My day started way too early. Just after midnight, to be precise. And I was tired right from the start.
Miles and I had retired early the previous evening, but sleep had eluded me. For hours, I lay there, my mind unable to block out the sounds that wormed their way in through my ears. I was teased by the muffled sounds of voices in other parts of the house, the murmuring gradually quieting as my characters retired to their beds for the night. I was plagued by the trucks rumbling into the industrial park across the highway, their horns honking and their backup alarms beeping. I was comforted by the steady rhythm of my husband’s breathing, accompanied by the faint whoosh of his CPAP machine. I was startled by the raucous, warbling hoots of a Barred Owl right outside my window — Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you-all? — and a moment later, an answering call from the next yard.
At some point, all the discordant noises melded together and sleep overtook me, but my slumber was brief. I awoke with a start at Dragon’s gentle but urgent voice inside my mind. Awake, Mistress. Awake! It is time.
I yawned and glanced at the clock. It was just 12:10. The house had fallen deathly quiet. I slid out of bed as noiselessly as possible, so as to not wake Miles. I donned a velour robe over my pajamas and tugged on my fuzzy slippers. I stepped into the closet and quietly extracted an intricately carved wooden box from a secret hiding spot.The box contained the magic keys to the tower where the evil wizard Morcant was spending his eternal exile.
Awkwardly carrying the box, I slowly opened the bedroom door just wide enough to squeeze through, and I tip-toed into the dimly lit hallway where Dragon awaited me. I was surprised to see Dragon was not alone.
Beside her was her friend, Ollie, the handsome gray and white Old English Sheepdog who was companion to my colleague and social media friend, author James Stack. Dragon motioned for us to remain silent, so I just reached down and gave Ollie a pat on his head and a quick scratch behind his ear. Ollie responded by trying to wag his little bobbed tail, and his entire rear end wiggled about in the process. His mouth gaped and his tongue lolled in a big puppy-dog grin.
Dragon grimly eyed the box I carried. She beckoned me to follow her. Ollie fell in line behind me, assuming the position of rear guard. Silently, we crept along the hallway and down the stairs to the conference room. The three of us entered the chamber. Ollie jumped up, nudging the light switch with his nose. Light flooded the room, and I was flabbergasted to see blank walls where the windows used to be. Dragon smiled slyly. “It would not do to have anyone watching us while we are at work; nor could we risk anyone gaining entrance to the room through a window.”
I nodded. Ollie and Dragon made a quick inspection of the room. Satisfied that no one uninvited was present, Dragon assumed custody of the box, and responsibility for its contents. She placed the box on the table and quickly explained her plan, her voice barely a whisper.
“Mistress, you will position yourself on the other side of the door, to turn aside any potential intruders. Ollie will remain with me, as my assistant; and, if need be, he will act as final line of defense in the unlikely happenstance someone would circumvent you and the wards I mean to place on the door. Once I begin concentrating on my spell casting, I will be vulnerable. Ollie will see no misfortune befalls me or the keys.”
Ollie woofed quietly in agreement, his rear end wiggling and his china-blue eyes shining at his friend.
“While I’m certainly glad you have Ollie to assist you, do you really think he can deal with Morcant’s henchmen? They may be more than just ordinary thugs; the wizard may have enlisted the aid of other magic users.”
“And you believe you can deal with them?” Dragon gave me a skeptical look. “Have no fear, Mistress. Ollie has my complete confidence . . . as well as some special powers of his own. Morcant’s henchmen, should they force their way past you and breach the wards on the door, will have a few surprises waiting for them.” Dragon grinned a most terrible grin, revealing a mouthful of razor-sharp teeth.
Her companion agreed. “Grrrrrrrrrrrr. No one will harm Dragon as long as I’m here! Grrrrrooof!” Ollie’s eyes shone with a surreal light, and he almost looked like he was laughing at the thought of the surprise awaiting any intruders who dared threaten his friend.
Dragon motioned for me to leave. “Remember, Mistress, do not attempt to open the door yourself. You will not be immune from the wards I will place upon it.” I nodded, and took up my post outside the room.
A few moments later, I heard Dragon chanting. Soon Ollie joined in, his voice blending beautifully with Dragon’s. The chant took on a musical quality, a song resonating with extraordinary power. After a time, the chanting ceased. I saw the conference room door blaze with light. The light gradually faded, but I knew the spell had not. Any attempt to open the door from this side, either by brute force or with the aid of magic, would meet with disastrous results.
Time passed slowly. The muted cadence of Dragon, deep in her spellcasting, made me drowsy. I yawned and my eyelids started to droop. I jumped at the sound of someone upstairs coughing in their sleep. I shook myself, and vowed to remain alert. Why didn’t I remember to bring a pot of tea?
I listened carefully; all seemed well. But then my sleep-deprived brain set my imagination to running amok. The faint creaking of the house settling took on a sinister air. The dehumidifier, as it cycled on, sounded like the hissing of some evil creature. Even the hooting of the Barred Owls, who were once more calling to each other across the yards, struck me as menacing. I laughed at myself. Get a grip, woman! Then I heard the spine-chilling creak of the front door as it slowly swung open, and I almost jumped out of my skin.
My mouth went dry, my flesh crawled, and the hairs on the back of my neck stood on end as I heard footsteps creeping stealthily down the dark stairway. I shrank back against the wall.
A switch clicked and the overhead lights in the hallway flickered to life. “Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t expect to find anyone down here at this time of night.”
After a few long moments, during which my whole life flashed before my eyes, I realized it was my Bounty Hunter addressing me. “Neither did I.” I tried to sound nonchalant, but I eyed the small figure warily and kept myself positioned between him and the conference room door.
He nodded his head toward the closed door. “Is that Dragon I hear?” He met my eyes and stared at me guilelessly.
