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TODAY

Saturday, June 15

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Airbags

You can own a sea lion masterpiece

Sea lions have been taught by the Navy to sneak up on underwater swimmers and slap metal cuffs on their legs. Using a series of pictures, some have learned that if A equals B, and B equals C, then C equals A. So teaching two of the Shedd Aquarium's sea lions to put paint brush to canvas -- "not real difficult,'' said chief trainer Ken Ramirez.

Ramirez called the work produced by the Shedd's Zuma and Tyler "abstract impressionist.''

Starting today, the Shedd will be selling some of the sea lions' creations at its gift shop for $75 to $100 each, with the proceeds going toward the aquarium's education and conservation programs.
—Chicago Sun-Times

"Blagg the Axman? Filthy wretch, if you ask me. Wouldn't piss on his corpse if I saw it on fire."

"True enough, I suppose." The shop-owner steps back from the wanted sign bearing my name. For a moment he stares at it, then turns and looks down the road.

"Know what I heard?" continues the Black Guardsman, still admiring my ink-and-parchment likeness. "Heard his parents were related. Also, they were bugbears." He grins at me as he says it, but the shopkeep merely gives a tired nod and shuffles back inside his store.

"Alright, enough," I mutter, applying a rough headlock to the Guardsman and dragging him toward the market.

Alfie — for it is he, disguised like myself in the uniform of Kayne's Black Guard — gives a snort and twists free.

We elbow our way through the throng of peasants, their lined faces and threadbare clothes lending an air of foreboding and fatigue to what was, in my youth, the biggest day of the week in any village. It comes as little surprise — in the days since Rhett, Nan, the boy and myself left behind the wrecked camp of Rhett's rebels, we've twice come across the handiwork of the Beast that Kayne summoned to this land. Mostly we saw broken trees, corroded buildings and fly-eaten corpses. We didn't find any survivors.

For nearly a week we have traveled toward Valensburg, the capital city where the Dark Lord Kayne holds a throne that isn't his, and the closer we get the more I detest stopping for any reason, be it food, water or rest. Indeed, if the others did not protest, I gladly would march them day and night toward the palace.

We are only days away now, and wherever we go the air seems charged with anticipation. Half of Kayne's Black Guard remain in the Towerfall Mountains, searching for the rogue sorcerers Osgood and Weiland, who may or may not be dead. The rest are scattered across the land, doing what they may to contain the horrible creature that runs loose upon it — a thing for which Kayne now seeks to blame me, with his laughable lies and propaganda. Yet for all the suffering visited upon Mandrake's realm in recent times, there can be no better time to strike at Kayne directly.

If these are to be my last days, I could hardly spend them in a nobler pursuit.

We pay a farmer for a sack of carrots, which he sells us for half the going rate; as we stroll to the next vendor, the crowd gently parts before us without so much as a glance. There are, I acknowledge, certain advantages to disguising oneself as a Black Guardsman, though the uniform's substantial chafing has yet to subside after several day's wear.

I admit the thought of wearing the despicable garments turned my stomach when first Nan suggested it, after we surprised a squad of the villains one night. But the prospect of unfettered travel during daylight hours was difficult to pass up, and after several deep breaths, all that remained was finding a uniform that fit my considerable frame, and retained both sleeves and legs.

Midday approaches and after purchasing spuds and red-roots we make for the edge of town, where Nan and Rhett await our return. Several times I must tear the boy away from conversations with passersby, wherein the chief subject tends toward the personal hygiene, ancestry and romantic proclivities of a certain Axman. He enjoys this too much, I think.

~*~

Years I have dreamt this day would arrive, yet now that it is here, I feel as though I must steel myself against the wobbles in my legs, the pain soaring in my belly.

My eyes turn upward to measure the full height of the city walls, the gray stone rough from long-forgotten battles, and others that still live in the bitter hearts of those who remember. Ahead I see rooftops shingled in red, green and blue, their heights jutting toward the clouds. Beyond this, the turrets and ramparts of the castle where Mandrake the true King once ruled, where now the corrupt pretender Kayne sits in his place.

"Blagg," Nan says.

"Hm?"

"You're stewing again. Stop it."

I nod and we step toward the city doors. Clusters of Black Guard stand on either side, more patrol the tops of the walls, anxiously scanning the forests, the horizon. These men are spooked, and with good reason; the evil their master has summoned to this world has escaped his control, and I suspect that even he does not know how he will regain power over the Beast.

For our purposes, however, the circumstances could hardly be better. Rhett presents the lead Guardsman with a sigul of some sort, which seems to indicate both our squad's mission and rank (apparently the squad we ambushed was some sort of scout unit). After a cursory glance, the Guardsman looks us over. "Only four returning then?"

