The ersatz elf maiden, better known as Dragon, led the equine newcomer, whom we had dubbed Mystery, into the open stall and shut her in. Then she turned back to me, her brow furrowed.
“I believe the horse to be real. I can detect no trace of magic on or around the animal. However, I am unable to sense anything from her. I can not tell if she is from this world or another.”
I considered the situation. “Someone go get Cleric. She has a way with animals. She’s the one who always gets birds and wildlife to pose for me when I’m taking photographs. Let’s see if she can shed any light on our little Mystery.”
My Gypsy nodded and headed for the house. A few moments later, he returned with Cleric.
“Your Gypsy has explained the problem, Mistress, and I am more than glad to help. Where is this horse?”
Cleric’s eyes lit up as soon as she saw the shaggy creature. The mare seemed to take to her, too. Mystery nickered and pricked her ears forward to listen to Cleric, who entered the stall and spoke softly to the horse. After about 10 minutes, however, Cleric left the stall. She was downcast and wringing her hands. “She seems friendly enough, but I can not communicate with her. I do not understand her the way I do other animals. This is very distressing.”
I patted her shoulder. “Don’t feel bad. Maybe the horse is just an illusion.”
Cleric brightened. “I certainly hope so! Imagine, a Cleric of the Goddess of the Horse, unable to communicate with one of her deity’s favored creatures!”
Dragon shook her head and folded her arms over her chest. “I do not mean to distress you, Cleric, but I do not believe the horse to be an illusion. There is no trace of magic on the animal.”
I raked my hand through my hair and sighed deeply. “Is that conclusive evidence?”
Dragon shrugged. “Well, if she is an illusion, she has been created by a magic user whose skill and power are far superior to mine. That is the only way to account for the absence of a detectable aura of magic. And I have encountered no one in this world more gifted than I at the craft of magic.”
I furrowed my brow and thought. Suddenly, I slapped my forehead. “Duh! An illusionist! My Arrogant One!”
Dragon’s eyes widened. Her face turned crimson, and she snorted. If she had been in her true form, she would have been fuming clouds of black smoke at me. She sputtered and tired to speak, but it took several attempts for her to choke out a response. “You can not be serious! The very idea! I said someone superior to me! That buffoon, that . . . that charlatan has not even the slightest hint of talent!”
“Oh, come now! The elf has always been a fair illusionist, and he’s been practicing. Remember, all the way back in April he was already able to create the illusion of a slice of chocolate cake that my Old Dwarf pronounced solid and substantial, with aroma, taste and texture. My Old Dwarf said it was solid enough to be picked up, only dissipating after he had it in his mouth. If my Arrogant One was that good so many months ago, couldn’t he have perfected his illusions by now?”
Dragon refused to entertain the notion, and just kept shaking her head and glaring at me.
“Well, I think I better make sure. Someone find the annoying elf and bring him here.”
This time it was my Foreman who nodded and trotted off toward the house. It was almost a quarter hour later that he returned, alone.
I frowned. “Couldn’t you find my Arrogant One?”
My Foreman shook his head. “He was not in the house, but your Old Dwarf volunteered to track him down and deliver him here.”
A few minutes later, my Old Dwarf came into the barn, dragging my Arrogant One by the collar. Over the elf’s screeching, he asked, “Ye be wantin’ ta be seein’ this un?” He released the squirming, kicking, struggling elf, letting him drop onto the dirt floor.
The elf scrambled to his feet and started dusting off his clothing. “How dare you?” My Arrogant One’s voice was in the register that can shatter glass. The horses were snorting and shying from the commotion.
“Lower your voice! You are upsetting the horses!” My Foreman glared at the elf, and took a menacing step toward him.
My Arrogant One yelped and backed away a few steps. “I am upsetting the horses?” He looked down his nose at my Foreman, then turned to me. His face was beet red, and his eyes narrowed as he glared at me. “I demand to know why I have been abducted and manhandled in such a fashion! That oaf nearly ripped my robes!”
Ignoring his complaints, I pointed to Mystery’s stall. “Why did you create this illusion of a horse?”
He blinked. “Me? I did nothing of the sort. I know nothing of this beast!”
“I told you he was not skillful enough to create such a convincing illusion.” Dragon smirked.
My Arrogant One’s voice started to ascend the scale again. “What?I lack not the skill, you repugnant beast! Merely the motivation.”
“Oh?” I quirked an eyebrow.
“I tell you, I had nothing to do with this filthy beast.” He drew himself up, rocked back on his heels, and grasped his robe with both hands. “My time and my talents are too valuable to waste in such trivial endeavors.” He turned on his heel and started to leave.
My Old Dwarf stepped in front of him, brandishing his battle axe, and blocked his exit. “Ye do na be leavin’ ’lessens tha lass be sayin’ ye be leavin’, elfie.”
My Arrogant One turned an even deeper shade of red, and his voice hit a whole new register. “Do not call me elfie!”
The horses started rolling their eyes, wringing their tails and neighing. The black stallion reared up and almost flipped over in his stall. My Foreman grabbed my Arrogant One and clamped his hand firmly over the irate elf’s mouth. “I told you not to upset the horses!”
I motioned to my Old Dwarf. “Get him out of here before he causes one of the horses to injure itself. I don’t believe he knows anything about Mystery.”
As my Old Dwarf hustled the indignant elf out of the barn, my Foreman and the lads calmed their mounts. Cleric and I entered Mystery’s stall, but the little mare did not seem to be bothered by the commotion. I stood there and looked at her again, tilting my head and stroking my chin.
“What are you really, Mystery, and where did you come from?” The little mare nickered. She nosed around the stall some more, snuffling and rooting through the straw. I slowly approached her and placed my hand on her back. She stiffened, but did not attempt to kick, bite, or flee. I moved my hand down over her ribs.
