Sunday, January 27, 2019

Not Even Not Zen 151: A Bandit Accountant, 25.4

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Right Hypotenuse Squared

Scene Four: Barking Up the Right Tree

“It's a bit early,” said Jack. In the front raft, he raised his blindfold. Denario saw him do it. He watched the boatmaster blink and noticed him rub his balding head. The accountant had already removed his. That left him a moment to contemplate the crippled man on the raft next to Jack. His name was Goyle. He'd come out of his fever. It seemed fairly certain, now, that he would live.

Goyle's left foot was a crippled mess, still swollen and unable to support his weight. The rest of him had taken a beating in the fight as well. The left side of his head was blue and purple with bruises. The flesh around his skull wasn't swollen, which the dwarfs said was good, but it Denario thought disease might creep in anyway.

Like the rest of the men, but not the dwarfs, Goyle lifted the cloth from his eyes. His gaze drifted down the sandy creek banks and took note of the change in greenery. His mind was apparently still clear. Denario averted his stare to avoid giving offense.

All of them gawked at a waterway straight enough and wide enough to be a river. The No Map Creek had transformed while they had poled along the unseen shoreline. The water had grown clear. Fewer flies rode the breezes. There were no biting insects at all. The vegetation had changed to low ferns and razor grasses on the shore with medium high chestnut, willow, and birch trees upslope. The rocks had diversified. Instead of slates, there were lighter shades of limestone and granites sitting atop piles of ruddy sandstone. Along the banks, Denario noticed that the sandstones were more yellow and joined by conglomerates. The only signs of magic were a pair of ravioli bushes coming into fruit.

Beyond the raviolis, there sat a wooden dock. It poked six stumps into the water and held raw log cross beams. The beams looked dark and waterlogged. The dock seemed to belong to somewhere else, in fact, a transplant from another land, but here it was. No vegetation grew on it.

“All right,” Jack said. “Blindfolds off.”

The men bowed their heads a little sheepishly while the dwarfs followed orders. The smaller fellows smiled and made comments like 'oh my,' 'this looks like camp,' and 'what lovely minnows.' None of the dwarfs remarked on how the men had disobeyed orders although Boldor and Dodni exchanged a glance and waggled their eyebrows.

“Looks like I've managed not to steer us past the stop.” Out front, Jack put his hands on his hips. He faced the out-of-place log platform.

“Did we make better distance than usual?” Denario asked. He instinctively kept from thinking too far ahead about where they might be going. He would write down a coded map later, or try, but he didn't let his mind linger on it.

Denario heard a man vomit into the creek. He glanced and saw Brand's billowy, white shirt leaned over the gunwhales. Next came a disgusted cough. Brand still hadn't grown accustomed to reining in his thoughts. He and his men knew the lands southwest of the lost temple. Probably Brand had started mapping them in his mind.

“We're already at Siren's Tiedown. That's about two-thirds of a day ahead.” Jack kept the line of rafts aimed a few feet from running aground.

“We never even came close to this place,” said Goyle. He shifted in his seat next to Jack.

“For good reason. No human lives in the town anymore,” explained Jack. “That's why it's just a tiedown. There was a run of bad magic. All of the homes were abandoned. But it's safe enough nowadays.”

“If no one lives here,” said Goyle, echoing Denario's thoughts, “then why's it so clean? And why are there dead bodies hanging in the trees?”

“Ah, this is another trade secret.” Jack grimaced. He switched hands with his punt and stuck an end to the deep side. He pushed the rafts toward the dock tiedown. Overhead, he squinted to see the bodies of four raccoons and three gars hanging upside down from vines in the high branches. One of the gars looked to Denario like it had wings. Was that natural or magic? “I suppose there's no avoiding it. This place is maintained by one of the sireni, a male named Barkbark.”

“Oh.”

“They have names?” asked Goyle.

“What kind of a name is Barkbark?” Brand strode up to Denario's right side. He brushed his mouth, then wiped his fingers on his pants.

“Well, it's what I call him. He refers to himself as something similar but I can't imitate it. Ah, he sees us.” Jack waved to a figure in the gloom between the nearest strand of trees. Then he bent and grabbed a coil of rope. “Say, um, we're a larger group than usual.”

“Problem?” Denario asked. He'd grown accustomed to noticing when notes of caution entered Jack's voice.

“No one else get out until I talk with him. No one is to tie down but me and you, Den.”

