Sunday, September 30, 2018

Being Geek in a Warrior Culture - Twentieth Chapter

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Score




Sunday, September 23, 2018

Not Even Not Zen 135: A Bandit Accountant, 22.6

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Pi Times Seven Approximately
Scene Six: Cast Away 

“Ah, Boldor.” Brand swung his arms wide in greeting, prepared to ignore the fact that he'd tried to kidnap them all. His greatcoat fell open. It showed a dirk strapped to his shirt. “Yer a good dwarf. A great one, even.”

Denario stood next to his tent on the deck of the first raft. He'd shut down his spell so the negotiations could proceed without distraction. The caravan had stolen jugs of lightning from the downstream two rafts and everyone accepted that or at least felt there was nothing they could do about it yet. But the caravan had taken Ragna captive as well. Brand had made the grab himself. The dwarfs had to do something about that situation. It was the reason they'd agreed to negotiate with the caravan.

Brand's plan had been superb. He'd given a silver token of Onuava to them. He'd kept another in secret. The two were attracted to each other. That was the point of the sigils. They turned the tokens into witchly charms.

“She's the goddess of finding stuff,” Brand had revealed when he came out to call for a conference. “After all, who's better at knowing where ye've lost something than yer ol' mum? Mother Earth in her case, o' course.”

An image came to Denario of his mother, a quiet, brown-skinned woman with ink-black hair. He couldn't remember her finding anything. She never found her lost freedom.

The horrible thing about negotiating was that Brand had a sort of charm even when he'd been caught committing a grievous crime. He'd calmed the furious dwarfs by saying it was nothing personal. He'd kidnapped Ragna as part of a business deal he wanted to discuss. The reason he didn't take all of the rafts and inhabitants hostage from the beginning was that half of his troops had gotten lost. If everyone had shown up on time, he would have taken the sentinels in silence and then stormed all three rafts and taken everyone at spearpoint. That would have worked with all fourteen members of his caravan. As it was with only five of his men on the site, he'd had to resort to kidnapping. Even that had to stop when the attempt on Jofrid went wrong.

Then, as far as the dwarfs could tell, Brand and his men had disappeared with Ragna for an hour. No amount of shouting and stomping through the outskirts of the woods had brought their companion back. The dwarfs barely managed to spot and fend off a small alligator attracted by their noise. After that they began to discuss how to organize the search party and whether to wait for morning. The Caravan of the Kill returned to interrupt the discussion.

Brand, despite finally being in possession of his full force, did not attack. He put his spearmen in front, swordsmen behind, and formed a military fighting square before he sent his smallest man forward with the offer to parley. The dwarfs stoked the fires until everyone could see along the riverbank. Denario marveled at the job. He could make out the members of the caravan – not like it was daylight but well enough. Only Jack Lasker hung back from the two lines meeting at the fires. He stuck close to the third boat with his bow drawn. Denario had never seen the bow before but apparently Jack owned one. He'd kept it in the back of his tent at the bottom of nearly everything he owned.

“You're a ...” Boldor, even furious, had trouble finding impolite words. “What should I call you, Captain DeLadro? Is this a caravan that you lead? Or a gang of kidnappers?”

“We live as fortune finds us,” he said. Beside him, his wounded man muttered and cursed.

“And where is my friend Ragna?”

In answer, the captain raised his left hand high and snapped his fingers four times. It was a lengthy signal. But his troops responded. Behind him, at the edge of the clearing, two men stepped away from the group formation. They were the Ogglian deserter and his companion in green armor. Between them, tied and gagged, marched a stout dwarf in a leather skullcap.

“You see? I deal in good faith. I had planned to acquire dwarfs of skill tonight. But that was never my whole intent. That's why I'm here to bargain. I have one skilled dwarf, who is a healer, a bowyer, and probably more. But my heart's desire is for something else.”

“Shouldn't you negotiate with Master Lasker as well then?”

“Maybe. Clever Jack is not the trusting sort. I see him back there with his bow. And I confess, my men got a little too happy about seeing so much liquor aboard his boats. I didn't come to raid him. I mean no harm to Jack. I hope to do business with him again, perhaps even later this year.”

“I hardly think you will.”

“We'll see. Jack is a practical man, I know, and I will pay him dearly. My caravan owes a considerable sum for what my men stole. We'll make good on that and dole out punishments besides. You see? I offer my sincere apologies to Jack.”

“You won't return what was taken?”

“All three jugs of lightning have been opened.” The captain lifted his right arm in a gesture of apology. “They've been emptied more than I thought possible. Yet my men are still standing. I like to think that testifies as to their strong constitutions.”

The dwarfs grumbled about this. It was beneath their chief's dignity to deal with thieves, that was clear from their tone. A few of them glanced to Jack Lasker as if they wanted to plead with him to speak to Brand. But half an hour earlier, Jack had wanted to push the rafts into the river and leave Ragna, which they couldn't bear. Jack had given them the right tactical advice. He'd cursed them when they stubbornly stayed and searched. Now they understood that they were about to receive a ransom demand for their friend. The most likely source of cash was Jack. So they didn't like to look at the boat master too closely. When they dared, guilt flashed in their eyes.

“Out of curiosity, who wounded my rear guard?” Brand flipped his left hand in a breezy way. At his gesture, the man in purple leaned forward. He grimaced in a rictus of near-death. His right hand dripped blood through a thick bandage. The entire limb hung useless by his side. He swayed, his teeth visible in anger and pain.

This stopped conversation for a moment. The caravan leader's light tone conveyed a sense of threat. Boldor's head hung lower. He didn't take his eyes off of his opposite number on the other side of the fire. The rest of the dwarfs. though, over the course of a few seconds, let their gaze drift to the first raft. Brand followed their gaze. All of the men in Caravan of the Kill understood. They knew who'd done the deed.

If there had been any doubts, the dwarfs had removed them. Denario stepped forward. He figured he might as well let himself be seen in the firelight. He kept his eyes on the caravan's crossbows. At least one of them worked. But they were pointed down and unloaded at the moment.

“The accountant?” Brand grinned. “I suspected as much. Yer good dwarfs, Boldor, as I said. But ye're not fighters. Not yet.”

“Kill 'im,” groaned the wounded man.

“Kill the valuable, certified accountant? The one who does magic with numbers?”

“He broke my hand!” The man in purple stepped back from his leader. He staggered like a drunkard. Maybe he had something to numb the pain, too, on top of his blood loss. “Yer always slow to punish the weak ones.”

“Really.” Brand drew his sword.

The man in purple tried to draw his own weapon. Probably he would have tried to cut down his captain but his right arm didn't obey him. He got as far as touching the pommel with his bandage. Then he froze, a pained expression on his face while his captain readied for a strike. He managed to cross his body with his left hand, prepared to defend himself that way. But it was too late. The point of Captain DeLadro's blade took him in the throat. A foot of steel emerged on the other side just below the man's head. The body shook. The captain placed a foot in the chest of his former opponent, as he seemed to have done a few times before, and extracted his sword while at the same time pushing the corpse to the ground.

