The Contest

The Contest

Cleric closeup“Mistress!”

Cleric skipped into my office without even knocking. “How would you like to judge our contest?”Me

I furrowed my brow. “What contest?”

Cleric smiled, her cornflower blue eyes shining. “While you have been busy all week with your writing, my companions and I have been busy as well. We have been taking nature photos all week. We remained indoors, of course, due to the snow earlier this week, and the abysmal cold. But we took a considerable number of photos through the windows.”Taking nature photos through the windows

I nodded. “The weather this week has been brutal for October, even by Minnesota standards.”

Cleric and camera 2Cleric frowned and nodded her agreement before continuing. “The rules of the competition are simple. We could take photos of whatever animals we fancied, but the images had to be taken with no magical assistance. I was not even to use my ability to communicate with animals to get them to pose for me.”

I nodded. “Sounds like a fair rule.”

Research and prepare presentationCleric smiled. “The other part of the competition was more difficult. We were to research and prepare a very brief presentation on the animals we photographed. So, there should be winners in two categories – the best image and the best research. So, will you judge our contest?”

I feigned indifference and examined my fingernails. “I suppose I could clear my schedule and do the honors.”

“Oh, thank you, Mistress. I told everyone we could count on you! We could meet in the conference room in a half-hour if you would be available then.”

When I nodded, Cleric jumped from her chair and skipped out the door. “I will let everyone know to have their images and presentations ready!”

Dragon in front of fireplaceCleric was as good as her word. A half-hour later, my characters met me in the conference room, each with a thumb drive containing their images. Although all were present, some were less enthusiastic than others. Dragon, her scales as black as her mood, was lying in front of her illusory fireplace, glaring.

LaptopCleric cleared her throat. “Ahem. Well, thank you all for being here, and for participating in this contest. Mistress Writer has agreed to be the judge, and I have already advised her of the rules of the contest. So, who wants to go first?” She gestured toward the laptop computer at the front of the room, where everyone would display their images.

Dragon opened one eye and snorted some black smoke. “This whole silly contest was your idea. I think you should go first.”

Smoke drifting from Dragon's snout

Cleric closeupNo one else volunteered, so Cleric inserted her thumb drive into the USB port on the laptop and began. “My first group of images is of Mourning Doves. Two of the images were taken after the snowstorm earlier this week, and the last one is from yesterday, after it cleared again.”

She gave everyone time to see her photographs, then began her presentation. “The Mourning Dove, or Zenaida macroura, is in the taxonomic order Columbiformes and the family Columbidae. Mourning Doves are extremely abundant year-round across the United States. Males and females look alike, with gray backs and wings, and gray to pale peach below. They have large, black spots on their wings. Both their tails and their beaks are long and thin, and their legs are pinkish. They are M-o-u-r-n-i-n-g Doves, not M-o-r-n-i-n-g Doves, called that after their mournful cries.”

Cleric waited for me to take some notes, then proceeded to her next animal of choice.

“These photos are of Northern Cardinals. The Northern Cardinal, or Cardinalis cardinalis, is in the order Passeriformes and the family Cardinalidae. The Northern Cardinal has a year-round range in the United States from the East to the Midwest. The female Northern Cardinal is one of the few female songbirds who sing. Both male and female Northern Cardinals have short, thick bills and prominent crests. The male is a very conspicuous red with a black mask and throat. The female is dull brownish, with warm tinges of red in her wings, tail, and crest.”

When I had finished taking notes on Cleric’s second set of images and presentation, she removed her thumb drive and sat down.

I nodded and smiled. “Very nice job, Cleric. Who’s next?”

Foreman facing right closeupMy Foreman looked around at his companions, and when no one else responded, he rose and came to the front of the room. Inserting his thumb drive, he began.

“I have three groups of birds here, various types of sparrows. I did not bother with the taxonomical information, as I cannot even pronounce the words. One of my more learned associates informed me the words were Latin, a language I have never heard.”

He paused and looked around at his audience before continuing. “The first group of photos shows the American Tree Sparrow, a winter visitor to this area. The American Tree Sparrow is a plump, long-tailed sparrow with a bi-colored bill, unstreaked underparts, and a dark spot in the middle of their chest. Their gray head is adorned with a rusty cap and eyeline. Male and female look alike.”

My Foreman brought up the next group of photos. “These are Chipping Sparrows. It is unusual to see these birds in this area at this time of year, but perhaps the ones I saw this week were late migrants. They were here at the beginning of the week, right before the snow, and I have not seen them since. The Chipping Sparrow is sometimes confused with the American Tree Sparrow, the first sparrow I showed and described. However, the Chipping Sparrow is slightly smaller, has no spot on its chest, and the eye stripe is black, not rusty. The Chipping Sparrow also lacks the bi-colored beak of the American Tree Sparrow.”

Changing photos once more, my Foreman continued. “The last group of sparrows I photographed is the White-throated Sparrow. This bird would not be mistaken for either of the two sparrows I previously detailed. As the name would indicate, their identifying mark is a crisp white throat patch. They are a large, plump sparrow with a long tail and stubby bill. They are beautifully marked, with a bold facial pattern of black and white crown stripes and yellow lores. In Minnesota, they breed in the north and migrate in the fall, though some overwinter here.”

My Foreman waited for me to nod, then retrieved his thumb drive and resumed his seat.

Young hero 2My Young Hero sprang to his feet. “If no one objects, I will go next.”

Before displaying any photos, the lad explained, “I was an opportunistic photographer. The three types of birds I will present were chosen simply because they were there and did not fly off when they saw me aiming my camera at them through the window. Unlike the three types of sparrows the Foreman chose, these birds are unrelated.”

My Young Hero inserted his thumb drive and began. “The first bird is a juvenile or immature Sharp-shinned Hawk. He will have the vertical streaking on his chest until he molts and acquires his adult plumage. This bird was guarding his freshly caught dinner, which I cropped out of the photo in deference to those persons of a delicate and sensitive nature. The Sharp-shinned Hawk is an accipiter, a type of hawk having short, broad wings and relatively long legs. It is admirably adapted for fast flight through woodlands, where it hunts its prey, mostly small birds.”

Switching photos, my Young Hero continued. “This bird is an American Crow. American Crows are opportunistic omnivores. This one was visiting the feeding station on the deck, gobbling the peanuts. Although he does not look it, he is larger than the Sharp-shinned Hawk. This all-black bird has a relatively short, squared tail, and a raucous, full-throated call.”

The lad brought up the next group of photos. “My third bird is the Blue Jay. He also has a raucous call, along with many other sounds. He even mimics the call of other birds. The Blue Jay is grayish-white below and various shades of blue and violet above. The Blue Jay’s wings and tail are barred black, with a bold, white wingbar, and he sports a black necklace and a prominent crest. Like the American Crow, the Blue Jay is a year-round resident of Minnesota, and is an opportunistic omnivore.”

My Young Hero shuffled through his notes. “I discovered a most interesting fact about Blue Jays while doing my research. Blue Jays are not really blue! Because of the structure of a Blue Jay’s feathers, they appear blue. I found this information on a website called The Buzz. If anyone wants to check it out themselves, you can find it at https://www.reconnectwithnature.org/news-events/the-buzz/nature-curiosity-why-are-blue-jays-blue.”

Blue Jay featherPrismThe lad waited while some of his friends copied down the information. “According to this website, Blue Jays do not have any blue pigment in their feathers. The pigment in a Blue Jay’s feathers is brown, but we perceive it as blue because of a phenomenon called light scattering. Light scattering is like the effects of a prism. A Blue Jay’s wings contain tiny pockets of air and something called keratin. Keratin is the same substance that is in our hair and fingernails. When light hits these pockets of air and keratin in the Blue Jay’s feathers, all the colors of the wavelength except blue are absorbed. The blue wavelength is refracted, making the feathers look blue.”

Dragon in front of fireplaceAs my Young Hero retrieved his thumb drive and returned to his seat, Dragon stirred. “Forsooth! That was most impressive. It almost shames me to make my presentation now.” Remaining prone, she tossed me her thumb drive, which I inserted into the computer. “Like my young friend, the Hero, I was opportunistic. In fact, some might argue I was lazy. I took pictures – admittedly poor quality – of some Ring-necked Pheasants because they were right outside the window and I could take the photos with a minimum of effort, and without leaving the comfort of my fireplace – the same way I am making this presentation. The plain, brown, speckled one is the female. The more colorful one is the male. They visit the yard occasionally, usually when it is cold and snowy, although I have seen them here in all seasons. They are what is known as a game bird, which mean some people think they taste good.”

Dwarf with sandwich and thumbdriveAs Dragon closed her eyes and continued her nap, my Old Dwarf stomped to the front of the room, a sandwich in one hand and his thumb drive in the other. He tucked his sandwich in his pouch and thrust his thumb drive at me. I removed Dragon’s thumb drive from the computer and inserted the dwarf’s, and he began.

