Sunday, October 28, 2018

Not Even Not Zen 138: A Bandit Accountant, 23.3

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Smallest Non-Twin Prime

Scene Three: Brief Moments of Mercy

“I was going to say we should toss Brand overboard. But now ...” Denario rubbed his bearded chin. He tried to think like Vir. Letting the robbers live was a mistake because Vir wouldn't do that. On the other hand, the dwarfs objected to killing helpless men.

The accountant strolled along the deck, robbers and dwarfs on either side of him in the aisles between crates. It had turned out to be a beautiful morning. Denario was allowed to look at it and know that it was possibly his last glimpse of sunrise for a while. Clever Jack felt it was nearly time to start his secret navigation method that depended on everyone being blindfolded.

There were three rectangular aisles on the raft. There was an outer section of bare planking between the packages and the gunwhales. There was an inner ring between the rows of boxes. Then there was the core, the area for Jack's tent plus room to walk around his quarters, cook, and so on. It was all reasonably symmetric and pleasing to Denario's eye. The three captured men occupied the middle aisle. Two of them had to lie down. Brand DeLadro, however, had recovered from his beating enough to sit up. He leaned his back against a crate of rawhide. He glared at Denario in fear and anger. On the outer aisle stood most of the dwarfs. Their leader waited with his arms crossed over his hauberk.

“I can't deny your objections, Boldor,” Denario continued, “especially not after you opposed trading me into slavery on moral grounds.” Self-defense was no longer an issue. The accountant knew he couldn't argue that point. Incredible as it seemed, the dwarfs had won the fight.

The dwarf chief nodded. “That is proper.”

Denario glanced around at the weird, semi-tropical landscape. None of the dwarfs liked to walk far into it. The plants were different from those only a mile upstream. The bushes were leafier. The tip ends of plants were spikier. The flowers weren't pin-pricks of color. They were explosions of vibrant pink, red, or blue. They smelled musky. Uphill from their camp, tall mounds stood, occupied by ants with stingers. Even the insects lived differently in the heavy magic.

“I agree that the land looks hard. But there are moral considerations aside from mercy.” Denario turned his attention back to the dwarfs on board. “You demand that Master Jack Lasker feed these men. The chore will come out of his profits because these bandits don't work. On top of that, they robbed him. Jack has been injured. He's owed compensation, not an additional fine. I don't think you have the right to demand that he pay for your decision.”

“That is a very good point,” said Heilgar. He raised his right finger. But he put it down when he caught the glare from his chief.

“What you say is true,” Bolder acknowledged. “But we dwarfs have made enough additional profit for Jack to pay for them as passengers. He should speak for himself. Does he wants us to take on more of the burden? I admit that it would seem fair. He advised us rightly in every step. We are learning the ways of men from him. And none of us have died although it was a close thing last night.”

“I was just feeling that I owe Ragna my life, maybe, for patching me up,” called Jack. He didn't occupy a place on the raft. Out of a sense of duty to the others, he stood guard on the shore. He touched his bloodied shirt.

Ragna said to him, “It was a debt I owed you already. You saved me and my friends.”

“Denario did the most, along with Ulf and Torgrim and those alligators that Denario befriended. The blow Ulf struck was fantastic. Ragna, I played my part but I didn't march out across the penninsula to risk my life the way Denario did. By the way, accountant, you should let Ragna look at your arm.”

“Maybe.” He hadn't been aware of his wound when it happened. As he looked at it now, that seemed amazing. He'd been ripped down his left arm, elbow to wrist, and he'd never felt it.

As he stared at the laceration, it oozed another drop of bloody fluid from its scab.

“Do we have to decide right now?” Ragna asked.

“It'll get more dangerous as we get closer to the temple,” Boldor replied. “If we let them go now, the captain will have a decent chance of finding his men.”

“These other two will die, though.” Dodni said it casually but sadly with a wave of his arm.

“There's another problem, Boldor,” said Jack. “I've got trade secrets. Honestly, I figured to drop off you dwarfs before this if I decided I didn't trust you. But I do.”

“I thank you.” Boldor nodded. “Although I also understand your problem.”

“I can trust Denario to keep his word not to reveal my trade secrets. His guild has their own secrets and he’s got some more, too. But why should I trust these men? If it was my decision, I'd dump them overboard.”

“Their word is no good.” Boldor hung his head. To the dwarf chief, it was a tragic revelation. “Couldn't they entrust something of theirs to you?”

“They don't even love each other that much. What could I hold? One of them? They'd let us kill any hostage we had even if we had the stomach to be so evil. Boldor, they'd betray us if we held their grandmothers.”

“Can they pay for the trade secrets? That's a practice that's common among men as well as dwarfs, I understand.”

“Pay me? With what? They're getting their lives and my secrets. How much is that worth? Besides that, they're separated from their treasure. How much money do you think they can carry, anyway?”

Several of the dwarfs looked at their own feet. Then they looked at one another.

“They have some money?” Jack understood at a glance what Denario had been trying to figure out. “Fine. So we've already got our hands on it.”

“Oh, no. It's theirs.”

“Didn't you search them?” Denario had walked to a corner of the aisle. He turned to face the leaders. “Didn't you take their weapons?”

“We looked for obvious weapons,” acknowledged Dodni. He clasped his hands behind his back. “We didn't look for small things. That wouldn't be seemly. Even in our quick search, we couldn't help finding some valuables. When we were done, we returned everything that wasn't a weapon.”

Denario and Jack exchanged a look. The accountant felt ashamed. The dwarfs were an ethical folk. Whereas Denario had taken good morals for granted during his apprenticeship with Master Winkel, he hadn't seen them much in his travels. He'd stopped expecting them. He could appreciate the dwarfs' philosophies better because he’d met so many burghers and mayors who were cheating their citizens and so many citizens who were cheating their towns.