There was a gurgle, then almost nothing, barely even twitches from hands and feet. It seemed that cutting up the inside of the neck shut down most of the human body.

“He always was a complainer,” Brand said. He turned to the horrified dwarfs, not much bothered by what he'd done. At least he didn't try to charm them with a smile. That would have been too much. The man knew his audience.

“You see, Boldor,” he continued as he snapped out a rag from his trouser pocket and started to clean his blade. “You dwarfs are valuable, each and every one of you. Together, you're worth much more than the accountant. But could I feed all of you? Find work for you all? It would be a burden.”

“Why? Oh, why?”

“We wanted Ragna and Denario.” This time, the captain allowed himself a slight smile. “But I would trade Ragna for the man. I hear things, see. There's a group of wild fellows who are looking for book keepers and accountants. They'll pay a ransom. Then there's a reward out for a particular accountant. And there's yet another reward for a different one, I think. Then there's me. You see, I want one even without the incentives. I need numbers, too.”

“You said you don't like math.”

“I've no love for it but, come now, it's necessary. There's a town northwest of here, Kraphtali. The leaders there have ambitions. They host a large market already and they want it larger. They think they can compete with Oupenli.”

That got a snort from someone on Denario's side, which the captain acknowledged with a nod.

“Technically, of course, they're on the border between Baron Ankster and Baron Blockhelm. Sir Royval also has some sort of claim. They're not free in the way Oupenli is. But they pay a lesser tax to two barons. That's an opportunity. Traders there can do a few things that Oupenli can't. They've got easier access to raw goods and to magical items. These bloody-minded tribesmen who have invaded here on all sides of us seem to have brought a fair bit of magic with them. And the area itself burps out oddities at a steady rate.”

“You supply Kraphtali with magical things,” Clever Jack interrupted from the back, in the dark.

“I do.” The captain smiled at being recognized for such cleverness. “It's a growing business. And growing big means Kraphtali needs someone with numbers. I mean to supply that person.”

“No,” said Boldor flatly.

Denario took a deep breath. He hadn't been aware of it but he hadn't been breathing for a moment.

“Don't be so quick to fail yer own.” Brand gave the dwarf leader a calculating look. “Ask yer priest. He'll tell ye that this time yer under the hammer.”

“I'll not ask. And as he is a holy dwarf, he would not dare to suggest that a free man, our teacher and an ally, who has been a host to us, can be given over to the likes of you.”

As Boldor spoke, Denario felt the planks beneath him vibrate as if a weight had shifted suddenly. He stepped back from the gunwhales and looked around. There was another dwarf on board, Torgrim, but no one, not even a dwarf in armor, had enough mass to shake the raft without noise. It felt as if someone had cast off the line. But that made no sense. The deed would have had to be done from the inside the raft and it would have meant abandoning the precious rope.

Denario swiveled to look at Torgrim behind him. The fellow stood low, arms folded over his wide chest. His gaze swept past Denario to the downstream corner of the raft by the riverbank. The accountant turned this attention there and saw Ulf. When had he come aboard? He had a punt in his hand and a wild glint in his eye.

When Denario looked to the shoreline again, he saw the raft drifting. Ulf must have cast them off and pushed them into the creek. For a moment, they were silent. The boat drifted.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Not Even Not Zen 134: A Bandit Accountant, 22.5

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Pi Times Seven Approximately
Scene Five: From the Shadows

“Accountant! Grab the punt!” Dodni's brother shook him by the shoulder.

Denario blinked. He woke to the dwarf's face, upside down above him. His visage was lit by a magical glow.

The spell had gone off. Stars twinkled in the air beside him. Denario had fallen asleep with his head near the entrance in order to be woken up by the light if it came. That hadn't worked. He'd slept through it, more tired than he'd realized. In fact, he'd been dreaming that his home was under attack. He'd been roaming through the counting house in Oggli to find weapons with which he might, somehow, defend his apprentices.

“Someone stole from the boat,” the dwarf hissed. “And Ragna's missing!”

“Crap.” Denario struggled to get up. The dwarf backed away to give him room. “Were you still on duty?”

“No. It was Ragna's turn.”

Allowed a second to think, the accountant wondered if Ragna had gone off to relieve himself in the woods. That would explain his disappearance from standing guard. But it wouldn't explain the spell. Ragna would have needed to take something or someone with him when he abandoned his post, otherwise the circle of stones wouldn't have set off its alarm. Denario knew that only Ragna was missing, too, or the other dwarf would have said. Could the trouble be due to the silver token? If so, the accountant could didn't see how at the moment.

“A jug of hard lightning got ripped out of its mooring pegs.” Dodni's brother pointed to the shore side of the raft.

“Who would take lightning?” Denario glanced around in all directions as the answer came to him. He noticed a log floating in the creek. It was a dark, silent silhouette against the reflective surface of the water. He had suspicions about it. “No alligator would want it. Only pirates would.”

“What pirates?” The dwarf let his arms down, puzzled. Denario had forgotten that he'd only mentioned the idea of ship deserters to Jack.

“I mean the Caravan of the Kill.”

“They're asleep, far away.”

“Not far enough.” Denario had been searching for the punt because that's what Dodni's brother thought was important. On further consideration, he fumbled through the pile of clothes and blankets in his tent. He grabbed his sword belt. After checking to make sure the pommel of the baselard was unbuckled from its scabbard, he strapped it on. “Let's move.”

Together, they roused Dodni and Ulf. The four of them, at the next raft, found Jofrid the smithy lying on the ground. Denario crept up to Jofrid in silence. He saw no motion from the fellow. He was heavily armored and had collapsed without a mark on him. Was there blood in the sand? Denario found it hard to tell in the shadows. He feared the dwarf was dead. But no, Dodni hissed. He kicked Jofrid, who had apparently been given a turn on watch at the same time as Ragna but had fallen asleep.

“Quiet,” Denario warned. Jofrid groaned upon waking.

“Why?” said Dodni.

“I'm sure it's the caravan. And you fixed their crossbow.” Denario scanned the southern riverbank. He meant it as a gesture toward a vague, unseen threat but, in fact, he did see something. There was a walking figure, either a crouched man or the tallest-ever raccoon. It moved out from the woods into the moonlight.

Denario reached for his buckler. But he didn't have it. He'd left it in his tent. Instead, he drew his sword. Next to him, he heard a whisper of metal on leather. A dwarf had picked up a weapon. He heard Jofrid stagger to his feet, too, and wished that was quieter.

The intruder emerged from the background of trees and proved to be a lean, armored figure. He wore a helmet that hid his features. When he turned to look at the twinkling lights on the deck of the first raft, the motion revealed a wide, distinctive moustache with the ends curled up. Denario recognized the tallest troublemaker in purple.

