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.

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