Sunday, January 20, 2019

Not Even Not Zen 150: A Bandit Accountant, 25.3

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Right Hypotenuse Squared

Scene Three: Return in Time

“You look sad,” said the priest. “And tired. It's been two days awake for you, hasn't it?”

“Yes, most of that.” He felt drawn out. His fingers kept rising to rub around his eye sockets.

“Ruffina looks fine.” The large man leaned to one side. He peered into the chapel, where the feathers had almost disappeared but not quite. “But you?”

“You're asking?”

The priest shrugged. “Some men take it badly.”

“I thought I was betrothed.” Denario forced himself to stop rubbing his eye.

“You still are. What the gods did with your bodies was done in holiness. You are innocent.”

“No.” He couldn't explain. He wasn't as innocent as all that. “I'm sure you're right about the godly part but no, I'm different. My betrothal is undone. It has been for a while but I didn't realize.”

“Well, it takes some men that way, too.” He didn't seem too put out by the idea. Perhaps he had a limited vision of the type of women who could be betrothed to men wandering the wilderness. “Are you fit to walk?”

“I could manage some speed if it’s needed.”

“If you want to see your friends on those boats again, it is.” The bigger man hiked up the rope he used as a sash around his waist. “Ruffina took you through the spiral path for a reason. That reason was so that she could take you back to where you started.”

“She can do that?” Denario mentally revised his idea of a timeline. He would have to write about this in his accounting log.

“Not now. But only because she's too … tired.” Seigfried seemed on the verge of saying something else, perhaps that Ruffina was too old. He stared down at the dirt for a moment. When his gaze lifted, he waved a thick arm toward the door.

“Come on,” he said. He marched out through the rooms into the main courtyard, the one with the garden that Denario had visited on the way in. He wandered through the green shoots and purple flowers until he paused and dug a hole in the soil with the back of his sandal. “We'll start here.”

The priest set a leisurely pace on a path that was roughly, but not exactly, backwards from how Denario had arrived. They took a lot of the same twists and turns but reversed. They passed among the tallest flowers of the season. They skirted the fringe of small, yellow blooms at the edge of the courtyard.

Together, they climbed the first rise as the sun set over the western horizon. Denario turned to say a silent goodbye to the white walls of quartz. Disconcertingly, they glowed orange in the afternoon light. Next down the path, they passed gardens, some of them gone wild. The accountant gazed over a chunk of milky rock as big as his arm. It was followed by a burst of soft, fat wildflowers. The brightness of the temple clearings gave way to duskiness in the forest canopy. Birches gave way to oaks. Grass dropped to stubble. Soon, there was no grass, all of it replaced by ferns and creeping vines. The ground beneath his boots was damp. The air felt heavy.

Siegfried started to get far ahead. Denario worried and doubled his pace.

The priest swerved right. Shadows moved with him. The priest swerved again. A ray of sunlight shifted from one broad shoulder to the next. The more winding the path Siegried chose, the faster the roots and plants seemed to shift. They walked between rows of stunted juniper bushes and sunlight burst through from overhead. The sun looked higher and whiter than at the start of their journey only minutes ago. Soon they passed the clearing into dense underbrush. Denario felt encouraged by the change.

In time, thick boughs overhead gave way to shafts of light between thinner trees, ash and birch. The roots that gnarled the ground looked smoother. The rocks they turned up were shale.

When the shadows changed again, Denario could smell the water. He could hear it, too, a rush in the distance. A river bird squawked on a branch overhead. They had come to within thirty yards of No Map Creek.

Seigfried raised a hand. The accountant paused.

“This is as far as I go.” The priest nodded to himself.

Denario reached out. He didn't know the other man well. Hardly at all, in fact. But he gripped the fellow's outstretched arm. When he turned his attention to the path in front of him, he let go. Seigfried stepped back along the trail the way he'd come. The shadows shifted.