“Wale, I be admittin’ I dinna be doin’ all tha research wot tha holy lass be tellin’ us ta be doin’, an’ I be tookin’ pictures o furry critters, not birdies. I be pho-toe-gryph-in’ some bunnies, some gray squirrelsies, some red squirrelsies, an’ some chippermunkers. They all be year-round residents o this area, though tha chippermunkers be a tad less hardy and be stayin’ in their holesies when tha weather be gittin too cold. I did be findin’ oot thet tha bunnies be Eastern Cottontails; tha gray squirrelsies be Eastern Gray Squirrels; tha red squirrelsies, wot be lessen’ half tha size o tha grays, be Red Squirrels, though they also be called Pine Squirrels, Spruce Squirrels an’ Chickarees; an’ tha chippermunkers be Eastern Chipmunks.”

Not even waiting for me to return his thumb drive, my Old Dwarf dug his sandwich from his pouch, took a big bite, and hastened back to his seat.

Gypsy close-up facing rightMy Gypsy rose and took his turn next. “I have three birds to present, all common visitors to the yard. We see two here year-round, but the third is a winter visitor only.”

My Gypsy inserted his thumb drive into the computer and brought up his first group of photos. “These are Black-capped Chickadees. These gray-and-white birds with black cap and bib are bold, curious little creatures that can be easily coaxed to take sunflower seeds from a person’s hand. Their call – chick-a-dee-dee-dee – sounds like they are scolding someone, while their song – heeey, sweetie – sounds like they are calling after someone.”

The lad perfectly imitated the chickadee’s call and song.

Gesturing to the next group of images, my Gypsy continued. “The Red-winged Blackbird is ubiquitous in this neighborhood in spring and summer, as they nest right in the reeds along the edges of the pond behind the houses. Their conk-a-reeeeeeeee rings through the neighborhood from early morning till late evening during mating and nesting season and the males often display their bright red-and-yellow epaulettes when trying to impress a potential mate or discourage a potential rival. They remain in the area year-round, but they are not as prevalent in winter.”

Bringing up his third group of images, the lad smiled. “These are Slate-colored Dark-eyed Juncos, birds many people hate to see, as they herald the cold weather and snow. In fact, these little birds are known as snowbirds, appearing in this area as winter sets in, and then retreating northward each spring to their breeding grounds. They have several beautiful songs, the first a loud musical trill of 7-23 notes, similar to the songs of both the Chipping Sparrow and the Pine Warbler. This is sung by the male junco.” My Gypsy whistled a perfect imitation of the song.

“They also have a much quieter song as well, a series of whistles, trills, and warbles sung by both male and female, that may sound like an American Goldfinch.” Again, my Gypsy demonstrated.

“In case you had not surmised, I chose these three birds because I love their calls. When they are in the yard, I can coax them close just by imitating their songs.” Smiling, my Gypsy took his thumb drive and returned to his seat.

Bounty Hunter full body 2My Bounty Hunter rose and shuffled to the front of the room, frowning and looking very reluctant to begin. He inserted his thumb drive into the laptop and shrugged. “I did not research the taxonomy of the birds I chose, nor can I imitate any of their calls. I chose woodpeckers because I am fascinated by them and I found no less than six different types in the backyard. I photographed all six, so you can see their similarities and differences.”

zygodactyl feetLooking around uncomfortably, my Bounty Hunter shrugged again and continued. “The woodpeckers I will present all possess characteristic zygodactyl feet. The first and the fourth of their four toes face backward and the second and third face forward. This allows them to easily grasp the limbs and trunks of trees. These woodpeckers can walk vertically up tree trunks while they forage for food and excavate nest holes.”

Woodpecker on vertical surfaceHe paused to collect his thoughts. “In addition to their strong claws and feet, these woodpeckers have relatively short, strong legs and stiff tails. When the woodpecker perches on a vertical surface, its tail and feet work together to give it support. Woodpeckers have strong bills for drilling and drumming on trees, and long sticky tongues for extracting the insects and larvae they favor for food. They also have very specialized skull and brain structure to prevent concussive damage to their brain while they bang away with their bills.”

Bringing up the first group of photos, my Bounty Hunter continued. “These are Downy Woodpeckers, the smallest of the North American woodpeckers. They range from slightly less than six inches to just under seven inches in length and have a wingspan of ten to twelve inches. They are a common, year-round resident of this state. Males have a red spot on the back of their heads, females do not.”

Changing images, my Bounty Hunter smiled. “This is the Pileated Woodpecker, the largest living North American woodpecker, and also a year-round resident of this part of Minnesota. It is approximately sixteen to nineteen inches long and has a twenty-six to thirty-inch wingspan. Males have a red cheek stripe, and both male and female have bright red crests.”

As he brought up the next group of images, my Bounty Hunter chuckled. “These are not more pictures of the Downy Woodpecker. These are another year-round resident, the Hairy Woodpecker. They are almost identical to the Downy, but larger. They are almost ten inches in length, with a fifteen-inch wingspan. In addition to size, you can tell these two woodpeckers apart by their outer tail feathers. The Hairy Woodpecker’s outer tail feathers are pure white, while the Downy usually has black or gray spots along the sides of the white outer tail feathers. Their bills also give clues to their identity. The Downy has a tiny, stubby beak, barely as long as the distance from the front of its head to its eye. The Hairy’s bill is much longer, nearly as long as the bird’s head. As with the Downy, males have a red spot on the back of their heads, and females do not.”

My Bounty Hunter paused a moment to bring up the next group of pictures. “Here is another year-round resident of this part of Minnesota. At nine to eleven inches long, and having a fifteen to eighteen-inch wingspan, this year-round resident, the Red-bellied Woodpecker, is close in size to the Hairy. The male Red-bellied Woodpecker has a red crown and nape, while the female has only the red nape. The name red-bellied is puzzling to many new birdwatching enthusiasts, as the red patch on their abdomen is often unnoticed, obscured by the pale feathers.”

My Bounty Hunter gestured to the next group of photos. “Minnesota is part of the breeding ground for the Red-headed Woodpecker, but these birds are not year-round residents. This immature bird stopped by for a quick bite to eat during his migration. He was only a day or so ahead of the cold snap and snow. Although quite attractive already, when this bird reaches adulthood, he will be a beauty, with a brilliant red head contrasting with black back, white wing patches, and an unstreaked white belly. Male and female are alike and range from seven and a half to almost ten inches in length, with close to a seventeen-inch wingspan.”

Northern Flicker aMy Bounty Hunter brought up a single photo. “This is a Northern Flicker, another year-round Minnesota resident. It is a mid-to-large sized woodpecker, with a length of eleven to fourteen inches and a wingspan of seventeen to twenty-one inches. Unlike the other woodpeckers I have presented, this one will be seen on the ground as often as in a tree. It does possess the characteristic zygodactyl feet of the woodpeckers, but a flicker eats mainly ants and beetles. It often digs them from the ground with its slightly curved bill, but it will also pluck ants and other insects from the crevices in the bark of tree trunks. This bird is a Yellow-shafted Northern Flicker, referring to the yellow shafts on his flight and tail feathers, as opposed to the Red-shafted Northern Flicker found further west. Both the male and female Yellow-shafted Northern Flickers have a black bib, spotted belly, and red nape. The black mustache marks this bird as a male.”

My Bounty Hunter removed his thumb drive and returned to his seat while Sorceress took his place at the computer.

Sorceress close-up“I have only two groups of images to share.” She gestured toward the laptop. “The first, here, are American Goldfinches. At this time of year, they all look rather drab and bedraggled, but in the spring, the males will molt into their breeding plumage of mostly brilliant yellow and black. They are year-round residents of the southern half of Minnesota, but many inexperienced birdwatchers do not recognize them in their dull winter garb.”

Changing images, Sorceress continued. “These, too, are finches, but they are House Finches. We are on the northern border of this bird’s year-round range. While the females are rather plain brown birds with streaky fronts, the males have reddish hues gracing their face and chests.”

Retrieving her thumb drive, Sorceress continued speaking while walking back to her seat. “Both the male American Goldfinch and the male House Finch have beautiful songs, full of twitters, trills, and warbles. I am sure, if anyone were interested, the Gypsy lad could imitate them for you. I cannot.”

Arrogant One full body 2My Arrogant One rose from his chair at the back of the room. He drew himself up, rocked back on his heels, and grasped his cloak with both hands. “I have chosen a single bird, a bird with which I strongly identify.”

European Starling (2a)Approaching the laptop, the elf inserted his thumb drive. “This

is the European Starling.” He paused dramatically. “Like me, the starling is a foreigner in this country.” He paused again. “In winter, this dazzling, iridescent, black-and-brown bird is covered with white speckles and dots. In summer, he turns dark and glossy. He is an excellent mimic, copying the calls of up to 20 other species. The European Starling, a year-round resident everywhere in the United States, is an entirely unappreciated bird in this country.”

With that, my Arrogant One grabbed his thumb drive and flounced back to his seat.

“Well!” I stood and looked at my characters. “There were some excellent presentations, along with some great images. This is going to be a difficult contest to judge!”

Gentle readers, will you help me decide on the winners? Who do you think gave the best presentation? Who had the best image? Perhaps we should have first, second, and third place winners in both categories. Leave you choices for winner in the comments and be sure to come back next week. We’ll leave the porch light on for you.

