The companions, led by the strange local, Sangree, zigzagged their way toward the distant complex of barns. At times, the barns seemed close enough to hit with a well-thrown rock. Most times, they seemed to be getting farther and farther away. Every time Sangree changed direction, the landscape changed.
Puffing and panting, the Arrogant One grabbed Sangree’s arm. “We need a rest.”
“Past that copse of trees.” Sangree smiled and pointed to their right. “We can stop there for rest and refreshment.
The elf watched as the trees Sangree had pointed to seemed to slip towards their left. He looked down his nose at Sangree and scowled. “Are you quite certain you know where you are going?”
Sangree looked wounded. “Of course. I am the best guide in the town.”
“But we are not in the town now, are we?” the elf muttered.
“Of course not. We are on the road. The road goes away from the town.” Sangree gave the Arrogant One a look of pity. “I thought you were intelligent. I thought you could understand that.”
Before the Arrogant One could react with his usual glass-shattering screeching, Dragon, still in her guise of a delicate maiden, stepped between the two figures. “How long will it take to get to the barns?”
Sangree smiled broadly. “Not long now.” He looked past Dragon, and his smile faded. He glared at the Arrogant One. “Unless some of your company are not able to keep up, and we have to make more than one rest stop. Then it could take much longer.”
“Do na be worryin’ aboot thet. Tha elfie be keepin’ up. I be makin’ sure o thet, even iffins I be havin’ ta be carryin’ ’em on me back.”
The Old Dwarf shot the Arrogant One a superior look, then quickly covered his ears as the elf screeched, “Do not call me elfie!”
“Elf?” Sangree looked surprised, as if he had not noticed the Arrogant One, as well as some others in the group, sported the pointed ears, slanted eyes, and delicate features characteristic of the race. “You are fey-kin?”
“What if I am?” The elf drew himself up, rocked back on his heels, grasped his cloak with both hands, and glared at the guide.
“The fey usually do not enter this world. You could be the reason the Changes are changing more rapidly.” Sangree scratched his head and chewed on his lower lip. “We may have to take a different route.”
“Are you saying that the presence of . . .?” Cleric started to question Sangree, but Dragon cut her off.
“Take whatever route is needed to get us there as quickly as possible.” Dragon turned toward her companions and lowered her voice. “The Foreman was lost before the Arrogant One, Cleric, or I entered this illusory land. That means one of two things. Either the fey have entered this land, or the rapid changes in the landscape have been brought about by our presence. Any of us – even the Foreman himself – who fell out of Mistress Writer’s manuscripts might be the catalyst for the rapid changes.”
“How?” Cleric wrinkled her brow in confusion.
“By virtue of the fact that none of us are from what the Mistress terms the real world.” Dragon’s tone was somber and edged with concern.
The Gypsy frowned. “Are you certain the Foreman became lost because of the changing landscape? Could that not be merely coincidental to his disappearance?”
“It do na be makin’ much nevermind wat the reason be fer ’is disappearin’. We be havin’ ta be findin’ ’em, and right quick-like. I be havin’ a bad feelin’ thet tha longer we be in this place, the harder it be ta be gittin oot agin.” The Old Dwarf looked about nervously as he spoke.
Dragon nodded and turned toward Sangree. “Let us proceed.”
The guide smiled broadly and started off at a trot in the opposite direction of the one he had previously indicated. “Come. Since speed is of the essence, we will see if the short-cut is still there.”
The Young Hero grabbed Sangree and pulled him to an abrupt stop. “See if it is still there? What if it is not?”
Sangree shrugged. “Then it will take us longer.” He smiled broadly. “But I will get you there. I am the best guide in the town.”
* * *
The Foreman, Tor, heaved a huge sigh. He had been trying for hours to get information from the one called the Boss, but that man seemed incapable of giving a straight answer.
Tor looked out the barn door and beyond the stable yard. The landscape adjacent to the stable yard had changed again. The last time Tor had looked, it had been an orchard, the apple trees already heavy with ripe, red fruit ready for the harvest. Before that, it had been a hazy cypress swamp, and before that, a woodlot with a railroad track leading from the stable yard. Now, it was a sandy beach.
He sighed again and turned back toward the Boss. “I tire of your evasiveness. Where did you come from, how did you get here, and who were you before you came here and became the Boss?” He glared at the other figure, still squirming on the bale of hay, where Tor had none-too-gently seated him.
“I guess I come from the town. Ain’t that where you come from? And I guess I walked here. Ain’t that how you got here? An’ I guess I’ve always been the Boss . . . or I figured I always oughta been.” The man spoke glibly and had an infuriatingly smug look on his face. Tor could feel his patience stretching to the breaking point.
