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TODAY

Friday, April 19

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Airbags

Dear Blagg,

I was at the mall with my best friend shopping for prom dresses. This is our senior year prom, and we both have mega hot dates. We want to look really sexy. Anyway, on Saturday I found the COOLEST dress when we were shopping. Strapless, valentine's day red, with lace trim. My best friend said it looked great on me, but I should sleep on it before dropping the dough. I took her advice and put the dress on hold. The next day my other friend told me that my best friend went back to the mall in secret! She bought the dress I put on hold, and now I have to wear some ugly dress while she will look so hot! My best friend stole my prom dress!

How would you handle this situation?
— Bucktown Weebie

The boy tried to take my life last night.

Still I do not know why. Now bound and tied to a tree, he scowls and spits at me, but will not speak. His silence is an attribute gained too late. Had he been stealthier when attempting to slit my throat as I slept, he may have succeeded.

Many hard-lived nights in unfriendly territory stood me well, however, and my ears pricked from the first, as he unsheathed the short sword I chose for him nearly two weeks ago. Yet I stirred not. Possibly he drew the blade to ward off a marauding beast, or perhaps to shave, as I have known many men to do on long, sleepless nights. But no — his approaching footfalls, though light, roused me further, and when he prepared to deliver the fatal blow I sprung, pinning his arm to his back and nearly breaking it as the sword fell to the ground.

"What manner of mountain-bred treachery is this," I growled into the whelp's ear, tightening my grip on his wrist. "Speak, boy, or you'll need a shoehorn to put this arm into your shirtsleeve come morning."

Not a word did he say, yet I maimed him not, electing instead to deal him a terrific blow to the back of his head which rendered him unconscious. In his reverie I bound him, and when he came to hours later, he opened his eyes to see me skinning one of the last mountain pears on the blade of my ax.

"You and this pear may soon share more than a mountain origin, lad," I said, taking a bite from the fruit and considering the boy as I chewed. "The last fool who tried to do me in as I slept saw his own hide hanging from my ax before he went." I took another bite.

The boy said nothing. I left him alone for most of the day as I hunted among the patchy forest that covered the foothills through which we traveled, and at sundown I returned to find him still bound to the tree. The rope was frayed around his chest, as though he had tried to chew at it. I plucked and roasted two pheasants as he looked on, letting the fat crackle and hiss over the fire. The aroma nearly drove me mad, not having eaten since breakfast; I could only imagine the boy's anguish.

Now I sit, picking my teeth with a bone and watching him. Not a word has passed his teeth, the sullen expression remains. He won't say why he attacked me, and worse, he holds the key to the next portion of my quest — the treacherous mountain sage Osgood trusted to the boy's memory the contents of M'yrrgh's scroll, which could contain a vital clue to the Dark Lord Kayne's undoing. I begin to suspect that both the boy and Osgood are agents of Kayne.

Perhaps I ought to beat him.

But he has not the look of Kayne's minions. His eyes are haunted, not dead and cold, as are those who serve the Dark Lord. There is something the boy is not telling me, and that is what stays my hand. Still, he will not speak, and I have no bargaining chips aside from threats, to which he does not seem to respond.

With a sigh, I take the last leg of pheasant and bring it before the boy, holding it inches from his face; he does not look up. "Talk and you shall have dinner," I say, waving the meat before him. "Keep quiet, and you shall die upon your feet."

He fixes me with a cold glare. "You'll kill me anyway in the end. What difference does it make?"

"Suffering, for one. Answer my questions and perhaps your death will take an instant, rather than days."

"Do what you will."

"Answer me, boy," I bark. "Do you serve the Dark Lord?"

He laughs. I take a bite of the pheasant and chew it, slowly, inches from his face. "Explain yourself," I demand.

"What?"

"I said," swallowing the meat, "explain yourself."

"I know no Dark Lord," he sneers. "Osgood kept me, sure, but never did I serve him, just as I'll never serve you."