The fellow stared at the magic stars for almost half a minute. He was probably trying to figure out what they were. Meanwhile, Denario crept up on him, sword drawn. He had to make a roundabout path of it. The campfire lay between them. Denario tried to stay away from its glow.

“Who's that?” a dwarf shouted, Jofrid from the voice.

The troublemaker turned. He crouched, ready to spring. His legs weren't, Denario noticed, set to run. Instead, they were ready to pounce. The man had come to carry out a raid. Coils of rope dangled from his left hand. The top strands showed up in the ruddy light of the fire. He slunk toward the voice.

“Accountant?” said Jofrid. Maybe he'd gotten confused when Denario tiptoed into the darkness.

So far, the intruder hadn't noticed anybody else. He hadn't looked uphill, Denario's direction. He couldn't see more than one dwarf standing close to a campfire. So he focused on that one, the smithy. Maybe he assumed that everyone else was still asleep. Ragna and Jofrid had been on watch duty together, after all. On top of that, the intruder didn't seem to like the magic on the first raft. He shied away from it as he crept. His path was going to take him only a few yards downhill from Denario.

To Denario's surprise, the man in purple cursed. The words came out in a low growl. The remark was something unkind about accountants.

“But ye dwarfs are soft,” he hissed.

“Pardon?”

He leaped so fast that Denario missed it. He closed the distance to Jofrid in a single bound, cast a loop of rope around the dwarf, pinned his arms, and started to truss him up like an animal. But he stopped. He cursed as he glanced side to side. He'd noticed the other dwarfs. They advanced on him, hammers drawn. He pulled on the hilt of his longsword.

Denario charged. Well, it was running downhill, and part of it was stumbling, but he closed the distance between them as fast as he'd ever moved. The whole time, he focused on what he could see of the man's sword arm. He didn't want to let that blade come out. He swung. It was a wild stroke. But it hit.

The armored man screamed.

Denario fell to the ground. He rolled and yanked on his baselard to keep it from hurting him. The blade had sunk into his opponent's wrist. It wrenched back out as Denario tumbled into the water. He hadn't considered this part. Failing to knock the bigger man into the creek, which had been his intent, meant that he was bound to get wet. He smashed into the water awkwardly, sword and right arm first. The rest of him followed with a faceplant into an inch of slurry.

The stricken man was still screaming as Denario rose. The accountant blinked away the grit. He lifted his sword to defend himself. Maybe it was time to attack again? He wasn't sure what he should do. Fortunately, it didn’t matter. His opponent dropped the rope attached to Jofrid and fled. His scream lasted into the woodline and beyond. The wailing moved from tree to tree.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Not Even Not Zen 133: A Bandit Accountant, 22.4

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Pi Times Seven Approximately
Scene Four: Broken Circle

“There's a bit of moon,” Jack whispered before they launched. He looked up at the gray clouds, through which a reasonable amount of light shone. “Can you steer the lead raft? I told Brand we were going to sleep on board and he doesn't like it. He's planning something. I want to be on the last boat. Got to protect the dwarfs.”

“Brand doesn't know we're leaving?”

“Not unless the dwarfs have let it slip. Boldor is the only one I've told.”

“Good. Yes, I'll lead. Can you tell me where I should take us?”

“Not really.” Jack took a deep breath. He pointed. Denario could see make out shape of his arm against the background of shadowy tree boughs. “Ahead is where the creek changes. There's no way to know what we'll find. Pole us to the first spot you come to that's long enough for the three rafts. Don't get out of your raft unless I say.”

“Not even to tie down?”

“No, 'cause of alligators. You heard Brand's story. His caravan lost a wounded man that way last night.”

The accountant shuddered. Armor hadn't helped that man. The alligator had bitten through his metal greaves, snapped his leg, and dragged him into the water. Except for a scream that lasted for a few seconds, no one had heard from or seen the man again.

The launch, when it happened, was sudden. The last dwarf, Jofrid, stepped aboard carrying a pair of tongs he'd almost forgotten. Jack crouched to ask him a question. The short smithy nodded. Then Jack pulled his rope off of the hitching tree. An hour earlier, Ulf had untied the lead raft. Torgrim had untied the middle. Jack's rope was the only thing holding them down. When he unwound it in a swift, two-second swirl of his right arm, the third raft bounced an inch in the water. He leaned hard on his punt. Boldor and another dwarf did the same. So did Denario, Ulf, and every dwarf that could wield a stick on all of the rafts. It was, as things done with the dwarfs tended to be, a precise move.

“You're leaving?” Brand shouted. He ran up to the shore. There was nothing he could do about it now unless he was prepared to wade. “I haven't paid you for the medicines. I thought we'd have more time. Where's that dwarf who helped our wounded?”

“We've got to sleep,” explained Jack.

“We forgot about Ragna's pay,” said Boldor. “We'll accept anything you care to toss over to us, Captain DeLadro. Or you can owe us for the next time we meet.”

“Your smithy said you wouldn't pass through again. Anyway, here.” The caravan master fumbled at a pouch by his side. “I've got a couple brassers tied up in a rag. It was pay for a man who died yesterday. That should make it fair.”

“That's very correct of you,” said Boldor. He relaxed.

Brand tossed the rag toward Jack, who didn't move to catch it. The parcel would sailed over the deck and into the water but a dwarf snagged it at the last moment on the far side of the boat. He passed it to Boldor to give to Ragna. The dwarfs, once again, bowed, saluted, and otherwise expressed their gratitude to the Caravan of the Kill. Ragna strode to the end of Denario's boat to announce his presence. Brand noticed the move even though the rafts were drifting into the current. He waved his arms and gave Ragna a tremendous smile. He bowed dramatically in return to all of the respect shown to him. But Denario didn't like it. When the caravan passed out of sight, he heaved a deep breath from relief.

Around the next corner, Denario saw a place to stop although he had to slide up close to be sure. The scrub trees to his right, half-buried in the water, gave way to a flat stretch of riverbank unburdened by anything more than the occasional fist-sized patch of grass. The moonlight shone down on the open land. Denario could see that the slope curved upward a bit too steeply but there was a grove of trees not far inland. He'd found visibility and shelter both. There were no logs on the riverbank or anywhere on the creek that he could see and hence, he hoped, no hidden alligators.

“Nice,” Jack called from two rafts back.

“It's not too close to the caravan?” he asked.

“Two hundred yards away from those caravan drunkards is as good two hundred miles at night Cleat-hitch anywhere you want. Ulf, Torgrim, Borghild, follow him ashore.”