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Some Time to Relax

Some Time to Relax

Continued along the roadWorking with horsesIt had been almost a week since my characters had returned from the illusory world where my Foreman had been lost, and where the rest of my characters had gone to search for him. My Foreman and my Young Hero had spent most of that week working with their illusory horses. My Gypsy had split his time between the horses and working with Dragon and the other magic users.Magic users

The spellcasters had been busy inspecting the threads of the magic weave from both outside the illusory world and within, to determine if it would be safe for my Foreman to return there.

Dragon at door to conference roomI was walking down the hallway to my office to work on my weekly blog when Dragon, in her customary form of a delicate and exotic maiden, gestured to me from the doorway to the conference room. “Mistress? Prithee, a moment of your time.”

“Of course.” I walked back down the hallway and followed her into the enormous chamber. I was once again struck by the marvel of this magically constructed room – an ever-changing space that could never conceivably fit inside our modest split-level home.

Conference room

I nodded in greeting to Dragon’s colleagues, who were looking weary and drained by their efforts. Then I turned and addressed Dragon. “What have you discovered?”

Examing the threadsChester“We have spent considerable time and effort examining and testing the threads of the magic weave that created the illusory world we designed for your Foreman, and the threads that hold that world together. We have found only residual evidence of any problem. It would seem that once we brought the unfortunate stranger, Chester, out of that world and returned him to this, the real world, all of the problems caused by him becoming entangled in the spell rectified themselves.”

I nodded and smiled. “So, my Foreman can return to that world, should he so desire?”

“Indeed. He can enter that world and should no longer have any problems returning here. The same is true for anyone, including you and Master Miles, should you desire to explore that world.”

I chewed my lower lip. “Perhaps. At some time in the future.”

Dragon nodded.

“So, what are your plans now?” I looked at the entire group as I asked the question, but it was Dragon who responded.

“Well, Cleric, Sorceress, and I need to replenish our supply of botanicals and other spell components. Your Gypsy lad desires to rejoin his fellow horsemen. But your Arrogant One has made a splendid suggestion. Since we are all exhausted from our recent adventure, the elf suggested we put aside our other activities and spend the remainder of this day in rest and relaxation on the gazebo with you and a tall pitcher of cold lemonade. Perhaps we could even engage in some nature photography.”

“That sounds like a wonderful idea! You should invite my Foreman and my Young Hero, who are still working their horses. And someone please find my Bounty Hunter and my Old Dwarf and invite them, too. I’ll make some lemonade and maybe some iced tea and prepare a few plates of snacks – I think I have some cake and cookies. I’ll let Miles know what we have planned, and I’ll meet you all in the gazebo.”Beverages and snacks

GazeboThirty minutes later, the eleven of us – me, my husband, and nine of my characters who had long ago fallen from the pages of my manuscript – were sipping cool beverages, nibbling sweet confections, and enjoying the warmth of the afternoon sun in the gazebo.

Dwarf closeup“Oooooo! This be real good!” I wasn’t sure if my Old Dwarf was talking about the idea of nature photography, or about the mouthful of cake and cookies he was talking around.

“There been an explosion o bunnies since last we been here in tha yard.” He watched the furry creatures hopping and eating and lounging all over the yard. There was a gleam in the old reprobate’s eye as he eagerly fingered his axe handle.

Bounty Hunter head shotDwarf chasing rabbit“Yes, I had noticed that as well,” my Bounty Hunter commented dryly as he reached for a cookie. “I imagine they have thrived in your absence, not having to look over their shoulders for a madman in an iron suit clanking after them, waving an axe.”

I laughed. “Yes, they have multiplied and gotten fat and lazy without the dwarf here to coordinate their exercise.” I took a gulp of my iced tea and sat back to enjoy the afternoon.

“Here.” Miles nudged the dwarf and handed him a camera. “Try this instead of the axe.”

The dwarf reluctantly took the camera and gave my husband a pouty look. “Eh, lad, ye be takin’ all tha fun oot o things.”

Miles chuckled and nudged me. “He complains but look how many pictures he’s taking.”

I smiled and nodded in agreement.

Miles taking pixEastern Chipmunk (1)Suddenly, Miles noticed a chipmunk watching us from the trunk of a nearby tree. My husband grabbed his camera and started shooting. Several other chipmunks approached, and Cleric winked at me. She placed some peanuts on the gazebo floor and the chipmunks came running to get their treat. Miles grinned as he took several more photos.

I laughed, and he shrugged at me. “Hey, they’re cute, they qualify as backyard wildlife, and Cleric has them posing nicely. Now I won’t have to get eyestrain trying to find little birds hiding in the lush leaves of the trees.”

“I have missed this.” Cleric sighed with contentment. She peered around the yard while sipping her tea and nibbling delicately on a cookie. “Oh, look at that!” She gestured toward a black-and-white bird with a rosy bib near a speckle-fronted brown bird with a prominent white eyebrow. “A pair of . . .” She frowned and tried to remember the name of the bird.

Gypsy close-up“Rose-breasted Grosbeaks.” My Gypsy easily supplied the name as he helped himself to a slice of cake. The lad had come to know every bird native to this area, much as he had known all the birds of his native world. “We rarely see them here in the yard. They usually stop by only when migrating through in spring and fall, even though this area is part of their breeding ground.”

Cleric and camera 2

“That is right. I knew we had seen them here before, but I could not remember their name. Thank you.” Cleric picked up her camera and began coaxing the two birds closer.

 

Bounty Hunter head shot“Oh, my!” My Bounty Hunter was looking toward the back of the yard. “It seems it is a ducky day.” He pointed at the group of waterfowl on the back lawn near the reeds. “Those are Wood Ducks alongside the Mallards, are they not?”

“Yes.” My Gypsy and I answered simultaneously.

“The Wood Ducks are the smaller ducks. You can see how that one female Woody compares in size to the rabbit behind her.” My Gypsy pointed.

Wood Duck with rabbit

“I see.” My Bounty Hunter put down his glass of tea, picked up his camera, and started shooting. “Look! Both have babies . . . what are they called? Ducklings?”

“Yup, ducklings.” I nodded. “You’ll notice the line on a Mallard duckling’s head goes from the bill past the eye and then halfway to back of the head. The line on the Wood Ducklings starts at the eye and extends all the way to back of the head.”

“I will attempt to get images showing that, but it might be difficult at this distance.” The man smiled as he focused his camera on the two groups of ducklings.

“I see the Red-winged Blackbirds are still ubiquitous.” My Gypsy was capturing several images. “I see adult males, adult females, and at least one juvenile male.”

Young hero 2My Young Hero took a big gulp of his lemonade before putting down the glass. “I see a Baltimore Oriole and a Ruby-throated Hummingbird.” He took a long time trying to focus on the hummingbird at the nectar feeder. “I fear the hummingbird is too distant for a good image, but I think the oriole pictures will turn out to be acceptable.”

Sorceress close-up“Oh, look at that bird. I am not familiar with that one.” Sorceress was pointing her camera at a small bird in the grass.

“That looks like a White-crowned Sparrow.” My Gypsy looked at me for confirmation, and I nodded.

White-crowned Sparrow (2)

“It is most attractive!” Sorceress scanned the area near the sparrow for more birds as she munched a cookie. “What is that?” Zooming in on the creature, she exclaimed, “Oh! It is a toad!”Toad

“Good eye! They’re hard to spot!” Miles nodded at her approvingly as he reached for another slice of cake.

Elf cleric“Yuck! You can keep your toad.” Dragon, still in her familiar form of a maiden, was focusing her camera on some small yellow birds. “I prefer the American Goldfinches. They are beautiful this time of year, still in their breeding plumage.”

Foreman facing right closeup“I have always enjoyed the woodpeckers and similar birds.” My Foreman was taking pictures of some of the birds on the suet logs and in the nearby trees. “I have captured images of the Downy Woodpecker, the Red-bellied Woodpecker, the Pileated Woodpecker, and the White-breasted Nuthatch.”

Gypsy close-up facing right“I prefer the songbirds.” My Gypsy motioned toward some American Robins near the side of the yard, and he whistled their cheer-up, cheer-a-lee, cheer-ee-o call while he took their picture.

Backyard 050I nodded. “They’re sweet, especially the fledglings.” I took a sip of my iced tea and looked around for more birds. “Ah! A Gray Catbird and a Common Grackle. We’re seeing quite a variety of birds and critters today.”

Arrogant One“Indeed! And there are some of the more raucous varieties.” My Arrogant One aimed his camera at a Black-capped Chickadee on one of the feeders, and then at a fledgling Blue Jay on the fence.

Cleric closeup“The male House Finch is posing nicely for me.” Cleric took a couple of quick pictures. “And the male Northern Cardinal as well.”

Miles“I see some Mourning Doves and some Brown-headed Cowbirds.” Miles snapped a few more images.

We sat there together for the rest of the afternoon, nibbling our treats and enjoying our beverages while watching and photographing our backyard wildlife. As dusk fell, a family of raccoons came to visit, and Cleric insisted on providing the youngsters with some snacks while I photographed the little masked bandits.

“It has been a good day.” Dragon sat back and sipped her lemonade. “We need days like this to rejuvenate our spirits.”

We all murmured in agreement and settled back to enjoy the antics of our evening visitors.