“Before you were in the town. Where did you come from before you were in the town? And how did you get to the town?” Tor’s voice was strained, and his hands were balled into fists.
“Sounds like them horses are getting’ restless. Ain’tcha gonna give ’em no feed or water?” The Boss pointed toward the door at the other end of the barn. “I think there’s another building out there, where they keep the grain and the hay. Ya can draw water from the well out back.”
When Tor made no move toward the door, the Boss scoffed. “Hypocrite! You were so concerned that the farrier did his job right and didn’t lame them up, but ya don’t give a rat’s arse if they go hungry or die of thirst.”
Tor grabbed the Boss and started dragging him toward the door. “You are right. The horses must be fed and watered. Come. You can answer my questions while you show me where everything is, and help me . . .”
“I’ll take care of them. That’s my job.”
Tor whirled around to find the stable hand walking back into the barn. He gaped at the approaching figure. “I thought you had left for good.”
“Changed my mind.” The youth blushed, scuffed his boot back and forth in the dirt, and fidgeted with his collar. “Nowhere else ta go. Unnerstan’, I don’t wanna work for him no more. He ain’t my boss.” He jutted his jaw in the direction of the Boss. “But tha horses . . . gotta take care of ’em. It’s my job.”
Tor nodded. “May I offer some assistance?”
The lad shook his head. “Nah. I can manage. It’s my job. You jus keep that one outta my way.” He jerked his thumb at the Boss and glared at him before turning and walking down the barn aisle toward the back door. Tor could hear him talking softly to the animals as he passed each stall.
When he turned back to the Boss, Tor was all but growling. “Now. You will answer my questions now.”
The Boss settled back onto the bale of hay. “Sure thing! Whatcha wanna know?”
* * *
Twice in the next hour, the companions approached so close to the barns, they could hear the horses inside nickering and snorting. Once, they were sure they heard voices.
“Is that the Foreman?” The Young Hero started running toward the barns.
“Look out!” The Gypsy grabbed his friend’s arm and swung him around, keeping the lad from running headlong into a massive oak tree as the landscape changed again.
“Wow! Thanks! That was close.” The Young Hero’s eyes widened as he stared at the tree that had seemed to pop out of thin air into his path.
“Did thet be tha Foreman wat ye be heardin’?”
“Mayhap, but I can not be sure, dwarf. I could not hear the voices well enough to make out any words.” The Young Hero hung his head.
Cleric patted the boy’s arm. “Do not worry. None of us could hear clearly.” She turned toward Sangree. “Why is it every time we get close to the barns, the landscape changes and we are farther away?”
“It’s the Changes. That’s what it does. I told you it was a treacherous region.”
Dragon scowled at the man. Despite the fact she was not in her true form, smoke drifted from her nostrils. “Are you quite certain you are able to get us to the barns? Not just close enough to see and hear, but actually to the barns, so we may enter?”
“Yes, yes, quite certain. I am the best guide in the town. Trust me.” Sangree was wearing his too-broad smile again. “If we leave right this minute, we should be there within the hour.”
He turned and almost fell off a previously non-existent cliff. “Oops. Wrong way. Be careful there! Watch your step!” He turned and led the group, muttering and grousing, away from the cliff’s edge.
Two hours and a dozen changes of landscape later, Sangree triumphantly led the weary group along the railroad track and into the stable yard.
“See? I told you I’m the best guide in the town.” He smiled so broadly that Cleric feared his face might split wide open.
The Gypsy and the Young Hero started to run toward the open barn door, but Dragon grabbed them. “No! Do not run. Did you forget the incidents of the tree and the cliffs?”
“Oh, it’s okay. You can run now. We’ve departed the Changes. This area isn’t part of that region.” Sangree demonstrated by running to the building. Stopping by the open door, he gestured for the companions to follow. He was almost trampled as eight figures made a mad dash past him and entered the barn.
In seconds, the companions spotted their lost comrade standing next to a figure seated on a bale of hay, and he spotted them. Tor and his friends ran to each other and suddenly everyone was talking at once.
In the pandemonium, the seated figure edged off the hay bale and started to slink toward the back of the barn. Tor ran back and grabbed him by his shirt collar. “You are going nowhere.” His thunderous voice silenced everyone else. Everyone except the person he had grabbed.
“Well, if you insist. I jus’ didn’t wanna intrude on yer reunion with yer friends here. Didn’t wanna git in tha way.”
The figure turned toward the companions and Dragon’s jaw dropped. “Arthur?”
What would Arthur – leader of the writers’ group Lost in the Words, and major antagonist to Mistress Writer and her characters – be doing in an illusory world created by Dragon and her colleagues in spell casting? Be sure to come back next week and find out. I’ll leave the porch light on for you.