Denario disembarked, rope in hand. His mind was still occupied with the Caravan of the Kill. Their captain had controlled his men's liquor supply too carefully for Denario's taste. The men in purple had taken a break from tormenting the poorer members of the troop. Brand and Zaggi, his second in command, had dispensed token amounts of lighting to everyone in four wooden cups that had to be shared. One of the men in purple had started to point out, politely, that they had plenty of goblets but a wild-eyed look from Brand shut him up. None of it reassured Denario. Clever Jack had expected them to get violently drunk. So why hadn't they done that?

To be safe, after Denario made sure the rafts were anchored to exposed tree roots, he pulled out his animal traps. In a sort of walking crouch, he planted them facing out. He didn't want to catch a dwarf hurrying off the boat to pee, after all, and he could hope that the return trips wouldn't be as rushed. Besides, maybe the rockers that flipped up the twine loops were too tall for dwarf feet.

While the accountant worked on the geometry of his snares, the river master organized the dwarfs to deploy a different sort of defense. They posted spears in the drain holes around the gunwhales of the rafts. That made them look like porcupine quills. Jack said the arrangement would stop alligators from climbing aboard at night.

“I don't trust the dwarf watch,” he whispered to Denario. “They're all too tired. To an alligator, these little fellows look like human children.”

“I don't trust the caravan,” Denario responded.

“Stop thinking about them. Brand is tricky but I watched how the land twists around.” The wiry man relaxed, hands at his hips. “His crew has farther to travel than we did by creek and it's on foot for him and through a marsh. On top of that, he can't find us. Whatever he planned, and you're right to think he was up to something, it's done now. These traps of yours are a good idea. They'll warn us if an animal tries to sneak aboard from the woods.”

The dwarfs set up their campsites on the riverbank in a matter of minutes. Their work produced three fires, one beside each raft. Each had been arranged to dry out more wood for the morning. Denario had to shake his head at seeing how promptly they finished. The dwarfs, as a group, needed to sleep as Jack had guessed. Denario brushed his teeth as the dwarfs built lean-tos on the decks. Jack, farther upstream, did the same. Both men relieved themselves from the gunwhales. The dwarfs were too modest for that. As Denario had expected, they wandered off into the woods in ones and twos. Denario counted them several times to make sure they'd all returned. As soon as he determined they were missing one, Ragna appeared out of the darkness from upstream along the riverbank, a direction Denario hadn't expected. The portly dwarf held aloft a coin sack.

“Is that your pay from the healing?” Borghild asked him.

“Three brass and a silver.” Ragna broke into a grin as he announced the last part. He held the bag higher.

“Silver?” Borghild and Ulf exclaimed. Torgrim trotted over when he heard. “Are you sure?”

“It's small. But it's as close to pure as the humans make, I think.”

That piqued Denario's curiosity. The silver in most coins wasn't even close. It was carefully mixed with lead, nickel, or tin to make amalgam that was profitable to pass off as silver. Once, Master Winkel had cut open a Baggi Half-Dollar to show his apprentices the cheap lead core. The apprentices had oohed and aahed. Then Winkel had explained how all of the big cities and big banks cheated on their minting process. Everyone, even young Mark, had mustered a bit of outrage about it. The bank of Oggli-Anghrili did it too, though. An Oggli Silver Quarter was was small but it wasn't pure. The Marquis de Oggli would have lopped off heads at the mint if anyone had tried to cast a quarter out of nearly a quarter's worth of precious metal. So Denario wondered if Ragna had gotten an old coin or an extremely foreign one from a place that hadn't discovered cheating yet.

“That's not a coin,” Denario said as he stepped closer. He saw the metal disk in the dwarf's hand. It did look like a human casting but the accountant knew immediately that it didn't represent money. Now he just had to figure out why he knew.

“But it's silver,” said Ragna, looking up. “It would buy something at home. So it's real money to me. A lot, too. It's worth a hundred weight of brass.”

“That's ...” The shape on the front was something Denario had seen before. But he couldn't place it. “That's an odd design. It's a broken circle.”

“Got the human number 2 above it. So it's worth two of something,” said Borghild.

“Or it's meant to show two halves.” That would almost make it a coin depicting a coin, wouldn't it? That couldn't be right. The symbol looked old but the numeral came from the new system. “What's on the other side?”

The round-faced dwarf smiled and flipped it over.

“A large zero followed by an little eight. That's a god mark,” Denario found himself saying. It was familiar. He couldn't put a name to the deity but he was sure that, in time, he would.

“I'd say it's more of a big circle over the dwarf sign for infinity.” Borghild sounded sure of himself. The other two dwarfs nodded. “Don't you humans have a sign for infinity? You talk about it often enough.”

“We use three different symbols. It's confusing.” His mind raced down the path toward geometric shapes that had no end. The most famous geometer in Muntar had converted his symbol for a line, a double-headed arrow↔, into his city's standard for infinite quantities. A wizard in Baggi had used three parallel lines, ≡, which in a magical tongue made a vowel sound from the beginning of the word 'infinity' and so that was the standard in his area. A court minister in Anghrili had decided to use a circle because 'it has no end.' That became an unpopular choice when everyone adopted the number zero along with the rest of the Muntar mathematical notation. By the force of the court rule, though, his old choice still remained. “A zero and eight could be just eight or, flipped over, eighty. But then why put a number two on the other side? No, this is a diagram meant to call out to a god.”

“A human god, though.” To the dwarfs, that would seem perfectly fine. The religions of men hardly touched them. Dwarfs were superstitious only of the forces they met deep underground.

“A god of what?” Denario pulled off his hat and scritched. “I don't remember.”

“Then it can't be important.”

“What if someone put magic into the silver?”

“Ah, I see your point. Best to be careful.” It was Borghild who spoke first but Ragna joined in, then Torgrim. Ulf strode into the gathering, too. He agreed that the magic would need to be handled with care or drained off into a more appropriate, dwarfish item.

“I'll have Boldor use his looking glass on it in the morning.” Ragna nodded.

Denario couldn't say why he felt so suspicious. “Let me see the front again.”

The more he looked at it, the more he felt that the first image on the token represented a split coin. His accounting instincts didn't like it. But he had to admit to himself that he was surrounded by dangerous magic already. One more dab of the stuff, especially a pinch as small as this, wouldn't make any difference. He complimented Ragna on the silver's purity.

The dwarfs, because they were so polite, felt compelled to compliment his animal traps. Naturally, they also saw improvements to be made. He felt lucky that they were too tired to do anything tonight. Torgrim actually staggered as he spoke. He'd fallen asleep on his feet for an instant.

“I'll take first watch,” Denario volunteered. “I'm not tired.”

“Bless you, accountant,” said Ragna and Borghild. Behind them on the middle raft, Dodni called out the same.

While the rest of the raft crews sorted out their sleeping arrangements, spreading dwarfs fairly evenly on the three platforms, Denario got out his accounting tools. He nestled close to his fire on shore. From his largest ledger, he cut four scraps of paper. These were the ones on which he'd draw his fragmentary maps. The first one was the best and most complete because it consisted of coordinates. It took twice the amount of geometric math to rouse the anti-mapping spell on the creek as it took by ordinary cartography. The ancient spell on this area had been cast to block certain methods. So Denario could pack a good deal more information in numbers than in sketches without losing his work.