Be sure to join us again next week to see what awaits my little band of displaced characters next. I’ll leave the porch light on for you.

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Taking Our Minds Off Our Worries With a Little Birding

Taking Our Minds Off Our Worries With a Little Birding

wide-eyedWhat?” I gaped at my characters, my brain unable to wrap itself around their revelation.

Blue dragonFinally, Dragon – still pale blue and dripping smoke bubbles from her snout – spoke. Her voice was so soft I had to strain to hear her. “We knew how unhappy your Foreman has been recently. We were just trying to help.” She hung her head, and a tear slipped down her reptilian cheek.

I rubbed my neck and continued to gape.

Gypsy close-up facing right“We really meant no harm.” My Gypsy gave me a guilty look. “As Dragon said, we were just trying to help.”

“And you created an illusory world for him?”Cleric twisting cord belt

“Yes, Mistress.” Cleric fidgeted with her cincture and gave me an apologetic look. “We never imagined he would get lost there.”

I raked my hand through my hair. “How, exactly, does one get lost in an illusion?”

The adepts all started talkingMy magic users pushed my other characters aside. The adepts all started talking at once, each trying to be heard over the other. I held up my hand to silence them. “One at a time! One at a time!” I glared at them until they quieted down. “Okay. Let’s start at the beginning. First, whose idea was this?”

Dwarf closeupMy Old Dwarf pushed to the front of the group again and gave me a sheepish look. “Wale, I be guessin’ thet would be me.” Seeing my frown, he hastened to point out, “Wale, ye dinna be doin’ nuttin ta be helpin’ yer Foreman, an’ anyone could be seein’ he be feelin’ lower ’en a blue-nosied, two-toesied Tunnel Terror!”

I blinked. “That’s the second time you told me that. What exactly is a blue-nose . . .?”

head bowed, shoulders slumpedThe old reprobate waved me off and blustered at me. “It do na be makin’ no nevermind wat it be. Yer Foreman be lower ’en it! He be walkin’ aboot tha hoose liken he be walkin’ in ’is sleep. ’Is head be hangin’, ’is shoulders be slumped, an’ he jus’ be starin’ oot inta nothin’-ness. Ye dinna be doin’ nuttin, so I been thinkin’ o a way ta be helpin’ ’em.” His eyes flashed with anger and his face was flushed.

Young hero 2My Young Hero stepped forward and placed his hand on my Old Dwarf’s shoulder. “Do not blame him, Mistress. We could all see how miserable your Foreman was. Your Gypsy and I had told you some time ago that your Foreman no longer even took pleasure in riding his illusory horse.” He paused, his brow furrowed. “As the dwarf said, someone had to do something.”

“I see.” I continued frowning and rubbed my jaw. “So, what did you all do?”

Dragon stepped forwardDragon stepped forward. She had stopped dribbling smoke bubbles and had returned to her normal coloring. Her voice was still a bit shaky, however. “The . . . the dwarf approached me with an idea. He . . . he remembered how much fun we all had on our illusory trip. He wanted to know if . . . if it were possible to do something along those lines for your Foreman, to . . . to create a scenario wherein your Foreman could have the same duties and responsibilities he held in our world.”

The big beast paused, wrinkling her brow. “It . . . it seemed like such an easy task. However, I petitioned the other practitioners of magic for their input.”

Sorceress close-upSorceress stepped forward primly and spoke in clipped tones. “We all agreed it would be no great feat to accomplish. Dragon created the illusion, and we assisted her. When it was completed, the lads fetched your Foreman and accompanied him into the illusory world.”

Young Hero close-up“It was spectacular!” My Young Hero sighed. “We were tempted to remain there with him. The stable reminded me of my father’s place. Hundreds of magnificent horses grazed in lush pastures surrounded by miles of lime-washed fencing.” As he stood there, remembering, I could see the longing in his eyes.

My Gypsy nodded. “It was most tempting to remain.”

I raised an eyebrow. “And how long did you stay?”

“The lads returned within the hour, Mistress. The rest of us had waited in the conference room for them.” Dragon sighed. “We expected your Foreman would return within a day, maybe two. We had told him it would be possible for him to revisit the illusory world whenever he wanted, so we expected him to take short forays.”

Arrogant One“To be fair, time in the illusory world can pass at a much different rate than time in the real world.” My Arrogant One nodded toward Dragon. “Even you, beast, were not aware of how much time had passed when we were on our illusory trip at the beginning of this year. You thought we had been gone only a few days, when we actually had been gone for more than five weeks.”

Dragon hung her head. “That is true.”

“So, it could be just a case of my Foreman losing track of time?” I sighed. “Whew. That’s a relief!”

“Well . . .” Cleric chewed her lower lip and fidgeted again with her cincture. “It might not be that simple.”

“Oh?” I crossed my arms and waited, but Cleric just blushed furiously.

Bounty Hunter head shotFinally, my Bounty Hunter spoke. “When your Foreman did not return after a time, we entered the illusory world and searched for him. Not only was he nowhere to be found, no one to whom we spoke there had ever seen or heard of him.”

I gaped at my characters again. “So that brings us back to my previous question. How, exactly, does one get lost in an illusion?”

Dragon gulped. “We . . . we are not sure, Mistress. But I am working on determining what has happened, and on finding your Foreman.”

MilesMy husband cleared his throat. “Ah, just a thought . . . why don’t you just dispel the illusion? Wouldn’t the Foreman return to reality, and pop back into the conference room?”

dragon looking rightDragon shook her head. “Normally, I would say yes. But the fact that we could not find the Foreman in the illusory world, the fact that no one within the illusory world has seen him, nor heard of him . . . well, that changes things. It could be dangerous to just dispel the illusion. We could lose him for all time.”

I frowned. “I don’t understand any of this.”

“Neither do we, Mistress.” Dragon sighed. “That is why I am going to sequester myself in the conference room with all my tomes and grimoires and reference materials. I will determine the cause of this aberration, and I will bring your Foreman home.”

“And we will all help.” My Gypsy pounded his fist into the palm of his other hand and nodded.

Dragon shook her head. “No. I appreciate your offer, but I need solitude in order to access my research materials. I will let you know if I need your help.”

Dwarf closeupDragon studying scrollLong, anxious hours passed. My Old Dwarf stood guard in front of the conference room door as Dragon worked within, trying to find the solution to this problem and bring my Foreman back.

 

Foreman facing right closeup

 

The rest of us were congregating in the living room, moping, when Cleric suddenly announced, “We can do nothing to help Dragon or the Foreman, and it is beautiful weather outside today. Let us sit out on the gazebo and engage in some nature photography. We have not done that in such a long time, and it will help take our minds off our worries.”

You're my witnessRefreshments“That sounds like a great idea. I’m not that good with a camera, so I’ll bring out some refreshments for you. Then I can come in and prepare tonight’s dinner.” Miles smiled.

It took a while to convince the rest of us, but eventually we were seated on the gazebo with our cameras and refreshments.

American GoldfinchMy Gypsy was the first to spot a bird. “Look!” He started whistling, and a beautiful male American Goldfinch in bright breeding plumage hopped through the branches of a nearby tree until he was close enough to photograph.

Cleric scanned the tree near the goldfinch. “There is an American Robin!” Cleric pointed to a bird with its back to us. She talked to it for a few minutes, charming it into turning around for us.

Black-capped Chickadee

My Young Hero was the next to spot a bird. “There is a Black-capped Chickadee on the thistle feeder.”

Sorceress pointed to a bird on a nearby tree trunk. “Is that another chickadee?”

White-breasted NuthatchMy Gypsy looked, then shook his head. “That is a White-breasted Nuthatch. See how he walks down the trunk of the tree, head-first?”

Sorceress frowned. “I always get that one wrong. Oh, well, at least there is no mistaking those.” She pointed to some ducks at the back end of the yard, near the pond. “Those are Mallards.”

My Gypsy laughed. “They seem to be enjoying the seed you scattered out there earlier, Mistress.”

After watching the ducks for a few minutes, I spotted more birds. “There! On the suet logs! A pair of Downy Woodpeckers.”

“How do you know they are a pair, and not two males or two females?” My Arrogant One strained to see the two small birds.

“The male has the red mark on the back of his head.” My Gypsy was quick to show off his knowledge.

Red-bellied WoodpeckerAs the Downies flew off, another bird took its place at the suet. My Arrogant One studied it carefully. “That is a Red-bellied Woodpecker, correct?”

I nodded. “A female. The male would have a red crown as well as the red nape.”

Hairy WoodpeckerSorceress pointed to a bird in the nearby tree. “That appears to be a woodpecker, also. It looks like the Downy Woodpecker, but it is almost as large as the Red-bellied Woodpecker.”

“That is a Hairy Woodpecker.” My Gypsy showed off his expertise once again.

Pileated Woodpecker (4)“And there is the largest woodpecker you will see here.” I pointed to a bird on a tree stump at the back of the neighboring yard. “That is a female Pileated Woodpecker.” I took a quick photo of her before looking for her mate. “And there is the male.” We watched as he flew from a tree to the suet logs. “They both have red crests, but he has a red stripe on his cheek while she has a black stripe.”