“Got it.” He turned to reach for his corner coil. Torgrim beat him there. The short fellow bowed and handed over the loops. The cordage had been fresh a few days ago, crafted by the riverman and the dwarfs together, but it had already weathered and developed the right amount of roughness. Sailors on the Paravienteri dock would have approved.

Jack tied the lead raft to the shallowest post. Denario swung the last boat around to finish. He had to back in to form-fit the middle craft to the deepest pillars of the pier. While he maneuvered, Clever Jack stepped up onto the dock. He strode toward the figure in the shade. When he reached a dark line cast by the tree branches overhead, he stopped. He took off his hat. The obscured form moved. Shadows changed. Denario could almost see a human face between the vines. Then the figure sauntered into the light.

Their host showed himself as a greenish man, naked except for a shoulder tattoo and a loincloth that looked as if it served as his toolbelt. He had two knives tucked in, a coil of string, a loop of rope, a hook, a separate cord that carried the spear on his back, and a gauntlet on his right wrist. There were sandals on his feet. He didn't look like he needed armor. His skin was as thick as the alligators he hunted.

He grunted something.

Clever Jack answered, “This time, I'm rich again. It happens. Do you want them to stay on the rafts?”

“No.” That word from the siren was clear. So was the gesture. He turned his reflective, green eyes on the troop of dwarfs. With a swipe of his arm, he invited them to step aboard on his dock. “Come.”

The dwarfs rearranged themselves so that Boldor could ascend first. They seemed to regard the meeting as a formal one since introductions were being made. In fact, as Denario read their postures, the event of meeting a member of a less-encountered race, perhaps one who had never seen a dwarf before, made the occasion ceremonial.

Barkbark returned to the cover of his trees and his makeshift larder. He sat on a barrel, the greatest one of four. His furnishings seemed to have been fashioned as containers in the lands to the northeast and then carried down to him on rafts. He'd worked the pieces into crude chairs, the barrel the highest of them, and placed them in a semi-circle on the ground at the end of his dock.

Clever Jack motioned Denario forward. The accountant glanced to his side and decided to give the dwarf chief room to precede. In return, the chief politely deferred to Denario. That led to both of them stepping once and bowing, each in turn.

“Well, then,” Boldor whispered. “Let’s walk together.”

The dwarf and the accountant strode toward Barkbark's meeting spot side by side although Denario made sure to keep the dwarf a half-step in front. Boldor was a ruler, after all, even if it was over a troop of eleven.

“Greetings, hero of the sireni,” began Boldor. He bowed. His cap, which had been mostly leather a week ago had since been refashioned into a metal helmet. The dwarf had grown wealthier and sturdier in the past week.

Boldor's regal attitude reflected well on Barkbark. The siren male’s accomplishments were appropriately recognized. He had established a wide swath of territory near the epicenter of water magic. He hunted the toughest of creatures, kept an full larder, and apparently attracted females despite them being in short supply.

That much, the accountant deduced by seeing that there were three beds of straw next to the upstream shore. Did Barkbark have three wives? Did they mate with him the beds? In the water? If they mated in the water, were the beds for raising the children? Was there instead only one mate but three children? The questions occurred to the accountant in quick succession but he couldn't imagine a situation in which he'd be allowed to ask.

After Clever Jack made introductions, the siren male surprised Denario by murmuring that he'd heard about the math teacher’s coming. It was the dwarfs who were unexpected from his point of view. He smiled when Boldor spoke his name, which was closer to Tarktich than Barkbark, and the dwarf got it nearly right.

“Chief of the Lost Mines, this is a joyous meeting,” said Barkbark. “And Accountant of Oggli, welcome to my tree hall.” His tongue had a problem pronouncing the 'l' sound but Boldor and Denario could understand him. “You may sit.”

It wasn't an invitation as much as a command. The seats had been crafted somewhat for humans. The account felt reasonably comfortable on his. The dwarf chief had to sit at the edge of his box in order for his feet to reach the ground.

Denario's gaze rose as he noticed that the tree hollow around them had been shaped. Rowan oaks had been encouraged to grow in rows to act as loose-fitting walls. Above, the siren had fashioned a high ceiling from the leafy boughs. He’d even left a gap to let out billows from a campfire. Barkbark smoked his meat, perhaps, or played host to river captains and other guests who needed to cook. The branches of the chimney trees were black from years of soot. The hall was a grand one in its way. But nowhere in view was a house, a lean-to, or even a hole in a tree. Barkbark, unlike a human or a dwarf, felt comfortable living without a water-tight shelter.

