Miles was just placing the last platter on the table when I dashed into the kitchen. I gave my husband a quick kiss on the cheek and an apologetic look for having overslept. I drooled when I saw all the tasty breakfast fare he was serving up. Then I sighed loudly and reached into the refrigerator for my container of fat-free yogurt.
My Old Dwarf’s plate was already overflowing with flapjacks, eggs, hash browns, ham, bacon, and sausages, and he was stuffing his pouch full of muffins by the time my other characters had taken their seats.
I looked at the two empty chairs across the table from me. “Has anyone seen my Arrogant One or my Bounty Hunter? This is the third meal in a row they’ve missed, and I don’t remember seeing them anywhere around the house recently.”
My Old Dwarf scowled and replied around a huge mouthful of food. “Eh, donabecoplanin’’as. Disbeda mos’pe’able it e’er be et a meal . . .”
Everyone stared at him.
“Could you repeat that in somewhat more understandable syllables?” I raised an eyebrow at the old reprobate.
He swallowed several times, choking down about half the food in his mouth. “I be sayin’ do na be complainin’, lass! This be the most peaceable it e’er be et a meal! Asides, I be very doubtful the two o ’em be starvin’ iffin they be missin’ a few meals.”
My Foreman chuckled. “I would have to agree with the dwarf. Encounters with that annoying elf and his cohort are never pleasant, and it has been nice not to have to deal with them at mealtime. And I am sure they are not going hungry. They have probably been raiding the refrigerator when no one has been looking.”
“Agreed, but that’s not the point. It isn’t just the fact that they’ve missed a few meals. Has anyone seen them anywhere in the past few days?” I looked at those seated around the table. Everyone was shrugging and shaking their heads. By their expressions, it was obvious no one shared my concern.
I frowned. “Well, if anyone should run into them, let me know. I always worry when those two disappear for any length of time. I never know what they might be up to.”
As an afterthought, I added, “And will someone please check and see if they ever cleaned out the shed after we returned Mystery to her owner? For a little horse, she left behind a lot of mess.”
At the far end of the table, Dragon snorted, and smoke drifted from her snout. “Someone else will have to check the shed. I am not going outside in this abominable weather. It is snowing again! I will be in front of my fireplace until the weather shows sense enough to match the season. According to the calendar, it is supposed to be spring!”
Sorceress nodded, frowning. “I do not know how anyone can stand the weather in this place. By this time of year, Cleric and I should be out collecting botanicals and other spell components.”
Cleric also glared at the snow falling outside the window. “This really is most disheartening. I believe I will accompany Dragon and share the warmth of her hearth this day.”
A trio of melodramatic sighs erupted from my Forman and the two lads. My Young Hero rolled his eyes at Dragon, Sorceress, and Cleric. “Very well.” He sighed again. “The three of us hardy souls will brave the weather and check the shed after breakfast. We have to check on our horses anyway, and the shed is only steps from the barn.” My Gypsy and my Foreman nodded in agreement, grinning as they teased their friends.
* * *
Miles and I were cleaning up after breakfast. The door in the other room crashed open and someone yelled. I dropped my dishtowel, and Miles and I dashed to the living room.
My Foreman was carrying my Bounty Hunter in from the deck while my Gypsy and my Young Hero struggled with my Arrogant One.
“We found them in the shed.” My Foreman dropped my Bounty Hunter onto the sofa.
The two lads deposited my Arrogant One onto the recliner and my Gypsy slammed the door shut behind them.
“Are they dead?” I stared at the two seemingly lifeless bodies.
My Foreman shook his head. “Unconscious.” He looked about. “Where is Cleric? We have need of her healing skills.”
“I think she’s in the conference room with Dragon and Sorceress. I’ll get her.” My husband took off at a dead run.
Moments later, Miles returned with Cleric. Sorceress and Dragon were right on their heels.
Cleric’s eyes flew wide when she saw the two comatose figures. “By the goddess! What happened?”
“We do not know, milady.” My Foreman eased my Bounty Hunter out of his jacket and tugged off his boots. He motioned for the lads to do the same for my Arrogant One. “We found them unconscious in the shed. We do not know how long they have been this way, nor do we have any clue to the cause of their affliction.”
Cleric leaned over my Bounty Hunter and studied him. She felt his forehead, took his hand in hers and turned it over, then examined his feet. She repeated the procedure with my Arrogant One, assessing his condition. She looked at me and shrugged. “Though they are both breathing, their breathing is shallow. Both are cold to the touch but show no signs of frostbite on either fingers or toes. Neither seems feverish.”
“Can you cure them with your healing herbs?” My Young Hero’s brow was furrowed in concern.
Cleric bit her lower lip and wrung her hands. “I do not know. First, we must determine the cause of their condition. Is it grounded in the physical, or in the realm of magic?”
Sorceress placed her hand on Cleric’s shoulder. “We will do our best to provide the answers you need.”
Cleric nodded and smiled appreciatively.
Sorceress addressed my Gypsy. “You and I will have to examine the shed for any clues, including any traces of magic.” Turning to the others, she gestured to my Foreman and my Young Hero. “The elf and his cohort must be taken to the conference room, where they can be warmed by Dragon’s fireplace. You should get the dwarf to help you.”
“I can give them a hand.” Miles started to move forward, but Sorceress blocked his path. “No, Master Miles! You and Mistress Writer must not touch those two until we determine if their illness is contagious.”
“I never thought of that.” Miles looked at me, wide-eyed, and put his arm around my shoulder, drawing me away from the two figures.
