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.

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