We lived in the village of Halaran where the winds blew harsh and gritty down from the mountains, sweeping unhindered across the rocky planes towards the cliffs that looked out over the sea to the island of the royal city, to Aderwyn. The men toiled in that hard land, but we did not go hungry and we had good storytellers among us. Being the last village on the road to the port at Branoth we had many visitors. We sold lodgings, food, and ale to the travellers, and we could also raise a tribute for the hearing of our tales.
When I got older, but still as a child, I would often go to the cliffs and gaze down the coast to Branoth nestling in its estuary, or out to the towers of the Royal city. Aderwyn had always been famous for its accountants, actuaries, auditors and clerks. From the towns in the lowlands of Araulth all the way down to Caradoth many a young boy with a talent for numbers left home bound for that island, hoping to find ledger work there, or perhaps an accountant’s apprenticeship that would lead to a good solid career, but not me. As my father often told me, he could not afford for me to have such dreams or wild fancies.
Yet even then I loved to count. I would sit there for hours auditing the clouds above the city, keeping a tally of the ships coming in and out of the port on the eastern side of the island. I would go home and tell my father how many shillings the king had made that day from mooring fees alone, searching his face for some sign of approval or pride, but I never found any. My mother would hug me tightly and say that they would make me exchequer to the royal household one day, but my father just sat there, pretending not to see me, wishing that I did not exist.
I first met the Gont called Phrat on a hot summer day during my thirteenth year. I spent all the days that summer lost in a world of numbers, imagining what I would do with the gold that accountants and actuaries were rumoured to earn. How I would buy my father's workshop and throw him out to live on the streets, but not before I made him watch me count my money.
Gonts only live in the north. They are short enough to hide in the long grass, and having green skin, it is easy for them to lurk unseen, waiting for unsuspecting travellers. Many an unwary foreigner has fallen foul to Gontish trickery while passing near Haralan. This one came and sat next to me, plonking himself down uninvited as I counted a fleet of tall ships leaving Aderwyn. He claimed to be a Gontish sorcerer, a claim that I first regarded with downright suspicion. Gonts are well known for being liars, thieves, pickpockets, chicken poachers, and confidence tricksters, but their claims of sorcery were rarely backed up with any practical demonstrations. Still, he carried a bonestick and his leathery skin bore tattooed symbols that were clearly cabalistic in nature. In my head I could hear my mother telling me that even Gonts had a place and purpose in the world, so I did not chase him away as now know I should have. I ignored his prattle though, but Gonts have a way of drawing you into a conversation with them.
"I've seen you here often doing your counting," he said with his high pitched, grating voice.
"What of it Gont?" I snapped.
"I beg your pardon sir. I did not mean to cause offence or to disturb you from your craft, but as a sorcerer and a seer I felt an obligation to come to speak with you, knowing what I know."
I knew speaking with it was a mistake. People had always warned me of conversing with the Gontish folk, but he had, I admit, tugged on my curiosity.
"And what is it you know, Gont?" I asked.
"Your future sir," he said. "I have never spoken to a... to a Counter of Aderwyn before, and I may never again. So I had to come and talk to you."
"Oh be off with you Gont. My father doesn’t even need me to count the horseshoes in his workshop. Counter of Aderwyn indeed!”
"But Sir, I am not mistaken. And not just a Counter, but the Counter of Aderwyn, the Exchequer himself."
I stood up and brushed the dirt and dead grass from my backside. "Gont you are not only a liar, but if you think that I will believe this rubbish then you are also an idiot."
If I had stayed there a minute longer I would have squashed the gont like an insect, or booted him off the cliff into the sea, and I had more sense than that. It is still bad luck to kill a Gont, despite their nature. So I started to walk away.
"Think what you will of me sir," shouted the Gont, "but when they make you Exchequer, Phrat will bless you. With your permission, of course."
"Do what you will Gont," I said.
As I walked away I realise what I had said, and I cursed my own stupidity. A sorcerer may only use magic on you if you give him your permission, and I had done just that. But so what? What chance did I have of becoming the most powerful man in the land, second only to the king. Whatever my place in the world turned out to be, I knew for certain that it would not be that.