He scribbled his initial drafts in the dirt. That had the benefit of letting him know when he'd drawn too much. As he did, mistakes started to appear. Then he erased down to a size the No Map Creek would allow. At last, when he understood what he needed to write, he crouched down to the paper. This time was different. Almost immediately, he smudged the numeral 9 into a 7. The pebbly soil had shifted beneath his right foot. He cursed. Then, almost as quickly, he muttered the accountant's prayer to reverse the mistake, “Hex one ten.” The page flashed. He blinked. He leaned close to inspect his error. It wasn't there. The blotted 7 was a 9 again.

Had he imagined it? No. He wasn't that tired. He closed his eyes and listened to the dwarfs on the rafts. They hadn't noticed.

If a simple hex could work here, so could other numeromancy. The accountant shivered at the thought. He hadn't known. And because he hadn't, he might have injured someone with a muttered spell during math lessons.

“How's it going?” A few long strides displaced some pebbles. Jack Lasker had arrived from the upstream raft, punt in his left hand. Denario opened his eyes to see Jack's face above his, outlined in the ruddy glow of the fire.

“Better, I suppose.” He doubted that timing of the riverman's arrival was an accident. “I keep learning more about how the spell surrounding No Map Creek works.”

“Did you do magic a moment ago?”

“Yes. I ran an accounting spell, Jack. It never works. Except time time, it did.”

“Aha. Why doesn't it usually work?”

“Accountants don't know how to store magic. We're not any good at wizard skills in general. We know only a few bits and pieces of the lore. Most of what we do has to be said in numbers rather than languages.”

“Well, you sure don't need to store magic around here. It's in the air.”

“Yes.” Denario found that he'd been holding his breath a bit due to his awareness of it. His gasps sounded shallow. “And in the ground. And water. Doesn't it bother you?”

“Nah.”

“Now I remember where I saw the back of Ragna's silver piece before.”

“Is that important?”

“Maybe. The front has a broken coin on it. Have you seen it?”

The riverman shrugged. In the dark, it could have meant anything.

“The back face shows a circle above a sideways eight,” said Denario. “Those two shapes together are the sign for Onuava. She's the mother goddess.”

“Onuava. Name's a bit familiar. Wasn't she popular once? It would have been long before our fathers' time. The other gods rose up around her.”

“Other gods got more popular.”

“Right. She lost supporters, then most of her temples. Then the Muntabi tribes came in and wiped out the last of her folks.”

“In some creation stories, Onuava gave birth to all of the original gods.”

“Your god among them, I suppose.”

“How is it that we can forget our mother?”

“Hah. You're getting theological.” Jack rose. He brushed off the knees of his pants and headed back to his campfire.

“Maybe.” Part of what bothered Denario, now that he thought of it, was that the token looked new, not hundreds of years old. Who in the world had minted it? And why out of such pure silver? It wouldn't last. Already the grooves in the casting were filling with black tarnish.

Denario finished his maps and hid them on the lead raft around the edges of his tent. None of the dwarfs on board woke. Dodni was the only one who stirred. The little fellow made a grinding sound, studs against studs in his armor, as he moved his arm.

While on watch, the accountant considered the goddess Onuava and what she might represent aside from motherhood. There had to be something. But Denario didn't remember his own mother. Judging from the maternal women he'd met, Onuava might be the goddess of slapping. Or of yelling. He sat on the gunwhales and gazed downstream. The moon cast a glow over the creek, enough to see alligators coming. There wasn't a single shadow in the water. At one point, on the other side of the campfire, he noticed a pair of eyes. They weren't human. They edged closer. He saw they were set in the bandit face of a raccoon. It was the largest raccoon he'd ever seen but it looked scrawny at the shoulders. Swamp life had been hard on it.

“Scraps?” it said. It crept a few feet out of the woods and stopped. Its body glistened with water droplets and squelched with mud laid over its natural fur of grey and black stripes.

Denario leaned closer in the direction of the fire.

“Oh, come on.” The raccoon's jaws moved as it struggled with modern speech. “Any food scraps at all?”

“Not really,” Denario replied. He'd always suspected that raccoons were practical. “We're a tidy bunch. If you're willing to travel a couple hundred yards upstream, you'll find a troop of drunk men who've left their stew pots out.”

“How far is that?” The creature raised its head to stare in the right direction. Denario sighed to himself. Naturally an animal wouldn't understand distance measurements.

“About twenty lengths of these rafts.” He gestured to the vessel behind him.

“Not too far. I thought I smelled another fire.” The raccoon started to amble off, to the north and east.

“Fire doesn't scare you?” Denario asked as it left.

“No. And those traps aren't catching anybody, mister.”

“Huh.” Denario kicked a rocker with his heel. It turned up and threw a loop of rope very nearly over the toe of his boot. All the same, he understood the point. Magical animals had to be a little smarter than others and the traps lay out in the open.

For a minute, Denario contemplated taking other security measures. They didn't seem to be any. He drew a number 8 in the dirt and calculated the area it encompassed using the formula for ellipses twice. He spent a while approximating areas under curves using rectangles. He yawned. Eventually he rose, took out his baselard for a few practice swings, and hiked around the campfires until Jack came over to meet him.

“We're wearing down,” he said. “Put the sword away. Wake a dwarf.”

“Which one?”

“Doesn't matter. It's been hours. You've got to pilot tomorrow.”

“Who among them got rest?”

“Well, not the smithy. Anyone else can stand their turn.”

The accountant wandered over the downstream rafts, first the one he piloted, then the middle one. After a few minutes in the aisles between the cargo bins of the middle raft, he chose Dodni's religious brother. The sturdy fellow roused easily enough. After Denario dispensed a bit of most-likely-unwanted advice, including mention of the talking raccoon, he trudged to his own raft and from there to his tent. He checked over his shoulder to see the dwarf setting up watch by the campfire. The accountant nodded. He laid down. He shimmied under his low-hanging rawhide roof to get snug and discourage insects and closed his eyes.

He crossed his arms. He uncrossed them. He removed his sword belt and rolled onto his left side. After a few minutes, he wondered if he should burn a candle. Maybe he could write a letter to Pecunia or to Carinde. For that matter, maybe he didn't need a candle. Wizards made light without flame. How hard could it be? Denario sat up. He dabbled with magical commands. He tried number combinations like “Hex two ten” to put a ghost star in the air. It wasn't bright enough to illuminate more than his fingers. Out of curiosity, he found that a “Hex one eight” command removed it. When he brought the ghost star back, it wasn't even as bright as a firefly. There was a limit to the magic.

