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Monday, February 18

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Airbags

Three McHenry County men have been charged with stealing copper cable and a pop machine from the Illinois Railway Museum near Union, authorities said Wednesday [July 11].
...
The men rented a moving truck and drove it through a fence onto museum grounds sometime between 11:45 p.m. June 21 and 8:15 a.m. June 22, said Sgt. Michael Cisner of the McHenry County sheriff's office.

The copper cable, used for a signal system in the antique trains and trolley cars, had a retail value of about $23,000 but is worth far less on the scrap metal market, Cisner said.
—Chicago Tribune

The nights stretch long in this high country, plagued with strange dreams of places and people long past.

By day, Wilhelm Warhammer and I trek the rocky terrain, set about with fir trees and great chunks of boulder, departing at dawn and not ceasing until darkness makes it too treacherous to continue. For nearly a week we have traveled this way, pressing through the wooded highlands toward the sunken Forest of Arboula, wherein lies the fabled Summoning Tree; it is here that we hope to find M'yrrgh, hag queen of the swamp, before she can loose a foul beast of the darker realms to wreak her vengeance upon the land.

A grim prospect, to be sure, and it weighs heavier upon my mind with each passing day. Wilhelm, I assume, feels the same way, despite his constant prattling and ceaseless optimism. It is my opinion that a man who carries the future of a kingdom upon his shoulders ought to do so with a certain degree of solemnity, and indeed pessimism on occasion. But to look upon Wilhelm's clean-shaven, unlined face, one would think he was leading a nature hike.

"Odd, don't you think, Axman?" begins one of his typical attempts at banter. To such openings I often reply with a half-audible grunt, in hopes of heading him off before he builds up a conversational head of steam. No luck this time, however.

"I just think it's interesting," Wilhelm goes on, catching up to me and looking over, "how you gravitated toward the ax, and I the warhammer. What do you suppose that says about us? As men?"

A scathing response eludes me and eventually I sigh. "I don't know."

"Both melee weapons. Two-handed, at that. We're brothers in brute force, we are."

"Eh."

"But you, with the ax, desire an edge," Wilhelm goes on. "Me, with the hammer... it's a question of sheer power."

"And?"

"Don't you see anything interesting in it?"

"Not particularly."

He goes on in this vein for some time, eventually wishing that we had a bowman or a halberdier to lend an outside point of view. I hold my tongue, as the entire thing to me reeks of first-degree foolishness.

Occasionally we find signs of our pursuer — our fellow traveler, more accurately, as his sign now appears in front of us as often as behind. Wilhelm and I still split watches in the evenings, but never has this mystery figure shown his face near our camp. In truth we are not much worried, as there is only one of him and his tracks do not mark him as an exceptionally large customer.

Still, Wilhelm and I agree on the point that for two long-term renegades and would-be usurpers of the Dark Lord Kayne's rule over this once-fair kingdom, it is decidedly bad form to allow this mysterious wraith to dog our steps in strange territory, and so Wilhelm applies his energies toward an increasingly elaborate series of traps designed to ensnare this potential interloper. This evening's endeavor involves a hollow log, a spare dagger and a great length of rope.

"We'll catch our sneaking gentleman tonight, Blagg," Wilhelm says, stepping back and inspecting his work with much enthusiasm. "You watch."

I grunt and roll over in my bedroll. Catch him or not, it won't do a thing about the dreams.

~*~

She is there again — just in the shadows, just out of my sight. I call to her but my tongue is silent; I want her to step forward, into the light, to see if she is who she seems...

I walk forward but she recedes into the darkness, yet beckons me further. Her lips are moving, I can see this much... shaping my name... her hair is dark but I cannot tell if this is its true color or simply a trick of the shadows.

"Arianna," I try to say again, for it must be her. But I know it is not, I saw her fall on the battlefield with my own eyes, my only true love...

~*~

I awaken to find that Wilhelm has developed yet another irritating trait in the many years we have been apart — the ability to crow like a rooster, apparently for extended periods of time. I roll over in my bedroll, grimacing at the sound, and he chooses to interpret this as an invitation to demonstrate his new skill roughly two feet from my face.

"Aooooooo! We got him, Blagg! Have a look!"

Somehow — engineering never has been a strength of mine — the Warhammer's bizarre contraption managed to snag something humanoid-looking and suspend it nearly 15 feet overhead.

It is a gnome, one of those distrustful hole-dwellers, his face at once sobbing and seething. To make matters worse, he is clad in the uniform of Kayne's Black Guard.

"Goodbye, gnome," I murmur, raising my ax overhead to perform the obligatory decapitation. But Wilhelm stays my hand.

"Axman! Think! We haven't yet found out how he knows our path, where we are headed!" He casts a long look at the diminutive creature, now laying bound upon the rocks and pine needles. "To say nothing of what he knows about the Black Guard's movements."

The only movement I was interested in was seeing my ax come down on the foul creature's spitting, cowering face, but I capitulated to Wilhelm's wish, if only to watch as he tried and failed to get any information out of the gnome, which is what happened. After an hour of watching the Warhammer alternately attempt reasoning, bargaining and various threats of violence, I turn in again, and the gnome's hissing and thrashing finally cease.

~*~

The gnome slows our progress considerably, yet Wilhelm insists we keep him alive.

"He knows something, Axman, and we'd be fools not to wait him out until he talks," he whispers, his hands gently lowering mine, once again wrapped around my ax-handle. "Patience."

But between the gnome's incessant struggles, Wilhelm's inane chattering and my own sleepless nights, my patience is a thin-worn thread, and more than once it comes near to snapping. I settle myself by ranging far ahead, scanning the trees for any sign that we are nearing the great basin that cradles the Forest of Arboula, but I find none.

An unspoken agreement between Wilhelm and I leaves the gnome chiefly in his custody, and he ties the still-mute rogue to a tree when we make camp for the night. I stare at the gnome as I chew my dinner, and he stares back, his yellow-ringed eyes bulging from his narrow skull. Very well then; let him look.

~*~

The dream comes earlier each night, and this time it seems that it begins as soon as my eyes are closed... the shadowed face, the lips that speak my name... "Blagg..."

As ever I make to respond — but now I can hear my voice, a low groan, far away in my throat... encouraged, I move forward, reaching out toward her, the woman I now know to be my Arianna, somehow she is...

But a finger is pressed to her lips and I fall silent... open my eyes...

I am still here, in the wood. The fire nearly out, silent.

Then I see it. Her face, shrouded in darkness, dimly lit in the fire's faint light.

"Blagg," she whispers, just loud enough to hear. "Protect me from him."

I sit bolt upright, I feel the blood run out of my face, my heart broken into a full gallop. A hand closes on my shoulder and I nearly lunge for my ax.

"Waking up right on time, Axman, you are a wonder," Wilhelm laughs. "Your watch."

When I look back she is gone.

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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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