The no-mapping spell slammed down on Denario's mind with force. He'd gone without it for so long that, perhaps like Seigfried, he'd taken his ability to find his way for granted. What started as a thrill of fear, a sense of being lost, grew into vertigo. He wobbled. His memory reached back to his childhood on the Paravientri docks, where the sailors described 'finding their land legs' or the reverse, enduring their nausea from sea-sickness. The ground wasn't moving but, for a few seconds, Denario felt that it was.

He snatched at the branch of an ash sapling and clung on. It steadied him. He couldn't cast his spell to blank out other spells. The idea certainly occurred to him. But his oath to Ruffina removed the option. Instead, he closed his eyes. He listened.

In a moment, his vertigo eased. He peeked at the ground beneath his boots. His left foot slid forward, then his right. He eased through a gap between bushes. He closed his eyes and listened. He opened them and stepped in the direction of the water. There seemed to be a sandy trail through the rocks. Likely enough, he couldn't go far wrong. For a few more yards, he crept forward. He heard a slap against the water. It sounded as if someone had tossed a rope into the creek.

“Jack?” he called. “Boldor?”

Another three steps took him through trees and scrub. He found himself looking downslope at grayish mud and yellow weeds. Beyond that lay sand, rocks, and water. On a dappled rock stood a short person in a white shirt and leather vest. It was Dodni. The thin-bearded dwarf faced the accountant. It took a moment for Dodni to really see Denario. When he did, his eyes widened. His mouth opened. His fingers began to shake.

“Skilling!” he shouted. He pointed. Then he turned to the dwarfs near him as he stepped from the rock and out of Denario's sight. “I saw Skilling!”

Denario trod down the rocky incline toward the water. He heard voices as he approached, most of them the rumbling and raspy tones of the dwarfs. For the moment, he didn't have to think about where he was going. His feet carried him toward his companions. The other members of the rafting crews, however, seemed to have considerable doubts about coming out to meet him. At least one of the dwarfs didn't believe Dodni and repeated, “Skilling's lost. Skilling's lost.” Brand agreed, although not with the sort of contempt Denario was accustomed to hearing.

“Can't see how he'd get away from the witch,” grumbled the privateer.

“Must have,” Dodni insisted.

“But then he would be confused by the anti-mapping spells.” The observation was made in calm tones. It was Clever Jack.

“Aren't the best accountants also magicians of some stripe?”

“Just with math.”

“That must be it.”

“If you dwarfs have a mind to go looking, we should tie up.” Brand shook something. It sounded wet. “It'll be a lot of rope work. Can it wait until I get dry?”

“Certainly not.”

“What if it's trap?” said one of Brand's men.

At this point, Denario pushed aside a thicket of weeds. He found himself staring at the backs of three men and the fronts of eight dwarfs, none of them more than eleven yards away. The long dwarf beards flapped in a breeze that swept along the stream. They seemed to be in odd states of dress, some of them half in armor, most not. Dodni's brother Heilgar looked like he was wearing a skullcap although, actually, he wasn't. He'd gotten drenched and his hair was matted. His beard dripped.

Dodni raised his arm to point. Another dwarf, Borghild, put a hand to his axe. He froze, trembling, as he stared at the accountant. Boldor and Torgrim noticed. One by one, the men turned around.

Denario stepped through the weeds and onto the stretch of sand and rocks that passed for a beachhead. Jack Lasker, the rearmost man, raised his punt as if to defend himself. He let it clatter to the stones a moment later. He sprinted two skips, a leap over a puddle, and took three more strides to meet Denario on the sands by the creek side.

“Oof.”

Jack knocked Denario sideways with a hug. The accountant hesitated before he realized he needed to return the gesture. In a moment, they were slapping each other on the back.

“How did you know I was real?” he asked.

“Who cares? Are you?” Jack said as the dwarfs and the other men scrambled to catch up. In a moment, they surrounded the accountant. Everyone touched him, some on the shoulders, some on the hauberk over his chest, others on the handles of the tools in his belt, a dwarfish gesture, and two of Brand's men touched his hair. All in all, it felt like everyone had to make sure of him.

