Chapter Sporadic Groups
Scene Four: All of Them Guilty
At the end of the first day, Denario flopped back, exhausted, onto a blanket laid over the wooden floor of the one-room guest house. Seidel had provided their place to stay. It had a door and a shuttered window. Brand, Ulf, and Ragna had set out their camp beds near the exits. They’d surrounded the accountant, in fact, as if they took their jobs as his assistants and bodyguards seriously.
“Not a dirt floor,” remarked Ulf.
“Raised an inch off the mud. No insects.” Ragna snapped out his spare hauberk. He stuffed it into his travel bag to form a tough pillow. “Seems like we’re honored with a bit of a luxury.”
That was true. Seidel’s guest house, which hadn’t been visible from the road into town, seemed to be better quarters than most of the permanent thatch houses. The mayor had moved his mother-in-law into his own home for the night and had, not without humor, remarked that he hoped the accountant would finish soon so that he could return his mother-in-law to the distance at which she belonged.
On one hand, Denario had worn his full accounting uniform all afternoon and had been treated with respect. On the other, the respect had boiled over into fear among many of the peasants and gentry. The isolation of the guest house made it a target for violence.
“This place was richer, once.” He propped himself up on his elbows. “Did you see the smithy at the end of the road?”
“Where the stream runs into the No Map?” Brand grunted.
“There used to be a bridge past it. You can tell. Folks must have ventured out into the magical lands across the stream. Now they don’t.”
“The smith doesn’t know how to make steel,” Ragna remarked with the sort of mild tone of disapproval that to dwarfs was the equivalent of a shout.
“Not any kind of metal that other smiths would accept as steel, anyway.” Ulf nodded in agreement. “I heard the mayor tell you that a nobleman killed his smithy master.”
“That’s how skills get lost.” Denario knew it was how it had happened on his old baron’s estate. Even among slaves, some were more skilled than others. When a man got worked to death, it meant that critical pieces of knowledge went missing, at least for a while. “The smith has omitted steps from the steel making process but he doesn’t know it. Let’s hope he makes the visit to Jofrid.”
“Not much time for it,” said Brand. The accountant had the impression that his human guard was barely restraining himself from some sort of violence against the peasants. He seemed to be infuriated by their cowardice. “You should be almost ready to leave.”
“I’m closer than I thought I would be,” Denario admitted. “The problem is that I need to catch some of the thieves in the act. I want to do it tomorrow or tomorrow night, by preference. It doesn’t seem wise to stick around.”
“The peasants are practically fleeing from your shadow,” Brand spat. “The gentry, too.”
“Yes, it’s bad. Did you notice the ones who didn’t come to see me today? The town’s not that big. If you think the ones who we met are bad, Brand, the folks avoiding me are worse.”
“Ah, I didn’t think of that.”
Ulf’s brow creased. “Is this a human thing?”
“It’s a dwarf thing, too,” Brand replied before Denario could find more tactful words. “Those who have the most anger from self-denial or the most bloody, red-faced guilt don’t want to confront us.”
“They worry that Denario will arrest them.”
Brand sighed at this naive notion of law enforcement.
“The problem is,” said the accountant, “they’re all guilty.”
“You mean, they have guilty consciences,” Ragna corrected.
“No.” The accountant felt terrible for telling the dwarfs how things really were. “Every family with debts in this town has been cheating the system.”
“How can you know that? All you did was look into bags of stones for a day. You didn’t even check them all.”
“There are too many tax accounts for a full review, that’s true. But Ragna, for private debts tracked by the churches, there are side tallies. Most of them are still relevant. Moreover, because so few people understand them, they’ve gone untouched.”
“I don’t remember side tallies from our lessons,” said Ulf.
“Sixteen of them are scrolls I found in a broken box at the back of the pile of bags. Each scroll is about as big as my finger. They have checksums written on them.”
“Aha!” yelled Ulf.
“Aha?” asked Brand.
“It’s a fast way of detecting a misplaced number or letter,” said Ulf, practically reciting his lesson word for word. He made a leap in logic by continuing. “Or it could be a way of tracking animal marks and counting stones too, apparently.”
“Yes.” Denario watched the dwarf lie down on his temporary bed. To the accountant’s left, Brand did the same. Denario relaxed and rested his head on his clothes-bundle pillow. He gazed at the ceiling. “Parts of the East Hogsli system have degenerated, Ulf. I can see that because Koen’s former master, Horst, and Horst’s former master, Ely, could write numbers. Koen can’t. He hasn’t got the hang of anything more than tally marks.”
“Is that all?” Brand asked.
“The scheme has failed in other ways, too. The ancient ones in the Mundredi towns were better kept. The side tallies Horst wrote reveal cheating as far back as forty years. Just the existence of the tallies reveals that. It’s why citizens insisted on having their own methods. Even during that era, they didn’t trust the town records.”
“So Koen can’t run his own tallies to check?”
“He can. He uses the split-stick method. The recent side tallies of debts are his. He keeps a collection of the records privately but he said pieces have gone missing from it.”
“I saw eight notched sticks,” Ulf offered.
“That’s not many,” said Ragna.