“I've heard tales of your folk, Boldor,” he said, not quite pronouncing the name right. “But only of their deeds long ago. Do your people not travel the lands regularly?”

“Not above ground,” Boldor admitted.

“Ah. I think I understand.” He nodded gravely. On his barrel seat, which leaned against the fan of a juniper bush, Barkbark looked like a rough, green nobleman on a throne in his court. His elbows rested on his knees. “It is strange for you to come to shelter here.”

“We are grateful for the dock and for your protection,” Clever Jack interjected.

“Of course.”

“May my men approach to bring you gifts?”

The siren male gave a sad smile. “The remaining ones are bandits, really.”

“Sorry.” Jack titled his head to one side. His opened his hands. “Have you had bad encounters with them?”

“I have never met them, Jack. But I see what I see.” He sat taller and surveyed the rafts full of men and dwarfs.

“May I call a few dwarfs to us, then?” asked Boldor. “We could bring as our boat master instructs. I would like to offer a gift for you, if I may. We would take Jack's instruction on what is appropriate.”

He nodded to the raftman, who returned a cautious grin.

“Huh.” The green eyes flashed at them. “Who are the dwarfs that they be guided by men in their gifts to a host? Are you not your own people?”

“They have lived under Water Mountain, far away from here, for all of their lives,” said Jack. “They do not know the ways of men. They have asked me to advise them.”

“Jack is their agent,” added Denario. “He's mine, too.”

“Ah. Well, that is why he is Clever Jack.”

The accountant could tell by the glint in Barkbark's gaze that his humor had been tickled. He lifted a stump seat in one hand, a casual act of inhuman strength, and set it in front of him. That seemed to be a surface on which gifts to him could be placed.

“And me?” asked Denario. “And the pirates? I mean, sorry, the Caravan of the Kill?” He motioned to where the three other men were waiting on the rafts. “What is expected of us?”

“Of you, no gifts. You have paid into the magic.”

“And how do you know?”

“I listen. You gave to the temple. Besides, you have the power of numbers. Although it is a skill that I do not understand, I respect it. Instead of a fee, what I ask in exchange for my hospitality is that you think about a way for my daughters to live.”

“Your daughters?” The careless grin fled from Denario's face. All too easily, he could imagine how the request had come to be formed. The daughters born here in this hollow had grown a few months old, gotten sick, and died. It had to break the hearts of the mothers. Barkbark himself had probably tried to harden himself to those deaths. He hadn’t succeeded.

“This is terrible,” said Boldor, aghast. “Your children die?”

Although Clever Jack had recounted many tales of No Map Creek, including those of the sireni, he'd done that with Denario alone, not after the dwarfs came aboard. The omission led to an awkward pause in their conference. Jack had to restart things with the tale of the sireni damnation. It was an uncomfortable anecdote. The siren male grew tight-lipped as the boatman described the wizard's curse. But it was the dwarf's reaction that surprised Denario. Boldor burst into tears.

None of the others in the rowan hall knew quite how to react. They gave the chief a minute to compose himself.

“I'm sorry, my friends.” Boldor wiped his cheek with the tip of his long beard. “Children among the dwarfs are precious. I know it is not so with all people. Humans have children by accident, I hear.”

Jack opened and closed his mouth so quickly that it raised Denario's curiosity.

“That is quite understandable,” said their green-skinned host with a touch of emotion.

“Of course I'll do my best, Tarktich,” Denario sighed. “But this problem has defeated better men than me. You must know that.”

“Yes. But how can I fail to ask? If it defeats all men, ask women.”

“All right, I will.” He had no pride to lose.

“Do you promise?”

“I promise.” At this, Denario felt a twinge of guilt that he would never be coming back. Of all the vows that he'd made in bad faith during this journey, and there were many, this was the worst. Surely the sireni deserved better than the deaths of so many young girls.

“Good. Bring your dwarfs over, Boldor. Your bandit men too, Jack. Let them set camp.” Barkbark clapped his hands. He waited while the dwarf chief and the river captain waved to their rafts. He added, “As you prepare, I will talk with my closest woman. Singing time is past. You always choose the safe seasons, Jack. You're the best.”

“That's why I'm alive.”

“And I have a warning for the accountant.” He stood, gestured toward Denario, then strode through the west entrance of his tree hall, opposite the dock. The green underbrush hid his green, tattooed back. He was gone.

Denario glanced to Boldor and Jack. The dwarf chief had already strode toward the dock to meet Dodni. Jack flapped his hands as if to say that the coming warning from the siren male was a mystery to him, too.

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