It was only a few minutes before we had another flurry of activity in the yard.

“Red-winged Blackbirds! They are in the trees, and on the feeder poles.” Sorceress turned to my Gypsy. “I remember you told me the female is a rather drab brown bird so she can remain unseen by predators while sitting on her nest and protecting her eggs or nestlings.”

Red-winged Blackbird displayingMy Gypsy nodded. “And the adult males in breeding plumage have the bright shoulder epaulettes that they display to the females during courting, and to other males during disputes over mates, territories, and food.”

My Arrogant One pointed at some birds in a tree. “I believe you have previously identified those birds for me as Common Grackles. I remember how attractive I found their iridescent feathers, not at all common looking.”

A few minutes later, my Gypsy started whistling, and was promptly answered by two Song Sparrows, one in a tree and one on the ground.

Yellow-rumped WarblerMy Young Hero smiled. “I always wished I could whistle like the birds. Could you imitate the call of that Yellow-rumped Warbler?” He pointed to a bird sitting in a neighbor’s tree.

Mourning DoveMy Gypsy obliged, then started imitating the gentle cooing of a Mourning Dove, who answered from its perch on a feeder pole in the middle of the yard.

Northern Cardinal - male (2)My Young Hero smiled again. “It is truly amazing how you can mimic the birds.” He cocked his head for a moment. “Do you hear that? It sounds like a Northern Cardinal.” He scanned the treetops. “There he is! Can you mimic him?”

My Gypsy grinned. “I would, but I would not wish to interrupt him while he is serenading his mate.” He pointed to the female who was on the ground, eating a grape.Northern Cardinal - female

As we prepared to go inside for dinner, I turned to my Bounty Hunter. “I think you are the only one who did not spot any birds today.”

My Bounty Hunter chuckled. “I left the birding to the rest of you. I thought I would get a couple of pictures of the Eastern Cottontail rabbit to show your Old Dwarf. I know how fond he is of the little varmints, as he calls them.”

Miles had prepared a wonderful meal for us, but most of us just picked at our food. Everyone kept glancing at the empty chairs around the table.

“Don’t worry.” Miles reached over and gave my hand a squeeze. “Dragon will find a way to bring your Foreman back.”

Foreman closeup

Will Dragon be able to find my Foreman and return him to reality? Or will he be lost to us forever, somewhere in the illusory world? Be sure to come back next week and see what happens. I’ll leave the porch light on for you.

The Year in Review

The Year in Review

Dragon looks up from fireplace“The year in review?” Dragon opened one sleepy eye. She raised her head and gave me a curious look. “What is that?”

I wrinkled my brow. I thought it quite self-evident, but I shrugged and offered Dragon an explanation anyway. “It’s just a brief summary of the events of the past year.”

“Oh.” She went back to basking next to her illusory fireplace, curling up tightly, dropping her reptilian head onto her arms, and tucking her tail around her nose.

Arrogant OneMy Arrogant One shuddered. “Who in their right mind would want to dwell on the events of this year past?”

I shrugged. “Many people would. It’s fun to recall some of the good times we had.”

wish listeners“Not everyone had good times. This year did not start out well for some of us.” The elf’s usual smug, superior look was replaced by a pensive expression. “Do you not remember? At the end of the previous year, I had developed a problem controlling my power. At the start of this year, Dragon and I returned to the land of the Wish Listeners to search for the cause and – mayhap – a remedy for my affliction.”

My Arrogant One grasped his cloak and pulled it tight around himself. His voice was so soft I had to strain to hear him. “Dragon almost died there. And I almost abandoned her to her fate, shaming myself and dishonoring the elven race.” His face was pale, and he drew his cloak even tighter around his shivering body.

the knights paced

Tendrils of black smoke 2

Dragon raised her head again, studying the elf through heavy-lidded eyes. “Yes, I remember that. The elf is right. It was not a good start to the year.” A small plume of black smoke drifted from her nostrils, underscoring her words.

Unicorn and dwarf 2My Old Dwarf walked over to Dragon and caressed her scaly face. “But thet you-nee-corn been tookin’ me ta tha udder world ta be savin’ ye, beastie. An’ tha elfie been doin’ right by ye in tha end, when it really been countin’ fer summat.”

Dragon considered this for a moment before nodding and resuming her basking.

bounty-hunterMy Bounty Hunter cleared his throat and nodded. “It was a long and frightening eight weeks. Those of us who remained here had no way of knowing where you were, what was happening, or if we would ever see you again.”

“There were a number of other frights and scares this past year.” My Young Hero blushed as he remembered. “I was beset by nightmares for a long spell.” He smiled warmly at me. “You helped me understand that even heroes can have nightmares.”

“Your fears were nothing compared to the terror I faced after meeting our young neighbor, Marisol. She quickly demonstrated not only the capability to see through my spell of concealment, but the capacity to see my true nature.” Dragon sat up again, dark smoke drifting from her nose.

Stu-04-NatGalSorceress entered the room as Dragon was speaking. She placed a tray of eggnog and Christmas cookies on the table, then turned to Dragon and nodded. “That was a frightening predicament for all of us. The child’s inexplicable ability may have revealed our existence to the inhabitants of this world beyond Mistress Writer and Master Miles.”

MilesTaking Marisol by the hand“Marisol and her mother, Bastina, were not the only new acquaintances this past year.” Miles helped himself to a glass of eggnog and a few cookies as he turned to me. “You and Dragon met that repairman who came out to fix the heat element in our rain gutters when we had a problem with the formation of ice dams. You remember him and his alleged griffin, don’t you?”Crawford and Griffin

“I assure you, Master Miles, there was nothing alleged about the griffon.” Dragon got a sappy look on her face, and her cheeks glowed bright red. “It was nice to meet someone who understood my nature and my presence here, and with whom I could communicate in the old ways of my race.”

Dray and Griff

Miles gave me a questioning look.

“The griffin apparently arrived here much the same way Dragon and my other characters did – falling out of someone’s manuscript. And, according to Dragon, Griff has the ability to communicate telepathically, the same way the Great Wyrms of Dragon’s world communicate.”Dragon and Griffin

“Oh.” Miles furrowed his brow and nibbled another cookie as he digested this information.

CrawfordGriff2I nodded. “Yes, I had almost forgotten about meeting Crawford. He and his friend, Griff, proved themselves to be allies and valuable resources. After the meeting of the writers’ group Lost in the Words, Crawford directed us to Christine and Talia, the owners of the Chris-Tal Clear Metaphysical Store. He said they might be able to help us determine just what Marisol is and whence she gets her power.”

Dragon chuckled. “But getting Talia to help was most difficult. Christine had to exert a great deal of persuasion on her partner. Still, the spells the two ladies provided remedied the problem, and we remain undiscovered by most in this world. And Talia did say when Marisol is older, Talia can teach her, train her to use her power rather than be used by it.”

Foreman facing right closeup“We made another new friend this year as well.” My Foreman raised an eyebrow as he settled into the recliner with a glass of eggnog in his hand. “And a new enemy, mayhap?”Gypsy

“By friend, of course, you mean either Didi or Arthur.” My Gypsy waggled his eyebrows and smirked. “But whoever could be the enemy of whom you speak?”

My Foreman guffawed. “Arthur is no friend.” He turned to me. “Mistress, did not Crawford predict you had made a powerful enemy in Arthur?”

I sighed. “He did. I thought after Cleric had put Crawford’s mind at ease over the circumstances surrounding the death of his nephew, the danger he represented was over. But then Crawford apparently interfered with my Arrogant One’s magic, causing one of the elf’s spells to go awry.”

“Didi turned out to be a friend, though.” My Gypsy smiled broadly. “She wrote an excellent article on Colton and his new pony, Blue.”

“Blue!” Cleric exclaimed. “The therapy pony is another new friend we have made this year!” Her smile faded as quickly as it had appeared. “Of course, we lost a good friend when Colton’s first therapy pony, Peaches – who we knew as Mystery – passed away.”

We all nodded somberly.

Young hero 2“But not everything that happened this past year was bad or sad or frightening,” my Young Hero reminded us. “Because of your strong bond with Mystery, and your ability to communicate with animals, Cleric, we attended the auction and found Blue for Colton.”

Colton and Peaches 2John, Casey, and Old Blue 2My Gypsy agreed. “We helped them both deal with their depression over losing their closest friend – Colton had lost his pony, Peaches, and Blue had lost his owner, Casey. Later, after Colton and Blue were working well together, we got to enjoy a wonderful trail ride with them and Colton’s mom. Colton and I had another outstanding competition identifying birds. That blind boy can identify birds by sound better than most sighted people can identify them by visual observation! And then we had a delicious barbecue after the ride.”

“Ye dinna been toldin’ me there be a barbecue at thet trail ride.” My Old Dwarf frowned. “Iffins I been knowin’ thet, I been learnin’ how ta be ridin’, too!”

