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TODAY

Saturday, June 15

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Dear Blagg,

I am Mr. Jason Kane, I trained and work as an external auditor for Rand Merchant Bank (RMB) South Africa, working as part of a bigger team that covers the entire South Africa region.

An investor (name with-held) died without naming a next of kin to his fund in my bank. The amount is $15.5M and banking regulation/legislation in South-Africa demands that i notify the fiscal authorities after three years. The above set of facts underscores my reason to seek your permission to have you stand as the next of kin to the deceased. This funds will be approved and release in your favor as the next of kin if only you will adhere to my instruction and cooperate with me in one accord.

The proceeds of this account valued at 15.5 million dollars can be paid to you and then you and I can share the money, 50% to me amounting to US$7,750,000.00 dollars and 40% for you amounting to US$6,200.000.00 and 10% amounting to US$1,550, 000.00 for miscellaneous expenses that might arise. I would want you to understand that this is a DEAL.

Awaiting your urgent reply via email.

Thanks and my regards.
Mr. Jason Kane

This axman's life has been a solitary one by necessity, an existence I have chosen, though there could have been no other. Yet after years of wandering and rough living I found that such a life — lonely, separate, devoid of companion or confidant — this suits me best, and upon this boat I am once more reminded of this fact.

Two days we have sailed. The term is used only in the most general sense. Not a one of the five others onboard possess any shipborne knowledge, and I have only the most passing familiarity, knowledge gained and forgotten long ago. When we made good our escape from the city of Rheidling, under heavy attack and propelled to safety on winds conjured by the rogue sorcerer Weiland, I assumed that the others had steered the boat toward the pier, to my rescue. Not so. This was the doing of the waves and tide, I was soon to discover.

The father of the boy Alfie lay prone upon the boat's floorboards, his shirt soaked through with rain and now blood, seeping from his shoulder where an arrow had struck him during our flight. He gasped and coughed as rain fell into his mouth, the boy Alfie kneeling over top of him and screaming: “Why did you stop for him?”

The boy refers to me, who held off the hordes of the Dark Lord Kayne long enough for him, his father, Eveleth and two others to make it to the boat.

Later, when we're clear of the city, he has his answer. "We didn't stop for him," said one of the man's accomplices, a fellow named Nort. "The storm took us where it would until the wind picked up." He spoke low and with his eyes cast nervously toward me, which was pointless. The boat is hardly 12 feet across.

Eveleth heard it too, put her hand on my shoulder, believing that she steadied me. I shrugged away her hand and continued to sharpen my ax.

In truth I bore them little malice. As I saw things, we were even — Nort and the others, whom the boy had found while I dallied with Eveleth, they were the ones who set the exploding pots around the square where I was to be hanged, in an effort to provoke chaos and cover for their plot to free the boy's father from gaol. And it worked, though my surviving the noose was but an unintentional side effect. Fate saved me. It had done so before, though none could say whether it would be so kind again. But I am not unique. Fate saved many men and let just as many slip away.

The boy's father is coming to know this. He is not in a good way. He lays now on the floorboards, half-conscious and moaning as the boy sits beside him and does not speak, not to his father's friends, not to Eveleth, least of all to me.

It is true that I bear some fault. From a tender age I learned that it is pointless and foolhardy to deny a misstep made in battle. Ignore it and the fight is lost, forget it afterward and the war will turn against you. I didn't give much thought to the reasoning at the time — like so many things concerned with combat and weaponry, it was intuitive to me — never realizing that time and again I committed that very error, not on the field of battle, but in my dealings with those around me. Always social tactics came to me much slower than sword parries and head-butts.

~*~

So it was on the boat. When we were clear of the harbor and Kayne's war-ships I turned to where the boy Alfie crouched, tending to his father.

"M'yrrgh's scroll," I demanded. "Tell me what it said."

"Blagg," Eveleth began, but I waved her off.

"The boy made a bargain as a man," I said. "Let him fulfill it as one, then."

He only looked at me, eyes red and hair pasted to his face by the rain. The other of his father's men, a bony fellow named Sov, stood up.

"Can't you see — his father's wounded," he said, then lowered his voice. "It may be mortal."

