Sunday, June 3, 2018

Not Even Not Zen 122: A Bandit Accountant, 20.3

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Score
Scene Three: Bad Barrels

Mosquitoes discovered Denario during the night. In the morning, when he wasn't helping to steer, he itched the back of his neck until it was bloody.

Life beneath the canopy of cedars, birches, and willows was cooler than Denario had expected. Unlike Jack, who sometimes went bare-chested, Denario needed a shirt. The current was slow, so he didn’t heat up from work. He had time to relax. Within a mile of their launch, the creek grew too deep for the punt. In the sections where the water had turned a deep blue-green, Denario could push the rod all the way down until his hand touched the surface. The tip still didn't hit bottom.

He stopped playing that game when a shape bigger than his legs rose up from the depths. It looked like a small alligator with a fish tail. Crazy Jack said it was harmless and would go away. But Denario didn't like the look of the creature's long, tooth-filled mouth. On his next break, he stayed away from the water and cleaned his accounting gear. He followed that by oiling his short sword to remove a spot of rust. Then he practiced his sword drills, which made Jack laugh.

“Ya should work on bein' a better boatman,” he said. “Yar deadly enough with yar weapons.”

It was nearly the first complement Denario had received about his fighting prowess. He hoped that meant he was getting better, albeit in the eyes of a non-expert. The sword felt more natural to him nowadays and he didn't end his drills as soon or as exhausted as he once had.

“Comin' up on Barrel Bad soon,” muttered Jack. “It's three bends away just past the old hitchin' post.”

“Barrel Bad? That's a town name?” Denario chuckled. Then he sighed.

“Sure, used to make the best barrels there. Still make good ones.”

“Doesn't the name strike you as funny?”

“How do you mean?”

“I've passed so many places with ridiculous names. In Oggli, I heard foreigners mock them. I mean, 'Barrel Bad?' Doesn't that sound like they do something badly? Although it's nowhere near Pharts Bad, I admit. I never did figure that one out.”

“'Taint much to figure. A lot of old names sound silly. There are good reasons behind them. Like for Barrel Bad, well, 'bad' means 'bath.' There's a freshwater spring near the town. I've seen it. Come to think of it, the spring is oddly round, shaped a bit like the bottom half of a barrel. Maybe the town gets its name from that, not from the cooper.”

“But it's not just that our towns have funny names,” Denario said. “I think we haven't been respected for hundreds of years even when our names were picked for us. Take the city of Anhgrili, for instance. That's across the river where I came from. As you might point out, 'anhgre' is the old, old word for 'anchor.' But that city was named by the Muntab navy, which means it got approval from the emperor himself. The name got passed up the bureaucracy.”

“So?”

“So in Muntar, they never had the old, old tongue that we used here. So anhgre sounds like 'anger.' I'll bet the clerks who saw that thought it was a hilarious name. But they still approved it.”

“Why?”

“Because they like laughing at us? That's just a guess.” Denario raised his small fist. “With the gods as my witness, someday our people will be respected.”

“Hah.” The boatman leaned back and laughed. “Who are yar people?”

“I don't know. My apprentices come first. A girl in Ruin Thal, maybe. Then it's folks like you and Vir. Maybe a witch in Ziegeburg. Then everyone else who's decent.”

“Not a bad answer.” Jack was grinning and nodding. “Don’t know if those folks care what they’re called, though.”

“Would any of these towns consider changing their names?” Denario asked. “I mean, Barrel Bad could just as easily be Springtown or Barreltun.”

The boatman looked dubious. “Those 'ton,' 'town' and 'tun' names sound foreign to people who were born here. If it didn't end in a 'li' sound when our great-great-grandfathers came, it ends in burg or bad now. Sometimes it's a 'thal' if you live in the cleft between two hills.”

“I think Ruin Thal is cheating, then. It's at the top of a hill. Well, it's between larger hills but still it's on high ground.”

“Don't know that one. If it's at the top, it should more rightly be an ephart, peak, or scarp Not too far north is a place called Willow Peak.”

“Ah, so Mount Ephart means 'cliff mountain.'”

“Wherever that is, sure, it sounds right.”

“Oh, no.” Denario slapped himself in the head.

“Forget something?”

“I just figured it out. Pharts Bad ... gods, what a terrible name ... that means 'spring by the cliff' or something like that, which makes perfect sense.”

