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TODAY

Saturday, April 20

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Airbags

Ice storms and heavy rains have been known to hold up a flight or two, but officials said a recent delay was likely because of an unprecedented culprit: coyotes on the runway.

The four-legged critters were the reason two flights aborted landings at O'Hare Airport late last month.
...
Coyotes are spotted on the airfield once a week or more, said Wendy Abrams, an assistant commissioner in the city's Department of Aviation. The problem is worst in the winter. There is a fence, but the coyotes can burrow underneath it, she said.

Planes have struck coyotes in Illinois airports 26 times since 1990, according to an FAA database. That is just under 10 percent of all coyote-plane collisions in the United States.
—Chicago Sun-Times

I take the hand of the man I assumed was dead, shake it and peer into his pale, faded eyes.

"Blagg the Axman, servant to his majesty King Mandrake, commandant-lieutenant of the twelfth brigade what took the battle of–"

"Enough," he drops my hand and waves away the words. "I'm Roald."

My mouth hangs open for a moment; I expected a sight more reverence for the true King from someone who'd languished long years in gaol out of loyalty to His Majesty. Roald sees my confusion and brushes this aside as well.

"No time here," he says, laying his hand again on the shoulder of his son, Alfie, the boy I led out of the mountains, where he had been servant-prisoner of the sage Osgood. "We must be away."

"Hold," I bark as they make to leave, turning to the boy. "This is where you were, then, all those days you spent away?"

He narrows his eyes and his father watches me, but I do not break his gaze.

"I'm surprised you noticed, between visits with your new friend," he says, smug.

Anger shoots through me like a crossbow's bolt — was it a boy's petty jealousy, then, that set the Black Guard upon Eveleth and I? Me jailed and nearly executed, and like as not a similar fate for her? My hand rockets forward to snatch the boy by the neck, and a half-dozen sword points prick my flesh, yet I release him not.

"If you gave us up, boy, so help me —"

"He's no snitch," rumbles a low, round man with an oily face, pressing his wide blade to my cheek. "He found us, and got tired of waiting around for his guide to… satisfy his urges."

My hand falls away and I grit my teeth, turning my eyes downward. He is right, and I am shamed. "And you are...?"

"Men loyal to our lord," the rotund fellow answers, sheathing his weapon. "Like yourself, if what you say is true."

"Let's go, Alfie," Roald murmurs, but I reach out again to stop him.

"Please," I say. "This dungeon has been your home for long years. Tell me where they've taken her. Eveleth."

He and the boy exchange a look as the others dart nervous eyes up and down the street. A squad of the Guard rushes by at a full sprint, 20 or so, but do not so much as glance in our direction. Roald watches them go, then gives me a curt nod. "Very well. Hurry."

Into the hall we run, Roald and me moving abreast, taking the stairs two at a time as we descend into the foul depths of that dark place. He tries one door, finds it locked, chooses another. "I can't tell you where she is for certain," he says as we enter, "but I can take you to the hall where the new prisoners are chained."

More stairs, down, then up, then down again, twisting corridors lit by feeble torches that nearly blow out as we pass. "Just ahead," Roald says over his shoulder as we pile through a tall, broad door and find ourselves in a high-vaulted hall lined with cells. Immediately we wish we were elsewhere.

Before us looms a gray, long-limbed creature, two fathoms high with one dripping eye of sickly green. Around his leg is a manacle, a few lengths of heavy iron chain dragging behind. He advances, thin fingers wrapped around an enormous piece of iron piping, hissing as though he means to use it. I rush the monster, ax in hand, as Roald shoves the boy back into the doorway.

Though we were separated for days, I'm quickly reminded that nothing feels so natural as the soft, worn wood of the ax-handle in my palm, and I savor the familiar weight of the blade as I swing it sidearm, barely noticing slices into the beast's leg. A half-smile crosses my lips as I spin away from the huge club, shattering the brown tile underfoot and shaking the floor. The blood is black and smells of sulfur.

Roald and his men swarm the beast, but one of them is too slow — the creature catches him full in the back with the pipe-club, bending him in half with a muffled, wet crack. The portly man with the oily face skewers the monster's knee with his broad, flat blade and it screeches horribly, throwing its arms up and driving its club into the ceiling. Another blow is landed, further enraging the creature, and the ceiling begins to fall apart, first in small chunks and then in sections large enough to squash a horse. I run for the far wall and look back in time to see one of Roald's companions trapped under the writhing carcass of the gangly beast.

Stone thunders down a few seconds longer, then silence. I am alone, it is dark, and there is no telling where I am.

I call out and listen hard but no reply comes. Bits of stone and masonry clatter down the pile now filling the hall, but naught else. One of the feeble torches flickers on the far wall and I move toward it, knocking at each cell as I go. The floor quakes again beneath me and I look over my shoulder, checking the pile, but it is only a reflex. This tremor came from far below, and felt much bigger.

