Sunday, November 11, 2018

Not Even Not Zen 140: A Bandit Accountant, 23.5

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Smallest Non-Twin Prime

Scene Five: Getting a Feel for It

Jack directed his crews through the process of unhitching the raft train. He and Denario left the dwarfs on the Kilmun shore to keep watch on the captives. Although the caravan leader probably could have fled, he showed no signs of an attempt. Jack sighed as he poled away. Probably, he wished Brand would run off. It would be less trouble.

Meanwhile, the mallow craft, which was partly under Denario's power and totally under Jack's command, steered to a rough landing on an island in the creek. It wasn't much of an island. It was more of a sand bar full of grass, reeds, rocks, and a few examples of a single type of bush with long stalks. Unlike most other vegetation around, this place looked temperate. The weeds would have been at home anywhere.

“This is the stuff,” said Jack as he moored to a rock. For a moment, the accountant crouched down to the mixture of clay, conglomerates, shales, and quartz pebbles. The river master snorted. He cast his arm toward the plant life. “Not the rocks, Den. Look upslope. See those bushes? Our method depends on me finding these cat-tail things. Fortunately, they're here every time, no matter what else the magic does to the landscape.”

“Cat-tails are not usually bushes.” Denario pointed to a real cat-tail downslope, not the imitation at the crest of the sand. Two rows of actual cat-tails grew along the water's edge, about a dozen plants. “They're reeds like these.”

“Right. But it's the bushes that I mean. The stalks on them are longer. They haven't got much of a feather-tail on them but it's there. As plants, they might have another name, I suppose, among accountants or wizards. To me, they're cat-tail bushes. That's as they seemed to my father and his father before.”

“The stalks at the base must be fifteen feet long.” Denario walked to within touching distance of one. It was a tough-looking plant. He didn't want to brush up against it.

“About that much. Those gossamer strands you see at the ends make them longer than you think. They're as strong, too, and sharp. Be careful.”

“Careful how?” Denario squinted. The sun was bright and hot overhead.

“We're going to harvest these.” Jack pulled out the big knife from his waistband. He knelt to one of the flowering stems.

“What for? Is this like sedge? Are you going to weave something from them?”

“Almost. You've almost got it.” He sawed at the stem with the serrated edge.

“I have?” Denario glanced up the creek at the next hundred yards of wilderness ahead of them. He peeked over his shoulder at the two rafts in the clearing on the Kilmun side. The dwarfs stood calmly near them. Brand knelt in the center of the closest raft. He seemed to be talking with one of his wounded men.

“Have you ever seen a blind man walk?” asked Jack. That brought the accountant back to what they were doing. Jack finished sawing through the base of a stalk. He set his prize down where he'd cut it.

Denario rubbed his bearded chin. He pictured his home. “There are blind beggars in Oggli. The wealthy ones have friends to pull them around. The rest get long sticks and push them out in front.”

“That's exactly right. That's what I mean.” Jack swiveled to flash him a sly smile. He returned to his task.

“Oh no.” The image that came to Denario's head wasn't believable. “You can't possibly steer the rafts with these.”

“Not with them in my hands, no.”

“Oh.” Denario felt let down. It almost made sense for a moment.

“That's why I have a pair of these suits. I wear them.” Jack tossed down the second stalk. He dropped the knife beside it. Calmly, he reached to his shoulders and unstrapped the old, brown pack he'd brought along. Denario had wondered what was in it. His companion fiddled with the rawhide knots at the top. In about half a minute, he pulled out a thick, goatskin tunic. There were holes in it. At first, Denario thought it was a rag. But the pattern of holes was regular. "My father has a suit, too. I brought it. You can wear his.”

“You put the stalks through the holes?" Denario guessed. “You dress up like a porcupine?”

“More like a beetle. I've seen a few that travel their whole lives this way. They feel around for directions by means of quills.”

“But can you feel what's happening? You're not a beetle.”

“It's hard. I don't deny it. That's why my granddad came up with the idea of these suits. It's why I wear one. Inside, you see, are these pegs.”

Denario leaned forward. There were carved bone cups woven into the holes. Those were places for the stalks to fit, he saw. On the other side of the cups were rounded pegs. “That looks uncomfortable.”

“When a cat-tail quill gets hit hard, yes, it can hurt to have the peg press into your skin. But the rest of the time, it's comfy enough.”