His thoughts raced. He wanted to see Ragna's silver token again but he would have to wait until morning or maybe the next lunch. The sigils on it made him nervous. Ever since the raccoon, Denario felt he was being watched. Probably he was, of course, either by other woodland animals or by alligators, but the feeling was more sinister than that.

For the first time in his life, he wanted to write his own numeromancy.

He had a particular spell in mind. Master Winkel had worked on it with him when he was twelve. That was the year Winkel discovered thefts from the guild hall. Small things had gone missing like wooden cups and plates, scraps from old scrolls, a copper candlestick, a small ceramic vase, and some inkpots. As leader of the guild, Winkel felt obliged to stop to the petty crimes. He toyed with numeromancy as the solution. But his spell proved hard to sustain. It was formed correctly, no problem, but the amount of magic a long-lasting spell took was prohibitive. He couldn't afford to call in a real wizard to manage it, so Winkel discussed the theft problem with the senior guild members, each of whom conducted a search of their homes. They discovered the apprentice responsible and dismissed him rather forcibly – five lashes from a professional torturer and a note to his parents.

The spell had been of no use in Oggli. Here, there was a chance it would feed off of the background magic and not require any effort to sustain.

Denario had to leave the raft to draw in the dirt. That meant a discussion with the cleric dwarf, who would rather have seen the accountant stay in bed. Denario made it clear this was his professional business. That ended the objections.

An Ogglian wizard would have chanted something like, “While the number of objects in the circle are not equal to the number of objects on the raft, run the 'send star' command.” Such a man, full of secret training, could do it in a simple way because the wizards knew arcane languages that gave them access to the world at a fundamental level. Accountants didn't know those languages. All of the tricks Denario understood were numerical fragments of the underlayer. Five years ago, he and Winkel had spelled out their commands in the number system that seemed to define reality. Winkel asserted, as a matter of faith, that magical numbers formed the basis for the wizard's languages. But how anyone could translate from numbers into those other tongues was beyond him and, possibly, beyond the wizards, too.

The column of hexadecimal numbers took form rather quickly under Denario's hand. He remembered nearly all of their purposes by heart. Most of his thinking went into making the spell as simple as he could. Then he walked a path around the gunwhales of the raft, marked the packages and people as he went, assembled his stones, made his circle, and ran a test.

The spell burped. It sent bright stars immediately. Denario had to run a 'Hex ought three' to shut it down. It had gone wrong. Why?

He crouched, hands in his hair, as he struggled to troubleshoot the problem. A mosquito took a lazy bite out of his left arm. Denario re-read the spell three times, trying to find the flaw. But he couldn't find one. Could the problem be in the circle? Yes. Aha. He put a finger on the pile of stones. He glanced behind him to see his mistake. He'd gotten the number of barrels and boxes on the boat correct. But he'd forgotten to include people. The dwarfs had to be counted in. He found stones for them, re-drew his circle, and re-ran the spell.

This time, everything remained quiet and dark. That was as it should be. To test the spell, he stepped onto the raft. Lights appeared, partially obscured by the glow of the campfire. Good. He stepped off. The twinkling lights faded.

“You're counting things on the boat?” murmured the dwarf beside the fire.

“Yes.”

“Well done. You really are quite smart for a human.”

Denario didn't know quite how to reply to that. Eventually, he settled for, “Thank you.”

He canceled the numeromancy, gathered up his tools, and headed back to the the raft. On the deck outside of his tent, he re-cast the spell, this time with one extra stone to account for his presence. Finally, he felt calm. He stood, hands on hips, and surveyed the dark landscape around him. Master Winkel would have been proud.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Not Even Not Zen 132: A Bandit Accountant, 22.3

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Pi Times Seven Approximately
Scene Three: Land Pirates

The stop in Druhi Thal took less than half a day. The citizens were delighted to meet the dwarfs. They shared a dozen skins of beer with them. But then the locals left to do their chores. Simply put, there weren't enough people in town. There were no children except infants. The rest had died of a pinkish spotting sickness two years back. None of adults seemed wealthy enough to afford the dwarfs' work. They couldn't even pay a fair price for the commodity goods on the rafts. Jack made a few bargains out of pity for the citizens of Druhi Thal. He likely hoped, too, that he would get better trade from them in later years.

To Denario, the prospects for that looked slim. The mayor was a pasta farmer. It was a common enough trade in magical areas. Denario had seen rigatoni bushes on the banks of the No Map. The mayor said his fusilli trees were in bloom. Tending to them kept him busy. So he turned over his tour guide duties to a pig named Alf. Alf spoke common language with an old tongue accent and claimed to have gained the power of speech during a sacrifice ceremony. He'd really wanted to shout, 'Don't do this!' and, what with the help of magic, he'd said it.

The pig showed Denario a temple that had, among other holy symbols, the number 8 on its walls. Denario excused himself from the tour. He prayed to Melcurio and the local gods. He ate cheese, bread, and pickles. He drew math in the dirt and contemplated things that were infinitely large and infinitely small.

Back at the rafts, they cast off with barely a wave to Alf. Denario felt an increasing sense of concern about the Lost Temple and the magic around it. The mid-water was too deep for punts. They'd been forced to steer with oars. Yet Jack hadn't revealed his secret method of navigation through the temple straits. The accountant pressed. The river master replied, “Not quite yet. Tomorrow.”

The creek felt quiet. No flying gars glided by. A squid as large as a raft floated to the surface twenty yards away, thrashed, and dived deep. After that, even alligators were nowhere to be seen. Jack pulled up the fishing lines, all empty except for one that had been cut through. The crew ate lunch from a cheese wedge and a barrel of dried apples.

That's why it was a surprise to encounter another group of travelers.

Late in the day, as Denario steered the lead raft around a bend, he caught sight of a troop, partially armored and completely armed. They lined the Mundredi shore of the creek, the more magical side, and there were fourteen of them in all. For a few seconds, Denario gaped. His eyes took in the uniforms, which didn't match. One fellow wore a steel breastplate and carried a sword and shield. He looked like a deserter from the Ogglian infantry. Two wore armor plates with jerkins of purple, gold, and black, the colors of a foreign army. Six others looked like pirates. The accountant recognized that these men must comprise a caravan because they had four burros and two push carts among them. But he reversed his judgment a moment later. At the sight of Denario and his raft, they raised their weapons and let out a shout.

In their cast-off armor and with the eccentric but deadly-looking weapons in their hands, they looked like killers that had broken out of an Oupenli jail.

“Ahoy! Clever Jack!” A tall, piratical man raised his amber bottle high. There was no mistaking it for anything other than one of the two that Jack had let sail.

The raft master leaped from the middle boat to the front to join Denario. He had been working with the dwarfs on his equipment repairs since they'd declared the third raft finished. He cursed, not too loudly.

“Who are they?” Denario asked.

Jack cursed again. He shot the accountant a look of uncertainty. He hesitated before he raised his long oar in a salute toward the shore and the men in front of them. Ulf noticed the body language. He joined Denario in leaning closer to Jack.

