Miles and I were sitting down to dinner with my characters. Apart from my missing Foreman, they had all arrived, silent and subdued. Last to take their seats were my Old Dwarf and Dragon.
I gave Dragon a questioning look, and she shook her head. I frowned. “No luck?”
“No, Mistress. I have searched through every reference work I have. I can find no explanation for your Foreman becoming lost within an illusory world. One simply can not get lost within an illusion. There is no way for it to happen.” The big beast heaved a huge sigh. Smoke bubbles dripped from her nose as her scales faded from fiery red to pale blue, as often happened when she was confused.
Miles furrowed his brow. “And you still say it would be dangerous to simply terminate the illusion?”
“Absolutely, Master Miles. Until I know with what we are dealing, I dare not terminate the spell.” The smoke bubbles began flowing from Dragon’s snout at an alarming rate.
“If the Foreman is lost within the illusion, his disappearance must somehow be bound to the spell. Terminate the spell and you might well terminate him.”
“Then how, exactly, do you propose finding him and returning him to this reality?” My Bounty Hunter spoke softly, but his tone danced between smug and curious.
“I do not know.” Dragon bowed her head and tears mingled with the smoke.
“There, there, Beastie! Do na be gittin’ yerself so upset. Ye be findin’ a way ta be bringin’ ’em back.” My Old Dwarf patted his friend on her scaly forearm and tried to reassure her. “Now, ye mus’ be eatin’ summat. Ye be needin’ ta be keepin’ yer strength.”
“Yes, you need your strength.” My Young Hero gestured to the bowl of stew in front of Dragon. “Eat a good dinner, have a good night’s sleep, and attack the problem anew on the morrow, refreshed and clear-headed.”
“Mayhap you are right.” Dragon sighed, wiped her tears, and slowly regained her color. “I will retire directly after this meal.”
Exhausted as she was, sleep did not come quickly for Dragon. She tossed and turned, her brain refusing to give up chewing over the facts of the mystery, as well as the possibilities.
The Foreman entered the illusory world I and my colleagues created for him. He was in the company of the lads, who returned to this reality unscathed. The Foreman did not return as promised to sup with us that day, nor have we seen him return since. When we entered the illusory world looking for him, we could find no sign of him. When asked, the illusory inhabitants of that world claimed no knowledge of him.
It is impossible to become lost within an illusion. Therefore, how has the Foreman become lost within an illusion? Is he lost within that illusion? Is he even still in that illusory world? Did he leave the illusion and return to this reality without telling any of us, only to wander off somewhere within this world? Or, mayhap has someone interfered with the illusion? Has he somehow been taken into another world?
The possibilities seemed endless, and Dragon’s mind seemed determine to examine every one of them from every conceivable angle. Eventually, though, her mind grew sluggish and exhaustion dragged her into a fitful sleep.
* * *
Slowly, Tor opened his eyes. It was too dark to see his surroundings, but he was aware of lying on his side on a cold, hard surface. In his befuddled mind, it took him back to the smooth cobblestone walkways of his youth, and he drifted back to those times in his dreams.
Tor did not stay long in his dreams; pain quickly brought him back. As he slowly regained his senses, Tor moaned. His head felt as if it had exploded. He tried to reach for the back of his head, where the pain seemed the worst, but found he was restrained. His arms had been pulled behind him and were lashed tightly at the wrists.
He attempted to roll over and straighten his legs, but the ropes that bound his arms were tethered to something immovable. His legs were similarly bound at the ankles, and those fetters were likewise tied to something unyielding.
Tor tried to remember what had happened to him. The pain in his head made it hard to think. He recalled a horse farm, so big and beautiful and full of magnificent horses, much like the one he had managed in the past, in a different world . . . a different lifetime. His thoughts started drifting to that long-ago place.
Tor shook his head, trying to clear his thoughts and bring himself back to this world. No! This horse farm was here, in this world. He remembered a farrier, and someone called the boss. And there was another person. He furrowed his brow.
Yes, another person. The stable lad who had sent him into the barn to speak with the boss. It must have been the stable lad who had snuck up behind him and walloped him over the head.
Tor tried to shift his weight around to ease his aching muscles. He started wiggling and rotating his wrists and ankles to restore some circulation to his hands and feet. He groaned loudly as he began to get some feeling back in his extremities, and they felt like they were being stabbed by a million fiery pins and needles.
