“Good morning, sleepyhead.”
I opened one eye and slowly my husband came into focus, already up and dressed for the day, and sounding way too chipper. I groaned. “What time is it?”
Miles chuckled. “Relax. You have time to shower and dress before we have to start breakfast.”
I opened my other eye, sat up, yawned widely, and ran my hand through my hair in an unsuccessful attempt to tame the overnight snarls and tangles before putting on my robe and heading for the bathroom. I felt like a zombie. It had been rather late last night when I finally got to bed.
My search of the web had provided no clues to Mystery’s true identity or origin. What I had found were an astonishingly large number of websites and social media pages where missing horses, whether strayed or stolen, could be reported. There were even a number of those dedicated to missing equines just within the state of Minnesota. It had taken a few hours to find all the sites and then sift through all the reports. In the end, however, I had found no horses reported on those sites matching the description of the small, scruffy horse that had shown up in our yard. Nor did my check of local news and law enforcement reports online yield any mention of missing horses nearby. Mystery remained a mystery.
I had finished brushing my teeth and was about to turn on the shower when someone started banging on the bedroom door. “Mistress? Master Miles?” I recognized the voice of my Young Hero.
“What?” I’m sure I sounded as annoyed as I felt, as his response came hesitantly, with much stammering.
“M . . . Mistress? Mistress, er, I think, ah, perchance you should, er . . . I think mayhap . . . ah . . . I think your presence is needed.”
“Why?” I had already given up on the idea of a shower, so I returned to the bedroom and quickly threw on a tattered pair of jeans and a slightly worn sweatshirt.
“Well, ah, Mistress . . .”
I threw open the door. “What is it?”
One look at my Young Hero’s face told me I wasn’t going to like whatever he had to say.
“What’s wrong?” I tried to control my annoyance.
“Mystery is gone.”
“What?” My voice shot up into the range usually occupied by the screeching of my Arrogant One or by irritating operatic sopranos. “Didn’t you latch the stall door last night after you gave her hay and water?”
“I was not the last one to visit her, Mistress.”
“Well, who was?” I raked my hand through my hair.
“Does it matter?” Miles was already urging me out of the room. “Let’s go see if we can find her, before she ends up in Mace and Gloria’s yard, and we get a visit from the county sheriff.”
We were in the living room, struggling into our boots when my Gypsy entered through the French doors from the deck. He spoke to my Young Hero. “We are waiting for you. We have the horses saddled, and we are ready to go search for Mystery.”
Before the other lad could respond, I grabbed the two of them by their coat sleeves. “What? Are you crazy? You can’t go riding through the neighborhood looking for Mystery!”
“But, Mistress! As you know, horses are herd animals. They seek out their own kind. We thought our mounts would lead us right to her.” My Gypsy tilted his head and shrugged. “We often used this method to search for missing horses in our village.”
“Yes. You can use real horses to look for real horses. What you can’t do is take your illusory horses out of the area that is protected by Dragon’s spell of concealment and ride them through the neighborhood, where everyone can see them. And I highly doubt that illusions can be used to track a real animal.” I shook my head. “If you go looking for her, you need to do it in on foot – especially if you plan to covertly trespass in anyone’s yard.”
“Eh, what be all tha commotion?” My Old Dwarf came into the living room, gnawing on a turkey leg and wiping the grease all over his tunic. “I be thinkin’ ye can be hearded all tha way back in me own-est world!”
I blushed and lowered my voice an octave and quite a few decibels. “Mystery’s missing. I was just explaining to the lads why they can’t . . .”
“I be hearin’ what ye be tellin’ ’em. I be thinkin’ tha dead kin be hearin’ ye!”
“Sorry.” I blushed deeper, and continued struggling into my boots.
I looked at the lads. “Why don’t you two go back out and help my Foreman unsaddle the horses and stable them?” I turned back to my Old Dwarf, who had dropped the remains of the turkey leg into his pouch, trading it for some donuts he fished out of the same sack. He stood there munching them, leaving crumbs all over himself and the carpet. I wrinkled my nose, shook my head, and heaved a huge sigh. “And why don’t you brush yourself off and come with us in the car? With your excellent night vision, you might be able to see her in the dim morning light.”
All three of my characters nodded. Before they could move a finger, however, my Arrogant One came bursting in from outside, eyes narrowed and face beet red, screeching in his normal glass-shattering register. “What is that filthy animal doing in the shed? I thought I had made myself quite clear – I will not tolerate such odoriferous creatures sharing my private sanctuary!”
We all just stared at him, slack-jawed, and for about ten seconds you could hear a pin drop. Then we all pushed my Arrogant One aside, almost trampling the elf as we rushed out the door and to the shed.
We found Dragon, in her guise of an elf maiden, along with Cleric and Sorceress, in the shed. The three of them stood in front of Mystery, protecting her from my Bounty Hunter, who was threatening the small horse with a crossbow.
I cried out, and my Old Dwarf immediately pushed past me and smacked the crossbow out of my Bounty Hunter’s hand with the flat of his battle axe.
“What is going on here?” I glared at my Bounty Hunter, who was rubbing his hand where my Old Dwarf had hit him.
“This creature does not belong here. You assured us that the animals would be kept in the barn.” My Bounty Hunter glared at me, eyes narrowed.
Before I could respond, Cleric came forward. “Mistress, we had to bring Mystery in here last night.” Cleric spoke rapidly, and her eyes were wide with fright. “She would not stay in the barn with the other horses.”
