Chapter Four Factorial
Scene Two: Not Playing DumbThe grateful dwarfs grabbed boxes of food, blankets, and everything else needed for an overnight camp. Brand didn't have any possessions. He pitched in by lugging the crate of dry firewood. So did his man in the foremost raft. Their friend, the third captive, hadn't died yet but he needed two dwarfs to lift him over the gunwhales to shore. If he survived, he would be a cripple.
Everyone seemed glad to get off of the water and have the chance to relax on dry land. No doubt the lack of blindfolds helped the mood. However, Jofnir's assistant blacksmith got lost not thirty feet into the woods as he searched for deadfall branches to add to the fires. He had to call for rescue. It was a reminder that the anti-mapping curse remained. However, the other dwarfs laughed. They felt confident, protected by Jack's expertise. Dodni tied a rope around his waist, gave the other end to Boldor, and had no trouble bringing the fellow back.
“This is a beautiful spot, Jack,” said Boldor after he handed the rope to a lesser-ranking dwarf to coil. “There are lots of rocks. At night, we might forget we’re on the surface.”
“I was surprised that you picked the Mundredi side,” Denario added. “There's more magic here, right?”
“There is,” Jack admitted. He threw up an arm in apparent exasperation. “I tried the other bank as many times as I could. There was barely a place for one raft over there, let alone three in a line.”
“We’re a large crew. Are we the most you've taken through the heart of the magic?”
“A couple of years back, I quick-lashed four rafts together and took a caravan through when their donkeys fell ill. That was when I enlarged my house. I was stinking rich for a year.”
The riverman was content to let the dwarfs and the caravan men set camp. He knelt to his cooking utensils. As he prepared food from his stores and divvied out more for his passengers, he talked about other caravans he'd taken down the creek, the rafters and traders of his father's time, the gangs of rivermen farther south where the No Map met the Riggle Kill, and the dangers posed by those gangs. His father stayed home nowadays but he still paid a yearly bribe, called a membership, to the River Guild. In theory, it protected the Lasker family from everyone else on the lakes, creeks and rivers. In practice, it only protected Jack from being robbed or killed by other members of the River Guild.
“But that's not nothing,” Jack allowed. It was good to travel the water without worrying that other rafts would try to sink him. The style of bargaining employed reminded Denario of how the guilds in Oggli worked. He'd forgotten the use of force because Master Winkel had never exerted any on behalf of the accountants. Most other guilds did.
“Oupenli welcomes travelers, especially those with money,” Jack drawled. “But an open city is a lawless one. The free lances duel with one another. They battle the local knights on the borders. Guilds make war on one another and on everyone else. Even wizards fight. That's always horrible. They’re careless of the bystanders. You'll know when it's happening because everyone starts running.”
“I've heard about those,” said Denario. He noticed that Dodni and Dodni's brother Heilgar had come to take their share of food. They slowed to overhear. “The Ogglie College of Wizardry regulates things back home. But they say that the wizards in Oupenli won't listen. So Oupenli is lawless even with regard to magic.”
“When the wizards aren't fighting, they work,” continued Jack, “That's plenty bad by itself. These aren't college layabouts. They have no guild to regulate them, so they set off spells as they please. Stray magic gets everywhere. You can walk by a chimney that's billowing purple smoke and suddenly you're a chicken.”
“You make it sound like a wild place. But your family lives there.” He kept his eye on the dwarfs. He didn't want them to get too alarmed. Boldor's eyebrows were up. Dodni's expression looked carefully bland. “Lots of families do. And they raise children. It can't be too bad. Anyway, I've visited five times. Nothing bad ever happened to me and I stayed overnight each time.”
“It's one of the nicest places on earth if you're rich.” Jack noticed the three dwarfs around them. He nodded to acknowledge the new arrivals. “Accountants nearly are, Denario, so you have a rich man's perspective. My grand-dad made his fortune on the No Map, bought a winter home on the Riggle Kill near Oupenli and always said that he loved the place. My father got even richer and decided he liked it too. He moved there permanently. Like he says, there's no lord to tell you what to do. You don't have to live in the countryside, hiding from a tyrant who wants to claim the fruits of your work. You get a real city with trained doctors and wealth all around. But there's no lord's police force, either. Each guild has their own police. Each knight or wealthy merchant has theirs. If you can't afford protection, you don't want anyone to figure that out.”
“I see. So I was shielded by the coachman's guild.”
“Yes, and their allied guilds. You'll be protected by the riverman's guild this time. That's plenty. They're allies with the caravaners and others. I'll give you their token. The accounting guild doesn't offer any protection that I've heard.”
“My old master had an arrangement with the bank wizards.”
“With wizards? Really? Well, they have more than enough power when they're paying attention. But they aren't reliable. It seems odd that your master trusted them.”
“He didn't. We kept a close eye on the bank wizards. Always, he suspected they were cheating. Sometimes the wizards hired accountants to check on other wizards, too. Those jobs were the worst. If you got caught, you might end up as a creature that can't talk. But the jobs paid well, often in gold. Winkel took one of them when he was young and lived to get all of the money.”
