Miles leaned over and kissed me good morning. “How’d you sleep last night?”
“Really well, thanks! For the first morning in a long time, I really feel well-rested and refreshed!”
“Good. I let you sleep in a bit. I was hoping it would help.” He walked over to the window and opened the blind.
“Oh, no!” I sat up and rubbed my eyes against the sunlight flooding in through the window. “What time is it?”
“Relax, it’s still early. I already filled the bird feeders and put them out, and Cleric reminded me to put some carrots out for the rabbits.”
“Oh? Then I guess my presence isn’t required. I guess I can roll over and go back to sleep.” I grinned at Miles and gave him a broad wink.
“Well, I wouldn’t say that.” Miles paused, frowning. “As a matter of fact, your presence is probably very much needed.”
“Why? What’s wrong?” I pulled myself out of bed, dragged a hand through my hair, yawned, and headed for the bathroom.
“Nothing’s really wrong.” Another long pause. “Your Forman can tell you about it at breakfast.”
I was washed, dressed and in the kitchen in record time.
My Foreman lost no time in breaking the news. “He’s back.”
From the somber look on his face, I knew whoever my Foreman spoke of, the fact that he was back was not good news.
“Who? My Arrogant One?” I asked my Foreman as Miles and I grabbed some breakfast and joined my characters at the kitchen table.
My Foreman shook his head.
“My Bounty Hunter?”
He shook his head again.
“Nay, lassie!” My Old Dwarf piped up, between mouthfuls of food. “It be thet blasted, fool birdie.”
“The milky-eyed grackle?”
“Aye, the birdie what converses fer the evil wizard.”
My Foreman scowled and leaned back in his chair, crossing his arms over his chest. “The Gypsy and I thought we saw Morcant’s familiar last night, as we were getting ready to retire, but we couldn’t be sure in the dark. But by then, the Old Dwarf was already fast asleep, so we couldn’t ask him to use his superior night vision to confirm if it was that bird or not.”
“But it was still there this morning when Master Miles was filling the bird feeders.” My Gypsy reached for the milk.
Cleric nodded. “We all saw it, sitting in the ironwood tree where you first observed it, Mistress, on the branch that hangs just outside the guest-room window.”
Sorceress pursed her lips and frowned. “It can not bode well to have that bird reappear while the Arrogant One and the Bounty Hunter are still missing.”
I nodded, and quickly gobbled down my container of yogurt. “I agree. I suppose I’d best go have a talk with Morcant and see what he and his familiar are up to.”
“Need any help?” Miles was ready to join me.
“Thanks, honey, but this is something I should do alone. I’d like to spare you from having anything to do with that evil wizard.”
I headed for the door to the back yard, but changed direction half-way across the living room. I decided it would be more expedient to go to the guest room. The bird was right by the window, easily within earshot through the screen.
I opened the window, and the bird sidled along the branch toward me. “Good morrow, beldame.” Morcant’s voice assaulted my ears from the bird’s gaping beak, grating like fingers on a chalkboard.
“What do you want, Morcant? Why is your familiar still hanging around?”
“I only wished to offer my felicitations on the occasion of the anniversary of your birth this week past. The celebration your houseguests gave in your honor was most touching.” His cloying voice turned bitter and caustic. “It is something not one living creature has done for me in more than 700 years.” His familiar underscored his words with a vigorous shake of its head.
“If I sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to you 700 times, will you be satisfied and go away?”
Morcant’s familiar opened its beak and a loud hiss sprang forth, sounding like a hundred angry cobras.
“I’ll take that as a no.” I sighed and shook my head wearily. “You know, Morcant, maybe if you hadn’t committed every heinous crime in the book, you wouldn’t have been sentenced to eternal exile. You might have been free to celebrate a few of those birthdays.”
The milky-eyed grackle flapped its wings. “If you had not created the magic locks that were used to imprison me in this tower, if you had not authored the incantation, and if you had not hidden the keys, then I would have been free — would still be free to this day!”
I sighed again. “We’ve had this conversation before, Morcant. I did none of those things. I merely recorded the events as they unfolded . . . as the coven of witches created the locks, as they composed the incantation, and as they hid the keys, in compliance with the sentence handed down upon you by the magistrates of your world.”
“Balderdash!” The angry word exploded on my ears like a thunderclap.
“Think what you want, Morcant, but I’m telling you the truth.”
“Nay, witch, verily I say ’tis most doubtful! If true, then by what power are the keys presently in your possession?”
“I have no idea how the keys came to be in this world, but once I found them here, do you think me foolish enough to leave them laying around for all and sundry to seize?”
“Then you do admit to possessing them?” The eagerness in Morcant’s voice warned me to choose my words carefully.
“I never denied having them . . . for a time. But, who says they are still in my possession?”
“Their magic signature, which my familiar followed through the doorway between our worlds, ends with you.” His voice, though still grating, had taken on a smugness that was impossible to overlook.
“That undersized feather duster couldn’t follow a trail if it was outlined in florescent paint and had signs pointing at it every two feet.”
The milky-eyed grackle squawked at me and ruffled his feathers indignantly.
Morcant pressed the issue. “Then you maintain you no longer have the keys?”
“I’m sure you, through your familiar, overheard me tell my characters I have disposed of the keys. And, perhaps, my Arrogant One and my Bounty Hunter confirmed that information for you?” I tried to marshal my voice and my expression so Morcant would not realize I was bluffing. Judging by his outburst, I failed miserably.
“Prevaricator! Deceiver! How could you have disposed of the keys, witch, without them leaving a trace of their magic signature?”
“You expect me to tell you how I discarded them? Perhaps you want me to draw you a map to their present whereabouts?” I raised an eyebrow and shook my head. “I think this conversation is over, Morcant. I told you once before – recall your familiar to your own world before the bird becomes a convenient snack for my dragon.”
