that heroes were sort of dumb,” the man said. “Are you sure you're not a bandit?”
“Which one gets inside the walls?” snapped Denario. It had been a long, sweaty day. He put the blue medallion around his neck and displayed it as prominently as he could.
The guards tittered as if he'd made a joke. Denario understood. The citizens of Ruin Thal weren't going to believe that a troll had killed the mercenaries. They were looking for a hero. Denario had already half-decided to sell them on the idea that Vir, the Bandit Chieftain, had something to do with it. And in a way, he had.
Next: Chapter Eighteen, Scene Two