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TODAY

Saturday, April 20

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Shortage Leads Local Restaurants to Stop Offering Crustacean

Chicago lobster lovers may have to do without for a while as a nationwide shortage of the tasty crustaceans hits the city, forcing some restaurants and retailers to boost prices to new highs or stop stocking the seafood altogether.

The city's two McCormick & Schmick's Seafood Restaurants dropped it from their menus and Shaw's Crab House had pushed the price up to $32.95 a pound as of late last week, compared to a usual price in the $20s. Some retailers likewise say they don't have fresh lobster in their tanks at the moment.

Bill Dugan, owner of The Fish Guy Market, 4423 N. Elston, ran out of live lobsters about two weeks ago and didn't re-order right away because he said he was uncomfortable charging customers the higher prices that would make stocking them worthwhile. When one of his regular customers had to have lobster for her husband's birthday recently, he sent an employee to Chinatown to buy it from another retailer, he said.

"There's a time when I would have panicked and now I say I'll just wait," said Dugan, who also sells to restaurants. "I'll turn my tanks off and things will start to correct themselves."
—The Chicago Sun-Times

The cliffs thrust up around us and we are having a very difficult time keeping the boat from ruin on the rock face. Until this time we had found favor with the seas, despite not knowing where we drifted; now, as we head inland in search of a place to shore up, the weather has at last turned against us.

Our sail, which ripped halfway off in the sudden winds before we could strike it, lays in a pile at the bottom of the boat, and we make what progress we can with the oars. It's a hard job, as none of them are of one size and to lean too far over in these roiling waters is to tempt fate itself. Already we nearly have lost the fool Sov twice, and his foolhardiness has been summarily rewarded with the shortest oar.

For my part I row, steering when it seems to do some good. Eveleth and the boy huddle on the floorboards, bailing and tending to the boy's father, still stricken with the poison of the Black Guards' arrow. The boy refuses to tell me the secret of M'yrrgh's scroll until I lay hands on the root that will cure his father's sickness, and as the man lays there white and shivering, I cannot believe that he has much time left. Last night he abruptly stopped his irregular moaning; in the past, this shivering silence has preceded the poison's final stage of work.

But now, with the waves dashing themselves to droplets against the rock around us, I debate the measure of optimism that came to me with the first glimpse of this land, after days of wayward travel over misty seas. To have escaped a host of the Dark Lord's Black Guard in Rheidling, only to be driven half-mad by starvation upon the sea, and then smashed apart on the first land we have seen in days... truly, this would be a joke worth dying for.

I laugh now, only a bit, but enough to prompt a sour look from Eveleth, where she sits by the wounded man's side. She, who I rescued and spirited from the city as it burned around us, and who now will hardly meet my gaze. This impromptu voyage has complicated things between us, and though it sticks in my heart like a spear, I wonder if it is not what is right after all. Since my Alienna was taken from me in battle, love never has been present in my long-term plans. Strife and bloodshed, yes. Redemption, maybe.

I look at the man, prone upon the floorboard. Maybe not.

Half the night now we have fought our way up this river canyon, clawing every inch of the way with the boat's substandard oars, and still the wind howls in our ears, its teeth raking our faces and arms. And now through the brine and spray I see it — a small overhang, the best protection we'll find in this storm. I point it out to Sov and Nort and we make for it, pressing our hardest against the uncooperative gale. Through it all, I can see the faint gray of dawn breaking far ahead of us.

~*~

We make it no more than 50 yards before we're seen.

The storm has quieted now but the clouds remain, leaving us only dim light with which to move upriver. We depart around noon, so far as I can tell, still paddling with the long, awkward oars, and make slow progress until the sight of the old woman staring down at us halts our movement completely.

She stands probably 50 feet above us, though it is hard to tell distances in this long corridor of jagged stone. Her clothing hangs in rags and her white hair lies limp across her shoulders — we seem not to have been the only ones traveling last night. And she is speaking. It is several minutes before we are able to decipher her words, with the water slapping at the boat's hull and the strange echoes of the canyon.

But when the words come, they are heavy with meaning: "This way is not safe."

My brow wrinkles at this and I look to the others, where already the dunderhead Sov is preparing to shout a response. I'm halfway to tackling him when he pauses, still looking up — the old woman has tipped forward over the cliff and now is falling, head over toe, crashing into the water ahead of us. An arrow protrudes from the back of her neck and even from where we sit I can see that it bears the fletching of the Black Guard.

The ax has left my hand just as the very tip of the helmet appears, and even here, astride a rickety boat on uncertain waters, my aim is true—the ax floats end-over-end in a silent arc and meets the Guardsman as he steps toward the edge to confirm his kill. The blade wedges between his shoulder and breastplate and now he is falling too, Sov and Nort and Eveleth and the boy still gaping upward as I begin to paddle the boat forward to retrieve my ax.

"There will be more coming," I mutter as I wrench the blade from the carcass. "We must be back to the overhang."

We stay there until full dark, when it's safe to move. Hours pass with no words, only the sound of chattering teeth from the boy's father.

When finally we move upriver, all eyes are on watch — there is very little moon, which helps, but the boat is impossible to hide from above, even with its white sail removed and squashed under the benches. At least two times I see them, passing near the cliff's edge overhead, but neither time do they look in our direction. We paddle on, grim and silent, knowing that our chances are not favorable.

Yet hours pass and the terrain begins to soften, the cliff faces stepping down to meet us, and my measure of optimism makes an unwelcome return. The trees and smells are familiar to me — soon we will enter the river country, where hedgeroot grows in abundance. The cure for the wounded man's poisoning, and the key to learning the contents of the scroll I found in the hut of the hag-queen M'yrrgh, so many long days ago.

We beach the boat below a hanging-leaf tree, where it will mostly be out of sight, and set to pulling it up onshore. Eveleth and the boy lift out his father and Sov and Nort turn the boat over to shelter him, but already I am moving through the bush, eyes fixed upon the ground, casting this way and that for the curative plant. Several times I stop myself, force a look around the gloom for a sign of where I am, how I will return. Fruits, yellow and heavy, hang from certain of the trees but I pass these by, despite not having eaten in days. Time is short, I feel it.

And then, minutes later, it is there — the hedgeroot plant, pale needles nodding benevolently in the warm breeze as I crash to my knees and set to digging, first with my ax, which is a poor tool for this task, then with my fingers. The root is hard-separated from the rest and at length I uproot the entire plant, slinging it across my back and running for the boat.

The cure is simple, and I have administered it before. The root must be simmered over a fire for a quarter of an hour, to remove the bad juices; the remainder then is strained and chopped and applied as a compress to the wound. There is a tin cup in the boat that will do for boiling, and my flint and steel remains in my pocket. There will be time, there must.

I step triumphant back beneath the hanging-leaf tree, the hedgeroot plant held over my head, in time to see their expressions turn to horror when the river erupts behind them.

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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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