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TODAY

Saturday, June 15

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Airbags

Dear Blagg,
Does trueswords.com take something besides a credit card?
—Matt F., Chicago

By the third day of enduring Wilhelm Warhammer's presence I am certain that we are being followed. Fresh tracks no more than 30 yards from our camp. Whoever observes us is a light stepper, and appears to possess a fondness for redberries — the nearest bush is almost picked clean.

"It's not the pursuit I mind so much as the feeling that I've somehow been robbed," Wilhelm says, berry juice trickling from the corner of his grin. He, of course, professes to have known about our visitor for some time now. "How do you think I ran across your trail, Axman? Despite my enduring and evergreen fondness of your company, I don't make it my business to crisscross the realm in search of you. Though, perhaps after the deer steaks you roasted us last night, I'm seriously reevaluating this."

I set my jaw and stand, my eyes still on the tracks. It's the third time this morning he's mentioned the damned deer steaks. I know I cook them well; there's no need to remind me and anyone else listening of the fact every five minutes. It also irritates me that Wilhelm insists on being so flippant about our mysterious night visitor. Were I alone, I would already have taken my ax to the foliage.

"See here, Axman," Wilhelm mumbles, stuffing his mouth with another handful of redberries. "What if he does decide to present himself to us? What then? He'll earn a hammer to the skull and an ax to the belly for his troubles."

I spit. The head is usually my first target, and I'm almost certain Wilhelm knows this. "And what if he's a magician?" I counter. "Or some sort of spirit?"

Instantly I regret voicing these concerns, despite their well-foundedness; Wilhelm tosses back his head and laughs. "Oh, Blagg. You worry too much. Let's move on, perhaps our shy friend will be waiting for us around lunchtime with a spell to conjure up a feast."

And so we walk. Up, our path is nearly always up now, as we hike into the wooded highlands. Now and again, when the trees thin at the edge of a particularly steep rise, it is possible to look down on the river country, pale green and forked here and there with twisting ribbons of faded blue, shrouded with mists in the early hours.

I think of Eveleth and the boy occasionally, but travel is a phenomenal tonic for clearing one's mind. In spite of his personal deficiencies, Wilhelm is a fast traveler, and we have made a great deal of distance these last few days. Like me, a decade of wandering leaves him with little need to break between breakfast and a brief lunch, or until a late dinner after the sun has gone. Like me, he feels urgency in each step, as though the ground conducts some strange current — we must reach the Forest of Arboula, to stop M'yrrgh the Hag Queen from summoning whatever terrible beast she seeks to awaken. And we must learn whether she has reunited with the Dark Lord Kayne, as he intimated she would in the bizarre scroll I found in her shack. It is this, more than any foul creature of the darkness, that festers in my stomach as I lay in the night, thinking.

Two nights later it is on my mind again — when is it not, really — when we hear the first of them. Barking shouts, and the low rumble of dozens of boots, hundreds, approaching us.

We don't look at one another. Wilhelm tosses his heavy cloak upon the fire, stamping it out, as I jam our belongings back into our satchels. Seconds later the fire is out and the ashes scattered and we are eyeing the treetops. With a nod toward one another we select our trees and begin to climb.

They don't arrive for almost 10 minutes, more than enough time for the insistent evening breeze to carry away the smoke and smell, but even 50 feet above the forest floor we hardly dare breathe. I needn't look over to Wilhelm to know his reaction, for it surely is the same as mine — listening to them approach, hidden as we are, is enough to transport one back to the kingdom's last days, when we watched it fall from the shadows.

When they pass below we cannot help but look, and through the broad leaves and branches there is the glint of gold. Wilhelm and I exchange one glance, enough to know we've both marked this — these are Kayne's Vikrul Fighters, horrible creatures of dubious humanity, the ones who were said to have finally broken through the doors of Mandrake's keep and overrun the throne room. As they did then, they wear masks on their faces and gilded eagles' wings upon their backs, so as to bear their souls more quickly to the land of darkness, according to the tales.

The cry goes up to halt, and my every muscle tenses as my mind calculates the best route of attack. Across the way I see Wilhelm gripping his warhammer, but as he looks to me, I signal for him to hold, for there is a new sound now — the squealing of two enormous, spotty pigs. The din only rises as they are slaughtered, and soon Wilhelm and I are subjected to a new and interesting form of torture. We must sit, silent and motionless, while inhaling the fragrance of fresh-roasted pork.

Night passes, slowly, and I marvel at the ruthless efficiency with which the Vikrul make camp. There is minimal conversation and, to my great pleasure, even less looking up into the trees. Around midnight I awake from a doze to spy Wilhelm dipping into his satchel for a bit of sausage and I scowl. I was certain I'd stuffed the food into my pack.

They are gone before the sun is full up, no breakfast, no assembly or orders. When the way is clear Wilhelm and I shimmy our way back to the earth, nursing our stiff limbs, gazing north. "Where do you think they're headed?"

I shrug. "Same place as the others, is my guess."

"Sending his elite goon squad, Kayne must have his hands full." Wilhelm claps me on the shoulder. "Let's move."

A long night of silence seems to have filled Wilhelm's reservoir of inane chatter to the brim, and he has no hesitation in opening the floodgates as we walk. "I've been thinking, Blagg, that our nameless companion was likely acting in some scouting capacity. We're lucky he hadn't caught up to us by the time his friends arrived, or you and I would have been in for quite a fight, I think."

At this I stop and shake my head. "No. He was the lucky one."

Wilhelm laughs his grating laugh. "Bravado 'til the bitter end, Axman, I love it. Truly, I've missed— "

"No," I say, shaking my head again. "Look here." I indicate the scraped bark of the tree before us, the broken twigs that lay about its roots, the loose leaves. "Our friend got up this tree in a hurry last night, and it's a miracle Kayne's Vikrul Fighters didn't find him. They're in a hurry."

"But that hardly makes sense," Wilhelm murmurs, looking into the treetops. "If he's following us, how did he manage to get ahead of us at the end of the day?"

"Maybe," I say, shrugging my satchel higher onto my shoulder, "he already knows where we're headed."

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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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