“The day is getting on,” Jack sighed. “We're not going to solve this in the next minute. We should head downriver.”

“Why now?” asked Boldor. “There's no reason to hurry.”

“There might be. I've been watching the bushes for Brand's men. That was the way it happened before. We're not so far from them. If they come hunting for their missing friends, they'll find us.”

“Did Captain DeLadro have more of those silver coins, Dodni?” asked Boldor.

“Yes, chief.” Dodni nodded and tugged his wispy beard.

“Everyone separate onto all three rafts, then. Right away.” Boldor clapped his hands. He lifted his own pack by his feet, by which he indicated that he intended to go with the river master. The other dwarfs scrambled to comply.

Jack Lasker issued orders making it clear that he was about to change the position of the rafts. This was a section of the creek in which he felt he needed to lead. For the sake of simplicity, he announced that he would navigate from what was formerly the middle raft, the one with his tent. Denario would continue to pilot what had formerly been the lead raft, the one with the lean-to and supplies. There would be no need to transfer possessions.

Denario marched to his position with relief. The surprised dwarfs had considerably more work to do and more questions. Jack intended to push the middle raft to the forefront by unhitching the tether lines before his launch and then by re-hitching them in the new order while midstream.

Most of the dwarf tents occupied space on the third vessel, also known as "Denario's raft," the one of mallow wood. They had built smaller tents on the other two barges but they were lonely outposts in comparison. Their troop members shifted assignments so that Ulf could be in the lead with Boldor and Jack. That was the position of honor. Ragna, in contrast, was separated out, put in the back, and eventually re-shuffled to the middle with Denario, a demotion that the dwarf accepted with grace.

“Hello, accountant,” said a rough voice. The only mobile captive, Brand, marched from one raft to another. A pair of dwarfs tethered him by his elbows. His arms remained behind his back, tied at the wrists. His hobbled gait demonstrated the strength of the rope he wore from ankle to ankle. “Seems we're to be boat mates.”

Denario glanced to Jack for confirmation. He got a nod. The balding man had the courtesy to look chagrined. He put his head down and, a moment later, plunked his travel hat on top of it, brim pulled low.

At Denario's side, Ragna turned pale. Borghild and Torgrim scowled. No one liked Brand. Yet this was the smart thing to do, Denario realized. The river master saw an advantage in keeping the caravan captain away from his men so they couldn't conspire. Since the dwarfs weren't willing to abandon the bandits to the magical wilderness, someone had to think about such things.

The accountant gestured his assent to come aboard. When the dwarfs turned their captive toward the center of the raft, though, he shouted.

“Hey! Middle aisle for him.” He gestured with the punt. Jofrid didn't like it. He grunted. But he nodded and pulled Brand along.

That meant Brand wouldn't get a tent and neither would his guard. But Denario wasn't going to have the man sleep next to him, tied up or not.

Denario could tell that most of the dwarfs didn't like the idea of saving the bandits but they couldn't speak against their chief. For that matter, the accountant couldn't disagree. Still, he knew that Vir de Acker wouldn't let anybody live who'd attacked him, not unless that man had swung around completely to his side and had proved it.

This was where Denario needed to do something like Vir, like a real leader. Jack wouldn't. He didn't think about organizing men. If he'd thought that way, he'd already own a caravan to go with his rafting business. The dwarfs wouldn't do it although Boldor showed potential for this sort of thing. Maybe someday he'd think the right way. But not now. No, it was up to Denario and that was scary. He didn't understand the how and why.

He launched the raft as he considered. Behind him, Jack untethered and ordered Denario to steer to the middle. When the rafts were in position, Jack jumped from stern to prow to re-tether the vessels in the right order. All the while, Denario pondered the ways in which Brand could kill them in their sleep. Jack was agile. He was fast. But he didn't like having people around, which meant he kept to himself pretty often. He also couldn't watch the captured men every moment of every day and night.

It wasn't only Jack who had a hard time during the re-ordering of the rafts. Everyone on the three rafts got involved with rowing, pushing, pulling on ropes, and tying. It took fifteen minutes and when Jack ran from the last raft to the middle to the first, he teetered on the final gunwhale, exhausted. Everyone slumped in relief. The pilots resumed course.

An hour before lunchtime, as they meandered along the snaking path of the creek, Denario set down his punt. His opinion had formed. It wasn’t a generous one. He motioned for Torgrim to take over with his paddle.

“Convince me, Brand.” Denario picked up an oar. He strolled into the middle aisle. When he reached his captive passenger, he sat down across from him. “Tell me why I shouldn't stab you and dump you over the side.”

The captain gave him an airy smile. “The dwarfs would object.”

“You'll have to do better than that.” He leaned in so he could whisper. “In a fair fight, you would beat me every time. Every time. You know it. I know it. But you're tied up. I'm not so small that I can't lift you over these gunwhales.”

“I'd make some noise.”

“I have five apprentices waiting for me in the city. When you attacked, you woke me from a dream about them. Did I mention that? I swore to protect them, Brand. Being away from them for so long … it’s made me crazy.”

Brand had no answer. He studied the accountant's face.

“Why wouldn't I dump you to the alligators? You were going to take me from my accounting practice, from those children, from everything I have in the world.”

“I didn't ... wait, you can't dump me overboard because you can't lose the rope.”

The look Denario gave him must have been unkind.

“I guess you're already making more ...”

Denario inched closer. He dropped his hand to his skinning knife, the one he'd never used.

“Wait, wait!” Brand squirmed away from him. “Accountant, give me time to think. Can't you give me time?”

“Some.” Denario took his hands off of the knife. He hadn't been intending to use it. The grip sat against his thigh where he'd needed to rest his hand for balance. Maybe it wasn't bad for the caravan master to think otherwise. Because Denario truly had no idea what to do.