Tor lapsed into periodic unconsciousness. Whenever he awoke, he worked on restoring the circulation in his hands and feet.
Drifting in and out of consciousness, Tor was unaware of the passage of time. It could have been hours or days before he heard a noise that brought him wholly awake.
“Tink he’s still alive, boss?”
Tor recognized the voice. The stable lad. He lay still as death.
Tor heard the boss reply. “Don’t know. Can’t tell. Untie him.”
Tor smiled to himself. That is your first mistake, Master Boss.
Footsteps drew closer. A booted foot nudged Tor painfully in his side. He almost cried out but disciplined himself to remain quiet and still.
The stable lad sliced through Tor’s tethers, then cut the ropes that bound Tor’s hands and feet. He worked slowly, kicking Tor after every cut and waiting to make sure there was no response from his captive before making the next cut.
With the final slice and kick, the lad turned to the boss and declared, “He’s gotta be dead, Boss. He ain’t moved once. Don’t even see ’em breathin’.”
Opening his eyes just a slit, Tor was glad to see it was lighter now, and he could see. He judged the distance between himself and the lad. Steeling himself against the pain he knew would come with a sudden movement, Tor grabbed a length of his former tether, bunched his muscles, and sprang at the stable lad with the speed of a cheetah. Before the young thug knew what was happening, Tor had the rope around the boy’s neck.
“Hey! Quit it! Le’ go!” The lad squirmed, but Tor held fast to the rope and tightened it against the boy’s throat.
“Boss! He’s killin’ me! Tell ’em ta quit it! Tell ’em ta le’ go!” The boy struggled against the tightening rope.
“Stay still.” Tor’s words came out in a growl. “You make it worse by struggling.”
Once the boy stopped struggling, Tor addressed both men. “Who are you? Why have you assaulted me and tied me up?”
“I’m the boss. He’s one a my stable hands.” The man’s smug smile did not reach his eyes, which remained cold and hard.
“And?” Tor prodded when the man was not forthcoming with more information.
The boss shrugged. “And I told you to move on. You didn’t listen.”
Tor furrowed his brow. “So why did you truss me up and leave me here? What did you plan to do with me?”
“Didn’t decide yet.” The man’s smile reminded Tor of a rabid wolf.
“Well, I have decided. I am leaving this place and returning whence I came.” Tor loosened the rope around the boy’s neck, slid it down over his shoulders and pinned the boy’s arms to his sides. “You will show me the way back to the barn where we met, and I will release you. I can find my way back home from there.”
The boy nodded, eager to be free of the noose. But the boss laughed. “You really think so?”
“What?” Tor raised an eyebrow at the man. “Do I think I can find my way home from your stable? Yes, I do think so.”
The boss laughed again. “We’ll see.”
Slowly, Tor prodded the boy forward. Shuffling and stumbling, the lad led Tor back to the stable yard. Tor removed the rope and held out his hand toward the youth. “I will thank you for the return of my hat, as well.”
Hat in hand, Tor turned to trace his steps back to the spot where he could leave this illusory world and return to the real world. But the road did not go in the right direction. Tor looked down the road one way, then the other. Nothing looked familiar.
Tor whirled around and snarled. “I told you to take me back to the stable where we met. This is not it.”
The boy muttered something unintelligible, then spat at the ground by Tor’s feet. “Is.”
“No, it is not. This is not the road I traveled to get to the stable where I met you.”
“Is the stable.” The boy stuck out his chin defiantly.
The boss chuckled. Then, seeing Tor’s angry face, he shrugged. “The lad’s right. This is the stable where we met. Just the world around it what changed. The place you wanna go? Well, there’s an old saying – you can’t git there from here.”
Tor gaped at the boss, who doubled over with hysterical laughter.
As the man laughed uncontrollably, a smile tugged at Tor’s lips. That is your second mistake. Tor barreled into him, knocked him over, and tied him up like the cowboys he had watched on Mistress Writer’s magic box she called a television – cowboys competing in something called calf roping. Tor stepped back and admired his own work – two wraps and a half-hitch, and he had the other man’s limbs immobilized.
Tor motioned for the stable lad to move over next to his boss, where Tor could watch both men. His voice was a deep growl again. “Now, just what do you mean you cannot get there from here?”
What’s going on? Will Tor find his way back to the real world? Or will Dragon mount a rescue? Be sure to come back next week and see what happens. I’ll leave the porch light on for you.