The scene unfolded as if in slow motion. My heart was in my mouth as I watched the Common Grackle launch himself from a nearby tree. He flew straight as an arrow for the shed at the back of the yard. A small field mouse was climbing up the outside of the shed, toward the loft doors. Diving straight at the mouse, it looked certain that the bird would knock the tiny rodent off the shed.
When the Grackle was just inches from its target, its shadow passed over the mouse, alerting the small creature to the imminent danger. The mouse twisted and leaped right at the bird. The two of them plummeted to the ground. I dropped my weed trimmer and ran toward the shed.
The grackle lay, stunned, on the concrete pad in front of the shed doors, one wing twisted in an unnatural position under his body. The mouse was nowhere to be seen.
I scooped up the dazed bird, and took him inside the shed. I placed him into a cardboard box I found right inside the door.
Miles had seen what happened. He turned off the lawnmower and ran back to the shed. He glanced at the box. “Everything okay?”
“Not really. The grackle is injured, and I can’t see what happened to the mouse.”
Miles frowned. “How badly injured is the bird?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know. I’ll have to examine him. Can you look for the mouse while I tend the bird’s injuries? We need to be careful that certain characters don’t find out he’s been injured.”
Miles nodded. I grabbed the box and turned toward the house, but stopped dead. “Too late.”
My Arrogant One approached, his arms folded over his chest. He sneered at the two of us. “Is this to be a weekly ritual?”
“Excuse me?” I glared at him.
He gestured toward the nearby lawn mower. “Your relentless obsession with short grass.”
Miles turned and faced the elf. “Why do you care? We’re not asking you to mow the lawn.”
“I care because I had hoped to escape the bedlam of your world. I require a place of solitude and quiet in which to meditate and refresh my spirit. I have fashioned a retreat for myself on the upper level of this shed. That infernal, ear-splitting contraption of yours will afford me no peace.”
I scowled. “What’s wrong with the house? The others seem to have no problems meditating or refreshing their spirits there, and the sound of the lawn mower can’t be heard in there.”
My Arrogant One wrinkled his nose and jabbed his finger at me. “Have you ever tried meditating in the presence of two uncouth ruffians engaged in bashing each other’s brains out? Or near someone bent on honing his archery skills on a target that always seems to be just inches above your head? Or in the company of someone unceasingly reciting incantations? Or alongside some vile creature constantly growling and blowing smoke rings at you?” He drew himself up and looked down his nose at me. “Mistress Writer, I demand a refuge, an asylum from this constant hubbub.”
I snorted and rolled my eyes. “Yeah. Me, too.” I turned and left Miles to deal with the annoying elf, feeling only the slightest pang of guilt.
Once in the house, I took the bird directly to the conference room. I locked the door behind me, and carefully placed the box on the table. I cautiously opened it and was relieved to see the bird was still breathing. As I worked to bind his injured wing, my mind drifted to the evil wizard for whom this milky-eyed grackle served as familiar. Morcant. A sadistic fiend from another world whom I had encountered while writing a tale long ago.
Remembering the heinous crimes this magic user had committed, my blood ran cold. Still, I could not help but feel pity for him, serving his eternal sentence of solitary confinement within an inescapable tower. Without the contact with the outside world afforded him by the eyes and ears of his familiar, the absolute isolation would have surely driven Morcant mad in short order.
As I finished wrapping the bird’s wing, it began to revive, struggling to free itself from my grasp. I quickly popped it back in the cardboard box. It sat rather unsteadily on the smooth surface, fixing me with its milky stare. It opened its beak, and the harsh screech of its master’s voice went through me like fingernails on a chalkboard.
“I humbly thank you, crone, for tending my familiar’s injuries.”
I frowned. “Nothing I wouldn’t do for any unfortunate creature.”
“Perhaps. But my familiar is more than just any unfortunate creature. I owe you a debt of gratitude.” The bird bobbed his head, as if in agreement.
“Good! Then, as soon as your familiar’s injuries heal, you can recall it to your world.” I took a thin towel from the adjacent counter and placed it over the top of the box. The bird immediately started screeching.
“Do not blind me so, beldame!” Morcant’s panicked voice rose from the box.
“Relax, Morcant. I’m going to get your familiar a larger box. I’ll set it up with some food and water, and a branch for him to perch on, and I’ll only cover part of it with the towel. It will be more comfortable for him.”
Leaving the conference room, I found Miles waiting for me in the hallway.
I looked around before asking him softly, “Did you find the mouse?”
Miles shook his head. “No, but I can tell you Cleric isn’t in the shed loft.”
I cocked my head and quirked an eyebrow. “How can you know that?”
Miles looked at me like the cat who swallowed the canary. “Your Arrogant One took me to the loft to see his meditation area. He’s very proud of it.”
I gaped at Miles. “Wowsers! I don’t know how you managed that! He isn’t someone who shares with others.” I frowned, pondering. “You’re sure she’s not hidden up there somewhere?”