“Told ya they have reasons.”

“They're awful names, Jack. Come on, you've been around. You know people poke fun at names all over the Complacent Sea and on up through the rivers, too.”

“They do. Can't say it ever bothered me. I don't think it bothers most folks, just a few young men like you who don't want laughed at.”

“Just me? Really?”

“Look, there's a town on the Riggle Kill called Druli.”

“I know it. I've passed through.” Denario saw Jack's point immediately.

“The sort of folks who are content to let their town be called 'drooly' for a few hundred years ...”

“It's built next to a marsh, too, and it's always wet.”

“Yah. They aren't going to change that name for whatever foreigners say.”

Denario shrugged. Jack was probably right.

“And Pharts Bad had a rockfall that exposed a seam of sulphur,” Denario said. “It smelled awful near the eastern side of the mine.”

“Heh.” It took the riverman about five seconds to get the joke. Some people never got it. The accountant felt that made Jack seem reasonably clever. “Pharts Bad, indeed. Funny.”

They docked the rafts at a strip of sand in a strong current.

Denario could tell the river had moved away from Barrel Bad, which lay in a sprawl of farms and houses entirely on the west bank, the Mundredi side. The change had rendered the town's old hitching post unreachable. It was too far from the sandy shore. Further downstream, someone had created three new hitching posts, all birch stumps. The stumps lined a shelf of sandbars and reed-beds. The reed beds looked like homes for all sorts of biting insects but Denario didn't suppose he could do much about it.

Jack stepped off the boat first. He hopped over the reeds and quickly handled the tie-down at the middle stump. Denario tried counting the seconds under this breath and got as far as one before Jack was finished with the first knot. He guessed he would have had a harder time of it himself. Denario's raft would have sped on past Barrel Bad in this too-swift current, assuming he'd gotten it moving.

After they tied the corners of both rafts down to the other stumps, Denario paused, hands on his knees, to look around. A road ran alongside of the creek. Like the creek, it trailed from northeast to southwest in both directions as far as anyone could see. Patches of dirt road had filled with grass, which made it appear seldom traveled. Up the slope away from the water, Denario spotted another trail. This one was wider. It led to the north by northeast. The two dirt paths met in a Y shape at the spot of the old hitching post sixty yards upstream.

“Is there supposed to be someone here, Jack?” he asked.

“Sometimes,” Jack answered cryptically.

“I see rooftops.” Denario pointed to the gap between groves of trees straight ahead. There was another, larger building with wooden shingles visible over the next rise to the right. “Do you want me to hike up the road?”

“You can go as far as you can carry the rafts.” Jack tossed down his coil of rope. He'd left his punt leaned against the near corner of the gunwhales. So he grabbed his hat off of the top of it, jammed it on his head, and hiked away.

Denario shrugged. It seemed to be his job to guard the cargo.

After about a minute, it occurred to him that there was no reason the Raduar assassin couldn't march to Barrel Bad. Although the creek's current was fast where they'd landed, it was slower than walking speed everywhere else. If the assassin had been willing to travel at night, he could be lying in wait somewhere close by.

The accountant scrambled into his armor. Even at a hurried pace, it took him five minutes to get his chain mail on. His greaves took longer. He gave up and tucked them back into his pack. The hauberk, too, seemed ridiculous for the effort it took. He decided to settle on picking up all the weapons he had. But he only had two hands. He couldn't fight with everything at once. The bow, he set aside. He hadn't practiced shooting anyway. He kept his sword in his scabbard and his eyes on the roads in front of him. In his left hand, he gripped the spear. He figured he could use the spear's huge length to keep the assassin away while he untied a raft. If he had to fight with the spear and broke the theolodite, he could repair it with the spare copper and tin in his money pack.

“Hoy!” About fifteen tense minutes later, Jack appeared on the northeast road. He passed through the gap in a grove of maple trees, spotted the accountant, and waved.

The boatman was a long way off. A few strides later, he passed behind a shrub. Behind him in the gap appeared a boy, then another boy. They were pulling leather straps that appeared tied to a wooden cart behind them. The cart's boards had turned grey with age.