This confounds me. How can a boy of his age not know of the Dark Lord? True, he would have been young when the war began, but all who suffered under Kayne's rule knew his name, some even fearing to speak it aloud. And what's this talk of serving me? "I seek not your service, boy, only the translation of that damnable scroll."

"And you'll never have it. They'll never release him."

"Who?"

It is the boy's turn to be confused. He gives me a quizzical look. "Why do you think you're transporting me to Rheidling?"

"An errand for the sage Osgood, who I assume cared not to leave his mountain outpost."

"You know nothing of the sorcerer Weiland? Or my father?"

I shake my head, and he can see I am truthful.

The story is told. The boy Alfie is no relation to Osgood, and the cunning old man is no reclusive scholar. Years ago, the boy recounted, Osgood and Weiland were renowned as great magicians with power over the weather; together they worked as mercenaries, bringing fair skies to the crops of lords who could afford to pay them, and sending strong winds into the sails of rich merchants. Separately their powers were modest, but together they could affect mighty change.

A long-forgotten errand brought Osgood one day to Cloumont, the mountain village, where he first laid eyes upon the peak that would become his home — the highest point in the kingdom, a place from which he and Weiland could extend their control of the winds and rains further than ever before. Immediately he set out for Rheidling, where Weiland tarried, and on the docks Osgood told Weiland of his plan.

Yet already they were foiled, for a fisherman mending his nets downwind heard their plan, and hastened to tell the Lord of Rheidling who dispatched his guards. That night they arrested and jailed Weiland, but Osgood heard their coming and fled. He made not for the sea, nor the open country — his first destination was the house of the lord, where he used his charms to enter in silence and steal away the lord's toddling son, a boy named Alfie.

Many times did Osgood try to ransom Alfie in exchange for Weiland's release, but the Lord of Rheidling never wavered. To allow the sorcerers to reunite would mean ruin for Mandrake's kingdom, and the lord was loyal. He could never have known that ruin would come from a far different place.

When the tale ended, I ask the boy, "How did you come to know all this?"

He shrugs. "Osgood tells me these things freely."

"Then Osgood took me for an agent of the Dark Lord..."

"No," the boy says. "He knows no Dark Lord, and nor do I."

"But how..."

Again he shrugged. "Neither he nor I have left that mountaintop as long as I can remember. Once in a great while one of the villagers delivers supplies. Osgood keeps them afraid. He is able to bring enough snow to close the roads and bury the village, or so he tells them."

I wonder why, then, Osgood released the boy to me — I certainly have no plans to arrange a prisoner swap. Alfie considers this as well.

"Months ago a traveler came to Osgood's house in the middle of the night. He did not stay, did not even enter the house, and I never saw his face," the boy said. "But he told Osgood that someone would come to arrange the bargain that Osgood had long sought, freeing Weiland. When you arrived with the scroll, Osgood assumed it was you."

I am shaking my head. "The old man was sadly mistaken. Besides, it is likely that the conjurer Weiland is long dead. Kayne would doubtful allow such a threat to live." The time is long past to untie the boy, and as I do so, I give him a brief account of the Dark Lord's rise. The years of strife and suffering are mostly omitted.

The boy listens with wide, shocked eyes. When I finish, he has but one question. "The lords, who served the king? What of them?"

I am silent for a moment before answering. "Dead, mostly. The rest, imprisoned."

As I watch him, he blinks away hot, angry tears. He thinks of his father. "No. It can't be."

"Much has changed," I say. "But there are those few who would undo it, like myself. Tell me what Osgood read on the scroll — it may be something we can use to defeat Kayne. Avenge those whose lives were snuffed out by his cursed rule. Those like your father."

He gives me a watery glare. "He's not dead. He's not."

"But with the scroll—"

"I know the contents of the scroll," he snapped. "I know it backward and forward. But not a word of it will I breathe until my father is found and freed. And you will help me do this."

I appraise the boy, who has again proven far more canny than I ever expected. And though it is almost certain that his father lies in an unmarked grave, for now I must humor the boy. "Very well. A jail-break it is."

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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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