Sunday, July 15, 2018

Not Even Not Zen 125: A Bandit Accountant, 21.1

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Octagonal Number Three
Scene One: A Foreshadowing

“A bridge!” shouted Denario. He hopped to his feet. The raft wobbled under him as he pointed to a nearly golden structure ringed by willow-oaks. It stood at the edge of his line of sight past a long, wide clearing where nothing grew but sand, scrub grass, and rocks.

At half a mile distant, the bridge was as far away as anything Denario had ever seen on No Map Creek. The waterway tended to shorten his line of sight with bends, trees, reverse-bends, and more trees. This time he had a clear view for nearly a mile. The lush border of poplars and birches parted on the Mundredi side to reveal a magnificent, amber monument. It had a dozen farms clustered on either end. The structure was out of proportion to the modest roads leading up to it. That only made it more impressive.

“It's not just any bridge,” answered Jack. “This, accountant, is the Dwarf Bridge.”

“But it's not small.” He eyed the keystones. There were only two visible, one for each arch, but they were each as large as a man.

“No, it’s human-sized. But it’s old, strong, and maybe a bit magical. The dwarfs craft things that way, they say, although I think the line between their skills and their magic may seem blurred to those of us over four feet tall.”

Aha, realized Denario. Magical creatures built it, dwarfs. And I've seen dwarfs in Oggli. They talk to wizards.

“Nothing happens to people crossing it, right?” Or passing under it? Denario wondered. That seemed more important as he realized he would soon float between the shore and the center column.

Maybe the structure only seemed magical to the locals because, not too long ago, they hadn't known how to build arched bridges except via the corbel method. A corbel arch was a false arch in Denario's opinion. It needed abutments and thick walls. But the dwarfs had known how to construct true arches long before men. For ages they had built them underground, out of the sight of humans, and so they'd avoided sharing their secrets.

“A feeling comes over ya, they say.” Jack gazed wistfully ahead.

“What kind?”

“A feeling that those dwarfs knew what they were doing.”

A light rain the night before had stirred up the silt of No Map Creek. The water roiled with brown mud. Visibility had fallen to about an inch straight down. Denario felt compelled to test the depths with his punt. In three tries, he got measurements of four feet, three feet, and five feet. That's why he was gazing off into the distance and thinking about right triangles ... 3,4,5 ... 5,12,13 ... 6,8,10 ... 7,24,25 ... 8,15,17 ... when he noticed a glint from the top of the bridge.

An second later, he saw another brief, metallic flash. He heard Jack's feet patter across the wood.

“There they are.” The riverman sprinted to the front of the forward raft. “A caravan.”

“Is it?” The accountant squinted straight ahead until he saw the movement, human heads bobbing up and down as they crossed the bridge. “I've only seen them at Phart's Bad. Do you know this one?”

“The mule bags are dyed green. The men have got steel gorgets on over their shirts. Even this far away I can see the shine around their necks. The shirts are green, too. That's a color that Oleg Thalberg likes. He wears it to advertise dyed cloth. It's got to be his caravan. That's one of the best. We have to stop and see if they've got anything to trade or send downstream.”

Denario pushed against a rock on the bottom of the creek with his punt. When he'd started this journey, he'd understood that a gorget was an armored neck brace. That wasn't new to him. Squires at the court had worn them. Hermann Ansel had owned one. What he hadn't understood was how they worked.

A neck brace could stop a sword from slicing your head off your shoulders. That's good. But if the rest of you goes unarmored, the gorget itself is ridiculous. Anyone able to cut off your head is capable of lethal blows everywhere else. So what was the point? After Denario finally got up the nerve to ask the question one evening, the Ansels explained how the armor worked.

“A gorget might mean something different in richer lands,” Hermann had said. Like most educated people in the duchy of West Ogglia, he'd allowed as how most advancements came from elsewhere. Everyone took it for granted that foreign places were better. “We haven't learned the secrets to good armor here. But among the mercenary classes and among the Mundredi royalty, the circle of steel around a man's neck is a promise.”

“A promise of what?”

“It means his family is saving up for more armor,” Valentina had interjected.

“Aye. My father bought me the gorget. I bought the bands from the ring to my shoulders.”

“My father bought him the two shorter brass bands,” said his wife, “front and back.”

“The framework is complete. Valentina sewed it all into my padded shirt.”

This was how banded armor started in the Oggli and Mundredi styles. A gorget coupled with the skeletal straps provided support to the bands. Even a rather poor smithy could fashion metal bands that could be welded or stitched into the frame. However, the frame was tailored to the man. Even when a particularly lucky and inventive bandit chief like Vir was able to rob a man of his armor, he'd have to cut it to pieces in the process or he'd discover that it fit no one else but the original owner. Either way, Vir needed an armorer to make his thefts useful.