Vir would have known. The chief would have killed Brand or turned him into a soldier on his side. There was no middle course.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Not Even Not Zen 137: A Bandit Accountant, 23.2

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Smallest Non-Twin Prime

Scene Two: Friends in Deed 

Denario had a plan by the time he found a spot to beach the raft. Unfortunately, a pair of alligators had a different plan. Moonlight made their shapes visible. They occupied the otherwise empty riverbank, pretending to be logs and probably waiting for their next meal to arrive. But logs didn't climb all the way out of the water and lay perpendicular to it like these two. The accountant knew what they were.

All the same, he had to put in to the cove. It was the right spot. He knew there could be no other, not if he intended to dash to the rescue. The creek had taken one of the snake turns that Jack described it acquiring under heavy magic conditions. This particular twist had brought them back around to the same peninsula of land they'd left. That is, it did if Denario pictured it correctly. He felt the anti-mapping magic trying to confuse him. Ordinarily, he'd have no doubts. They hadn't drifted far. He was sure they should emerge almost directly behind the Caravan of the Kill if they cut through the woods from here. But he found that he kept forgetting the urgent need to rescue Ragna. It bothered him in the moments when his mind was clear. He could feel the magic of the area urging a part of his mind to shut down.

On the other hand, Ulf and Torgrim showed signs that they'd completely forgotten where they were. Rescuing Ragna was all they could think about. They kept reminding Denario every few seconds. But the locations of things had become vague in their minds.

“Lie down,” Denario said. He motioned to Ulf.

“Why?”

“Grab weapons. We're going to have to fight alligators.”

“Right.” Ulf seemed to reach a decision. He pulled on his friend's sleeve as he lay. “To rescue Ragna.”

Torgrim allowed himself to tugged by the cuff of his leather anorak. He sunk low to the planks, lay on his back, and readied his weapons. His studded shoulders made a grinding noise against the wood. Chain mail rustled in his sleeves, too. The dark-haired fellow was more armored than any dwarf except the blacksmith.

“I'm waiting,” he grumbled.

“I'm bringing us close. Get ready to leap out and attack.”

As Denario dug the punt hard into the sand, he turned the corner of the raft toward his destination. For a moment, he worried the current was too strong. It threatened to pull the raft past the landing. But in another foot of westward progress, he discovered the difference between the mid-creek flow and the area closer to shore. His raft slipped partway behind a sandbar and everything slowed. He knew he was going to be fine. That is, he was sure until he heard the splash.

“Of course,” he cursed to himself. “A third alligator.”

The dark form came from the sandbar he'd just passed. It paddled to within a yard of the raft. Moonlight glinted of its scales. Its eyes gave off a dull glow not much brighter than the rest of its shadowy form.

“Are you all alone?” it said. “I heard voices.”

Denario paused. The raft felt it instantly. It started to turn. The back of it was still in the faster currents. He resumed his work and thought about how to respond.

“Sorry, fellow,” he said. “There's plenty of us here to fight you.”

The creature came up to the edge of the deck. It rolled its eyeballs. But that wasn't a human expression. The creature was trying to see into the raft. It found that the gunwhales blocked its view. The porcupine-style sticks around the sides did their job.

“Where are the others, then?” it asked.

“Invisible.”

“Damn it.” The alligator rolled its eyes again. It looked angry. Then it dodged, confused, as if Denario were about to strike. Apparently the lie was believable enough.

“We've got lots of armor and weapons,” Denario continued. “And we have come to rescue a dear friend so you don't want to get in our way.”

“I didn't anyway, really.”

“Not hungry?” The accountant kept up his work. The current wasn't fighting him as much but it wasn't helping, either. The raft was laden and heavy.

“Oh, it's not that. I've got my hidden stash of raccoons and fish. I won't starve. But it's different for me when I hunt men. Don't really like it. It's my upbringing. I used to be a knight.”

“Really?” Denario thought about how much he trusted knights. About as much as he trusted alligators, really.

“Promoted on the field of battle. Not that it means much, lots of men were. But I always wanted to dash to the rescue of a maiden.”

“Why didn't you? No maidens in trouble?”

“I wouldn't know. I spent my time fighting wars. A stray spell caught me and well, this happened. About a dozen of us changed altogether. Eight of us managed to flee into the nearest water, the Riggle Kill, but of course the monsters got us. Nasty river. I swam from there up into the ol' No Map because I grew up in this area.”

“Resourceful of you. Do you remember your name?”

“Of course. I'm Sir Robert Galfino.”

“Pleased to meet you Sir Robert. I'm Denario the Dramatic. I've not been knighted.”

“Maybe in time,” Robert suggested.

“Maybe.” Denario found it hard not to shake his head. “Low-born or not, I'm off to rescue a friend. We all are.”

“Not a maiden?” The alligator managed to sound disappointed. “You aren't actually rescuing a maiden?”

“No, I'm afraid not. He's a dwarf named Ragna.”

“A dwarf maiden?”

“Yes,” Ulf announced. It startled Denario to hear anyone besides him and the alligator. He kept switching his focus between the threat of an immediate attack and the prospect of the two alligators on shore fifteen yards ahead.

“Yes?” echoed Denario. He wondered if Ulf had misunderstood.

“Fantastic!” chortled the alligator.

“But Ragna, he's ... she's ... got a beard.” It was a wispy thing but it was still longer and probably fuller than Denario's facial hair.

“All dwarfs have beards, Skilling. Yet Ragna is a maiden. Half of us you've ever seen are female. All of us are equal, not like with humans. We're all strong. We're all fighters. We're all craftsmen.”

“You're all fighters?”

“I'm about to kill anyone between me and Ragna, so yes.”

“Aye,” Torgrim echoed.

