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TODAY

Saturday, June 15

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Airbags

Tom Skilling, who can be as animated as some of the weather he forecasts, was excused from jury duty Tuesday after a judge agreed that his popular personality could overwhelm fellow jurors.

Skilling, the brother of former Enron Corp. Chief Executive Jeffrey Skilling, was asked in court if he held any rancor toward prosecutors. Skilling said he considers himself fair, but that the conviction and sentencing of his brother have been stressful for his family.
— Chicago Tribune, Oct. 26

Dawn arrives and I have been moving for an hour. The road out of Cloumont seems wider than before, and clear, with few loose rocks to trouble my way. Each step I take seems to bounce from the balls of my feet and the cold mountain air, which so recently chilled my blood and brought aching stiffness to my bones, now tastes refreshing and agreeable. Bounding up a steep incline, I find myself humming a snatch of song. It seems years since I have felt such exuberance.

My belly is full of hot porridge and my knapsack stuffed with bread, cheese, dried meat and peculiar mountain-fruits with which I am not familiar, but give off a pleasant aroma and are baked into pies in this high country, as I understand. My muscles feel loose and warm, the product of a good night's rest in a warm bed. Cloumont was a welcome reprieve from the travails that befell me in the eastern ranges of the Towerfall mountains, and while a rough-looking stranger garnered watchful glances and reasonable distance-keeping from the locals, the barkeep confided that this was normal behaviour — in fact, my reception was warmer than usual, as the townspeople were growing used to visitors. I was the second to pass through the town in six months.

It was appreciated. Also appreciated was the deference of the town constable, a man wise enough not to broach the subject of the dozen or so fresh corpses rotting outside of town.

Several hours later I mark the foot of a northward path cut among the crags and boulders; a weatherbeaten sign a hundred yards uphill reads simply "Osgood" and I know the route is true. After another hour's climb, I spy a ramshackle cabin far above me. Finally reaching the peak, I fall gasping to my knees. In the clear air, it seems as though the entire kingdom is spread out before me.

The cabin is old. How many years it has stood atop this mountain I cannot know, but its stout construction and windworn walls suggest that if the squat structure has lasted this long, it will take more punishment than a mountain can deliver to destroy it. Smoke curls from the stone chimney, and faintly I hear someone chopping wood.

As I approach the house my hand, of its own volition, reaches into the knapsack, touching the scroll of M'yrrgh for reassurance. It is there, and now I mean to find out what it says.

The doorknob is turning before I can knock, and the door opens to reveal a withered, wheezing man of extraordinary age. One eye, its pupil a sickly pale blue, seems to push forth from his pasty skull, as the other retreats amid hairy flaps and wrinkles. His mouth cracks into a crooked smile, exhibiting a haphazard assortment of yellow teeth. He nods many times and raises a quaking hand, motioning me to enter.

"I didn't expect ye so soon, Axman, no, didn't."

Eying the old man, I enter, shutting the front door behind me. "You know my name."

"Name?" he wheezes, bending to fill an earthenware cup from a steaming kettle. "I know ye have an ax strapped t'yer back, yep. And ye appear to be a man... though my vision grows dim and weak with age... " Again turning that bulging eye upon me, he emits a dry, rattling laugh.

"True enough. My name is Blagg. I come to you with — "

"A scroll?"

"I — yes. But how..."

He leers at me again, holding out the cup. "'Tis in yer hand, axman, 'tis."

My eyes dart downward, just long enough to confirm his words. He is still watching me, smiling his yellow, toothy smile. "True enough," I say again, taking the cup and sitting in the chair he offers. For the impression I'm making, one would think me still comatose in Mullerbinns' cave. At a loss for words, I sniff at the hot drink in my hand.

"Cider," he says, winking and leering again. "The nimbus-pears. Try some, try."

I sip and swish it about my mouth, savoring the tart flavor. Bookcases line nearly every wall, parchments piled upon every visible surface. In the far room are still more books, and a telescope mounted at the window. "It's good."

"Now then," the old man leans forward, grinning again. "My guess is that ye can read the English, and ye already know my name is Osgood. But since ye came all the way up here, my guess is that ye can't read whatever's writ upon that scroll, and ye're here to make a bargain."

"That's right." I hand the scroll to him, but hold on as his bony fingers wrap around it. Our eyes lock. "What about price?"

"Aye, there's that," he nods, and I release the scroll, watching him. There is a sparkle in his eye. "I'll be needing ye to take something, transport, see, to the port city Rheidling. Ye know it?" I nod. "See that it's safely delivered. As part of our agreement."

"As long as I can carry it on my back and it doesn't lure monsters, you have a bargain," I declare, my patience for an old man's prattling on the wane. "On to the scroll. Can you read it?"

The stiff parchment crackles as Osgood unfurls it, his eyes darting back and forth across the profane, otherworldly characters. "Ah, Axman," he breathes. "Haven't seen this script in many a year, many a year..."

He bounds then out of his chair with shocking agility, moving into the far room and immediately beginning to ransack it. Parchment and assorted baubles are thrown about amid muttered curses, but silence soon falls, and the faint smell of pipe smoke wafts before my nostrils. I stare into the fire and attempt to still my tapping feet and fidgeting hands.

An hour later, Osgood again leaps up and I can see him leaning out the far room's window. "ALFIE!!" he bellows, the mountains echoing his roar. Outside, someone approaches, and the front door opens to reveal a youth of perhaps 15 — Alfie, presumably.

"Come," the old man orders, and without a word Alfie obeys, entering the far room and shutting the door behind him. An eyebrow cocked, I sip my cider, bide my time. Sage Osgood has an odd way about him, but spry as he is, there is no escape from this mountaintop, should he and the whelp prove treacherous.

At last the door reopens, and Osgood emerges with his boy in tow. "I'll show Blagg to the armory," he says to Alfie, who moves out of the room. Turning to face me, I see the sage's face full of solemn severity — it's a look I've seen before, on the faces of men as they made choices that they'd carry the rest of their lives. Could the content of M'yrrgh's scroll have such an effect? "This way, Axman."

I follow Osgood as he steps quickly around the side of the house, leading me to a small shed built into a rock outcropping. Still stone-faced, he works the latch and swings open the door to reveal a small assortment of rusted swords and battered shields, before turning to face me again. "Pick ye the sharpest blade, and the sturdiest shield," he hisses, "and be smart!"

The soldier in me recognizes an order, and after a cursory glance at the equipment I point out one short sword with a sturdy edge and a roundshield that has seen better days. Osgood sweeps them into his arms and closes the doors.

"I appreciate the gesture, good sage, but the ax is my tool of choice, and I am well-equipped besides," I say as we move back toward the cabin's front door. "Now, as to the contents of the scroll..."

The old man leers at me again, his bulging eye seeming to betray a glint of mirth. "Price, axman... ye agreed to transport something for me, aye, ye did," he wheezes as we return to the front of the house. "So — here is what ye shall take to Rheidling, and the contents of the scroll ye shall find within, upon yer arrival!"

Before the house stands Alfie, a knapsack slung over his shoulder and a look of utter fear in his eye.

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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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