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.

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