The grackle squawked and took wing, quickly disappearing over the treetops. I closed the window and turned around to see Dragon standing by the door.
“Did I hear you mention my name?” Smoke curled lazily from Dragon’s nostrils, and her mouth was stretched into a reasonable facsimile of a smile.
“Yes, I was just threatening to let you have Morcant’s familiar for a snack.”
“Yuck! Too scrawny, and the feathers would tickle going down.” Dragon winked, then continued in a more serious vein. “Is conversation possible here without that infernal bird eavesdropping on our every word?”
“Well, the bird seemed in a big hurry to put some distance between itself and you, but you never know when it might double back. Let’s go to the conference room.”
A few minutes later, Dragon settled herself on the small sofa next to the wall, shrinking to the perfect size to recline upon it. She stretched out on her belly, with her small arms curled like a cat’s under her chest, and her wings folded neatly out of the way. I pulled a chair over and sat next to her.
“You asked me, Mistress, if there might be a way to use magic to destroy the keys. I told you I would have to examine the keys in order to make that determination; and to do so would expose them to potential theft and us to possible annihilation You then asked if there might be a way to safely examine the keys, without the possibility of anyone stealing them, and without anyone being able to detect their magic signature.”
“I have studied on the matter. I do not believe there is; however, I now no longer believe it necessary to examine them.”
I tilted my head and quirked an eyebrow. “Why not?”
“I entered into a state of reverie, during which I searched my memory for everything I have ever known about the keys.”
“And if we succeed in destroying them by magic, doubtless the locks they fit will lose their enchantment, freeing Morcant.”
I scowled. “Darn. Then I must keep them secured in that box which blocks anyone from detecting them, even through magical means. And I must keep the box hidden from prying eyes.”
“Such as those belonging to your Arrogant One and you Bounty Hunter?” The smoke drifting from Dragon’s nose grew thicker and blacker.
I nodded. “But even from the others. I don’t know what means Morcant has at his disposal to get information from someone. If no one knows the location of the box, no one could be tempted or tortured into revealing its whereabouts.”
Dragon nodded. “That is most prudent. But what if Morcant attempts to torture you for the information?”
I shuddered. “I don’t think he could, but I guess I shouldn’t take any chances. What do you suggest?”
“I am most difficult to torture, even by one as powerful as Morcant. I could use my magic to transfer the box with the keys to a secure location, a location where none will find them, whether by intent or by happenstance. I would share the location with none, not even you, Mistress. Only in that way do I believe you and the others would be safe.”
I considered Dragon’s offer. It took me less than a New York minute to accept.
“Good. We will proceed tonight, when the others slumber. I will meet you in the passage outside your bedchamber, and guard you and the keys until we reach this room. Then you will stand guard outside the door, to prevent anyone from intruding, intentionally or inadvertently. I will use my power to hide the box containing the keys from any and all seekers.”
“Sounds like a plan. For now, we’d best rejoin the others so no one is overly curious about our little discussion.”
We had just reached the top of the stairs when we heard a commotion out on the deck. The doors opened, and my Foreman and the lads dragged my Arrogant One and my Bounty Hunter into the living room.
“We found them in the shed.” My Foreman shoved the annoying elf toward the couch. “Sit there!”
My Gypsy pushed my Bounty Hunter over to join him.
My Young Hero frowned. “They said they had no idea how they came to be in the shed. They claimed they had no memory of entering the shed. They also claimed they had no idea how long they had been missing.”
I raised an eyebrow, folded my arms over my chest, and tapped my foot. “That’s your story?”
“It is no story, Mistress.” My Arrogant One was uncharacteristically meek and subdued.
My Bounty Hunter nodded.
“Then what? The pair of you have been sleepwalking?”
They both lifted their hands, palms up, and shrugged. My Bounty Hunter said, “It felt like the night I found myself in this world, in your office. I did not know then where I was or how I got here. I had no memory of anything past going to sleep in my own world.” (https://margecutter.wordpress.com/2016/03/)
“I remember.” I turned to my Arrogant One. “And you?”
“It is as he described, Mistress.” The elf sat, head bowed, wringing his hands. His voice was barely a whisper, and he displayed none of his normal haughtiness. “We were just there, in the shed. I can not tell you where we were before that, or how long it was from the last thing we remember until we found ourselves there.”
“You can not, or you will not?” My Foreman glared at him.
“I can not, sir.”
I gaped at the usually imperious elf. His subdued demeanor convinced me he was telling the truth.
“Suppose you start at the beginning and tell me what you do remember.”
My Arrogant One blushed. “I remember conjuring the image of Morcant outside your office window, to intimidate you.”
“It scared ten years off my life!”
“I apologize, Mistress.”
Now everyone was gaping at him. “After that, I fled to the back yard. I ran into the Bounty Hunter. That . . . that is all I remember.”
My Bounty Hunter nodded. “I was in the yard, and I saw the Arrogant One run out the door onto the deck. He raced down the steps with such haste, I thought he would end up in a heap at the bottom. He ran right into me, almost knocking me off my feet. And that is the last I remember until a few moments ago, when the Foreman and the lads entered the shed and found us there. It is as if we just appeared there at that precise moment. But where we had been is a mystery.”
Just what I needed. Another mystery.
“Why don’t we all go to the conference room and see if we can sort this out.”
By the end of the day, we were no closer to solving the mystery. The two characters who had inexplicably reappeared that day had not changed a word of their stories. They remembered no additional details that might shed some light on the situation; nor could anyone else offer any plausible explanation for the incidents.
Miles shrugged. “Tomorrow’s another day. Maybe we can figure it all out after a good night’s sleep.”
I sighed and nodded. Miles reached around me and turned on the porch light, and we headed upstairs to bed.