“Well, there ye be, lassie!” My Old Dwarf greeted me jovially as I walked into the kitchen. He was sitting at the table, rivulets of melted ice cream dripping from his grizzled beard, which was matted with crumbs. Several empty cartons of ice cream and two empty pie plates were scattered on the table in front of him.
“Yer mister tolded me ye be sleepin’ in this morn. He tolded me ye be right peevish when he tried ta wake ye earlier.” He grinned, his green eyes twinkling mischievously.
I glared at the old reprobate. “Not that I have to explain my behavior or my mood to you, but I didn’t get much sleep last night.” I trudged over to the refrigerator and got a container of yogurt, and grabbed a spoon from the utensil drawer, before plopping myself in a chair opposite the dwarf. I glanced at the clock on the wall. It was half past ten. I surveyed the mess on the table and raised an eyebrow. “Late breakfast or early lunch?”
My Old Dwarf’s eyes widened. “Why, this be just a wee snack ta hold me over till lunch, lassie. I et me breakfast hours ago. Some o us do na be lazin’ abed all day!”
“I beg your pardon?” If I had had a pillow just then, my Old Dwarf would have suffered the same fate that Miles had suffered when he had tried to wake me earlier that morning, seemingly just moments after I had gone to bed.
“He’s right! He was finished eating and out patrolling the yard at first light!” My Foreman slid into a seat at the end of the table and handed the dwarf a napkin.
“Aye!” My Old Dwarf nodded. He accepted the napkin from my Foreman and started cleaning the dripping ice cream and pie crumbs from his matted beard. “I took over the watch from the Bounty Hunter.”
“Oh?” I blinked. “Was my Bounty Hunter on watch last night?”
“Musta been. He be just commin’ in when I be goin’ out. I patrolled the yard fer the better part o the mornin’, from sunrise ta just a bit ago, when the Gypsy took over.”
My Foreman frowned. “The Bounty Hunter? Old Dwarf, you know I did not assign patrol to the Bounty Hunter, nor to the Arrogant One.”
The dwarf blinked. His mouth gaped and his cheeks flamed cherry red under his beard. “I fergot.”
My Foreman snorted and shook his head. He turned away from the dwarf to address me. “I felt it would not be appropriate to involve them since their recent disappearance may be related to Morcant.”
I nodded. “Makes sense.”
I asked my Old Dwarf, “Did my Bounty Hunter say anything to you?”
The dwarf furrowed his brow and shook his head. “Nay, nuttin, lassie. I axted em iffin he seed anythin’ but he just shaked his head and brushed right past me. Me thinking he been on watch all night, I just figured he be too tuckered ta stand there jawin’ wit me. Anywho, thet one never did be much fer conversatin’ even at the best o times.”
I frowned and ate a few more spoonfuls of yogurt while I mulled things over. “Who was supposed to be on watch last night?”
“I was.” My Young Hero entered the kitchen and joined in the conversation, taking a seat opposite my Foreman.
“Then why dinna ye be, laddie?” My Old Dwarf scowled at the young man. “It do na be liken ye ta neglect yer duty!”
“But I was on watch. I took over from the Foreman just after midnight.”
My Foreman nodded. “The lad was there.”
My Young Hero placed his arms on the table and leaned in toward me. “I was on the west side of the house around dawn, walking towards the front, when I saw the dwarf in the back yard. I was closer to the front door than to him, so I just waved at him, went in the house and headed for bed. I thought he saw me. I suppose I should have reported to him, to let him know the night passed without incident and I was retiring, but I was already half asleep on my feet.”
“Did you see my Bounty Hunter while you were patrolling the yard?”
“No, the only ones I saw were Dragon and her friend, Ollie. They were in the front yard several hours before daybreak. I heard you speaking with them as they came out of the house, so I assumed it was okay for them to be there. I went to the back yard and patrolled there for a while, to give them some privacy. I was just returning to the front yard when I heard something out back. I saw it was the Old Dwarf beginning his patrol in the back yard, right on time, so I just waved at him, came in and went to bed.”
