First thing in the morning — well, right after his seven-course breakfast — my Old Dwarf went outside. Miles and I stood by the French doors and watched him. First, he meandered about the perimeter of the property, hands behind his back, whistling. Then he wandered around the yard, going from tree to tree.
He peered up into each one in turn, smiling and nodding as if they were the most fascinating things he had ever seen. Then he ambled around the garden, stopping to bend over and sniff each and every variety of flower, still grinning and nodding. Each bird, rabbit, squirrel, chipmunk and butterfly he saw was blatantly scrutinized.
Miles shook his head. “Can your Old Dwarf possibly be any more obvious?”
“Oh, I’m sure he could be, if he really tired.” I winked.
We turned at a noise behind us. My Foreman cleared his throat as he and my Young Hero entered the room.
“Mistress, your Gypsy, Cleric, Sorceress and Dragon have begun their work in the conference room. There is nothing we can do to assist them. Is there anything you wish us to do?”
“Why don’t you make a banner for my Old Dwarf?”
My Foreman blinked several times, then furrowed his brow. “Mistress?”
“One that says ‘I’m looking for you, milky-eyed grackle.’”
My Young Hero groaned. “Is he being that obvious?”
Miles chuckled and I nodded.
“Perhaps one or both of you could give him a quick tutorial in stealthiness and subtlety. And on the subject of stealth, I would appreciate it if you two could also keep a surreptitious eye on my Bounty Hunter and my Arrogant One.”
“You do not trust them.” My Young Hero made it a statement, not a question.
“Should I? Do you? Both of them were more than willing to deal with Morcant when they thought they could profit from delivering the keys to him. One even lowered himself to abduct Cleric, and the other one admitted to having considered that same heinous act. I am not convinced they are not still plotting something with the evil wizard.”
My Foreman blanched. “But you said you have disposed of the keys, Mistress.”
“Yes, that is what I said. However, I am not sure that either of those two believes me.”
“Are we to believe you?” My Foreman gave me a hard look.
“You are to trust me when I say Morcant will never gain possession of those keys.”
“But you have not disposed of them.”
I shrugged and turned back to the door to watch my Old Dwarf, who was currently trying to catch a toad. “Just keep an eye on them, please.”
An hour later, I was at my computer, catching up with my messages. I opened an e-mail from a good friend, dated a week earlier. Marge, I haven’t seen you on any of your social media sites in a while and I was just wondering if you are okay. Fall migration is in full swing here, and your Baltimore Orioles have arrived, along with a bumper crop of Monarch Butterflies. Hope you are finding time to enjoy nature. Drop me a line when you can. ~ Arlene.
I quickly typed a reply. Hey, Arlene! I’m sorry I haven’t been very active online lately. All is well here, except for the fact that my characters barely give me a moment to breathe, let alone type. I’m sure you understand. I haven’t seen many of the fall migrants yet – a certain milky-eyed Common Grackle has been the focus of my concern. Will fill you in later. ~ Marge
I hit send, and as if on cue, there was a knock at my office door. I took a deep breath and steeled myself for the first interruption of the day. “Come in.”
“Mistress.” My Gypsy entered my crowded office, and Dragon squeezed through the door behind him. “We have been unsuccessful in our attempts to find Morcant’s familiar, the milky-eyed grackle. Sorceress thinks Morcant may be shielding him from intrusive spells.”
“I think I should shapeshift again and join the Old Dwarf. He’s looking for the bird in the yard.” Dragon stared off into the distance, her eyes unfocused, a silly smile on her face. “Perhaps I should change into an Old English Sheepdog . . .”
My Gypsy grinned and waggled his eyebrows. “Ever since you showed her that picture that your colleague, James, shared — the photo of her friend, Ollie, with his new haircut — she has been obsessing over him.”
I smiled. “I think your friend, Ollie, would be pleased if you transformed into an Old English Sheepdog. However, I think perhaps you would be too conspicuous for this task. We need to use stealth and cunning to find Morcant’s familiar.”
Dragon shrugged. “I could be a very tiny, very inconspicuous Old English Sheep-puppy.”
I laughed. Dragon fixed me with a hard stare and smoke curled from her nostrils, a clear warning that she did not take kindly to my laughing at the image of her as an Old English Sheep-puppy. I tried to hide my mirth with a discreet cough behind my hand.
My Gypsy echoed my cough. “Perhaps you could discuss this with the Mistress later. Right now, we have a message to relay, remember?”
Dragon gave my Gypsy a baleful look. “Of course I remember. I was merely momentarily distracted.” She blew a puff of smoke at him and turned back to me. “Sorceress depleted her stock of certain essential spell components. She is in need of additional herbs and plants to use in creating these spell components. The specific ones she needs are difficult to find, but she remembers seeing some the day you all thought she was missing. She and Cleric have gone in search of them. The Foreman was concerned for their safety, so he insisted on accompanying them.”
I nodded. “Perhaps, then, you should join my Young Hero. He is keeping an eye on my Arrogant One and my Bounty Hunter. If either of them is still trying to make a deal with Morcant, they might lead you right to his familiar.”
Dragon frowned and blew several more puffs of smoke. “So I need not transform into a very tiny, very inconspicuous Old English Sheep-puppy?”
“Not right now.”