Mundredi armor, even that of commoner-nobles like Hermann Ansel, was brass. Brass was more sanitary than steel. It didn't rust. But it was a tenth heavier than steel and only eight-tenths as strong. Denario figured that a warrior in brass armor had to be thirty percent better than an opponent in steel armor to stand an even chance in a fight. Vir might say that math didn't mean anything but Denario was sure that it meant something real. Calculations about weapons and armor were clues about the proportions of deaths in battle. All of the Oggli knight said that men in brass armor wouldn't stand up to steel weapons for long. Denario believed them.

“They're coming from the Kilmun side. Lay us up on the the Mundredi bank. We'll meet them there,” said Jack. He was reaching for a pole as he spoke. Denario was too slow. “Eh, never mind. I'll do it myself. You get our personal gear into the tent.”

“Do we have to worry about thieves?” The accountant's eyes widened. He trotted to his bags and grabbed the closest strap.

“Some traveling men think they move fast enough to escape the consequences of what they do. It doesn't hurt to be careful. You've got armor and scrolls and whatnot. It's not hard to imagine that something will look tempting.”

The accountant stashed his heaviest pouch first. That was the one, besides his main pack, that held the most money. His main pack, custom tailored in Ruin Thal, was already inside the tent. It took a minute to stow everything else. All that he left out were his third-best quill, a piece of dried fish on birch bark, his drawing compass, and a re-used scrap of parchment. He'd used the parchment to draw a map of the last few miles of the creek. He'd had time to add to it, as well, a rough sketch of the earlier parts of No Map.

The ink still shone. It needed a few minutes to dry., He left it in the center of the deck and made a mental note to himself to watch the caravan guards so they didn't steal it or step on it.

Oleg Thalberg, the caravan master, clapped his hands as Denario and Jack tied down. Oleg was a sandy-haired man, going to gray, with a thick, light brown beard. Behind his smile were the strongest looking teeth Denario had seen in weeks. Maybe Oleg saw a dentist in Oupenli or maybe he simply knew how to brush his teeth. Oleg's body, despite his advancing years, remained solid. He filled out his green tunic with broad shoulders. The lines in his face showed him as well past thirty but he looked more fit than most younger men.

He put his hands on his hips. “Clever Jack! You're looking well.”

“I'd swear you're younger than when I saw you last year.” Jack grinned. He stuck out an arm. The two slapped each other's shoulders with their left hands as they shook with their right. It took a few minutes for them to exchange pleasantries about their health and the weather. Denario stared at the big man's tunic, which held an emerald clan sign atop a lighter green background. As he studied, he felt the guards studying him in turn. By their expressions, they were wary of his armor. It was only the hauberk, this time. His single weapon was the baselard, still sheathed.

“Ya Mundredi? Kilmun?” asked the closest one. He was either clean-shaven or not mature enough to grow a beard. “Not Waldi, surely.”

“No tattoos,” muttered his friend. He was old enough to sport a tattered chin curtain. “Ya can't be Muntabi of any sort, can ya?”

“I marched with the Mundredi army for a while,” admitted Denario. “But I grew up in Oggli.”

“Oggli!” they breathed. That was a name that dredged up respect.

“Fooled me.” Oleg turned to him for the first time. His gaze narrowed. “Is that an accounting vest I see beneath yar hauberk?”

“It is.” After waking from a dream about the Paravienteri docks., Denario had thrown on his work shirt this morning. Wearing it felt natural. Anyway, he'd covered it, or so he’d thought.

“Oleg,” drawled Jack. “This is Denario the Dramatic, a warrior and certified accountant. He's returning from his last job in a roundabout way.”

“Very roundabout, I'm sure.” Oleg tugged his beard. “A great warrior, you say?”

“Never seen any like him before.” There was a twinkle in Jack's eye.

“So ya got yourself some security. Good.”

The riverman folded his sinewy arms. He leaned back with satisfied expression. “He started out as a paying customer, if ya can imagine.”

“Ya always were clever.”

“That's what I'm supposed to say.”

“Certified in Oggli? Damned expensive. Too rich for the likes of me.”

“Are you hinting, Oleg? We could cut ya a deal.”

“Are you his agent?”

The boatman hooked his thumbs under the drawstring of his pants. A smirk spread across his lips. Oleg developed a furrow along his forehead but the big man calmed and it disappeared. The calmness seemed to be his professional disposition because he negotiated with an bland face. He only interrupted the conversation when he needed to order his muleteer to unpack. The muleteer, a thin, middle-aged fellow, directed the guards to assist. It seemed clear that men carrying spears were on the bottom rung of the ladder of commerce.

Each leader traded goods and services. It was a complicated deal with several items, large and small, changing hands. Denario settled down on a stump to review the caravan's books. Oleg used real books with modern writing in them, his own semi-legible script. There were so many mistakes and missing entries that the review took hours. The caravan had to throw in a full meal, an agreement to carry Denario's messages, and a bottle of ink. Oleg noticed Denario's map on the raft deck, too, when the accountant leaped up to stop someone from trampling it. At the end of the review process, he bargained for a review of his trail charts with corrections and annotations for magical changes in the geography.

