Chapter Sporadic Groups
Scene One: First Warning
Boldor, Dodni, and Jack conferred about the gifts due to their host. As the accountant expected, they set their offerings on the stump. Their assortment included three stone spear points and one of bronze, plus food, wine, and blankets.
Setting up camp went as it always did except for Dodni asking the accountant to light the fire. Usually, Denario let the dwarfs do it. But everyone else had already grabbed duties such as finding firewood or cutting up ingredients for the stewpot. Jofrid had given himself the job of making another spear head for Barkbark. It would have looked strange for Denario to avoid the easiest chore. He trudged back to the raft, dug into the bottom of his travel bag, and found his flint and his quartz. On the seventh strike, he got a flame going, briefly. On the eighth, he kept it burning. He built the flame with dried twigs until the edge of a log caught. In a few minutes, he’d made a real fire. One of the men, Goyle, built a pot hanger over it.
No one had laughed at him. No one seemed to think his method was odd. They cooked during the long sunset through the trees. Between light peeking through branches overhead and the glowing of two cooking fires, the clearing turned shades of orange and brown.
It wasn't until after Barkbark returned, accepted the gifts, and granted them the right to eat that they relaxed. Members of the rafting group shoveled warm food in their mouths and gazed outward at the dusk. The foliage above had darkened to shades of orange and black. Denario remembered that he’d received a warning.
“Yes, yes. You maybe should skip the next town, accountant.” Barkbark had resumed his throne-like seat. His arm swung out to encompass the crews of the three vessels in his ruling. “Others, too.”
“Nah,” said one of the men, Schmurter.
“What's this all about?” asked Jack.
“And what's with the new tattoo on your shoulder?” asked Schmurter. “It’s still bleeding. It is related? Is it a magic charm?”
“Odd, no.” The thought derailed Barkbark for a moment. His gaze fell to his left shoulder. His right hand found a dark, green triangle there about the size of his fingertip. As Schmurter had noticed, that particular spot was fresh. “Each scale is drawn by a wife.”
“Yes.” The siren sighed. “There is one for each of the large magical creatures I have killed and fed to my wives. The spell long ago, the one that cursed our women, hurts their stomachs. When I feed them magic, they feel better.”
“So is this a mark of honor?” said Dodni from the other side of the fire.
Everyone murmured or nodded in thought. Denario did a quick re-count of the crude tattoos. Even in the dim light, he saw thirty-seven. There were as many small marks on the back of the fellow's shoulder, too, he remembered.
“I told you all,” Jack said to the crowd. He shook the chunk of bread he'd dipped in the stew. “Barkbark is why we didn't see many flying alligators. He's been working hard. Always has. And as always, he has my thanks. He should have yours, too.”
The dwarfs, of course, stood and responded, each in turn, with polite bows and acknowledgements of their host's hunting prowess.
“For a second time, I must warn the accountant,” the siren continued after the last dwarf sat back down.
“Okay, let's hear it,” said Brand. As the man next to him, Schmurter, started to speak, Brand punched him. The smaller man winced and closed his mouth.
“In the town,” said Barkbark. He paused to clench his hands into fists. He struggled for the common tongue words. “You will all look to trade. You make food by selling skills. Now I have heard that the East Hogsli town wants the accountant. Other towns, too.”
“Many men desire this particular one.” The siren scratched his ear. He shook his head as if he couldn't believe his own words. His gaze fell on Denario. “No such numbers man has traveled here. So many messages have come down the river about him. Some go up the river about special kinds of counting needed. There are good men who carry and read those messages. There are some bad men who carry them, too. And there are bad men who read.”
“Are you saying that East Hogsli has gone bad? I traded there a few months ago.”
“With a new man?”
“Yes. That happens.”
“You are clever, Jack. But you did not see far enough.” Barbark rose. He gazed downstream, past the dock and into the unseen twists and bends. As he turned his back on them, Denario counted the tattoo scales for flying alligators killed. There were at least forty-seven visible from that side. “There is a cheating, a stealing in the town. Soon, there will be another hanging or a fight. They will call on the accountant to fix it. I do not trust them.”
He turned to face the assembled men and dwarfs again. His hands went to his hips.