The two nodded and turned to leave, Dragon knocking over several piles of books and files on her way out. I wish she would occasionally consider being a very tiny, very inconspicuous dragon, I thought as I straightened the mess.
I turned back to my computer and dealt with several more e-mails, then logged onto one of my social media sites.
Another knock on the door tore my attention away from the computer. I looked up to see my Old Dwarf standing there, frowning and shuffling his feet. “Do ye be havin’ a spare minute, lassie, that we might be havin’ a word or two?”
I heaved a big sigh, logged off the site and turned around. “Sure. What’s the problem?”
“It be yer Foreman and one o’ the laddies.”
“What about them?”
My Old Dwarf lowered his eyes and shuffled his feet some more. “Well, lassie, I al’ays thought they be honorable. I ne’er thought they would be in cahoots wit thet evil wizard!”
“What?” I could feel my eyes practically pop out of their sockets, and my jaw all but hit the floor. “What are you saying?”
The dwarf rubbed the back of his neck and started rocking back and forth on his feet. “I do na liken ta be the one ta tell ye this, lassie, but I be afeared the two o them be trying ta warn Morcant thet I be lookin’ fer his blasted birdie.”
“What?” I could not wrap my brain around his words. He made no sense at all.
“Well, all day the two o them be followin’ me around the yard. Every time I be tryin’ ta look fer the wizard’s familiar, they be pullin’ me away. And, lassie, they be telling me ye tolded them ta do it! Well, o course, I knowed they be lyin’!”
I let out a huge breath and smiled. “It’s okay. They are not in cahoots with Morcant. And I did tell them to help you.”
He looked dumbfounded. “Help me? Lassie, I do na be needin’ their help. I tolded ye, I be the only one what can see the birdie true. Dwarves can na be magicked! I thought ye understood thet.”
“I do understand that. That’s not the problem.” I raked my hand through my hair and chewed on my lower lip. “I was watching you this morning, and I fear you were being too obvious. You need to be sneakier, more subtle.”
My Old Dwarf’s shoulders slumped, and the light went out of his eyes. His voice grew soft. “Lassie, I thought ye be havin’ more faith in me. I be wantin’ the wizard’s blasted beastie ta see me sniffin’ the flowers and hear me whistling the birdie-calls, jest liken the Gypsy lad do. Iffin he be seein’ me doin’ something strange, he be comin’ close ta sees what I be doin’. Iffin I be in the yard with me ax and me weapons, practicin’ or duelin’ the Bounty Hunter, the birdie would na have any need ta come close ta see what I be doin. He seen me do thet a hunnred times over. But iffin he be seein’ me doin’ somethin’ new, somethin’ different, then he be wantin’ ta get a closer look-see. An’ then, I can be seein’ him.”
I slowly nodded at my Old Dwarf’s logic. “I understand now. You’re right, old friend, I should have had more faith in you and your ability to reason things out. Go on back and tell the others you have my blessing.”
The old reprobate grinned and nodded as he scurried off to resume his search.
Three posts on a social media site later, and another knock on the door interrupted me. I closed the page I was on, and turned to greet my latest intrusion.
“Why am I being harassed?” My Arrogant One stood, gripping the front of his robes in a self-important posture. He looked down his nose at me, giving me the feeling I was naught but an insignificant insect to him…but like the insignificant mosquito, I was an annoying insect.
I shrugged and did my best to hide a smirk. “I didn’t know you were being harassed.”
“You know perfectly well I am. Your Foreman and that goody-two-shoes, the Young Hero, are shadowing my every move!”
“Are they?” I blinked. “I should think they would have too many duties of greater importance than to waste their time following you around. Why do you imagine they are following you?”
My Arrogant One sneered at me. “I am not imagining it.”
I quirked an eyebrow at the annoying elf, and leaned back in my chair.
“I am not!” He was turning so red, I could almost imagine steam coming out of his ears.
“All right, let me rephrase that. Why do you suppose they are following you? What reason do you think they would have to follow you?”
His face turned even redder, and got very blotchy. His voice rose two octaves and about a hundred decibels. “That is what I am asking you! Why are they shadowing me?”
I thought he was going to spontaneously combust as he stood there stammering and sputtering. When he finally found his voice again, he issued an ultimatum. “Call off your watchdogs or else!”
I almost fell out of my chair, laughing. “Or else? Or else what?”
My Arrogant One smiled smugly, tossed his hair back, and carefully straightened his robes. He lifted an eyebrow, and nodded toward the window. I turned my chair around, and barely kept from screaming.
Standing right outside the window was the evil wizard Morcant, in the flesh. His eyes bore into me, and his lips slowly parted in an evil grin. He held me, mesmerized, for the span of a half-dozen heartbeats before disappearing in a blinding shower of sparks accompanied by a deafening clap of thunder. When the sparks faded, Morcant’s familiar, the milky-eyed grackle, was flapping against the window. The bird turned and soared off over the treetops. It was many long moments before I could breathe. When I regained my senses and looked around, it was already dusk. I was quite alone in my office, my Arrogant One nowhere to be seen. My brain was screaming at me to run, but as I tried to rise from my chair, my rubbery legs could barely support me. I stumbled up the stairs to find Miles and tell him what had happened. I paused at the front door to catch my breath and turn on the porch light.