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TODAY

Wednesday, July 17

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Airbags

Big Brother: Where do you live in Chicago?

Josh Kalis: In Wicker Park.

BB: What's up with that area?

JK: It's cool. Maybe about five years ago I wouldn't have been able to live there. It was too crazy because of all the gangsters and shit, but now it's cool.

BB: What's with that hand-signal shit you were telling me about?

JK: Yeah, you got to be careful, man. I mean, everything from when you take your shirt off and what shoulder you rest your shirt on — your right or left shoulder — to waiting for the bus and if you got your arms crossed, which way your arms are crossed, all the way to when you're holding your arms down in front of you — you got to realize what hand is in front of the other. You've got to be careful with that shit, 'cause they will definitely pop you — no questions asked.

BB: Do you still wear a cap?

JK: Nah, I don't ever wear my cap in Chicago. There are too many colors, too many lefts and rights. In certain areas that shit is cool, but not in Chicago.
— Big Brother Magazine, September, 1997

Though the sun sinks below the horizon, the air grows warmer. Rests are becoming less frequent, and the air's chilly bite loosens. We are beginning to walk out of the mountains.

The boy noticed some time ago. There is a growing spring in his step, even as he tries to hide it. We are speaking to one another again, but an unspoken awkwardness remains. The recent battle with the ogre revealed that we had perhaps misjudged one another — fairly or not — and it seems to have given us pause, as we reevaluate one another.

It makes sense. I failed Alfie in his time of need, while he employed heroism worthy of a warrior, nevermind a malnourished sapling of a lad.

He ranges far ahead now, emboldened by the climbing temperature and, possibly, a newfound confidence. I have humored him, but now raise my hand. "Hold," I call. "We stop here for the night."

~*~

Belly full and body aching, I stare into the fading embers of the fire with half-lidded eyes. My kingdom for a pipe of smoke, I think to myself. Would that I had a kingdom. My ax for a pipe? Perhaps. Perhaps not...

There was another night like this, so long ago. Stumbling toward a dim orange glow, half-conscious, bruised and wracked with fatigue and much battle.

"Who goes?" the first voice cried, and if I hadn't known it already, it was then that I should have realized all was lost. The voice was plaintive — it was the voice of a man on the defensive.

I didn't answer. Couldn't, probably. Shuffling forward, my bleary vision fixed upon the ground, moving steadily toward the glow of the firelight. In this land, fire meant soldiers — all others fled or were cut down days ago. If they were for Mandrake, I would live. If they were Kayne's, I would probably die. That night I was ready for either fate.

Several figures rushed to my side and bore me toward the light, where my armor was removed and my wounds treated as I passed into sleep. When I woke it was light again, and I was being carried on a makeshift litter. Green was everywhere, treetops. "Good-man," I rasped, my tongue chalky and dry, "where am I?"

The fellow on the litter's rear raised one finger to his lips — shhhhhhh — but seconds later a man's voice called out and all was still. An arrow protruded from the neck of the soldier carrying my litter, and dark blood bubbled from his mouth as his eyes glazed. He collapsed and my stretcher fell, blurred forms running all about, and seconds later I was raised up and carried off at a full sprint. Darkness reclaimed me.

Two more days I slept, so I was told. They made camp in a small cave along the bank of a creek, where there were fish to eat and the Dark Lord's hounds could not so easily catch our scent. Nine men remained from a platoon numbering near 80.

For their part, they had done better than my unit — I was the sole survivor.

"Blagg," said the captain, named Trimbley, when my wits returned. "What can you tell us? What news from the front?"

I glanced at him and chewed my fish. "There is no front."

Trimbley looked away.

Indeed, the writing was on the wall. Neither friendly horseman nor runner had been sighted for nigh a week. The King's ranks were scattered, with errant soldiers wandering the wasted land during the day and hiding at night, when Kayne's black-booted armies roamed. There were whispers that entire towns had been burned down to the earth, that the Dark Lord had taken the capital itself, its streets strewn with festering corpses.