Sorceress started to turn back to the others when she saw my Old Dwarf enter the room. “Dwarf, you will assist the Foreman and the Young Hero.”
“Eh? Wot be goin’ on? I was jus’ headin’ ta the kitchen fer a wee snack.”
“We require some muscle to get these two down to the conference room. They seem to have taken ill.”
My Old Dwarf walked over and looked at the two figures lying there, both pale as death. Without a further word, he nodded and hefted my Bounty Hunter and my Arrogant One. The rotund dwarf trotted off to the conference room, one comatose figure under each arm. Cleric, my Foreman, and my Young Hero followed along.
Sorceress turned back toward Dragon. “Dragon, be sure to take their jackets and boots downstairs as well. You must examine the two of them and their clothing carefully for any sign they may have been victim of a magical attack . . . or a magical mishap, if the Arrogant One was attempting any spell beyond his power.”
Dragon nodded. She gathered the items and took them down to the conference room.
Sorceress and my Gypsy went out to investigate the shed. Sorceress returned to the house after just a few minutes. “The Gypsy lad and I found the remains of some food. I need vials and jars to collect samples for testing.”
“Testing?” Miles wrinkled his brow. “You suspect they’ve been poisoned?”
“We must overlook nothing in our search for the cause of their malady.”
The rest of the day passed in a blur. Miles and I hovered at the periphery of the activity as my characters investigated the cause and nature of the affliction suffered by my Arrogant One and my Bounty Hunter.
Sorceress and my Gypsy set up their equipment at one end of the huge conference room. “We found only slight traces of magic in the shed.” Sorceress spoke as she prepared the food samples for testing. “They were consistent with the Arrogant One’s practice of the art of illusion.”
Dragon, still examining the comatose figures at the other end of the long room, nodded. “That is the only trace magic I have found on either of them, or on their clothing.”
Sorceress crossed her arms in front of her and tilted her head. “That means their condition is most likely not the result of magical attack.”
My Gypsy frowned. “Unless a magical attack was mounted by someone with power and skill surpassing even Dragon, that no trace would remain.”
“There is no one on this world whose power surpasses mine.” Dragon grumbled, and a small cloud of black smoke drifted from her snout.
“Unless they are not from this world.” Gypsy rubbed the back of his neck. “It would not be the first time someone traveled a magical path to this world from some other one.”
“Unless we find evidence of that, we should assume there was no magical attack.” Dragon continued to grumble and the smoke from her nostrils grew darker. “I also believe we can rule out magical mishap from one of the elf’s spells gone awry. If that were the case, the trace magic would be stronger.”
Sorceress and my Gypsy nodded. “Let us see what we can discover.”
They performed numerous tests on the food they had recovered from the shed. Everyone waited with bated breath as the two of them finished the last test and turned to the group. “There is no evidence of poison.” Sorceress looked downcast as she gave that pronouncement.
“That’s good news, isn’t it?” I tilted my head and looked at the magic user.
“Not necessarily, Mistress. Depending on the poison, finding a cure could be very simple, and we would most likely be able to start on a treatment relatively quickly. Now, we still do not know what we are dealing with, nor how to eradicate it.”
Miles rubbed his chin and looked at me. “I don’t suppose we could just call for an ambulance and have them taken to the hospital?”
I raised my eyebrows and shook my head. “I don’t think that would end well. Talk about your undocumented immigrants! How would we explain those two to the authorities?”
As the day wore on, my characters narrowed down the possibilities. By late afternoon, Dragon was able to summarize their findings. “Lack of bruising suggests it was not a violent attack, nor a traumatic accident. Testing of the food suggests it was most likely not poison. The ghastly weather and frigid cold all but eliminate the possibility of insect bite or snake venom. Examination of trace magic, both in the shed and on the victims and their personal effects, rules out magical attack or mishap.”
Dragon paused and looked at the others to see if anyone had anything to add. When no one spoke up, she turned to face Cleric. “That seems to leave only ailments of a medical nature, some illness that has struck them down. That puts it in your hands.”
“Then I should prepare the healing herbs.” Cleric bit her lower lip and fingered the cord belt of her clerical robes. “I only hope I have enough. This interminable winter has prevented me from collecting the necessary botanicals and other supplies I need. Our occasional colds and stomach ailments have greatly depleted my reserves.”
I furrowed my brow and rubbed the back of my neck. “I’m not certain, but I believe there may be several farms and stores in the area that deal in medicinal herbs. I can research it online and if one is close enough, perhaps we can restock your supplies there.”
Cleric beamed at me and clasped her hands. “Oh, that would be wonderful!”
My Gypsy raked his hand through his hair and spoke hesitantly to Cleric. “Please do not think I am trying to intrude in your area of expertise, but perhaps I can help as well. As you know, my Grandmother was the village witch, their wise woman. She taught me a recipe for a broth with great healing powers. Perhaps, together with whatever herbs you can procure . . .”
He didn’t have to finish. Cleric took his hands and smiled warmly. “I would appreciate your help very much! I just hope your broth and my herbs will be enough to cure our companions.”
Miles addressed my Gypsy. “I suppose you and I can make a quick trip to the supermarket and get whatever you need for your broth.”
“Thank you, Master Miles. That would be most helpful.”
Dragon cleared her throat. “The four of you had best make haste. I fear the malady is spreading.”
We all looked over to where Dragon was pointing. My Young Hero was slumped over in his chair, his eyes rolling back into his head.
What is causing this illness? Will it continue to spread? Will Cleric and my Gypsy be able to cure their fellow characters? Be sure to come back next week and see what happens. We’ll leave the porch light on for you.