It had been a difficult week since Cleric, my Old Dwarf, and Dragon had been rescued.
All week, I had felt as if my Arrogant One was glued to me. He was the one who had abducted Cleric and my Old Dwarf. If he had been disliked by my other characters before, he was absolutely loathed by them now. He walked on eggshells around them, and rarely left the presumed safety of my side during waking hours. Had he any sense at all, he would have realized he was in much more danger of being throttled by me than by the others.
My Old Dwarf had bounced back from the injuries he had sustained when my Arrogant One had magically walloped him over the head with a tree limb. He had almost recovered from the indignity of having been knocked unconscious and abducted by the annoying elf. Whenever they were in a room together, the dwarf glared at the elf, eyes narrowed, nostrils flared, and teeth bared. The cantankerous old codger seemed to get immeasurable enjoyment from keeping the elf in a constant state of terror.
Dragon was the one who had recuperated the quickest, in spite of having received critical internal injuries in a fall. Luckily, dragons have phenomenal recuperative powers. The same night she and the others had been rescued, Dragon was already romping around the yard with her friend and champion, the beautiful gray and white Old English Sheepdog, Ollie.
While Dragon had mended quickly, Cleric was just the opposite. Though her abrasions had healed quickly enough, her spirit bore the scars of her ordeal. Cleric had become quiet and withdrawn, no longer skipping through the house humming. She could not bear to be in the presence of my Arrogant One, who had been the perpetrator of her abduction in his quest to secure a magical set of keys for the evil wizard, Morcant. She also eschewed contact with my Bounty Hunter, who had confessed to seriously considering a similar scheme to abduct her. Cleric had become easily startled by anyone approaching her, and she frequently ran from the room in tears. So I was pleasantly surprised when the despondent elf approached me one evening.
She wrinkled her brow and looked coldly at the Arrogant One, hovering nearby. “May I speak with you in private, Mistress?”
“Of course.” I frowned at my Arrogant One and jerked my thumb toward the stairs.
“But…but…but…the Old Dwarf is upstairs.”
“Go make your peace with him. I’m tired of tripping over you 24/7.”
He took one look at the expression on my face and paled. He spun around and ran up the steps. I turned back to Cleric. “Now, what can I do for you?”
“Mistress, remember the wonderful time we had when you took some of us on an outing this Spring past? We enjoyed the warm sunshine and the cooling breeze while we walked around a nature preserve. We saw all manner of birds and wild creatures, and assisted you in photographing them.”
“Yes, that was a surprisingly enjoyable day.” The memory of that expedition brought a broad smile to my face. (https://margecutter.wordpress.com/2016/04/17/a-surprisingly-pleasant-outing/)
“Well, I was wondering, Mistress…” Cleric paused, lowering her eyes and shuffling her feet.
“You were wondering if we could, perhaps, go on another little jaunt?”
Cleric brightened, her whole face transformed by her radiant smile. “Yes, I was.” She gently bit her lower lip, and clasped her hands as if in supplication.
“I think that would be a wonderful idea. I was hoping to go on a nature hike tomorrow, while Miles is helping out at his daughter’s house for the day. Can you be ready by first light?”
Cleric nodded, but then hesitated, her brow wrinkling. “It would be permissible for the Gypsy, the Young Hero, and Dragon to join us, would it not?”
“Of course. The lads enjoyed the previous outing as much as you did, and Dragon has mentioned several times she was sorry she missed that excursion. I’ll see the four of you first thing in the morning.”
For the first time all week, Cleric skipped down the hallway, humming happily to herself.
The next morning, I entered the living room before first light, and found my four characters already waiting for me. For this public excursion, Dragon had disguised her true form by shapeshifting. She had taken on the appearance of an elf maiden, and could easily have been Cleric’s twin.
The lads were both still munching their breakfast, and my Gypsy asked, around a mouthful of food, “Are we going to the same place we went last time?”
“No, I have a different place in mind. I think you will enjoy it just as much.” I looked around. “Has anyone seen my Old Dwarf this morning?”
“I be in the kitchen. I dinna finish me breakfast yet.” A moment later, the stocky figure entered the room, a mug of milk in one hand, a slab of chocolate cake in the other, and an ear-to-ear grin brightening his face. “I do be enjoyin’ this notion o havin’ ‘breakfast’ upon risin’ each day. But, Mistress Writer, I trust ye be knowin’ — even though ye be havin’ us eatin’ such meals in the books ye wrote — we never really be havin’ such a thing as ‘breakfast’ afore findin’ ourselves here in yer world.”
“Yes, I am aware that breakfast was not one of the meals generally eaten in medieval times. Let’s just chalk it up to literary license.” I winked at him. “Now, before we leave, I want your word that my Arrogant One will be alive and unharmed when we return.”
“Oh, I may be havin’ me fun at the little popinjay’s expense, but he be sufferin’ no worse harm at me hands than a bad case o the shakes-and-shivers.”
As we descended the stairs to leave, I saw my Sorceress at the foot of the steps. “Are you sure you wouldn’t like to join us today?”
“I appreciate the offer, and I am sure I would enjoy the outing, Mistress, but I have to collect and prepare some spell components today. I must stay sufficiently supplied, in case Morcant’s familiar should return.”
“I agree. Stay vigilant today, in case he does come back and tries to cause more mischief. And you best keep an eye on my Bounty Hunter, too. My Old Dwarf will keep my Arrogant One out of trouble.”
