As of January 1, 2016, Gapers Block has ceased publication. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
 Thank you for your readership and contributions over the past 12-plus years. 

TODAY

Monday, September 16

Gapers Block
Search

Gapers Block on Facebook Gapers Block on Flickr Gapers Block on Twitter The Gapers Block Tumblr


Airbags

"What do you think?" Bradshaw asked me before the game.

I told him I thought the weather would affect New Orleans' passing game.

"Forget about that," Bradshaw said. "Throwing 50 times in this game is going to get you beat. You have to pound the ball to win this game."

Turns out Bradshaw was sort of right. Drew Brees threw 49 passes and the Saints lost. He thought it was the Saints who would do the pounding.
—Ed Sherman, Chicago Tribune

A rough sack is thrown over my head and tied tight around my neck, my hands bound behind me. Nearby I hear them doing the same to Eveleth, her screams. I get one leg free, lash out with a kick and my boot connects with hard bone. There is a yelp of angry pain and I am beaten until I fall.

~*~

Another sharp blow brings me back. We are on the move. A wagon, rolling fast over the bumps and hollows of the road, if it is indeed a road we follow. The vehicle jolts again, barking my battered skull against the wood, and before fading I discover I am tied down.

~*~

Carried, first upstairs, then down, much further down. Abrasive, cutting cords encircle my wrists, elbows, ankles, and I swim in pain. At least four men carry me, and I am unable to hear anything but the rustling of their clothes, the cracking echoes of their boots on stone stairs as we descend unknown depths. No sign of Eveleth.

Consciousness eludes me. I pursue it, grasp hold, lose the grip again. Before my swollen left eye there is a hole in the bag, no bigger than a pin's head, but it becomes my sun inside this dark, choking bag, and I stare at it. Dim light — torches? Candles? Sunset? Time has lost me.

Some time later we reach bottom. If not, it may as well be. Seeing as how my captors apparently possess knowledge of my identity, I should be surprised if they cast me into anything but the most dank and decrepit pit they can find. Disappointed, even.

We stop now, but still I remain limp. Another beating will do me no amount of good, and were I to stir, another beating I certainly would receive. If it were me imprisoning some would-be deposer of King Mandrake, it is no more than what I would do myself.

A heavy iron latch is pulled back, then another, and another. Creaks of protest from a door of thick wood. I am thrown inside, upon the stone floor of my new home. Pain sends me again into swoon, and I barely hear them shut me in.

~*~

It's dark. I know because I can no longer locate the kernel of light in the burlap hood. Then again, perhaps I am blind. My legs are free now. Drawing them to me, I prop one shoulder against the wall and push myself into a half-standing position, my knees quivering and weak, and I slump to the floor, breathing hard. I'll get no further, at least not today.

No meals come. Not surprising. They want me alive, of course, but just as cowed and groveling as a man could be. Everything hurts. For a half hour I rest, gathering my strength, then sit up against the wall and press my chin into my chest while I bend forward at the waist and clamp a bit of the hood between my knees. Shaking my head, trying to loosen it. With breaks to sleep, it takes me about a day to get it off.

So — not blind. But there isn't much worth seeing. A line of solemn gray light at the base of the door. Stone floor, as I guessed; it looks brown in color. I crawl over and press my face to the door's bottom edge, trying to see out, but there's nothing there. I measure the cell, about six feet by eight. No bench, no straw, no chamber pot. Not so much as a crack in the wall.

Hours pass and my thoughts drift. My ax, my things — gone? Taken, probably. Confiscated, they would say. Would I see them again? I muse on this, then curse myself. It is a lost soul indeed whose first thoughts are of his weapon, rather than she who was captured alongside him. Despair rolls me.

How long before the footsteps come, I can only guess. Two days, three? My concerns lay elsewhere, in my bone-dry throat and my shriveled, moaning stomach. The burlap sack lays at my side, where it fell after last I tried to suck nourishment from it, with broken threads of rope alongside, my half-conscious attempt to gnaw through my bonds. I float in a stupor, my half-lidded eyes fixed upon that line of weak gray light. Somewhere the sounds register, the pull of the latches, and then the line fattens, brightens, blinding me. I squint at the emergent shapes.