We all laughed.

camera for blog“The trail ride was not the only fun any of us had this past year.” My Bounty Hunter rejoined the conversation. “Do you not all remember the debate over magic versus technology? We all went on a nature hike and were afforded the opportunity to use Mistress Writer’s magic box that she calls a camera. The wildlife pictures taken by the magic users were no better than those taken by those of us unskilled in the arcane arts.”

ruby-ring2My Old Dwarf scoffed. “Aye, lad, but I already been ‘splainin thet ta all o’ ye. It do na be becausin’ anythin’ thet tha lass be callin’ tech-nol-o-gee. Tha magic box really be magic, but tha magic be in tha object, liken me old ring o takin’ me places.”

I leaned closer to Miles and explained, “He means his ring of transportation.”

“Aye, lass, me ring o trans-port-tatin’. Tha magic be in tha ring, so’s even non-magic folk kin be usin’ it, same as tha magic box ye all be callin’ a cam-er-ah, what holds tha magic inside it.” My Old Dwarf shook his head at our lack of understanding.

I laughed. “I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree on the technology issue.”

“That was not the only time we got to use the magic box . . . er, camera.” Cleric grinned.

“That’s right. We saw many different birds and animals when Mistress Writer took us on another nature hike at the beginning of summer, as well.” My Bounty Hunter smiled as he remembered. “Dragon had created illusory cameras for us, so we did not have to share. We all took a large number of photographs that day.”

“I remember.” I nodded and turned toward my Arrogant One. “And there was another time when you took some outstanding nature images, too.”

The elf flushed with pride and sat up a little taller.

“And when you and Master Miles were sick with pneumonia this past spring, Mistress Writer, I took a lot of pictures of the birds in your yard and on our deck to share with you after you recovered.” Cleric smiled at the memory.

“We should have taken pictures the previous month, when the weather was so bad, and all those robins were on the deck.” Dragon shivered as she remembered.

Cleric chuckled. “You were so fascinated by the robins, you shrank to the size of a housecat and climbed up on the back of the sofa to watch them.”

“The robins may have been the most numerous that day – I think there were almost a hundred on the deck – but they were not the only birds we saw,” my Gypsy recalled. “I think we identified 11 different species in the snow and ice, including two different hawks.”

“See?” My Young Hero grinned. “I told you not everything about this past year was bad or sad or frightening. We shared a lot of fun and good times as well.”

My Bounty Hunter nodded. “It makes me most anxious to see what the coming year will bring.”

We hope, dear readers, you have enjoyed following the adventures and misadventures of my little band of displaced characters this past year, and for all the years they have been creating chaos in this world. And we hope you will continue to join us in the coming year as we face whatever comes our way – good, bad, sad, or frightening. It will always be nicer for us if you come along and keep us company. We’ll leave the porch light on for you.

Happy New Year

Will Arthur be a Problem?

Will Arthur be a Problem?

Arthur extracting himself from bushesI don’t know how he managed it, but Arthur succeeded in extracting himself from the shrubbery with no sign of embarrassment. He did not blush, he did not lower his eyes, he did not sweat or slump or shuffle his feet. In fact, he looked rather arrogant. His brown eyes narrowed behind his dark-framed glasses, and his mustache and goatee didn’t quite hide the smug smile that pulled at his mouth. He brushed off his threadbare suit with an air of impatience and looked down his nose at the assembled group gawking at him. Not exactly the actions I would expect from a grown man found lurking in the foliage.

“I asked what you’re doing hiding in a clump of bushes, Arthur.” I glared at the man.

“So you did.” His tone was dismissive, and he continued brushing off his jacket and slacks.

“Well?” I crossed my arms over my chest and raised one eyebrow.

Arthur ignored me.

annaArt - leader - multi-genre (2)“Who is this man?” Anna stepped toward us.

“This is Arthur, a journalist and author who runs the writer’s group Lost in the Words.” https://margecutter.wordpress.com/2019/09/01/still-searching-for-answers/

Anna placed her hands on her hips and gave Arthur the once-over. “So, what is he doing on my property, uninvited, and why is he lurking in the bushes, scaring my son’s pony?” Her voice was harsh, and her face hard.

“I don’t know, Anna.” We both continued to glare at the intruder. “Care to explain, Arthur?”

The man shrugged. “I am exercising due diligence.”

Rocky confronting ArthurMy characters, who had been edging closer and forming a semi-circle around Arthur, Anna, and me, snorted at the man’s explanation. Rocky moved forward, standing toe-to-toe with Arthur. “And just what is that supposed to mean? You almost caused Anna’s son, Colton, a serious injury by spooking his pony.”

“Yes.” Arthur snickered. “The pony is rather flighty for a therapy animal, one supposedly well-trained to work with the blind.”

“You seem to know an awful lot about my son’s pony.” Anna pushed past Rocky to confront Arthur. She was visibly struggling to keep her temper under control.

“Yes, I do. And now I know everything I need to know.” Arthur started to turn away, but my characters blocked his path.

I cleared my throat. “From the beginning, Arthur?” I worded it as a request, but I was sure my expression left no doubt it was a command.

Art - leader - multi-genre (1)Colton and BlueArthur sighed. “Very well. I was alerted to the possibility of a wonderful human-interest story. A boy, blind from birth, had a therapy pony who was so well trained to work with the blind, the boy was able to ride him on the trails all by himself with no chance of danger.”

newspaperArthur paused and studied his fingernails for several moments before continuing, a sour look on his face. “I have been tipped off before to possible story ideas. When I was younger and less experienced, I would go right to the subject and tell them I wanted to do a story. Half-way through an interview, I would realize there was no story. But people get angry after you’ve told them you are going to write a feature article about them in their local paper, but then you have to tell them they are not worth a story.”

He paused, looking down his nose at us. “So, I started to research more carefully, to verify the facts I was given before approaching potential subjects. Most times, I found the tips I had been given were baseless.”

Arthur pointed at Colton and Blue. “Case in point. I was told your son and his pony would make for wonderful copy. So, I decided to observe them, to see if the pony was as great as I had been told. And, of course, it’s not.”

“He is too!” Colton’s face was red, and his hands were balled into fists. “And there’s already a journalist who’s going to write a story about Blue and me.”

“Oh?” Suddenly, Arthur didn’t look so smug.

“Yes.” Anna nodded. “Someone contacted me yesterday. She said she was a friend of yours, Marge, so I figured you had told her about Colton and Blue.”

I shook my head. “I never mentioned them to anyone. What’s this journalist’s name?”

Anna’s brow furrowed, and she rubbed her chin. “Didi something-or-other. I can’t remember her last name.”

What?” Arthur guffawed, sounding like a braying donkey. “Didi? That hack? She can’t put two words together and have them make sense.”

Anna frowned and started rubbing her forehead. “Marge?”

Didi 2Backyard 050I reluctantly started to agree with Arthur, but then I saw Colton’s face crumple. I sighed. “I do know a writer named Didi. She’s a member of Lost in the Words. I never told her about Colton and Blue, but if you’ve agreed to let her write a story about them, I’ll help her.”

“That pathetic little sneak probably saw my notes and decided to scoop me.” Arthur was so angry he was almost spitting as he whirled to confront me. “And if she gave you as a reference, you were probably in on it with her! Two hacks trying to steal my story! Well, I get the last laugh! There is no story here!”

I shook my head. “I didn’t try to steal anyone’s story, Arthur, but I have news for you. The laugh’s on you. There’s a whale of a story here, and I’ll make sure Didi gets it all – every single column inch of it.”

I continued smirking until Arthur narrowed his eyes and took a step toward me. He lowered his voice to a near-feral growl. “You’ll regret this!”

I blanched and my blood ran cold as I remembered Crawford’s warning. “You know, you’ve made a powerful enemy in Arthur.” https://margecutter.wordpress.com/2019/09/08/still-looking-for-answers/

I gulped as I watched the writer turn on his heel, push past my characters, and storm off toward the road.

Blue calmed downOnce Arthur was gone, Blue settled down. Anna still wanted to cancel the ride, but Colton begged so hard, she capitulated. “But you must promise to keep Blue in the middle of the group, where other riders can help you if you get into trouble.”

“I promise, mom, but I just know Blue and I will be fine.”

Tor and Centaur

Various terrains for the ridewildlife on the trailMy Foreman, Tor, led off on his ebony stallion, Centaur, setting an easy pace. The trail wound through a variety of terrains. We rode through woods and past farm fields, through an outcropping of rocks, along the banks of a large lake, and across a shallow stream. Blue was nothing short of amazing, deftly taking his young, blind rider around all obstacles and never once shying at any of the birds and wildlife that popped up along the trail. Soon, Colton and Rocky were competing again to see who could identify the most birds.

“That’s four for me, and only three for you.” Colton laughed.

“Four? What four? You got two.” Rocky was laughing, too.

“Oh, no! I got four.” Colton was adamant. “I heard the cheer-cheer-cheer-purty-purty-purty of a Northern Cardinal back by Mr. Mulligan’s fence.”

Northern Cardinal - male (2)

“Okay, I will give you that one. It was a beautiful male. But I got a female Northern Cardinal along the outcropping of rocks further along the trail. So that’s one apiece.” Rocky sounded smug.

Northern Cardinal - female

Colton nodded. “Then in that same spot where you saw the female cardinal, I heard the feee-beee and the chick-a-dee-dee-dee-dee-dee of some Black-capped Chickadees. And I heard the Ol’-Sam-Peabody-Peabody-Peabody of a White-throated Sparrow there, too.”