“Are you fighting for the love of the maiden?” said the alligator.

There was an awkward beat of silence.

“Funny thing, that,” said Torgrim. “Everyone knows that Ragna loves Ulf.”

“It's been a nuisance,” said Ulf.

“You're not going to let that stop you, right? You're going to rescue her. You've got to.” The alligator trembled like an excited dog. Its tail wagged.

“You're right, Sir Robert.” Ulf sounded sad but resigned. “Somehow it would be even more dastardly if I didn't. Ragna is my senior. If Ragna loves me, too, well ...”

“That's it,” said the alligator. It got its legs moving as it touched sand. “We're charging in.”

“We?”

“The six of us will bite and spear anyone in our way.”

“Even with you, Sir Robert, there's only four of us.”

“Bob and Bob will help.”

“Who are Bob and Bob?” wondered Torgrim.

“I think I know,” said Denario as one of the logs slid into the water in front of him.

The other two alligators weren't the magical sort, apparently, although Sir Robert could reason with them. He was bigger and more muscular. That likely helped. The animals he named Bob and Bob backed away to allow the raft to dock. They carefully turned from the dwarfs as they disembarked. They listened to Sir Robert's orders. When he assigned them the job of guarding the flanks, they did. They led their odd military formation into the woods.

Sir Robert moved up into the point position. He steered them through a wide path that looked like alligators must have made it. The vegetation had been trampled. He kept a watch on the tree boughs. Some large animal must pass through them on occasion, dangerous even to an alligator. Gaps in the leaves let silvery light down, enough so Denario could see his feet. Sometimes he could make out the craggly shapes of individual branches. In other moments, he only felt them with his face. After what was probably one minute of marching, Denario spotted a blazing light through the trees. His mind had wandered. But when he saw campfires from the vantage point of the woods' edge, he remembered where he was and what he'd set out to do. He'd been worried he would hear fighting. Instead, he heard voices. Boldor, by his tone, was angry. Brand was acting like a livid madman in his theatrical way but it was hard to tell if he felt as incensed as he pretended. Regardless, he'd proved he would kill in cold calculation.

Ulf remembered, too. He had been muttering to himself for the entire journey. Now he lifted his axe.

“Ragna!” he screamed. His voice boomed the through the scrubs, down the clear riverbank, and across the water.

At the edge of the clearing, the men all jumped at the sound. They spun in different directions. It seemed they couldn't tell where the shout had come from, which was nice, Denario thought. But the confusion only lasted an instant. Ulf surged forward, followed by Sir Robert. Then Bob and Bob got into it. Denario and Torgrim joined.

Later, when Denario looked back on the mad charge, he found it embarrassing. That was when he learned that he wasn't as fast on on his feet as animals who spent most of their time swimming. For the twenty yards it took, the three alligators waddled faster than he ran. What's more, Torgrim did, too. The accountant couldn't keep up with a dwarf in full armor. When the group of them hit the clearing at the top of the riverbank, Ulf was in the lead. His scream of rage and his whirling battle axe propelled him like a missile. The best Denario could do was to draw his sword and ready himself to follow Ulf's blow.

Ragna's guards stood in the back of the group, which meant, now that everyone was turning around, they were in the front to face the attack. Ragna gaped. The dwarf started to smile at Ulf. But Ulf leaped from the top of the slope, a foot above the closest of the Caravan of the Kill, and swung down at the largest guard.

That man, the Ogglian deserter, got his sword up in time but the force of the axe crushed its edge against his face. He rolled backwards down the slope. His companion tried to take a swing at Ulf but got chopped in the leg by Torgrim as he did so. Torgrim's blade missed, hitting with the flat rather than drawing blood, but the contact saved Ulf. Then Denario stepped in to block the return stroke. That surprised the guard and Torgrim both. It elicited a grin from the dwarf and a grunt of dismay from the guard.

To Denario's surprise, his opponent turned and fled. That was another injury to pride. It wasn't that the man hadn't been hurt. He'd been impressed enough by Denario to flee and that was something. But the ease of his escape showed that anyone who wanted to run from the accountant could do so.

Only one soldier didn't retreat, a poor but brave soul in lamellar armor. He drew his sword to face Denario and Torgrim. An instant later he received such a blow from Ulf that he tumbled down the slope, straight through the campfire, and into the water. That got folks looking uphill at who had done that, if only to avoid him. Before they could take in the figure of Ulf, bloodied axe in hand, flanked by his allies, the alligators swarmed down the slope.

“Get them, Bob!” Sir Robert shouted to one or the other of his companions. “Drive them into the water!”

The Caravan of the Kill had already retreated from the first charge. When Bob and Bob led the second surge, the men found themselves at the edge of the creek. As they tried to decide what to do, they discovered that the dwarfs had already fled onto the rafts. Their retreat from the charge forced the caravan to try to seize the rafts from the dwarfs.

To Denario's right, one of the caravan men tripped on a snare and tumbled into the water.

To the left, Jack Lasker lifted his ancient, stone-tipped hunting arrow and shot a man. Then he dropped his bow behind him and pulled aboard a straggler dwarf onto the mallow-wood raft. He cast off the line and kept the rope. His gaze snapped to his left. He threw off his hat to reveal his bald head in the moonlight and he ran the length of the deck. With a mighty jump, he cleared the distance from his vessel to the next, which was full of dwarfs and men both. He knocked down two men and a dwarf when he landed. Denario worried that he'd injured himself. He staggered like he had. Yet Jack rose from the tumble and cast off the tie line from inside. Both rafts were free.

The dwarfs understood. One of them in the oak raft grabbed a punt and drove deeper into the creek. Behind them, the last raft had already made it. Since the two vessels were tethered by three yards of rope, the mallow raft helped the oak one. But the oak raft pilot had to endure at least three separate fights on board. Jack couldn't help; he had to defend himself from a tall man with a sword. The raft was in danger of grounding on a sandbar.

