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TODAY

Monday, September 23

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Airbags

Hey Blagg,

What can I do to get that mucky stuff out of my toothpaste cap?

–G.R.

The yellowed eyes of the captive gnome stare into my own, red with little sleep. We are glaring at one another. It is a pastime for which I assume we share equal enthusiasm.

"You know my face," I murmur to him, looking over the rags he wears, the tattered remains of the Black Guard's uniform. "You know the face of the Warhammer as well."

His eyes don't move from mine.

"We are renegades, men who have very little qualms with dealing out pain and death," I inform him before tossing him a bit of fruit, the bruised portion. Nostrils flaring, he dives for it, nearly testing the limits of the rope leash that ties him to a nearby tree.

"You're a deserter, aren't you?"

At this he stops his gobbling and looks up at me, but Wilhelm Warhammer approaches.

"Axman," he murmurs, the usual egregious smile somehow absent from his face. "Step this way with me, won't you?"

Tossing the rest of my plum upon the ground, I rise as the gnome resumes his fevered slobbering. With his hands bound tight behind him and the rope tied to a branch well out of his reach, he can be left unsupervised for a time.

"What is it," I murmur to Wilhelm as we move away.

"You'll see." He doesn't look up.

At last the gods seem to be rewarding my various acts of selfless bravery in the service of justice, good and the like; Wilhelm in this last day has granted me something of a reprieve from his usual nonstop chatter. Part of this has to do with the arrangement he has worked out with the captive gnome — the gnome carries most of our things as we travel by day toward the sunken Forest of Arboula, and the Summoning Tree where we hope to find M'yrrgh, Hag Queen of the swamps. Loaded down in such a way, the gnome is of course less likely to escape, and his slower groundspeed allows for a more subtle form of torture. He has become Wilhelm's chief conversation partner.

"Did he talk yet?" Wilhelm asks me now, as we walk. I shake my head and he spits. "Filthy whelp hasn't said a word to me, either."

I wait for it.

"Doesn't even have the common courtesy to laugh at my jokes."

There it is.

In truth, Wilhelm would find me an even poorer conversant than usual just now; these last nights I have slept not at all, instead sitting up, scanning the forest for another glimpse of her.

But it cannot be…she is long dead…

Here Wilhelm stops, catches my sleeve when I do not, still lost in my thoughts. He pulls me back a step and points his finger, stabs it toward the ground. "Do you see it, Axman? Look here!"

I follow his finger and squint at the ground a few moments before I see it, the footprint. Then I see another, and then I see the gnawed pieces of fruit, smashed under leaves. Bits of ash, remnants of a small fire.

"Why are we still being followed?" Wilhelm asks me, his easy, smiling face bent into an unfamiliar expression of concern. “I thought, with the capture of the gnome…”

I shake my head and circle the clearing once. The tracks are less than a day old, I'm certain. I think of Arianna, she who haunts my dreams, she who I am nearly certain I saw in the woods the night before last. She who I saw fall in battle, who I laid to rest with my own bleeding hands…

"I think it's them," Wilhelm whispers, squatting to examine one of the tracks. "They're tracking us, Blagg. The Black Guard. They know we've taken the gnome."

My brow furrows. "I'm not sure…"

Wilhelm ignores this, standing and scanning the trees, hand on the handle of his warhammer. "If they think we'll trade for him, it's a poor job. The only payment I'm interested in is their blood, and I don't think our diminutive friend back there is worth it to them."

I grunt and we return to our captive, now attempting a nap with his face pressed into the ground. Wilhelm prods him awake with a boot-tip and we get moving again.

As we walk the trees occasionally thin and we grow hopeful, thinking that the great basin in which lies the Forest of Arboula may be just ahead, but beyond the swaths of jagged gray stone that jut forth from the ground and the bare-trunked pines that tower overhead, more woods are always just beyond the next rise. In these hours I wander far from Wilhelm and the gnome, my eyes crawling the land, looking for any sign of her, but nothing is there.

~*~

Night and the first watch is mine. Bleary-eyed I sit upon a rough stump, at once exhausted and wide awake. I worry that the rising and falling of Wilhelm's snores, quite like the tide, will lull me to sleep, but every night sound of the wood puts me on my guard, sets my heart to a gallop.

But this is madness, foolishness. How often do I say these words to myself, in my mind, muttering them aloud now and then? Yet I find no peace as the night deepens.

A shape, moving there. I see it, I stand. Nearly call out before I look around at Wilhelm, finally silent, the gnome, his head lolling on his shoulder, made fast to a tree. No, I tell myself; it is only another dream. And then I hurry into the trees.

Ahead, just ahead, behind another thicket, and I follow, closer now. The edge of a cloak, dark in color, and I stumble through the brush to keep up while attempting to recall the colors Arianna wore. The heel of a boot, caught in the light of the half-moon, changing direction, catching up, and I am ready to call out —

She is there, but she is not there.

Standing there in the space between two trees she turns to face me, lowering her hood. Her hair is light, as was Arianna's, but I know immediately that it is not her; this woman's face is longer, sadder, small lines around her eyes from years of hard life. I know, as I too wear them.

"Axman," she begins, and I can only stare. "You must —"

But Wilhelm springs from the shadow, warhammer raised overhead, bringing it down to crush in her head. I move to block him but I am too far away and so I throw myself in his path, seeing the hammer swing and her eyes shining in the dark as she looks up at the falling weapon…

Wilhelm and I crash into one another and become a heap upon the forest floor, but he immediately scrambles to his feet, as do I, turning, searching, but we hear it first — a heavy thud as she falls to the ground. We look at one another and I already begin to berate him, but the slack expression on his face stops me, and I turn.

The woman has become stone, a statue, upon the forest floor. Her eyes still are upturned.

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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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