“Okay, but that is still only three.” Rocky grinned.

Colton held up four fingers. “I also heard the eh-eh-eh of some White-breasted nuthatches there, making four for me. There were a lot of birds on that area. You said it looked like someone had thrown some bird seed and cracked corn on the rocks there.”

“Yes, I saw Dark-eyed Juncos and a Fox Sparrow eating there.”

Colton grinned. “Yup. Three for you, four for me.”

“I think you are cheating.” Rocky laughed. “I think Blue is telling you where the birds are hiding.”

Colton scoffed. “You’ve forgotten to listen. You’re only using your eyes, and a lot of times the birds are hidden.” Suddenly, a huge smile split his face as he pointed toward the lake we were riding past. “Do you hear that bird? Sort of like ohhh-OHH, ohhh-OHH? That sounds like a Trumpeter Swan. That’s five for me!”

Trumpeter Swans

Rocky looked over toward the sound. “Yes, there is a pair of swans there. But I also see some Wood Ducks and Pied-billed Grebes. So, we’re tied again, five apiece.”

“But I hear the honking of Canada Geese and the quacking of Mallards. Seven to five!” Colton laughed again.

Looking around as the trail veered away from the water, Rocky cried out in triumph. “A pair of American Goldfinches and an Eastern Meadowlark! We are tied again!”

Colton shook his head. “Sorry, but I hear the cheer-up, cheer-a-lee, cheer-ee-o of an American Robin in the tree. I’m ahead by one.”

American Robin

“There are some White-crowned Sparrows in the underbrush and on the ground. Tied again.” Rocky laughed.

“I hear something chattering.” Colton listened intently. “But I guess I can’t count a Red Squirrel, can I?”

Red Squirrel

“Nope. The contest remains a tie.” Rocky sounded smug.

By the time we had returned to Anna’s farm at the end of the ride, the score was still tied, and between them, the two boys had racked up an impressive total of 30 species.

barbecueIt took a while to unsaddle all the horses, water them, groom them, and turn them out to graze in the paddock, then wipe down our saddles and put all our saddle blankets on racks to dry from the horses’ sweat. My characters and I took care of Anna’s mount, Rosie, so Anna could start the barbecue. By the time we were done, the tantalizing smell of grilling dinner was causing our stomachs to rumble and our mouths to water.

picnic tableClara sat next to me at the picnic table. She smiled as we talked about the ride. “Blue is a superb successor to Peaches, or Mystery, as we knew her. Colton was listening for birds and talking to Rocky while depending on Blue to carry him safely along the trail, just like Mystery used to.”

I nodded and raised an eyebrow. “Well, Mystery did tell you where to find a new pony for Colton.”

Clara, my cleric, smiled at the memory. https://margecutter.wordpress.com/2019/05/05/a-new-mystery/

Blue calmed downSoon Anna joined us. “What do you two think?” She nodded toward her son. “Didn’t Colton and Blue do great on the ride today?”

Clara and I nodded.

I grinned at Anna as she refilled our glasses with sweet tea. “I don’t think you could have found a better pony for Colton if you had cloned Peaches.”

“You will make sure this girl, Didi, does a good job on the article, won’t you?” Anna furrowed her brow. “If any of Colton’s classmates read it, I want Colton to be proud of the article.”

“Do you have Didi’s phone number?”

business card“I’ll give you her business card before you leave.”

“Then I’ll call her tomorrow and let her know I’ll help her with this.” I gave Anna a reassuring smile, and she returned it warmly.

The barbecue was a big hit. We were all enjoying ourselves so much, no one was in a hurry to go home. By the time my characters and I saddled up again and headed for home, we were all very full, very tired, but very happy.

Elf cleric close-up

Appaloosa for me 2“I saw Anna give you one of Didi’s business cards.” Dray was riding alongside me. “Are you really going to help her with the article?”

“You don’t think I should?” I frowned.

“I think there is more to Arthur than meets the eye, and I do not think he will like you helping Didi.”

“You may be right, but I’ve already promised Anna and Colton. So, I’ll deal with Arthur if the need arises.”

We will deal with Arthur . . . when the need arises.” Dray smiled a wicked smile.

What does Dragon, aka Dray, sense about Arthur? Will the need really arise to deal with him? Will I need Dragon’s help? Be sure to come back next week and see what happens. We’ll leave the porch light on for you.

I See a Big Problem Here!

I See a Big Problem Here!

Cell phoneBackyard 050

I put down my cell phone and turned to face my characters.

Cleric twisting cord belt“Well? Did you reach them? Did you invite them over? Are they coming?” Cleric’s cornflower blue eyes were clouded with concern, and she twisted the cord belt of her robe. She had been the one who suggested inviting our least favorite neighbors, Mace and Gloria, to join us for some backyard birdwatching.

Mace and Gloria birdingI nodded. “Yes, they will be here in about an hour, binoculars and field guides in hand. They are very anxious to show off how much they’ve learned since the last time they attempted any backyard birdwatching here.” https://margecutter.wordpress.com/2017/06/11/fun-and-mayhem-with-the-neighbors/

Dragon’s brow furrowed. “Should I strengthen the wards and the spell of concealment?”

I shook my head. “No, that would defeat the purpose of the experiment. We invited them here to determine if your spell of concealment has been breached. We want everything to be the same when they get here as it was earlier today, when Marisol and Bastina were here and saw what they should not have seen.” https://margecutter.wordpress.com/2019/07/07/hello-neighbor/
https://margecutter.wordpress.com/2019/07/14/just-who-are-these-neighbors-and-what-do-they-see/
https://margecutter.wordpress.com/2019/07/21/what-is-the-problem/

I furrowed my brow, trying to foresee any problems. “I know that Mace and Gloria – in fact, the entire neighborhood – has seen all of you. You all attended the neighborhood get-together with Miles and me last August.”

All my characters nodded, and my Arrogant One snickered. “Ah, yes, the get-together. I seem to remember a stage production of some note.” He snickered again, shooting an amused look at Dragon, who glared at him through narrowed eyes.

“Yes, we remember the entire incident . . . er, day.” A puff of black smoke escaped from her snout.
https://margecutter.wordpress.com/2018/07/29/a-ducky-day-for-collecting-flora-and-overhearing-a-murder-plot/
https://margecutter.wordpress.com/2018/08/05/to-die-for-stroganoff/
https://margecutter.wordpress.com/2018/08/12/solutions-or-more-problems/
https://margecutter.wordpress.com/2018/08/19/the-case-of-the-poison-mushrooms/

I gave Dragon and the elf a quizzical look but decided not to pursue the subject. “As I was saying, even though our neighbors have seen all of you, I think it best if only Dragon and Cleric are here with me when Mace and Gloria arrive.”

“Why is that, Mistress?” Cleric tilted her head and fidgeted with her robes.

“Because I believe you were the only two Mace and Gloria saw with me the day they came to visit, and we ended up birdwatching. I think it would be a good test of Dragon’s concealment spell if everyone else went about the same activities as the last time. Oh, and don’t forget – don’t call me Mistress in front of them!”

Cleric nodded.

My Gypsy turned toward my Foreman and my Young Hero. “I believe the three of us were working our mounts.” They headed off toward the barn.

My Arrogant One gestured toward my Bounty Hunter. “My associate and I shall repair to our refuge in the shed, where we were last time.” He turned with a flourish and swept his cloak around him as he and his companion headed toward the garden shed.

sorceress-facing-right

Sorceress stroked her chin and narrowed her eyes in thought. “Ah, yes! I remember! I was in the house.” She turned and took her leave.

“An’ I been chasin’ thet durn bunny rabbit.” My Old Dwarf glowered at the rabbit, who had returned to raiding the carrot patch.Dwarf chasing rabbit

Elf facing rightElf cleric“I will go get some iced tea and cake for our guests.” Cleric hurried toward the house as Dragon shape-shifted back to her customary guise of an elf maiden.

Cleric returned with the refreshments just as Mace and Gloria rounded the corner of our house and waved in greeting.

neighbor-2neighbor“We’re so glad you called!” Gloria was practically bouncing with excitement. “I’ve been saying to Mace now that we’re more experienced, we should get together with you again for some more birding. See, I even have the right word now. Real bird watchers call themselves birders.” She smiled smugly as she flaunted her newfound vocabulary.

Gloria plopped into a chair between Dragon and Cleric, directing Mace into the chair next to me. She continued to dominate the conversation as Cleric served refreshments, chattering on and on about the various birds she and Mace had seen recently in their yard and at various local parks. I slowly relaxed as our guests did not seem to notice anything out of the ordinary when they picked up their binoculars and began scanning our yard for birds. The horses walking past the feeders were apparently invisible to them.Horses and birdfeeders

“We have everything set up to attract the birds. In addition to the regular feeders, we’ve put some peanuts, dehydrated mealworms, and grapes on an old table at the end of the gazebo boardwalk, and we’ve scattered some millet spray on the boardwalk, to entice the birds to come closer.” I pointed to the areas as I spoke.birdwatching with Mace and Gloria

“That’s a good idea.” Mace nodded sagely. “I know some birders frown on that. They prefer to see and photograph birds in their natural habitat, rather than at feeders. Some say attracting birds to feeders is a lazy way to bird, almost akin to cheating. But Gloria and I disagree. We do it a lot when we’re photographing the birds in our yard. We found, in addition to attracting them closer – an important consideration if you don’t have a powerful zoom lens – it helps keep them in one place longer. Normally, they’re flitting around so much, we can’t get a clear, focused image.”

camera for blogI nodded as I picked up my camera. “I agree. I take lots of photos of birds in their natural habitat, in trees and bushes and foraging in the grass, but I also enjoy seeing them at the feeders. I find I can get a much better look at them that way.”

