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TODAY

Saturday, February 23

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Airbags

"How long has Blagg been an axman?" — MC High Life

Picking my way among the crags of the Towerfall Mountains, the road lost weeks ago, it seems I have trod this path for centuries. I clamber through the rocky peaks, casting a distrustful eye upon every loose stone likely to give way under my boot, and cursing those that do. Between breaths cut short by altitude, I curse myself as well, firstly for straying from the path, then for having not the wisdom nor the humility to retrace my steps. Being headstrong can help a man survive an ax blow. When that man finds himself afoot in strange country, it can prove his undoing.

The daylight grays, then fades, and the mind must make an effort to stop these legs from propelling my aching carcass over one more pass, to stay these hands that insist on scrambling up one more rock shelf. The village of Cloumont, which I seek, could be only five leagues away; the road perhaps no more than a stone's throw from where I stand, panting. But I know it to be untrue. I am, more than ever before, a lost soul.

No food for five days. No water for two. My eyes take shadows for moss and I am bowed, tongue protruding, grateful for the basest sustenance, before I know it to be a lie. I pause and wipe the sweat from my rutted brow, but it is merely a reflex. There is no moisture there.

With effort I must remind myself who I am, why I am here. My destination is the mountain village Cloumont. I seek there a sage, rumored to harbor deep knowledge of tongues and vernacular. To him I bring forth a scroll, emblazoned with the weird and irregular etchings of M'yrrgh, Hag-Queen of the Great Bog.

It was a fool's errand, striking a bargain with M'yrrgh. I am beginning to see that. But no options remained.

A sigh of lonely defeat escapes me as I make a meager camp. Flint and steel I have, but no kindling and no fuel. Nothing grows up here. I have burned my possessions, save M'yrrgh's scroll and my ax. A ragged cloak is my blanket and stone shall make my bed.

The moon marches toward its apex and the land is bathed in cool twilight. It is dying. Rivers once warm and clear now run brackish and cold. The forests are darker, consumed with thorns and brambles. Fields grow barren, and the people—those not press-ganged into service of the brutal new ruler—shut the doors of their homes and speak little.

Even now I suspect that few remember the name of Mandrake, the king goodly and true who presided over this land since I was a boy. Those who remember say nothing. To utter the name is a death sentence, a mere reference brings the lash. The Dark Lord Kayne, he who holds this kingdom in his black, crushing grip, suffers not dissent and has no charity for nostalgia. These people are cattle, raw meat for his war machine.

Most have given up, as well they should. This is no fight for a village militia. Where other soldiers may threaten, the Dark Lord's minions mutilate; where others might imprison, these monsters kill. There is no need for the ceremony of shackles when a shallow ditch is minutes dug.

A handful remain who are not cowed so easily, and among this number I count myself. And though I hold my head high in memory of my king and my mentor, a price is paid—the sun falls not upon my face but a mask, and the jobs I do are the dirtiest kind. I am a mercenary. At least, I was.

Months ago I gained knowledge as to the whereabouts of M'yrrgh, she who keeps solitary counsel among the asp and will o' the wisp. For many years it was whispered that the malevolent witch bore a certain grudge against the Dark Lord, and was possessed of a secret that could prove his undoing. A high price on her head, she languished in exile.

It was but a rumor. However, it was enough to rekindle hope in an axman's soul, gone cold with despair these many years.

Weeks of searching revealed her lair to me, and that night we sat in palaver. "A bargain, Axman," she wheezed through rotted teeth and festering lips. "Recover to me my Seeing Eye, and what ye seek shall be known to ye."

I trusted her. After retrieving the Eye from the fortress of the corrupt Knight's Counsel and returning to the Bog, the crone snatched the Eye with a gleeful cackle and disappeared into the gloom, returning neither that night nor the next. Rifling her shack turned up only wanton undesirables, and the scroll I carry.

Unfurling it now in my hands, I squint at the arcane scribblings and wonder, for the thousandth time, what it says. I lift my head to gaze at the moon, now overhead, and wonder if my quest to decipher it will cost my life.

The truth is that I have naught else on which to spend it.

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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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