The alligators re-launched themselves over the gunwhales on the shore side. At first, one of the Bobs started to grab a dwarf in confusion. Everyone scattered. A sharp word from Sir Robert got Bob turned around to grab a human by the leg and hold on.

It was a tough fight. The humans were fast, strong, and fierce. Their speed shocked Denario. He marched down the slope with the idea that he would help but he was glad he hadn't come up against any of these fellows. They stabbed one of the Bobs. The two smaller alligators fled. In the end, the animals had to settle for drowning one man they'd mauled and hauling off the fellow wounded by Ulf. They'd fought to a sort of victory on the shore. The dwarfs had won the rafts. Boldor himself, wielding a sledge hammer, knocked the last invader of the oak raft senseless. The rest of the Caravan of the Kill fled upstream along the river banks.

Denario turned. His gaze swept over the shoreline. He crouched, baselard at the ready, but the only movement near him came from an alligator, Sir Robert. The beast emerged from the water, shoulders looking broader than ever. The droplets falling off his back made a gentle sound. He paused. Like the accountant, he surveyed his position. Then he waddled uphill to where Ulf stood, holding hands with another dwarf.

Ulf had freed Ragna of the ropes and re-equipped his friend with a human sword and axe. The hand axe looked fine, if a bit more primitive than a dwarf would normally like. The sword was one of the curved ones, a scimitar. From tip to pommel it was taller than Ragna's shoulder. The dwarfs had not been able to find a scabbard for it but a sword of any sort was a precious thing to earn by right of battle. The pair of them were plotting to contrive a wooden case for it when Sir Robert arrived with Denario and Torgrim close behind.

“Bob and Bob won't return over land, especially since big Bob is hurt,” said Sir Robert. “They want to collect their food and rest. But I won't feel this business is done until I see the rescued maiden onto your boat.”

When it was explained to Ragna that she was the maiden, the dwarf’s eyes narrowed in anger. Torgrim turned away from the glare.

“I'm grateful for the rescue.” Ragna forced a return to dwarfish politeness. It took visible effort. “You're a very gallant creature, Sir Robert.”

The march back to the lead raft was a bit chilly, and not only due to the time of night. Ulf and Torgrim had overstepped the bounds of propriety. Had the circumstances been different, it seemed likely that Ragna might have challenged them to a duel. As it was, the heaviest dwarf plodded in their midst with a grim silence. Ulf talked about how he kept forgetting where he was. Torgrim kept off to one side with the accountant between him and the others. It was Ulf's worry about finding the raft that kept Denario's mind on the task.

When they arrived at their beachhead, they found Jack Lasker in the process of landing the other rafts. He’d figured out what the accountant had done and knew to match it. But with two rafts, the feat could not have looked more difficult even if Denario could have seen it better. In the dark, in the shadows of the cove, with not enough bare land for three rafts, the riverman poled, leaped, shouted orders, tied knots, shouted again, ran to a different place, and tied again. It sounded like Dodni had taken responsibility for the mallow raft. The dwarf shouted that he couldn't tie down.

“Where's all the rope?” Denario wondered as he approached. Jack had moored the second raft. He was in the process of tethering the lead raft to it. The pieces he was using looked too short. They were scraps, not proper equipment.

“Did you bring what we left upstream?” Jack asked.

“Torgrim did, yes.”

“Good. The rest is in use. The dwarfs wouldn't let me toss the unconscious men over the side.”

Jack finished his knot. He stood back, turned sideways, and swung his arm to gesture to the forms in the darkness behind him. Denario could see five dwarfs clustered in the clear section near the center. Laying on the planks below them were three men. They lay belly down, hands and legs tied. The team that had done the job hadn't stopped there. The men had their elbows bound hard to their sides. Their thighs were wrapped as tight as their ankles. In fact, one man had been left with his left foot relatively free. But it had been mangled, possibly by an alligator, so he didn't seem likely to run away or, for that matter, to survive the night.

Denario leaned closer to Jack. The riThe Bandit Accountant

Chapter Smallest Non-Twin Prime

Scene Two: Friends in Deed

Denario had a plan by the time he found a spot to beach the raft. Unfortunately, a pair of alligators had a different plan. Moonlight made their shapes visible. They occupied the otherwise empty riverbank, pretending to be logs and probably waiting for their next meal to arrive. But logs didn't climb all the way out of the water and lay perpendicular to it like these two. The accountant knew what they were.

All the same, he had to put in to the cove. It was the right spot. He knew there could be no other, not if he intended to dash to the rescue. The creek had taken one of the snake turns that Jack described it acquiring under heavy magic conditions. This particular twist had brought them back around to the same peninsula of land they'd left. That is, it did if Denario pictured it correctly. He felt the anti-mapping magic trying to confuse him. Ordinarily, he'd have no doubts. They hadn't drifted far. He was sure they should emerge almost directly behind the Caravan of the Kill if they cut through the woods from here. But he found that he kept forgetting the urgent need to rescue Ragna. It bothered him in the moments when his mind was clear. He could feel the magic of the area urging a part of his mind to shut down.

On the other hand, Ulf and Torgrim showed signs that they'd completely forgotten where they were. Rescuing Ragna was all they could think about. They kept reminding Denario every few seconds. But the locations of things had become vague in their minds.

“Lie down,” Denario said. He motioned to Ulf.

“Why?”

“Grab weapons. We're going to have to fight alligators.”

“Right.” Ulf seemed to reach a decision. He pulled on his friend's sleeve as he lay. “To rescue Ragna.”

Torgrim allowed himself to tugged by the cuff of his leather anorak. He sunk low to the planks, lay on his back, and readied his weapons. His studded shoulders made a grinding noise against the wood. Chain mail rustled in his sleeves, too. The dark-haired fellow was more armored than any dwarf except the blacksmith.