Later that year, my mother died of the sweating sickness. I had only just turned fourteen, but in the villages of the north people considered fourteen years enough of a childhood. After that a boy had to start making his own way in the world. Yet I still had no trade or purpose. I could do nothing of value to my people, and I had no one left to love me; no one to stop my father from lashing out at the useless boy who did nothing but eat precious food and wander the cliffs counting.
Eventually the villagers tired of filling my belly for free and chased me from the village. I went up into the hills to live there away from their cruel fist and vicious tongues. Yet even after all the names they had called me, after all the beatings, I still craved a purpose. I still wanted their acceptance. I sat at night huddling inside a stolen blanket weeping at the brutish way they had treated me. Strangely though, it was because of that cruelty and the anger it nurtured in me that at last I, Indigo the Useless, found a purpose.
As the days passed, I became dark and wild looking. Those same villagers who once spat at me and damned my uselessness now grew wary of me, and I liked that. Parents would scare their children into coming home before dark with tales of my trips into the village when daylight ended. "The Indigo will get you," they said. As small payment for this they left out half rotten vegetables, turning cheese and bread dotted with the first signs of mould in the village square. I took it gladly.
People began to tell stories about how I had eaten ten or fifteen children, but they were lies. I never ate more than three. I know the number exactly because I kept count. In all that time I never lost my love of counting. I would sit and count anything; clouds, sheep, whatever. None of that mattered though. What mattered was that children started to do what they were told because of me.
I thought that was to be my lot in life, but then during the time of the wolf Beroth, the Beast of Halaran as some called him, when things changed for me again. I had lived in those hills for three years, huddling by whatever fire I could make, almost dying each winter. That third winter was the harshest any could remember, and the beast came down from the mountains looking for easy prey. His taste for blood was insatiable, and he killed so many sheep and cattle that I could spend a couple of hours each morning counting the carcasses left strewn across around the hills.
As I sat there one morning counting, ten, eleven, twelve sheep dead, I saw a shepherd come over the hills. He came, following the valley up from the village as I counted. Seventeen, eighteen, nineteen. I paid him little attention, just enough to notice the crossbow he carried. Had he come for me? Did they think I had killed the sheep? Still, I let nothing stop the counting. The beast had enjoyed a busy night. Forty-five sheep living and twenty-one corpses. And lurking out of sight, skulking behind a boulder, I counted one Beast of Halaran.
The hunter had not seen him. The wolf advanced. He crept low along the ground, sniffing the sweat of the man, yellow eyes fixed ahead, not seeing me. The wolf sprang. So did I.
"What are you doing boy?" shouted the shepherd, raising his crossbow at me.
I realised afterwards how close I had come to being mistaken for the Beast of Halaran myself, but at the time I was too busy tearing the wolf’s throat out with my teeth to be scared.
I stood up and wiped the wolf's blood from my mouth. I would always remember the taste. Even at the end of my story I would taste that thing’s blood in my mouth, its gristle between my teeth, its salty sweat, all conspiring together to choke me.
"Forty-five sheep alive here today," I said. "Twenty-one killed last night, two the day before, one the day before that, four the previous night."
"You count well for a savage," said the shepherd, unable to tear his eyes from at the dead wolf by my feet. "How comes a savage like you would save a civilised man like me?" But he was not asking me. He was asking himself.
"Food?" I said, thinking that saving his life might at least warrant some fresh bread.
"Come with me lad," he said, and I followed him imagining the delights I was about to receive.
But he did not feed me. He took me down to the town and showed me to my father and told him what I had done. Now my father looked on me with proud eyes. He took me to Alderman Gill, Halaran’s own counter, and told him that even the wildness had not driven the sorcery of numbers from me. Gill tested me with some tasks of counting and some simple sums, each of which I answered correctly. Then he took me inside, fed me, cleaned me up, and made me his apprentice.
Given time and Gill's stick the wildness soon ebbed away from me. I learnt of ledgers and tithes, of taxes and levies and I soaked up this new knowledge, this numerical sorcery as my father would call it, with a voracious appetite. Soon I was helping the alderman collect and count the tithes gathered from the story telling, and manage the village accounts.
Despite his harsh tongue and his cruel stick, the Alderman was more of a father to me than my own had ever been, and I grew to love him. He made my head dizzy with stories of the accountants of the Royal city. What glory and wealth that could be had for a man of numbers there! Then, on my sixteenth birthday he called me to him.