Before anyone could respond, we heard the door in the living room open. Glancing over, I saw my Gypsy step in from the deck, looking grim. “The milky-eyed grackle is back.”
I swallowed the last spoonful of my yogurt and threw the container away. “Where is it? Did you see anyone else in the yard near the bird?”
“It’s back in its customary roost in the maple tree by the window. I’ve seen no one else in the yard since the dwarf here came in and I took over the watch.”
I nodded. “Stay here while I go have a chat with Morcant and his familiar.”
I walked into the guest bedroom. As soon as the milky-eyed grackle saw me, it sidled along the tree branch to perch next to the window. It tapped impatiently on the window frame with its beak as I fumbled with the latch. I finally got it opened, and glared at the bird through the screen while I addressed myself to its master. “I didn’t know your familiar was so eager to become a snack for my dragon, Morcant.”
The grackle squawked and flapped its wings, but held its ground.
“I do not comprehend your meaning, milady.” Morcant’s words, emerging from the open beak of his familiar, grated against my ear.
“My meaning is quite clear, Morcant. I told you before to recall your familiar to your own world before I feed it to my dragon!”
“And I have been equally clear, beldame. My familiar will not return to this world without the keys to my freedom.”
“The keys are gone, Morcant. Last night, Dragon sent them to a place where they will never be found.”
“Thou truly art a prevaricator and a deceiver, witch! When my familiar followed the magic signature of the keys from my world, it led the bird to this place, to your dwelling. The bird has not detected that signature leaving this area. You, madam, are still in possession of the keys, and I will have them!”
“Of course the fool bird did not detect the magic signature leave. You will remember after it followed the magic energy signature of the keys to this location, the signature disappeared completely. Your familiar was unable to detect the signature anywhere, even at this location. That is because I have held the keys in a box that was warded to shield its contents. It concealed not only the keys, but the magic signature they emitted. All attempts to locate the keys, either physically or through the use of magic, were thwarted by the substantial wards woven into the fabric of that box. Last night, Dragon sent the box containing the keys to an undisclosed location where they will remain.”
The grackle blinked its milky eyes and cocked its head, almost as if trying to comprehend what I just said. Suddenly, its beak opened wide, and Morcant let loose a keening howl that pierced my ears and chilled my soul. The grackle violently beat its wings against the screen, then took flight, trailing a stream of curses in its wake.
Miles burst through the door, eyes wide. He looked around the room, then ran to take my hands. “What was that? Are you okay?”
Although I was shaking like a leaf, I managed a glib retort. “Oh, yeah, I’m fine. That was only Morcant and his familiar, throwing a bit of a temper tantrum. I just broke the news to them that the keys are forever out of their reach. I don’t think they took it very well.”
Miles leaned past me and closed the window, latching it securely; then he led me to the kitchen. “Sit here while I get you a cup of tea.”
While Miles prepared the tea, I related to him and the others what had just happened. “I’m not positive that Morcant believes me, but I do think he’s entertaining the possibility that I’m telling the truth, and he is more than a little unnerved by that prospect.”
“Does either your Arrogant One or your Bounty Hunter know yet what has become of the keys?” Miles placed a cup of tea in front of me, and took his seat between me and my Foreman.
I took a sip of the warm liquid and let it slide down my throat, soothing my nerves, before I answered. “No. Only Dragon and I knew what she was going to attempt last night. This is the first time I have shared it with anyone else. For obvious reasons, since we still aren’t certain of their intentions, I would like to keep my Bounty Hunter and my Arrogant One in the dark. That way, if either of them questions me about Dragon disposing of the keys, we will know without any doubt that they have been in contact with Morcant.”
Miles frowned and tilted his head. “But didn’t you tell them previously that you had disposed of the keys?”