When the group emerged from behind the maples and shrubs, Denario saw them all together for the first time. Jack had slowed to let a thick-bodied man catch up. That man wore a white shirt and dark vest. Behind him strode farm boys with their cart. On the front seat of the cart perched a girl aged probably eleven or twelve. She was dressed in petticoats, if that was the right term for her ruffled layers of plain white cloth. She held the reins of the cart in her lap. Her face bore the twist of a mischievous grin. Denario tried to read that expression. He thought she was tempted to thrash the reins and shout that her older brother and younger brother were donkeys.

She resisted right up to the time the cart rolled to a stop at the Y in the roads upstream from Denario. Then she gave the reins a flick, giggled, hopped down, and ran for it. Her brothers reacted immediately to the snap of leather. But it was already too late. She was off on a task to their neighbors, apparently. She dashed off along the creek to the northeast and in a few seconds got far enough away that her brothers couldn't give chase.

“So this is yar guard, eh?” the farmer drawled as he got closer. He spoke to Jack Lasker but he jerked his thumb in Denario's direction.

“Yep. He was fighting the Raduar who came down from the mountains.”

“Huh.”

The farmer's beard hung to the middle of his chest. He paused to stroke the gray and brown strands of it. From his expression, he didn't approve of fighting. But he made sure that his boys pulled the cart all the way to the creek.

“Hope he's got sense not to drink,” the farmer mumbled.

“So far, so good.” Jack gave Denario a reassuring wink. “A bit of your lightning would teach anyone a lesson.”

That got a thoughtful grin. The farmer had brought something to trade downstream and it was, as he and Jack revealed, twenty-five clay bottles of 'lighting,' that being a type of local drink. They couldn't have been worth much. Jack's pay was two and a half tens of the bottles. They loaded the lighting onto the rafts with the farmer's sons doing most of the work. They also transferred pork from the rafts to the cart; that was the delivery. They stored the lighting bottles according to Jack's preference on the spots along the rafts, fifteen on one and ten on the other. By the time they finished, they could see other folks cresting the rise in the trail farther upstream, eight in all not counting the farmgirl who'd brought them. Those folks had wheelbarrows full of glazed pots.

The new arrivals soon heard the news that Denario was guarding the boat. At least one of them, the oldest, showed a glint of humor in his eyes as he sized up the accountant. He was too polite to say that Denario was the shortest fighter he'd ever seen. He was a genial fellow, though, as were his sons and his cousins. Their pots turned out to be mostly full of pickles.

Denario noticed something odd when he put his hands on one of the pots. They each bore the slanted 8 sign that he associated with Melcurio, god of accounting, banking, and possibly tricking.

“Who made these marks?” he asked a man who handed him the jar to load.

“Potter did. I ordered 'em. Lucky things, these. God marks.”

Denario hesitated. Sometimes religion could be a touchy subject. People got violent. He checked the forearms of the men for tattoos. The two older men had them but they were only for their house and clan signs, nothing to indicate the Mundredi or Kilmun tribes to which their clans belonged. None of the younger men or boys had any tattoos at all. It was hard to tell with what groups they might identify.

“And what gods do you worship?” he ventured.

“Gwydion. He makes the crops grow,” said the pickle man. He had only two tattoos, both bluish and faded like old bruises. “But these marks on the jars ain't his signs. These ya should know, from the look of ya. They're for the god of trade. Traditional, like.”

“These are marks for Melcurio?”

“We call him the Trader. Sometimes the we say the Counter or the Trickster.”

Denario felt closer to civilization on hearing those words. He'd reached lands where Melcurio was regarded as a god of trade. That came awfully close, in Denario's view, to being the god of banking.

He thought of other ways that No Map Creek seemed to be bringing him near to his destination. Old-style barter seemed to be on the decrease. Commodity money had grown prevalent. The pickle man, for instance, had paid Jack Lasker in bottles of his own brand of 'lightning,' which Denario understood was hard liquor. Liquor might be the main form of commodity money here, much as goats or dried fish were in other places. Non-accountants might not understand but Denario knew that staple commodities were related to coins. The relation wasn't in their materials but in their basic concept of reusable value. 'Lightning' could be traded many times before anyone had a sip, much as a coin could be used many times before a smithy melted it down.

“How come ya gots armor?” the farmer asked about half an hour later, as their work in loading was coming to an end.

Denario felt his face go red. He had hoped no one would notice the mail shirt between his layers of linen. Jack saw his reaction and laughed.

