It was almost lunchtime, so I headed to the kitchen to grab a quick bite. My Old Dwarf was already there, head and upper torso in the refrigerator as he rummaged through the food. I waited for a few minutes, then cleared my throat.
“Find what you’re looking for?”
The old reprobate yelped. He jumped, hitting his head, and let loose a string of dwarven oaths that all but turned the air blue. Rubbing his head, he looked at me through watering eyes. “What be ye aboot, lass? Do na ever be sneakin’ up on an unsuspectable soul like thet!”
“I believe you mean unsuspecting.”
I turned to see my Bounty Hunter lounging against the wall, wearing an expression that showed both amusement and scorn. He continued to address my Old Dwarf, his voice dripping contempt. “Really, it is quite appalling the way you mangle words and phrases! It’s a wonder anyone can understand a word you say.”
Still rubbing the lump on his head, my Old Dwarf scowled at my Bounty Hunter. “Nobody never be havin’ no trouble unnerstandin’ me. Methinks ye been spendin’ too much time wit thet annoyin’ little fancy-pants elfie. ’Is airs and gold-plated words be rubbin’ off on ye.”
My Bounty Hunter snorted, causing my Old Dwarf to reach for his axe. In a flash, my Bounty Hunter had his dagger in hand. I stepped between them.
“Put the weapons away!”
The two characters stood engaged in a stare-down with each other, anxiously fingering their weapons.
“I said put the weapons away!” I glared at them until they reluctantly complied. “And if you two want to discuss proper grammar and elocution, could you do it somewhere else? I’d like to get some lunch and get back to work.” I pushed my Old Dwarf out of the way, then grabbed some leftover pizza from the refrigerator and heated it in the microwave. I took the pizza and a cold bottle of soda and headed back down to my office, leaving the two characters still glaring menacingly at each other. At the top of the stairs, I ran into Sorceress and Cleric.
“I said nothing of the sort. Try listening for once. You think you are so superior to everyone else, and nothing anyone else has to say is important enough for you to pay attention. You think you are the only one whose opinion matters!”
I gawked at Cleric, whose vitriol was most out of character.
“Well, you take offense at everything anyone says. I am so tired of tip-toeing around you, walking on eggshells, lest I offend you. You need to grow a thicker skin and stop being such a cry-baby.” Sorceress tossed her hair back and looked down her nose at her companion.
“Ladies!” My eyes felt like they were popping out of my head as I gaped at the two companions. “I’ve never seen you two at such odds with each other.”
“Well, she started it!” The two of them spoke in unison, then whirled and stalked off in opposite directions.
I shook my head as I continued toward my office for my working lunch. As I passed the conference room, I heard angry voices within.
“I don’t care if they’re illusory or not; I will not have you treat a horse that way! When you’re finished working your mount, you will cool him down, water him, and groom him before pasturing him.” I recognized the voice of my Foreman, who, in his world, had been a renowned horseman and a former member of the King’s Mounted Guard.
“What difference does it make? The stupid things are not real. They are like toys or games. When you are finished playing with them, you walk away! And besides, what do you mean, you will not have it? Who died and made you king?”
I had never heard my Young Hero speak to anyone with such disrespect. I was about to stick my head in the door and say something, when a third voice chimed in. I recognized it as that of my Gypsy, my Young Hero’s best friend.
“The Foreman’s right and you know it. So the horses aren’t real. So what? The whole purpose of Dragon creating them for us was so we could enjoy a part of the life we once cherished in our world. We need to treat these illusions as if they were real flesh-and-blood animals. Is this how you treated your pony back in our world – you ran him so hard he was in a lather and heaving for breath, then you just walked away from him as if he didn’t matter?”
I waited to hear my Young Hero’s response. What I heard was the sound of a fist solidly connecting with a face, and the crunch of a nose breaking. I reached for the door and almost got knocked over as my Young Hero burst out of the room. He shoved me aside, knocking my pizza and drink out of my hands, then ran up the stairs and out the door.
I left the mess in the hallway and went to check on my Gypsy. Blood streamed from his now-crooked nose, and he looked like a raccoon, with two black eyes. My Foreman was trying to stem the flow of blood.
“I’ll get Cleric.”
I ran back upstairs. Dragon was in the living room. She had my Arrogant One pinned to the floor and he was squealing like a stuck pig.
“What’s going on? Never mind, I don’t have time for this. Where’s Cleric?”
Dragon pointed with the end of her tail. I looked where she was pointing and saw Cleric on the deck. I opened the door and grabbed her arm. “My Gypsy’s been injured. Do you have your healing herbs?”
“I will get them.”
“Okay, meet us in the conference room.”
As I raced back through the living room, I called over my shoulder to Dragon. “Don’t kill him until I get back. I want to know what he’s done this time.”
Cleric was only a few steps behind me as I returned to the conference room. She applied her healing herbs to my Gypsy’s broken nose and soon stanched the flow of blood. Within a half-hour, his face was back to perfect condition.
“Thanks, Cleric.” I was relieved.
My Gypsy mumbled his thanks, then started to leave.
“Hold on there! Mind telling me what happened?”
“I lost an argument with a fist. I zigged when I should have zagged.”
“What was the argument about?” Even though I had overheard the incident, I wanted to hear my Gypsy’s version of events.
“Ask him.” The lad jammed his hands in his pockets and shouldered his way past me. A moment later, I heard the front door slam.
“Don’t ask me.” My Foreman’s voice was a deep growl.
