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TODAY

Monday, June 17

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Airbags

"Does Blagg believe in Christmas?"
--Showtime Eric

A week ago we followed a star, brightly shining on the western horizon, lighting the way for the next step of our journey — Rheidling, the port city. By day we move cross-country through field and wood, the foothills of the Towerfall mountains growing ever distant over our shoulders. By night, we nestle in thickets and groves, far off the traveled roads, allowing only a modest fire to cook our dinner. Care is required now; we are approaching civilization, or what used to pass for it. Now all is under the Dark Lord Kayne's dominion.

This includes Rheidling, that city on the sea where the boy Alfie's father may be imprisoned, but more likely lies in a grave. But we struck a bargain. If the man, who ruled these parts during the reign of King Mandrake, still lives, I shall help free him, and the boy will tell to me what is written on the scroll of M'yrrgh, hag queen of the Great Bog. I have reason to believe it holds a secret that could defeat Kayne and restore order to this blighted land.

Naught but a handful of lone travelers have we seen since descending out of the hills a few days ago, and those only at a great distance. They walk the road as most do these days, Kayne having called nearly all beasts of burden to him in service of his war machine. On their backs are strapped great bundles, marking them merchants, but in spite our dwindling supplies I dare not approach. The minions of Kayne are legion, and they are crafty. Disguising themselves as roving salesmen is a trick they have used before, and in this land there lie several corpses that could confirm this with their own mouths, had I not ceased their drawing breath.

Three days ago, the star we were following vanished, as did any hope of keeping watch on those walking the nearest road. Rain came. Kettles of it, brimming and spilling out upon the land as though the Great Overseer Himself rushed from the well to throw water upon his burning house. The boy and I trudge, our boots heavy with sucking mud, and I wonder when He will spare a thought for this corner of his creation, or whether He has given it up for lost.

I call out to the boy and rummage in my rucksack. Saying not a word, he stretches his thin cloak out over both our heads as I draw out a thin sliver of iron and set it in a bit of hollowed-out wood, filled with water. Having seen neither sun nor star for nigh 72 hours, our faith now lies in this makeshift compass. Several seconds pass and I get a rough heading — the best I can hope for under the circumstances — and we walk on. It cannot be much further now, I know, but every mile walked in this ceaseless storm seems like five, and in truth I have not the least guess as to how far we have come since the rain began.

As for the boy, he carries on, measuring each miserable step with his head stooped beneath his hood. Both of us are far past complaining. We go now with a kind of silent acceptance that at one moment is stolid defiance, the next idle curiosity as to how long such a downpour can continue, and occasionally, gut-wrenching anguish at the misery of it all. We have very little left to eat, a bit of soggy bread and dried meat when we bed down for the night and before we set out in the morning. Now and then we put our hands to fruit or berries, hanging heavy with moisture, but the curtains of gloom and storm make it hard to see even a few feet away.

It is dark when the boy comes back to the massive, broad-branched pine under which we will shiver this night. He tells me he goes to move his bowels, but I know he searches for food — without success, judging by his empty hands. Hunkering down, he shakes the moisture from his hood and pushes it back to reveal eyes lit with excitement.

"There is a light."

I sit up. "Show me."

As I suspected, the boy ranged further from camp than he ought, considering the circumstances, but I save my admonishments. There is indeed a light — perhaps one hundred yards away, small and yellow. It looks warm. Dry.

The boy watches me, awaiting my verdict. Still watching for signs of life, I nod and we creep forward, hunched, our hands to our weapons. Another light comes to view, and then a third, higher. A farmhouse. No one moves inside.

The boy and I confer and make a quick perimeter of the area. Besides the house, there is a stable, a small shed, a large barn and a small one. It is this last that interests me particularly when the boy tells me that it is locked. "And," he says, leading me to it, "the lock is rusted."

Again I marvel at the youth's perception, and I see that he is correct. No mere film of corrosion, this, but years of orange caking. I whisper inaudible thanks to whatever power — pagan or no, I care not — put this place in our path, and take hold of the heavy lock. It nearly fills my fist.

"Can you open it?" Aflie hisses over the rain's hammering on the barn roof.

I turn to grin at him and twist the lock in my hand. It snaps, and I wind it from the latch. "After you."

After replacing the broken lock on one-half of the latch, where I hope it arouses no suspicion from a passing stranger's glance, I whip off my sopping cloak and wring it over the dirt. The barn smells of musty rot and wet wood, but it is dry. The timbers seem stouter than the thickest castle wall, the damp hay more welcoming than the softest of royal beds.

We sleep immediately, lulled by the insistent drumming of the storm.

The next morning I awake to find the boy gone; I must have been sleeping very deep indeed. Had it been a week earlier, when he tried to slit my throat as I lay slumbering, he would have done me in. Probably he is out patrolling; my only concern is that he maintains stealth when returning to our sanctuary. Outside it rains still, and after finally ridding my fingers of their prune-like wrinkles, I am loathe to go back out into that mess.

It is nearly an hour before he slips back into the barn, where I sit running the whetstone over my ax. I sense an air of excitement about him, though he fights to keep his face composed.

"What news?"

"It's close," he says, sitting opposite me. "Rheidling. An hour's walk, at the most. From a tall hill you can make out buildings."

I nod, considering the edge of my ax blade.

"Listen," the boy continues, "in a few hours it will be dark. I am fairly sure I remember where the jail is, under the old courthouse. If we enter from the side door where—"

"No," I say. "Not tonight."

The boy gives me a look of furious incredulity, but stays his tongue.

"First, we must assess the situation, and avail ourselves of a better perspective than glimpsing the city from afar through sheets of rain."

The boy stands. "I will show you the way that—"

I shake my head. "For my part, I shall not leave this place until it is time to strike. I am a wanted man across the realm. Should I be discovered lurking about before we find a way to crack the jail, a host of Kayne's men would be upon us in an instant."

"Then what—"

"You must be our eyes and ears in Rheidling until we move."

He nods at this and stares off. "I'll go now," he says. "Find the jail. Watch the sentries. Assess the capabilities of the town guard. And" — he looks at me now — "listen for news of my father."

"Take care with that last," I tell him. "Too many questions find the wrong ears." Already, though, the boy stands and prepares to go. He has comported himself above all reasonable expectation several times already, but I hope he heard me well, for both our sakes.

He waits until the storm rises again to a fever, to ensure the best possible cover, and then he is gone.

And so the waiting begins. Since leaving the care of the treacherous dwarf alchemist Mullerbinns, I have journeyed daily, often from sunup to nightfall, yet after only a few hours in this place my feet itch for open country. Again my hand falls upon the whetstone, but I know that my blade will get no sharper today.

Leaning back in the fragrant hay, I realize that my clothes are still wet. In our exhaustion, the boy and I almost collapsed upon entering the barn, never thinking to remove them. I do now, though, hanging each piece over the barn's wooden beams, even my undergarments. As I hook these last over a nail, it strikes me that I cannot recall the last time I was in the nude.

The door is thrown open and I freeze, my ax well out of reach.

It is a woman, dressed for farm work, a large dagger in her hand and a look of shock upon her face as she stares at me. Had a mirror fallen between us, it would have shown the same expression on mine. Yet naked as I am, exposed and defenseless, I cannot tear my gaze from those eyes.

They are the vivid green of dragons.

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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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