“I'm waiting,” he grumbled.

“I'm bringing us close. Get ready to leap out and attack.”

As Denario dug the punt hard into the sand, he turned the corner of the raft toward his destination. For a moment, he worried the current was too strong. It threatened to pull the raft past the landing. But in another foot of westward progress, he discovered the difference between the mid-creek flow and the area closer to shore. His raft slipped partway behind a sandbar and everything slowed. He knew he was going to be fine. That is, he was sure until he heard the splash.

“Of course,” he cursed to himself. “A third alligator.”

The dark form came from the sandbar he'd just passed. It paddled to within a yard of the raft. Moonlight glinted of its scales. Its eyes gave off a dull glow not much brighter than the rest of its shadowy form.

“Are you all alone?” it said. “I heard voices.”

Denario paused. The raft felt it instantly. It started to turn. The back of it was still in the faster currents. He resumed his work and thought about how to respond.

“Sorry, fellow,” he said. “There's plenty of us here to fight you.”

The creature came up to the edge of the deck. It rolled its eyeballs. But that wasn't a human expression. The creature was trying to see into the raft. It found that the gunwhales blocked its view. The porcupine-style sticks around the sides did their job.

“Where are the others, then?” it asked.

“Invisible.”

“Damn it.” The alligator rolled its eyes again. It looked angry. Then it dodged, confused, as if Denario were about to strike. Apparently the lie was believable enough.

“We've got lots of armor and weapons,” Denario continued. “And we have come to rescue a dear friend so you don't want to get in our way.”

“I didn't anyway, really.”

“Not hungry?” The accountant kept up his work. The current wasn't fighting him as much but it wasn't helping, either. The raft was laden and heavy.

“Oh, it's not that. I've got my hidden stash of raccoons and fish. I won't starve. But it's different for me when I hunt men. Don't really like it. It's my upbringing. I used to be a knight.”

“Really?” Denario thought about how much he trusted knights. About as much as he trusted alligators, really.

“Promoted on the field of battle. Not that it means much, lots of men were. But I always wanted to dash to the rescue of a maiden.”

“Why didn't you? No maidens in trouble?”

“I wouldn't know. I spent my time fighting wars. A stray spell caught me and well, this happened. About a dozen of us changed altogether. Eight of us managed to flee into the nearest water, the Riggle Kill, but of course the monsters got us. Nasty river. I swam from there up into the ol' No Map because I grew up in this area.”

“Resourceful of you. Do you remember your name?”

“Of course. I'm Sir Robert Galfino.”

“Pleased to meet you Sir Robert. I'm Denario the Dramatic. I've not been knighted.”

“Maybe in time,” Robert suggested.

“Maybe.” Denario found it hard not to shake his head. “Low-born or not, I'm off to rescue a friend. We all are.”

“Not a maiden?” The alligator managed to sound disappointed. “You aren't actually rescuing a maiden?”

“No, I'm afraid not. He's a dwarf named Ragna.”

“A dwarf maiden?”

“Yes,” Ulf announced. It startled Denario to hear anyone besides him and the alligator. He kept switching his focus between the threat of an immediate attack and the prospect of the two alligators on shore fifteen yards ahead.

“Yes?” echoed Denario. He wondered if Ulf had misunderstood.

“Fantastic!” chortled the alligator.

“But Ragna, he's ... she's ... got a beard.” It was a wispy thing but it was still longer and probably fuller than Denario's facial hair.

“All dwarfs have beards, Skilling. Yet Ragna is a maiden. Half of us you've ever seen are female. All of us are equal, not like with humans. We're all strong. We're all fighters. We're all craftsmen.”

“You're all fighters?”

“I'm about to kill anyone between me and Ragna, so yes.”

“Aye,” Torgrim echoed.

“Are you fighting for the love of the maiden?” said the alligator.

There was an awkward beat of silence.

“Funny thing, that,” said Torgrim. “Everyone knows that Ragna loves Ulf.”

“It's been a nuisance,” said Ulf.

“You're not going to let that stop you, right? You're going to rescue her. You've got to.” The alligator trembled like an excited dog. Its tail wagged.

“You're right, Sir Robert.” Ulf sounded sad but resigned. “Somehow it would be even more dastardly if I didn't. Ragna is my senior. If Ragna loves me, too, well ...”

“That's it,” said the alligator. It got its legs moving as it touched sand. “We're charging in.”

“We?”

“The six of us will bite and spear anyone in our way.”

“Even with you, Sir Robert, there's only four of us.”

“Bob and Bob will help.”

“Who are Bob and Bob?” wondered Torgrim.

“I think I know,” said Denario as one of the logs slid into the water in front of him.

The other two alligators weren't the magical sort, apparently, although Sir Robert could reason with them. He was bigger and more muscular. That likely helped. The animals he named Bob and Bob backed away to allow the raft to dock. They carefully turned from the dwarfs as they disembarked. They listened to Sir Robert's orders. When he assigned them the job of guarding the flanks, they did. They led their odd military formation into the woods.

Sir Robert moved up into the point position. He steered them through a wide path that looked like alligators must have made it. The vegetation had been trampled. He kept a watch on the tree boughs. Some large animal must pass through them on occasion, dangerous even to an alligator. Gaps in the leaves let silvery light down, enough so Denario could see his feet. Sometimes he could make out the craggly shapes of individual branches. In other moments, he only felt them with his face. After what was probably one minute of marching, Denario spotted a blazing light through the trees. His mind had wandered. But when he saw campfires from the vantage point of the woods' edge, he remembered where he was and what he'd set out to do. He'd been worried he would hear fighting. Instead, he heard voices. Boldor, by his tone, was angry. Brand was acting like a livid madman in his theatrical way but it was hard to tell if he felt as incensed as he pretended. Regardless, he'd proved he would kill in cold calculation.

