Scene One: Theolodite Work
Mundredi army. That was Denario's first thought. This fellow could be a mercenary of some stripe but that didn't seem likely. He'd come without a caravan. It was hard to imagine, too, that he would take orders from refined, well-groomed Ogglian officers. Denario tried to read the tattoos on the man's arms but the fellow kept moving. Half of the marks were under leather greaves but they seemed to be clan and house markings of some sort.
Everyone looked to Denario. The stranger did, too. There seemed to be no point in trying to hide. Denario rose. He smiled. Although he didn't salute, it occurred to him that he'd heard rumors about one of Vir's sergeants leading troops through Long Valley. Killim Thal wasn't too far southwest of the mountains around the valley. This fellow might be a messenger from Sergeant Kaspir. He could even be the sergeant himself.
“I'm your accountant,” Denario said.
The fellow took a slow step closer. A grin spread across his face.
“I've got a message,” he repeated.
Denario swallowed. He nodded. He edged his left.
“Ya killed my friends, ya bastard!” The soldier pulled out his sword. Its edge swept free of the scabbard with a ringing sound. The blade was bigger than Denario's arm. “Did ya think ya'd got away?”
Denario scanned for exits. There were eight windows. There was a door in the back for those who needed to use the privy.
“Draw yar blade, ya murderin' scum!”
Although the Raduar fellow was trembling with rage, he seemed to be willing to let Denario fight. He wanted a duel. It was precisely the sort of military encounter that Vir had railed against. Ogglian ideas of noble honor had affected everyone who came in contact with them, even this Raduar vagrant. Probably, this fellow hadn't even had direct contact with Ogglians. He was getting his ideas about dueling second or third-hand.
Denario rested his fingers on the pommel of his baselard. His weapon was steel and that made it theoretically better than the brass scimitar. It was too small, though, to go against a heavier, longer weapon.
“How did you find me?” he asked, stalling for time.
“Ah've been tracking ya for days and days.” The Raduar's voice was a growl. “When we heard what been done three weeks ago, we got friends together. We set out to assassinate them Mundredi army men. My cousin led us down from the mountains. We all made our way through the edge of Long Valley.”
Denario drew a map in his head of Long Valley and the places beyond. The Raduar to the northeast in Fat Valley were cut off from the rest of the world by mountains. If they tried to go around the mountains, they would run into their Mundredi and Kilmun neighbors. A small group could hike through the mountain range the long way but it would be dangerous. The end of the range would take them to the headwaters of No Map Creek. There, the group would need to travel through hostile territories and would end up at the wrong place regardless, far to the southwest of where they wanted to be. But it seemed that they had made the trip.
“No one would help us. Everyone shot at us. They killed half my friends. They starved us. I had to steal and murder to survive. And everywhere I went, I heard about ya. I knew ya was close. Yar an Oggli fool! But ya walked in the Mundredi valleys. And the Chief of the Mundredi treats ya like a hero. Ya killed my chief, they say. Everyone says. They sing a song about it.”
The accountant regretted the tribal musical tradition more than ever. Naturally, the Raduar wouldn't think it was funny because the joke was on them. And Denario did kill someone in battle. He'd been told that the fellow was a clan leader of some kind. Maybe the self-declared assassin came from that clan. The math of (many clans = one tribe) came back into his head as he considered the geography of it all.
“And so you came for revenge?” he blurted. That wasn't the right thing to say. He should have found a better diversion, anything to stave off the fight.
“Draw!” screamed the Raduar.
Denario pointed to the figures, silhouettes in the sunlight, that had come up to the front door of the Drowned Sorrows. Whoever they were, they'd heard the screaming from inside and they'd hesitated in the doorway. Denario didn't blame them. But he was desperate enough to use them.
“Do I have to fight all of you?” he asked.
The assassin turned. He didn't just look over his shoulder, either. He swung around so that his whole back faced Denario. If the accountant had been a certain type of man, he could have stabbed his opponent right between the shoulder blades. But he wasn't like that. Maybe. Anyway, the man's back was armored.
Instead, Denario ran. He headed for the back way out of the pub as fast as his tired legs could take him. It was a stupid thing to try. He couldn't outrun this killer. He couldn't hop on a raft. The rafts were tied to the docking stump and they weren't his. His own raft lay in pieces. Besides, he wasn't going to leave all of his accounting gear.
That last thought made his decision. As he headed out of the door, he turned to the right, towards No Map Creek. That's when he heard someone scream. Surprisingly, the killer's roar of outrage shook him to his spine. He found more speed. He was surprised he had anything more. He'd already been moving faster than he ever had in his armor.
The accountant ran around the back of someone's house and straight through a hedge bush. There was no other way to go without doubling back. He had to hope the bush would slow his pursuer down. Behind him, he heard the pounding of heavy boots. Then came the sound of bush branches snapping, followed by cursing.
Denario wheeled to his right, out from behind the house and toward the path that led to the landing site on the creek. To his surprise, he saw someone waiting for him on the path. He tried to draw his sword as he ran. But he held back as he recognized who it was. The man was Jack Lasker. He had the strangest, wildest smile on his face. How had he gotten here so fast?
“Ya crazy little bastard!” Jack yelled. “Hah hah hah!”
Denario didn't waste any of his breath with a reply. He rumbled past the boatman, turned left and entered what he hoped was the final stretch of his escape. Ahead of him, down on the sandy banks, he saw the top of Achim's head. The poor farmhand was staring off into space. He'd taken of his hat and he was scratching himself. His body was pointed in Denario's direction. But Achim didn't notice the accountant pounding toward him in boots and armor. He didn't hear the labored breathing. The young man was lost in his daydreams.