“Another hanging?” Brand had done business there too, surely. “How many have they had?”
“They are not good people.” Barkbark shrugged. “The ones across the water are good. The ones to the west are few, but good. Not those in the south town, the one called East Hogsli. They are cheats.”
“Did they steal from you?” Jack asked.
“I insisted they keep their bargains with me. Instead, they sent a knight man. I killed him. Many other men came, after, and I killed them each in turn.” Barkbark sighed. “I may have killed too many that were good. Now the town itself is bad. Only coward men and cheating men live there. In my defense,” he said, leaning back, one elbow on a knee, as if trying out the phrase, “it is hard to tell the difference between good and bad without time. Those who came were trying to kill me.”
“This is our experience, too.” Boldor nodded seriously. “Not the killing but the rest. There are fine men and evil ones, maybe more so in the extremes than with other races.”
For the rest of the the meal, the siren and the dwarfs compared their experiences with humans. Some of their anecdotes were funny. Mostly, the stories played up the worst of humanity. Clever Jack glowered but he held his peace. Brand turned red in his cheeks and ears. By oath, he couldn't strike the dwarfs and, by strength, he was no match for Barkbark He and Schmurter, the shorter and hairier man, took their food bowls to the edge of the tree hall where they wouldn't have to listen to such truthful slanders. Goyle, although adept on a raft, was too crippled to move without help so he had to stay with Jack at the south of the semi-circle.
Denario, alone of all of the humans, remained next to the campfire. Dinner tasted good. He wanted to keep the stewpot within reach. He enjoyed the company of the dwarfs. Perhaps his time as a slave gave him a different perspective on humankind. He wasn't offended by the judgments he heard. If anything, he felt the dwarfs were still too kindly disposed. Barkbark seemed to agree. He finished the conversation by warning Boldor against the towns downstream, especially those of East Hogsli, Fat Turnip, and Oupenli. He reckoned that the barons and knights who owned the lands were crooked. Their thefts turned the citizens crooked, too, until cheating seemed normal.
The accountant sighed. In his profession, he encountered cheaters every month, at least, sometimes every week. When his master had lived, Denario hadn’t paid much attention to them. They were Winkel’s responsibility.
At the end of the evening, as he rested his head on his pack and tried to sleep on the cold ground, Denario mentally reviewed the math he’d done in the temple. The steps in kis proof seemed complete. What he’d witnessed at the side of the goddesses, though, was better, more interesting math in its way. It was the math of the emptiness between matter. Higher up, there was more math, too, in human blood. Two different base four systems. He shook his head. The systems converted messages between them. What could the numbers have to say to one another so deep inside a human body? This is the process of your life, the goddess had said. Perhaps Ruffina had exerted her influence to let him know.
As he considered the old priestess, he slipped into other thoughts about the temple. Laying naked on a floor covered in goosedown. A room that smelled like a thousand extinguished candle wicks. Embarrassed, he brushed his memories aside.
He tried to look forward to East Hogsli. He only had Barkbark’s word that there was a trap. Maybe there wasn’t. And anyway, the other men and the dwarfs wouldn’t want to skip the place if there was work. If they did bypass the town, that would bring up Oupenli a day or two sooner. When they finally reached the big city, Denario could sell his raft, collect his wages, and buy a coach ride for the rest of the way to home. The idea frightened him. He didn’t feel ready.
For a long while, he couldn’t sleep. He considered all of the math in his life that was missing, hidden from view, and all of his questions that would go unanswered. There was at least one question that had bothered him to which there was an answer, he was sure.
Denario roused himself. Propped on an elbow, he leaned to the man closest.
“Jack,” he whispered. “Did you have a child by accident?”
The boatman had gone to rest with a hat over his face. He pulled it off. His eyes fluttered and, after a few seconds, they opened. Jack considered the question.
“Ah.” He smacked his lips. “I see why you ask. No, bless my wife. My boys were meant to be. By her, by me, by the gods, by everything. What I didn’t want to say around the dwarfs was that I was one, though. I was an accident.”
“Nice accident,” said Denario, a bit sorry he’d brought it up.
“Lucky for me, at least.” The boatman gave the accountant a not-unkind smile, closed his eyes, and pulled the hat back over his face.