The caravan carried no trail charts showing lands within a mile of the creek, Denario noticed.

In exchange for the work, Oleg gave Denario a roll of maps for which he had no use but which could presumably be sold to someone else. The accountant mentioned how the caravan's trail maps didn't include the most obvious one, the road they traveled.

Oleg laughed. “Well, of course. This one runs by No Map.”

Denario glanced at his sketch of the creek's course so far. It was where he'd left it. Someone had kindly set a rock on one corner to hold it in place against the breeze. He tried to read Oleg's face as he caught the older man glancing at what was written there. A moment later, he tried to read Jack's expression as the riverman did the same thing. The leaders exchanged a look of knowing. Denario would have sworn they were innocent of any evil intent. They merely regarded the parchment in progress as object of humor.

After the caravan and rafts exchanged their last round of goods, the men swapped news of the towns upstream and downstream. Jack told the story of the Raduar assassin's attempt on Denario, to the laughter of all. Oleg told them about a troop of dwarfs he'd met.

“They've got hammers, mostly, and a few axes, but those are used more as tools than they are as weapons. For armor, they've got poor stuff. Really bad.”

“Are you sure? Beyond Oupenli, dwarfs are the only folks I've met with good steel.”

“Not this lot. They've got steel caps, true, but very little chain mail. Their hauberks look like they were studded with iron but they've been using the studs as ingots.”

“They're doing forge work with pieces of their armor? They must be really hard up.”

“I think so. They claim to be traveling craftsmen. They pull along an anvil in a little cart. That lets them move from town to town, earning their keep with fix-work.”

“That's a nice setup. Should be making them rich.”

“They've been robbed. Twice. On top of that, some folks aren’t paying. It's tough being small. I hired them to fix our gorgets. They did that and more, grateful for the money and the extra food. Out of pity, I let them trade for my worst supplies with their surplus maps. That's what brought the whole mapping business to mind.”

“So you gave us dwarf maps.”

“They say no. The maps were drawn by humans. That's what's been giving them trouble. But I can't read the damn things either. They're like no maps I've seen. All I'm saying is, don't try to trade them back their own scrolls. I doubt that would work.”

“Dwarfs are the best tool makers around,” mumbled Denario. He put a hand to his chin to hide his smile. He'd glanced at the scrolls and knew them for what they were. They were a series of mining maps. To most folks, the three dimensional coordinates of topographic maps looked like a sort of code. A good Oggli-trained accountant could read the code. Dwarfs couldn't. That must mean they used a different system. Denario wondered what it was. Whatever they did, he bet they didn't think in terms of a layered set of representations as seen from above. From below, maybe? From a center outward, using polar coordinates? As a description in pure math, no flattened model at all? There had never been a member of the accounting guild who had learned the secrets of dwarfish math.

“They could fix your spear,” offered Jack.

“You mean my theodolite. Yes, that would be handy. I could chart a better map.”

“That's not what I meant.” The boatman and the caravan members all stole glances at the parchment on deck. “All the same, we should stop and talk to them if we get the chance. Where did they say they were from, Oleg?”

“Some place with a dwarfish name I can't remember in the mountains between South Valley and Wizard Valley.”

“Kilmun territory, then.” Jack rubbed his balding head. Out away from the tree cover, he was starting to feel the sun.

“Worse, near the Mystic Desert.”

“Not from the south. Pity.” He folded his arms across his chest. “They didn't come by way of the hidden temple.”

“Surely not.”

“I hoped they might have a better way through. You know, being magical creatures and all. Someone must have a way.”

“You've sailed it and walked it many times, Jack. You're not like the rest of us.”

Jack dropped his arms out to his sides. “Ya went the long ways around again Oleg?”

“Had three men die during my final stump along the Lost Path. It kept losing us, as it so often does. I'll not attempt the straight route any more.”

“Where did that happen?”

“In different places. One listened to the talking crocodile. That was south of the center. Another went after a siren, I think. My captain … former captain ... caught sight of the white walls or so he said.”

“Near the center, then.”

“He bolted for the temple. Of course he was after the gold or jewels or something. He never came out.”

Oleg and Jack bowed their heads and made holy gestures over their hearts. It was the only time that the accountant had witnessed Clever Jack showing signs of religion. Next to the older men, the young guards stood slack-jawed. Their eyes were wide and round. Had they realized what they were missing when they skirted the lost temple? It seemed not. They turned their gazes on Denario. The short one with close-cut hair ogled the accountant's armor. He breathed from his mouth as he contemplated:

a) how brave the warrior in front of him was
b) how dead the fellow soon would be

although he caught himself after half a minute. He blinked. Self-consciously, he shifted his focus down to his feet. One of his heavy-set companions gripped tight to his spear. His lips pressed together, hard and pale.

“How do you always get through, Jack?” asked Oleg.

“Trade secret. Anyways, I pretty much showed ya.”

“You do that every time?” The caravan master shuddered. He turned a pitying look on the accountant.

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