“There were fifteen until the records went missing, if Koen is to be believed. And I do believe him. His arms tremble. His breathing is wrecked. Half of the time, he’s in tears. It’s the same for the slave boy he’s taken on as an apprentice. They know their lives are on the line. They’re trying their hardest to find every bag, every counter stone, and every record of every type.”
“Does the knight know of their work, do you think?”
“Not in the least. Sir Negri likely isn’t aware of the side tallies, either. They weren’t used for taxes. I’ll describe how they work for him. But he won’t like the fact that it’s the taxes where there’s the best opportunity to lie and claim you’d paid more than you did. The side tallies were created for the most important and most carefully watched private debts among the gentry. You wouldn’t expect anyone to dare to cheat on those.”
“But someone did.”
Brand guffawed. He seemed to know what was coming.
“Oh, Ragna,” Denario said. He wanted to soften the lesson but he didn’t know how. “Out of twenty-four checksums, six were settled. The other eighteen don’t match their debt counters. They’ve all cheated.”
“I’m afraid so.”
“This is the trap,” said Ulf with certainty.
All of them lay back their heads on their pillows. Denario stared at the ceiling. He noticed that Ragna crossed his arms over his chest. Brand closed his eyes and sighed.
“Yes,” the accountant admitted. “It is.”
“Well,” huffed Brand. He opened his eyes and sat up. The candle was closest to him. He was clearly too upset to rest yet. “You can’t accuse the sheriff of lying. Or maybe you can. But if you accuse everyone in town, we can’t fight our way out for you.”
“I understand. Still, whatever happens, I can’t let East Hogsli go on cheating their knight.” Denario rose to one elbow. To his right, Ulf sat up to look at him. “Sir Negri would never accept my audit if I did.”
“Neither would I.” Brand gave a bitter laugh. “Maybe he’s not an idiot. I’m sure there must be a way to beat this. We can do it.”
The man shrugged. “You’re the accountant.”
“Right.” Denario thought back on the accounting history books. Among the thick tomes in brown leather that Winkel had introduced him to as a child, there were many smaller notebooks and scrolls. In those, there had been over a hundred journeyman diaries, ledgers, or daybooks. One of them leapt to his mind, pages of bluish, irregular script. “Once I read about how someone in the guild encountered this situation. It was a generation ago. The accountant in a rural barony assembled evidence against the worst seven offenders. The knight hanged all seven.”
Ulf cleared his throat.
“Surely,” ventured Ragna. “In a town of no more than ninety citizens, that would be too many.”
Denario could practically hear Brand’s smile. It spread slowly but widely. It exposed the man’s canine teeth. His skin stretched enough to dimple. His dark eyes glinted in the light of the single candle, anger and humor rising to the fore together.
“We must expose someone, Ulf,” Denario stated. He was sure that he didn’t want Brand to speak. “If the audit doesn’t name any guilty parties, it will be meaningless to Sir Negri.”
“But you know him.”
“Yes.” Did the dwarf imagine that a knight would hold a commoner’s opinion in esteem simply because it was expert? That he would exert mercy because an accountant asked? Perhaps in the underground chambers of the dark, dwarf kingdoms, expertise was held in that much reverence. It was not the case among humans.
“How will you catch anyone at all?” asked Ragna. His hands opened in a gesture of bewilderment. “You know the counters in their debt bags have changed. That is not the same as determining how even one person can be found guilty.”
Denario nodded. “That’s another reason that we need to ensnare someone. A man or a household must be taken in the act of rigging the system.”
“Brand’s point earlier is right, I think,” said Ulf. “All of the people in East Hogsli except for a few of the gentry, perhaps, are frozen in fear. They won’t try to rig the accounting system while you’re around.”
“They must. We mustn’t let them wait.”
The four of them lay in the artificial dusk of the candle for a while. Ulf picked up his axe and lay it over his chest. He often slept with the weapon. Ragna adjusted his pillow and sighed. Meanwhile, the accountant tried to imagine how he could arrange for the locals to take a chance on cheating the system.
“This is easy,” Brand offered. “You can always catch a thief.”
“Even a scared one?”
“Put out something for them to steal. Let everyone know.” The big man chuckled softly. “Human nature doesn’t disappoint in that respect.”
“That always works?” He could imagine the number of times a caravan master would have the chance to uncover sneaks. Would the men who were shown to have been stealing from their boss survive the revelation? It seemed unlikely.
“It's never failed me.”
“Damn.” It was believable. “I would have to announce to the town that the accounts aren't right but, as long as they're not touched, I can discover who cheated whom.”
“Yes, but make a show. Draw something in the ground, maybe a picture they can understand. Then leave the tax bags sitting out. Maybe even invite the sheriff to arrange a guard. Don't worry if he does. That will only reassure the townsfolk that they can fool or bribe one man. Someone will come to fix their shorted bag.”
“I’d have to make a tally of what the taxes should be,” Denario mused. It was a fair bit of work. But he did have assistants, after all. “Maybe the private debts, too. Yes, I’d start with those.”
“There aren’t that many people,” Brand pointed out. “If you work on the private debts and the last two years of taxes, no more, you could write it up in a day.”
“I'll leave my marks on a board, not the ground.”
“So long as everyone sees them. Post the totals as they should be according to the tax rolls and the side tallies, then leave blanks where you’ll count up the bags.”
“Damn.” Denario hated the plan in every respect. The worst part was that he was sure it would work.