“How long have I been gone?” He caught Boldor's gaze.

“It was not quick,” the dwarf chief said. He rubbed his beard.

“At least half of an hour,” said Dodni.

“Your hair is different.” Jack had a keen eye. “You've got something in it, too. Feathers? Goose down?”

“More than a day passed for me.” He calculated. “About twenty-eight hours, I think.”

That gave him space. The crowd stepped back except for Clever Jack, Dodni, and Boldor. Dodni stepped forward, actually, and touched the accountant on his arm.

“The witch?”

“Yes.”

“Are you harmed?”

“Changed. Not harmed, I think.” He found himself with his left hand over his chest. That was where he felt different, in his heartbeat and in his breath. A picture came to his mind of the floating lights of the temple, that peek he’d had of the inside of human bodies, and how he'd seen a human heart throbbing like a mechanical pump. How could his blood be connected to his breathing? It made no sense. He shook his head, convinced he would never understand more than a fraction of what he had witnessed. A small, white feather floated down from his hair to his nose.

“Did you see magic?”

“I saw strange things,” he decided. “The visions came to me with math, so I wrote them down. But I'll have to think for a while before I talk about them. They may be holy.”

The dwarfs, except for Bolder and Dodni, made the knocking motions over their heads, hearts, and shoulders that Denario had come to understand as signs of their superstition. They refused to talk about the gestures directly but Torgrim had once mentioned, by way of an explanation, that his people lived in darkness. They bore witness to creatures of shadow that humans never knew. Knocking on things was a way one dwarf could signal to all of the others.

“There's a bit more to write down,” Denario said. “Before we go. Before I eat, even. I don't want to forget.”

“Hah!” Boldor thumped his stomach as he laughed.

“We missed you, Skilling.” Borghild, Ulf, and Torgrim stepped closer. They touched the axes at their belts. Then they tapped his tool pouch and his baselard.

“Well, damn me,” Brand interjected. “All he did was get taken away. And escape, I suppose.”

“What of it?” Ulf squinted at the former caravan leader.

“You're shedding tears over him!”

The former caravan leader and probable pirate stamped his right boot. His arms rose. His fingers curled.

“That's right and proper for a comrade,” said Boldor. He stepped forward. “Are you saying that it's some kind of weakness? You're wrong, Brand. Entirely wrong.”

“Well, it’s not what I meant, not exactly.” Brand wiped his brow. His broad-rimmed hat was missing. Possibly that was connected with how wet and sweaty he'd become. A drop rolled down the side of his face. His arms fell to his sides. “But it's different. I haven't seen anything like it in … well, a long while.”

“Why are you wet, Brand?” Denario asked.

“Ulf fell into the creek,” the taller man grumbled. A scowl cast a shadow over his eyes. “I went in after him.”

“To the rescue?” Denario paused to try to picture the incident. Brand had quick reactions, true, but he'd never stuck his neck out for anyone. “It isn't what I'd expect.”

“You got that right,” murmured Clever Jack.

“Probably the oaths he took,” grumbled Boldor.

“All the same,” said Jack. He nodded to Brand as if it were the correct thing, a job well done. And it had been, as out of place as it seemed.

Although Denario had been informed that he'd arrived soon after he'd left, he knew it wasn't true. He'd told the others that he hadn't been magically changed but he was pretty sure that was also not correct. The smell of the water, slow but clear, seemed natural, as if the background magic no longer burned his senses. He felt no itch to weave a spell. The stink of Brand next to him, covered in algae and silt, no longer felt threatening, the way it had done when he'd left the group. The man was a danger but he felt like a very predictable one.

Denario glanced to a branch overhanging the creek. A flying frog had landed on it. The leaf-covered twig wavered under the extra weight. Not long ago, the accountant would have been frightened. At best he would have regarded it as an evil omen. Now it was just a frog. He hadn't returned from the temple quite the same person as he'd left.

“Yes, well done.” This time, Denario took a calmer look at Brand.

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