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Friday, March 23

Gapers Block

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Dear Blagg,
I was born and raised in Chicago, and lived in Wicker Park (On Schiller, on the park, long before the park was clean) until 1992, when I moved to New York. After 15 years in New York, my husband, my dog and I are coming back. After 15 years, I do not know anyone in the city anymore, so we are truly starting from scratch. Where should we live?

We are adults. We have furniture. We want to rent, at least until we decide if we are going to stay, and need a 2 bedroom with a yard for the dog. Preferably in a house, not a building. We do not have a car, and need to be close to "things" — cafes, bars, grocery stores, the el. We're "hip," I husband is writer, I work in non-profits. We've been told we should look at the following 'hoods:
Humboldt Park
Wicker Park
Logan Square
Ukrainian Village

What to do? Where to go? We need to make like-minded friends, have a park for the dog to romp with other canines, and be close to the el.
Thank you, Blagg!


The journey out of the dungeon is much longer than the trip down. Probably because I am fully conscious this time, waiting. Gradually, I strain against my bonds as I'm carried — they're tight. The hood over my head, cinched down and squeezing my neck. But I hardly expected Gort and his men to make this easy.

The hands of a half-dozen men bear me up the steps, hands and feet tied, en route to the gallows. If they remove the hood before the noose is slipped over my neck, then my first glimpse of Rheidling, port city on the western shore, shall be the last sight I see. That, at least, is the intention of Gort, servant of the Dark Lord Kayne who rules this place. In truth, my own intentions differ somewhat, though it has yet to be seen whether I will succeed in thwarting his plans, and continue to draw breath after sunset.

My transporters reach the top of the stairs and soon we descend again, but my skin tingles and a cool, cleansing scent comes to me — fresh air. Between the musty air of the barn, where I took shelter and later found myself in the arms of Eveleth, and the foul stench of the dungeon where I languished these last days after her husband discovered our tryst, I haven't tasted clean air in a week. It is refreshing. I feel a measure of strength enter my sore, starved body, and I determine to hold onto it.

Like a sack of turnips I am tossed into a wagon, and as it begins to move I rise to my knees and feel the insistent nudge of sword-tips — at my shoulder, my back, the side of my head. I sit motionless, silent, waiting for my moment. This is not it.

As we travel I hear voices, animals, a city bustling around me. It would be the dinner hour. Shocking how much I have missed this, I realize... has it been so long, my time in the wild, moving on back-roads, village to village? For a moment I concentrate, attempt to recall the last time I spent in a city, but all that comes to mind is war. One of the wheels squeaks as we go, and faintly I can detect hanging words, pauses in conversation as we pass, my funeral procession, kneeling and hooded and hemmed in by sharp blades. If they knew my story, would they rise up in revolt? If they knew my name, would they eulogize me in song, pass on my name to their sons and large dogs?

Rheidling is larger than I thought. For nearly a quarter of an hour we ride, driver and guards speaking not to me nor one another, their swords never yielding. And then we slow, stop, the guards jumping down and grabbing me roughly about the shoulders and legs. The ropes around my ankles are cut. My heartbeats quicken as I am hauled to my feet and shoved forward.

Though quiet, I know they are there. A crowd, and a large one. I set my teeth and a voice speaks into my ear "climb" and I climb. One step, two, three. Eight total. Hollow wood beneath my boots, echoing with each footfall, and around me the masses shift and shuffle. Still nothing is said. The hands on my shoulders turn me to the right, push me forward two steps, stop me. The boards under my feet produce a different sound here and I know that I stand over the trapdoor. Breathing in deeply, I again savor the taste of the sweet air. It carries a suggestion of brine and for a moment I wonder whether I could hear the sea, but for this cursed hood–

Ripped from my head now, and I blink against the harsh, painful bright, squinting at the black mass gathered before me. They stand in rows, ranks even, banners of crimson and black hung high and fluttering at the end of each line...

Kayne's black guard. A full complement, as they stood, anywhere from 50 to 70, in uniform and at attention. A grimace curls my lip, and to my left a figure approaches. Gort.

"Axman," he says, arms crossed behind him, a cloak the color of old blood thrown out behind him. "I hope you're prepared to die. The guard are anxious to see you twist. And I believe my own feelings on the subject are known."

