“What’s going on here?” I could hear the panic in my own voice.
My husband, Miles, stood by the kitchen counter, ready to dish up some of his savory stew. Over by the stove stood the Innkeeper, stirring an identical pot of stew. The two figures seemed oblivious to each other.
“Did I ever tell you that the king himself came to my inn just for this stew?” Miles and the Innkeeper intoned in unison.
Miles jumped and twisted around at the sound of the voice behind him. Seeing the figure stirring the stewpot on the stove, he blanched and backed up, almost tripping over his own feet. He turned back toward me, fear and confusion in his eyes. “Marge?” His legs started to buckle.
My Foreman and I ran to Miles and gently guided him to a chair. I started to speak but before I could say anything, the Innkeeper vanished in a shower of sparks. I heard a yelp behind me and whirled around to find my Old Dwarf had seized my Arrogant One, and was handling him none too gently.
“Release me! Do you hear? I demand you take your hands off me at once, you ruffian!” The elf tried unsuccessfully to wriggle out of the dwarf’s grasp.
“I do na be thinkin’ so, Yer Imperial Annoyance. Methinks the lassie be havin’ some questions fer ye.”
“If she does not, you can be assured I do, you contemptible, aggravating, pompous, loathsome creature!” My Arrogant One shrank back and whimpered as Dragon shoved her face within an inch of his, opening her maw and displaying her impressive mouthful of dagger-like teeth.
I glared at my Arrogant One, my face growing hot and my hands balling into fists at my side. Miles rose from his seat, gaping at the elf. My other characters stepped back, making a path for us. We slowly walked over to my Arrogant One. I grabbed the front of his cloak and gave him a shake. “What is the meaning of this?”
Miles, standing beside me, shook his head in disbelief. “You’ve been doing this to me? Why, elf? What have I ever done to you?”
My Arrogant One pulled out of my grasp. He faced Miles and puffed himself up. “You? You think this is about you? You are beneath my notice, human.” He sneered and turned away from my husband.
I narrowed my eyes. “And me, elf? Am I beneath your notice as well?”
My Arrogant One paled, but tossed his head back and looked down his nose at me. “I have nothing to say.”
My Old Dwarf chuckled and grabbed the elf again. “Oh, I bet ye be havin’ a lot ta converse aboot, elfie.” The old reprobate looked at me. “Ye be wantin’ ’em in the conference room, lassie? Or be he Dragon fodder tonight?”
“Take him to the conference room, please.”
“And do you want this one in the conference room as well?” I turned to see Sorceress hauling my Bounty Hunter back into the room by the scruff of his neck. “I noticed him slinking away and thought mayhap he was in need of a personal invitation.”
My Bounty Hunter shrugged his shoulders and looked at me with a guileless expression. “If you required my presence, Mistress Writer, you had but to ask. You needn’t send your witch after me.”
I locked eyes with him, but he didn’t flinch or look away. Finally, I replied to Sorceress. “Yes, I believe his presence would be beneficial.”
“I think we should all attend this inquisition.” My Young Hero glared at my Arrogant One and my Bounty Hunter. “We all deserve to hear their explanations.”
I nodded, and everyone made their way downstairs to the conference room. Dragon and Sorceress led the way, with my Bounty Hunter in tow. Ahead of me on the steps, my Old Dwarf had a tight hold on my Arrogant One. As we reached the landing, he suddenly had a tight hold on naught but thin air.
“Hey up! Where be thet dang popinjay a-gone?” The dwarf looked around wide-eyed.
Hearing the commotion, Sorceress returned to the landing. One glance at my Old Dwarf told her the whole story. She turned to me, wringing her hands. “Oh, Mistress, this is my fault! I should have cast a ward on the elf, to prevent his escape.”
“No, it is not your fault. You had no way of foreseeing he would attempt to escape. None of us could predict that.”
“We still have his cohort, the Bounty Hunter. Perhaps we should talk to him?” My Gypsy looked at me for a decision.
Miles looked confused. “Is he involved, too? Why have they done this? I thought your characters had come to accept me, perhaps even like me.”
My Young Hero reached out and touched Miles reassuringly on the shoulder. “Most of us do respect you and value your comradeship, Master Miles. And I am sure whatever the Arrogant One and the Bounty Hunter have done, their actions were not the result of any dislike for you.”
Miles smiled gratefully at the lad, and I nodded in agreement. “I think you’ll find, honey, that you were only a target of convenience.” I motioned the others to continue down the stairs. “Let’s see what my Bounty Hunter has to say about it all.”
Once we were all assembled around the conference room table, my Bounty Hunter started to lose some of his composure. His eyes darted about, as if he were searching for the best route of escape, and he continually licked his lips and clenched and unclenched his fists.
I looked about the table at my other characters, all staring at my Bounty Hunter with undisguised dislike, and I almost felt sorry for him. Almost. “So. Care to explain what has been happening?”
My Bounty Hunter gaped at me as if I had just sprouted another head. “Mistress Writer, I believe you know quite well what has been happening. I further believe you know my part in it all, and my motivation. We have had this discussion on numerous occasions.”
He just sat there, staring at me.