"Let the boy speak, if he would answer," said I.

He turned away from me and murmured to his father. The seas around us had calmed; we traveled south at a very fast clip and the clouds began to part, affording a little moonlight by which to see. The shore became distant and little attention was paid to the sail and rudder, huddled as they were over the boy's father. But I didn't move from where I stood, looking down on the boy and waiting for him to reply.

"Please, Blagg," Eveleth called up to me. "Can you help him? Is there anything you can do?"

With a loud sigh I knelt beside the man and examined his wound. None of them had the sense yet to remove the arrow, and there were several cries of protest as I snapped it and rolled him on his side. "Steel yourself, m'lord," I muttered to him, and before their nervous hands could intervene I drew it out through his back. Much blood came then and I barked at the others to press upon the wound while I studied the arrowhead.

"Black Guard steel." I held it to the moonlight, its wicked barbs still wet with the man's blood. "From Kayne's own forge."

"What of it?" asked Nort. I cast the arrow into the sea and looked at him.

"Poisoned." I turned from him to Eveleth and then to the boy, who glared as if I had dipped the arrow myself.

"Will he live?"

"He may."

The boy was up on his feet in a wink and I caught his wrist as he brought the knife up. Our eyes locked.

"You know," the boy seethed. "There's a way to cure it and you know what it is."

I said nothing.

"Alfie!" Nort approached slow and cautious. "What's all this? Let the man speak!"

"He won't tell." The boy didn't look away as I squeezed his wrist, turned it and removed the knife from his hand. I let him go and he stalked back to where his father lay, already quite pale.

"Is that true?" Nort asked as he glanced at the knife in my hand. "You won't help a dying man, still loyal to the true King Mandrake?"

"I want what's owed me."

Eveleth turned from where she sat tending the boy's father. "Blagg, you may have your reasons, but it isn't your place to– "

"You don't know what's at stake here." None of them did.

"Can you at least tell us how long he has?" said Sov.

"It depends," I said. "I've seen the Black Guard's venom draw some deaths out for weeks. Others go within the hour."

"And if Alfie tells you what this scroll says..."

I nodded but the boy was on his feet again and heated.

"Give me the cure, Axman, then I'll tell it to you," he spat. "I remember it. It's fresh as morning to me."

This made my teeth clench up. "The only cure I know may be days away, boy. And you don't know where to seek it."

"Then it's a good thing you're steering, isn't it."

My hand went to the rudder as he said this and I silently cursed myself.

"You'd sooner let your father die," I said after a while, "than fulfill your end of the bargain we made."

"But you forget, Axman." His eyes narrowed and darted at Eveleth. "You never fulfilled your own."

Hot fury bade me whip him but I calmed myself. He had it wrong — had me wrong — but he was too far incensed to see this. I told myself to wait but could not keep my gaze from the wounded man's heaving chest. Should he expire M'yrrgh's scroll, the secret that could undo the Dark Lord, could be lost. The boy agreed that when I saw him reunited with his father, he would tell to me the scroll's contents, and here we were, though obviously he believed it none of my doing — never mind that it was my neck in the noose that gathered the Black Guard together, leaving the dungeons open to attack. My teeth ground together.

~*~

Some of them later slept, but not the boy and not me. I stood the tiller while he sat at his father's side. He did not look up. Mists came in the morning and thickened to fog. The breeze died and we drifted.

When the others woke there was little conversation. Sov and Nort took to fishing with the lines stowed beneath the benches but found no luck. Eveleth watched over the boy's father and did not often look toward me. The man is doing poorly and everyone knows it, but still they say nothing to me.

I watch him now, grappling with every breath that enters his lungs, and I wonder about his suffering. Imprisoned nearly fifteen years for his loyalty to Mandrake, the king whose memory I serve. I wonder about my own suffering in that time — has it been greater? Should it matter? Does it?

"The river country." I stand and say this and they all look at me. "That's where we sail. A few days down the coast, if the winds serve our favor. Hedgeroot grows there in abundance." I catch Alfie's eye. "It will cure the Black Guard's poison."

He does not look away but neither does he speak and I become flustered.

"Well, boy? You have your cure."

"I'll have it when you put it into my hand," he says and turns back to his father.

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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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