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TODAY

Monday, April 22

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Airbags

Dear Blagg, Do you have a following among the other subjects who stay loyal to King Mandrake? Is there an Axman fan club, emulating their hero, and producing much-needed allies? Must you fight this evil alone?
-Stone Cold

I kick in the barracks door brandishing my ax before me, but there will be no battle. The broad wooden building is as deserted as the streets outside, and I curse the old man I freed from the dungeon beneath the city hall. He told me it was here that they brought her, Eveleth, the Black Guardsman's wife who I seduced — or whom seduced me, depending on your view.

"Eveleth!" I cry, cupping one hand to my mouth, then again. No answer. My hand tightens on the handle of my ax and outside lightning forks the sky. Rain won't be enough. Before dawn breaks, Rheidling will burn.

Why the port city has chosen tonight to rip itself asunder, I do not know. I wish only to find Eveleth and get out before we're caught in the middle.

No candles burn, no lanterns or torches, and outside rising smoke obscures the moon. Distant firelight provides the little illumination penetrating the dirty windows, and as I advance, it looks as though the place has sustained a goblin ransacking. Chairs and tables upended, clothing and bits of armor strewn all around, half‑eaten meals mashed into the floor and bearing bootprints. Kayne's insignia hangs on the wall. There is a foul stink here, of kerosene and death.

I call her name again, picking my way through rooms, and eventually find the stairs. No noise or sign of life do I sense, but my blade never falls far below shoulder level. After being jailed, hung, attacked by a monster and nearly buried beneath a cave‑in — not to mention losing track of the boy Alfie, who is to finally tell me the contents of M'yrrgh's scroll — the last thing an Axman needs is to grow a second mouth across his neck because he wasn't careful.

The second floor is marginally less wrecked than the first, although as I creep across one dingy dormitory, it seems odd that–

A sound, above. The roof.

All pretensions toward stealth abandoned — never have I been a convincingly sneaky man, and never shall I be — I flounder from room to room in search of upward conveyance and eventually find it in the form of an iron ladder. The trap‑door above is loose, and I lunge through it, landing in a heap atop the roof. Neither am I an agile man.

But no attacker presents himself, and she calls to me.

"Oh, Blagg!"

Smoke is thick in the air as I go to her, bound and prone upon the tar surface. Across the lane, fires have claimed nearly the entire block, and before I chop through her bonds I look out over the city, lit bright with columns of flame.

"What have they done?"

"I'm fine, nothing — they tied me up and left me here hours ago." She wriggles free and stands and there are no tears on her face. "But how did you escape?"

"A boring story, unless you happen to be the hangman struck dead by a piece of flying pottery."

"What?"

"Let's move."

We are nearly to the ladder when I hear the laughter. Below us, Eveleth's husband, with a handful of Kayne's Black Guard. They hold torches and now fan out around the building.

"I knew you'd show up," he hisses. "And now, as you burn for one another, so shall you burn together."

I laugh; I cannot help it. "That's terrible."

"Oh?" He pauses, torch inches from the oil-soaked walls. If this was a trap, I'd at least see him spring it properly.

"You ought to have said something like "love burns.' Much more succinct, and to the point."

"Have it your way, Axman," he snaps. "Goodbye."

His torch touches to the wall; around the barracks his lackeys do likewise and it is aflame. Another flash of lightning overhead as they run down the street, laughing. Rain begins to fall.

"Blagg, what will we do?"

"This way." I lead her to the roof's edge, where already I am eyeing the distance. Ten feet at least to the next building.

"We run," I say, shifting my ax to the other hand, "you with your hand on my belt. When I give the signal, we jump."

Already the fire laps at the roof's edge. She nods and kisses me once, quickly. Toward the edge we run, until I shout: "Now!"

We leap, and she is quick, but I cannot tell whether we will make it. The wall rushes toward us and I close my eyes and swing my ax, but we fall far, farther than I calculated.

Then the blade connects with a mighty thunk and we are thrown against the wall. I grip tight to the ax with both hands, but Eveleth — the impact is too great and she loses her hold on me and is slipping...

My eyes jam closed at her scream but almost immediately she is laughing. I look around to see her on the ground, not four feet below me. As I pry my ax from the planks I do my best to mask my shocked horror, but it is a poor job and Eveleth tugs at my sleeve.

"We must be off."

"Hold," I say, turning an eye toward the burning barracks. "Show the way out of the city. Its time is short tonight."

~*~

We run in a direction I believe to be north; it is difficult to tell in the rain which pelts upon the streets and slicks the cobblestones. The storm now directly overhead, lightning stabbing down, smashing the building-tops into galaxies of spark and timber. Over and over they strike, thunder tearing the air, and we take cover beneath a crumbling brick archway.

There are others here — peasants, by the look of them, and poor. A father with two young girls, faces tight with fear.

"We seek the northern road," I say to the father. "I advise you to leave as well. Something augurs ill for this town, man."