A week we stayed by the river. On the third day, two more men were brought in by the watch. "Not sure what happened to the others," one whispered as he shivered over a cup of thin coffee. "We were taken by surprise, at night" — he looked around — "there was nothing for it but to fly." A sob caught in his throat and he cast his eyes downward.

Trimbley laid a hand upon the man's shoulder. "It's alright. We've all the same tale."

Shaking his head, the stranger pointed to where I sat in the corner. "Not that one," he said. "Outnumbered nearly three to one. The bodies on the field told the story true enough. The Axman didn't fall."

"No," I murmured, rising to leave. "I fell not. But spare your petty exaltation for the threescore men who died around me and surely lived better lives than I."

That night we heard them, across the river. They passed close, well over a hundred, perhaps two hundred. As ever, there were no torches, no horns, no war-cries. Only bootheels, crunching ceaseless in the dark.

On the last morning Trimbley came to me as I fished upstream. "Axman," he began, his eyes nervously searching the forest, looking perhaps for the words he'd prepared. I cast my spear upon the shore. "Tell me your mind, captain."

"Some of the men..." he trailed off and several passed moments before he resumed. "How long can we stay here, Blagg? They'll find us, certain."

"You speak true," I said, nodding. "And I have considered it. If we strike for the west, an hour ere the sun rises—"

Trimbley shook his head. "No, Axman, you misunderstand me." He took a deep breath. "An hour ago. Warwick brought him in. Another survivor. The capital has fallen, Blagg. Kayne calls for total surrender. This fellow says—"

It was enough. I pushed past him, striding toward the cave as Trimbley called for me to wait. A part of my mind marked the man a fool for endangering our position in hostile country, but we were far beyond that now. In the cave sat the newcomer, clad in rags and wild-eyed. The men watched as I crossed the room and put my hand to the ax-handle.

Trimbley was there now, pleading as I brushed him aside and stood in the mouth of the cave. "Who among you would turn your back on your king?" I said, my voice cold and even. "Who among you would kneel before the treacherous liar Kayne, cold-blooded murderer of King Mandrake, and swear allegiance? Stretch your neck before me now that I might give you the honorable death that you ill deserve."

Twelve men looked at me on that riverbank, measuring the weight of my words and the changed world outside that damp, stinking cave. The water rushed by and not a word was said.

"So it shall be," I murmured. "Then I shall have to slay you all."

"Blagg, please," Trimbley once more stood before me, his hands clasped. "These men — us — we have families... we did have families... they're good men Blagg, but they're not born warriors."

"Perhaps they should have stayed away from war, then."

They were frightened. "I don't ask your forgiveness," Trimbley continued, "and I do not ask that you understand. I ask only that you look upon these men with the grace that our departed king once showed his own men." He gave me a knowing look. "Even when perhaps they did not deserve it."

My ax fell and I stepped away, hiding the tears that sprang so quick to my eyes. For a moment I watched the river, wondering how many kingdoms had risen and decayed while it ran past these shores. With set jaw, I gathered what was left of my equipment and made to leave.

The newcomer Warwick approached me as I left the cave for the last time. "I'm sorry, Axman," he said. "Forgive us."

I gave him a curt nod and bade them farewell. "Return as you will to the lives you had before this evil came to the land, if you are able. But know that all is now eggshell and spring-ice — fragile and yielding to the hand of the dark one who now holds this kingdom in sway. You live as suits his twisted purposes, and can expect no mercy. The years ahead promise much strife, but I wish you good fortune in spite of all."

"Blagg," Trimbley said. "Where will you go?"

"Does it matter?" I stepped into the river, the icy water filling my boot, and faced them again. "My conscience is clear, and I still serve my king."

~*~

The fire has gone, and as I fade to slumber there is a new glow on the horizon — purple, shifting to blue, shifting to green, flowing across the murky night sky. As children, we used to call them "King's Lights."

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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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