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TODAY

Monday, April 22

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The number of citizen complaints about rats — 35,413 — has dropped about 14 percent so far this year compared to the same time period in 2006, said Smith.
...
The prime weapon is tightly fitting garbage cans. The city has distributed about 115,000 new and reconditioned containers this year, which thwart Rattus norvegicus, a.k.a. brown rats or Norway rats.
...
Still, rats survive. "The number one food source for urban rats is dog feces," said Smith. The city estimates the Chicago rat population at around 500,000. That's down from around 20 years ago, when estimates were 6 to 7 million.

-The Chicago Sun-Times, Nov. 15

A comfortable-looking boulder catches my eye, and I settle my haunches upon it. My hand finds the wineskin and my fingers, of their own accord, have opened it and raised it to my mouth before I remember that I am not thirsty. Nor am I fatigued, though I rest. What I am feeling most of all is impatience, that foot-tapping fiend driving me headlong and heedless into the unknown. That feeling has been my traveling companion since I left the house of Osgood three days ago — and so has the boy.v

The top of his head now comes into view as he struggles up the rock, and I can tell by the way his boots slip in the loose stones that we will soon be stopping again. It is not all the boy's fault. From his scrawny arms and sticklike legs, it appears that life with Osgood was as short on meals as it was long on chores.

He gains now the top of the rise, and I look away before he sees me marking his progress. Somehow my wineskin is again in my hand, and I take a swig before I can stop myself, considering the boy's bearing and temperament. No more than four or five sentences has he spoken since I agreed, with admitted reluctance, to take him to the port city of Rheidling, as per my bargain with Osgood. It's obvious that the boy is perceptive. Traveling alone I would have made twice the distance we've covered together, and while I have done my level best not to hold his substandard mountaineering against him, he plainly feels inadequate.

My only hope is that he doesn't grow to resent me. Despite my impatience, I would rather be the shepherd than the wolf — though I can play either role, if he should stray.

Saying nothing, I hand him the wineskin, and after a moment's hesitation he takes it. Despite the old man's treachery, he possessed deep knowledge of these mountains, making known to me several springs and caches of the peculiar mountain fruit that will serve us well at this dawdling pace. The boy, done with the water, is now watching the clouds sail over the distant peaks. Despite the sun's cheery brightness, the air is still biting cold.

As I take the wineskin back and stand, he gets up as well. I give the straps of his backpack a cursory inspection, tightening one, and we get moving again.

~*~

The first tremors come as I chew the last morsel of roast bird that was our dinner. I glance at the boy, already dozing, and scatter the fire. With my hand laid on the rock, I hold my breath and run my eyes across the mountains visible from the crevice that serves as our camp. There it is again — another tremor. Something large is moving in these peaks.

Ten minutes later, I am certain it's coming for us. By the crevice's entrance I sit, my ax cradled lightly in my palms, listening. Several times I've heard falling rocks, cascading down the mountainside to the west. The vibrations grow louder and more frequent, with dust sometimes cascading down from the fissure in which we sit.

The boy is up now, his hand on the grip of his sword — smart lad, he slept with it on, I think to myself. "What is it?" he whispers.

"Don't know," I breathe, still scanning the mountainside. "A giant, maybe."

That quiets him for a bit. "And... what do we do if it is?" he asks, now searching the rocks himself.

I shrug. "Kill it, I hope. Or get eaten." I turn with a grin, but the boy's face has gone ghost-white.

"Have you ever... fought one?"

"Only once. And at the time, I had the distinct benefit of—"

The mountainside explodes on my left and I leap back into the crevice, taking cover from the spraying shards of stone. A hoarse, guttural grunt comes from somewhere outside, and I see an enormous club rise just in time to shove the boy behind me, shielding him as another bone-rattling blow falls upon the rock above us. We need to get out, now.

Grabbing the boy by his collar and heaving him to his feet, I shout "Stay close" before running out onto the path. Immediately we dive as the club, fashioned from some sort of twisted iron and nearly the size of a tree-trunk, crashes down again. The boy cries out but I'm already charging the monster, ax in hand.

All I can see is that it's big — even hunched over, it's easily fifteen feet high, clad in torn rags and tufts of matted bristles. Its hands are huge and it swipes at me as I step inside its reach, swinging away with every ounce of my strength. The creature is slow, and before my blade cleaves the leathery flesh of its thigh I inhale a lungful of its fetid odor — it is dank and almost overpowering.

The great brute roars in pain and brings its club down again, but I dance behind it, delivering a glancing blow to the back of its leg. If I can throw the thing off balance, fate may send it reeling off the path and into the abyss.

But not yet. It turns upon me, surprising me with its agility, and clips my shoulder with the great mace. I'm thrown to the ground, gasping for air, but scramble to my feet in time to avoid its terrible, seeking hand. I spin, twirling the ax overhead and sinking it into the creature's arm. The wound is deep and I must twist my weapon to pry it from the bone, as the monster's deafening roars reverberate off the rock walls. Briefly I wonder if Osgood can hear the battle, in his altitudinous abode, but then the creature jerks away, freeing my ax and bowling me over in the process.

Regaining my feet I turn to attack, but no; the hulking silhouette has moved away, poised now over a new target. The boy. Moonlight catches the blade of his sword. For all the good it will do him, he may as well try to blind the creature with it.

The creature is an ogre. Its bulbous, wrinkled head is fixed upon the boy, and again it begins to raise its massive arm to deliver another blow of the cudgel. Never removing my eyes from the beast, I run my hand along the rock wall, feeling for purchase. There — I turn and climb, moving upward and closer to the repulsive thing. Loose gravel and debris clatter below me but the monster heeds no distraction, not now. The boy is backed against a wall, with more rock to his left and a sheer drop to his right. He has nowhere left to go.

Just a few more steps will bring me directly over the ogre, its club now about to strike. I grasp the final boulder and prepare to leap...

It slips and I am sliding, cursing as I struggle to right myself. I slam shoulder-first into a rock slab and attempt to stand, but the betrayer stone has pinned my leg. I jam the head of my ax beside it, straining for leverage, but it will not give.

Below me, the ogre strikes. As its shoulder drops I can see the boy dodge to his left — no, no, you're too early! — the ogre adjusts his swing and in that moment I know the boy will be killed.

The mangled iron club falls upon him, but in the last instant he feints again, cat-like, to his right. The ogre twists as its club finds empty air, then turns its head to see the boy dart around and plunge his blade into the creature's foot. It roars again, half pain and half angry surprise. I give up battling the boulder atop my leg and watch, jaw agape, as the boy thrusts his shoulder into the ogre's leg, giving it a mighty push that sends the monster over the cliff.

Panting, the boy watches it fall, howling as it careens off the jagged rocks.

After gathering our scattered supplies we move on, walking all through the night and most of the next day before stopping. Neither says a word.

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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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