"Eveleth!" I cry, entering the hall where the torch jitters against the dark rock wall. More cells here, but no sign of life. My fists are clenched tight, and I force myself to relax them. I must stay calm, in control. As if on cue, the ground trembles again.

Then I hear it — a voice, faint, far down the hall and around the corner. I "Hullo!" a few times as I move toward it, for the voice is not that of Eveleth, not even a woman's. It nears and then I am before the door, nearly as thick and impassive as the one that held me just that morning, before Gort and his flunkies led me to the gallows.

"Stand back," I growl, and begin to hack. Five minutes later I'm through, and a shriveled, pasty face blinks out at me, his eyes wide and dark and watery.

"Bless you, young man," he stammers as I help him through the broken door. "The guards haven't yet come with my dinner, and I wondered what–"

"A woman," I pant, "Eveleth is her name. Brought here only days ago. Tell me you know where she is."

He blinks and bobs his head. It bears a tuft of crinkly white hair, and he's swaddled in a tattered robe. "Don't know where they put her..."

My breath runs out like a kicked-over bucket.

"...But they brought her through here this afternoon. I don't suppose you're the gentleman they told her was hanged?"

I grasp his shoulder, digging in my fingertips to demonstrate that I mean serious business. "I am, but never mind my woes, old man, nor the tale of my miraculous escape. Where did they take her?"

"Why, the guard's barracks, I believe."

"The guard's barracks —"

Another tremor, this one much stronger, much closer by, spilling dust from the ceiling and prompting both of us to duck. From down the hall comes racing footsteps, and moments later they appear — five of the Black Guard, running past the end of the hall, up a flight of steps and out of sight.

"What is that?"

The old man chuckles. "Surely there are things other than men imprisoned here, Blagg."

Hearing my name on the old man's tongue somehow sets my skin acrawl, but I heed it not. "Know you the way out, man?" He nods. "Then let us begone, and quick!"

With a nod he leads us up the hallway toward the place we'd seen the Black Guard flee a minute ago, heading up the stairs, running. The old man is surprisingly fleet of foot and I thank the stars of fine fortune that I do not have to carry him. I had been prepared to carry Eveleth — even hoped for it, truth told — but an ancient old man in dirty rags presents a somewhat different situation, and any fool could see that.

One flight of stairs, two, a landing, then two flights more. It is clear we are nearing the surface now, as the air hangs heavy with the smell of acrid smoke and flame. We reach the ground floor, hurry through the double doors, still thrown wide, and collapse on the street before the great hall, heaving and coughing.

We are alone. No sign of Alfie, Roald or the others. The street is empty and night has fallen, but an eerie light pervades and faintly I can hear shouts and crying.

"The city burns," I murmur, and the old man just looks at me.

He raises himself from the ground and I struggle to my feet, facing him. "The barracks. Which way."

"Follow me." Shaking the dust from his ragged clothes, he heads up the street at a light run, and I go after him.

Rheidling's broad streets afford us glimpses of the strife. Far-off burning buildings, small groups of people running hither and thither far down the road, breaking glass, screams and distant chanting. We hurry along, hewing close to buildings, traveling by side streets. Occasionally large bands of the Black Guard march past on the main avenues, silent as ever, and we take to the shadows.

"Just ahead," whispers the old man as we round a corner and nearly tread on a sprawled Guardsman, moaning on the cobblestones with a jug cradled in his arm. Unable to resist, I haul him to his feet, and through his drunken haze I can see that he knows who I am.

"Axman," he mumbles, "please, spare me... I'm not... I've given it up..."

"Quiet," I snap, shaking him a bit, enjoying the sound of his teeth cracking together. "What's happened to this city? Tell me, man."

"I've left the Guard... please don't hurt me... none of us are anymore."

"None of you are what? What's going on?"

"Gort... Kayne, the Dark Lord... his orders to..."

"Orders what?" At this moment it is barely within my power to resist knocking his head upon the wall and going about my business.

"Clear the town..."

"Clear it?" I look at him. "What is it you say?"

"But I was born here, sir!" he cries with sudden passion, his head rolling on his shoulders. "I'd sooner desert than see her burned... cut down my neighbors as they run... friends... I won't!"

I let him slide from my hands and turn to the old man. "Does he mean to say that–"

But the old man is gone. Not up the street, nor down it, nor on the roof above... without a sound, he has disappeared.

And there's little time. I snatch up the drooling Guardsman once more. "The barracks. Where are they?"

One finger extends, drawing lazy circles in the air, pointing south. "Two blocks..."

I toss him to the ground and run.

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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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