Rhett gives a solemn nod. "We ran across... that thing."

The Guardsman stiffens. "How far away?"

"Not far at all. Not nearly far enough." His voice is hoarse, as though cracked through with fear, but I know this not to be the case. As Rhett looks into the face of the enemy, I can only imagine the fury that rages within him, having found his entire rebel band murdered at the hands of Kayne's men not a fortnight ago.

The burly man looks at his feet now, and I can almost hear his knuckles crack as he clenches his fists. My ax is stowed inside the pack I wear, and I calculate just how long it would take to tear it free should any unpleasantries break out.

But Rhett maintains his beaten-down demeanor and we are ushered inside without further incident, whereupon I find myself shocked numb once again. The streets where I schemed and stole as a street urchin, where I found order and civility within the castle walls as a kitchen boy, where I served with honor in the court of the King — all of it seems now to have become a fortress for Kayne's dark-hearted military machine.

Smoke belches from the chimneys of street-front blacksmith shops, hammering out swords and halberds. Black Guardsmen stomp hurriedly here and there, brushing aside hunched civilians who cower against the sooty walls. Gone are the shouting children, the gossiping goodwives, the barking dogs.

"Rodolfo!" Nan hisses, using the code name I have adopted in the guise of the Black Guard. I realize she has been repeating it for some time now, and I willingly go as she tugs at my sleeve.

We wend our way along the streets, circling toward the city center, where lies the castle keep. Here we will attempt to gauge Kayne's defenses, as well as the security around some of the lesser-known entrances. Being a local boy has its advantages.

Turning onto the high street, we are engulfed in a river of ebony uniforms, stamping boots. Several ill-favored looks are cast our way and we hurriedly fall into line, marching toward the keep. Rhett and Nan cast worried glances at me and one another, but there is nothing for it. Slipping away now would require breaking through several ranks of the Black Guard who have joined up from another side street, and I sense our luck wearing thin indeed.

The marching slows as we approach the castle, and the Guardsmen split in two — too late we realize that our party has been absorbed into the middle of the group, and we find ourselves divided, with Nan and Rhett diverted to the west even as the boy and I are directed east. He and I lock eyes for a moment, then mark the others' position in the crowd, and move along. Indeed, it is all that we can do.

Suddenly we come to a half, and I curse our luck — the boy and I are situated in the front row looking down the eastward road approaching the castle walls. Behind us stands a solid wall of the enemy, and the same across the way. As I grind my teeth a drumbeat begins, and all eyes turn east, where a caravan approaches.

The thundering of hooves becomes louder and in seconds the enormous animals are streaking past, high-level Guardsmen upon their backs. Behind them, a chariot drawn by four more of the fearsome beasts, and when I see who rides upon it, it is all I can do not to brandish my ax and leap into the road.

Wilhelm Warhammer, a regal cape of purple satin tossed over one shoulder, his fair locks blown back in the wind, one arm aloft in a nonchalant salute.

My teeth grind harder, and I cannot tear my eyes from his arrogant nose, his haughty eyes. By the name of King Mandrake, I tell myself, were he but to come six feet closer —

He sees me.

Our eyes meet for but a second, and that is all it takes. He calls for the chariot to stop and I tell myself that it cannot be, that he stops for something else, but I know it a lie. When Wilhelm turns the chariot around and makes directly for the spot where I stand, I struggle to free myself of the pack that contains my ax, but I'm not nearly quick enough; I turn and nearly knock over the Black Guardsman beside me, and a shout goes up. I look for the boy Alfie, but he is nowhere to be seen. In moments I am surrounded, unarmed, and staring once again into the icy eyes of Wilhelm Warhammer, my once and future betrayer.

"Blagg the Axman." He clucks his tongue, shakes his head, and the familiar feeling of wanting to strangle him is once again upon me. "Didn't think you'd have the nerve, honestly." Wilhelm turns to his man-at-arms. "Dungeons, bottom level. Give him the small cell. I'll tell Kayne personally."

~*~

Blindfolded, hustled down the steps of the castle that once was my home. They needn't have bothered. I know this place... well, blindfolded.

Keys jingle, iron clanks, hinges cry in protest and I am thrown to the floor without a word. The barred door slams shut and the Guardsmen move away as I work the blindfold free.

I wonder of the others, if they're caught as well. I wonder how many more hours I have in this world. And then I wonder at the two shiny eyes staring at me from the cell across from mine, eyes hidden behind whorls of frazzled white hair.

"Ah, Axman," says Mullerbinns, the dwarf alchemist, rising and approaching the edge of his cell. "I wondered when you'd get here."

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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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