“Oh, first bird of the day! First bird of the day!” Gloria bounced up and down and crowed as if she had just won some fantastic competition. “There are Ruby-throated Hummingbirds at the nectar feeders!”

“Wow!” Mace pointed at another of the nectar feeders. “The bees are sure making it difficult for the birds!”Bees on nectar feeder

I nodded. Before I could reply, Gloria squealed. “Look at those two Black-capped Chickadees. The one on the left looks a lot like the one we saw here before, the one with the feather disorder. Remember that one?”

Black-capped Chickadee

I turned my camera toward the birds in question and clicked a few photos. Checking the images, I nodded. “Yes, the one in the tree above the feeders looks like the one we saw previously. Its feathers aren’t as bad as the one we saw before, but you can see the difference between the ruffled feathers of the one chickadee and the smooth plumage of the chickadee posing on the dead branch to the right.”

Mace and Gloria examined the images I had taken and nodded.

Cleric pointed toward the table. “It seems some Blue Jays have decided to visit the feeding station. There are some on the table, and two waiting on the railing.”

“And the chipmunks are sneaking up onto the boardwalk and grabbing their share of the spray millet before the birds get it.” Dragon smiled and pointed.

“They’re so cute, but they’re such brazen little thieves!” Gloria laughed, as we all watched the action at the far end of the walkway.

“There’re some waterfowl at the back of the yard, by the pond.” Mace studied them with his binoculars. “The two larger ducks look like female Mallards. The four smaller ones are Wood Ducks, a male and three females.”

“And there’s a Canada Goose, too.” Gloria smiled broadly, showing off her knowledge. “Mace and I had been calling them Canadian Geese, but a naturalist at the park corrected us.”

“Marge, what are those brown birds with the streaked fronts and sort of scalloped markings on their backs?” Mace pointed to some birds foraging in the grass. “We’ve seen a few in our yard but can’t find them in our field guide.”

I smiled. “They’re juvenile Brown-headed Cowbirds. They’re barely more than fledglings. Their various adoptive parents stopped feeding him about two weeks ago.”

“Adoptive parents?” Gloria tilted her head and gave me a quizzical look.

I nodded. “Brown-headed Cowbirds are brood parasites. A female cowbird doesn’t make a nest or raise her own babies. She lays her eggs in the nests of other bird species, who then raise the young cowbirds. Each of these juveniles was raised by a different set of parents.”

“Why do they do that?” Dragon looked intrigued.

“Originally, they followed the herds of bison that roamed the country, feeding on the insects the herds stirred up from the grasslands. If they took the time to make a nest and raise their own babies, they’d starve, as the herds of bison wouldn’t be waiting around for them.”

Gloria’s eyes widened. “Wow! No wonder we couldn’t figure out what those birds were – there were no adult Brown-headed Cowbirds around them!”

Mace scanned the yard again. “There’s an adult American Robin splashing around in your birdbath, and another one on the fence, waiting its turn. And I see a fledgling robin on the fence, too. I remember you said the youngsters had speckled fronts.”

“And there’s an adult robin eating on the table, now that the Blue Jays have moved.” Gloria pointed.American Robin adult on table

“Our hanging feeders are very busy now, too.” Cleric pointed at the various feeders as she identified the birds. “A pair of Northern Cardinals is in the safflower feeder. There is a female American Goldfinch enjoying the sunflower chips in one of the cage feeders, and a male is in the feeder next to it.”

“Another male goldfinch is in the tree above the feeders, waiting his turn.” Dragon pointed.American Goldfinch male in tree

“He may have to wait a while.” I pointed back to the feeders. “A White-breasted nuthatch just chased the male goldfinch from the cage feeder. There’s another nuthatch on one of the suet feeders, while a third one’s on the tree trunk waiting his turn.”

“Now, a Chipping Sparrow is eating the sunflower chips.” Gloria pointed. “And one male House Finch is in the other cage feeder, and a second male House Finch is in the safflower feeder. The female House Finch is on the feeder pole, waiting.”

“The Gray Catbirds are watching us from the feeder poles.” Mace gestured toward the north side of the gazebo. “And there’re Downy Woodpeckers, Red-bellied Woodpeckers, and Red-winged Blackbirds on the suet feeders in the back of the yard, and in the trees surrounding those feeders. You really have a busy yard today!” He looked impressed.

“Looks like you still have a rabbit problem.” Gloria smirked.Dwarf chasing rabbit

I followed her gaze and froze mid-smile. My Old Dwarf was running right toward us, cussing a blue-streak and brandishing his axe at a swiftly fleeing rabbit. He stopped next to the gazebo. “Do na be worryin’, lass. I be gittin’ tha little varmint!”

“Oh, look!” Gloria pointed right at my Old Dwarf and laughed again. “It looks just like that big rabbit is talking to us!”

Eastern Cottontail talking

I heaved a huge sigh of relief and relaxed once more. It was obvious Dragon’s spell of concealment was working well. I started to point at another bird when we were all startled by a new voice behind us.

“Excuse me, please. I hope you don’t mind, but I came back to see if I could pet the horses today.”

Marisol stood next to the gazebo, pointing at the three illusory horses my Foreman and the lads had just released into their simulated pasture. “Is that why you’re here, too? For the horses?” The small child addressed Gloria and Mace.Marisol points out the horses

I swallowed hard, then almost went into a dead faint as I saw my neighbors gaping at the spot where Marisol had pointed.

“I knew you had horses here!” Mace jumped up and whirled around to face me. “I knew it wasn’t my imagination that first time I came here. https://margecutter.wordpress.com/2017/02/26/meeting-the-neighbors/

Very blue dragonDragon blanched, shapeshifting into a very blue version of her true self, smoke bubbles dripping from her snout at an alarming rate. “But . . . but how can you see them? You did not see them before!”

Cleric turned toward Marisol, studying the little girl. “No, they did not see them before. They did not see them until this child pointed them out.”Gaping at the child

Dragon, Cleric, and I gaped at Marisol, who was staring, transfixed by the horses and ignoring us.

Gloria turned from gawking at the horses. She saw Dragon in her true form, screamed, and fainted into her husband’s arms. Mace eased his wife’s limp form off the gazebo, away from Dragon. Then he pulled his cell phone from his pocket and called the county sheriff.

 

Is Marisol a witch? How else could she have defeated Dragon’s spell of concealment? How do we talk our way out of this with Gloria and Mace, and with the local authorities? Are my characters about to be revealed for what they really are? Come back next week and see what happens. We’ll leave the porch light on for you.

Fixtures Light Elegant Lighting Fixture And Supply Company Intended For Front Porch Light Fixtures Front Porch Light Fixtures

Some Insights into my Arrogant One

Some Insights into my Arrogant One

Arrogant One in office“I want you to see the photographs I took.”

My Arrogant One marched into my office, unceremoniously swept a pile of books and folders off a chair and onto the floor, and plopped himself down, a superior look on his face. He held out his camera and wrinkled his brow with irritation when I did not immediately jump to take it.

“Well?” He tapped his foot impatiently. “I have been waiting all afternoon to show these to you.”

On phone with AnnaColton giving Blue an apple“I’m sorry. Some of my other characters wanted to hear more details about Colton and his pony, so I’ve been busy.” I had received a call from Colton’s mom, Anna, that morning and had shared with my characters some news about Colton’s progress with Blue. https://margecutter.wordpress.com/2019/06/09/news/

The elf yawned. “Boring.”

I frowned. “The others don’t think so, and neither do I. We happen to care about Colton.”

shaggy pony in barn“Why? If it had not been for that other malodorous pony that invaded our yard and my shed . . .”

My eyebrows shot up. “Whose shed?”

My Arrogant One blushed. “The shed,” he amended, quickly relinquishing his claim of ownership. “Anyway, as I was saying, if it had not been for that foul-smelling creature, we would not even be aware of the boy who had owned it.”
https://margecutter.wordpress.com/2017/12/31/mystery/
https://margecutter.wordpress.com/2018/03/25/mystery-solved/

Her, not it. Mystery, aka Peaches, was a mare, a female pony.”

“Whatever.” My Arrogant One waved dismissively.

I sighed and shook my head. “So sorry, I forgot. If you do not directly benefit from someone or something, that person or thing is beneath your notice.”

The elf sneered. “The boy is not our responsibility, yet Cleric and the Gypsy lad would have us think of nothing else. That is all anyone spoke of at lunch today.”

ConversationI scoffed. “I think there’s something wrong with your memory. Everyone was involved in their own discussions until after lunch, when I shared the new