“I’m pretty sure. The loft is a very open area. I didn’t see anywhere she could be hidden.”
Our conversation was interrupted by the clatter of footsteps coming down the stairs. It was my Foreman, the two lads, and my Sorceress. I quickly put my finger over my lips, and motioned them to draw near.
“Have any of you seen my Bounty Hunter?”
My Foreman jerked his thumb in the direction of the window. “He just went into the back yard. He’s looking up into all the trees, as if he were trying to find something in the branches.”
I chuckled. “Well, I imagine I have what he’s looking for, locked in the conference room.”
Miles and I explained everything that had happened. My Sorceress raised an eyebrow. “Master Miles, you are quite certain Cleric is not in the loft?”
“I didn’t see her, and there aren’t a lot of places to hide someone in the loft.”
My Young Hero frowned. “And you could not find Dragon, either?”
Miles shook his head. My characters exchanged worried looks.
“Now three of our number are missing,” my Gypsy said, unnecessarily.
“What do we do now?” My Foreman looked at Miles and me.
Miles shrugged. “I can keep looking for Dragon. Do you think she’s still a mouse, or do you think she’s changed form?”
I chewed my lower lip, and rubbed my throat. “I don’t know, but I don’t think you should be using the lawn mower. She may have been injured in the fall, as Morcant’s familiar was, and she may be in the grass. Is there anything else you can do that wouldn’t make my Arrogant One or my Bounty Hunter suspicious?”
“I can clean and refill the birdbath.”
“That’s too close to the house. You need to look for Dragon nearer the shed.” I moved over next to the window and stared at the yard. “Maybe you could work on that patch of mint we planted along the side of the shed. It could use some weeding and watering. Working there, you should be able to see any slight movement in the surrounding vegetation.”
Miles nodded. “What are you going to do?”
“I’m going to try to make Morcant’s familiar more comfortable. Maybe Morcant will inadvertently reveal something.”
My Sorceress looked startled. “Do you think Morcant knows something about Cleric’s disappearance?”
I nodded. “I have a feeling he does. Remember, he desperately wants those keys. We know my Bounty Hunter discussed the keys with Morcant through his familiar, and the wizard indicated that he had also discussed them with my Arrogant One. I still think Cleric may have been taken by someone wanting to facilitate an exchange for the keys.”
My Young Hero leaned forward. “And you think Morcant knows which one took her, and where she is being kept?”
“I hope so! Now the four of you should return to your normal activities. We do not want whoever is behind this to realize we are suspicious of them.”
A half-hour later, I returned to the conference room with a larger box, set up with food, water, and a perch. As soon as I removed the towel from the top of the smaller box, the grackle tried to fly off. With his injured wing wrapped, he didn’t get far.
I picked him up and checked the wrap. “Stop squirming! You’ll worsen your injuries!”
I placed him in the new box, and covered it with a screen. I placed a rock on each end of the screen, to prevent the bird’s escape, and I covered half the screen with the towel, to give the injured animal a sheltered area in which to recuperate.
The grackle settled quietly into his new lodgings. He sat on his perch and stared at me with his milky eyes. After a while, he opened his beak, and Morcant began to speak.
“Gramercy to you, crone. My familiar is much more comfortable now, and I am no longer blinded.”
“I told you before, it’s no more than I would do for any injured creature.”
“And I told you I am beholden. Perchance I could help you in your present sorrows?”
I snorted. “And what would you know of it?”
“Mayhaps more than you think.”
“I seriously doubt that. The only thing I want from you, Morcant, is your word that you will recall your familiar to your world the moment he is recovered from his injuries.”
“In truth, you care not of your missing Cleric?”
“You know she is, witch!”
“And you can tell me where she is?”
“I will tell you everything I know, if you but surrender the keys to my familiar.”
I laughed. “Seriously? I told you, you are not getting those keys. And even if I were inclined to make such a trade, I would never trust you to tell me where Cleric is.”
“On my soul, I will tell you where she is!”
“You’re a soulless creature, Morcant. I would never trust a monster like you!”
I started to leave, but Morcant began screeching at the top of his voice. I walked back and loomed over the box. “If I hear one more peep out of you or this bird, Morcant, I will plunge you into eternal darkness.” I stormed out of the room, locking the door behind me. It was quiet enough to hear a pin drop.
Upstairs, Miles was just coming in the back door. I quirked an eyebrow at him, but he simply shook his head. Dragon was still missing.
“Did you have any luck?”
I shook my head. “I lost my temper with Morcant. Even if he knows something, I doubt he’ll tell me now.”
My Sorceress overheard us as she entered the room. “So now what do we do?”
“I wish I knew.”
Will the lost characters be found? Or will the writer end up with no one to write about, as more go missing? Do the evil wizard Morcant and his milky-eyed familiar really know what they’re squawking about? Will the Arrogant One achieve inner peace in his new sanctuary? Mayhaps some answers will be forthcoming in the next episode. Be sure to come back next week and find out. I’ll leave the porch light on for you.