As I paused at the front door to catch my breath and turn on the porch light, I heard a noise. Whirling around, I saw Miles waiting for me at the top of the stairs, his brow furrowed. “Are you just finishing up in your office? It’s pretty late! I was beginning to think you’d forgotten all about dinner.”
I raced up the steps and almost collapsed in his arms. He paled. “What’s wrong? What’s happened?”
“Morcant? What about him? Did his familiar come back? Have you spoken to him? Is he still trying to get the keys from you? Did he threaten you again?”
“Morcant was standing outside my office window!”
Miles gently guided me to the couch, where I half-sat and half-collapsed. Cleric entered the room, took in the scene, and asked Miles, “What is wrong with the Mistress?”
“She’s had a tremendous shock.”
“I will get her a cup of herbal tea, to sooth her nerves.”
Miles sat down next to me and held me tenderly. “Honey, tell me exactly what happened.”
I opened and closed my mouth several times, but no words would come. I started shaking uncontrollably.
Cleric returned from the kitchen, bearing a cup of Chamomile tea. “What has distressed the Mistress so?” Her brow was wrinkled and her cornflower blue eyes were full of concern.
“She claims that Morcant was standing outside her office window, but she’s too upset to say anything else.”
Cleric went deathly pale and her eyes were huge. “Morcant was here?”
She collapsed onto the sofa next to me, raised the teacup to her lips, and drained the draught she had brought me.
My Foreman and the lads entered the room, chattering noisily. My Young Hero stopped in mid-sentence and mid-stride, the other two bumping into him. They followed his gaze to the couch.
“What’s wrong?” My Foreman rushed over to us, gently taking Cleric’s hand.
“The Mistress has seen Morcant. She says he was outside her office window!” Cleric’s voice quavered, and her eyes were still wide with fear.
My Gypsy darted toward the door, but my Young Hero grabbed his arm. “Wait!” He turned to me. “When did this happen, Mistress? When did you see the evil wizard?”
I stared at my Young Hero. I was still trembling, and I could not respond. Miles spoke to me soothingly. “Honey, how long ago was this? We need to know when you saw Morcant. Could he still be close by?”
I hesitated. “It was…ummm…I’m not sure. After we watched my Old Dwarf looking for Morcant’s familiar in the yard this morning, I went to my office. I worked on the computer for a while, answering some e-mails and stuff. Then Dragon and my Gypsy came in.”
My Gypsy nodded. “That was about mid-morning.”
I nodded slowly, trying to remember. “We chatted for a while, then I went back to work until about noon, when my Old Dwarf came in to speak with me.”
Again my Gypsy nodded. “The dwarf spoke with me after his conversation with the Mistress. That was about an hour or so past lunchtime.”
“Then, sometime in the late afternoon, my Arrogant One stomped into the office to carp about something or other…what was it? Oh, yes, he thought he was being harassed. He claimed the two of you were following him and watching his every move.” I nodded toward my Foreman and my Young Hero. “He was very indignant, very pompous, did a lot of posturing. Well, you know how he gets. Anyway, he told me to call off my watchdogs or else.”
“What did you tell him?” my Foreman asked.
“I…I don’t remember.” I frowned and raked my hand through my hair. “I…I think I just laughed at him. But then…” My eyes went wide and I started trembling again. “But then Morcant was there, right outside my window, looking in and leering at me.”
Miles held me tighter. “Honey, are you sure?”
“I’m positive. He just stood there, looking at me with that evil grin. I couldn’t move, I couldn’t scream, I couldn’t even look away. I was paralyzed with fear! Then, there was a thunderclap that left my ears ringing, and Morcant disappeared in a huge shower of sparks. When the sparks faded, Morcant’s familiar was flapping against the window.”
When it became apparent I was not going to continue, Miles gently asked, “You’re sure it was his familiar? It was in its true form?”
I nodded. “Yes, it was the milky-eyed grackle. He turned and soared off over the treetops. By the time I could move again, it was already dusk.”
“And you’re sure it really happened? You have been known to fall asleep at your computer when you have been working too hard. Could this have been just a dream?”
I shook my head. “No. I’m sure I was not asleep, and this was definitely no dream. Morcant was there.”
My Forman heaved a big sigh. “It sounds as though it has been at least a couple of hours since the Mistress saw Morcant, but maybe some of us should go look around outside, see if we can find anything. Maybe he or his familiar is still around.” He motioned to my Gypsy and my Young Hero to accompany him.
Miles nodded. “Thanks, guys. Marge and I would appreciate that.”
My Foreman grabbed the flashlight that I kept next to the doors to the deck, and he and the lads went out to search the yard.
Cleric looked at the empty teacup in her hand, and blushed furiously. “I…I had best get the Mistress that cup of Chamomile tea I promised her.”
Miles stayed with me on the couch, still gently holding me. “Honey, are you – – ”
I cut him off. “I’m sure! Don’t you believe me?” I sounded more cross than I had intended.
He sighed. “I do. I have learned to believe a lot of unbelievable things.”
I lowered my eyes and wrung my hands. “I’m sorry, Miles. I never meant for any of this to happen. If I could send them all back where they came from…”
Cleric came back, bearing a fresh cup of tea. She handed it to me, with an apologetic look. I smiled my thanks.