I say nothing. Sword-tips reappear at my back and sides. At my feet now, a man in a black mask winds cords around my ankles. Gort is saying something else but I don't hear him, leaping away from the blades and catching the executioner in the jaw with the tip of my boot.

A roar goes up from the gathered men and I can hear them surge toward me but I stumble and something heavy slams into the back of my head, driving me to my knees; swords are at me again and I hear Gort yelling, "Touch him and die! He's meant for the gallows! Now stand down 'fore the mirror!"

Blood on my neck, trickling from my ear. Gort has me by the collar, a wooden billy-club finding its way back to the loop at his waist. He shouts again and waves toward a full-length mirror, gilted and framed in black, standing at the gallows' edge. I squint at it, try to focus my vision. It seems that I can see into it... something...

"The Dark Lord regrets not being able to attend the occasion of your death," Gort spits into my ear as he pulls me from the floorboards, "but through the mirror he will watch you breathe your last, gasping and wriggling, eyes bulging from your wretched skull."

Swaying, I look back toward the mirror, gathering saliva to spray at it, but I'm thrown forward again and the cords are looped around my ankles and wrapped tight. My head pounds, a few weak kicks are all I can manage. My vision seems off-focus, doubled, and I try to blink it away, thinking... there seemed something much more serious at stake... The thick rope of the noose falls over my neck, tightens, and I remember. Again my heart surges, and I strain at the ropes that bite into my wrists. Nothing gives.

Scattered laughter in the crowd, nervous, restless. No doubt they have been told tales of my crimes, my acts of violence against their beloved Lord Kayne. Would that every word of it were true, twice over. My gaze turns now to the mirror and there, faint, our eyes meet — mine, pained and swimming, his, burning coals of red...

"Goodbye, Axman," Gort murmurs, nodding to the executioner. His hand grasps the lever.

In the mirror, the eyes flash.

A breeze curls through the square, silence among the assembled ranks.

The lever is pulled and across the way a thunderous boom, another answering back, closer.

Screams but I see nothing, the trapdoor opening below me, and I bring my arms up as the rope ripples above...

Before me the hulking, masked form of the executioner, staggering, holding something before him...

Gort, yelling, cursing, pointing, running...

My hands clutch at the executioner's tunic, wrapping it between my fingers, and when I pull him toward me he is strangely limp and very heavy. But the trapdoor cannot accommodate two bodies and my fall is halted as the rope jerks my head upward, just an inch, only that. He is moving now, slow and weak, and I shove him down further into the hole until his head is before me, lolled to one side, staring out at the black guard who have broken rank, running about the square. I strain at the rope, choking him until he goes still. Something large and curved protrudes from his chest and I wrench it out, blink at it. Ceramic, a piece of — what? Pottery? Statue? No time. Around me the guards have reclaimed their senses and advance, swords drawn, so I take the object and saw at the rope overhead, kicking the executioner's body down through the door as I cut... they are closer... thrusting at me and I fall...

The executioner lands in a heap beneath me and I collapse, hearing the guards pound down the stairs overhead. Another boom sounds and they pause, giving me time to draw the executioner's dagger, run it across his neck and stand, back against the wall of the building against which the gallows are set. As they come I cut the bonds around my wrists and shrug my aching shoulders.

The floor of the gallows hangs low overhead and we are stooped as we face one another. There are three, creeping toward me, swords ready. The cramped quarters gives me the advantage on their long blades and I take it, batting away one blow, ducking another, driving my knife up into one's belly, raking it across the face of the next. The noose whips about me as I move, and I relish my luck. They didn't wear their heavy armor to my hanging.

This one falls and I take up his sword, fighting two-handed against the last, who looks half-ready to run. He thrusts, I dart backward and he hesitates long enough for me to spin forward and strike him down, putting the second blade into him as his body hits the packed earth.

My ears take up the sound, panic in the square before me, and I stride out from under the gallows, cut the noose from my neck and toss it aside. For a moment I stand there, heaving.

Across the square, now canopied in billowing black smoke, Gort turns, sees me, lays his hand on the hilt of his sword. A half-smile comes to his face and he advances. The remnants of the guard fall into step behind him.

I walk forward.

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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 His column appears every other Saturday.

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