Denario huffed as he leapt from the path to the sandy docking area. There, he slipped and nearly fell. The thought of his attacker jumping on him in the next second lent extra strength to his knees. He had to press down with one hand but he managed to stay upright.
A shadow passed over him.
It was Crazy Jack. The man was laughing and skipping through the sand. He was far, far faster than Denario. He hopped aboard his lead raft. He kicked equipment aside. Then he moved one of Denario's bags with the toe of his shoe. He grabbed a hook and tossed it aside.
Denario ran to catch up.
“Hey!” said Achim. He seemed to be just noticing them.
Jack leaned over and reached for the loop of rope that connected his rafts to the anchor stump on the bank. Don't remove the line, Denario prayed. Don't cast off. Don't leave yet. Don't leave me. I can't jump. I can't.
Denario jumped. It was three and a half feet from the bank to the gunwhales of the lead raft. He almost didn't make it. Certainly he didn't clear the gunwhales. He stepped on them. But he came down on the deck of the boat with his right foot and then his left. He wobbled. Barely, he managed to stay upright.
“Grab the punt!” yelled Jack. He'd cast off. The rope was in his hand, hanging loose. He was looking at someone over Denario's left shoulder. Denario knew who it was.
“Where?” Denario scrambled frantically. He had to remind himself what a punt was. In the second it took, Jack snapped it up from in front of his tent.
“Grab something!” yelled Jack. He turned his punt point-on toward the shore.
Denario bent over and grabbed his theolodite. It had been a spear before. It could serve as one still. He turned.
Over his right shoulder, he saw the Raduar assassin. The fellow had made the turn in the trail where dirt turned to sand. He ignored Achim, who wasn't even looking in the right direction. He sprinted directly for Denario. His legs prepared for the leap.
There was no doubt in Denario's mind. The Raduar was going to make it. He was huge. He was strong. He was faster in armor, holding a heavy sword, even in the sand, than Denario would be naked and running downhill.
Denario had an instant to set himself. He realized he was holding the spear the wrong way around. It was too late to fix it.
“Diiiieeeeeeeeooooww!” The Raduar's battle cry ended in pain.
Next to Denario, Jack Lasker grinned. Crazy Jack had punched the soldier right in the solar plexus with the end of his punt. Even through the banded armor, the knob of thick wood had to hurt. Their attacker was caught in mid-leap. He fell backwards into the water.
It was only a foot deep where he was standing. But the assassin went down hard. He lost his sword.
“Aaaaargh!” He rose back up again, screaming. He charged the boat.
This time, Denario helped Jack. The butt of his spear and the tip of the punt hit the Raduar man at the same time, both near the collar bone. Denario had been aiming at the man's mid-section. He missed by a foot. Jack, though, had probably aimed at the man's throat and had missed by less than an inch.
The man went down without a sound. Jack must have punched some of the air out of him. The Raduar fell into more than two feet of water.
A few seconds later, Denario's attacker rose again. This time, it was a struggle. The bottom of the creek where he stood was covered by rocks. They were slippery with water-moss. The armor was a deadly weight, almost too heavy for him to move. It took both arms and both legs for him to get back up.
As the accountant watched, he realized how close he'd come to dying on his own foolish raft. He wasn't as strong as his opponent. His chain mail was just as heavy as banded steel. If he'd fallen in a few feet of water, he'd never have lifted his head above it again.
“Once more!” Jack yelled. He laughed like he was having the time of his life.
The riverman was right. The Raduar attacker took a couple more steps toward the rafts. But the rafts were floating away. The back boat had reached mid-stream and was about to become the front one. In a last-ditch effort to catch and throttle the accountant, the attacker lunged.
Denario poked the Raduar in the shoulder. Jack hit him in the eye.
This time, they were farther away and the blows landed without as much force. But the shot to the eye still did damage. It knocked the assassin's head back. A second after, the Raduar staggered and groaned in pain. He didn't fall. He recovered enough to smack the water with his fists. He'd made it up to his waist but he could go no further.
The accountant was strangely glad not to see his attacker go down. He didn't really want the man to drown. He just didn't want to get murdered.
“Sorry about your friends!” he yelled as the rafts drifted away.
The Raduar let out a cry of despair and frustration.
“Sorry! It was them or me.”
Denario turned to find Jack giving him a look of disbelief.
“Yah're crazy!” he exclaimed. Coming from him, that was a strange assessment. The accountant wasn't sure how to take it.
He nodded and turned his attention to staying on his feet. The boats had drifted a long way already. They bounced up and down in the current. Now that the trailing raft had become the leading one, the situation would become a problem. He turned and pointed upstream. Jack clucked his tongue but he didn't seem worried about their prospects. He stirred the creek bottom with his punt. It looked like he could guide both boats from the back, as difficult as that seemed. The front raft turned to the left around a sandbar as the aft one edged its corner in the opposite direction.
“All right,” said Jack. The grin crept back onto his face. On some level, he had loved the encounter with the assassin. Both of them glanced back as they watched the dejected man standing there, still waist-deep. “We got out with all of our goods and all of our money. We're fine.”
“I'm sorry about that fellow.”
“Now I know ya ain't a liar about the army. Ya want to hire on?”
“On your boat? Under what terms?”
“Ya gets some of my cargo money, a tenth of a tenth. I gets more of yar math money, let's say two thirds.”
“Change that to a twentieth of the cargo and half of my math money but you also get half of the money we bring in when we sell my raft.” Denario stuck out his hand.
“Done!” Jack dropped the punt and shook the accountant by both hands. “Hah, I'd of forgotten about yar raft. Good one. And now, if we're going to be partners for this run, there's something I got to say.”
“Bathe. Take off yar armor and wash.”
Next: Chapter Twenty, Scene Two