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TODAY

Tuesday, February 19

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Airbags

Even as I write this, the woman I've been dating for nearly three months now is contemplating breaking up with me because I'm "not passionate enough," even though she claims to like everything else about me. WTF??
-Mike

I open my eyes and see only gray. Attempting to turn my head brings immediate pain and a rush of nausea.

"Be still, Axman."

Consciousness fades.

...

A rough, calloused hand is lifting my head; I seem to be lying upon my back. "Urrrrrghhh..."

"Quiet," a voice soft-speaks into my ear. "Open your mouth."

I do, and warm broth floods my gullet. Almost immediately I choke.

"Easy, you fool."

Two more swallows are managed before I pass out again.

...

It is morning. I know because the light has grown steadily for the past half-hour. My vision has improved, allowing me to make out rough shapes. Any movement takes gargantuan effort and brings intolerable pain.

My fingers clench. Still seem to be there. Toes wiggle. My legs are intact. What cruel fate has befallen me...

Shifting slightly, I sense soft cloth beneath me, a blanket. Rock beneath that. I breathe in, taste the cold, spare oxygen of the high country. I am in the mountains. Why? Never more have I wished to be back in the castle stables, snug in an aromatic pile of hay, a half-full jug of cider at my side...

"Up early today, Blagg." A shadow moves nearby.

"Where is my ax?" I wheeze, forcing the words between swollen lips.

"Oh, somewhere about, I'm sure," the voice replies, quiet and light. "Oh yes, yes."

"Who goes?" I rasp, "speak your name, and toy not with me."

The voice chuckles.

Anger goads me to action, but I am bound — held down somehow. Thick cords press against my chest and legs. Cursing, I squint to make out my captor, but the dawn rays illuminate little more than a vague outline, perhaps a beard. "Untie me, knave," I sputter.

"Not quite yet, Axman. Sleep a bit more." He steps forth and passes a hand before my face, and the last thoughts to cross my mind are that he is a magician, and I am in deep trouble indeed.

...

I am sitting upright now. It is warmer and the smell of burning woodcords is heavy in the air.

My vision somewhat returned, I see a sprightly fire burning in the hearth, a kettle steaming above it. Shadows play across the stone walls, and my eyes fall upon my captor. He stands no more than four feet tall by my best guess; he is stocky and a bushy, tangled beard sprouts from his face. He is watching me.

"Hello again, Axman," he breathes.

I lunge forward, hands extended to throttle answers from this cagey runt, but can take no more than two steps before staggering to the cool rock floor. Bile burns in the back of my throat, I swallow it back down. Cold sweat has broken on my brow.

My captor's hands are again upon me. "Come now, Axman," he says, returning me to the chair with surprising strength. "You haven't forgotten me, have you?"

As he turns to ladle the kettle's contents into a bowl, I squint at his profile, thrown into relief against the fire. Small, shiny eyes; nose with a curious crook; that wild, rangy beard...

"Mullerbinns."

"Aye, Axman!" he cries, nearly spilling the broth into my lap. "It hasn't been so long, then."

"Fifteen years." I push away the spoon the dwarf has thrust toward my mouth and take hold of the bowl with a quaking hand. "I shall feed myself."

Mullerbinns settles into the adjacent chair, looking into the fire. "Fifteen years, eh? Never would've thought it..."

"You're 200 years old," I mutter between mouthfuls. The broth is thick and warms me to the marrow. "How would you notice?"

"I'm only 190!" he yelps, slapping his knee. "Don't you go—"

"Where am I, dwarf?" The bowl empty, I set it upon the floor.

"My home, Axman," Mullerbinns whispers. He is excited, eager to take me into his confidence. "Here, let me give you the tour." Popping to his feet, he takes me by the arm and easily lifts me from the chair. My apparent surprise shows on my face.

"Half-weight spell," he mutters. "Useful for moving large rocks and such."

"Now then," he waves his arm toward a ramshackle table, overflowing with soiled pots and ware. "Over here we have the kitchen. There, to the right, is my workshop" — another broken-down table, this one piled high with scales, measures and stoneworking tools — "and of course this is the sitting area!" He gestures wildly toward the chair I sat in, upholstered with the skin of some unknown beast. "And if you'll step this way," Mullerbinns sputters, pushing me back a few paces, "you'll find the front door!"

'Round I am spun to look out on a gaping abyss. A 500-foot drop begins not half a measure from my feet; before the cave's entrance, broken peaks and rock spires jut forth into low-hanging clouds. "You live here, do you?"

"Aye, Axman! Impressive view, no?" Clearly pleased with himself, he claps me on the back, hard enough to send me staggering toward the chasm. "Easy!" I bark.

"You were gone, Axman," Mullerbinns says, growing somber. "Wasted away. The rooks led me to you."

"Thank them for me," I growl, turning back toward the dwarf's hovel. "Now, put my ax in my hand and I shall darken your home no more. Which way to Cloumont?"

"Why, on my life, I never knew you to be a man of such haste! No gratitude, no recognition for saving your soul? Besides, Axman," he says, lowering his voice. "There's one thing I have yet to show you."

"I have little patience and even less time for those who chose not to linger as their King fell to the forces of darkness." Spittle flies from my lips as I turn to face the beady-eyed dwarf. He sighs and slips back into his chair.

"I am an alchemist, a scholar," Mullerbinns states. "Not a warrior. I couldn't stand a minute afield with a fighter such as yourself, swift with the—"

"Don't patronize me." I spy my ax, leaned against my armor in a corner. "Show me the path to Cloumont and let that be the end of this reunion."

The dwarf is silent for a time, staring into the fire. When he speaks, he does not look at me.

"Do not mistake a hesitation to die for cowardice, Axman," he whispers. "You and I are not so different. One of us simply waited longer to go into hiding than the other."

A sneer steals across my face, but Mullerbinns doesn't look up.

"Tarry a bit longer, Blagg," he says as I move to gather my effects. "For one, you're still weak..." I blink, striving to ignore the shakes in my legs as I bend to take the ax.

As I grasp the handle, the head clangs to the floor, and I cannot but stare in disbelief.

"...And for another thing, I can fix your weapon."

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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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