Ulf remembered, too. He had been muttering to himself for the entire journey. Now he lifted his axe.

“Ragna!” he screamed. His voice boomed the through the scrubs, down the clear riverbank, and across the water.

At the edge of the clearing, the men all jumped at the sound. They spun in different directions. It seemed they couldn't tell where the shout had come from, which was nice, Denario thought. But the confusion only lasted an instant. Ulf surged forward, followed by Sir Robert. Then Bob and Bob got into it. Denario and Torgrim joined.

Later, when Denario looked back on the mad charge, he found it embarrassing. That was when he learned that he wasn't as fast on on his feet as animals who spent most of their time swimming. For the twenty yards it took, the three alligators waddled faster than he ran. What's more, Torgrim did, too. The accountant couldn't keep up with a dwarf in full armor. When the group of them hit the clearing at the top of the riverbank, Ulf was in the lead. His scream of rage and his whirling battle axe propelled him like a missile. The best Denario could do was to draw his sword and ready himself to follow Ulf's blow.

Ragna's guards stood in the back of the group, which meant, now that everyone was turning around, they were in the front to face the attack. Ragna gaped. The dwarf started to smile at Ulf. But Ulf leaped from the top of the slope, a foot above the closest of the Caravan of the Kill, and swung down at the largest guard.

That man, the Ogglian deserter, got his sword up in time but the force of the axe crushed its edge against his face. He rolled backwards down the slope. His companion tried to take a swing at Ulf but got chopped in the leg by Torgrim as he did so. Torgrim's blade missed, hitting with the flat rather than drawing blood, but the contact saved Ulf. Then Denario stepped in to block the return stroke. That surprised the guard and Torgrim both. It elicited a grin from the dwarf and a grunt of dismay from the guard.

To Denario's surprise, his opponent turned and fled. That was another injury to pride. It wasn't that the man hadn't been hurt. He'd been impressed enough by Denario to flee and that was something. But the ease of his escape showed that anyone who wanted to run from the accountant could do so.

Only one soldier didn't retreat, a poor but brave soul in lamellar armor. He drew his sword to face Denario and Torgrim. An instant later he received such a blow from Ulf that he tumbled down the slope, straight through the campfire, and into the water. That got folks looking uphill at who had done that, if only to avoid him. Before they could take in the figure of Ulf, bloodied axe in hand, flanked by his allies, the alligators swarmed down the slope.

“Get them, Bob!” Sir Robert shouted to one or the other of his companions. “Drive them into the water!”

The Caravan of the Kill had already retreated from the first charge. When Bob and Bob led the second surge, the men found themselves at the edge of the creek. As they tried to decide what to do, they discovered that the dwarfs had already fled onto the rafts. Their retreat from the charge forced the caravan to try to seize the rafts from the dwarfs.

To Denario's right, one of the caravan men tripped on a snare and tumbled into the water.

To the left, Jack Lasker lifted his ancient, stone-tipped hunting arrow and shot a man. Then he dropped his bow behind him and pulled aboard a straggler dwarf onto the mallow-wood raft. He cast off the line and kept the rope. His gaze snapped to his left. He threw off his hat to reveal his bald head in the moonlight and he ran the length of the deck. With a mighty jump, he cleared the distance from his vessel to the next, which was full of dwarfs and men both. He knocked down two men and a dwarf when he landed. Denario worried that he'd injured himself. He staggered like he had. Yet Jack rose from the tumble and cast off the tie line from inside. Both rafts were free.

The dwarfs understood. One of them in the oak raft grabbed a punt and drove deeper into the creek. Behind them, the last raft had already made it. Since the two vessels were tethered by three yards of rope, the mallow raft helped the oak one. But the oak raft pilot had to endure at least three separate fights on board. Jack couldn't help; he had to defend himself from a tall man with a sword. The raft was in danger of grounding on a sandbar.

The alligators re-launched themselves over the gunwhales on the shore side. At first, one of the Bobs started to grab a dwarf in confusion. Everyone scattered. A sharp word from Sir Robert got Bob turned around to grab a human by the leg and hold on.

It was a tough fight. The humans were fast, strong, and fierce. Their speed shocked Denario. He marched down the slope with the idea that he would help but he was glad he hadn't come up against any of these fellows. They stabbed one of the Bobs. The two smaller alligators fled. In the end, the animals had to settle for drowning one man they'd mauled and hauling off the fellow wounded by Ulf. They'd fought to a sort of victory on the shore. The dwarfs had won the rafts. Boldor himself, wielding a sledge hammer, knocked the last invader of the oak raft senseless. The rest of the Caravan of the Kill fled upstream along the river banks.

Denario turned. His gaze swept over the shoreline. He crouched, baselard at the ready, but the only movement near him came from an alligator, Sir Robert. The beast emerged from the water, shoulders looking broader than ever. The droplets falling off his back made a gentle sound. He paused. Like the accountant, he surveyed his position. Then he waddled uphill to where Ulf stood, holding hands with another dwarf.

Ulf had freed Ragna of the ropes and re-equipped his friend with a human sword and axe. The hand axe looked fine, if a bit more primitive than a dwarf would normally like. The sword was one of the curved ones, a scimitar. From tip to pommel it was taller than Ragna's shoulder. The dwarfs had not been able to find a scabbard for it but a sword of any sort was a precious thing to earn by right of battle. The pair of them were plotting to contrive a wooden case for it when Sir Robert arrived with Denario and Torgrim close behind.

“Bob and Bob won't return over land, especially since big Bob is hurt,” said Sir Robert. “They want to collect their food and rest. But I won't feel this business is done until I see the rescued maiden onto your boat.”

