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TODAY

Saturday, April 20

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Airbags

The Illinois House voted Wednesday to ban the slaughter of horses for human consumption, answering a two-year lobbying push by actress and animal-rights activist Bo Derek.

With Derek in the audience, the House voted 74-41 on a measure designed to shut down permanently the Cavel International Inc. slaughterhouse in DeKalb.
...
In 2004, despite lobbying from Derek, the House rejected the prohibition, which foes said would cost jobs.

That argument resurfaced, along with complaints that lawmakers were acting under the spell of a onetime movie star, who mugged in front of cameras with supporters and was feted at a Springfield reception Wednesday night.
...
Backers of the measure said slaughtering horses for consumption overseas is inhumane, particularly given that state law recognizes horses as a "companion animal" like dogs or cats.

The true impact of the legislation, should it become law, may be minimal since Cavel ceased operations after a federal court determined that plant inspections were being improperly funded.

Again I find myself a prisoner.

No bars this time, and no dungeon. And though my time on this boat has been only just longer than that I spent languishing in the catacombs beneath the city hall of Rheidling, it already seems a harsher sentence. None of them look at me, speak to me — not Eveleth, not Sov or Nort, certainly not the boy. I am the plagued, the untouchable. I sit at the tiller and pretend that I steer this boat though we have seen no land in days and hope is scarce as a steady breeze. We are still drifting and I am beginning to fear.

Somehow the boy's father has managed to live. Since taking an arrow in our escape from Rheidling, under chase of Kayne's Black Guard, he has not moved from the floorboards, besides the thrashing as his wound festers from the poison. They asked me how long the Black Guard's poison took to work; I told them that men had hung on for weeks and this technically was true. At least three men had survived past the one-week mark. Then there were the dozens, hundreds who didn't last two days.

Yet he holds on, as do the rest of us, subsisting on the occasional fish and the few soggy biscuits Sov had in his pouch. I myself have not eaten since being pulled from the storming harbour, telling the others to feed themselves and getting no argument.

It is Eveleth's standoffishness that most vexes me. True, I bear the blame for her initial imprisonment, when her husband discovered our dalliances in the abandoned barn, but hadn't I righted that error by freeing her from the roof of the guards' barracks where she lay bound and set to burn? And beyond that I'd led her out of the city when it became clear that Kayne designed to have it leveled, to accomplish what his hangman could not — ending my life.

And yet she sides with them, the boy, who refuses to reveal to me the secret of M'yrrgh's scroll, as per our agreement: when he was reunited with his father, so would he tell me its contents. Still he holds this over my head, leveraging it against me until I produce the cure for the poison at work in his father's veins. A thing I would freely have told him, had he not made it into a battle of wills. A battle I am forced to forfeit.

So we sit. Them, gathered round the boy's father to watch the hitching of his chest; me, standing the tiller and staring into the line where the grey of the sky meets the darker grey of the sea. Drifting, all of us.

And time passes.

~*~

I remember the wheat. Long and bending with soft brushes at the end, curling in the wind and sagging low when it grew too tall. Its pale yellow colour, a tired colour to me, a colour of warm afternoons and naps in the grass. How it was everywhere.

There were no trees for me to climb on the farm, if my 5-year-old arms were even up for the job. No streams in which to splash, but there was the wheat, the sea of it, and this was my play-place. There were snake-holes to seek out, grey-mice to chase, a sunken gully that I made into my fortress, lining it with rocks and sticks my father tossed aside at reaping time.

Aside from a wild beard and rough workman's hands I can remember little of him. More I recall of my mother, a plump and kind-faced lady who smelled of fresh rolls and plied me with sweets. Mornings I would help her in the kitchen and afternoons I was turned loose to play among the wheat-stalks.

She sent me out to play early that day. I can't remember why, or what I meant to do with the extra time. Only that I passed my father as he came in for lunch, tying our mule to the post and grinning at me as I ran toward the field. Our mule was named Ronald.

At my fort I played soldier, my favorite game, leaping over the ramparts to do battle with the swaying stalks, inventing elaborate attacks with the curved branch that was my sword. I was training, honing my skills for the day when I would join the army to fight for the king against the monster invaders. Here, a goblin — THWACK — there, a manticore — THWACK. Ducking and rolling away, vaulting back behind the rampart to plot the next offensive.

My mother never called me for dinner but I didn't notice. The sun was low before I headed home with rumbling stomach, greasy and streaked with dirt from my training. I wiped at my face as our farmhouse appeared through the wheat and a few steps later I stopped.

The creature was less than 20 feet away, nosing at the corpse of the mule. It was an enormous black hairy thing, sharp scales poking through its wiry coat, a whiplike tail, pointed ears folded flat against its long skull and the claws — I remember the claws. So fearsome, long as the knife my mother used to slice watermelons, and curved. I froze, didn't move.

A minute later a second of the creatures — bugbears, I learned later — emerged from our house with a piece of wood in its mouth. My father's arm, I learned later.

Much time passed before I risked taking the first step backward. An hour, perhaps. My legs were asleep from squatting and it was a while before I trusted them. Inched back, one step, another. Fifteen steps back and I stood. Another fifteen and I ran.

I knew the general direction of the nearest village and I headed there, but it was well after midnight before I spotted the lantern lights. The sheriff rode out the next day with eight very nervous men from town, but the beasts were long since moved on. My parents were buried that night and I remember standing alone in front of their graves.

Two days later the monks' wagon arrived to spirit me off to their monastery and I didn't see the wheat again for a long time.

~*~

"Blagg! BLAGG!"

"Hunggh?" I jolt forward and find myself halfway to the floor of the boat, enough time to fall on my shoulder instead of my face. There are people moving around me and a hand on my forehead that I know immediately is Eveleth's.

"Are you alright?" she asks but I know that there are other people talking and I am interested in what they say: "...Fell asleep at the tiller... how long? I didn't... at least six hours, so who knows where we've been..."

I close my eyes and make my mouth form a silent curse. I have become weak and they know this now.

Eveleth tries to help me sit up but I push her away and right myself, wavering and blinking, looking around. Only more grey and I think again of the seas of pale wheat.

"Well done, Axman," Sov snorts, plopping back down onto a bench. "Asleep with the tiller jammed way off to the right."

"Starboard," I mumble. "And I wasn't sleeping."

"Oh? What do you call it then? Resting your eyes only, I suppose."

I glare.

"Who knows where we are by now," he goes on. "Probably fit to sail us off the edge of the world."

"Don't be a fool," I sneer at him, though this thought does worry me.

"Tell the truth," Nort says. "We're lost. We're going to die out here, aren't we."

"That," I say, "is a poor attitude for a man who–"

Sov laughs. "Oh, and here we're going to hear a lecture on attitude from someone who'd sooner let a wounded man die than tell the rest of us the cure, because he lost some scroll."

"I didn't — you don't —" I stammer, angry and growing angrier at my own incomprehensibility. My palms itch for the ax; I shove them to my pockets.

"He wouldn't call out for land even if he saw it," the boy murmurs, not looking up from his father. "He'd rather see us die out here."

"You're wrong," I say, a smile breaking across my face, happy to prove the boy wrong at last. "Land ay-ho."

Far in the distance are cliffs — faint grey, of course.

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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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