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TODAY

Saturday, February 23

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Airbags

Crowds greet Armenian pope

During a Chicago stopover Wednesday, Armenian pontiff Karekin II met with throngs of area Armenian Christians and with other religious leaders, including Roman Catholic Cardinal Francis George.

On his first visit to Chicago, the chief shepherd to 7 million Armenian Christians worldwide encouraged his flock to maintain their Armenian identity. Armenia identifies itself as the world's oldest Christian nation.

"Remain loyal to the faith of our forefathers," said Karekin, known as the Catholicos of All Armenians.
&mdas;Chicago Sun-Times

Everything in reach I shove into my mouth, chewing and slopping like a starved man. Which, I suppose, I am. Beans, potatoes, roast gourds and hotpotch, all of it mashed into nourishing paste between my molars. Juices trickle into my beard and an occasional torrent of ale to wash it all down. I pause, take a breath, and let fly an enormous belch.

Across the table, Nan looks up with raised eyebrows before returning to her own plate. She mostly picks at it. Briefly I wonder if this is affected, for surely she must be as famished as I, yet in the end I find I simply cannot care, and plunge back into the spread.

Nearby stands Alfie and the man Rhett, who appears the chieftan of this somewhat bloodthirsty band of outlaws. When Nan and I were dispatched to be executed at sword-point by this so-called "silent kid," following our rescue from the Black Guard and subsequent detention by Rhett's group, I don't know who exactly I expected to appear in the crowd of jeering ruffians. Certainly I did not anticipate the appearance of Alfie — the boy I had taken down out of the mountains, away from the corrupt sorcerer Osgood, and reunited with his long-lost father... only to see the man die on my watch.

Yet appear he did, and upon seeing my puffed and bloody face, the boy took pity upon an Axman and raised up his voice to declare that we henceforth were under his protection. A hush came over the outlaws then — I was later to understand that Alfie had taken something of a self-imposed vow of silence upon joining up with Rhett's band, and that his devotion to this code was second only to his prowess in battle. Before long I heard tell of the boy's exploits, dispatching entire patrols of the Dark Lord's Black Guard single-handedly, his work with the blade fast and efficient.

Since then Alfie had spoken but little, other than to inquire as to my adventures since our parting, which was somewhat less than amicable, following as it did the demise of his father in the river country. I told him of my travels with Wilhelm Warhammer, he who ultimately betrayed me into the hands of Kayne himself; how Kayne and M'yrrgh called forth the enormous beast that still marauds this land; and how Nan appeared to orchestrate my escape at the last moment.

Alfie nodded at all of this, looking off into the night, saying little. When my tale ended, he led us to the ruined hut designated as a mean mess hall and bade us eat our fill, which I did with not a little gusto.

After the meal we step out of the shack, the cook watching me leave with a look of dismay upon his whiskered face. Rhett goes to make ready the next day's preparations, while Nan, Alfie and I sit among the trees at forest's edge and take in a smoke, looking up at the stars and saying little.

"Eveleth is fine, you know," the boy says at length, and I sense reproach in his voice. I wait for him to go on, which he does after a moment. "She settled down with an innkeeper after about a week." He exhales a jet of smoke and looks me in the eye, measuring my reaction. I nod.

"And yourself?"

He looks away. "I stayed with them, for a while. But then..." The boy trails off and takes in more smoke. "Don't know. Got bored, I suppose."

Nan grunts and a bit of a smile crosses my lips; I am glad for the beard that hides this from the boy.

"I lit out after a few nights," he continues. "Took a raft and headed downriver, not really sure where I was going. Just needed to be away. I traveled at night, mostly, but then..." Alfie exhales and looks up at me. "Ambushed one morning. I should've heard them, approaching as I made my camp."

"Black Guard?"

He nods. "I fought, but there were too many. I was about to be taken, but then Rhett and some of his men appeared. They questioned me when it was over, I didn't say much since I didn't know what they were about. But in the end they figured that anybody fighting the Black Guard couldn't be all bad, so they took me in. I've been with them since then."

"This is your camp?" Nan asks.

Alfie shrugs. "For now. We never stay in one place too long. And we scatter our numbers. I think Rhett is the only one who truly knows how many are with us, across the kingdom. And I'm not even sure if he knows the full tally. More people are starting to join up... and we don't win every fight, either."

Footsteps in the darkening gloom. We look round to see Rhett walking toward us, and I nod to him. "Tell me," I say to him, "does Kayne know what you're up to here? This rebellion?"

"Not yet, so far as I can figure," Rhett murmurs, twisting at his moustache as he accepts the smoke. "We've been active, but aside from taking apart the occasional patrol and raiding the Guard's encampments, we haven't attempted anything on a large scale. From what we can tell, Kayne assumes it's peripheral chaos, what with the Beast on the loose and all. Just more rabble to put down."

I nod and consider this, as Nan looks up at him. "What are your intentions?"

Rhett cracks a grin of his own. "Straight to it, then. Fair enough. If what the kid — ah, Alfie, I suppose — if what he says about the events in Rheidling is true, I suppose you're to be trusted." He hunkers down beside us, pitches his voice lower. "The men here, and all of us across the kingdom really, we've talked about what we'd do, given the chance. Fight back. There are more of us who remember the old days of Mandrake than you two might guess. We've waited, trained when we could, watching for an opening. And now, with Kayne's attentions split between this Beast and those two sorcerers up on the mountain — I guess you had a hand in that one, Axman — now's the best shot we're going to have."

Again I nod. "The land will be plunged again into chaos... but out of chaos, order can be made."

Nan rolls her eyes. "What do you plan to do next?"

Rhett makes to speak again, but the boy interrupts him. "Perhaps I ought to first explain what caused me to be late in returning to camp tonight," he says, looking around. "I was separated from the raiding party during battle, that much you know. But in returning to camp via a roundabout route, I was waylaid by a spectre." He looks at me. "It was Osgood."

"He appeared to you?" Nan asks.

Alfie nods. "How do you know of him?"

"I heard tales when I was a magician in King Mandrake's court," she says, "whisperings of the strange and corrupt rites he performed in the wilds with Weiland, his partner. They were rumored to have gained control of the weather... I never found out if it was true. I do know that Mandrake came to Grauss, the court magician, and bade him visit the village Rheidling, where the city lord had imprisoned Weiland, but they were unable to wrest from him Osgood's location."

"And the Axman inadvertently freed Weiland from gaol," the boy puts in.

"While in the process of freeing your father," I mutter.

"Freeing yourself, more like," he shoots back, and we glare at one another until Nan interrupts. "What did Osgood's apparition say?"

The boy continues to stare me down. "He said only that he seeks an audience with the Axman."

At this, we fall into confused silence.

"You have many admirers, Axman, if all of this is true," says Rhett. "Kayne, Wilhelm Warhammer, now these mysterious mountain wizards..."

"This Osgood tricked me once," I growl, recalling how the sage sought to use me as a tool for his own ends. "My ax will split his head ere we meet again."

Nan sighs loudly. "For goodness' sake, Blagg." She turns to Alfie. "I assume he told you he would appear again, expecting an answer?"

The boy nods, and all eyes turn to her. "You'll tell him, then, that Blagg will meet him in two days' time, at a location of their choosing — but he won't come alone."

"Woman, you send me to my death!" I cry, leaping to my feet.

Immediately she leaps to her own. "I send you," she snaps, "to bargain for the future of this land! Who but two rogue wizards can tell us how to send Kayne's monstrous creature back where it came from?" She turns back to the boy. "Two days."

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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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