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TODAY

Tuesday, November 12

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Airbags

Lucky fans snare Art Institute's giant Bears helmet

She likes the Egyptian art; he prefers the arms and armor.
Together, they love the Bears.
Eduardo and Mariselda Garza of Bridgeport got some of all that Thursday as the winners of the Art Institute's raffle of its oversize Bears helmet. The fiberglass lid adorned one of the museum's iconic Michigan Avenue lions during the team's Super Bowl push last season.
After lunch and a museum tour, Eduardo, a 31-year-old deli manager, called the day "a win-win situation."

—Chicago Sun-Times

My eyes staring away for long minutes, seeing nothing, thinking only of the words the boy has spoken to me... M'yrrgh's scroll, a love letter... your eye shall be restored to you... become my queen... K… I ponder it, turning it over and again in my mind, not watching as Eveleth and the boy Alfie walk away from me, toward the river village Talldam. I don't watch as their forms grow small, and I barely notice the tall, dark figure emerging from the trees and approaching them.

But barely is enough. Awake again, ax loosed and in hand, I break for them. But too late; the stranger catches them up, hands to his back and drawing forth a long weapon...

Twenty meters, then 10. I see the weapon in his hand now, an enormous hammer, and the breath runs out of me.

Skidding to a stop before them, out of breath, ax still in my hand. The stranger looks to me and shakes his head, clucks his tongue.

"Late again, Blagg."

My curse is lost between my huffs and puffs, my wheezes. A shame, as it was uncommonly colorful and, in my estimation, well-timed. Of all people to show up now...

"Wilhelm Warhammer," he says to Eveleth and the boy, removing his pointed helmet and twirling it before him with a flourish. Already my teeth are on edge and I do my best not to glare.

"Er..." I begin, wondering whether I ought to administer introductions.

"You will be Alfie, then," Wilhelm nods to the boy, giving his hand a firm shake. "And you," he pauses before Eveleth, taking her hand in his and holding it, "must be the lovely lady Eveleth." He kisses her hand and now I am certain of the glare on my face.

"Sneaking around after us then, Warhammer?" I mutter, not really expecting an answer.

"Bringing up the rear, Axman," he says, still looking into Eveleth's eyes. She giggles and her cheeks redden and I am well on my way to strangling the man. He smiles back at her, flashing polished white teeth, giving her a lingering look down his long nose. I stare into his face, willing him to look at me, away from her. He must be wearing heavy-heeled boots, or possibly he has convinced a rogue sorcerer to somehow make him taller. He never used to be taller than me.

"You two know one another?" Eveleth says.

I frown but Wilhelm already is speaking. "You guess correctly, madame," he says. He has a way of speaking that involves shaping his lips around each separate word that crawls across my ears. "Like our ax-bearing mutual friend, I consider myself a once and future servant of the true King Mandrake. It's a club whose numbers dwindle constantly, I'm afraid, and meetings such as these are rare indeed in these sad times."

I grunt at this and look down. Of the many derogatory observations I can make about Wilhelm's character, his loyalty never has been in question. "It's been a long time," I say.

"Too long, Axman!" Wilhelm cries, throwing an arm around my shoulder and giving me a hearty half-hug. I stiffen and he laughs. "As you're probably aware, our friend Blagg isn't the most personable sort... you do still go by Blagg, that's right, isn't it?"

A growl rises from my throat as he turns to Eveleth and the boy. "I suppose he hasn't mentioned his real name, he's not especially fond of it. It's really— "

My ax is out now and ready to stop the sentence there one way or the other. Wilhelm, his hammer slung over one shoulder, only laughs, shaking the blond curls that fall nearly to his shoulders. "Well, Axman, I see that your travels haven't led you to any troves of buried humor. Fair enough."

Eveleth gives me a look and the boy looks openly displeased that this particular piece of my history will not be revealed. But there are some things a man carries with him, indeed, to the grave. "What is it you want, Warhammer?"

"Only to let you know that you're safe, more or less." Another polished grin flashes. "The Black Guard don't search for you, not here anyway. The Dark Lord has called them north, to the mountain regions. It seems there's something up there that has him quite worried."

The boy opens his mouth to respond — like me, deducing that the sorcerer Weiland must have reunited with his partner Osgood, high in the Towerfall Mountains, and the two of them again are up to mischief. Good, let them keep the Dark Lord busy for a while. But I cast a murderous look at the boy and he says nothing.

"So you'll come with us, then?" Eveleth asks me.

I think of how best to answer her, but of course Wilhelm does it for me. "Oh, no, it's not safe for the likes of our Axman, I'm afraid." He clucks his tongue again. "No, I fear the local Black Guard would recognize him in an instant."

Another deep frown creases my face. I never planned to go into the town with them, but I resent Wilhelm's rejecting the idea out of hand. "So what is it you want, then?" I ask again.

"Why, only to see whether your soon-to-be-former traveling companions would like to join me for a breakfast of coffee and waffles?" He leans forward, murmuring to Alfie. "The innkeeper owes me a few favors. The syrup won't stop until I give my say-so."

"The Guard won't be after you?" Eveleth asks. "I mean, if you're, ah... like Blagg... I mean, fighting against the Dark Lord..."

"I'm safe enough in Talldam, sure," Wilhelm says, offering up another easy, assured grin. "I've a few friends in the right places here and there. Old Blagg, however, he always seems to rub people the wrong way..."

"Call it what you will," I mutter. "If that's everything, then, I suppose I'll be moving along. Safe journey," I add to the others, making a point not to include Wilhelm. We goodbye again and I walk away into the wilderness, resisting the impulse to look back around, fists clenched tight. My ax still is in my hand.

Distasteful as it is, heeding Wilhelm's words that it is safe to travel in daylight, I make good time that day, stopping only once to avoid a small party traveling a road, who may or may not have been Black Guard. The progress would be more enjoyable had I any idea where I headed; for the most part I bear east by south, willing myself not to recall the way he had looked at Eveleth, concentrating instead on the contents of the scroll that the boy had recited to me before we parted. Was it true? Was the Dark Lord Kayne in league with M'yrrgh, Hag-Queen of the Great Bog? Why then had he taken her enchanted eye?

And did he know, somehow, that I would be the one to return it to her?

The questions plague me, circling and incessant as flies, and when I stop for the night I am much fatigued. Camp is made under a bed of broad-leafed shrubs, and my last thought before fading is how good it is to again travel alone, responsible for no skin but the one on my back.

~*~

A burning smell wakes me and I'm immediately angry with myself. It is thick enough that I ought to have noticed it earlier.

My fingers find the ax and my elbows and knees propel me toward the fire before I can place the scent. Bacon. Crackling in its own grease.

"Morning, Axman," Wilhelm says, standing from where he sits at the fire, a short distance away. "Thought you might be hungry. We've got a long way to go today, that is, if you don't mind me tagging along."

My stomach rumbles and I bitterly curse it as I get to my feet.

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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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