“So when you're fifteen feet from shore, you feel the brush of it on one side of your body.”

“A gentle caress.”

“You must punt away to starboard when you feel the riverbank to port.” He gazed at the Mundredi side of the creek. Soon there would be no Mundredi or Kilmun sides, he supposed, only Ogglian peasants. The forgotten temple acted as a divider between the lands of the invaders and those of the established settlers to the southeast.

“Usually. Sometimes I like to stay close to the banks if I feel the water is strange. Or maybe I want to stop for a break. Then I'll head for the shallows.”

“Do you take off your blindfold to eat?”

“Yes, it's safe enough when we're not going anywhere. If we try to think too hard about where we're going with our eyes open, bad things happen. Some people forget how to see. If you get to that point, close your eyes and give a shout.”

“This is some weird magic, Jack.” Denario sighed.

“It is. But this way of charting reminds me of my school lessons in geometry when I was a boy. It should seem familiar to you.”

“It does. It's brilliant.”

“Glad to hear it. Put on the suit.”


Sunday, November 4, 2018

Not Even Not Zen 139: A Bandit Accountant, 23.4

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Smallest Non-Twin Prime

Scene Four: Swearing

“You're feverish.” Ragna wiped Denario's brow.

“It's not bad.” The accountant pulled out his most ragged hat. It had been over-used when he got it and it had grown thin enough for him to see his fingers through the cloth. Its linen had grown soft. He used it to mop the sweat from around his ears.

“I've done what I can.” The dwarf screwed a lid onto a jar of smelly oils. Denario tried to remember the last time he'd seen a screw-on top to anything. It had probably been in Ziegeburg. “The flesh looks healthy enough, Denario. But it's going to scar.”

“It'll match the other arm, then.” If that was going to be the worst of it, he was lucky. He'd gotten the sweats but he still felt good. He stuffed his rag back in his pocket.

At the tiller, Torgrim kept the raft steady. Denario took a moment to survey the landscape. On the Mundredi side of the creek, the underbrush looked like the diagrams that wizards drew of vegetation on tropical islands. On the Kilmun side, the rafts passed row after row of spaghetti trees. Denario was amazed that anyone could be stubborn enough to build an orchard here, let alone a large one that implied generations of hard labor. Someone's great-grandfather had arrived, put his hands on his hips, and said, 'This looks like home.' Despite the heavy magic, possibly because of it, the settlers had prospered by harvesting magical pasta.

Within an hour, the sun grew bright enough to dry Denario’s wound. The scabs hardened on his arm. Medicinal oils baked into his skin. He poled for a while, handed over the duty to Borghild, switched to a wider hat, and changed into a clean undershirt before he re-donned his dwarf-tailored hauberk. Although he'd stopped wearing his mail shirt, he needed some sort of armor. Without it, he felt like he was the easiest target on board.

They took lunch on the creek because there was no good place to stop. After their meal, word came back from the lead raft that it was time to pass out blindfolds.

“Are you sure about this?” Torgrim asked him. He nodded to the other dwarfs as they cut strips of cheap cloth.

“No,” Denario replied. “But Jack comes and goes through here as much as five times a year if the creek is fast. He must know something.”

He picked up an oar. The water had gotten too deep for a pole, even on the Kilmun side where it should have been shallow. The accountant glanced over a row of tied-down packages to spy on Brand, who was lying in the shade. He knew he should either drag the caravan leader to the gunwhales and over the side, which might be beyond his strength no matter what he'd said, or he should make certain that Brand wouldn't break free to kill them all.

The dwarf Borghild had stopped poling. There was no point. So he got the duty of blindfolding Brand. He strode the middle aisle, cloth held high. Perhaps out of a sense of politeness, he paused to wave the cloth for a moment so that the caravan captain could wake and see. Then he crouched down to tie it around the man's eyes.

Despite Borghild's attempt at politeness, Brand seemed surprised. He woke to the blindfold as it went on and immediately fought against it. He shook his head from side to side. He thrashed. When his eyes were clear, he swiveled on his left hip and aimed a double-legged kick at his captor. It knocked Borghild over.

A second later, Brand swung around and kicked at nothing. Denario didn't understand it at first. But with a further whip of his body, Brand popped to his feet.