“Oh, there you are, Mistress.” My Sorceress swept into the room. “I suppose Cleric told you we found all the necessary herbs and plants today.” She stopped, frowning. “Is something wrong?”
I sat there, still trembling and sipping my herbal tea, as Miles and Cleric related the disturbing events of the day to Sorceress. As she listened, she sank into the chair facing us. Her eyes grew wider, and she, too, began wringing her hands. As Miles completed the tale, recounting my description of the clap of thunder and shower of sparks, though, Sorceress frowned, straightened her robes, and shook her head. “Piffle!”
“I said piffle!” Sorceress rose and shook her head again. “I believe twaddle and codswallop would also be appropriate terms!”
I gaped at her, feeling my cheeks burning. “It’s not nonsense! I know what I saw!”
“I do not doubt that, Mistress. I am quite certain you saw what you thought was Morcant at your office window. But think about it.” She raised an eyebrow at me. “How could Morcant have escaped his exile within the enchanted tower without the magical keys?”
I shook my head and shrugged.
Cleric shuddered. “Mistress has told us she disposed of the keys. Do you suppose the wizard’s familiar found them, or perhaps one of Morcant’s agents?”
Sorceress furrowed her brow and chewed on her lower lip. “I had not thought of that.”
I lowered my eyes. “I lied,” I said, my voice barely a whisper. “I did not dispose of the keys. After Cleric’s abduction, I was afraid. I just thought if my Arrogant One and my Bounty Hunter believed I had disposed of the keys, then they would stop trying to find ways to acquire them, and everyone would be safer.”
Miles gave my arm a reassuring squeeze, but said, “Didn’t you tell me that your Bounty Hunter expressed doubt that you could have disposed of the keys?”
I nodded. “He wanted to know how I would go about disposing of something that was, in his words, that powerful, that valuable, that dangerous.”
“What did you tell him?”
“I didn’t answer him, but the conversation took place in front of my Arrogant One. Do you think one of them has found where I keep the keys and released Morcant?”
Sorceress started to say something, but was interrupted.
“Eh, ye do na need ta be worryin’ none. No one be freein’ the wizard!” My Old Dwarf was grinning as he, my Foreman, and the lads stepped into the living room from the deck.
“How can you be so sure?” Sorceress frowned and crossed her arms in front of her.
He waved his hand dismissively. “Causin I be watchin’ his familiar all afternoon and into the dark. Right after me an’ the lassie be havin’ our little chat, I skedaddled back ta the yard and took another look-see aboot. I be findin’ the blasted beastie right quick-like. There he be, up in thet bunch o scrubby trees ahind the shed. He be unmistakable, with them milky eyes o his.” He leaned over and gave my hand a reassuring pat. “I be keepin’ me eye on ’em all afternoon, lassie, an’ he never be anywhere near yer office window. There do na be nuttin, not man nor beastie, near yer window the whole the time I be in the yard.”
I heaved a big sigh. “Well, that’s about the best news I’ve heard all day!”
Everyone was smiling, until Miles piped up. “If nothing was near your window, then what exactly did you see?”
I gaped at him. “I don’t know what I saw!”
Sorceress snorted. “As I said – piffle! When Master Miles related your recollection of a thunderclap and a shower of sparks, I thought it sounded less like an evil wizard and more akin to an illusionist.”
“Of course!” Cleric grimaced and nodded. “Who was in the office with Mistress at the time? The Arrogant One!”
“The Arrogant One?” Miles frowned and tilted his head.
“Yes. The Arrogant One is – among other things – a street magician, an illusionist extraordinaire, as he described himself on one occasion. Having witnessed his performance once, I can tell you he is truly remarkable.”
My Gypsy nodded. “I attended that performance with you.” He turned toward my Young Hero. “So did you, remember?”
My Young Hero nodded. “How could I forget? The three of us were amazed. We could not figure out how he created his illusions. He made them look so real!”
Cleric furrowed her brow and rubbed her arm. “He may have the skill and the power to create a realistic illusion of Morcant standing by the window, but I do not wish to think he did. In spite of him being the most annoying, pompous, self-centered creature I have ever known, he is an elf. He once told me that the purpose of his magic was merely to entertain, not to deceive. He avowed that elves never use their magic for deception.”
“Of course, he could have been lying.” My Foreman quirked an eyebrow and tilted his head at Cleric.
My Young Hero stepped forward, shaking his head. “Or he could be so lost and confused in this world into which we have fallen, he may have become lost to himself, to his own values. We should not condemn him until we have spoken with him.”
Everyone nodded slowly. I raised my teacup in salute, and silently applauded such wisdom and empathy from one so young. Then I shook myself and started to organize a search. “We need to find him before we can talk to him. And we should talk to my Bounty Hunter as well. They may be working together. Spread out. Scour the house and the yard. Remember my Arrogant One is a master at concealing himself and others.”
Everyone sprang into action, but two hours later, my Arrogant One and my Bounty Hunter were still nowhere to be found. I sighed, looking at the tired and careworn faces of my characters. “Let’s call it a night. We’ll look for them again tomorrow.”
My characters nodded and slowly trudged upstairs to retire for the night. Miles smiled and nodded at me. “We’ll find them tomorrow. They couldn’t have gone too far.”
I nodded and returned his smile, but with less confidence than he seemed to have. We headed upstairs to get some sleep, after I locked the front door and made certain the porch light was still on.