“They call themselves Caravan of the Kill,” Jack murmured. “They're a rough bunch, worse than they look and that's pretty bad. I've dealt with them twice before, which is just enough to suspect they don't come by their goods fairly.”

“They looks like robbers,” said Ulf.

“I'm pretty sure they ambush other bandits or other caravans or both.”

“Is that 'kill' as in 'river' or 'kill' as in 'murder?'” Denario asked.

Jack snorted.

“Do we steer clear?” asked Ulf. “My chief will want to know. We can see they have one our our messages. That means they were meant to find it.”

“To their advantage or ours?”

“To everyone's, I hope. But Boldor trusts your judgment.”

The caravan leader, followed by four, then five, then a full half dozen men, walked out onto a spit of rocks, grass and sand. He resumed his waving. But while he shook the bottle, his men raised their bows, spears, swords, and a quarterstaff. Without asking, the accountant set down his oar. He reached through the front flap of his tent and pulled out the baselard. Ragna had cleaned it and put a fresh edge on. In a similar vein, Ragna and Ulf had adjusted Denario's hauberk so it fit him like a nobleman's. He was already wearing it, so he didn't need to adjust his clothes. Even his boots had seen repair. If it came to a fight, he'd die well dressed.

“Good man,” said Jack. He watched his assistant don the scabbard. “You steer the lead raft toward them. I'll hop back to the middle.”

“They outnumber us,” Denario pointed out.

“If I say 'Kilmun' or start pushing us in that direction, away from the caravan, you do the same. Got it?”

“Yes, captain.”

“We'll get our folks ready.” Ulf made a complicated gesture to his chief on the middle raft. But life underground didn't lend itself to such ways, apparently. Ulf achieved more by picking up his hammer and axe. Everyone knew what that meant. One by one, the dwarfs dropped their softer tools and picked up harder ones. Ragna grabbed a lever bar.

From the middle raft, Jack exchanged hand signals with the Caravan of the Kill and with more success than the dwarfs. The leader on the riverbank wore a red longcoat that had seen better days but there was no doubting the high quality of it. Denario could make out the brass buttons. The man kept a curved sword by his side. His curly black hair hung down to his waist. On his brow lay a line of fur that looked almost like a mustache for his forehead. Under it, his eyes glowed with a penetrating stare.

“Bags of stuff, Jack!” he shouted. His beard shook like a flag. It was as long as his hair. “We've got loads that's new! We have equipment that needs repairs!”

“They've heard of us.” On the raft behind Denario, Boldor sounded hopeful.

“No doubt,” said Jack. “Remember what I said last night about acting tough? And deadly?”

“Aye.”

“This would be a good time.”

The captain found a shallow spot and poled the middle raft towards the Mundredi side of the creek. Denario dipped in his punt and did the same. They still had space for a good landing by the sand spit. In fact, Denario saw that the best natural dock would nestle the second and third rafts around the spit while his own raft tied off at the trees twenty yards downstream. It meant sliding over a calm stretch of marsh reeds but he managed it. Naturally, Jack landed both of the other crafts perfectly. The caravan members didn't storm his boats, either. They accepted the ropes tossed to them, all except their leader, who handed his coil to someone else. The caravan aided in the tie-down. Denario disembarked alone, braid in hand, amidst three rough-looking armed men.

To his surprise, their captain screamed at them to help. They hopped to it, asking for ropes. Not at all to Denario's surprise, they proved experienced hands with the knots. He was even more certain that they'd jumped ship from somewhere.

“Good thing we found ya in time,” roared their chief. “Ya might 'ave sailed into the temple waters.”

“That's my job, Brand.” Jack's voice betrayed his irritation but only someone who knew him well could hear his change in tone. “You lot go around. I go through.”

“How?” Brand, the caravan chief, wailed theatrically. He threw up his arms. “How are ya alive? I know a captain what went out by the temple. He and three men, they never came back. They aren't the only ones.”

“What do you have to trade, Brand?”

“It's like that, is it? Well, I've got riches, Jack. Finished goods. Cloth out of the Oupenli market, linens and silk. I've got gold cups, silver spoons, steel knives, brass, and a bag of copper pennies and half-pennies. We left most of the lead munis on the ground. This stuff is heavy, Jack. We don't want to carry it all the way west.”

“Your donkeys must be tired,” the raft master said judiciously. He was being polite. They didn't look worn out, which begged for an explanation.

Brand barked a laugh. “I can 't fool ya, can I?”

“I didn't ask.”

“Well, I'll tell ya. It's funnier than it looks. We was attacked, Jack! Can ya believe it?” Brand snapped his fingers. “Mohi! Come here!”

An Ogglian man in a green shirt, a tattered hauberk, and leather boots hurried over.

“Did you lot attack us, six men on twenty?”

“We did.” Mohi had light brown hair and a fair complexion. When he blushed, his ears turned red. “Numbers don't matter.”

“Numbers are tricky, Mohi. Were ye carrying a bunch of silver and copper?”

“We were. My corporal said caravans were easy.” He shuffled his feet. “The first one was.”

“And the second one was me! What luck! They had two crossbows.” He gave Mohi a push, perhaps for association with those weapons. But Brand smirked. “Neither of them worked a lick. That's a great relief, Jack, let me tell you. When a bolt is pointed your direction but you see that the man's crank gear has broken teeth and the whipcord is just mulberry root twined for the look, it puts a smile on your face, it does.”

“Where were you when it began?” Lines etched Jack's face as he struggled to form a picture of the action. “This kind of fight happens on the southwest side of the creek. We're on the north.”

“You've got it exactly right. They laid an ambush not too far into the southwest trail. And Mohi's corporal wasn't the problem. Zaggi and I made quick work of him. The rest of them kept together. That was hard. We had to chase them through the forest.”

“You went off the path?”

“I know what everyone says. And it's true. We lost our way. We lost some men. But we kept up with Mohi. He led us to the their treasures and more. Lots more. We saw strange things. A bird taller than a man. A plant that eats birds.”

“And you came out here?”

“Yes. But we never saw the temple, Jack. We should have. All of that trouble to get through the magic and still we missed it. I'd like to see the white stones someday.”

“You're alive.” Jack shook his head, although whether it was in amazement at Brand's good fortune or in regret that of all the people who could have gotten so lucky, these fellows were the ones.

It took three quarters of an hour to get down to business. Brand insisted on giving a blow by blow account of his latest battle, which was interrupted by the politeness of the dwarfs, who demanded introductions. There were so many dwarfs and so many miscreants in Caravan of the Kill that the process took twenty minutes all by itself and called for a snack toward the end.

Jack shared out his saltiest hard tack. The caravan guards, especially the wounded, expressed their gratitude with trembling hands. As it turned out, they had looted the gold and silver so energetically that they'd scattered their food on the forest floor to make room. They'd had a day of fighting over scraps and another of starving since they'd escaped to the road. That was plenty of time to contemplate mistakes made in haste.