“In gold?” blurted Heilgar. That got him an elbow in the side from Dodni.
“Not magical gold? The real thing?”
“Hardly any accountants get to see real gold. But I have seen it. Yes, his pay was in the true metal. There were five pieces, technically, although one was small, almost like an eighth-piece. But because it was gold, the wizards wanted to buy it back from my master.”
“Of course.” Heilgar and Dodni both nodded as if it confirmed something.
“Winkel let them buy back four pieces with silver and gems. But he decided to keep one gold coin in the bank. He went to check it regularly to make sure the bank wizard hadn't tried to substitute magical gold. He brought ways to test it.” Fortunately, the city bankers had tremendous respect for Winkel. He had audited many of them. If they had methods to cheat, they didn't want to use them unless they were sure they'd fool not only the accountants but other bank wizards who worked with Winkel.
“So he didn't trust wizards.”
“No.” Denario scratched his head. He mused, “Even other wizards don't trust wizards.”
“Have you been doing your numero stuff again? That’s a part of accounting I don't quite trust.”
“Oh.” It took Denario a moment to understand but when he did, his face grew warm. “What makes you ask?”
“You look a little ...”
A great cat's roar drowned out the riverman's words. Jack, Boldor, and Dodni turned to look over Denario's right shoulder. For a moment, Denario froze. The rest of dwarfs, one by one, turned to look. Brand did, too. His eyes widened.
Denario put his hand on the pommel of his sword. He started to draw as he swiveled toward whatever it was. But he saw no cat. He saw no animal at all. Was it crouched in the rocks and scrub? As he studied the rise of the riverbank, an old woman stepped out from behind a tree upslope. She took two steps and planted one withered, sandaled foot onto a boulder.
The woman carried a gray bag in her right hand. Her robe looked thick, uncomfortable, and tattered. The pointed hood of her robe fell from her head to her shoulders. It revealed a wild mane of silvery hair. In her left fist, she clutched a walking stick, a knobbly piece of hickory. Her left forearm looked as tough as the wood. All in all, she looked like a witch or hag. She might as well have worn a sign around her neck saying so. The poor woman probably had been normal once. The years had seasoned her skin like wrinkled leather. Her arms rippled with hard sinew.
For a moment, the setting sun behind her seemed to cast a fiery aura on her robes. That was when Denario became sure there was something magical about her.
“Haaaalt!” she cried. She passed her fingers through the air.
The accountant felt the pressure of magic. It didn't stop him the way Tim the Magnificent had done but he knew he was dealing with a person of power. That was enough to keep him from drawing his baselard. He was too far away and anyway, it felt wrong to draw it on an old woman, however stern she appeared.
She hissed. Denario glanced at Jack, who had moved backwards toward his rafts. The man had acquired a punt. But he froze rather than continue with whatever he was doing.
“You should not be in these lands,” the hag croaked.
“Right,” Boldor spoke up. “Well, if we're not wanted ...”
Behind and to Denario's right, Jack took another step backwards. A move from the weathered hag stopped him, whether it was her magic or simply intimidation, Denario couldn't tell.
“What are you doing here?” The blue-grey eyes darted from person to person. She seemed to be speaking to all of them. But after a moment, her focus snapped on Denario. She gave him an assessing look. Denario could swear he saw the math and geometry going on behind her eyes.
She muttered. The air shook.
“Eh?” said Brand.
She mumbled some more. Denario felt the hairs on his arms stand up. This was a magical language she was using. She was casting.
With a wave of her hand, she dismissed the spell he'd made. He could feel it. His hex was gone.
“Aha.” She cackled. With a spry hop, she landed forward off of the boulder. She closed in on Denario with four long strides. “You were blanking. Is that something you cast? Or are you traveling the creek with a charm in your possession?”
Denario gawked. She was a horrible, little anti-grandmother, shorter than even he was, and an archetype for a relative he'd never had and didn't want. He glanced over to Jack for help. Jack was staring at him.
“No speak the language,” he said in his worst Paraveni. Maybe he could play ignorant and she'd go away.
“You don't know modern tongue?” she put her hands on her hips, vexed. She switched to another language. “That doesn't seem right. Do you know Ogglian? If not that, you should have some Old Tongue.”
“No speak the language,” he insisted in Paraveni. It was working.
“What the hell are you saying?” asked one of Brand's men, Shmurter. He was the thick-chested man in studded armor, the one who could stand on both legs. Brand kicked Shmurter but it was too late.
The hag's lips clamped down hard. Her gaze narrowed on the accountant.
“You do speak modern,” she growled. “Of course. You all do. The dwarfs fooled me for a moment. And someone else. Someone is fooling around.”
She peered at him closer. “Melcurio, you naughty boy. You can't stop playing tricks, can you?”
“Madam,” he continued in Paraveni. “I am a humble accountant, not Melcurio.”
“I understood that,” she snapped. “It's one of those sailor languages. And you're here as the god of tricks whether you know it or not. I can feel it.”
“Really,” he said in Ogglian. “I'm not.”
“Hush. You will come with me.”
Next: Chapter Twenty-Four, Scene Three