My Gypsy banged his fist on the table. “If you do not care to humor her, perhaps you will inform the rest of us of your little plot. Some of us have been worried sick over our friend, the Innkeeper, whom we were led to believe was in need of our help – led to believe by the trickery of the Arrogant One, whom, I deduce, you were encouraging for reasons of your own. We have a right to hear from you what has been done and why.”
The other characters nodded and loudly voiced their agreement, with much table-thumping for emphasis.
My Bounty Hunter sighed and raked his hand through his hair. “Well, the elf is always bragging about how great an illusionist he is. He claimed to be the equal of friend Dragon, who, as we all know, can produce solid and substantial illusions.”
Dragon snorted. “That charlatan dares claim himself my peer in ability and power? Outrageous!” A deep growl rumbled in her throat, and black smoke poured from her nostrils.
“Of course it is outrageous, but it got me to thinking. I could use the elf’s vanity to goad him into creating illusions that would cause the rest of you to search for a way to return to our own world. I encouraged the Arrogant One to create the illusion that Master Miles was speaking and acting like the Innkeeper. He put those words in Master Miles’ mouth, and caused Master Miles to assume the mannerisms of the Innkeeper. And tonight, he took it one step further, creating the illusion of the Innkeeper in the kitchen with Master Miles.”
My Bounty Hunter paused and took a deep breath before continuing in a smaller voice. “I chose the Innkeeper because of the affection so many of you have for him. I thought for sure if you felt he was in need of your help, you would move the heavens and the earth to find a way to return to him.
I heaved a deep sigh and shook my head. “Not this again! You sound like a broken record!”
My Bounty Hunter furrowed his brow. “A broken what?”
“Never mind. I keep telling you, over and over and over again, that you all are still in your own world. You did not cease to exist there when you fell out of my manuscripts and into this world. Therefore, even if the Innkeeper were in trouble, you – the you who exist in that world with him – would already be helping him. Why will you not accept that?”
My Bounty Hunter hung his head and mumbled. “Mistress Writer, I am not knowledgeable in the ways of magic. I do not fully understand how we all came to be in this world. All I know is the longing in my heart to return to that which I knew, that which I left behind, the mission I must finish. You have not presented me with any irrefutable proof of the claims you make. In the absence of such incontrovertible proof, I used what means I had available to me to try to find a way to get back to my world.”
For a long time, no one spoke. Finally, Cleric broke the silence. “Mistress, I think we all agree what the Bounty Hunter and the Arrogant One did was contemptible. However, I think all of us who find ourselves trapped here in your world can empathize with the Bounty Hunter’s desire to return. None of us really understand how we can exist in both places at the same time. Most of us accept it solely on your word. If the Bounty Hunter is unable to accept it, we can understand his misery and his motivation for exploiting the Arrogant One’s vanity.”
The others nodded.
“I see.” I looked around the room at the others, who all seemed in agreement with Cleric. I studied the Bounty Hunter, searching for any guile or deception. “Very well. I accept that you did not act out of malice toward my husband or toward anyone here. Therefore, you shall suffer no retribution for your misguided actions. But understand this: this stops here and now. Should you ever involve yourself in such deception again, you will suffer dire consequences.”
“And such leniency will not be extended to your vainglorious accomplice. My Arrogant One has stepped over the line once too often. When the elf is found, he will be dealt with most severely.”
My Bounty Hunter stared at me, wide-eyed. “Mistress Writer! I am responsible for the elf’s actions. I played on his ego to manipulate him into doing my bidding. If you can forgive me, surely you can find it in your heart to show him some mercy.”
Before I could reply, Dragon spoke. “No. You acted out of a deep yearning to return to your home. He acted, as he always acts, out of conceit and swagger. There is no comparison. He does not deserve mercy!”
I nodded, but my Old Dwarf chuckled. “Be ye sure ye do na be actin’ outten conceit yerself, beastie? The elfie claimed ta be yer equal. Dinna thet make ye a tad bit testy? Mebe thet be the real reason ye do na feel too kindly toward ’em?
Dragon narrowed her eyes and bared her teeth. Before I could stop her, she had engulfed my Old Dwarf in flames.
The huge creature extinguished her fiery breath. My Old Dwarf crawled out from behind his scorched shield and chuckled. “Eh, be thet the best ye kin do, beastie?”
Dragon took another breath, but I stepped in front of her. “Enough!”
The big creature exhaled slowly. “So sorry.” Her flippant tone belied her words.
“I think some tempers need to cool. Why don’t we go back upstairs and see if Miles can salvage any of the stew?”
Miles and my characters silently filed out of the room, giving Dragon a wide berth. When the others were gone, Dragon turned to me. “I wouldn’t really hurt the old rapscallion, you know.”
“Could have fooled me.” I scowled.
She smiled coyly. “Well, we have solved one part of the mystery. The Innkeeper was not trying to contact us and ask for our help.”
I shook my head and sighed. “No, he wasn’t.”
“There is more to the mystery, though. We still need to determine who created the magic conduit that allowed the four items from my world to enter this one.”
I nodded and sighed. “Not only who created it, but why.”
Dark, brooding smoke clouds drifted from Dragon’s nose. “Somehow I do not believe the Arrogant One or the Bounty Hunter will provide any answers to this mystery.”
Be sure to join us again as we try to find my Arrogant One and unravel yet anther part of this mystery. We’ll leave the porch light on for you.