Cleric watched me assess the horse. “She looks thin.”
“She is thin, but not starving. I can feel her ribs, but her backbone’s not sticking up. Let’s see if she’s dehydrated.” I pinched a fold of her skin on her lower chest, but couldn’t really see through all the hair if it sprang back immediately or if it took a few moments. “Let’s look at her gums.”
Cleric helped me get Mystery’s mouth open. I pressed gently on the horse’s upper gum and watched. It took several moments for the color to return. I nodded at Cleric, who released the mare. “She needs water.”
We left the stall. Cleric picked up a bucket and filled it with water, while I got a few flakes of hay. We placed the water and hay in the mare’s stall. I motioned to my Foreman, who quickly got a scoop of oats and poured it in the feed trough at the front of the stall.
Mystery sniffed at the hay and feed, and put her nose in the water and splashed it around, but she made no attempt to eat or drink.
“She looks thin under that shaggy winter coat. You would think she would eat!” My Young Hero looked at her with concern.
I nodded. “She is thin. But maybe Dragon’s right. Maybe Mystery’s not an illusion. Maybe she’s a real horse, and needs real hay and feed and water.”
My Gypsy sighed and ran his hand through his hair. “We can get her some real water, but where can we get real food for her?”
“I have some apples and carrots in the refrigerator. I’ll go get some and see if she shows any interest in them. Meanwhile, Dragon, you need to cast a spell of concealment on her. If she is illusory, she should be as invisible to outsiders as the rest of the illusory stable and horses; but if she’s real, we don’t want the neighbors seeing her and calling the police.”
Dragon nodded. As I left the barn and walked toward the house, I could hear her intoning her spell.
I found Miles in the kitchen, still cleaning up from lunch. He looked up when I entered the room. “Oh, there you are! Is everything okay? You and the others left in a big hurry.”
I reached in the refrigerator and brought out a bunch of carrots and a few apples. “We have a visitor.”
I must have sounded pretty grim, as Miles dropped what he was doing and came over to listen. “My Foreman and the lads found a new horse this morning. They have her in the barn right now. Dragon and Cleric are with them now. I’m going to see if the horse will eat some carrots or apples.”
“Why don’t you feed it the same food as the other horses?” Miles frowned, then his eyes widened. “Or are you saying that this horse needs real food because it is not an illusion?”
“The horse is a she, not an it. For lack of a better name, we’re calling her Mystery. She may be an illusion, but Dragon can not detect any trace of magic on her.”
Miles reached for the phone. “I’ll call the police and report it.”
“Don’t do that!” My voice rivaled that of my Arrogant One in its glass-shattering quality.
Startled, Miles dropped the phone. “Why not? If the horse just wandered onto the property, we need to report it. Someone’s probably looking for it.”
“Looking for her.”
“Okay, for her. We better report it . . . her . . . before one of our neighbors sees it . . . her . . . and they call the police.”
“Dragon cast a spell of concealment on Mystery, so the neighbors will be none the wiser.”
“We should still call the police.”
“And tell them what? That a horse, who may either be real or an illusion, is in our yard? That if she’s real, she may be from this world, or she may have come through a magical conduit from another world?” I snorted. “Oh, yeah, I see that ending real well.”
Miles heaved a big sigh. “Well, what do you suggest?”
“I suggest we get her some real food and water, since she showed no interest in the illusory variety. I think I still have some old rubber water buckets in the shed, something I kept all these years since the days when I had a horse farm. Maybe you could look for one?”
“Okay. If I find one, I’ll clean it out and then fill it with fresh water. I’ll meet you in the barn.”
I returned to the barn and offered the little mare an apple. She took it gently from the palm of my extended hand.
Miles brought a bucket of water. I smiled. “Thanks, honey. Just hang that in her stall.”
My husband backed away, his eyes nearly popping out of his head. “Oh, no! You were the horseowner. The only time I ever got near a horse, I tried to ride double with a friend on his Thoroughbred and got bucked off. I haven’t been near one since!”
“I will do it, Mistress.” My Gypsy picked up the bucket and hung it in Mystery’s stall. She waited calmly at the back of the roomy box stall for him to leave and close the door, then she approached the bucket and dipped her nose into the water. She drank deeply, draining the bucket in just a few moments. My Gypsy retrieved the bucket and handed it back to Miles. “I think she could use some more.”
Miles nodded and left to refill the bucket. I slipped into the stall and placed the rest of the apples and carrots in the feed trough. By the time Miles returned, Mystery was crunching the last bit of her snack.
Miles handed the bucket to my Gypsy. “She’s eating? Does that mean she’s real?”
I shrugged. “It’s a good clue. I think we can go on the assumption she’s real. Feel like doing some shopping?”
“Shopping?” My husband looked at me suspiciously. “You aren’t thinking of keeping her?”
“Well, as I said before, we can’t call the police and report that we found a horse if we aren’t 100 per cent sure the horse is real, and from this world. So, until we can make that determination, we need to keep her existence here quiet. But she needs feed and hay – real feed and real hay. From the looks of her, she could use a good deworming, too. The Farm Supply Store here in town should have some paste wormers.”
Miles sighed. “Then I guess you and I will go shopping.”
I nodded. “When we get back, I’ll do some research online and see if anyone in the area is missing a horse.” I stopped and sniffed. “Oh, and we better figure out how we’re going to dispose of some very real horse manure.” I chuckled at the look on my husband’s face.
Be sure to join us again next week, as we attempt to solve the mystery of Mystery, while doing our best to keep her hidden from our neighbors. We’ll leave the porch light on for you.