Denario scrambled forward, oar in his hands. He had to lean across the packages as he took his swing. The bigger man saw it coming. The whites of his eyes grew large. He ducked. The blade of the oar bumped his shoulder. Denario reared back to try again. But just then he saw that the caravan captain had his hands free. That was an unpleasant surprise. He would have sworn there was no way to undo those knots. The dwarfs were so careful. Yet Brand had managed. All he had to do now was unwind the loops, which he was doing as he moved.

The accountant's second swing met Brand's arms as they rose up. Brand still had his left arm wrapped and he used that to block the oar. Despite the thick layer of jute for protection, he howled in pain. At the same time, Borghild rose to his feet. One thing everyone had learned from the night before was that a human couldn't out-wrestle a dwarf. Brand had compared them to the Chim Pan-Zee people, who were short and strong but who were savages on the islands of the Complacent Sea, bereft of tools or language.

Brand blinked at Borghild, then turned to flee. Denario hopped over a box of dried meats to follow. It was awkward. He lost the oar. The oar tripped the dwarf, who fell again, cursing. Fortunately, Brand had his ankles tied. He could barely move. Denario caught him at the corner of the middle aisle.

Denario swung his fist. Brand dodged and rolled over a crate into the outer aisle of the raft.

“Damn it!” A moment later, the account vaulted to the outer aisle.

This time, he chased Brand down before the man reached the next corner. He hit Brand with a flying tackle, shoulder to shoulder, as the larger fellow paused to try in vain to undo the knotted rope around his legs. It was reassuring that the bigger man made a 'woof' sound when Denario hit.

The accountant kept driving forward with his legs. He figured that if he could knock Brand down, the dwarfs could come to his rescue. But Brand wouldn't cooperate. He was too strong. Even with his feet tied, he managed to keep hopping backwards instead of toppling over. All Denario could do was persist. He pushed harder, legs churning on the deck. He drove the fellow right up to the gunwhales. Even with the beams there to trip him, Brand refused to go down. In frustration, Denario decided to push the man overboard. As luck would have it, there was a dark shape in the water right behind Brand. Maybe it would all work out.

“No!” Brand yelled. He saw what was coming. He dug his heels against the gunwhales. But Denario had momentum on his side. He finished his thrust. The big man toppled. His arms flailed.

At that moment, Borghild leaped over a barrel and grabbed the caravan captain by his left arm.

“What are you doing?” Denario gasped. It had taken all of his energy to get this far. He took a deep breath. From the other side of the barrel, he pushed on Brand's body.

“You can't kill him!” the dwarf shouted.

“I can if you stop helping him!”

“Ragna!” Borghild cried. Denario was surprised to hear the dwarf sound desperate. “Help me! Hold back Skilling!”

“Ragna!” Denario pleaded over his shoulder. He didn't know where the heavy dwarf was but he hoped it wasn't too close. “Look at what happened. Brand got out of his ropes. We have to toss him over.”

He heard footsteps. The accountant craned his neck to see the dwarf in the heavy, brown tunic. Ragna stomped up the aisle towards Denario.

“Please, Ragna,” he said.

His plea was drowned out, though, by Brand. The caravan captain and murderer had gotten a closer look at the shadow in the water below him. He bellowed. His legs trembled. Between his strength and Borghild's, he had gotten a firm toehold. He inched back into the boat despite Denario's best efforts.

When Ragna arrived, Denario thought it was all over. He almost stopped pushing. But instead of plucking the accountant out of the struggle, Ragna reached past to push on Brand's leg. That stopped the progress that Borghild and Brand had made.

“Ragna, no!”

“Yes!” Denario felt a renewed strength. “One more shove!"

He'd thought it would take only one more. But he was working on his second shove even as he finished the words. The force he could bring to bear didn't match anyone else's.

“Ragna!” Borghild cried again.

“Please,” said Brand. He looked directly into Ragna's eyes. That made the dwarf hesitate.

“Torgrim! Jofrid!” Borghild seized the moment. “Drop the oars. Come here!"

“But I'm steering!” called Torgrim. His spot at the tiller was hidden by tall crates.

“Ragna and Skilling are trying to kill Brand!”

“But ...” The tiller oar hit the deck with a clatter. Jofrid, who had been sleeping in plain view, jumped up. He started the wrong direction, turned to see what was going on, and corrected course.

“Come!”