“Wasn’t her stall door latched?” I elbowed my way through my group of characters and stood next to Mystery, checking the scruffy horse to make certain she was unharmed. She nickered softly and nuzzled my hand.
“Her stall door was latched.” My Foreman entered the shed and joined the conversation. “I always check the barn before retiring for the night. I had filled the water buckets one final time, our horses’ with the illusory water, but Mystery’s with real water. I also gave them each two laps of hay, again giving her the real hay. I latched all their stalls, extinguished the lamp, closed the barn door, and headed back to the house. I heard hoofbeats behind me, and turned around. Mystery was following me.”
“Well, she’s a regular little Houdini, isn’t she?” I chuckled and scratched the horse behind her ears, and she sighed contentedly. “I wouldn’t think her tall enough to reach over the stall door and unlatch it.”
“She is not.” My Foreman sounded grim, and his eyes were dark with concern.
“Well, how did she get out of her stall, then?”
Dragon lifted an eyebrow and crossed her arms over her chest. “She walked through the door.”
I frowned and tilted my head. “I don’t think I understand.”
Dragon sighed. “She walked right through the stall door, and then the barn wall, as if the structures did not exist. I saw her do this, after your Foreman alerted me to her escape and we returned her to her stall.”
My jaw fell open. “I didn’t think that was possible. I thought your illusions are . . . what is the term you use? Solid and substantial? How did she walk through your illusion as if it wasn’t there?”
Dragon chewed on her lower lip, and rubbed her arms. She spoke softly, her voice tinged with fear. “I do not know, Mistress. My illusions are as solid as the real object. If you wanted to go through one of my illusory barn walls, you would have to use a sledge hammer or a battering ram to do so. I do not know how this horse walked through my illusion. She should not be able to do so.”
Miles scratched his chin. “Could she do it because she’s not real, because she’s just an illusion?”
Dragon took many minutes to consider the question before answering with a shake of her head. “Even if illusory, she should not be able to act as if my solid and substantial illusions did not exist all around her. None of the illusory horses I created can just walk through their stall doors, or barn walls.”
Sorceress frowned. “Could that be because you created them? Because they are all part of a single illusion of your design? If someone else created the illusion of another horse, perhaps it does not interact with your illusion in the same way as the horses that are part of your own illusion.”
Dragon sighed and tilted her head. “I suppose that is possible. But, remember, I did not detect any magic residue on Mystery. And she will not partake of the illusory hay, feed, and water. She will only partake of the real thing. I still do not believe her to be illusory.”
Miles furrowed his brow. “But you also said that you, and even Cleric, were unable to communicate with her the way you can with a real animal.”
Dragon sighed and shrugged. “You are right, Master Miles. If Mystery is a real horse, Cleric should be able to communicate with her, even if I can not.”
I frowned. “Is there any way to be absolutely certain? Perhaps you and your colleagues in magic should examine her by both physical and magical means, the way you did with the books that came through the magical conduit.”
“That will be very difficult, Mistress.” My Gypsy frowned. “It is very hard to immobilize a living creature in order to perform the examinations of which you speak. A pile of books sits on a table. A horse does not remain still. It wanders around, whether in a pasture or even in a smaller area, like a stall. And if Mystery can walk through the illusory walls, then we would have to perform the spells of discovery in here.” He looked pointedly toward my Arrogant One, who had quietly slipped into the shed in the middle of the conversation and was standing next to my Bounty Hunter, listening intently. “We would need privacy.”
My Arrogant One narrowed his eyes. “You seem to forget that I, too, am one of your colleagues in magic. If you are to examine the animal here, in my sanctuary, I will take part in this undertaking.”
Cleric sputtered, and Sorceress laughed. If Dragon had been in her true form, she would have been snarling at the annoying elf. “There is no way we will allow you to assist us in this endeavor. You have not the requisite skill, nor the ability to work with others.”
My Bounty Hunter’s mouth twitched. “I do not imagine you want the elf to best you at your own craft.”
Dragon glared at him threateningly through narrow eyes. “On his finest day, and my worst, that charlatan could not best me if I had one eye closed and my hands tied behind my back.”
“This is not a contest.” I glared at both Dragon and my Bounty Hunter. Then I turned to my Arrogant One. “But it strikes me as extremely out of character for you to offer your assistance to anyone, if you do not directly benefit from the task.”
“I will benefit, madam, from the quick completion of this examination, resulting in the expeditious removal of that animal from this shed.”
I frowned. It sounded logical, but I knew my Arrogant One well enough to know he probably had an ulterior motive. “You know, I don’t believe I ever asked you – Mystery is not one of your illusions, is she?”
Dragon snorted. “I told you before, Mistress, the annoying elf is not capable of creating an illusion that leaves no trace of magic. If she was one of his illusions, I would be able to tell.”
My Arrogant One shrugged and gestured toward Dragon. His meaning was clear – he was not going to contradict her. Still, I wondered.
“Okay, how soon can you complete your examination?”
Dragon grumbled, and gestured toward Cleric, Sorceress and my Gypsy. “If it were just the four of us, we could complete it within a day.” She turned toward my Arrogant One and glared. “Having him to contend with, it might take considerably longer, if we can complete the task at all with his interference.”
I sighed. “Give it a good try. I would like to know just what we’re dealing with.”
I gave the little mare another pat on the shoulder. Just what are you, Mystery? Why can you do things that should be impossible?
Be sure to come back next week and see if we have learned anything new about Mystery. We’ll leave the porch light on for you.