“Yes, that I got rid of the keys, but I never implicated Dragon in that. If they make a direct reference to Dragon concealing the keys, we’ll know where that information came from.”
“So how should we proceed, Mistress?” My Foreman leaned back in his chair, stretched out his legs, and folded his arms over his chest. “Should we continue our watch for Morcant’s familiar?”
“Since we know there is no longer a danger of the bird obtaining the keys for its master, I’m not as worried about it as I was; although I would like to know if you see my Arrogant One or my Bounty Hunter talking with the creature. Right now, we need to work on unraveling the mystery of their recent disappearance. Both still claim no recollection of the event.”
My Foreman nodded. He and his companions rose and went their separate ways, and Miles sat with me while I finished my tea.
About an hour later, I was in my office trying to answer e-mails and catch up with my friends on social media when I was interrupted by a voice behind me.
“So, how are you feeling today?”
I turned around to see Dragon standing rather stiffly in the doorway.
“Tired! And you?”
“What about Ollie?”
“Ollie?” Dragon tilted her head and furrowed her brow.
“Yes, I imagine he was tired, too. I hope he got home safely.”
Again, she just shrugged.
Just then the phone rang, and I excused myself to take the call.
“Micro who? Problems with my windows? No, I think you dialed the wrong number.”
I had barely set the phone down when it rang again. I rolled my eyes and shrugged apologetically at Dragon as I answered the phone again.
“Oh, hi, James! He got home safely? Good! What’s that? Really? No, of course it’s fine with me. Thanks so much for calling! Take care! Bye!”
When I hung up the receiver, Dragon fixed me with a steely look and continued. “I imagine you are feeling much more secure now that we have rid the world of the keys, and you know Morcant will never be free.”
“I said – –”
“Yeah, sorry, I heard you. Don’t mind me. I’m afraid I’m a bit scatter-brained today. I have to go upstairs for a minute. I left something in the kitchen. Come with me.”
As we reached the top of the stairs, I saw my Old Dwarf on the deck. I sprinted to the door and wrenched it open. “I need you in here. Now!”
“What be the trouble, lassie? Ye be lookin’ paler then a ghostie!”
“Get this creature out of here!” I pointed at Dragon.
“Get it out!”
My Old Dwarf looked at me as if I had gone quite mad, but he dutifully turned toward Dragon and brandished his axe at her. “I do na know what ye did ta get the lassie so riled, beastie, but ye had best be gittin’ yerself out the door.”
The creature shrieked in a most undragon-like fashion, and dashed out the door. It flapped its leathery wings and took off over the treetops.
Hearing the commotion, Miles raced into the room. Seeing the open door and my Old Dwarf standing there, axe in hand, he asked, “What happened now?”
“Aye, lassie, what be thet all aboot? What did Dragon do?”
“That was not Dragon! I became suspicious when I asked about Ollie, and Dragon seemed indifferent. Then my suspicions were confirmed. James Stack called me to let me know Ollie got home safely, and that Dragon had accompanied her friend. She will be visiting with them for a few days.”
“Then who be thet beastie ye had me skedaddle outten here?”
“Most likely, it was Morcant’s familiar, enchanted to look like Dragon. It was asking me about the keys. I suppose it was trying to see if they really were gone.”
Miles placed his hands on his hips and shook his head. “Never a dull moment!”
I laughed and nodded. “Well, I need to get some work done. I’ll be down in my office.”
* * *
“What am I doing on the front steps? Why are you all staring at me? What’s happened?” I looked at Miles and my characters, all standing on the front porch in the dim twilight, gaping at me.
Cleric crept forward. Her cornflower blue eyes were wide, and she was wringing her hands. “Mistress . . . you have been missing for almost half a day!”
Miles gathered me in his arms. “Sweetheart, we’ve been looking for you for hours! Then, all of a sudden, you . . . you were just here!”
My mouth went dry and my legs turned to rubber. The last thing I saw before I fainted was the glow of the porch light as someone reached inside the house and turned it on.