“What if it is?”
My Bounty Hunter shrugged. “As the Old Dwarf is so fond of saying, Mistress, it makes no nevermind ta me.” He moved away from me and leaned casually against the doorjamb at the bottom of the steps.
“So what brings you here at this hour?” I studied him closely.
“Insomnia. I do a lot of wandering around at night when I can’t sleep. It gives me time to search for answers.”
“What answers do you seek?”
He thought a few moments, frowning and stroking his chin. “Answers to questions you and I have discussed, Mistress Writer. Is there an explanation for how I and the others from my world materialized in this world, your world . . . an answer more satisfying than you fell out of the pages of a manuscript? Do we really exist, as you have asserted, in both worlds simultaneously, or did we cease to exist in our own world when we entered yours? And, most recently, what happened to me and the Arrogant One when we seemingly went missing? Where did we go, how did we get there and back again, and why do we have no memory of, or explanation for, the occurrence?”
I sighed and raked my hand through my hair. “I wish I had some answers to offer, especially regarding your recent disappearance.”
“I found that entire incident most disconcerting.”
I nodded. “I don’t doubt it! Evidently, so did my Arrogant One. The episode has apparently had a profound effect on him. I’m not sure I will ever be able to adjust to the elf’s newly acquired manners or humility.”
“I know what you mean, but I don’t suppose we should look a gift horse in the mouth!” My Bounty Hunter chuckled and shook his head. “Well, Mistress, I believe I am ready to make another attempt at sleeping. Good night.”
I listened to his receding footsteps as he climbed the stairs, but he did not continue up to the bedrooms. I heard him stop when he reached the landing; then the door creaked as he slipped outside. I frowned and bit my lower lip. What is he up to? Why the pretense of going to bed? I sighed. My first instinct was to go after him and find out, but I dared not leave the conference room unguarded. What if he’s the bait, trying to lure me away so an accomplice can sneak down here unnoticed? No, tomorrow will be soon enough to question him.
I wondered how much longer it would take Dragon to complete the spell which would forever hide the keys to Morcant’s tower, so the vile and malicious wizard would never be able to escape. I moved closer to the door and listened. She was still reciting her incantations, chanting in the ancient language of her race. Her voice was different now, sounding at once like wind through the trees, waves lapping at the shore, and tiny chimes tinkling in the breeze. Don’t let the sound of her voice mesmerize you!
I moved away from the door and tried to concentrate on the task at hand. The house was still, and I soon found my eyelids growing heavy once more. In an effort to stay awake, I began to walk up and down the hallway between the conference room and my office.
After pacing back and forth for an interminable period, I glanced at the clock on the wall outside the conference room. It was almost 4 o’clock. I yawned and stretched. I looked around, scanning the great room and Miles’ den, making certain no one had slipped downstairs while I paced. Then I made my way slowly down the hall once more. I had just reached the other end of the hallway again when a loud crack resounded inside the conference room. I rushed back, not knowing what to expect.
The door slowly swung open. Dragon appeared in the doorway, swaying unsteadily on her feet. Ollie was at her side. The light was gone from his eyes, and he stretched his mouth wide in a protracted yawn. Dragon looked at me, and gave me a weary smile. “It is done.”
I nodded. “Any problems?”
“None. No one in this world, or any other, should ever be able to locate those keys again.”
I heaved a huge sigh of relief.
“And you, Mistress? Any intruders?”
“Just my Bounty Hunter, but he did nothing that seemed overtly threatening.”
Without another word, the three of us turned off the lights and ascended the stairs. At the landing, Dragon and Ollie turned toward the front door. “Prithee, Mistress, join us for a breath of fresh air.”
I frowned. “Not now, thanks. The only thing I need right now is some sleep. You two go ahead, though. But be careful. Remember, my Bounty Hunter is prowling around somewhere.”
Dragon grimaced and Ollie growled softly.
“Ollie, will I see you at breakfast?”
Ollie shook his head. “Woof! I need to get home. James worries so!”
“Well, thank you for your help tonight. Have a safe trip home and please give my regards to James.”
Ollie’s rear end wiggled around and he woofed happily. “I will!”
I waved at the two friends as they walked outside. “Goodnight. Dragon, I’ll leave the porch light on for you.”
I headed upstairs and went directly to bed. It seemed like my head had no sooner hit the pillow when Miles was shaking me awake. “Hey, sleepyhead! Are you going to stay in bed all day?” How can he sound so chipper? I chucked a pillow at him, rolled over, and fell right back asleep.
I would like to thank author and #platchal friend James Stack for allowing his wonderful Old English Sheepdog, Sir Oliver of Skygate Farm (or Ollie, as he prefers to be called) to lend his outstanding assistance. Dragon assures me Ollie’s aid was indispensable. Be sure to check out James and Ollie’s excellent blog here: http://siroliverofskygatefarm.com/
James Stack’s memoir, WORLD’S FAIR, and collection of poetry, PLEASURES & SEASONS OF VERMONT, were published in 2013. His poems have appeared in ENGLYN: Journal of Four Line Poetry, the Maine Review (Grand Prize winner), America Is Not the World (Pankhearst Anthology), and Ash & Bones. His short stories have appeared in the Maine Review and Five2One Magazine and been semifinalists in the New Millennium Writings and Cutthroat contests.
You can follow James Stack on social media: https://twitter.com/SkygateStack and https://www.facebook.com/JamesStackAuthor/?fref=ts
You can also read about Ollie’s first appearance in my blog here: https://margecutter.wordpress.com/2015/12/27/another-guest/
And the time Ollie helped rescue Dragon, Cleric, and my Old Dwarf can be found here: https://margecutter.wordpress.com/2016/08/14/ollie-to-the-rescue/