“I wasn’t planning on it. I’ll talk to my Young Hero.”
“You do that.” And he, too, shouldered his way out of the room.
“Has everyone gone mad? What is happening?”
“I do not know what you are talking about.” Cleric stuck her nose in the air and flounced out of the room.
I stood there, stunned, for several long moments before I wandered, dazed, back to the mess in the hallway. It took me 15 minutes to scrape up the pizza, which had landed gooey-side down on the carpet. I was grateful the bottle of soda had been tightly capped when it fell. When I finished cleaning the pizza out of the rug, I climbed the stairs to the living room. Dragon and my Arrogant One were still there.
The beast was stretched out on the floor, her chin casually propped up on one hand. She was holding the elf in place with a single claw on his chest, a claw all three of us knew could skewer my Arrogant One with virtually no effort on Dragon’s part. The elf had stopped squealing and was now just whimpering piteously.
“Okay, what’s this all about?” I stood facing them, my arms folded across my chest.
“She’s going to kill me!” My Arrogant One shrieked. Then he broke down and sobbed.
“You are pathetic. You are an insect, not even worth my notice, let alone the effort to kill you.” Dragon yawned, opening her mouth as wide as possible. She showed every one of her teeth, each of which was as long as my forearm and as sharp as a dagger. She removed her claw from the elf’s chest and rolled over, wriggling and squirming as she scratched her back on the carpet.
My Arrogant One lost no time jumping up. He almost tore the French doors off their hinges as he made his escape. He ran out on the deck, down the stairs, and headed right for the garden shed. He ran inside and pulled the doors closed behind him. I swore, even at that distance, I could hear the bolt being slammed and the doors being barricaded.
I turned to face Dragon, who was still writhing on the floor, scratching her back. “Stop that. You’re tearing up the carpet. I’ve asked you before not to do that.” I frowned.
Dragon sat up and blew a cloud of smoke toward me. “So what? My back is itchy.”
“So put those nice sharp claws of yours to use. Don’t use the carpet. Your scales rip right through it!”
“In case you haven’t noticed, simpleton, my arms are not long enough to reach the itchy spots on my back.” Darker smoke started pluming from Dragon’s nose, and her mouth started to twist into a snarl.
“So create an illusion of another dragon and have it scratch your itchy back.”
Dragon blinked. “I can not believe someone of such inferior intellect could think of that, and I did not.”
“Gee, thanks. This inferior intellect is so happy to be of service.” I could hear the sarcasm dripping from my words, but Dragon seemed not to notice. I shrugged. “So you didn’t explain why you were about to skewer my Arrogant One.”
Dragon ignored me as she conjured a mirror image of herself, which immediately set about scratching Dragon’s itchy back. The beast wriggled in pleasure and directed her doppelganger to the itchiest spots. Finally, she sighed and released the spell. The other dragon disappeared in a puff of smoke. The Dragon who remained shrank until she was eye-level with me.
“Who says I need a reason to skewer that annoying elf?”
I raised an eyebrow. “Well, most times you have a reason for such behavior.”
“I’d sure like to know what’s going on here today. Everybody seems to be at everyone else’s throat. My Old Dwarf and my Bounty Hunter almost came to blows, Cleric and Sorceress were squabbling, my Foreman and the lads were locking horns and my Young Hero actually hit his best friend. You tried to skewer the elf for no reason. And you weren’t the only one to forget their manners with me.”
Dragon ignored my gibe about her behavior toward me. “The lad hit the Gypsy?” Her eyes widened.
I nodded. “Gave him a bloody nose. That’s why I needed Cleric and her healing herbs.”
Dragon growled. “You are right. Something is going on.” She narrowed her eyes and templed her clawed fingers. She sat there for many long moments, deliberating. “It may be just the heat . . . or the boredom . . . but I think we should look for other possible causes. Most of us are good friends. We have been companions for a long time here in your world, longer in our memories of our own world. With the exception of the annoying elf and more recently the Bounty Hunter, we have never had any serious conflicts.”
“I agree. I was shocked at the incidents today, friend against friend, both in verbal conflict and in physical altercation.”
“I will investigate.”
“I appreciate that. Should I gather everyone together and tell them this behavior will not be tolerated?”
Dragon shook her head. “If it is just the heat and the boredom, I am sure most of us have realized that our actions are regrettable. If there is something more sinister at work, telling us that our behavior will not be tolerated will have no effect, other than possibly exacerbating it.”
“You say our actions, our behavior. Do you include yourself in this? Did you have no reason for attacking my Arrogant One? Or for disparaging my intelligence?”
Again she ignored my reference to her behavior toward me. “I am not sure. When I attacked the elf, I had a reason. Now, however, I can not recall what it may have been. Perhaps it was just his characteristic arrogance rubbing me the wrong way. Perhaps it was something more. Let me deliberate. Perhaps I will have a better answer for you in time.”
Dragon stood there, shuffling one foot back and forth.
I quirked an eyebrow and tilted my head. “Was there something else?”
“Well, I suppose I should apologize for being disparaging toward you.” She looked at me sheepishly and fidgeted.
“Well, I suppose I should accept your apology.” I winked, and we both smiled.
When Miles got home that evening, he asked me how my day had been. I just looked at him, rolled my eyes, and laughed. “Why don’t we go out to dinner? I’ll tell you all about it on the way.”
Be sure to come back next week and see if Dragon has discovered a reason for everyone’s uncharacteristically ill-tempered behavior. I’ll leave the porch light on for you.