A moment later, all five of them, Denario, Ragna, Jofrid, Borghild, and Torgrim clustered together. And each of them push or pulled on Brand, who still hung over the gunwhales. He tried to get his second arm over to Borghild but thankfully, he couldn't with Jofrid blocking him. The thing in the water below him had surfaced to reveal the head of a snapping turtle or something similar in shape. The main difference was that it was overlarge. Its body seemed to be a third of the size of the raft. The creature looked capable of biting an alligator in half.

Denario pushed harder. The thing might take care of Brand even if the man couldn't be pushed into the water.

“Accountant, why?” Torgrim asked.

“Because we can't trust him!” Denario yelled.

“I'll swear!” volunteered Brand.

Denario backed up a step and lunged. But even after the hard shove, he was afraid that he and Ragna were losing. Brand was tilting in the wrong direction. That was happening because of Torgrim and Jofrid. The smithy had joined Ragna in pushing. Torgrim, however, had decided to pull and he'd gotten a grip on Brand's trouser leg. The only hope Denario had was the expression on Torgrim's face, which was a conflicted one. He didn't really want to rescue Brand.

“No!” Denario shouted at Brand.

“Swear what?” Torgrim asked.

“Don't listen!” shouted Ragna and Jofrid.

“Anything you want!” said Brand.

“His word's not worth anything,” counseled Denario. He gasped for breath. He backed up and tried again.

“Will you swear not to escape?”

“Yes.”

“No!” Denario knew he was losing. He tried a different tactic. Reaching over the crate, he put his hand on Borghild's face and pushed. That gave him more leverage. “It's not enough.”

“What more?” Torgrim asked.

“Anything at all,” Brand answered.

“Anything the accountant decides?”

“The accountant?” Even hanging over the edge, Brand had to think about that for a moment. He must have sensed that he'd hurt Denario's feelings. Probably it was the way Denario was trying to kill him. “As long as he doesn't have me swear to jump into the jaws of a beast.”

“Everybody stop,” Torgrim announced. To emphasize his point, he stilled his own body. “Swear the oaths right now and I'll pull you to safety. Don't, and I'll help Ragna and Skilling.”

The struggle quieted. Denario had already lost. On his side, Ragna was doing most of the work. He was overmatched by Borghild but together, they had no trouble keeping Brand suspended above the water. Jofrid and Torgrim didn't have room to maneuver so they didn't have much effect.

“First, you have to swear not to try to escape,” said Torgrim.

“I swear,” intoned Brand seriously. Denario didn't trust it at all.

“Not enough!” He raised his hands as if he were going to push again but he stopped himself. They were in a truce situation. Besides, he couldn't win. “Swear to fight on the side of the dwarfs.”

“What dwarfs? Every one here?”

“Every dwarf on this raft, every dwarf allied with Boldor, and every dwarf you meet by chance. All of them. Really all.”

“All right, I swear. I'll harm no dwarf. I'll fight on their side. All of them.” Brand said it easily. He seemed to know that he'd never meet another dwarf aside from these.

“You'll take no slaves, neither dwarf nor human.”

“What have you got against my business?”

“Swear.”

“Slavery is a tenth of my enterprise. I can't promise anything like that!”

“If you don't swear, I'll go and grab my sword.” Denario was ready to hack this slaver to pieces. His fingers itched for it. “They may pull you back onto the deck but it won't do you any damn good.”

“Do you hear him?” Brand turned to Borghild and Torgrim. “He's crazy.”

“Swear,” said Torgrim.

“Right, no slaves,” said Borghild. He had the best grip. He shook the man. “Swear.”

“You're serious?” After he finished rattling, Brand looked around for sympathy. He saw none. Behind the raft, the giant snapping turtle head appeared. The creature seemed confused for a moment by the presence of the trailing raft although it must have known about it from its visit before. It searched for the low-hanging animal it had noticed. When it turned and saw Brand, it opened its jaws. It started paddling toward the middle raft. “Oh, come on! I swear! Pull me in! Pull me in!”

“Swear to follow orders until we release you.” Denario had resigned himself to Brand's rescue but he was in no hurry.

“Will you release me? Pull, damn it!”

Denario considered the question. “I'll swear. I'm sure that Jack would never sell you off as a slave or abandon you if he had no need, but if he does, I'll gainsay him.”

“Then I swear, too! Of course! I'll follow orders! Pull!”