When it was explained to Ragna that she was the maiden, the dwarf’s eyes narrowed in anger. Torgrim turned away from the glare.

“I'm grateful for the rescue.” Ragna forced a return to dwarfish politeness. It took visible effort. “You're a very gallant creature, Sir Robert.”

The march back to the lead raft was a bit chilly, and not only due to the time of night. Ulf and Torgrim had overstepped the bounds of propriety. Had the circumstances been different, it seemed likely that Ragna might have challenged them to a duel. As it was, the heaviest dwarf plodded in their midst with a grim silence. Ulf talked about how he kept forgetting where he was. Torgrim kept off to one side with the accountant between him and the others. It was Ulf's worry about finding the raft that kept Denario's mind on the task.

When they arrived at their beachhead, they found Jack Lasker in the process of landing the other rafts. He’d figured out what the accountant had done and knew to match it. But with two rafts, the feat could not have looked more difficult even if Denario could have seen it better. In the dark, in the shadows of the cove, with not enough bare land for three rafts, the riverman poled, leaped, shouted orders, tied knots, shouted again, ran to a different place, and tied again. It sounded like Dodni had taken responsibility for the mallow raft. The dwarf shouted that he couldn't tie down.

“Where's all the rope?” Denario wondered as he approached. Jack had moored the second raft. He was in the process of tethering the lead raft to it. The pieces he was using looked too short. They were scraps, not proper equipment.

“Did you bring what we left upstream?” Jack asked.

“Torgrim did, yes.”

“Good. The rest is in use. The dwarfs wouldn't let me toss the unconscious men over the side.”

Jack finished his knot. He stood back, turned sideways, and swung his arm to gesture to the forms in the darkness behind him. Denario could see five dwarfs clustered in the clear section near the center. Laying on the planks below them were three men. They lay belly down, hands and legs tied. The team that had done the job hadn't stopped there. The men had their elbows bound hard to their sides. Their thighs were wrapped as tight as their ankles. In fact, one man had been left with his left foot relatively free. But it had been mangled, possibly by an alligator, so he didn't seem likely to run away or, for that matter, to survive the night.

Denario leaned closer to Jack. The riverman had blood on the side of his face and on his arm. He'd been cut. His heavy breathing didn't come from the exertion of mooring the rafts, as tricky as that had been. He was still full of anger and nerves from the battle. He'd been wounded. He wanted revenge. Denario didn't blame him.

Behind Jack, in front of the dwarfs, one of the human bodies rolled over from front to side. Eyes opened, bright pupils in the dark. It was Brand DeLadro.

“So, accountant,” Jack murmured into Denario's ear. He gestured to Brand. “Do your alligator friends want more to eat?”
verman had blood on the side of his face and on his arm. He'd been cut. His heavy breathing didn't come from the exertion of mooring the rafts, as tricky as that had been. He was still full of anger and nerves from the battle. He'd been wounded. He wanted revenge. Denario didn't blame him.

Behind Jack, in front of the dwarfs, one of the human bodies rolled over from front to side. Eyes opened, bright pupils in the dark. It was Brand DeLadro.

“So, accountant,” Jack murmured into Denario's ear. He gestured to Brand. “Do your alligator friends want more to eat?”

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Not Even Not Zen 136: A Bandit Accountant, 23.1

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Smallest Non-Twin Prime

Scene One: Not Giving Up 

No one on shore had noticed. The conversation continued, now more distant.

“And that's why it's good to follow Boldor Sonsonson,” whispered Ulf.

“Aye,” Torgrim agreed. He stepped around a tied-down box to edge closer to Denario. “Smart of you to cut the line, Ulf. I love Heilgar. Of course I do. But I don't trust him to see the simple thing. If we trade Skilling, we're damned. We would deserve to fail.”

Denario examined what he'd just heard. Among other things, he realized he'd just been told the name of Dodni's brother, Heilgar.

“What now?” he asked. He checked the campfires. They were nearly twenty yards away. He could see movement around them. Probably the people there had noticed the missing raft.

“Can you steer us back to shore, Skilling?” Ulf tried to hand him the punt. “We don't want to get too far. We'll give ourselves up.”

“To Boldor?”

“To Brand, most like,” said Torgrim. “We won't let Ragna live as a captive alone. Boldor would rather trade us all into servitude than to foresake anyone who trusted him. It would be different if Ragna was dead. We would mourn, of course. But we all understood that death was a risk we took when we left to form our kingdom.”

“You're just going to give up? Let go of your dream in order to be slaves together?”

“It sounds grim when you say it like that. But we don't have much choice.”

“You could fight.” Denario felt like an idiot for saying it. He knew it made him seem like the expert he wasn't. What would Vir have done in a situation like this?

“How?”

“We've got a few minutes to think of how.” He knew that Vir would have acted quickly, for sure. “You're stronger than any human, for one thing. I've seen you work. You've got a hammer and an axe. Too bad that Ulf has only his axe.”

“An axe is enough,” said Ulf. “If you show us the way, I'll fight.”

Sunday, October 7, 2018

A Nerd in a Warrior Culture - Twenty-One Chapters

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Thirty-Two Minus Thirty-One


Chapter Root Two Squared

Chapter Pi, Roughly 


Chapter Two Pair


Chapter Full Hand


Chapter Half Dozen


Chapter Fourth Prime


Chapter Two Cubed


Chapter Three Quarters of Twelve


Chapter Binary Two


Chapter Red, Green, Yellow


Chapter Square Root of Gross


Chapter Baker's Dozen


Chapter Pair of Sevens


Chapter Fifth Triangular Number


Chapter Twice Eight

Chapter Seventh Prime


Chapter Third Semiperfect


Chapter Normal Magic Hexagon


Chapter Score


Chapter Octagonal Number Three