"Indigo there is nothing else that I can teach you,” he said. “You have a choice. You can stay here with me and have a good and simple life, or go to the Royal city and learn from my old teacher, the Exchequer Karn.”
I was confused. Part of my heart belonged in the hills and cliffs of Halaran, and wanted to stay and become Alderman myself one day, but there was all that money waiting to be counted. To be owned.
"True father," I said, "I will go to Aderwyn and learn to be a master of numbers so that I may return and see the pride in your face."
Two days later he sent me off to Branoth, the port town where travellers sailed for Aderwyn carrying a letter of introduction from himself to the Exchequer, the Master Karn, my key to the city.
When I first arrived I wandered the city for days, not because I could not find my way through the maze of streets, but because the wealth of the place overwhelmed me. There were houses there with gardens big enough to hold the whole of Halaran. The roads twisted and turned, each one taking me to some new marvel, but all ultimately led to the steps of the King's palace.
On the third day I decided I should make myself known to Exchequer Karn, not least because I had spent most of my money. I came to the front steps of the palace but found a crowd gathered there. At the top of the steps stood a man in the robes of a counter and a man in black, his face covered with a hood. He held the counter with one hand and an axe in the other. Both stood before a stained, wooden block, and I knew its purpose without needing to ask.
The hooded man began to speak in a voice that chilled me with its cold authority. "This man, Counter Dwythe of the Royal House has been found guilty of wilful, deliberate and fraudulent accountancy, and so the King's law judges his life to be forfeit."
The crowd jeered and laughed as the counter sobbed and protested. They laughed even harder when a pool of piss appeared on the ground between his legs, and I laughed with them. How pathetic, I thought. I would never miscount, and if I did I would hide it well. If by some chance they did catch me, I would not whine like a little girl, pissing my robe before they cut off my head. The condemned counter handed the man some coins, who forced his neck onto the block, tying him in place with a leather strap.
The executioner looked strong enough to cut through his neck with one blow. But he did not. I counted three leisurely strokes before the man's head came off, and he screamed more loudly with each one: a gurgling, choking scream. Each blow showered the crowd with blood, and made them cheer even more.
After the execution I went to find Exchequer Karn. Even before my studies with Alderman Gill I knew that the Exchequer of the Kingdom stood second only to the King in authority and some people talked of him as the man that held the real power in Araulth. So I was not without a certain amount of trepidation when I met him. My concerns turned out to be justified.
He was not a kindly man like the Alderman, but a man steeped in the seriousness of his position. He carried a hardwood staff with him at all times, and his robes of office flapped around his bony body when he struck out at me with it. He possessed a curious strength and each blow bruised me. When not shouting at me, or trying to hit me with his staff, his keen eyes peered at me from those sunken pits in his dour face, watching me for errors in my work.
We men of the plains are full of pride, people say. Some say it as a compliment and others as a criticism, but a man of the plains I was. Despite the fine robes they gave me to wear and expensive food they gave me to eat, that pride remained. When this cruel old man sneered at me, or called me stupid I convinced myself that this was because of where I came from, so I started to mock him whenever I could. I took every possible opportunity to make him look stupid among the rich and lordly folk of the Royal house. It was easy. I was a better counter than him. He knew it. I knew it. The King knew it.
My fame grew around the city, and before long I had many admirers, especially among the daughters of the wealthy merchants and princes who found my roughness and course country language a welcome change from the soft-skinned, lavender scented boys who usually courted them. Oh, those were fine days! Rich men employed me to audit their household expenses or calculate their taxes for them. I would go to their houses and do the day’s work by lunchtime. In the afternoon, I would take their wives or their daughters to bed. In time, I did not even need to count my own money. I had so much that counting it became a full time job for someone else to do.
Exchequer Karn began to look old next to me with his plodding, pedantic methods. And then, one day while browsing the ledgers of the King's kitchens, I discovered a mistake. Not a serious mistake I admit, but of course I felt it my duty to bring it to the King's attention.
