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TODAY

Monday, February 18

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Airbags

To Blagg:

A rabbit carcass in its stiffened fur.
Silence. Your way of being. Your way of seeing
Toward . . . that seems to be the whispered question
and turn it into something cartoon-funny.
My only thought is for what has
Wind, sleet. The branches sway,
Empty streets I come upon by chance,
As if your human shape were what the storm
When Arctic winds crack down from Canada
to restaurants for Early Bird Specials.

-Connie B

The ax lies heavy upon my knees, yet I move it not. Nor do I shift in my seat, though I ache from the hours sitting here, motionless, watching. Studying her. This woman who turned to stone last night before my eyes.

Wilhelm Warhammer, my erstwhile traveling companion and source of constant irritation, is meanwhile vexed. He sleeps beside me, not three feet away, his last words before I took the watch demanding that I alert him if the statue displays the slightest sign of movement. Nodding and rolling my eyes, I see in his face something I am not certain I have ever seen there before — distrust.

Though ordinarily I would permit anger to flare in my breast at this (indeed, I may spoil for a fight with the Warhammer, were he especially annoying that particular day), but the circumstances of the woman's appearance have me flummoxed. First, she walks in my dreams; then, whispering to me in the forest night; finally, beckoning me to follow her, until...

Until Wilhelm launched himself upon her. Many battles have we fought side by side, and won, and I know that he meant to do her in. But why?

Dawn's first gray light rouses him and we set to preparing breakfast, neither of us speaking much. We slop a bit of cold gruel down the gullet of our captive, the gnome clad in the tattered remnants of the uniform of Kayne's Black Guard. He, too, remains silent, but today he seems as perplexed as we are by the appearance of the stone woman in our camp.

Wilhelm and I are laying the foundation of a pitched argument as to how we will carry the statue when we hear a stirring. The woman is flesh again, and sitting halfway up, but immediately Wilhelm is upon her, knife drawn, and just as quickly I am hauling him back. Behind us both I hear the amused gnome snicker.

"Vile witch," Wilhelm snarls, eyes fired with hot fury as the woman stares him down. "It is you, isn't it, who haunt our trail through these trees, leaving sign where you will and fading with the mist, isn't it, you seek to drive us mad with your sorcery, who do you serve, there will be no–"

"Enough," I growl, releasing him a safe distance away from her. Color returns to her face and clothes, and I look upon the light hair, the long face, those eyes that I feel I may know from somewhere...

"State your business here," I say to her.

Moments pass before she speaks, her eyes flitting to Wilhelm, still red in the face, to the gnome, who still seems highly entertained by the situation. Then: "You recognize me, Blagg."

I am struck dumb, but not Wilhelm — he flies to her side before I can move, slipping a gag over her mouth and drawing it taut, knotting it. "A spell," he says, glancing up at me. "Another few words and you'd have been in her power, Axman. You may thank me at your convenience."

He tightens her bonds, and eventually I move to do the same for the gnome. I am shaken. Where have I seen her before?

~*~

Two prisoners slow our progress through the forest considerably, and I mention this to Wilhelm several times as we plod among the trees, more to gauge his reaction than out of any real concern for our schedule. It seems as though we have been journeying through this wooded land for weeks, and our intended destination — the sunken Forest of Arboula, and within it the Hag-Queen M'yrrgh, who has sought out the ancient Summoning Tree there for some foul purpose — still lies before us. But days of trudging have dimmed our sense of purpose.

Wilhelm tirelessly shoots questions at the woman as we go, sometimes stopping to shout accusations of witchcraft and other nefarious doings in her face. Before long I find myself leading her, partly to protect her from the Warhammer's assaultive interrogation, but also to study her, wonder how it is I seem to know her — or why she might want me to think so. But I make no connection, and she is as silent toward me as she is to Wilhelm.

Mine is the first watch that night, but Wilhelm never is far from us and only dozes, waking whenever I tried again to question the woman. She looks not at either of us, her watery green eyes instead scanning the darkened trees. Halfway through the night I take my rest, and wake to find Wilhelm hauling her to her feet again, his face drawn, eyes puffy. She has not spoken, and the captured gnome is all but forgotten.

Another day we trudge, Wilhelm Warhammer nearly beside himself with frustration at our mute prisoners, me lost in memory, wringing dry my mind for any recollection of her, finding nothing.

~*~

That night she speaks.

Wilhelm has wandered off, muttering and fiddling with his belt, ostensibly in search of a tree to water. It is then her eyes suddenly turn upon me, bright and fierce.

"You must listen to me, Axman."

I sit up, knocking over my cup of cold coffee in the process. The first words she speaks in days and me wiping furiously at my crotch. Of course. "Wait," I say, "I know you, from days past. Tell me how."

"Mandrake's court," she whispers, "My name's Nan. I was a magician, apprentice to the master, Grauss."

I snap my fingers. "I knew it! I knew we'd known one another, as soon as –"

"Axman, listen! You must free me! There isn't much time..."

"Of course." My hand finds my knife, begins to saw at the cords that bind her. "I apologize for Wilhelm's zealousness, you don’t know what an–"

"I must escape tonight," Nan interrupts, searching our surroundings. "I am able to petrify myself, but no more than two days in a row. A third time will make it permanent."

"Then last night, you — I mean, again, you became–"

"Yes." She gives me a level look. "If I hadn't, he would have killed me. You–"

"RAAAAAGHH!!"

Wilhelm's roar crashes through the silent wood. Nan and I freeze, me with the knife in hand, her standing and shrugging away the remains of the ropes.

"Warhammer, it's alright, she's from the–"

But I am cut off once again, this time as Wilhelm's trademark weapon smashes into a nearby treetrunk where Nan a moment ago had stood; she runs into the gloom and Wilhelm gives chase, barking curses. We run, one after the other, ducking low branches and leaping rotted stumps, uphill, and ahead I can see...

Stars.

Nan emerges first from the trees but I haven't the time to see any more than the clear sky before I tackle Wilhelm, bringing him to the ground with a grunt and growl. But I am crawling over him, knife held before me, Nan behind me, holding him back as he rises to his feet, his face dirtied and twisted in a malevolent grin.

"You're under her power, Axman," he heaves. "Stand aside, and allow me to take care of her."

My head jerks around to measure her reaction, but before my eyes find her I see what lies beyond — we stand upon a vast cliff, plunging hundreds of feet below us. Far off, a waterfall pours silently over the side, and the trees in the crater are so thick as to present themselves as a leafy, twilit rug. We have arrived, for this surely is the sunken Forest of Arboula.

"Blagg, don't listen to him," Nan says, glaring over my shoulder at Wilhelm. "He's not the–"

A hollow clanging sound turns our heads. To the north, along the cliff's mouth, the gnome is scampering off with my satchel. "Oy!" is all I have time to say, and then I am shoved aside by Wilhelm, his hammer already swinging toward her...

And Nan simply steps off the cliff, falling from sight.

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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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