"The northern road won't do any of us good," he says, drawing his children closer to him. "All exits from the city are blocked."

"The Dark Lord's men." I remember now how they ran through the streets, never slowing or looking behind them.

"They search for you, Axman." I cannot see his face but there is poison in his words. "They burn the town, in hopes that you burn with it."

Thunder crackles around us.

My fists clench. "The fiends..."

"Not all. Some of the Black Guard wouldn't have it," he said. "Some tried to fight back."

"And?"

"Scattered, now. Or dead." One of his little girl's teeth began to chatter and he pulled a blanket tight around her shoulders.

Eveleth leans forward. "But surely, you and your daughters–"

"Turned away." The man shakes his head in the shadows. "The Dark Lord will see the city destroyed, down to the last stone. They say he walks here even now."

She takes my arm. "Blagg, we cannot stay. Should they find us..."

I nod. "May better fortune find you," I tell him. "And may you forgive the day my shadow came to your home."

Back into the storm we run. Neither of us stops; we both know our only chance now.

Eveleth leads the way to the harbour, no longer bothering with side-streets. The rain drives down and cuts visibility to mere feet, yet the flames climb higher. We pass by small groups huddled and wet and covered faces. Families, looters. It does not matter.

Another half hour we run, an hour, and I become certain we are lost. Lightning slices the storm around us, nearby, over and over. We take shelter in a shadowed doorway to gain our bearings and then he appears.

He walks slow. The rain seems not to bother him, and as his shape becomes clear I can see his face upturned to the storm, matting his long beard to his face and neck.

It is the old man I freed from the dungeon. And he comes now, one hand raised, brings it down and a bolt of lightning rips through the house across the street. Never does he slow or break stride. His hand goes up again, and falls; another flash and the ground ripples beneath us, debris clattering down.

Eveleth gapes at him and I must pull her out into the street before she begins to run. The old man — Weiland, Osgood's fellow sorcerer, for it must be him — does not look back to see the house fall.

~*~

We make the docks sometime later but immediately wish we hadn't. Here, it seems, is the one area yet to be abandoned by Kayne's Black Guard, and it also appears they'd counted on my eventually showing up. They stand four deep, clustered before each dock.

"Wait until they're on me," I murmur into Eveleth's ear. "Make for the nearest boat and head for the long pier. I'll meet you at the end."

Before she can protest or invent complex questions I leap out and run straight for them.

"Oy! There he is!"

More is said, perhaps, but my ax cuts deep into their first rank and I hear little else for some time. They press in on all sides and when I leap to the sea wall I can see Eveleth breaking for the boats, but no — she is being chased, overtaken, and–

And I am knocked down, nearly into the water, the blades of the Guard seeking my flesh and very nearly finding it. We are very close to the pier now and I cover behind a broad post to chance another look. Through the downpour I can see the white of her dress in the boat, but those others remain around her, dark shapes making quick movements. I sense that I am near an explanation but find myself distracted by yet another fellow in black armor insisting that I lop off his arm. They push me back, down the pier, and far off I can see the boat begin to move.

Faster, it must be faster.

On and on they come and I find myself giving more and more ground. Almost to the end now, and the boat — further away?

I cry out and faintly hear Eveleth's voice on the wind as I redouble my efforts and hold my position a few more seconds, ax flying this way and that through the steel and leather and bone of Kayne's men. The boat is nearing now, but still much too far away...

There is no more pier. A few more moments I can fight and then it will be over, one way or another. The boat is closer but beginning to turn away. Nothing left for it. I jump out into the seething tides.

With my ax in one hand I clumsily kick and paddle for the boat, yelling out for them to wait, damning them. Through a flash of lightning I spy a thin, drawn face shouting at Eveleth, her shouting back, him shouting at someone else and the boat beginning to turn back... he is familiar to me…

Closer. Only 30 feet, 20. The first arrow dives into the sea.

Fifteen feet and the arrows fall harder. For the first time this night I am thankful for the blinding torrents.

Five feet and I can nearly reach them. Eveleth's hands outstretched and beside her, Alfie's father, shouting at me.

I take their hands, one each, and as I flounder onto the deck there is a piercing scream. An arrow protrudes from the man's shoulder and he goes down.

On the pier I see them lined up, stringing arrows and loosing them. They fall around us and we press ourselves against the gunwales as we move out of range. But our relief is temporary for their war-ships soon rise behind us.

"Why did you stop for him?" Alfie screams at his father, curled on the deck, over and again.

There is little to be done. The ships of the Black Guard are closing, and I stand to watch them.

Seconds later I am knocked onto my back, as are Eveleth and Alfie beside me. My hands go first to my chest, feeling for the wound, but none is there and the rain stings my face. There is a howling and it is the wind, colossally strong, bearing us south away from the city. The accomplices of Alfie and his father raise up a weak cheer, but my gaze is fixed upon the tall bluffs outside the burning city. A lone figure stands there, beard and hair wild in the storm, his arms raised.

For a moment, I think I see Weiland wave.

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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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