The Exchequer spoke with gracious humility in his retirement address to the Council of Actuaries, and he shook my hand as he handed over his duties to me. In his speech he acknowledged that I, Indigo Withell, was the better man for the job. The next day I moved into the Exchequer's quarters in the palace. I no longer had to go to the houses of my clients to enjoy their women. They came to me. At any time of day I could send a messenger to any that I fancied, and they would come. Even the King's daughter, the Princess Elaine, could be seen coming out of my bedchamber at night. Each time she visited me she squealed with pleasure as I counted her fingers, her toes, the hairs on her head, and her breasts. Then one morning I counted the soldiers around my bed as they came to arrest me.
My trial lasted months, and the crowds that had once admired me came to delight in my downfall. On the first day, the clerk of the court read out the long list of charges: disrespecting the Monarch, Adultery (there was no shortage of men willing to come forth and press this charge) and of course, miscounting. The old Exchequer, now recalled to his position, smiled to himself as the clerk read that one out.
I hired the best lawyers in the kingdom. Why not? I could afford them. They dragged the debate out for months, but my guilt had been established long before I had even been arrested. The old man was much more devious and clever than I had given him credit for. He had planted the evidence long before I had taken his job for him, and it was faultless. The jury took only one hour to return the verdict of guilty on all charges.
My only visitor as I waited slumped against the wall in the dark, damp, death cell, was a smug looking Gont.
"I had forgotten you," I said to him, my head bowed to my chest. Was my last day on earth to be cursed with the mocking of a foul Gont?
"Maybe you did," he said, "But I did not forget you, or my bargain with you."
"If you want to give me a gift then perhaps you might start by loosening these chains and carving a tunnel out of here. Or do you have no magic after all?"
"Oh I have magic," he said. "And I will fulfil my bargain."
"Why bother, Gont?" I snapped. "My head is to be removed from my neck tomorrow morning."
"Nevertheless, a deal is a deal," said the Gont and he smiled a smile that filled me with more dread than the thought of the executioner's axe. He turned and knocked on the cell door to be let out. "Tomorrow I shall give you my blessing. I shall make you immortal," he said.
"I should like to see you make a headless man immortal," I shouted after him as he sauntered out of the cell, but he did not reply.
The next morning they came for me. The walk from the death cell to the steps of the palace was far too short. I found the executioner already there waiting for me. He read out my crimes as I had seen him do that day I first arrived in the city.
"A handsome tip will see my axe through your neck in one clean blow," the executioner said to me. I felt piss running down my leg, and heard the crowd roar with laughter.
"Have pity on me," I said as I began to sob. "All my wealth is gone, taken by the lawyers. Given my current situation I am not sure exactly what I have paid them for, but it is gone nonetheless. Will you not take pity on a simple Counter and make my end quick and clean?"
He grasped the back of my neck and forced my head over the edge of his block. "Count my strokes, Counter," he said, "for there will be many."
I screamed as the first stroke sliced my flesh, and again as the second sliced through the sinew and tendons. I did not notice the pain as he hacked through bone and cartilage with his third and fourth stroke, but I tasted the blood as it frothed into my mouth, as salty and delicious as the blood of that great wolf all those years ago. Five strokes, six strokes, and I prayed for the darkness to take me, but it did not come. On the seventh he struck the wood of the block and the world span around me, flipping in arks over me as my head bounced down the stairs.
I came to rest at the feet of the crowd who fell into silence as I mouthed my protests of innocence. As I lay there, two green feet shuffled toward me through the crowd. The Gont leant forward to I could see his face, close enough for me to smell the strange spices on his skin.
"Enjoy your immortality," he said, and then he slipped away into the crowd.
I begged at him to remove his spell as he walked away, but a head without a body to support it can manage only a whisper, or at best a hiss. I never saw the Gont again after that day. But, the joke is on you Phrat, wherever you are. Because of you I have a purpose now. I sit in a glass box in the Royal Museum and children come to be frightened by the head of the traitor that will not die, and it is my box, my own box. It belongs to me, and once a week a man comes to clean it. How many of you can claim such a palace? And still I can count. I count the visitors, and I count the insults. What better way to spend eternity than Counting?
© January, 2013 Phil Davies
Phil Davies was originally trained as a sculptor and photographer, but over the last few years has turned his attention to writing fiction. He has had short fiction published in the Aphelion web based magazine, and non-fiction work published in the form of game reviews, mainly for Adventure Classic Gaming. He has also been a photographic contributor to a number of books, most recently one called Lancashire’s Sacred Landscape, which was published by The History Press.