The beast was a slow swimmer. But when it made its final move, it proved faster and bigger than Denario had realized. He tried to pull. With the dwarfs helping, he brought Brand's outstretched form upright. They all leaped backwards when the giant turtle head rose. The monster had a long neck. As a group, they brought Brand into the boat so fast that he tumbled face-first onto the boards. Everyone else fell backwards. Then they scrambled away from the maw of the creature.

The beady, dark eyes followed Brand. There was a snap, followed by a crunching sound. The mighty beak gouged a chunk out of the oak beam next to Brand. It had missed. Even stunned by his fall, Brand was fast enough to dodge. The beast chewed the wood and spat it out. It turned its head sideways and glared at the passengers on deck with one eye. Then it sank back into the water.

Denario heard a rippling sound. Currents swept around the brown-green body as the creature dove under. A shadow moved off toward the Kilmun side of the creek. It grew fainter as it dove farther down. In a moment, it faded entirely.

“Well, that was interesting.”

Denario turned to see Jack Lasker standing on the far corner of the deck.

“How long have you been aboard?” He picked himself off of the flooring and plucked a splinter out of his trousers.

“Long enough to keep the raft from tipping.”

“Really?” Denario had thought of the possibility but not seriously. “I figured the weight of the packages would hold us level.”

“That helped. And my rafts don't tip. There was nothing in the water for the raft to hit. I thought a big rock was the only thing that could have done the job and, even then, not with you on the corner, only if you all moved to the starboard side. But as it turned out, that beast lifted up one side of the raft a few inches as it leaned over. That’s even with my weight on the opposite.”

Denario gazed around the deck at the jugs, crates, boxes, and barrels tied down in rows. They totaled over one thousand five hundred pounds of material, he estimated. To tilt them, even with the help of the men and dwarfs foolishly collected at one spot on the raft, the monster had to be of comparable weight.

He scanned the waters. The rafts floated through another twisty bend in the creek, much like the last one and the one before that.

“It was pretty big," he said with his eyes on the spot where the creature had disappeared. "Have you ever seen something like it before?”

“No. But I've had the sense not to dangle bait over the water.”

“Ah, well, that wasn't something I’d intended.”

“It was good, though. You're not the strongest warrior but you train. You have good reactions. It's a pity the dwarfs stopped you. But maybe Brand will be useful now that he's sworn to follow your orders. Who knows?”

Denario must have rolled his eyes. Jack put his hands on his hips and grinned.

“I'm going to talk to him now. One of his men has caught a fever. I'm inclined to let Brand visit him if only to lift that fellow's spirits.”

“In that case, I'll need to have further talk with him myself.” This was exactly the kind of thing he'd always been bad at. Even when it came to his apprentices who weren't tough killers, Curo had always been there to help keep things in order.

Denario forced himself. After listening to the discussion about Brand's freedom and his sick men, the accountant sat down with the dangerous fellow. He made Brand swear all over again, repeating each word formally. It took twenty minutes at the least. The dwarfs, one by one, stopped by to listen in and offer suggestions. They loved formal logic in their math lessons and they enjoyed hearing it in oaths, too.

“Yes, I swear,” Brand finished. He raised his right arm. “I'll follow your orders. Yes, Jack's too, if I must.”

“Very well. Now I'll free your legs.” It seemed the height of insanity. Would he need to tie the fellow up at night? But Brand had sworn to harm no one and to follow orders. Anyway, he'd proved that he could escape. They were going to have to kill him or trust him.

“But you're still going to blindfold me,” Brand said accusingly.

“We're all going to be blindfolded,” Denario replied. He glanced to Jack for confirmation. “And for all of that, you'll still have your hands free.”

“If you take off the blindfold, the blame for your death is on you,” said Jack. “It won't be by my hand. I only know that anyone who tries to sail by the temple with eyes open either dies or gets lost.”

“That's your secret?” Brand asked.

“Part of it.” Jack turned to Denario. He folded his arms across his chest. “You, Den, ought to know some of the rest. But only you. We've got an extra raft and many passengers. I think someone else ought to know understand how to proceed.”

“Under what circumstances? You'll come through fine. You always do.”

“I've had rafts get separated before. Wouldn't you like to stand a chance of staying alive for a while if that happens?”

“Go, accountant,” said Brand. He waved his free arms grandly. “By all means.”