“The accountant comes from the Mundredi army!” he jeered.

“Didn't know we still had an army. Do we still have a chief?”

“Of course!” Then Jack launched into the story of Denario running away from the Raduar assassin. The boatman was a natural comedian. Everyone laughed. They oohed over Jack and Denario pushing the assassin down in the water. Then they asked why the man had been angry in the first place. Who had Denario killed?

“No, I'm not a murderer … well, only in self-defense ...” Denario told how he'd met Vir de Acker in foreign lands, how they'd escaped from an Ogglian jail, fought Raduar warriors, and more. He avoided mentioning the poison. What interested the farmers more than anything, though, was the Seven Valleys. Some of them had grandfathers from the valleys and they wanted to hear about the soil, the sunlight, and every other detail Denario could spare. They thought that the mine at Pharts Bad sounded wonderful but impossibly distant. They didn't seem to think the name of the place was funny. No one laughed upon hearing about any battles, not even when Denario admitted he'd been an idiot. These men knew the towns to the northwest of them had seen fighting. Although they weren't too concerned, they understood that organized violence was a possibility. Moreover, although they weren't sure he was their chief, they said Vir de Acker had ambushed a caravan to the south of them a couple of years ago, followed by a night raid against the baron's army. Some of the farmers knew about the fights and the fact that Vir had killed a dozen soldiers, stolen mysterious amounts of armor, and taken army cash boxes.

The accountant wondered if they were making up the part about the cash. It didn't seem like Vir even though the chief admitted to taking in money from time to time. Maybe the southern exploits were exaggerated. If I'd been a caravan leader robbed of warriors and armor, I might claim that I had no money left either, he thought.

It was Denario's stories about accounting, though, that got them the most excited. When he described his geometry and his maps, one of the men, who turned out to be the pickle shipper's youngest brother, started pacing back and forth. He interrupted to ask how Denario would make a wooden cylinder. Denario described the equation and a method for lathing. Then the fellow asked how Denario would make a spiral, which was an odd question. Denario's answer to making spirals was a bit complicated and the men got impatient.

“Look, can't you just come over to my place?” said the young one, still excited. “It's next to the Bodkers.”

“He means the farm next to the barrel works,” the pickle man explained.

“I'll feed you dinner if you look at my geometry problem,” the fellow continued. “I'll pay you in coppers if you can solve it.”

“Oho!” exclaimed Jack.

Those were magic words to the riverman. What followed was a bargaining session in which Denario learned a lot about the exchange rate between liquor and coins. A bottle of lightning was worth about three and a half brassers, he estimated, which meant Jack Lasker hadn't earned much money today except by local standards. He was looking for more. After all, he spent his money in Oupenli, where the prices were high. He wanted his cut of the accounting work.

The accountant wanted to know what kind of problem he was facing and whether a solution was practical or not. He tried to pry clues out of the farmers. They didn't seem to be able to articulate what they hoped he could do. That was a bad sign. The young man who'd brought up the problem, Marcel, worked for the cooper. Two years ago, he'd finished his apprenticeship. Instead of going off to be a journeyman in some other town, he'd agreed to stay and make barrels for Master Bodker. The Bodker place had three full-time coopers. Marcel was the youngest but it seemed to be a plum position since the other two men were old and slow. He'd been allowed to buy land, admittedly the worst around. It was a triangle of scrub brushes, mud and sand that bordered No Map Creek. Once it had been productive. Marcel thought he could make it grow crops again. In fact, he'd gambled on it. The land had come with an enormous debt that his salary as a cooper might pay off if he lived to be forty, which everyone regarded as a even-chance proposition. If he defaulted, the land returned to the Bodker family.

He hoped to pay them off earlier by farming his land or working some other kind of profitable business there. He was toying with the idea of carpentry or better, smithing. He liked working with metals. He knew a dwarf caravan leader who would sell him raw materials. But for smithing without children or apprentices, he needed a steady source of water close to hand. That was where Denario came in.

“You want me to site a well for you?” Denario asked at one point. For a property adjoining the creek, it wouldn't be hard.

“No,” Marcel waved his hands emphatically. “There's old cooper machinery on my property that I want you to fix. Look it over. You'll see what I mean.”

Machinery? Denario wondered. Barrel makers used a lot of tools but none of them were complicated. He wouldn't call any of them machines.

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