Brand's tale didn't dwell on their errors. He focused on heroism, mostly his own. During the battle and chase, his caravan members avoided giant snakes, saw blue men who disappeared into the bushes, lost four of their number although no one was sure how, tied themselves together by their shirt sleeves, found Mohi's treasure, fought off a giant black cat, and followed a blue man to the road. Brand didn't seem sure if the warrior painted in blue had led them to the road deliberately or by mistake. Regardless, Brand had the sense to forbid anyone from following the man back into the bushes. He understood that he now had to be on the north trail in spite of having never seen it before. So he followed it to water, which his men desperately needed, and here Mohi had found the bottle with messages in it waiting in an eddy current as if it had been meant for them.

Denario listened to the story from the edge of the lead raft, where he stood guard. One of Brand's men realized that the crates and barrels tied down over most of the deck held food. He tried to approach. The accountant drew his baselard. Ulf stepped next to him, hammer and axe in either hand. Faced down by the two of them, the man backed up all the way to Brand. But Denario sensed that this sort of hunger could start a riot. He wanted to kick Jack to make him start the negotiations before things got out of hand.

“It was all worthwhile, as you'll see,” said Brand. He strode smartly to his closest cart. His long, hairy hand reached into the top sack. A moment later, he pulled out a goblet. It was gold or at least plated with a metal that looked like gold. “Beautiful, isn't it? And we've got loads.”

Denario's gaze slipped over to the dwarfs. Boldor, Torgrim, and Dodni's brother were scowling at the goblet. Unlike the humans, they did not seem impressed.

“It's got jewels on it, too.” Brand gestured to a purple spot in a goldish setting.

“Paste,” announced Torgrim.

“Eh?” Brand peered closer at what he was holding.

“No, look. The next one around is amethyst.” Boldor squinted and pointed at a different side, hidden from Denario. “That's good. Keep turning the cup please, captain.”

Brand let himself be guided. It didn't come easy to him, Denario guessed, but the dwarfs were so polite and his curiosity about the treasures so intense that he gritted his teeth in the semblance of a smile. He listened. The dwarfs pronounced some metals to be good and some not, some jewels to be fakes and some real. After the caravan had received three appraisals informally on cups and plates this way, Jack stepped between the men and the dwarfs. He declared that it was time to negotiate.

He introduced his accountant and had him draw the Ogglian exchange rates in the sand. Brand gave Denario a thoughtful look.

“Who carries around this stuff in his head?” He scowled. But a moment later, he cracked a brown-toothed grin. “You're the one we read about in the news bottle!”

“I'm his agent here,” Jack said. “Let's hear what you want the dwarfs to do. If you have work for the accountant, I'll hear that too.”

“Hah! I don't use numbers. They're too tricky.” Brand lifted a harp out of the pile. It looked like it had been carved from pearwood. The strings were tight except for one, which had been damaged at its post. The caravan master wanted it repaired for resale. Boldor handed it over to Ragna, who spoke a price to the chief, who murmured to Jack.

With each piece, the process was nearly the same. Whether the job was to stitch leather, re-forge metal, fix a gem setting, or even reconstruct paste jewels, the dwarfs were careful to understand what was being asked before they offered an opinion. They passed their estimates through Jack Lasker. They even turned down some work. When they came to a broken silver pot that they declared, by use of a magnifying prism passed over the inspecting eyes, to be leaking raw magic, they advised Brand to abandon it. When presented with a broken fiddle, they recommended using it for scrap. When the talks came to a brass idol, they declined to melt it down.

“Mohi,” said Brand. He thrust out the eagle-cat idol in the direction of his lowest-ranking man. “Where in the hells did this come from?”

“I don't know,” said Mohi. “I'd swear to the gods that I never saw it until we rescued our cart. And I knew everything on the cart before. Things changed somehow in the times when we were gone.”

“From the magic?” Brand didn't like the idea.

“Maybe. Or the blue warriors traded us some things for some others.”

“Odd thought. They were around the carts, sure. But if they did that, why would they leave us anything, much less brass and gold?”

“Maybe they don't use the stuff they traded. A box of brass and silver necklaces is missing. On all of the blue men I saw, there was at least one bone necklace. I think one was wearing silver.”

Everyone puzzled over that for a moment. As the negotiations continued, the dwarfs got interested in the repair work. They forgot to act tough. They slouched. They picked up softer tools and supplies like weaving combs, crochet hooks, and cuts of scrap leather. Every now and then, Boldor would glare and then they'd remember. They'd puff their chests, swing their hammers wide, and stride with a longer stance. But Denario watched the Caravan of the Kill as they witnessed the dwarfs' act and saw that the real toughs found it amusing. They weren't fooled. Brand chuckled. But although the dwarfs were faking their martial readiness, they weren't pretending about their expertise as craftsmen. They offered to repair the caravan's armor and weapons, to the delight of all. They finished with an announcement that they could turn the pieces of the two battered crossbows into one that functioned the way a crossbow should. Brand cackled.

Jack drove hard bargains. The leader of the caravan waved his arms, stamped his feet, pulled his hair, pulled his beard, and even yanked off his hat and stomped on it. That was when Denario put a hand on the pommel of his sword, sure it would come to fighting. But Brand kept himself under control. After a while, Denario realized that the theatrics were part of Brand's bargaining style. He had a big voice and wide, brown-toothed grin. Even though he wasn't unusually tall or strong, everyone looked smaller next to him.

“How much for the lightning water?” Brand swiped a finger in the direction of Denario's raft. It was thick with clay jars. Denario glanced at the diagonal 8 written along the sides of them. He would be sorry to see them go.

Apparently Jack felt the same way. He eyed the alcohol warily. The riverman didn't seem to want the Caravan of the Kill to get drunk. But they were determined. Brand kept raising the price until Jack, for a whopping 15 silvers, agreed to supply a dozen jugs. The men whooped.

“I'll help ya,” Jack called to his partner. When he climbed aboard next to Denario, he shook his head to one side, a gesture for the accountant to come closer. Denario did. He had so many things to say, he could barely speak.

Finally, he settled for, “Do you think this is clever, Jack?”

“No.” Jack grimaced. “But there's no choice. Either we sell them liquor or they try to steal it.”

“The fellows in purple are already picking fights with the men in lamellar jackets.”

“I see.”

“And the Ogglians, damn them, would bully the dwarfs already if Brand didn't call them back. Is there anything we can do?”

“Yes.” The river master pulled off the last tie-down for the jug at his feet. He paused to whisper, “When the dwarfs finish work, no matter how late it is, we push off and float downstream.”

“Into the magic?” Denario worried. “At night?”

“Just enough to get away from the drunkards.”

Denario nodded. When it was put that way, it made sense.