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Thursday, April 18

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Airbags

In a move that underscores the wrenching global consolidation underway among commercial exchanges, Chicago Mercantile Exchange Holdings Inc. announced today that it will acquire crosstown rival CBOT Holdings Inc. for $8 billion in stock and cash. The two companies said they expect to move to a single trading location at the CBOT, and the combined company will be renamed CME Group Inc.
— Chicago Tribune, Oct. 17

"What is it?" I squint, but can make out only the vague outline of a door, set into a crevice in the mountainside. Mullerbinns has led me here.

"Can't quite be sure, Axman," Mullerbinns squeaks, rubbing his hands together with a fervent look brightening his eyes. "But I have reason to believe it is the last of the lost mines of King Mondoon."

"Eh?" The name of Mondoon, a king who ruled several generations prior to Mandrake's ascension to the throne, is spoken even less often than the last in his line. "And this is the entrance?"

"Aye, aye, I believe it is," Mullerbinns says, shifting from foot to foot, still staring at the door. The wind whips around our heads, teasing water from our eyes. It is near dawn and Mullerbinns has finally agreed to show the way to Cloumont, albeit with a rather extended detour. We have trekked nearly an hour to reach this peak, the greatest in the Towerfall Mountains, or so the dwarf tells me. I am a warrior, not a geographer.

"And no doubt you wish for me to open it to you." I eye the canny fellow. Saved my life he may have done, but my trust remains a hard-won trophy.

Mullerbinns shakes his head. "No, Axman, though your considerable brawn has doubtless returned, no blow of yours will break down this door." He continues to stare into the crevice, transfixed. "It's forged of a metal the likes of which I've never seen, a diamond's edge barely scratches it. Only thing to open it is a key."

He looks at the ground now, as though expecting to find such a rare prize before his own feet. Meanwhile my eyes turn to the sun, now escaping the clutch of the mountains' peaks as it climbs the sky.

"Why are you showing this to me? I am no keymaker, nor a lockpick. We tarry too long, dwarf. Let us move on to Cloumont, and the warmer confines we may find there."

At last he looks up, sighing. "Very well, Axman. We proceed. This way." With a last, furtive glance toward the mountain-bound door, he leads on.

For hours we scramble over rock and rubble, cracks and cornices. The toil does little to warm the body as errant flurries alight upon our shoulders, and the harsh terrain does less to soothe a traveler's worn countenance. It has been a long road; seldom indeed has civilization beckoned so.

The sun attains its apex moments before Mullerbinns stops and turns to speak: "Just ahead, Axman." A short climb later, we emerge onto a wide, flat outcropping, and several leagues away I can make out smoke, buildings — Cloumont.

I can feel the dwarf's eyes upon me; turning, I see him staring at me, his mouth ajar. "Blagg—" he begins.

In an instant my hand seizes his throat, pushing him up against the stone wall. I search his face. "How many are there?" I hiss, looking for answers in his eyes. "How long do I have?"

Mullerbinns turns his head to gaze over my shoulder, and the answer is already clear.

"Blagg."

That voice is known to me, and despised. It is Stangharr, captain of the Dark Lord's Black Guard.

The dwarf is whispering to me. "Axman, please — know that this was not of my will, that there is no other way, you must know that I — " Not listening, I shove him to the ground. The time for excuses is long since past.

"So, barbarian," Stangharr says, offering a cold grin as I turn to face him. His cape, dark as a crow's wing, is drawn out in the wind. Behind him are a score of the Black Guard, maybe more. "What will it be this time — the easy way, or the hard way?"

I spit on the ground. "Always, the hard way."

They close ranks and fall on me; the red glare of combat settles over my vision, comforting as a mother's embrace. The ax swings free, all movement seems to slow, and again the old dance begins. Its steps are familiar to me, and I need not watch my feet.

A breastplate is cleaved, and one of their number falls. The ax's blade finds a chance opening at helmet's end, and a head is lopped. As my heels near the edge of the precipice they charge — I parry and weave while several more are cast into the abyss. Ax-blows claim another, and another, and as blood stains the white rock crimson I find time for idle thought: Too long have I strayed in journey. Kayne's lackeys have grown soft in my long absence.

Booting another screaming wretch from the cliff, the surviving few fall back as their leader advances, drawing his rapier. We meet at the center of the great, broad rock, dodging and dealing horrible blows, yet neither yields, the fury in his face surely reflecting that in my own. We grapple and a sudden consciousness comes over me — I feel every rivlet of sweat coursing down my chest, the welcome burn of every wound earned, the stick of my hair, wet with blood and seething, to the neck's nape. My eyes meet Stangharr's and I see that he feels it too.

But too long he ponders, and I catch him a glancing blow to the sternum, throwing him back on his heels. The heels of his boots find little purchase on the blood-slicked rock and he is careening backward, toward the chasm's lip. My ax falls to my side as I watch him flail, and he is gone.

Footfalls are at my back, but moving away. The trap was a failure, and Mullerbinns has sold his soul for nothing.

~*~

"Royal gold is a rare sight in this high country, stranger," muses the tavern-keeper, holding up the doubloon to catch the day's last light. My pouch is filled with them, while my satchel contains what little else of value was to be found on the corpses of Kayne's Black Guard. And M'yrrgh's scroll.

"That's not royal gold," I murmur, sipping at my mead. "It's the gold of a thief, and murderer."

Gold doubloon or no, these are unsettling words to the ears of a simple tavern-keeper. He moves away without further broaching the subject. It matters little, for he has already told me where I may find the scholar who can decipher the Hag Queen's scroll. Once more I am questing, and this fact — along with the tavern-keeper's mead, which is thick and agreeable — has set my mind at ease.

At ease, but for one thing, hectoring and sniping somewhere far back in my head: If Mullerbinns meant to give me up, why did he heal me... and why did he fix my ax?

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About the Author(s)

A former mercenary for hire, Blagg is an axman by trade and still carries the banner of King Mandrake, the once and true ruler of the realm. Gapers Block readers are invited to contact Blagg for advice, insight and recommendations at blagg@gapersblock.com. His column appears every other Saturday.

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