"Welcome to Rheidling, Axman." Icy water drenches me then, shocking me into shivers, but enough finds my throat that I am able to speak.

"Who among you will do it?" I rasp, blinking away moisture. "Let my executor name himself, that my spirit may harry and plague his wretched days until their end."

"Not yet." His face becomes clearer, and there is recognition: Gort, one of the Dark Lord's more weaselish lieutenants. My men routed his legions at the battle of Endkeep, and would that my arm were six inches longer, my ax might have parted that drawn, simpering face from the rest of its cursed body.

He sees this in my face and smirks. "Our fortunes have indeed reversed since last we met."

"Does she still live? Answer me."

Gort clucks his tongue. "Blagg, this isn't like you. Not at all. Yours is a solitary nature. What brand of madness possessed you of the thought that you and she, wife to a guard in noble service of his highness the Dark Lord– "

I spit at him. He laughs, but his hand strays to the hilt of his blade. "Haven't you given it up yet, Axman? Ten years the war is over. The kingdom has moved on, the people. They're happier now. Of course, when one lives in the wilds on his hands and knees like a bloated boar, perhaps one develops a view that is slightly... off?"

"The people of this land live dead-eyed and die young," I say, my voice dried to a whisper.

Saying nothing, Gort cocks his head to one side, regarding me for a few moments. Then: "You hang tomorrow at sunset."

I stare him down.

"Unless, of course, you're willing to pledge your soul in service of the Dark Lord, for this and a thousand lifetimes."

Again I spit.

"I guessed not. Either way, you have a day to think it over as the gallows are constructed." He leans in to whisper in my ear. "They expect quite a crowd. Not often is a fugitive of your status captured all the way out here."

I purse my lips to spit again and a mailed fist crashes into the side of my skull. Gort wore armored gloves. I hadn't noticed that earlier.

My last thoughts before the dark.

~*~

Dignity. Even in this poor state of affairs, I can be said to possess it. I make myself wait several minutes, ensuring my jailers are not returning, before I put my tongue to the floor and lap up the remaining water. In the corner I find half a loaf, soggy and riddled with maggots. Gort does not know me as well as he likes to pretend — I have eaten far worse in my years on the roam, even as a penniless street urchin. The curling white worms mash between my molars and it seems that no food has tasted this good.

These don't feel like my final hours. Again I sit focusing on the gray light under the door, resisting the urge to stand, to move around. If I am to mount any kind of escape tomorrow, I will need what strength I still have. My joints ache. Nevertheless I try to reflect, ponder this life, this quest. I have given my life to Mandrake, the rightful king, whether on the throne or in his grave; to the defeat of the Dark Lord Kayne, twisted usurper and despot. In this I have failed, but perhaps my failure was told in the runes long ago.

My thoughts turn to Eveleth. Perhaps they will let her live. Our tryst was folly from the first, of course. Would I do it again? Impossible to say. Cold logic says never, but my still-beating heart can never forget her warmth. She was unhappy, but never would she wish for this fate. Another death laid at my feet, more blood on my already sopping hands. But none had been so fair as she.

I think of the boy, Alfie. Possibly locked away elsewhere in this very dungeon, or maybe in the streets above, eking out his way as a rogue, his quest to free his father abandoned when it became clear that the man lay dead in the ground. Or perhaps he, too, lies cold and stiff in the ditch of an ill-traveled road.

But what of it? Sitting there in the dark, clearing away the moth-balls and dust-coneys from the recesses of my memory, it seems to me that most everyone close to me had gone on. Comrades, my men, killed in the war. Mandrake, my fallen liege. And Arianna, my beloved true, cut down on the field of battle, breathing her last in my arms.

Let it come, then.

~*~

Much later the latches are pulled and the door pulled open. A fresh hood is yanked over my head and my legs are bound. Somewhere close Gort whispers; I can hear his smirk.

"It is time, Axman."

GB store
 

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.

GB store

GB Store

GB Buttons $1.50

GB T-Shirt $12

I ✶ Chi T-Shirts $15