Sorceress nodded and bade us farewell. With that, my four characters and I entered the garage and piled into the car. Dragon had never been for a ride in the car, so the others helped her with her seat belt. They also tried to prepare her for the ride. Real world, 21st century vehicles go considerably faster than medieval fantasy world forms of transport. Ten minutes after starting out, I pulled onto the main highway, and it was déjà vu. As in the previous trip, I was the only one in the car watching the traffic and the passing scenery. In spite of the fact that three of the characters had experience traveling by car, all four of my passengers were white as sheets, with nary an open eye among them.
Once we arrived at our destination, the others calmed down quickly, and we began. I led them from the parking lot to the lakeside trail.
“Wow! This place is much different from where you previously took us!” My Young Hero was agog as we descended the stairs leading to a large lake.
“We should be able to find some wading birds and some waterfowl here today.” I checked my camera. “I hope I can get some good photos.”
No sooner had I said that, my Gypsy pointed. An undisputed expert on birds, he took the lead in explaining to the others what we were seeing. “That’s a Green Heron. He’s hunting for small fish, insects, amphibians and the like. Green Heron sometimes employ tools to lure their prey. He may drop a feather or a twig or even an insect onto the surface of the water, to entice fish close. Then he extends his long neck and grabs his prey with his long, pointy bill.”
“Darn. I can’t get a good shot of him behind that vegetation.”
Cleric walked to the water’s edge and spoke to the bird. He obligingly flew over to a nearby log and posed for me.
“Thanks! Your ability to communicate with the birds never ceases to amaze me!”
“Look!” My Young Hero pointed to a spot beyond the heron. “There are some ducks. The one group looks like Mallards.”
“Yup, they are.”
Cleric looked at them, then at the smaller ducks. “Are the others Wood Ducks? They look like the ones in the pond behind our yard, Mistress.”
Before I could reply, my Gypsy chimed in. “Yes, you’re right. Those are Wood Ducks. And two of them are much younger than the ones in our pond. They must have had a late clutch.”
My Gypsy and Cleric enticed the Wood Ducks closer, so I could get a few photos.
As we continued walking along the boardwalk adjacent to the lake, a small bird popped out of the reeds and up onto the wooden walkway. He stopped and studied us as my Gypsy whistled a bird call. Witchety-witchety-witchety. “That’s a young male Common Yellowthroat. They are small songbirds that can often be found in the tangle of vegetation at the edge of marshes and wetlands, where they forage for insects.”
Dragon, who had been silently taking in everything, nudged me. “Look!” She pointed to several dragonflies near the Common Yellowthroat. “Not as pretty as I was when I transformed into a dragonfly, but still very attractive.”
I smiled and nodded in agreement.
“There is a turtle climbing up on that log near the red dragonfly.” My Cleric pointed. “And there are more on that other log, farther out in the lake.” It was good to see her with such a delighted smile on her face.
After I took a few photos, we continued on our way, with my Gypsy continuing to point out the various birds we passed. “Immature Red-shouldered Hawk!” He indicated a bird in a nearby tree.
“There’s another one.” My Young Hero nodded toward another tree.
“The Ruby-throated Hummingbirds do not seem to be intimidated by the presence of the hawks.” Cleric walked over to a pair of hummingbirds in a nearby tree.
My Gypsy nodded. “That’s because Red-shouldered Hawks rarely eat birds. Their prey mostly consists of small mammals, lizards, snakes, and amphibians.”
“Do you think you can persuade the hummers to pose for a few quick photos? The hummingbirds in our yard have not been cooperative lately. It would be nice to get a few good images of this pair.”
Cleric smiled and nodded.
“I should think the hummingbirds would be upset over the presence of those noisy things!” Dragon glared at the plane passing directly overhead, part of the steady stream of traffic from the nearby airport.
“Oh, that does seem strange! None of the birds seem to be bothered by the flying machines!” Cleric skipped ahead to chat with an adult male Northern Cardinal and one of his young offspring, and a sassy Gray Catbird.
While Cleric bounded ahead, my Young Hero studied a Black-capped Chickadee, while Dragon was intrigued by a juvenile Red-bellied Woodpecker overhead in a tree. My Gypsy engaged a Song Sparrow at the edge of the boardwalk, while I took some photos of an Olive-sided Flycatcher.
“The day will not be complete without finding the resident flock of Wild Turkeys.” I motioned the group off the boardwalk and into the woods. We soon found a small flock, a group of bachelor males, grooming and foraging for nuts, seeds and insects.
Cleric stopped dead in her tracks, her eyes as big as saucers. “They are very large!”
“They do not look so large to me.” Dragon smiled and winked.
For the rest of the day, we hiked and took pictures of the wildlife. Everyone had a great time. My Gypsy played the clown, as always, teasing and playing practical jokes on the others. My Young Hero studied everything carefully, asking me all manner of questions about the wildlife we encountered. Dragon and Cleric harmonized on a few elven folk songs, their voices taking on the quality of birdsong and wind through the trees. The tensions of the past week melted away. We were a tired but happy group when we climbed the stairs back up to the parking lot.
None of us noticed the small Red Squirrel with fiercely glowing eyes following us through the woods.
“Will we be able to see all the photos you took when we get home?” My Young Hero asked, as he and my Gypsy helped Dragon and Cleric into the car.
“Of course. We can look at them on the computer, right after dinner. I know Miles will want to see them, and perhaps Sorceress and the others as well.”
“And, of course, we will leave the porch light on, in case any of your readers would like to join us.” Cleric smiled broadly as we pulled out of the nature area and headed for home.