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TODAY

Thursday, April 18

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Airbags

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!
—megafin1

"Mullerbinns," I growl, picking myself off the floor of the cell and fixing the dwarf with an ugly look. "The last I saw of you was your backside, as you fled the mountaintop where you betrayed me to Stangharr and his men."

"Axman..."

"What happened? Did Kayne grow tired of your snitching? Or did you simply outlive your usefulness?"

The stubby alchemist's face grows plaintive, and he shifts in his own cell, directly across from mine. We are imprisoned beneath the palace; the Dark Lord Kayne is somewhere above, fouling the air with his wretched presence. He is no doubt accompanied by the traitor Wilhelm Warhammer, who twice now has delivered me into the custody of the evil usurper. This time, however, Wilhelm seems to have succeeded.

"My hand was forced, Axman," Mullerbinns whispers, beady eyes darting up and down the hall. "You must understand — I had to continue my work, my research, the mines—"

"Mines or not, you're in a deep hole now, aren't you dwarf?" I test the bars of my cell, but they are strong as they were when I served King Mandrake in this very castle, so many years ago. With a tired grunt I slump back against the wall, sliding down until I sit upon the floor.

"Perhaps I am," Mullerbinns muses, wrapping his fingers around the bars of his own cell. "But you know what they say about dwarves and holes." He tips me a wink and slides a thick iron key from his tattered, soiled tunic. My surprise must show on my face, for his eyes dance gleefully as he twists the key into the lock, quietly lets himself out, and steps toward me.

"Faith, Axman," he murmurs, turning the key over in his hands. "You're quick to judge, but long to forgive."

"What do you want from me?"

"I want what you have long sought — Kayne deposed, order and justice restored to the land. Peace. Can you deliver these?"

I am on my feet again. "I'm alone, unarmed in the Dark Lord's stronghold, a castle infested with the Black Guard. I may be able to slip away, see if my companions are safe..."

Mullerbinns shakes his snowy white head. "Your friends are fine. They're one floor up. The time to strike is now, Axman. The Black Guard will be with Wilhelm—"

"Traitorous swine," I spit.

"Oh?" Mullerbinns squints behind his bushy eyebrow, considering the key held before him. "But it was Wilhelm who arranged this, Axman. For me to be imprisoned here, until your arrival in the cell directly across from mine."

For the second time in five minutes, I find myself flabbergasted. "You mean...?"

Mullerbinns' eyes twinkle and he turns the key in the lock. My cell door swings open.

"You haven't much time, dear Axman," he says, shuffling back to his own cell. He slides one hand under the straw pallet in the corner, fishing for — another key. "This will free your friends. They'll find their effects in the guards' post near the end of the hall, I suspect."

"I don't suppose my ax..."

The dwarf shakes his head. "You won't be needing it." Before I can retort he fishes again under the pallet, this time withdrawing an enormous battle-ax of a pale gray metal, which glints strangely in the candlelight.

I take it from him, testing its heft; well-weighted, but quite lighter than the weapons I am used to. "This..."

"...Was forged from the mines of King Mondoon." He wraps his stubby fingers around my wrist. "Axman. This metal has power beyond any blade forged of steel. I cannot know for sure, but I suspect this to be the only means to destroy the horrible creature that Kayne has unleashed."

"But you told me the entrance to the mine was locked... you needed a key..."

Mullerbinns' eyes twinkle again. "And I got it, from none other than Wilhelm Warhammer."

Anger charges through me. I am growing impatient with these ceaseless revelations. "Explain yourself."

"Wilhelm Warhammer came to me not long after you departed the Towerfall Mountains. He knew that I sought the key, and he knew where it was — hidden away in the Dark Lord's castle. He stole it away and passed it to me in the mountains, and then set out in search of you. It seems that he found you, eventually."

"He did..." The words seem to come from so far away; I lean heavily against the wall. "Aye, he found me."

Could I have been so wrong about Wilhelm Warhammer? Had he orchestrated all of this? My capture, my means of escape, the creation of this weapon and the means to place it in my hand?

Mullerbinns catches my sleeve again. "You haven't much time. Wilhelm said that after you arrived, he would divert the Black Guard's attention away from the dungeons, but you won’t have long."

I drop to one knee. "So wrong I was about you, Mullerbinns. This will all end soon, one way or the other." We shake hands and I rush to the stairs.

~*~

Rhett nearly shouts in excitement when I appear before the cell where he, Nan and the boy are jailed. Nan has the good sense to clap a hand over his mouth.

"We need to move quickly," I breathe, swinging open the door. "We must find Kayne, now."

The stairs blur beneath our feet as we spiral upward out of the dungeons. No Black Guard do we encounter; whatever the confounding Wilhelm Warhammer is up to, it seems to be working. So far.

These passages are familiar to me, yet strange. They seem darker somehow, the air gone stale. Cracks appear where there were none before, and grime lurks around the edges of each stone in the wall. We press on, but I count this grunginess among the crimes for which Kayne will pay.

Proceeding through the castle, we find it oddly deserted; the throne room is empty, as is the scullery and court. I'm about to peak into the guards' barracks when Nan catches my arm. "Let's not press our luck."

Instead we make for the spiraling stair, leading toward the uppermost towers. I am not aware of the growing din outside until the boy catches my arm and indicates the narrow window.

Below, in the castle courtyard, it appears as though Kayne's entire army is assembled. In the center of the black-clad masses is a platform, and upon it stands Wilhelm Warhammer.

Gone is the cape of royal purple and the air of self-satisfied conceit. Even at this distance I can see him cower as he is forced to his knees, neck bent over the chopping block. I glance at the others, but they are fixed to the sight before us. Can this be the diversion Wilhelm had planned?

A figure steps beside Wilhelm and addresses the assembled Black Guard — as soon as he begins to speak, I know it is Gort, Kayne's deputy. "Wilhelm Warhammer, you were caught on your way to the dungeons carrying the weapon of the prisoner, who was a friend to you long ago, and the key to his cell. You are accused of high treason against the Dark Lord Kayne."

Gort turns toward the tower and we shrink from the window, but his gaze climbs higher. "Your Highness," he intones, "how do you find the accused?"

I can only assume that Kayne has given the thumbs-down as the Black Guard raise a bloodthirsty cheer and the executioner steps forward, readying his ax. Wilhelm Warhammer does not appear to have been an especially well-liked chancellor.

Only once does he look up, and I cannot know if he sees me looking on from the window. The ax rises, and he turns his voice to the sky: "For Mandrake, the true king!"

The ax comes down. The platform runs red. The roar of Kayne's Guardsmen is deafening.

"Come on," I murmur, and we continue upward.

The Mullerbinns-made ax is in my hands as we near the top of the tower, and behind me I see the boy's sword at the ready, Rhett and his cudgel, Nan's dagger. Ten steps more, then five, and we are standing outside the door, which stands ajar.

Kayne's chill rasp emanates from within: "And you truly believe this will work?"

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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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